mother of unicorns. not a hacker. social distancing since 2018
Greetings, humans. I remote chat this afternoon with Rohit Jha, the CEO & Co-Founder of Transcelestial Technologies, a startup building light speed communications infrastructure for the next 100 years.
Prior to founding Transcelestial Technologies, Rohit has worked on cutting-edge projects in autonomous vehicles, hardware and software engineering projects - including working on secure, low-latency, communication and distributed software systems in financial institutions where he received multiple accolades, one as the youngest Associate in The Royal Bank of Scotland’s Asia Pacific team.
Hello Rohit! How are you coping with our (Singapore’s) partial lockdown situation so far?
Nothing new. Basically ‘University Life’ all over again, except for the serious number of hours spent working on Transcelestial 😃 . Difference is, that was self-isolation and this one is by the government. Although, I’m very saddened by the situation of our friends from India, Bangladesh and other places are in, in the worker dormitories. Hope they are being taken good care of.
Yes, our community cases has really lowered in the past weeks, but the transmission numbers remain high on the foreign workers’ side.
It is more like there were so many attack vectors for Covid-19 and so many possible variations of spreading, edge cases were bound to creep in. It is the same story you see repeating over and over in other countries. When I was studying in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, they were renovating big chunks of our halls so my friends and I have had the chance to go and visit some of these dormitories back then - social isolation is just impossible there.
Given that most countries will start re-opening next month, what is one thing everyone can do to solve this societal issue?
There is no other solution than a medical one. We must work collectively to fund and fast track vaccine trials.
If you look at pandemic propagation and re-attack scenarios, both from historical occurrences and computer models, there are predicted to be waves of highs and lows of outbreak. Social distancing and mask-wearing is like going to the gym before summer break. You do it occasionally, to conform to trend, but if exercise is not part of a daily routine for a longer period of time, one will fall out of habit.
Only a joint funding initiative, injected by the government and executed through industrial-academic partnerships, will help resolve this situation fast and cheaply.
I’ll hope to see our societies jointly working towards this solution, then. I wanted to know more about the stage of development that Transcelestial is in this year. The last we met in late 2018, your product, CENTAURI, was emerging from prototype, into on-ground application?
A lot has happened in a year! Seriously - the last year feels like 2 years! Yeah, so to put in context what we are trying to solve - what we are building is aimed at solving the Global Distribution Challenge in Internet Connectivity. The Internet is delivered to your handphone or computer, or VR glasses through 3 main steps:
1. Undersea Cables - Data hosted in other countries or continents is channeled through massive fiber pipes sitting at the bottom of the ocean. They carry almost 95% of the world’s data.
2. Inter-city fiber - Once these undersea cables come up on a continent, telecoms and governments build 100s of kilometres-long fiber cables to carry this data to large cities and towns.
3. Last Mile Connectivity - ISPs, telecoms, and other companies then take this data and using a mix of fiber and wireless technologies (4G for instance), plug this to cell towers, homes, offices, hospitals, schools, and so on.
All 3 parts of this chain have severe costs and physical bottlenecks which has resulted in more than 50% of the world still unconnected or connected with very poor Internet speeds.
So our wireless laser communication technology is being developed to address all 3 of these distribution challenges for at least the next 50 years of human expansion. CENTAURI is our initial attempt to attack the easiest of the 3 steps - Last Mile Connectivity.
When we last met each other back in late 2018, we had just tested our R&D product with SK Telecom in South Korea, and demonstrated remarkable potential for commercial and technological success.
In the last year (2019), we spent time on:
We launched two models of the product: CENTAURI 1Gbps (for the 4G world & enterprises) and CENTAURI 10Gbps (for the 5G world). We have also expanded to 5 countries in total where we have deployed and tested our technology with leading telecommunications and other partners.
It sounds like a massive undertaking for sure. Were there any fundamental design changes; in using wireless lasers to speed up communication?
It was mostly massive engineering design decisions. For instance, the previous R&D device was a pretty much a ‘giant, heavy Vader helmet’. But as we were productizing it, Step 1 was to make the external aesthetics to be the smallest, lightest design ever made for such a technology, including a design which would instantly invoke a sense of space-age futurism.
This, I think, was probably the coolest part of the external changes. Internally, there were some hardcore improvements in our state-of-the-art laser pointing and tracking system which is a combination of self-learning and heuristics-based methods. Also, major advances in our precision optics, optoelectronics and opto-mechanical sub systems.
Because our team is mainly comprised of ex-space folks - we brought in many techniques used in cutting edge space tech, military tech and academic learnings into in-house calibration and production workflow. Like, how to align optical axis with micrometer precision, so that even when being transported across rough seas and sitting out in typhoons and scorching heat, these systems perform to a micron level of accuracy for many years.
Your team from Entrepreneur First’s (They were in the inaugural cohort, in Singapore) has had the largest seed funding round in Southeast Asia when you started?
At that time - yes. Suspect it probably was the largest seed round for any startup in Southeast Asia, but since then, many have gone on to raise bigger seed rounds. I feel extremely invigorated by this. Deep tech has previously taken a back seat to E-commerce in this region, but seeing such massively renewed interest in deep tech companies with large seed rounds (Kind of a necessity for deep tech companies) is quite commonplace now. I even joined in the round for one of them!
Yes I agree, when we worked together back in end 2018 where I worked with niche or deep tech companies exclusively, there wasn’t much public interest in such applications. Even today, smaller consumer applications seem to get so much more hype than the people building really visionary communications technology.
I think it really boils down to who the investors are, what promises of return they have raised their funds on, what is the risk appetite of their LPs, etc. Take this Covid-19 situation for example. Traditional retail and B2B businesses are taking massive sales hits.
Companies who were confident before about raising $5 - 10 million are now looking for C-notes to keep things going, because there are stories of investors backing out even after term sheets and investment agreements were concluded.
In this period of time, deep tech - and specifically early stage deep tech, it makes total sense to invest in these areas.
1.Most of the money will go into R&D and core tech development.
2. The founders can make better use of that money to get in better talent at cheaper compensation - liquidity of talent is higher too.
3. No real urgency to go out and search for clients for that nasty MRR metric.
4. Price per share is probably going to be lower as founders have lesser expectations of valuation - hence investors can end up getting more bang for buck.
And then there are specific industries which will continue to matter 10 years later even if the world changes dramatically - telecommunications, food, medicine, education, tighter social networks, games, content, energy and transportation. And if you are really really scared that this is the end of the world, then there is an even more perfect industry to invest in - space tech.
Because then if things do get to that point, leaving is the only option!
Space is the final frontier after all. All valid points - I know you will announce your Series A round later this month; was the process largely the same with raising the seed round?
Well, it’s definitely way shorter! Our seed round took 9 months end to end! If it wasn’t for some amazing angels wiring cash upfront, it would have been tough to continue. Fundraising rounds are like different levels in a game. To defeat every ‘level’ and ’level’s boss’, you often need a completely new strategy.
Largely for deep tech, seed rounds are all about trying to convince everyone on 3 things:
1. Can you technically build it?
2. Can you hire the right people to help you build it?
3. Is the final potential market large enough, for instance, at least worth a few billions, if not more.
At Series A, you already have great answers for those. So for a deep tech company the questions are now:
1. Is it really for commercial application yet? If so, what attempts were made for product market fit?
2. Do you have some kind of excel model which explains how you can get to Series B without running out of cash and hopefully by then, demonstrating to your early market that this product is good?
3. How defensible is it?
And of course, there were many learnings from our seed round fundraise that we employed this time. The one which helped save the most time was starting casual conversations with folks you want to raise from, months before you actually want to.
In fact, the first term sheet we got was from a fund who decided to not join in the seed round but we had kept talking to them every few months since then! This is often not understood - or overlooked, by new founders.
👏 That’s really interesting.
Oh one more thing - during the whole time fundraising, I was almost external to the company with Danesh (our co-founder) even taking over most of CEO duties, like sales and other projects. We would have weekly catchups on company progress so i didn’t totally lose touch.
I think in the end after the first 1-2 months, because of just the phase we were in, I still had to plug back in almost 30% of my time. But if you can stay disciplined in total, and have an unrelenting focus on fundraising, you can run a tight, quick round.
Yes, I understood from so many CEO founders that running the business and a venture funding round concurrently was simply not effective.
I mean you hear people saying that fundraising is a full time job, but in reality as founder or CEO, it’s impossible to detach from those duties. So the usual split ends up being 60% fundraising & 40% sales and other stuff. Which just means putting your leg in just another boat. It’s very, very difficult to fully detach and focus. But this is 100% needed. And for that you need a great co-founder, sales team, engineering team and operations team who understands why.
You’re a young founder yourself and this is your first venture. How did you know how to make such a mindset and process change in the first place?
As they say in the novel Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” - the same Internet that we are helping build out also is the largest storage of our collective experiences, wishes, dreams and ambitions.
If you are not good at something or its your first time, usually it is a good practice to read relevant experiences and talk to the right people to understand what it takes to do something efficiently.
Obviously, our seed round investors (Entrepreneur First, Wavemaker, 500Startups, airtree, Michael Seibel from YC, our angels) were a tremendous help in terms of explaining the mindset and preparation needed to undertake a new fundraising round. But also like almost everything, if you think from basic principles, it naturally comes to you.
I also collectively spent more than 100 hours reading general feedback and advice coming out of blogs, interviews, articles, news content of B2B hardware or software founders who have walked the path before me.
A good example which I recommend to a lot of founders is Front CEO’s Mathilde’s retrospectives on her fundraising rounds which has consistently been very tightly run. Eventually it boils down to having 1-1s with Danesh (our co-founder) on the upcoming course of action, and us both discussing on the best way to do it, the Vulcan way.
🖖 Live Long And Prosper. Which one in your team is the Spock of Transcelestial?
Haha, I don’t know. Maybe Max? (An Engineer in the team.) Spock has been so many things over time that its difficult to pin down his personality. In the Star Trek original, he was very much Spock the science officer - calm, composed, wise, emotionless mostly, but empathetic. In Star Trek Kelvin Timeline, he is much more passionate and risk taking and adventurous, A-type personality. In the new discovery series he is the lone genius type with hero complex.
So it seems that your journey as a lonely, fundraiser person is coming to an end, synchronizing with the re-opening of offices, from our earlier partial lockdown status due to the pandemic. What is one of the first things you plan to do when the lockdown ends?
Eating dumplings from the Michelin-reviewed Smith Street Food Court dumpling and noodle shop!
From Transcelestial’s perspective, we actually had anticipated a lockdown like this. So 2 weeks before the start of the original period, we had started discussing how the hardware engineers could continue working from home and stay productive.
What the team has been preparing for mainly is to kickstart mass production of our current CENTAURI models. Good old ‘economies of scale’ is the best way to bring the prices down for a new technology. So next week onwards, we start setting up our major production line for our first mass-produced CENTAURI devices.
Also, we have tons of projects overseas which have been on halt due to various travel bans. So we have some extremely busy deployment schedules coming up this month and the next 2-3 months with our regional telecom partners.
Finally, we are working on hiring, and an office move. We are ramping up our business teams to scale the product market fit. So if you know about some great offices with discounted pricing, let me know! We’re going for the industrial high ceiling, trendy lair vibe!
Chinese dumplings with noodles are always delicious. Sure, I would love to help to grow Transcelestial again. I’ll catch you later in the month then!
As long as we wear masks and maintain social distancing!
Singapore, July 3 2020 : Transcelestial Technologies, a Singapore-based startup building the future of Internet Distribution, today announced that it has closed USD 9.6M in Series A funding, co-led by EDBI, a Singapore Government investment arm, and Wavemaker Partners.
Disclosure : I am consulting for Transcelestial Technologies currently.
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