The 24th of September, 2014 was a red letter day (Pun intended) for every Indian. The Indian mission to Mars, Mangalyaan pulled itself into orbit into the Martian atmosphere. That day, India became the envy of the scientific world. This was a mission that was expected to fail from the start. Of about 51 mars missions launched so far across the world only 20 have been a success. China’s Mars program in partnership with Russia ended in failure when the rocket splashed into the Pacific Ocean. Japan tried and failed in the late 90’s. In contrast India’s first mission is a success. But in the midst of all this hue and cry an important lesson has been lost. A lesson that the torch bearers of India’s tomorrow, its entrepreneurs (if you had any doubts) could do well to learn.
As a startup evangelist the first thing that stuck me with the Mangalyaan mission was the way ISRO bootstrapped the whole mission from the beginning. To me ISRO is in many ways a start up. Consider the annual funding NASA receives, $17 Billion for the last fiscal. Contrast this with ISROs budget of a little over $1 Billion. You get the idea. Further it is staffed by people with dreams and visions of achieving the moon, literally as any other startup .ISRO by virtue of being a science and technology undertaking cannot act or behave like any other beefy, profligate Indian government department. It has to innovate to stay relevant.
And it did. It followed the principles of Bootstrapping and Minimum Viable product that every entrepreneur should follow.
This is the most relevant aspect of constraint innovation. Every entrepreneur bootstraps to avoid cash burn. But bootstrapping does not necessarily mean cutting corners. In an interview to Forbes, Kopillil Radhakrishnan, Chairman of ISRO said
“ISRO’s general philosophy is cost effectiveness. The Russians look for robustness and the Americans go after optimization. Our aim at ISRO was how do we get to Mars on a budget.”
In addition it cut costs by re-engineering. The launch vehicle used was first developed first in 1970 and has gone numerous refurbishing and re-gigging to be used in its current GSLV rockets. Focus was put into adopting strategies for reducing fuel conception. To put this in perspective; the whole mission cost about IRs. 450 crores and the travel distance from Earth to Mars orbit is 650 million kilometers. This roughly translates to about Rs. 6 per kilometer, an amount that is lesser than what it costs to take an auto rickshaw.
Costs overruns were kept down by being schedule driven. The whole project planning phase took just 15 months. Scientists put in 20 hour work days during the launch period like any typical startup team. Testing was done mainly using Computer system and only one model was ever built, keeping costs low. By reusing building blocks from across various systems like the Moon mission, Astronomy mission and other future missions like the Aditya. They refused to reinvent the wheel.
India’s low cost wage structure, which makes it the darling of the IT outsourcing industry also helped. In fact by positioning it as a low cost destination for High end scientific engineering, India can beat China’s workshop model.
Minimum Viable Product:
To compare Mangalyaan budget of $75 Million against NASA’a Maven, which cost a whopping $671 Million is an injustice. Maven is a much more advanced craft with technologies beyond the scope of Mangalyaan and mission parameters more advanced that what ISRO has sketched out. But that’s the whole beauty about building an MVP. Play to your strengths and get a product that has bare minimum essentials out into the market to test it out. ISRO did just that.
Mangalyaan carries just five scientific instruments and focuses on mainly measuring the methane gas in the atmosphere. On the contrary Maven weights nearly twice as much and carries a whole host of scientific instruments that map Mars and search for carbon life forms. This increases the size of the required launch vehicle and in return increases fuel consumption adding to high costs. On the other hand, ISRO had never wanted to play the “I am First” game. Instead they rely only on self reliance and indigenous application of space technology and particular about the research and purpose of their product. They barely ever consider exploration.
Rapid Prototyping is a must for any bootstrapped product and ISRO followed these principles to a T. They followed a modular approach to building the Satellite and it has helped Mr. Radhakirshnan says
“For every successive launch, we have taken the base of our previous, proven launch technology, modified and built on it. Here, we had to add the cryo to the previous module as we needed higher engine power. We used the same modular tactic with our payload as well. The modular approach gave us cost and schedule advantages.”
Once again following schedule bound time lines and focusing on short term deliverable that startups follow ISRO was able to come up with a nifty Mangalyan which is nothing but a proof of concept for its future capabilities.
Mangalyan is not a one off scenarios where ISRO has made use of constraint innovation. The 2008 Chandrayaan Moon Mission was 1/10th the cost of what other nations mission would cost. ISRO has made constraint innovation a daily part of its life. Western Space research agencies have no incentive to think about constraint innovation. But for a country like India, naysayers advocate that even this meager cost of scientific advancement could have been used to feed its huge population below the poverty line. But Indias space program is not a waste of money or resources as many people deem.
Even The Economist, in its coverage while blaming the Indian government of sinful spending, acknowledged that numerous Indian weather satellites were responsible for tracking the cyclone Phailin and saving countless lives. Sometimes, entrepreneurs too face this dilemma. They are accused of wasting time, pursuing their dreams instead of following the crowd. The ones who fall for this kind of pessimistic talk fall into the rat race and are lost for eternity. The once who brush aside criticism and pursue their dreams are the ones history remembers.
The way I see it, there is no specific formula for startup success. But by adopting methodologies and principles that can reduce your cash burn and time to market, an entrepreneur can increase the life span of his product or service. ISRO did just that. It had a single shot at the heavens and it took it. So should all the other entrepreneurs.