India Insight

Indian startup aims for the moon – and $30 million

March 15, 2013

Rahul Narayan, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, is the founder of Team Indus. It is the only Indian team in a race to the moon by privately funded groups competing for the largest international incentive prize of all time – the Google Lunar X Prize.

Google is offering $30 million in prizes to the first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the Moon, including a grand prize and other bonus prizes.

In a conversation with Reuters, Narayan talks about Team Indus’ prospects, timing, his struggle to be taken seriously by investors and why he would not be too disappointed if someone else wins.

Q: What is the biggest challenge in this mission?

A: Everything is a challenge – money, finding advisers, being taken seriously, reaching out to people.

Almost all of it is uncharted territory. Nobody’s done a (privately funded) mission before, definitely not from India.

Q: How was Team Indus formed?

A: I had gotten in touch with them (organizers) saying, if there was an Indian team, please let me know, I’d like to work with them. They got back to me saying there was no Indian team, and if you want to set up a team, we can give you a bit of expert help. That’s when I got out of whatever startups I was doing.

Q: How did you recruit people for this project?

A: Almost our entire team right now is people who came to our website and said they wanted to work.

Q: When is your planned launch date?

A: We plan to launch sometime in 2015.

Q: How much have you spent so far? What is the projected total cost?

A: We’ve spent about one crore rupees (10 million rupees, or about $185,200), including for registration, a little bit of prototype being done, operational expenses and salaries. It’s a design effort and we are not doing any hardware yet. Total spend, we expect it to be $15 million.

Q: Where do you see yourself among the 23 active teams?

A: We believe we are in the top five. We believe the moment we sign up with ISRO, we will be in the top two. Signing up with ISRO is the one big event that changes a lot of things for us. It has not happened yet, but we’ve started talking to them. (The Indian Space Research Organisation, or ISRO, is the primary space agency of the Indian government. Team Indus plans to use ISRO’s PSLV satellite launch vehicle for its moon mission)

Q: The competition rules state that the project must be 90 percent privately funded. So how are you managing?

A: Right now it is founder-funded. We’ve divided the cost into three different parts. One is cost of design, second is the cost of building it and the third is the cost of launching it. We have separate strategies for each one of them. For designing, we will be looking for investments. Building it is where we are looking at partnerships (aerospace companies, IITs or government agencies). We are looking at these people to partner with us and potentially contribute, if not money, then equipment. The last part, we are going to do crowdfunding.

Q: Why would investors be interested?

A: I started by saying we are an aerospace company. So we see this as a company which is doing a project, and it will continue doing other aerospace projects or derived technologies or IPR, or licensing rights from what we’re going to do here (moon mission).

We are a for-profit company. It’s not just this mission, we will continue building beyond it.

Q: What if somebody else beats you to the prizes?

A: We’re definitely aiming for the first prize. We’ve got one bonus prize built into it. But, if all the prizes go away in 2014 and I’ve booked my launch with ISRO, that doesn’t mean I stop. I have to go because I’ve already done my engineering, I’ve already spent the money and probably just a residual amount is left. So you’d see that differently as then maybe it converts from a Google Lunar X Prize mission to simply a India’s mission. It’s a people mission, people have contributed to it, people have worked in it, and people have a part in it.

Q: What would losing mean for your team?

A: Even if we lose, we’ll still accomplish a fantastic engineering feat. Prize money is just one component of it, so I’m talking about a company which is going to continue after the prize money.

You can follow the David on Twitter @confusedat30

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