The Journey of a Startup in Indian Defence Industry

There is a need to foster an environment where the startups are shown intent and are encouraged to take risk, and this can only be done when the Army partners and shares the risk. In a nutshell, collaboration is the way forward

Defence Industry

By Nikhil Thard

Inspiring men leave you with inspiring thoughts which linger on with you long after you’ve met them. Last week I had the pleasure of being in the same room as Lt General Satish Dua, the architect of the Uri surgical strikes. His words were, “in army there is no runner up. We don’t train to come second in a fight because generally that person is dead”. Chillingly accurate words that got me thinking even deeper.

Make in India has been one of the most phenomenal efforts by our great nation to make India self-reliant. More than just the factories and products that we can build, the deeper intent is to foster pride in our own capability as Indians.

My own journey to serve our forces started in January 2017 when I visited a factory in the outskirts of Bangalore which was building components of the Bofors gun. I interacted with numerous people, companies, Israelis, Americans, and French who were active in the defence field with the hope of beginning a defence startup. The more I studied, the more I realised that the way products and especially systems are supplied to the forces, leaves a lot left to be desired.

Saankhya Lab

And this has gotten even more intense with geo-fencing products and data security issues with foreign contactors.

“When everything is in sync, why is the implementation so lax? And why are the timelines so long? Because this inevitably leads to cost escalation. Some of us will either not survive financially or most importantly technology obsolesce takes over and then we end up selling something which may have a lesser operational life”

Thankfully at this juncture, I met a remarkable person with whom I set up my startup Kestrel LLP. We set out to solve four or five big issues which the Army was facing primarily in the fields of GIS, GPS, IRNSS. We built some conceptual and a few real prototypes for minefield management system, situational awareness, course correction Fuze for 155 mm Shells and CORS (continuously operating reference system). Building these tools and prototypes though all the founders working pro bono cost us close to 10 million rupees and a good 2.5 years.

In this remarkable journey, I also met some very interesting soldiers who were really eager to bring technology into the Army, most of these technologies were what they were using anyways on their phones. Check the department, pick up the phone and call their board line and surprisingly 100 per cent of the time we were welcomed with a lot of encouragement and always given the audience from the relevant top stakeholder in a matter of two or three meetings. It was remarkable the way the forces have opened up to new companies. This was all thanks to the policies put together under Make in India and I am proud to be in a time where even the toughest organisation to crack into has been made so accessible and the process so fair.

This is for me the highlight of Make in India

There is intent and all the stakeholders want this to happen from top down. But we are struggling. Some of the innovations that we offered are already getting obsolete or there is a better solution available and the Army is still without a solution. Time and again we have demonstrated to various stakeholders that our team is capable of offering system solutions which are indigenous, technologically advanced, robust and which can bring down the total cost of ownership for the forces. We build our solutions using all the core technology in-house, using COTS equipment and platforms which are open source so that there is no dependency on any particular vendor (which has been the case for most of the supply’s, we just don’t get after sales and upgrades, everything costs a fortune). This is just not us, I have met many patriots who want to help the nation and want to build solutions that work for our forces.

So when everything is in sync, why is the implementation so lax? And why are the timelines so long? Because this inevitably leads to cost escalation. Some of us will either not survive financially or most importantly technology obsolesce takes over and then we end up selling something which may have a lesser operational life.

Our forces don’t like to come second so there has to be a shift in the thought process where there is a risk taken knowingly well that some of these people will fail, but collectively what will come out will be much larger. The cost of not acting is that we end up with obsolete technology and at the mercy of foreign contractors.

“My own journey to serve our forces started in January 2017 when I visited a factory in the outskirts of Bangalore which was building components of the Bofors gun. I interacted with numerous people, companies, Israelis, Americans, and French who were active in the defence field with the hope of beginning a defence startup”
– Nikhil Thard, co-founder of Kestrel LLP, Bangalore

What I feel is required is to empower the officers so that they can take more risks. Army Design Bureau can create a bridge if required or any other external group in the Army. Most of the officers don’t want to take risk with procurement for fear of scrutiny. They know that the product and the team can do it (as they do their homework really well) but they can’t take the risk. This needs to change. This officer who is in the frontline interacting with startups/ vendors is the most important asset for the forces in kicking off this innovation. They need to put their weight behind him/ her.

The processes of procurement has to be simplified, NCNC will not work with innovation.

Foster an environment where the startups are shown intent and are encouraged to take risk. This can only be done when the Army partners and shares the risk. Collaboration is the way forward.
I am committed, the innovation that we offered for the GBMRS (GPS/GIS based minefield recording system) can help the forces save 250 crores and offers a solution which can help in demining the mines that we lay and are recorded in the system, even taking care of mines which move.

This is just one patriot working with dreams of serving the flag through what he knows best “Commerce or as we say Vyapaar.” There are many waiting – just give us that space.

–The author is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Kestrel LLP, Bangalore. A proponent of innovation as a key in every company he has built in the last 20 years, he is currently pursuing empathy based business models.
He can be contacted at: nikhil@edificelabs.com

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