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Aerospace startup Team Indus signs launch contract with ISRO

Bengaluru-based aerospace startup Team Indus has signed a contract with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to launch a spacecraft that will attempt to land on the moon as part of its bid to win the Google Lunar XPRIZE.

Team Indus, incorporated as Axiom Research Labs Pvt Ltd, is the only Indian team competing for the $30 million prize money in the Lunar XPRIZE challenge. To win the prize, privately-funded teams must land their spacecraft on the surface of the moon, travel 500 metres, and broadcast high-definition videos, images and data back to earth.

Team Indus is the fourth company, of the total 16 that have survived the heat till date, to sign a verified launch contract for 2017. Israel's SpaceIL and American companies Moon Express and Synergy Moon are the other three.

"We see SpaceIL as our toughest competition. We are definitely going to be among the top two in the final challenge," said CEO Rahul Narayan, who is confident of hoisting the tricolour on the surface of the moon.

The moon mission is costing Team Indus around $60 million (about Rs 410 crore). It has raised $15 million so far and is looking to raise more funds in 2017. Last year, Team Indus won $1 million for meeting significant milestones in developing a robot that can safely land on the moon, travel 500 metres and send so-called Mooncasts.

The startup said the spacecraft will be launched aboard ISRO's Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle on 28 December 2017 from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre SHAR, Sriharikota, Andhra Pradesh.

"The ground centre will belong to ISRO. Once the spacecraft reaches above 800 km from earth, it will be completely controlled by Team Indus," Narayan said at a press conference in New Delhi.

Starting up

Team Indus was founded in 2011 by a group of young space enthusiasts with no aerospace experience. "We are similar to SpaceX, not in terms of money but in terms of innovation," co-founder Sridhar Ramasubban said, referring to US billionaire Elon Musk's aerospace company.

While talking about the team's journey from the time they launched, Narayan said the startup built the mission concept in 2013 and designed the system the next year. Their efforts materialised in 2014 and they got selected for the challenge and got the milestone prize. In 2015 and 2016, Team Indus has worked on designing and creating a prototype spacecraft that will be launched next year.

Team Indus is one of the few companies in India which have managed to attract marquee names as investors. The company is backed by the likes of Tata Sons interim chairman Ratan Tata, Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani, Flipkart founders Sachin Bansal and Binny Bansal, Sasken Communications' Raji Mody and TVS Group's Venu Srinivasan. It has also received funding from Jagdish Mehta of CTS India, Aspire Systems's Gowri Subramanian, Anand Deshpande of Persistent Systems, and stock market investors Rakesh Jhunjhunwala, Ashish Kacholia and RK Damani.

"India is at the cusp of dramatic change. We are ready to take to the global stage in demonstrating a capability for building deep technology and competing with the best in the world," said Nilekani. "I invested in Team Indus because they're the face of New India, and I believe they will inspire the next generation of innovators and achievers."

Business model

Team Indus has about 100 employees, of whom 20 are retired ISRO scientists. Other than working vigorously for this challenge, the company is firming up revenue models for itself and building a satellites business for both Indian and global markets.

Asked if ISRO could be one of their potential customers in future, Ramasubban said: "We will build and provide our satellite solutions and services to ISRO, and they will provide it to their end-customers. Today we are using them as our launch platform, but we will get into commercial engagements with ISRO."

Ramasubban also said that only 25% of the team strength is working on the Google challenge, and the remaining people are working on building other businesses. "We will make a major announcement on our commercial engagement in the first quarter of next year," he said, without disclosing any details.

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