With the deadline of March 31 looming, the Bengaluru-based Axiom Labs’ Team Indus announced that it wouldn’t be able to meet it. The announcement was triggered by ISRO issuing a statement that it had terminated its contract with TeamIndus.
But instead of ‘I told you so’ criticism, the team received kind words from supporters. Investors also rallied behind them.
The dream of clinching the GLXP prize is over, but the dream of becoming the first private venture to land on the moon is not. And TeamIndus founder Rahul Narayan is confident that by early next quarter, the team will be able to announce when they will be ready with the spacecraft.
Narayan remains busy. TeamIndus has opened its Series D round of funding, which he plans to wrap up by May. The team has raised over 50% of its expected target of $60 million. In a telephone conversation with ETPanache, Narayan calmly discusses his unique relationship with the investors, takeaways from “missing this shot” and much more. Excerpts:
TeamIndus Investor Ratan Tata (Image: BCCL)
When did you realise that even the extended deadline was unachievable?
There was a small expectation that if we came close enough, there might be an extension. I thought the high point was in the first week of October 2017, when the judges came over. That was a point in time where we could have made it happen by, if not March, then April or maybe May 2018.
However, there were a few things that did not go our way and we kept getting stretched. In December, we realised that without an extension of the deadline, it would not be logical to continue something that would add to the risk of an already risky mission.
How did you tackle investors?
I have said this before in public forums that the investor group TeamIndus has is probably more star-studded than any startup can have [it includes Ratan Tata, Rakesh Jhunjhunwala and Sachin and Binny Bansal]. Each one of them is successful in their own right for the way they look at the world and the way they look at problems.
We kept everyone in the loop. We had invited all the investors to our facility to meet the judges in October last year. They were aware of the pecking order we were at in the competition. Each one of them offered support for the next phase of the journey.
We want everybody to hold us to much higher standards. We slipped this time, but there is a shot around the corner. We will ensure that we don’t slip again.
TeamIndus Investors Binny & Sachin Bansal (image: BCCL)
How have the last few weeks been, once the cancellation of the launch service agreement with ISRO came in the news?
What we have put together has significant value. It will be a shame to stop now. We have found the direction. We are now discussing what the next timeline will look like, how does that help us to fly more payload, get more scientific data out of what we do, how does it help us to raise more financing.
Looks interesting; looks like we will be able to come back with a triumph. In this quarter or early next quarter, we will be able to announce when we will finish the spacecraft, who we are flying with and when we would land.
So, how close are you? How much work is done on the spacecraft?
By way of buildout strategy, this is an iterative buildout and it follows a 12-step stage gate process. We have completed eight steps. The 12th step is actually landing on the moon. It would take us about, optimistically speaking, four or five months. Pessimistically speaking, about eight months.
What insights have you drawn from this setback?
I have learnt that we must talk about the purpose of what we do, why we do it, when we meet partners and investors. And for a little bit, I didn’t use that well enough. But as long as you are committed to a vision, you should just go all in. There is no such thing as keeping a Plan B or C.
TeamIndus founder Rahul Narayan (Image: BCCL)
How did iSpace Japan’s Team Hakuto react to the decision?
As of now, they have confirmed that as long as we launch within a reasonable time frame, they are happy to partner with us. We got back to them last week, saying we are trying to expand the capacity of our spacecraft, probably fly another experiment or a sensor or something. So, they are also considering how they could leverage that opportunity.
We have a very close relationship with Team Hakuto. Their engineering team visits us at least once a month; they were here just two weeks ago. They are probably the closest because they are our biggest customer. And because we kept them in the loop, they are fine with where we are.
It’s interesting that while Team Hakuto is your biggest customer, they were also your competitors in GLXP.
The whole aerospace industry works on coopetition. If you look at Airbus, Boeing or anyone else, all of them compete in certain levels, have JVs in certain levels and have shared a part of supplies in certain levels. That’s because it’s so expensive, difficult and time-consuming.
While your relationship with ISRO is amicable, has there been a period when you were frustrated? How did you handle it?
Whenever you have programmes that move up and down and there are changes in schedule, an element of frustration creeps in. But this is an industry, and I didn’t know of it before I came into this industry — just like when a flight lands, within 15 minutes of the scheduled time, they say the flight’s landed on time, on a launch vehicle if you launch within six months of your scheduled time, you say it’s on time.
Being outsiders, we had a bit of a learning curve to understand the ropes of the industry. But in the end, the contract that we closed, despite the unfortunate use of the word ‘terminated’ in the announcement, it was done amicably. We have agreed to continue working with them because we will continue to need their support from a regulatory perspective. There are so many test facilities we want to use, certain equipment we want to buy. So, all that continues as is.
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