Strengthening India’s defence innovation ecosystem with the Technology Development Fund

By:
Sidharth Choudhary

Invest India and the Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to help support the execution of the Technology Development Fund Scheme on 17 April 2020. The agreement was signed and expediently operationalized by Invest India by transferring resources from existing teams. At the culmination of the first year of the MoU, the TDF Desk at Invest India has its own dedicated staff who have already augmented and improved the operations of the TDF Scheme in an unprecedented year of the pandemic. 

Starting in a pandemic 

In April/ May 2020, the Directorate of TDF which executes the scheme underwent a transition with a new Director and personnel taking charge. At that stage, the TDF scheme was still relatively unknown in the MSME and startup ecosystem and had only awarded 6 companies grants to develop technologies under the scheme. 

The Invest India team took charge of the operations by first taking over the TDF scheme website (accessible at www.tdf.drdo.gov.in), which is a one-stop shop for accessing the scheme. The team quickly realized that the website needed a complete overhaul to support the enhanced vision of the scheme. It required a robust technical architecture as well as an improved user-friendly design and security aspects. Furthermore, there was an urgent need to improve the throughput of the scheme which would involve conducting more feasibility analyses for technologies required by the armed forces and routing the feasible ones to a specific industry to develop in under 2 years. To enable this, the team started putting in place structures for project management as well as programs for enhancing the visibility of the scheme in the ecosystem. 

A major challenge to the operation of the scheme was the pandemic which necessitated virtual handling of various aspects of the scheme, which were previously done in a physical format. Moreover, hiring and training of the team was another challenge, since at no point, did the entire team assemble physically together. The team did step up to the challenge, by establishing and running processes which enhanced the efficiency of the scheme. A few team members also visited the DRDO multiple times weekly, to push through files and sanctions necessary for operations. Owing largely to the hard work and resourcefulness of the team, Invest India was able to deliver more than what was envisioned in the MoU.  

Building a brand

The team created a detailed outreach plan to target industry across MSMEs and startups. A significant part of the outreach effort deals with prompt redressal of queries received by the scheme. The other objective was to disseminate information about the scheme, its various benefits and the opportunities open for industry. Various webinars and workshops were conducted with partners such as National Productivity Council, Ministry of MSME, Startup India, and Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers (SIDM). While most were virtual, Invest India also accompanied the DRDO to Aero India 2021 as well as several industry visits. Continuing efforts to create a distinctive identity for the scheme, Invest India has developed a logo for the scheme which is yet to be unveiled to the public. 

Deep stakeholder engagement 

It was also realized quickly that the armed forces (army, air force and navy) and the various DRDO laboratories needed to be guided on the processes and procedures of the scheme, especially as 'end users' they generate the technological requirements taken up by the scheme. Workshops were conducted with the Indian Navy, Indian Air Force and DRDO labs to synergize expectations across all stakeholders. 

Enhanced scheme throughput 

A positive development of the widespread stakeholder engagement was the expanded portfolio of projects undertaken by the scheme, which saw a rise of more than 150% over the previous year. Similarly, more than 1500 new entities got registered on the TDF website and many participated in various open projects. To provide technical support to Invest India, the team has empaneled distinguished experts from the armed forces, DRDO laboratories, academic institutions, and industry. They bring with them critical domain proficiency, financial and IPR expertise. 

Most importantly, 19 new project development grants were awarded during the year, taking the scheme total to 25, amounting to a total disbursement of approximately INR 142 crores. 

Revamp of technology systems 

The team worked with an empaneled technology vendor to re-design and develop a new website for the scheme. It includes all the features of the exiting portal as well as an upgraded backend which would allow detailed tracking of all projects from initiation to delivery. Moreover, it has a user focused design with tutorials and guides for various elements of the scheme. The new portal also integrates Invest India’s query management system to streamline support requests from multiple channels such as TDF website, email, and calls. The entire system has been primed and tested and is awaiting final pre-launch approvals form the DRDO. 

Daring to dream

Apart from executing the scheme, Invest India helped manage the second edition of the Dare to Dream Innovation Contest, a scheme to promote participation of individuals and startups in the aerospace and defence industry. The TDF Desk along with the AGNIi Mission conducted the contest which saw close to 1800 applicants, out of which, 50 were selected for presenting to the Independent Expert Committee (IEC). The IEC has recommended the winners to the DRDO, but the final award announcement is still awaited. Invest India had previously helped run the first edition of the contest in 2019-20.

Recognizing startups’ enthusiasm in actively taking part in India’s defence industry, the DRDO decided to create a dedicated line of funding for nascent startups (DPIIT registered startups in the defence sector and less than 3 years since incorporation) under the TDF scheme. The team helped design the sub-scheme and is actively working on making it operational.   

Long way to go

The first year of operations not only accomplished the stated goals of the MoU but also laid the foundations of a strong partnership between Invest India and the Defence Research & Development Organisation. The DRDO is a behemoth with more than six decades of history and a strong procedure-oriented outlook whereas Invest India is exceedingly nimble and iterative. The first year impelled the two organizations to understand each other and develop an effective common language of functioning.  Hence, the expectations from the second year are greater than before, even under the prospect of another year of operations under the COVID-19 cloud. While it is bound to be challenging, the scope of our potential impact will keep us moving forward!

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