Platforms for Defence Startups: The Way Forward

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By Lt Gen PR Shankar (R)

WISHING YOU A VERY HAPPY NEW YEAR

RMA to DMA – Technologies Involved

Disruption in Military Affairs (DMA) is here to stay. The transition from RMA to DMA has started. The technologies involved are many as shown in the graphic below. They are beyond the scope of a formal organisation like DRDO due to sheer diversity. The technologies are being mastered by young people who do not understand the defence scenario very well. However, these young people are fired up with knowledge and confidence that they can make a difference. This ecosphere needs to be harnessed and its knowledge channeled to make the difference for the Armed Forces so that we can cope with the change in the way wars are being fought. The startup world has this repository of young unbridled knowledge cum enthusiasm.

Interaction on Startups

The Defense Forces Initiative. On August 13, I participated at the national seminar on defence startups. The Chief of Army Staff (COAS) graced the event. His presence indicated that the Army was serious about leveraging the power of startups to get cutting edge technologies to work for defence. The sum of that seminar was that there was a lot of enthusiasm about defence startups. However, there was very little structure in place barring the iDEx platform of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). That is simply not enough. Something more must be done. Writing on the subject to generate a wish list down as to how things should go forward would be theory only. Something practical must happen.

Shaastra 2020 Initiative. The Defence Technology Summit of Shaastra 2020 was also taking shape simultaneously. The students of Indian Institute of Technology, Madras were also very keen to hold the Summit based on disruptive technologies. They were very enthusiastic about holding a Seminar on Defence Startups which would help people get started up. There was a sense that innovators who wanted to enter the field of defence were inhibited by opacity. Around this time, I realised that there is really no platform for all the startups to enter the field of defence. That deficiency needed to be corrected.

To register please visit – http://summit.shaastra.org/register

Def-Connect 2019. On November 11 during the Def-Connect 2019 I had an opportunity to interact with quite a few startups. A young innovator was sitting next to me. He was from IIT Delhi and was a winner of the earlier Defence Innovation Startup Challenge. I bounced some ideas off him regarding the platform for defence startups. He asked me a question – sir, where were these ideas three years back when I was starting up? It convinced me that a platform for defence startups was needed.

IITM Research Park. Interaction with the IIT M Research Park, some startups already into the field of defence and the Incubation Cell indicated that infrastructure and lot of promise for startups already exists. There is world class infrastructure available there. Equally there was lot of ground to cover if defence startups had to make a difference. Further during the Army Technology Seminar, a question was put by a speaker to the largely uniformed audience – ‘how many think that the startups would be the ideal vehicle to imbibe new technologies in the Army’. The answer was a near unanimous ‘yes’ through a show of hands. It was time to start the startup platform.

IITM Incubation Cell. The IITM Incubation Cell coordinates and leverages the synergies in various strands of excellence driving innovation and entrepreneurship at IIT Madras. It is host to cutting edge research and has extensive industrial interactions. India’s first university-driven Research Park has a stellar record of incubation in rural, social and industrial technologies. It will now be the GO TO for all defence startups which seek incubation. Already interactions have started with the IDEX platform .

Shaastra 2020 – A Launch Platform

The importance of Shaastra 2020 is that it has taken the Defence Startups outside Delhi to plunge them into the real world where action can take place. That too by a student organization outside the precincts of recognized the defence halo. To kickstart the launch platform and to give startups an overview of the technologies and requirements from experts in the field, the student organizers of Shaastra 2020 have put together an interesting program which is given below. As far as startups are concerned there is an interesting Panel Discussion slated on ‘Defence Startup Ecosystem in India’ on 3rd January 2020 between 11 am and 12:30 pm which will be followed by a networking session.

The Panel. The panel has a cross section of eminent personalities who can guide startups entering the field of defence as under: –
• Lt. Gen. Raj Shukla, DG Perspective Planning
• Shri Sanjay Jaju, Joint Secretary, DIP Wing, MoD
• Mr. J. D. Patil, Wholetime Director, L&T
• Gp Capt Sameer Joshi (retd), Director, Newspace R&T

Issues to be Discussed. The various issues which will be discussed are as under: –

–Startups in general and what are the expectations are from a Defence Startup.
–Assistance being provided to Defence Startups and the road map ahead.
–Opportunities, schemes and facilities required/ provided.
–Technological expectations from Defence Startups.
–Advice to such startups and how to go about entering the field of Defence.
–Problems and hurdles faced by a startup and measures to overcome them.

DefStart – the Web Platform for Defence Startups (https://defstart.com/)

DefStart is a web-based platform based out of IIT Madras for all startups which intend to enter the defence technology ecosphere. The graphic explains as to how Defstart provides a platform for the whole cycle from idea to a product. The platform will enable the transformation of an idea into an indigenous defence product. It will aim to convert cutting edge technologies into a weapon system or an ancillary which is part of another project / program on a plug and play mode. It will enable people to ideate better, assist in incubation through mentorship which has technical and tactical acumen and help the startup to scale up. It will provide a two-way window for the defence forces and the defence industry to project their problem statements and for startups to get an idea about the requirements of defence forces. It will enable interaction with field forces and visits to forward areas. It will enable Startups to show case their products and ideas on the DefStart platform after registration. DefStart will also help Startups in selecting a mentor of their choice from a panel. Defstart will also enable interaction between Startups and Investors.

Mentors are central and critical to Defence startups. They will have to nurture the idea into a product. Startups will by and large find their technological mentors. However, the Defence Veterans are visualized to be the backbone of mentorship for the startups. Mentors who want to get into the Defence Start up scene are welcome to register. Any veteran from any service can be a mentor from where he resides. Get on to the panel and operate from your city of residence. As events unfold and requirements come up mentors will be assigned to Startups as per needs.

This is only a beginning. DefStart is also a startup and it will grow and evolve with all other startups. It will be launched during the Shaastra 2020, on 03 Jan 20 in a skeletal form. Suggestions are welcome for the services which are to be provided through this platform. We would suggest that all defence oriented startups register on this platform. At this point of time, it is a free to register platform. There will be costs in the future as we evolve and the website and ecosystem stabilizes. However it will not be a fully profit oriented platform.

Macro Problem of Startups

Startups entering the field of defence have two macro problems which need to be recognized and attended to. The first is that they run on tight budgets and will need funding. Unless some of their activities are funded and they are hand held for their activities the conversion rate from idea to product will be near zero. The MOD and Defence Industry will have to seriously think on this. Secondly, once a product is made , the startups will not have the stamina to go through the DPP or DPM and its procedures. If the startups must be made to go through the hoops of our myriad procedures after product development, the MOD must be rest assured that all these products and ideas will flow out of the country. Already foreign players are sniffing around. In such a situation, we will end up paying N times more and N years later for the same equipment.

Conclusion

In conclusion all I can say is that the Defence Startup Ecosystem must be made vibrant if we mean business as a nation. In the same breadth, we will welcome any suggestions and advise to make the ecosystem better. Please feel free to air your ideas.

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