‘Startup Talk’ at IIT Madras

IIT Madras is conducting its technical festival, Shaastra from January 4-7, which includes a “Green Energy Summit”, a program for experts and student enthusiasts to come together to learn and network. I’ll be speaking at the summit today along with Dr. Ashish Polkade and Swapnil Jain, where we’ll be sharing our respective entrepreneurial journeys in the CleanTech space.

This also gave me a neat excuse to return to IIT Madras and refresh my memories of its pristine campus which I roamed during technical and cultural festivals in the decade gone by, and later during stints at the neighbouring IIT-M Research Park. Where else can you bike down Bonn Avenue for breakfast at Tiffany’s and have to stop for a couple of deer fighting it out over a doe as a bemused blackbuck looks by, and all while half-a-dozen monkeys ransack your guest house room because you didn’t shut a window properly. I may be exaggerating a bit there: the monkeys were very well-behaved and just wanted a break from the sun.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s canteen, IIT Madras.

A post shared by Shrey Goyal (@shreygoyal) on

I plan to share a few examples of innovative business models and startup interventions in the sustainability space that I have come across over the years in various capacities. I’ll also cover some upcoming trends. The overarching idea is to showcase the variety of opportunities and even greater variety of approaches to tap said opportunities that lie on the path to sustainable development.

Ashish is the director of Vision Ecologica, a company that specialises in microbial services and waste management, and Swapnil is the co-founder and CTO of Ather Energy, where he oversees the system design of vehicle and related technical development.

3 Inspiring Green Energy Entrepreneurs You Must Catch At IIT Madras

You can read about the event and speakers on Youth Ki Awaaz at 3 Inspiring Green Energy Entrepreneurs You Must Catch At IIT Madras.

Join us at ‘Startup Talks’ this afternoon. More updates soon.

Thoughts on Gandhi Jayanti: ‘My Mother’s Fault’ by Salil Tripathi

You marched with other seven-year-old girls,

Singing songs of freedom at dawn in rural Gujarat,
Believing that would shame the British and they would leave India.

Five years later, they did.

You smiled,
When you first saw Maghool Fida Husain’s nude sketches of Hindu goddesses,
And laughed,
When I told you that some people wanted to burn his art.

‘Have those people seen any of our ancient sculptures?Those are far naughtier.’
You said.

Your voice broke,
On December 6,1992.
As you called me at my office in Singapore,
When they destroyed the Babri Masjid.

‘We have just killed Gandhi again,’ you said.

We had.

Aavu te karaay koi divas(Can anyone do such a thing any time?)
You asked, aghast,
Staring at the television,
As Hindu mobs went, house-to-house,
Looking for Muslims to kill,
After a train compartment in Godhra burned.
Killing 58 Hindus in February 2002.

You were right, each time.

After reading what I’ve been writing over the years,
Some folks have complained that I just don’t get it.

I live abroad: what do I know of India?

But I knew you; that was enough.

And that’s why I turned out this way.

– My Mother’s Fault, from Salil Tripathi’s Offence: The Hindu Case.
Offence: The Hindu Case

Published with permission from (and gratitude to) the author.

Unlimited Opportunities for ISRO: Public-Private Partnerships in Space

Earlier this month, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) announced that it is working at preparing a business model to partner with industries – public and private – so that they have a higher level of participation in the space sector.

Various media reports have quoted ISRO chairman K.Radhakrishnan saying “We are working at a possible model for investment, sharing of technology and responsibility with the industries. The response from the industries – public and private – is positive. It will take three or four years to arrive at a proper model”. While he did not confirm if the model will be based on public-private-participation, he did mention that the industries’ participation is sought to increase the production of satellites and rockets so that ISRO can focus on other core areas.

The Indian organisation is not the only space research agency to express this sentiment. If we can go back to a Thursday evening less than 22 months ago, human space exploration took another giant leap, one that was concluded with a splash from a safe water landing of the Dragon capsule 900 kilometres off the coast of Los Angeles. The first privately built and operated spacecraft to ever deliver cargo to the International Space Station had just touched the Pacific Ocean, and Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, or SpaceX, had arrived.

Image by NASA (1984)

What is interesting is that Dragon was hardly a technological breakthrough. But it was a breakthrough nonetheless, for a private company had now matched the orbital delivery capability previously exhibited only by a handful of government-owned and operated space agencies in a small selection of nation states. And as post-analysis (2012) would later confirm, every benchmark was met by the low-Earth orbit (LEO) voyage, and NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program had been validated.

LEO had been the destination for NASA’s space shuttles for nearly four decades before their recent retirement. Unsafe, expensive, and messy, the space shuttle program had become an exercise in inertia for NASA, holding it back from achieving the dreamy-eyed forefronts of outer space exploration which have been explored only in certain futuristic genres of fiction so far.

Through COTS, NASA has practically outsourced LEO operations to private contractors such as SpaceX, raising hopes that it may get back on the dream voyage of the solar system and beyond.

Similarly, when Expedition 38 crewmembers Michael Hopkins of NASA and Koichi Wakata of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) de-mated the solar-powered Cygnus commercial spacecraft during its first trip to the International Space Station earlier this year, it was only the beginning of what is expected to be a space traffic jam of sorts (Kremer, 2014) on the ISS route. America’s newest commercial space freighter, built by Orbital Sciences Corporation with seed money from NASA, had also taken up where the shuttles had left off, and restored NASA’s capabilities through a public-private partnership.

Private Participation in Space: Past and Present

It’s not as if private participation has never been a part of space exploration: Boeing and Lockheed Martin have been working with NASA for decades. The difference is that those “cost-plus” arrangements, where companies are reimbursed the cost of a project plus a guaranteed profit, totally ignored competition and even provided incentive for inefficiency (Anderson, 2013).

All that has changed with the dawn of the Space Act Agreements, NASA’s vehicle for partnering with commercial players. Now, NASA pays in increments only once milestones are met, and management and design are left to private companies, thus fostering collaboration and assigning greater decision-making and responsibility. This development should be understood keeping in mind the fact that privatization is not simply a governance or management exercise, but rather a philosophical position. As put forth by E.S. Savas (2000), “Privatization is the act of reducing the role of government or increasing the role of the private institutions of society in satisfying people’s needs; it means relying more on the private sector and less on government.” Thus, while space has traditionally been the playing ground for state agencies, Space Act Agreements are the first sign of a new move towards private participation, one that has now been validated by the performance of players such as SpaceX and Orbital Science.

What PPPS Bring to the table

Increased Competition & Lower Costs

Traditional partnership practices involved dealing with heavy bureaucracy and fundamental changes in the way commercial companies operate. While a little regulation is welcome, NASA has earlier asked private partners for tracking all employees’ activities, whether engaged in the project or not (Commercial Spaceflight Federation, 2011). Since not many private players could bear to participate under these terms, relatively few players were involved with little or no meaningful competition. Since PPPs are not governed in this manner, many more companies and subcontractors are now encouraged to participate, and low-cost, innovative solutions are possible.

The results are already in from the COTS Cargo development program, which has already achieved successes at a fraction of the cost of a traditional government launch-vehicle program. In a hypothetical scenario, if NASA were to use traditional approaches, the costs may very well have become prohibitively high and led to cancellation of the development program.

Greater Flexibility

As opposed to government-led programs, PPP programs such as SAAs are designed to contain virtually anything both parties agree to include, and can thus be flexible to be easily tailored as needed. Thus, state agencies can forever be rid of the rigid, irrelevant, and counterproductive provisions and procedures that they may had to engage in when dealing with private players in the past, reducing redundancy and improving cost-efficiency and performance.

Lesser Burden on Public Investment

Parallel can be drawn between the public investment so far on state-run space agencies such as NASA and the U.S. government’s early support of the railroad and the aviation industry. Development of basic infrastructure and technology is the government’s prerogative, and as with the latter, it was the government’s aggressive investment in infrastructure that laid the foundation for private companies to succeed. The same is true for space exploration.

Now, funding from both public and private sources can be used for developing capabilities for space exploration for both commercial and government purposes. Private investment can thus enable a program to achieve the same result at a lower cost to the government. A NASA (2011) analysis concluded that SpaceX was able to build its Falcon 9 rocket for about one-third of what the agency would have spent on a similar project under its traditional model.

Greater Innovation at Private AND Public End

As opposed to complete privatization, PPPs with established state-run space agencies with a long track record and successful execution of joint projects can provide private spaceflight companies with the legitimacy and the regulatory nod needed to bring traditional investors to the table. As greater private investment flows into research and development, greater innovation can come in from the sector, while NASA grapples with shrinking science budgets and limited resources.

In the meanwhile, PPPs also free state agencies to no longer use precious managerial and financial resources on what has already been explored, and allows them to simply outsource the already explored frontiers to private companies, leaving them free to move on to bigger things. Eventually, a model could evolve where the state-run agencies are solely involved in pushing the envelope on deeper outer space research, while private companies run transport and tourism infrastructure within established boundaries

Safety with Sovereignty

As space partnerships move from a manager-contractor relationship between the state and private players to join ownership and collaboration, companies are now free to focus on the most essential aspects of a program, meeting the requirements for performance and safety at a reduced cost. NASA’s experience with SAAs shows that despite non-state collaboration, safety and performance requirements do not have to be put up for debate. Adequate insight versus oversight level and processes written into PPP agreements can ensure safety and preparedness as necessary.

Another interesting aspect of PPP models is the less reliance on other governments for expanding capacity and engaging in join programs. For example, since the end of the space shuttle program, NASA has relied on Russia to take its astronauts to space in Soyuz rockets. Given the current sanctions against Russia and the looming clouds of another cold war, this can adversely affect space programs and planning. With private participation though, NASA could’ve simply hired commercial companies for space taxi services. This is especially relevant since SpaceX says that it could provide rides to NASA astronauts at $20 million a seat, a third of the Russian price (Chang, 2012).

The Way Forward

The partnership between NASA and private companies through Space Act Agreements show a new level of understanding and cooperation between the public and private sectors, and give some hints of how commercial space travel and exploration may unfold in the future. It is not beyond a few years before Virgin Galactic and Space Adventures go for suborbital joy rides to space, for which hundreds have already signed up. As of now the list mostly comprises of the Tom Hanks and Katy Perrys of the world, but it’s only a matter of time before a mass market appears.

In the longer-term dreams, Elon Musk is vocal about how he plans to satisfy humanity’s needs to get to Mars within a decade or two. Musk, the founder of SpaceX, had also famously said that he would do this “with or without NASA”, but later acknowledged that they could not have started SpaceX, nor reached this point without their help.

Thus, the support and cooperation of the state is of foremost importance as well. And with 60 missions scheduled during the 12th plan period, India seems ready to launch already!


Cross-posted from my NewsYaps column. A modified version of the piece was published by Project Firefly on their thought leadership blog on April 17, 2014. I have previously written about ISRO in ‘Jai Vigyan?

The work references the following sources:

National Post editorial board on SpaceX: The ultimate public-private partnership. (2012, June). National Post. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2012/06/01/national-post-editorial-board-on-spacex-the-ultimate-public-private-partnership/
Anderson, C. (2013). Rethinking public–private space travel. Space Policy, 29(4), 266–271. doi:10.1016/j.spacepol.2013.08.002
Chang, K. (2012, May 14). Contracts Help Private Sector Edge Deeper Into Space. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/15/science/space/contracts-help-private-sector-edge-deeper-into-space.html
Commercial Spaceflight Federation. (2011, June). CSF Issues White Paper on Use of Space Act Agreements – Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.commercialspaceflight.org/2011/06/csf-issues-white-paper-on-use-of-space-act-agreements/
Kremer, K. (2014, February 18). Private Cygnus Cargo Carrier departs Space Station Complex. Universe Today. Retrieved April 1, 2014, from http://www.universetoday.com/108050/private-cygnus-cargo-carrier-departs-space-station-complex/
English: Astronaut Dale A. Gardner, having just completed the major portion of his second extravehicular activity (EVA) period in three days, holds up a “For Sale” sign refering to the two satellites, Palapa B-2 and Westar 6 that they retrieved from orbit after their Payload Assist Modules (PAM) failed to fire. Astronaut Joseph P. Allen IV, who also participated in the two EVAs, is reflected in Gardner’s helmet visor. A portion of each of two recovered satellites is in the lower right corner, with Westar 6 nearer Discovery’s aft. (1984). Retrieved from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Satellites_For_Sale_-_GPN-2000-001036.jpg
NASA, A. D. A. for P. (2011, August). Falcon 9 launch vehicle NAFCOM cost estimates. Retrieved from http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/586023main_8-3-11_NAFCOM.pdf
Savas, E. S. (2000). Privatization and public-private partnerships. Chatham House Pub.

The Modern Indian Looks Back: A Conversation around The Ekkos Clan

In the high altitudes of the snow mountain lives the powerful Indar. He uses his weapons, the thunderbolt and fire, to break into pieces the glaciers that crawl down the mountains like Ahi, a big dragon. The ice melts and releases from captivity the swollen waters. Thus the river is born. Full of life, the liberated waters flow like streams of milk, gushing through the slits and splits of mountains like freed cattle running towards their mother…

Written by débutante author Sudipto Das, the Ekkos Clan is essentially a mystery novel exploring the lives of multiple generations of a family as they realise a pattern of mysterious deaths and unknown benefactors around them. It’s not the average whodunnit though, and is grounded in a substantial base of research and exploration into our past and the origins of our civilisation. This journey wasn’t made with the aid of tangible historical remains and proofs, which diminish once you try to step further after going back a few millennia, but instead, a more living, breathing form of residue from our ancient past is combed through: language.

Kratu, Sudipto’s protagonist, finds himself suspended deep in a clash between two mysterious forces, and sets on a quest across continents and cultures to find answers to questions that man has posed to himself since gaining sentience: Where did I come from?

The novel starts with the 1946 Noakhali Riots and the struggles of one family through the Partition of Bengal, and swiftly moves to exploring much less pronounced forms of cultural suppression and struggle. In the meanwhile, the hidden nuances of past in our music, literature, and most importantly, language, are looked into, leading to fascinating insights about our past and about our ancestors.

This application of linguistic palaeontology amidst a mystery novel, marked with glimpses of mythology and historical narrative, is unique in an Indian setting, and places both the author and the novel at a space occupied by a very few in the contemporary Indian literary scene.

Another point of interest is how the work has been neatly sprinkled with an array of pop-culture references, from a character’s altruistic choice to work at a rural bank run by a professor in Jobra, to a starry sight of the ‘Brocaded Sky’ that could very well inspire Gulzar (Zariwaale Aasmaan, if you will). I spotted a couple of subtle references to Kharagpur as well (Sudipto being an alumnus of IIT-Kgp), but they’re not likely to be noticed by anyone else aside from those connected with the institution.

With regards to the accuracy of the contents of the book, it should be noted that there is no historical consensus as to the origin of the Aryans or the supposed Indo-European Urheimat, and there possibly may never be. The author has chosen to follow a particular school of thought (which, he admits, may not be universally acceptable), and clearly dove into its depths to maintain faithfulness with it. Whether one agrees with it or not, the book remains a thrilling read, and one can be expected to develop greater understanding and curiosity about this complex subject after having read the book.

Launch of the Ekkos Clan at Oxford Bookstore

Earlier this month, The Ekkos Clan was released in Delhi at the Oxford Bookstore, in presence of acclaimed writer Omair Ahmad. I was also a panelist at the event, and our conversation moved around the book as well as the larger issues of cultural subjugation and its many faces.

When asked why he chose the medium of fiction to showcase his work, Sudipto said that this was because he believed that fiction can draw in many more patrons than perhaps a rigorous academic work, even one which may be investigating the same subject. This seemed to echo a sentiment from the book itself, that magnanimous events which may not survive generations otherwise can survive millennia by being told and retold in the form of fables and bedtime stories.

Discussion moved from the Rig Veda to the ideas of racial supremacy and the Aryan Übermensch, and an interesting thread about the link between patriotism and cultural superiority emerged. The notion of cultural purity is an undying one, and has always found greater magnitude in the presence of foreign cultures. What one generation considers love for the land and country, the next may well consider xenophobia.

Omair espoused the idea that cultural superiority, if it leads to absolutism, becomes a cancer that leads to decline and ultimately demise of the very roots it tried to uphold. This is the fate suffered by many of the ancient languages, held in protective cages by the contemporary clergy class, which are now only left to be studied post-doctorate, not spoken. Or, as Sudipto pointed out, companies, such as Kodak, Nokia, or Blackberry, took less than a few decades (in some cases even half-a-decade) to go from being market-leading innovators to the capitalistic equivalents of failed states. One wonders what the future has in store for today’s large, rabidly-followed cultural icons, religions, and brands (Apple being an example of all three).

On a lighter note, one of the audience members enquired about a growing trend of IITians entering bookshelves in India, and how this particular work ‘fits in’. Many cheeky references to Chetan Bhagat later, we concluded that the Indian Institutes of Technology are just schools or institutions that makes engineers and scientists of students, who are then free to pursue their own interests and passions. Generalising this phenomenon makes little sense, and its best if ‘IIT’ were not treated as a genre of literature.

The race between nationalists and cultural puritans is an unending one, and historical revisionists, conspiracy theorists, and right-wing nutjobs will continue fighting it out, either on the political stage, or at the nether ends of the blogosphere. Meanwhile, the modern Indian is now looking inward with a sense of existential angst. As residents and non-resident Indians alike try to locate India, and themselves, in the wider world, I am sure some of those curiosities can be further fuelled with a reading of the Ekkos Clan.

Pax Indica: India, meet world

Non-fiction/Pax Indica by Shashi Tharoor, Penguin/Allen Lane, 449 pp; Rs799 (Hardback)

I recently read Shashi Tharoor’s Pax Indica: India and the World in the 21st Century. I wrote a review for the same, published on The Northeast Today website (and the upcoming print edition):

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Rendezvous With Destiny

There is a mysterious cycle in human events. To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.

— Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Speech before the 1936 Democratic National Convention, Philadelphia, June 27, 1936

It was the above quoted speech that inspired independent India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst With Destiny,” considered to be one of the greatest orations of all time, delivered on the midnight which gave way to the 15th of  August, 2013, exactly 66 years ago from now. Its opening lines are often remembered during this time of the year:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom.

A relatively forgotten passage from the same speech goes on:Continue reading →

‘Funny and Disturbing’

I recently read Aman Sethi’s A Free Man.

Insightful, humorous, and disturbing, this work of non-fiction is the story of millions of invisible men that that toil around us everyday, building our cities (and breaking them down when asked to), preparing our meat, selling us lemons… Aman Sethi explores not just the mazdoor, but the philosopher, the entrepreneur, and the struggle to be free. Vaguely reminiscent of The White Tiger by its synopsis, A Free Man is an achievement in journalism, a masterpiece in ‘development journalism’, and is the only book that I can describe with the phrases ‘very funny’ and ‘reads like a war documentary,’ simultaneously.

You can sample it out from an excerpt at The Caravan.

The Making of Modern India, One Essay at a Time

I recently attended the launch of India Since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation, and picked up a copy.

Anthology/Non-fiction; India since 1947: Looking Back at a Modern Nation by Atul Kumar Thakur (Edited); Niyogi Books, 340 pp; Rs.395 (Paperback)

It has very nearly been 66 years since we, as one nation, took the reins of our destiny in our own hands. And while that still places us as a relatively young democracy (the US, for example, signed the declaration of independence in 1776), that the first generation born after that fateful midnight has now started retiring is a noteworthy milestone. As a people who use the same word for tomorrow as for yesterday, keeping track of the passage of time and the changes it brings along is not something we are very adept at.

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Atonement: Indian Microfinance Looks Inward — My article in this week’s Sunday Guardian

I recently gave my two cents on the microfinance industry in India, with reference to Microfinance India: State of the Sector Report 2012 by Venugopalan Puhazhendhi and The Social Performance Report 2012 by Girija Srinivasan, released by ACCESS Development Services. The piece is the cover story for The Sunday Guardian to be published tomorrow:

Atonement: Indian Microfinance Looks Inward

“The good stories of ‘Doing Good and Doing Well’ of a model that was touted as a miraculous mechanism of reaching the poor, seemingly have started to dry out and are replaced by scathing details of wrongdoings by MFIs, client abuse, high profiteering, investor greed, manipulations within Board Rooms and are grabbing headlines.” Vipin Sharma of ACCESS Development Services sets the tone for Microfinance India: State of the Sector Report 2012, or the SOS, as it is often referred to with an element of poetic justice. The SOS, now in its seventh edition, is seen as a valuable reference document not only for practitioners and researchers in the field, but for informing and influencing policy as well.Continue reading →