iDEX7 SPRINT Winner Aikairos Grapples Successfully With Nich…

Editor’s Note

In just over three years of being operational AiKairos Pvt. Ltd, notwithstanding the COVID turbulence, has succeeded in progressing admirably with its project on Development of ASW Hydroacoustic Vector Sensor which can be used by drones. The journey for AiKairos has been one of resilience and focussed hard work. In this interaction Cdr Milind Kulshreshtha (Retd) Founder & CEO of AiKairos discusses projects being pursued by his company, changes in the government agencies’ approach to Startups and MSMEs, and challenges for MSMEs, especially those in the deep-tech bandwidth, with Brig SK Chatterji (Retd) Editor Bharatshakti.

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  1. Can you describe your journey to create a Defence MSME, and how do you think the Government policies have aided your endeavour?

Milind K. We established our company in November 2020 and, just like many other startups, felt the brunt of the COVID onslaught years. Our Defence MSME’s journey is closely related to our own personal expertise in Naval R&D. This started with project work on MPMSDF (Multi-Platform Sensor Data Fusion) launched by TDF (Technology Development fund) of DST.  Post-COVID, we further got multiple opportunities and kept winning the Innovation Challenges. Much of the credit for continuation of true deep tech organisations, like ours goes to the Governement of Inidia initiative to create flexibility within the stringent Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP). Defence solutioning space too has been opened up for easy participation by MSMEs and Startups. Since its inception in 2002, DPP has adapted itself as per the changing times and kept itself relevant.

The Government has gone ahead to create Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) as the operational framework of the Defence Innovation Organization (DIO), MOD/Department of Defence Production’s special purpose vehicle. iDEX has budgetary support of about Rs 500 crore for five years from 2021-22 to 2025-26 and has been highly participative in the indigenisation initiative.

 

 

  1. Can you give an overview of the iDEX and other Defence related projects your MSME is involved with?

Milind K. We had won the iDEX7 SPRINT challenge on “Development of ASW Hydroacoustic Vector Sensor which can be used by drones” for Indian Navy. The project involves hardware and software development and we are extensively using AI based solutions. 

With support from iDEX and Indian Navy, we have been able to technically reach closer to the final stages and this makes us one of the few companies in the world with this niche’ technology. This technology developed is a dual use technology. Shipping noise as underwater radiated noise is a major pollutant issue. Shipping has led to a 32-fold increase in low-frequency noise along major shipping routes in the past 50 years. For measuring and analysing such underwater noises we have developed a commercial product called Sea-polyps. We are also creating a low cost anti-drone system which we plan to field in the market by January 2024.

Earlier we had won the 2nd Edition of Indian Army Start-up Search on Algorithmic Warfare. We were also associated with Directorate General Information Services (DGIS) for integration of multiple sources like satellites, UAVs, EW, ground sensors and radars in the area of operations. This includes various sensor data in a variety of modes like text, images, video, audio, EW and radar information. 

  1. How do you see the direct connect of the MSMEs with the Military being facilitated today. Further, how do you describe these changes viz.-a-viz., in the past?

Milind K. Today, multiple forums are available for interacting with Military in India to discuss opportunities with the end-users. Organisations like SIDM, TDF, iDEX, Army Design Bureau (ADB), CII etc., keep programmes for MSMEs and Startups throughout the year.  For example, iDEX is very interactive and supportive of startup initiatives and maintains a balance between administrative procedures and nurturing the innovation. While this is definitely an essential part of the effort, Services too have created an amenable and conducive environment for MSMEs and Startups. For example, Navy has setup Naval Technology Acceleration Council (NTAC) the apex body of the Naval Innovation and Indigenisation Organisation (NIIO). 

A Technology Development Acceleration Cell (TDAC) has been created under NIIO to closely support the Innovation process. Similarly, as far as our interactions were focussed, ADB officers are always keen to take forward the projects in a formal and informal manner. The number of events and list of innovations sought by Army, Navy and IAF are something which was never seen earlier before and the outreach at all India level, with Academia too involved in this effort.

All this is a huge change from yesteryears approach of Tender enquiry based interactions in a highly rigid environment. The credit for this goes to MoD and the focus towards indigenisation brought in by the three services.

  1. From Rs 900 crore around seven years ago, defence exports jumped to an all-time high of approximately Rs 16,000 crore in Financial Year 2022-23. The government aims to achieve the Defence export target of Rs 40,000 crore by the year 2026. How do you see the Indian MSMEs contributing to this goal in the sector of Defence exports?

Milind K. As an indicator of the market size, statistics indicate that India is producing and delivering less than 50 per cent of the requirement for its military capability. Further, mostly suppliers are at the low-end of the technology spectrum. Interestingly, many MSMEs are already supplying components and sub-assemblies or system level solutions to the Defence Public Sector Undertakings, DRDO, Naval Dockyards, Ordnance Factories and private Defence industries.
Now, in the past five years, Indian Defence related exports has spread to about 80 countries. The items primarily include Weapon Simulators, Tear Gas Launcher, Torpedo Loading Mechanism, Alarm Monitoring & Control, Night Vision Optical Gadgets, Light Weight Torpedo and Fire Control Systems, Armoured Protection Vehicle, Weapons Locating Radar, Coastal Surveillance Radar etc. All these items are amenable to manufacturing by other MSMEs. 

As an organisation, MoD is supportive towards this initiative. In fact, the iDEX innovation has created a buzz all over and many high-level delegations are approaching MoD for familiarising more about these technologies. We have been given an opportunity to showcase our products/solutions and have meetings with the foreign delegations. Such encouragement to MSMEs shall surely boost the Defence export activities.

  1. What are the technological challenges a deep tech MSME usually faces while evolving Defence related deep-tech solutions?

Milind K. Defence related deep tech solutions are complex and require years of R&D and professional expertise. This makes it difficult for many companies to achieve a complete solution as an outcome at one go. In case any of these technologies are using AI/Machine Learning (which is the case most of the time, nowadays), the data-set collection is another challenge. From our interactions with some of the academic institutions, we have observed that Universities still have a student project level perspective, whereas, the Defence deep tech innovation are far more complicated, especially when it comes to the field trials.  

Among other challenges faced are financing and funding from the banking sector and financial institutions. Most of these institutions are oriented around the confirmed ‘Supply Order’ concept. Whereas, in an innovation, a Supply Order placement process kicks in only after the successful trials by the Services. 

  1. What are the benefits, pitfalls and risks which a young entrepreneur may face while setting up a Defence startup.

Milind K. Defence startups in deep-tech can be said to be some of the riskiest endeavours the world over. Any University student with a desire to setup a Defence startup needs to first study the requirements of the Services in an unambiguous manner i.e., the startup must keep a longer Requirements Gathering phase for the project. It is important that the innovation is designed from the point of view of the field trials and not expecting to later improve upon the simulation prototype, which is extremely difficult and resource consuming an effort. 

Further, the defence qualitative performance is a well-established procedure and Startups need to understand these activities to avoid a loop of an extended duration of trials. Startups must also keep in mind that defence personnel are well aware of exact use-cases they require and have tremendous exposure to high end imported systems. Hence, indigenous suppliers need to come prepared with a mind-set to carry out up to 30% improvements or amendments in their systems. Startup leaders need to have a resilience and possess a real passion to make a true Defence Deep-Tech Startup viable in India.

 

Brig SK Chatterji (Retd)

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