#17 Rohit Jha of Transcelestial on Transforming Communications Technology and Maximising Your Personal Impact

By Nasos Papadopoulos, EF Head of Content

Rohit Jha is the Co-Founder of Transcelestial, a company developing a laser communication solution to replace existing wireless communication technology.

In the next decade 3 billion people and 50 billion devices will come online – but the global infrastructure we have in place at the moment isn’t sufficient to provide the required speed and flexibility to manage our needs as a planet.

And that’s where Transcelestial comes in – they’re developing the fastest, long-distance, point-to-point wireless communication network possible.

This will be delivered as a space data network for terrestrial and satellite applications, which will use lasers to transfer data at up to 1000x faster than what’s currently available.

Rohit met his co-founder Danesh on the first day of EFSG1 and since then the two have never looked back, going on to raise a seed round that included some high profile investors. 

Rohit earned a degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering from NTU and worked in the RBS FX Electronic Markets Team on low-latency communications and highly scalable software systems before joining EF to start a company.

In this episode Rohit and I discuss:

- His fascination with space and how his upbringing influenced his choice to become an entrepreneur
- How Rohit met his Co-Founder Danesh on day one of the first EF cohort in Singapore
- How Transcelestial built their first prototype after a brainwave in a pub before Investor Committee

Rohit and his co-founder Danesh are building the definition of a globally ambitious company and it was great to dig into some of the stories behind the startup as well as getting an insight into the future of communications technology – I certainly learned a lot from the conversation and I’m sure you will too.
 

EPISODE HIGHLIGHTS

Why I Joined EF

Why I Quit My Job in Finance to Start a Company

How To Juggle Demo Day Prep and Fundraising Effectively

How My Early Years Shaped My Path to Entrepreneurship

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT

Nasos: Rohit, welcome to the show.

Rohit: Thank you so much, Nasos.

Nasos: 03:52 It’s great to have you on. To start things off, tell me a little bit about Transcelestial and how what you're doing is going to change the world.

Rohit: 03:57 Just to kick off, a bigger version of what we're planning to do is that we want to build a space laser network. Now that sounds a bit evil, but the idea is to effectively put around 300 or more small satellites and orbit around the planet. These satellites would communicate using lasers between themselves and between satellite to ground.

The reason we're using lasers as a form of communication is to effectively give a thousand to a million times jump in data speeds and bandwidth of what's possible today.

In today's world, there's a couple of reasons why we need something like this to happen. For the first three months of the program in EF, we spent a lot of time effectively talking to more than 200 people. In a calendar you could effectively see back to back meetings and calls all the way until late nights. We'd talk to people from all different industries like Delco, aviation, marine, space and all kinds of financial sectors where I come from.

They all are having issues with data. Different kinds of issues, but it's all pertaining to bandwidth and the need for data connectivity.

When we talked to all these guys, there are some stats that we came across. One of conversations on Facebook was that more than 50% of the world is still unconnected and that's a huge implication on us.

In the last two years, the human civilization has generated more data than all of human history combined and that's a staggering number. In the next five years, we are going to have more than ten times the growth in data and that's going to mainly come with machine-to-machine kind of communication, IOD, AI, self-driving cars, and that sort of stuff.

So what's happening is that there's a huge load on the existing infrastructure. The current undersea cable infrastructure, which supports most of the internet connectivity, is extremely expensive to lay. You can spend more than half a billion to a billion dollars to effectively lay a single cable. Then we talked to all these cable companies, who said there's no business use case anymore to actually do that for the new countries and new continents.

That's where we decided, “Okay, the technologies they're talking about can actually very quickly with minimal cost, bring that amount of high bandwidth connectivity to everyone on the planet and that's what's driving us.”

Nasos:  06:14 I want to dive into your plan to take over the world in a little bit. But before we go into that, talk to me a little bit about your sort of passions growing up. I know you read a lot of sci-fi and you went to a school when there was telescope on the roof. Do you think you were destined to be a space entrepreneur from a young age? Talk to me a little about all of that.

Rohit:  06:33 No, I don't think so. My school was very weird and quite awesome, actually. We didn't have a very fixed curriculum and it was a Jesuit school for boys run by a bunch of father's and priests. These guys would rotate out every two years and would come from all corners of the globe. Our library was an insane collection of physics, maths, computers, art, history and religion and you could just read and explore as much as you wanted.

Somehow one of the three or four trades doubled up as the culture of the school. One was math, physics, astronomy and computers. Pretty much everyone was involved in all of these kinds of things. That was the kind of culture I grew up with.

I wrote and saw my first game at the age of 12, which was very awesome. I made some money - a really small amount. But that was mostly because I liked games, I really wanted to be an astronaut when I was growing up and I really liked tinkering with electronics.

That has stayed consistent through time. The other thing that I experienced growing up was the fact that there's a big lack of internet connectivity within the city that I was in. I remember this very vivid memory where my brother and I would effectively go to the library with a huge number, two to three pages of search requests written on a paper and we would get allotted 15 minutes with a computer and we'd just crunch down on it. I think there was the search engine called Lycos and we would just search on that. When the 15 minutes was over, we’d print all of that stuff and go out.

The reason that memory is so vivid is the fact that it's the first time that I really experienced the power of having access to all the information in the world. And somehow that theme has stuck on. Even my job at RBS was looking at under seen cable connectivity, high frequency trading and things like that.

So that kind of theme has stuck with me and that's percolated through to what we're doing right now.

Nasos:  08:40 Let's talk about RBS a little bit. What was your experience like there and what you made you jump and decide to become an entrepreneur?

Rohit:    08:47 RBS is now called NatWest Markets. They were NatWest and then RBS and then back to NatWest. It was great. I loved my team, I loved my manager, they were the best, smartest guys to work with, pretty much everyone was a director or a VP so when they hired me I didn’t know where I belonged on the team.

But I quickly started making a lot of impact in the company as well. Looking at issues that no one would look at effectively -  things like a bunch of security issues in the logging stack which impacted the entire organization effectively. It was not my role but I would pick that up. I also started looking at a lot of the under seen cable infrastructure, routing and things like that. It was a very exciting job. I would work from six or seven in the morning to very late in the night.

That's part of the job of working in a bank. But what happened over the four years was I realized that there's something that I use as a personal framework, effectively to project myself 50 years in the future, and say, “Hey, when I'm that age and I look back, I should have seen a life that's been fruitful. I should have seen a life where I have contributed back to the society in terms of the talents that I have picked up, like since the very young age.”

I didn't see that happening at RBS, and that's when I made a call. The work and the team were fantastic, but the kind of impact I wanted to have was very different. I was asked to move to the UK to take up a better position but I said, “No, that's it, I'm going to quit.” And then I quit, I spent a year off picking up more advanced physics effectively and then after that, one of my mates from the Barkley's desk effectively joined our EF's batch in London. James, I think he’s in EF5.

He said, “Hey, EF is coming to Singapore, why don't you go and talk to Alex?” And that's how things started.

Nasos: 10:46 Here in Singapore it was cohort number one so it was bit of a risk for you to join. What persuaded you to make the leap?

Rohit: 10:54 Well, I was out of a job at that point and they were offering $5,000. But apart from that I think one of the biggest things was, that there were two things happening at that point. I had started talking to organization as a breakthrough initiative.

This organization was a 100-billion-dollar initiative started by Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and the late Stephen Hawking. What they wanted to do was very cool. They wanted to send vapor-sized tiny satellites to another star system, alpha centauri, which is four and a half light years away. There's a lot of technology in terms of proportion, in terms of communication that's needed to be built for that. And that was a project I was really excited about because that's going to push the boundaries of everything that we think about.

I started talking to the guys there and then I realized, “Okay, I want to do something in this area.” One of the big problems in Singapore or in general in entrepreneurship - I think that's where EF's thing comes in - is that if you are a technical founder, it's very difficult to find another technical founder who's equally as driven and motivated and you can say a bit crazy like you as well.

You will have a lot of technical friends but more than often, they are not motivated enough to take the thing all the way through. It was at that point in time there was something which I really liked about EF. I was thinking of joining some kind of accelerator or incubator or starting a company already, and I knew EF would be a good chance for me to meet with someone who was actually really good at the deep technical stuff. I met Danesh the very first day.

Nasos: 12:25 Let's go into that. So the first day? I believe you had your first round of introductory talks. You’re upstairs on the third-floor balcony, you started chatting to Danesh. What happened and what made you think, “Hey, I might actually want to found a company with this guy”?

Rohit: 12:39 It's kind of interesting. EF has something like the kick off weekend before the whole thing and the thing that they keep repeating all the time is that it takes on average two and a half breakups to actually get to a company. I was like, “Okay fine, so I'm going to discard the first two that I meet and probably the third guy,” going by probability.

On the very first day what happened was that when I joined the cohort, I was really good at software, as well as everyone else. Everyone was talking about IOD and I was like, “That's such a dry topic. I don't want to do that.”

And I was looking for someone because of the conditions for the breakthrough initiative. I wanted to talk to someone who had more of a physicist kind of background. I went up to Alex and I was like, “Hey, is there anyone with a physicist background with lasers or graphing or something like that? And he said, “Yeah, go and talk to Danesh.”

So I pulled Danesh around and we went to the balcony and then I just started telling him about the breakthrough initiative. Nothing about the company or anything like that. We just started on the spot brainstorming about a proportion technique to effectively take us there.

 That went on for two or three hours and I think we skipped a couple of sessions after that, while that was going on. We were like, “Oh, screw that.” Later on I found out that Danesh had exactly the same mindset. He kind of saw a bunch of computer scientists and he was looking at something which was not like generality. He has an amazing background in research and he wanted someone with him so that we could work on something really meaningful.

Both of us saw that person in each other. We saw the person who would kind of sit with you and if you bring up something crazy like traveling to another planet, taking pictures and sending laser bullets back to our sun and then focusing using gravitational lensing. The other person would sit, do the calculations with you and then would come up with a business idea.

The other thing I liked about him was that he was one of the very few PhD's who was super business-minded. I don't know whether it comes from Persians, with him being Persian and all Persian's are like that, but and I think that's kicked off everything.

Nasos:  14:58 So now let's go into the first version of the Transcelestial prototype.  Building space laser technology is certainly not something that you can do in one day but you had a very interesting first attempt before I see, to show perspective investors. How did the idea come about and what did you build for them?

Rohit: 15:16 That's a good question. I think as I said, the first three months were all about talking to people and figuring out the market fit. As I said, we started off thinking about how we're going to get lasers from alpha centauri all the way to our sun. And then get it back to our planet. And we had our space station at work idea by that time.

IC1 came up and that's where half of the companies get kicked out. Ideas which are not really good and won't make money. And you're like, “Shit. We can't make any of this shit with the $5,000 that we're getting. So what the hell do we do?”

Naturally, like anyone else we went to a pub to drink away. We were sitting at one of the pubs here and one of the things that happens if you go to Clark Quay here, is that all these ex-convicts or people who are not doing well financially, come around selling key chains and laser pointers. While we were sitting there, I think Danesh bought a couple of them feeling sorry for the guy. We were like, “Hey, let's make something that's super easy and can demonstrate laser connectivity to everyone in IC1.” This was the Friday of the weekend before and IC1 was on Monday.

So we went back to the lab after that, and what we effectively made was a laser pointer, a five dollar one which connects to your phone and you play a song, you press the laser and on the other side - let's say across the road where you can see the other person - someone's holding a speaker with a solar panel attached to it and as long as you point the laser to the solar panel, you get high definition music out of it.

That was awesome. I think we spent hours and hours just finding the longest stretch roads and seeing how far we could stretch it. The thing is that it's an amazing prototype and we showed it obviously in IC1. The whole thing was built together on $15. And that got us our first round of precede funding effectively.

It's such a good thing because it was a very low investment thing, a $15 thing, but it demonstrated two very critical aspects of it. One, the power of how you can send it out across lasers, and the second, the problems with it, which was the longer you go, the more difficult it is to very accurately point the laser because of the shaking and stuff.

That's exactly the problem we're trying to solve, is the core IP that we're developing at Transcelestial is the ability to point lasers at three to 400 kilometers when the satellite is moving at 7 kilometers per second. That got us a fundraising. We still have that prototype like kept in an ice glass kit.

Nasos: 18:12 Yeah, hopefully it's going to be worth a little bit of money in a few years.

Rohit:  18:16 I hope so. We're going to sell it for a few million.

Nasos:  18:20 Talk to me a little bit about demo day for you. Right now we've got the third Singapore cohort preparing for demo day next week, and you were just chatting to me now before we started about how you felt.

How did you feel before? What was the experience like and how do you now put it into context being older, wiser and more experienced having a few more months of running a business under your belt and the realities that that brings?

Rohit:    18:44 I think one of the things that happened is that most of the people that joined the program are coming from an academia background or they don't have that much of a business experience – at least in Singapore that's usually the case. What happens is that with six months under the EF belt, you have this really good team of people helping you with everything and you kind of get nurtured into all of that.

Demo day is kind of where reality strikes. On average people spend a lot of time preparing and we did a lot of time, preparing of the pitch of the demo day. But the reality is that the more important thing starts the day after demo day, which is effectively starting to fundraise for your company.

As I said, there were difficulties in the deep tech. Before this there were difficulties in raising for deep tech in Singapore before when we were doing that. And that reality hit hard once we started going out.

But it's so much fun preparing for demo day. It's crazy because you have been nurturing this idea for six months, just to a few bashing it out together and all of a sudden, you're putting it out in front of more than a hundred people and these are investors who've seen all kinds of weird shit. And then you have to convince them that what you're talking is sane and can also make money. You're absolutely sure it will make money based on absolutely zero evidence at the moment.

It's tough but it's so much fun. There's a huge amount of adrenaline rush that happens a few days before that and on the day itself. But what I have learned - and I keep recommending it to people in EF2 and EF3 who have come to talk to me and Denish after that - focus pitch on demo day is good but focus a lot more on your fundraising deck, fundraising prep, and thinking about how your business is going to look like. Don't expect EF, SG08 or anyone else to help you.

At the end of the day, it's your company. They will advise you, but you have to do the groundwork effectively. So that's something you would've known a bit earlier.

Nasos: 20:55 For sure, one of those lessons that you have to learn from experience.

Rohit: 20:57 Yeah, yeah.

Nasos:  21:07 We've been speaking about a little bit of product market fit, a little bit of fundraising, and I'm interested to know how you've been going about your hiring process. But more generally, talk to me about how you see start-up advice. Obviously, there's a wealth of content on the internet, and loads of books about it but to an extent, you're not really going to know the thing until you fully experience it.

So how do you navigate all these new challenges? How do you learn on the job, but also take advice at the right times?

Rohit:   21:35 I try not to read up on stuff like that. I think I mentioned it to you before that there's so much advice out there and I think a lot of the times this advice is very specific to how a founder or an investor has gone through in that particular situation.

A lot of the time the use cases and the stories that come out are success stories. You don't get to see the crappy version, the people who fail, the scar tissue that was accumulated effectively. And I like to do that. So I go and talk to friends and people who have failed in either hiring or have failed in fundraising, or have failed in something else. When you have done something successfully you often don't go back and have a retrospective, saying, “Oh let's sit and analyse what went right.”

But when you do something wrong, you have months and years of self analysing of “What the hell did I do wrong?” I think you can learn a lot more from that kind of stuff. There are very few things in literature which actually do that. I think one of the books is Andy Grove's, High Output Management, and that's a very good book. It talks a lot about failures and I think Ben Horowitz’s book as well. There are very few books that talk about that and I encourage my co-founder and a couple of other people that I know that read that kind of literature more.

Nasos:  23:00 What hiring mistakes are you looking to avoid when you're picking people for the team? What kind of things have been going through your head? What process have you been trying to set up to avoid making the mistakes that you see in other people before speaking to the them?

Rohit:    23:11 I remember during the EF program and even after that, there were a few areas where Danesh and I have really passionate discussions about and one of that is hiring.

We often say there are two main things when you start a company that you'll think about. One is: should I hire someone for an immediate need? This is the thing I need, someone to write a C++ code, let me hire a C Plus, or you know that you're going to nurture this person’s career. Should you hire for someone, okay he's not really good at this stuff but he can pick this up and do that stuff in the future. That's something which is like a chicken and egg problem for every single start-up, not only us.

There are a few benchmarks that I've picked up along my life and I think this is all thanks to my time in RBS and great leaders that I had the privilege to see in action, build a really good team. One of the things that we really focus on during interviews, is that anyone who comes in reduces the entropy of the company effectively. By entropy, I mean the disorder in the system. So that's one of the key baselines that we need to have.

Anyone who comes in needs to raise the average output and the average intelligence of the company. At the end of the day it's all about the people. The product might not work out in a few years’ time, but what will work out is the capability that you have built within the team itself. These are the two main things. Personally, what I look for is that whoever I've hired, my last final thing is that I ask myself, will I ever work for this person? If the answer is yes, I usually hire the person, because that basically gives me an indication that I'd be comfortable working for this person, that this person would be comfortable working for me and vice versa, if things arise.

Nasos:  24:57 Sure, get a rule of thumb to follow. To finish up with, I want to dive into your motivation, your drive for doing what you do a little bit. Obviously a start-up, as everybody knows, is not an easy thing to do. There's a lot of ups and downs.

Rohit:    25:09 Yeah.

Nasos:  25:09 What gets you up in the morning? What keeps you driving forward when something goes wrong? You have to keep going back to the drawing board. And have you had a sense of that changing over time since you've been running Transcelestial?

Rohit:    25:22 No, not really. I think the thing that gets me up in the morning is mortality and I think I've mentioned this previously. It's kind of crazy that we go around in our lives without thinking about how much time we have left. I've seen some of the most successful people have that thing has been number one.

Our life is so unpredictable, you could have another ten years, or you could have just another minute to live. What that means is that tied in with my framework of, “Hey, when I'm 50 years old I need to minimize my regrets.” That tied in with this defectively that every day that you get up, you need to make sure whatever talent and whatever knowledge that you've built up over the last couple of days, weeks, months and years, you can cram all of that in and give it value on that particular day. Whether that's getting a deal across, whether that's your new product, or the vision of the company. That translates to the business bit as well. Traditionally, people have goals of six months, one year, two years, five years, ten years of company growth. We only have two things: we have around six to twelve months of the immediate business stuff that we're going to do and then we have a twenty-year vision.

So that tomorrow even if myself, Danesh, any of the managers, or anyone's not there, that company culture still survives. The motivation to keep pushing towards that vision of building a high bandwidth communication network for the next 50 to 100 years still exists and that basically drives pretty much me and most of my team every day.

Nasos: 27:05 That's an awesome note to end on. Rohit, thanks so much for coming on the show, it was great chatting with you.

Rohit: 27:09 Thanks for having me. It was nice to be here.

 

 

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