For several years now, there has been much angst in India that the venture capital ecosystem in the country does little more than finance pizza delivery apps. As entrepreneurial verve seeps deep into the pores of Indian society, that is changing and at the vanguard of change is India’s number 1 university, the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore. As Sandhya Ramesh says, “IISc Bengaluru’s deep tech incubator cell is going where few countries have gone before [with investments in] AI, quantum computing, robotics, biotechnology to provide solutions in healthcare, edtech, space, agriculture, and more.” [Brackets are ours]

Ms Ramesh begins by giving us a sense of the tech ecosystem in IISc: “…a thriving deep-tech ecosystem at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, helmed by Foundation for Science, Innovation and Development (FSID) incubation cell. Here, as many as 95 startups are harnessing the power of existing technology like AI, quantum computing, robotics, biotechnology, and delving deep into them to provide solutions in the fields of healthcare, space, agriculture, and more.

Another company, SpaceFields, is custom-building solid propellant rocket engines, and a third is future-proofing micro gas turbines so that they can be used for sustainable fuel like green hydrogen. Baby companies with big ambitions.

These startups work at the intersection of cutting-edge science and engineering to find innovative solutions across sectors. Deep tech today in India is where software engineering was in the early 1990s in the country — full of promises, resources and burgeoning research. FSID has produced numerous successes such as Bellatrix Aerospace, one of the earliest companies to sign development contracts and MoUs with ISRO. And under the care of the incubator, the baby companies are biting at the bit hoping to change the world.”

Then Ms Ramesh helps us understand why deep tech innovation is happening at IISc rather than, say, IIT Mumbai: “Apurwa Masook is hoping to ride the new wave of interest in space exploration. For now, though, he spends a lot of his time in the barren field at IISc’s second campus in Chitradurga. It’s where he goes when he wants to test his company, SpaceFields’ latest iteration of solid-fuel propulsion engines. While liquid fuel is much more popular for launch vehicles, solid propellant is more affordable and apt for smaller student satellites that go on sounding rockets — of which there are increasingly more and more. These students and startups still rely on ISRO for their flights.

“We needed access to the state-of-the-art equipment in the aerospace engineering department, which is hard to come by as a startup. Second, we needed to be in a reputed incubator to avail various government schemes and funding programmes,” explained Masook, founder-CEO of SpaceFields.

The incubation at FSID has worked well in terms of both financing and access to specialised labs. SpaceFields has continuous access to various development and test facilities in IISc labs. And in two years, they have received grants from government initiatives like Startup India, the DST, and the state governments of Karnataka and Odisha.

Additionally, they were also able to utilise a ‘smart factory’, which hosts easy and effective manufacturing and fabrication facilities in the same place’, within the incubator.

To test fire rocket engines in the field, which produce very strong noise, vibrations, and smoke, SpaceFields needed access to an open and empty area — which they got at IISc’s larger, sprawling campus at Chitradurga.

Masook started building tiny rockets and satellites as an undergraduate engineer at VSSUT Burla, Odisha to survey the Hirakud dam, the world’s largest dam that was in their backyard. Now, he builds cutting-edge propulsion systems for rockets, which can also use solid propellant. SpaceFields is the first non-legacy startup to have demonstrated end-to-end solid rocket motor production capability.

“We have development orders from two defence customers right now, and we are in the process of contracting with private defence manufacturers,” said Masook.

Space promises to be the next big frontier for industries and startups, with launch costs falling every year.”

In case space tech start-ups don’t send your pulse racing, the entrepreneurs at IISc are also building tech with more prosaic use cases: “Nabhdrishti Aerospace, also incubated at FSID, is innovating the design of the gas turbine. Micro gas turbines have been used to power small helicopters, explained co-founder and CEO Rohit Chouhan, who recognises the potential of air taxis, the burgeoning of drones, and the future of common air transportation.

“There are only five or six companies globally that are working on gas turbine technology,” said Chouhan. “Drones and UAVs need gas turbines, and we do it at a fraction of the cost for a critical bit of technology, whether military or civil.”

By the end of 2025, Nabhdrishti Aerospace aims to have a ready prototype that will be able to work with liquid fuel like jet fuel and biofuel, gaseous fuel like LPG and CNG, and, in the future, green hydrogen.

Nabhdrishti also has its sights set on any areas where gas turbines could be optimised, including the defence and oil sectors.

“Our immediate application would be in the oil and gas sector, which is our primary target. We have also started conversations with some civil aviation companies as well as UAVs and drone makers, which has grown alongside tourism. Along with IISc, we are also working with the Ministry of Defence on gas turbine projects,” said Nabhdrishti’s COO and co-founder Arjun Srivastava.”

One of the reasons Indian VCs finance pizza delivery apps rather than deep tech is that to create deep tech one entrepreneur and one financier is not enough – you need a ‘network’ of experts firing in unison. Ms Ramesh says that India has begun building such a network: “Deep tech is also defined by intellectual property filed by startups, and multiple patents for technological applications that are tied to each other. Meaningful R&D involves an ecosystem of interconnected universities, companies, and heavy investments, which India does not yet have.

But that’s where IISc and a handful of other institutes like IIT-Madras and IIT-Bombay step in. They have their own deep-tech incubators, with the desired and required expertise. Professors and industry experts screen applications from startups here, first for their feasibility and market potential, then for their social value. When a subsequent wide range of professionals, including venture capitalists and researchers, concur during evaluation, FSID incubates the company.

The companies then work with research teams and professors, and use IISc equipment and facilities, while providing regular progress reports and periodic product demonstrations.”

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