In this edition of Rocketeer’s Speak, we catch up with Ishan Tomar of SatSure to get an insiders perspective of life in the space science industry.
We sat down over a cuppa with Ishan Tomar, Co-founder and CTO of SatSure. SatSure develops solutions based on geospatial data to tackle challenges faced by the agriculture sector. We talked to him about his work and a bit about his personal preferences as well .
Que: Do you think your childhood and schooling have had an impact in your current line of work?
So, my family consists for my father, mother, brother Vedant and me. Due to the nature of my father’s job, we had to move a lot and hence we had to change schools too. In order to stabilize my education, my parents took a big risk and fixed our school at Maharana Pratap Education Center in Kanpur. For 2 years we used to visit Kanpur from Jhansi mere 2 days before examination. My mother would copy notes from other kids. Me and my brother would also do the same. We would prepare and give exams while residing in a hotel. My father had his own official work to deal with. When we finally moved to Kanpur, there were other struggles my parents had to deal with. The sheer amount of work my parents did to keep things from falling apart was enough to obligate us to study hard and in so, helping our parents in our own way. This was reflected at the time of my preparation of IIT JEE, when I realised that I got used to chaos in my life. In fact, I was seeking chaos.
It seems unreasonable to compare different chaotic situations, but there is a commonality. In a state of chaos, everyone can share empathy, at some level, with everyone else, not knowing what would happen next. Hence, threat seemed to be lurking around. We questioned steps taken which led to the present and every possible step that can be Taken, not finding any satisfactory answers. That is what I understand chaos as. That is also the avenue where people are likely to seek someone to blame.
But chaos also gives a different perspective to the present and requires strength to take a step further. If I fail, there’s a price to pay, no questions asked. But a step is taken nonetheless. That is what I understand, adventure is. I believe my past and efforts of my parents have molded me to seek adventure. I have failed more times than I have succeeded. But that only makes me realize that I am vulnerable. The harshest punishment gives the harshest lesson. If I am able to learn, knowledge will probably make me stronger. Hence, there is a price to pay for knowledge. Adventure begets knowledge.
Que: Were you always interested in space sciences or is it something that you developed later on?
I have done by B.Tech from Indian Institute of Space Sciences and Technology, Kerala and there were 126 of us who shared the same passion. It’s fair to say that each one of us wanted to do something different in this field, me being one of them. We all had a collective aspiration to go into a direction which is new. We wanted to explore a sector to which we were not exposed to till higher secondary. It is a risk we all took, which i think eventually paid off.
Que: We found that you are extremely interested in music. So, music and space science…do you see a connection in your two passions?
I think there is a connection among whatever one does, especially when it comes to things one is passionate about. I had an opportunity to pursue music and I went with it. Similarly, other people might be pursuing art or dance or sciences and other passions. It is ultimately our choice. We encounter problems and we solve it and there are learning curves that are involved. This involves learning from different sources and with time you become good enough that you come up with your own problem statement and solve it. In that way, yes, both my passions are connected and in many ways similar.
Que: To answer to someone who is trying to enter the space sector, are there any myths about the industry you would like to bust? Because, it all looks quite glamours from the outside what with satellites and all.
What I would like to share is less of a myth, but more my observation of the industry. It is a fact that this industry is quite niche and satellite data analysis plays a major part. This is not as easy as pulling data and drawing up graphs and charts. There is a requirement to co relate this data with ground reality. Now, people looking to solve a particular problem unfortunately don’t delve deep enough to understand the problem completely. For eg. on a scale of 1 to 10 if a problem is a 10, the tendency is to assume that it is 5 and not delve deeper. How can a problem be solved if its complete range, complexity and scope is not understood? In this industry, satellites do provide solution. However, the problem needs to be completely understood so that these solutions can answer the right problems.
Que: How did SatSure come to be and why do you think it’s important in the space science sector?
Crop failure due to erratic weather patterns is a harsh truth in India. The founders of SatSure, Prateep Basu and Abhishek Raju, thought of tackling this problem using geo spatial data. Implementing the technology around this is how SatSure came to be. I joined Prateep and Abhishek, one year into their working on this and was committed to focus on the technology aspect. Since it was still in its infancy, I was taken on board as the co-founder.
SatSure has a different perspective to the problem statement. SatSure basically serves the agricultural needs of the country. We noticed that there are areas which needed a large scale tech intervention due to the current lack of information infrastructure for farmers, where they have to be reached individually. It, hence, is prudent that we take a holistic approach and that holistic approach is undertaken using satellites. SatSure is unique because we understand the lacunae in the current analogous information infrastructure in agriculture. We use digital information to provide large and small scale products and services that can be used for renovation, development, support and management and work towards building digital infrastructure that is part of a socio-economic infrastructure, of which farmer is both a user and provider. This is quite evident in our clientele that includes banks, insurance providers, governments, businesses in the agri space and others who work towards targeted marketing in this sector.
Que: As a start up in this industry, what challenges did SatSure and you, personally, face?
Like we discussed before, this industry is niche and still it its nascent stages. Hence, the learning curve is quite steep. The major challenge is in understanding the satellite data. The data we get from satellites are usually reflective and not directly usable. So, when we call out a particular metric, let’s say it reads as the number 7, there needs to be a thorough understanding what that number means in terms of situation on ground. Products and services are usually built around this.
Que: As an industry insider, how do you think the space science infrastructure in country fares and what kind of experiences can people thinking of entering this sector, look forward to?
In India, the Space Science sector is still in its infancy. Yes, in terms of education, the infrastructure is growing, my alma mater being one of them. It is true that many countries outside India have a more robust infrastructural set up, but I don’t think of it as a deterrent. Space Science is such a dynamic field with something new coming up almost every day. Hence, what we have is a pool of knowledge which includes successes and failures. We can learn from these failures and grow the infrastructure. In my years of experience, have noticed that in this industry, most problems need simple and elegant solutions, not complex and over wrought ones. Hence, this approach will enhance our infrastructure.
Actually, the problem statement regarding our infrastructure is completely different. What we need is people putting in the time and effort in analyzing the data that is already present and come up with solutions that are not just profitable, but sustainable as well. Wherever, these people may come from, they need to be able to come up with products and services that is steeped in good research and that will fill a gap in the existing system of things. This itself presents a lot of opportunities for people to explore the space sciences. And as we all know, the effects of developments in space science is far reaching in other industries and sectors as well.
Que: What’s next for you and SatSure?
SatSure is still young and we have a long way to go. We are on the journey of developing and creating a portion of the economic infrastructure of the country, which is a huge task. You can expect big changes as a result of our work. We are going to keep at it and I don’t see it changing for the next 10-20 years at least. For me, I will be a part of this growth to the best of my abilities and as a part of growth there would be new problem statements to tackle, which I look forward to.
Q: Other than than music, how else, do you unwind?
My work doesn’t get unwound so easily and I end up working at home. To be honest I don’t find the need to unwind because I’m not doing somebody else’s work. Creating something new usually becomes your way of life and that creates a responsibility. If I do unwind, then there’s a need for me to wind back up, which is not a pleasant experience. This would also come at the expense of time and resources.
Yes, there are days where I need to unwind but that should be deserved and there should be enough time for that. The way I would unwind is to go for a long ride. Last week, I had to go to Trivandrum for a talk. I took my bike down to Trivandrum, which is a good 14-15 hr journey. I unwound during that ride, irrespective of how the talk turned out. Also, for me personally, tackling new problems helps me unwind. It keeps you in the solution seeking frame of mind, just that the aspect of life that needs a solution is different. So, you get out of the current situation, solve a new problem and when you come back to the situation, you have a new perspective.