Remember the scene from Lakshya, a 2004 Indian war film, where Col. Sunil Damle (Amitabh Bachchan) plans the Kargil operation on a military terrain model. In the scene, he plans the military tactics, on the model, to deploy and employ forces to fight and win the territory from the enemy. What you saw in the movie was a very basic terrain model, which was used by the Army till very recently. Now, imagine a 3D model equipped with various interaction devices, software, and terrain data to plan the operation on a real-time basis.
Praveen Bhaniramka, an alumni of IIT-Varanasi, is the creator of this new digital sand model technology. For him, it was a moment of pride when his technology was adopted by the Border Security Force. In 2014, his digital sand model technology was inducted by the Army for real-time operation planning, enabling faster and critical decision making.
“Digital Sand Model is a revolutionary solution for operation planning, mission briefing and training, for the Indian paramilitary, police, and the armed forces,” says Praveen Bhaniramka, Founder and CEO, VizExperts.
He adds that the project involves integration of online data from the field formations of the BSF, which can be visualised directly on the geospatial platform for better incident mapping and faster decision making.
Talking about the technology, he says that the integrated solution is built upon a 3D GIS platform and includes audio visual hardware, interaction devices, along with the backend GIS database and terrain data for the entire country.
Recently, his startup VizExperts was felicitated by the BSF for its role in enhancing border security through visual computing.
Back in 2000, he joined the advanced graphics division at Silicon Graphics Inc in the US. At the company, he started as an engineer and later became the technical lead. Three years later, he moved back home to the company’s India headquarters in New Delhi to start a new R&D team for the company. However, with the evolution of the market and technology, Silicon Graphics Inc couldn’t survive the change and filed for bankruptcy in 2006. This was the end of his career in the company and the birth of an entrepreneur.
In the same year, he launched VizExperts, a technology startup in the visual computing field, developing complex turnkey solutions that simplify data to decision transformation at various organisations.
With an initial investment of Rs 2 crore, Praveen began the venture with its R&D section. In 2008, the venture moved to product development. A year later, it sold its first product to National Police Academy, Hyderabad. Since then, it claims to have built products, in domains like 3D GIS, multi-data fusion, system modelling and simulation, 3D visualisation and virtual reality.
The venture’s client list includes several Defence Research and Development Organisations, Space Research Centres, police and paramilitary organisations, museums and educational institutes in India, as well as international firms.
“At VizExperts, there has always been a conscious drive to create an ecosystem that supports in-house development of technologies,” says Praveen.
Investment and growth
Praveen says that the initial investment of Rs 2 crore was recovered within two years. However, in the past ten years, the venture has invested around Rs 20 crore in the business. It says that it now has an annual turnover of Rs 15 crore.
The startup began its business with five employees and has now grown to a 70-member team. During the first two years, it had around four clients. Today, it boasts 30 clients from both government and private sectors. The venture is headquartered in Gurgaon with offices in Delhi and Bengaluru.
Taking on challenges
Praveen says that the first two years were smooth as his whole experience with Silicon Graphics helped him to get new clients for their R&D offerings. However, as he moved to the product part, the biggest challenge came in the form of business development.
“Our work requires a good connection with re-sellers networks, which we found challenging initially. When you go out in the open market, amidst scores of competitors, scaling up business comes as a major challenge. We faced a similar situation. We had to build a strong team to take on the existing challenges. We hired some senior people for business development. The team we built for this job has yielded favourable results,” says Praveen.
According to Praveen, till now, the firm was spending a large portion of its investment on engineering and product development. However, now, it’s planning to divert its attention to business development.
“For this purpose, we have also hired a very senior person as a VP Sales. We aim to spread our resellers network,” says Praveen.
The venture also aims to increase its investment to the tune of Rs 10 crore for this fiscal year only, which it says will increase the revenue to Rs 30-40 crore.
Market and competition
According to a report released by the lobby group Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) and financial services company Centrum Capital Ltd in early February 2015, India is expecting a total defence budget allocation of $620 billion between financial year 2014 and 2022 of which 50 percent would be on capital expenditure.
The annual opportunity for Indian companies — both public sector undertakings and private companies — is expected to reach $41 billion by 2022, and $168 billion of cumulative opportunity between fiscal 2014 and 2022, driven by domestic and external demand.
Bharat Electronics Ltd’s Rolta and Tata are the major suppliers of defence products. Last year, the BEL-Rolta India consortium bagged the Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) development agency order for the Battlefield Management System (BMS) project, worth over Rs 50,000 crore. BMS is an awareness and visualisation system that aims to optimise the effectiveness of tactical units. BEL has been working on such battlefield systems.
In the startup category, Tonbo Imaging is another venture that works in the defence equipment segment. The startup makes night vision systems for Indian and international customers including DARPA, an advanced-technology branch of the US Department of Defense.
Saankhya Labs is a Begaluru-based hi-tech startup, which offers its solutions to Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). It has built a chip Pruthvi, the size of a postage stamp that functions as a software-defined radio (SDR). This reduces cost, power consumption, and size of components on a personal computer or embedded system.
According to experts, there are various such hi-tech startups which can contribute to the Indian defence sector. However, lack of access to both the markets and the funds have dimmed their potential.
Future of Indian defence startups
Praveen says that the ‘Make in India’ programme is an attempt to open opportunities for hi-tech startups to introduce technologies in the defence sector.
He cites the example of US’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme. It is a highly competitive programme that encourages domestic small businesses to engage in Federal Research/Research and Development that have the potential for commercialisation.
Such initiatives have also started in the country. The Battlefield Management System (BMS) project, categorised as a ‘Make in India’ programme under the DPP, will be one of the largest solutions to be indigenously manufactured for the Indian Army.
The ‘Make in India’ programme is still in its initial phase and options are limited to biggies in the defence category. However, the programme has given hope to startups who see themselves as technology contributors to Indian defence in the coming years.