The Combustion Research Center at IIT Madras is poised to become India’s premier deeptech startup hub

In the 1930s, a group of students from the California Institute of Technology blew up part of a building while experimenting with rocket fuels. Instead of censoring them, the institute moved the self-proclaimed “rocket boys” to a nearby empty field to conduct research, laying the foundation for the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL).

Considered a leading center for the development of advanced technologies, JPL has worked on everything from missiles during World War II to rockets during the space race between America and Russia. Among other projects, he is now doing pioneering work on interplanetary travel.

According to the founder of satellite startup Galaxeye, Suyash Singh, the National Center for Combustion Research & Development (NCCRD) at IIT Madras is also in the same league as JPL for its groundbreaking work in several areas of deep technology. .

With NCCRD providing the launch pad for at least seven deeptech startups since 2016, he might be right.

Professor Satya Chakravarthy, the “rocket” of the NCCRD

“NCCRD is very industry relevant and a great place to do a lot of research. That’s why I link it to JPL,” says Suyash. Your story. “I always told Professor Satya that we should work more on promotional activities. But he’s very tech-savvy and won’t brag [about all the work being done].”

Satyanarayanan R Chakravarthy, better known as Satya, joined the Department of Aerospace Engineering at IIT Madras as a visiting professor in 1997, progressing to become a professor in 2009. With over 75 studies published in journals conferences and 230 articles produced for national and international conferences, he is considered a world expert in the field of combustion.

However, the government’s decision to award Rs 90 crore ten years ago for a pioneering combustion center at IIT Madras drastically changed the course of his career. From a research-oriented academic, Satyanarayanan has moved on to developing high-tech solutions for real-world problems, especially since the inauguration of the NCCRD in 2017.

“[The NCCRD] is his idea. He fought to build this center for five to six years,” says Suyash. “He optimized it [for maximum productivity and projects] in a way that SpaceX would have done, and I went to SpaceX.

Professor Satyanarayana Chakravarty, Director of NCCRD and Co-Founder of The ePlane Company

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From industrial projects to startups

The NCCRD was originally established to provide a large-scale research and development facility for massive global industrial projects. Whether working on automotive, aerospace or energy-related issues, the NCCRD was established to foster academic-industry networks and strengthen India’s cutting-edge technology ecosystem.

The NCCRD has been successful in this principle, having worked with companies like GE Aviation and Siemens on several projects, generating more than Rs 200 crore in revenue. The institute has deployed the capital to set up equipment for faculty and student projects.

However, Satyanarayanan quickly understood why startups had a place in the business world.

“Big hardware companies aren’t really good at absorbing innovation very quickly,” says Satyanarayanan. “That was the motivation to start. In a startup, you can innovate very quickly and come out with small products.

Today, all projects applying to work at NCCRD must meet three basic start-up criteria beyond their technical expertise. All projects must have a clear idea of ​​their market, must be built for a large enough market, and must understand what is the problem in that market that they can solve, and thus grow their business at an exponential rate.

Bitten by the startup bug

By introducing the concept of market relevance into the research conducted at NCCRD, Satyanarayanan started a startup revolution. However, he did not just produce bureaucratic guidelines and let the projects fend for themselves.

Galaxeye founder Suyash Singh, who has been with NCCRD since its inauguration due to his work on a student hyperloop project under Satyanarayanan, says the companies and NCCRD have learned the art of business development together.

While most universities today have startup incubation support that helps budding student entrepreneurs, they typically incorporate well-known ideas for technology projects, and specifically SaaS. However, the NCCRD has a hands-on approach to creating customer development models to specifically identify markets for deep tech companies.

“How to set up a customer discovery framework for a deep tech startup, around a satellite or a rocket?” asks Suyash. “The central idea, the motivation, has always been with Professor Satya. He will always push to understand if there is a requirement…there has to be some validation and some direction to steer first.

For Galaxeye in particular, working with NCCRD support has made its founders realize that its potential customers haven’t “played with physics” and don’t understand how the startup’s solutions could help them.

This was a new form of customer validation not covered by traditional startup principles, and has helped several NCCRD startups raise funds and launch globally, including 3D rocket engine builder Agnikul Cosmos , micro gas turbine producer Aerostrovilos Energy and municipal waste. – X2Fuels fuel developer, among others.

Satyanarayanan was also not spared from the boot bug. Not only does he play a close development role with each startup, but he has seen his award-winning student hyperloop project grow into the startup TuTr, and has himself taken a sabbatical from teaching since 2020 to build a zero-speed air taxi business. pilot called The ePlane company.

The funding environment and future hopes for the NCCRD

Currently, NCCRD provides deeptech support to its startups, not to mention access to world-class facilities, faculty with a personal interest in the projects, co-working space with researchers from global industry giants and certain investments of the IIT-Madras incubation unit.

According to Suyash, investors who have heard of NCCRD are extremely enthusiastic about its projects. Speciale Invest, a venture capital fund focused on deep technologies that has invested in at least four NCCRD startups, echoes this sentiment.

“When we see startups working from the NCCRD, we are inclined to believe that the technology has gone through the rigors of early validation,” says Vishesh Rajaram, partner at Speciale Invest. “NCCRD’s track record of solving dozens of industry problems has essentially created an entrepreneurial aura. The researchers not only think about the technological challenges, but also how it solves a real problem in the industry. »

However, Suyash points out that the NCCRD would take another step if they could find sustainable growth investment opportunities aimed at their startups. While Galaxeye will always have center-based research due to the opportunities it provides, the company had to move its base of operations to Bengaluru to address some infrastructure, employment and supply chain issues.

Prof. Satya understands and agrees with the need to turn NCCRD into a full-fledged incubator with growth potential for their startups, but for now he is focusing on The ePlane Company and its many other pre-existing responsibilities towards the center.

“At some point, I’ll probably get old enough to be ineffective at ePlane, so the ePlane board will probably kick me out,” the professor laughs. “Then I’ll come back and say create a startup house in a more formal structure.”

Until then, the NCCRD will have to settle for just one world-class deeptech startup per year.

Edited by Affirunisa Kankudti

Kevin A. Perras