Dr Vidya Sagar Abburi is the founder & CEO of Avantel Limited. The company believes in connecting ideas through integration of applications, creating value through innovative solutions and conserving resources through operational efficiency.
We posed Mr Abburi a host of questions starting with his concept of indigenisation of defence needs; what all does it involve, and what should be our priorities? With the essential sum and substance of DPP 2016 mostly in the public domain already, we sought his reactions. Avantel being a technology driven company we asked him about how far would the new DPP drive IDIs to explore technological advancement. He also shared his ideas on capitalisation of the MSMEs and other steps that the government needs to take to take to create the right eco-system for the IDI.
Brig SK Chatterji (SKC): Tell us the story of Avantel… from inception to your product range now.
Vidya Sagar Abburi (VSA): Avantel has a legacy of over 20 years in the wireless & telecommunication domain. We initially started making RF subsystems for Defence labs, ISRO and companies abroad. We gradually shifted our focus to design, development and manufacture of analogue and digital Radios, DSL equipment to Department of Telecommunications. We gained experience in RF design, signal processing and embedded systems development.
We started development of satellite communication systems in the year 2000 and offered end to end solutions for voice and data communication over Indian satellites for defence applications. We also started a software development group to address Indian as well as export requirements.
We now undertake entire spectrum of activities ranging from design, development, manufacture, installation & commissioning, system integration, testing & evaluation of defence electronics, satellite communications & software systems. We have been investing nearly 15-20% of our sales revenue for the last 15 years on R&D for niche technologies. We could support Indian Navy in strengthening their Net Centric Operations with totally indigenous satellite communication solutions. Our satellite communication solutions include various flavors of MSS & UHF systems and are currently being used on ships, submarines, aircraft and strategic vehicles.
Avantel is also very strong in providing High Power Solid State Power Amplifiers and is one of the very few companies in India which manufactures High Power amplifiers upto 6 GHz for communications, EW & radar applications. We have also been certified by Centre for Military Airworthiness and Certification for Design, development and manufacture of airborne systems.
Avantel could successfully integrate technologies in multiple domains including RF design, embedded systems, signal processing and software development to engineer unique , customized solutions based on indigenous design, development and manufacturing to meet specific requirements of Indian Defence Services.
SKC: Please give us your concept of indigenisation of defence needs. What all does it involve? What should be our priorities?
VSA: Indian Defence Services need modern & advanced weapon systems and supporting infrastructure to maintain the cutting edge over our adversaries. In this endeavour, we spend huge money in buying state of the art systems from foreign OEMs due to lack of similar home grown technologies. We as an aspiring nation to be one among equals with the existing world powers, need to be self reliant on critical technologies. We need to own the Intellectual property and hence we have to develop R&D capabilities along with capacity to build state of the art systems. I am sure with the high quality of Human capital India has, we can surely make a difference if we can identify the technology gaps and focus on developing those critical technologies which define the defence preparedness.
Nitin Gokhale (NG): Can you give us an idea about how to involve the huge potential of our leading academic institutions into R&D for defence systems development?
VSA: Academic institutions like IITs, NITs, IISc and other deemed universities should be funded to acquire software tools required for design and development of products for aerospace, electronic warfare, radar, sonar, communication systems and unmanned aerial vehicles to name a few critical areas. Academic institutions should be encouraged to take up design projects in collaboration with industry. A dedicated Defence R&D fund should be available to fund such projects. MoD should identify the technology gaps and offer funding to industries interested in taking up R&D in such areas. Funding can be subject to successful demonstration of the developed technologies. MoD can give a contract to Industry and payments can be made subject to successful demonstration of the product or technology as per the QR in the RFP.
NG: How far do you see the new DPP giving defence R&D a boost?
VSA: I understand that the upcoming DPP – 2016 has included a new category for acquisition, Buy Indian (IDDM) and it is the most preferred acquisition category. Promoting indigenous design, development and manufacturing is a very good move and I wholeheartedly thank the Government for such a path breaking initiative. I now foresee that the industry will strengthen its R&D infrastructure and invest time and money for building indigenous solutions. This move shall surely raise the country’s intellectual capital and enhance self reliance.
NG: Do you think the new DPP paves the way for a healthy ecosystem where the MSMEs will also witness growth?
VSA: Presently, MSMEs doing business in the defence domain have several constraints to stay afloat and be competitive. Long gestation periods involved in defence procurements from initial RFI to final award of contract, non recognition of indigenous R&D efforts and uncertainty involved in R&D investments made are some of the major constraints which made the MSME segment to adopt a more cautious approach. Thereby, they were always a mute spectator to emerging defence requirements than an active partner. That is why, you see a very few MSMEs catering to the defence needs and they too exist because of their perseverance, not because of motivation. We think, this is all going to change with the proposed initiatives of the new DPP viz. reduced timelines in the procurement process, Buy Indian (IDDM), Essential Parameters A, B & enhanced performance parameters, involvement of private industry as production agencies and technology transfer partners, inclusion of MSME Make category, Govt funding in R&D, easing of norms for single vendor cases etc. will definitely pave way for healthy ecosystem for MSMEs. I am very optimistic that post DPP – 2016, the MSMEs’ roles in catering to the defence needs is surely going to be significant.
SKC: Do you think the government should go in for creating technology hubs rather than just production clusters?
VSA: A technology hub would have the necessary infrastructure to undertake the intensive R&D efforts that are required in the Defence domain. A technology hub say for the Aerospace or Electronic Warfare domain would have to have all the necessary infrastructure that is required for not only to sustain the existing user needs but help in emergence of newer technologies in the domain. They also need to establish the required test facilities specifically for SMEs for qualifying the products for defense use as per JSS 55555, MIL 810 F/G, MIL 461 E/F as applicable for ships, submarines, aircraft etc.
SKC: The cost of capital for investment is rather high in our country. What are your views on the subject?
VSA: For SMEs, availability of capital for conduct of their business operations is always a critical aspect. The capital investment costs can be attributed to acquiring land, buildings, machinery and infusion of funds borrowed from financial institutions. The cost of capital being high in India, MSMEs have to finely balance between available resources at their command and ensure minimum exposure to risk to be successful. Government on its part could take suitable measures and offer incentives to MSMEs in terms of funding receivables from Defence PSUs and Defence Services, Govt of India at lower rate of interest.
SKC: Our procurement cycle time is long. Has the new DPP addressed it adequately? What are your views on the subject?
VSA: The procurement cycle time is very long and stretched to more than three to four years from initial RFI to RFP and subsequent award of contract. This unduly long time makes it extremely difficult for SMEs to commit their R&D resources for such a long time. As per the reports, the new DPP is likely to address the problem. We are not aware of the specific measures being taken in this regard. However in my opinion, approximately under 12 months for small contracts, say for a value of less than Rs 100 crore, and 24-30 months for contracts above 100 crore should be sufficient from the emergence of the need to the award of the contract.
NG: The process of acquiring patents is laborious in our country? How do you think the system could be made more responsive?
VSA: At present, the patent applications take almost five years to come up for first examination. This is unduly long time for recognizing indigenous R&D efforts. This time needs to be condensed to less than two years for motivating R&D in newer areas and enhancing knowledge capital to meet Indian defence needs. MoD could also design a mechanism to monitor the progress of patents filed for defence technologies.
NG: Tell us about any collaboration, or plans of an association you have with any OEMs? Are the OEMs ready to transfer the latest technology to the extent they have committed. What is the general experience in this regard of our MSMEs?
VSA: We are in dialogue with a foreign OEM for a tie-up to offer an integrated solution for HF trans-receivers. We have had an encouraging response from this OEM on technology transfer issues. I would say that the ability to absorb technology quickly and create value in integrating their technology with indigenously developed technologies to meet the specific requirements of Indian defence services is very important.