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The quest for the military technologies is unprecedented and unflinching which is precisely all about the warfare today. But the advancement of military technology spills over to the widest areas, covering national economy through military industrial build up. Barring Space, atomic energy and missile tech, Indian military has been grappling in addressing gaps across major military technologies and equipment. While the import has been a dominant route, the new fervour is the thrust on indigenization and the defence innovation. Innovations for Defence Excellence (iDEX) strives to achieve that. Manish Kumar Jha of Financial Express speaks with iDEX startups are breaking boundaries in high-tech Pseudo Satellite platform, Swarm (ALFA-S) and Quantum Crypto: Anurag Bajpai, Joint Secretary(DIP), Ministry of Defence on such innovations. How are we going to fill the gaps in areas like advanced materials, sensors for autonomous vehicles, and engines among others? To address the challenges and spur innovations, he talks about the funding and other initiatives.

Anurag Bajpai, Joint Secretary(DIP), Ministry of Defence with Manish Kumar Jha, Financial Express

Defence innovation is the key to build up the technological base and military industrial ecosystems in India. What are the range of initiatives being undertaken under IDEX?

iDEX – Innovations for Defence Excellence, an exemplary initiative of the Department of Defence Production was launched by the Prime Minister of India in April 2018 with an aim to foster defence entrepreneurs in the Indian Defence and Aerospace Sector. The initiative is unique as it has opened up avenues for the startup ecosystem to directly engage and respond to defence related challenges for prototype development and in turn translating to path to procurement as per the provision for iDEX introduced in the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020 on iDEX.

iDEX scheme being run under Defence Innovation Organisation has several flagship programs like Defence India Startup Challenges (DISC) wherein the Problem Statements from the end users like Indian Armed Forces, DPSUs, MHA etc are launched seeking innovative solutions from the startup ecosystem. iDEX provides Grant-in-Aid upto INR 1.5 Crore and has a co-creation and co-development framework with active involvement of multiple stakeholders to support the startups.

Furthermore, iDEX Prime was recently launched with a Grant-in-Aid support upto INR 10 Crore for Problem Statements from the Armed Forces that are more challenging and envisaged to be cost intensive.

Additionally, Open Challenges have been initiated to pick the minds of innovators with suo–moto solutions to Defence needs. Five editions of Open Challenges have been successfully closed till date.

iDEX has also launched the iDEX4Fauji, which offers opportunities to the members of the Indian Armed Forces who are technically oriented to offer product concept/solutions of utility to the armed forces.

The Grant Management Portal for iDEX exploits the digital platform for the complete program management of various iDEX programs.

Innovate4Defence – i4D, is a unique internship platform by iDEX, to orient students to work for the startups directly and gain first-hand experience of the lifecycle of a startup. The third edition of i4D is ongoing right now.

To sum it up, iDEX aligns itself with the goal of indigenisation and supports the vision of Atmanirbhar Bharat.

It is a matter of pride that 2000+ startups / MSMEs have participated in Defence India Startup Challenges (DISC) / Open Challenges (OC) for all the problem statements.

While we have achieved great success in areas like missile tech and space, there are gaps in technologies in areas like advanced materials, sensors for autonomous vehicles, and engines. How do you think that iDEX will be a catalyst in addressing such critical gaps?

The DIO is treading with efficacious methodology which effectively translates the intent into implementation.  iDEX is scaling up at a breath-taking pace, and has launched over three times the Problem Statements in the last two editions of DISC, individually compared to the previous editions.

iDEX framework is oriented towards the challenges that come up from Indian Armed Forces and DPSUs aiming at innovative solutions from the startups working in the current technology domains. This translates to filling up the gaps identified by the user.

We have identified niche areas and technologies with potential for growth and innovation over the past few years. The Nodal Agencies associated with iDEX have overcome their initial inhibitions and now are trusting us with their Problem Statements. Compared to the previous scenario, the Problem areas of the Defence sector have become known and understood better, through this iDEX initiative.

The Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020 ensures that once a prototype is developed, the successful developers through iDEX can get orders in time bound manners.

The procurement cycle has been shortened, already 14 cases have got procurement approvals by DAC. iDEX Grant-in-Aid has boosted the prospects of cash strapped talent to contribute in this capital-intensive sector. The academia, Armed Forces, innovators have come closer to achieve the common aim. Self-sufficiency and indigenization have got a shot in the arm. Even other Ministries/ Departments have associated with iDEX to utilize the branding and outreach available. With these incentives, iDEX shall be able to act as a catalyst in addressing gaps in short span of time.

iDEX has launched Open Challenge in Defence & Aerospace domain. Could you share some of the propositions and solutions for the defence applications?

Till date, five rounds of Open Challenges have been closed and we have announced over 20 winners providing innovative solutions to unique problems. Hyper Stealth Technologies is developing an integrated mobile camouflage system, where they are developing a unique coating which shall reduce the visibility of Armoured Fighting Vehicles notably, when viewed through Thermal Imagers. Another startup, Brisk Olive Business Solutions is developing a rapid foldable infantry assault bridge for the Indian Army. A startup QuNu Labs is developing a pair of quantum secure key distribution nodes that can support upto 200 kms for secure encryption key distribution.

We have a startup NewSpace Research & Technologies that is working on technologically challenging projects like High Altitude Pseudo Satellite (HAPS) platform and Air Launched Fixed Assets – Swarm (ALFA-S).

R&D in Defence is still low in India. What is the budgetary allocation under iDEX? What are the mechanisms for industry and start-ups to leverage iDEX for innovative ideas in terms of funding and collaboration?

R&D in Defence is improving as we speak. iDEX is now being scaled up to support more and more startups to evolve innovative solutions and create many world class products in the next five years. A special effort was required to reach out and engage the smaller enterprises, startups and innovators, which have the competence, flexibility and adaptability to supply the Indian military with innovative and ingenious technological solutions. iDEX has ensured this and stands relevant to further the objectives laid out by the Department under the “Atmanirbhar Bharat” initiative, to be self-reliant in Defence Production and reduction in Defence Import Bill. In this regard, the Department of Defence Production has approved Rs 498.8 Crore to support more than 300 startups and 20 reputed incubators, in the next five years starting from 2021-22.

iDEX framework has aided in the effective collaboration between the various stakeholders of the iDEX ecosystem viz. Innovators (Startups/MSMEs), Nodal Officer (Nodal Agency appointed within the Defence Forces or the DPSUs), Partner Incubators, and DIO. With development and implementation of an all-digital platform, over 100 problem statements from Armed Forces and DPSUs have been rolled out, over 2000 applications from startups have been screened, and contracts have been signed with more than 80 startups/innovators. iDEX has sanctioned projects worth almost INR 200 crore, with grants worth almost INR 80 crore.

Furthermore, iDEX has created a platform to create awareness about innovation, and works on the pillars it has strengthened over a period of time. These pillars are mentoring, outreach programs and showcases. Mentoring is supported by the Partner Incubators, who are the vanguards for the startups in the iDEX ecosystem. Each winner is entitled to a partner incubator and receive one-on-one mentoring. The Outreach Programs, which are run through iDEX, Partner Incubators and Academia all over India give a tremendous outreach to fetch innovative solutions from the innovators pan India.  We showcase our startups during various national/international events or during foreign delegation visits.

Drones are the focus areas. If you could share the development in the areas which could lead to the military grade drones manufacturing in India? Along if you also talk about the anti-drones – air defence capabilities?

Drone market is saturated, hence our focus remains in identifying innovators those who can work towards operational requirement of Armed Forces that can be met by drones, like tactical and strategic drones with loitering munition capabilities or Swarm capabilities (from various platforms) etc. To name a few, we have Z motion, NewSpace Research Technologies, Aditya Precitech etc.

We have two success stories of our startups who have developed counter drone system like Big Bang Boom Solutions and Gurutvaa Systems. BBBS has developed an anti-drone Defence system to combat rogue drones threat through its advanced long range sensors, jammers and state of the art artificial intelligence and computer vision analytics. Gurutvaa Systems has expertise in the field of RF Jammer guns to mitigate rogue drones and has already got an order from IAF. Their drone jammer guns are reliable counter drone system that provides comprehensive jamming capabilities against most drones by simultaneously blocking GNSS, communication and data link.

Both these startups have received the AoN for orders from the Indian Airforce and Indian Army

Is there any innovation made in the existing processes and if so, how has it fulfilled the requirements of the stakeholders in a better way?

Before the launch of iDEX, there existed a gap in interaction between Defence and startup ecosystem which posed a limitation in onboarding innovative indigenised products; one of the major drawbacks was lack of a platform through which Armed Forces could present their technical challenges as problem statements. Under iDEX, we have developed a robust system bridging this gap by giving innovators the access to the Problem Statements of Armed Forces, easy applications, funding, institutionalised support from the leading incubators, easy access to defence equipment/ test facilities and continual monitoring through Product Management Approach (PMA) to realise the Production Ready Prototype.

All the above are paperless activities, managed in real time through the grant management portal. Under this portal, PMA is integrated for better understanding the needs and requirements to be met by innovators based on the schematics and specifications given by the end user (Armed Forces). Also, there are two ways in which challenges are floated and solutions retrieved, the DISC and OC. Both have been streamlined for better access of information about the challenges and also the application forms are designed to enable the innovators to understand and provide their solutions.  The digital platform to apply has enabled an effective launch and understanding of challenges, eased the application procedures, streamlined the project tracking process and reduced the timeframe from selection to signing of contract from 6 months to under 45 days.

Whether after implementing the innovation, any best practices were identified, which can be replicated in other projects/ area? If so, describe the best practice and where else it can be implemented?

Several best practices can be mentioned about the iDEX scheme:

A digital management and information system (digital MIS) referred to as the iDEX Dashboard has been developed. The system serves as the single interface for all managerial and administrative tasks to be carried out in the implementation of the grant disbursement process and monitoring the progress of the product development undertaken by the iDEX innovators funded through the grants.

The iDEX scheme has a unique provision, of according 100% Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) to the innovator, for the solution developed through the process. This has been enthusiastically lapped up by the innovators. There are enough safeguards in the scheme to obviate misuse of the provision.

The iDEX scheme as a whole has been very well received by all stakeholders, even the big private players within the country. Interest has been evinced by other Ministries/ Departments to replicate the scheme. Some Ministries/ Departments have acknowledged the branding, outreach and goodwill already created by iDEX, and have associated with iDEX for immediate gains, justifiably so.



Author: Howard Caldwell