Interview: Tech Wire Asia -Team Indus’ Sheelika Ravishankar: Becoming the first private Indian firm taking a moon shot

TECHNOLOGY startups are known to face many challenges, but possibly none have to overcome as many as Indian-based space startup, Team Indus.

Based in Bangalore, Team Indus consists of 85 engineers and 15 ex-scientists from the Indian Space Research Organization who are competing in the US$30 million Lunar XPRIZE competition sponsored by Google.

To win the much-coveted first prize (US$20 million), the team must build a spacecraft from scratch and in December 2017 land it on the moon, then move it 500 meters and send images back to earth.

Fifteen other teams from all over the world, including the U.S., Israel, Malaysia and Japan, are also competing for the prize.

Speaking to Tech Wire Asia at the WIRED 2016 event in London last week, Sheelika Ravishankar, who leads Team Indus’s Outreach and People programs, and is known as their ‘Jedi Master’ on her LinkedIn profile, discusses the project and the team’s approach to problem solving.

Team Indus’s lunar lander.

Sheelika, with just over a year to go, how is the moonshot project going?

It’s a big challenge, but we have come a long way and met most of our technological milestones.
There are three elements to the challenge; one is the technology, another is having the right kind of team, and the last is funding.

I think on the first two we struggled in the beginning, but for the last couple of years we have been well on course and managed to attract some of the brightest minds of the country.

Where do you look for finance for such an ambitious project?

Any space mission involves deep capital investment. This mission is about just getting to the moon and proving we are able to do that, so there is no real business model. It is all money going out and no revenue, so it is very difficult to attract people.

We have still managed to keep, with frugal engineering, our costs very low. It has cost us close to US$75 million so far; anywhere in the world it would be at least US$150 million, I would say.

Out of this we have raised 15 percent from equity. In the beginning it was very difficult to convince some of the potential lenders that we could become a business, but increasingly we are able to prove our technology and get a lot of validation from the industry. For instance, the French Space Agency is contracted with us and it is the first time they will be flying with a private entity outside of Europe. The Indian Space Agency has validated all our technologies.

Read the full interview here