Soaring above

How one company’s journey changed a university’s thinking on startups

Inside the dimly-lit hallways of the building that houses the electronics and telecommunication engineering department at the University of Moratuwa, Prof. Rohan Munasinghe’s bright fluorescent-lit office sits in a r ecluse corner on the first floor. On the side of his table, a whiteboard adorning the wall displays a mixture of erratic blue and red markings of wind speed equations and rotor lengths. In front of his desk on a large boardroom table, a pack of raspberry pi circuits languishes underneath a heave of administrative files splattered with student assignments and a set of newly printed brochures of his company.

The company, Future Drones designs and produces locally manufactured drones and had its commercial launch early this year. In the first few months itself, the Land Use Policy sought the company’s drone services. The objective was to map in pinpoint precision a 100 square kilometer area in Kekirawa to figure the land utilization habits of its inhabitants.

Subsequently, another contract was offered to digitally map the terrain of a surrounding land of 86 square meters near the Kanthale Sugar Cooperation. In just ten months, the company’s five-member crew and a revolving set of trainees raked in Rs6 million from these two contracts alone. Munasinghe is quick to point out that he saw the coming of drones as early as the rise of the new millennium. “We have been talking about various technologies, but have never invented anything,” he says. “So, I thought drones as one avenue that we could make a mark in as far
as back as 2000.”

After finishing his Phd in control systems, the study of commanding movements in machines in Japan, he joined the faculty in 2005. He was the first to offer a course in robotics at the University of Moratuwa. Every second semester, he conducted robotics competitions for first year students, inventing games, where competing teams have to develop a robot that could navigate symbols on the ground to arrive at a set destination. In 2007, the competition was levelled up by introducing drones. For Munasinghe, this provided the ultimate sandbox to also dabble in his passion with the students. These competitions eventually matured to be a part of final year undergraduate projects. “A couple of days back, I sent an email to the upcoming final year batch saying that I want four people to design the next generation auto pilot and the ground control station for drones.”

Every year, a new set of people build upon the work of the previous batch of students. “One group designs the autopilot. The next group designs the drone, and the next air speed sensors and propellers,” he says. “I try as much as possible to produce a sellable and marketable product at the end, and that is not possible in one year.”

While these mini research assignments started evolving into something beyond a student project, Munashinghe felt the need to establish a company. But, this was no ordinary startup. The company had firm roots at the University of Moratuwa. A countless number of students have been part and parcel of the early R&D years of the company, and the university had also provided unfailing support in terms of laboratory services and equipment.

“I wrote a short letter to the vice chancellor,” says Munasinghe. “It simply said that we are ready to have a startup, please advise.” This was two years ago at a time when the company was nothing more than a hobbyist pursuit practiced in the afterhours between a professor and his students. Munasinghe’s request to the then-Vice Chancellor Prof. Ananda Jayawardane triggered a snowball effect, leading to a series of initiatives to provide a more concrete platform for the university to spin off startups. The first among them being introducing a policy detailing each step in the formation of a university startup from equity allocation, stipulating fees for university services to patent applications. In addition, a product incubator was set up for each department in the faculty of engineering to refine and harness infant stage ideas. “Everything had to be thought up from scratch,” he says.

Future Drones was the first company to be initiated under this policy. This also leads to its most striking feature. Apart from its four founders, the other stakeholder who owns an ownership stake is the University Moratuwa, the literal birthing ground of the company. The university’s investment does not come in monetary form, but is considered as a fee for incubation, laboratory services, office space and R&D efforts of countless students who have roamed the halls of the department of electronics and telecommunication. Such initiatives are unprecedented in the local university system as a whole. Most state universities are passive and languid participants in its effort to develop a fledging startup ecosystem. While most work goes into including compulsory entrepreneurship courses to student curricula and vice chancellors delivering frequent harangues on the importance of innovation and creative thinking, no other university has a comprehensively laid out plan that actually works, until now. “This is naturally a very difficult thing to do. Most people either don’t try or give up in the process,” says Munasinghe.

State universities are notorious for endless bureaucracy bottlenecks, frequent student unrest, uninspiring academia and flailing infrastructure. These situations are frustrating and particularly take a toll on industrious professors and zealous students. The University of Moratuwa is also not immune from such cases. “We have a lot of red tape in the system. Even that one percent who wants to go beyond the line gets discouraged. I have faced a lot of hard times. It is disheartening at times,” says Munasinghe. “Some even ask why universities should foster a company. Even that kind of obvious questions are asked.”

Universities are considered hotbeds for innovation and experimentation. But, this is rarely the case. Some critique that state universities today have denigrated to mere teaching sweatshops. This is unsurprising in the advent of a perennial resource constraint towards higher education in the country. Scant finance debilitates upgrading laboratory equipment and keeps out promising scholars from joining academia in the face of pitiful salary schemes. The reverberation of this ill effect is felt more acutely at technology-focused universities like Moratuwa. “There were lot academics in the past who wanted to do research, but didn’t have the luxury to do it because we didn’t have the funds,” says Munasinghe. “The government’s mandate was to maintain the status quo; teach and graduate students.”

Munasinghe sometime still feels like he is swimming upstream. “Every step I took has been going forward. Maybe I have not been fast enough,” he says. “If I was in a developed country, I could have done better.” But, he feels an optimism more than ever of the University of Moratuwa’s ability to be in the constellation of the world’s leading technology universities. He also believes that the University could show a sense of direction and example for other state universities. “If there is hope at all, it is at Moratuwa obviously,” he says.