India's Mars Orbiter Mission: The frugal innovation

Updated: Oct 25 2014, 12:59pm hrs
MarsISRO scientists did all manoeuvring with great skills. They pre-programmed its entry for which the command was in the satellite itself.
On September 23, 2014 (Tuesday-Mangal in Hindi) night, Indias Mars Orbiter Mission (Mangalyaan) successfully reached the position from where it was to enter Martian orbit. It had travelled 10 months, covering a distance of 420 million miles (661 million km). Hitherto Mangalyaan was on the set course. The challenge, now, was to insert it into the Red Planets orbit. This required accurate calculation of distance and the determination of the exact time and the point at which to insert the spacecraft into the orbit of Mars (gravity about 38% of Earths). Even a fraction of a seconds delay or advance would have meant failure. The task became more difficult as Mangalyaan at that moment was behind the Moon and, thus, was not visible from the Earth.


ISRO scientists did all manoeuvring with great skills. They pre-programmed its entry for which the command was in the satellite itself. They had no other option than to wait with fingers crossed. The entire team, along with PM Narendra Modi, who was present in the control room, jumped with joy when the Earth station in Australia relayed the message that Mangalyaan had successfully entered the orbit of Mars. The feat, executed with immaculate precision, was the result of a frugal innovation.

India not only became the first country to reach the Mars in its maiden attempt but also spent the least amount of money. The mission cost $74 million (R450 crore), less than the cost of making the movie Gravity ($100 million). The cost of some other Mars missions (see table) establishes it as the cost leader.

Mangalyaans cost is approximately one-tenth of the $670 million that NASA spent on its Maven explorer. European Space Agencys Mars Express orbiter cost about $386 million, while Japanese exploration mission, which failed to enter the Red Planets orbit, cost more than double that of Mangalyaan. Russias Phobos-Grunt, which failed to leave the Earths orbit, cost about $117 million. Chinas Yinghuo-1 Mars orbiter also failed to leave the Earths orbit.

One can argue that such comparison of cost is not justified, as the cost incurred is in a different currency and that the manpower cost also makes a difference. ISRO minimised expenses through several innovations. It used relatively small rockets because of the low designed, engineered and procured scientific payloadabout 33 poundscompared to Mavens 143 pounds.

ISRO relied heavily on launch technologies it had previously used to propel satellites. The mission was carried out in a very short timea year from the date of approval. The mission is a marvel not only in space science but also in project management. All aspectscost, schedule and quality (meeting project objectives, goals and output)have been met with excellence (Mangalyaans all five payloads are working perfectly). The Mangalyaan team consisting of 14 members has set a benchmark in project management, which calls for close coordination between every functional area management.

Mangalyaan, no doubt, gives many success mantras to scientists and technologists; at the same time, it has messages for management practitioners. First, innovation management, the sutra for success in the 21st century. Innovation can be in any walk of lifescience, technology, education, business or governance. Gone are the days of core competence propounded by CK Prahalad. He himself revised his proposition stating that core competence of an organisation will be copied sooner than later in the present competitive world. He stated that the only core competence an organisation can have is continuous development of capability to innovate. Innovation has many hues and colours. Incremental, modular, architectural, disruptive, grassroots and frugal innovation are some of them. Whatever be the nomenclature and the type of innovation, it results in competitive advantage through product differentiation or cost leadership or a combination of both. ISRO has convincingly proved that it can develop capability for innovation of both types, though cost leadership was the focus of Mangalyaan.

Business leaders need to learn how with a shoestring budget a difficult task can be achieved. If space scientists can do it, surely social scientists can do too. What is needed is frugal innovationan approach that consumes minimal resources, yet yielding the desired results. Such innovations are based on the approach of minimalism (Gandhian approach). Prahalad and Mashelkar (2010) offered a succinct definition of frugal innovation as doing more with less for more (people). Mangalyaan is a glowing example of this. Entering the atmosphere of Mars with a plan of orbiting for around six months and collecting scientific data at R450 crore translates into a cost of only R4 for every Indian. Think about it, even travelling in an auto rickshaw costs R10 a km.

Frugal innovation is proving to be a nightmare for many western organisations but there are a few pioneers of this phenomenon in India, ISRO being one of them. These organisations design inexpensive products and manufacture them with little capital. The cycle from concept to proof of idea is quick. Some others do it at such a high scale that their prices go down drastically. For example, 1 cent for a 1-minute telephone call, $30 for cataract surgery and $2,000 for a car. These are the lowest cost products/services in the world. Such frugal innovations in India resulted in the creation of the Global Research Alliance consisting of nine countries with a missionGlobal Research for Global Good.

India has a shortage of capital, technology and talent, but not entrepreneurs. In our country, they have no other choice but to think and act beyond accepted wisdom. A variety of constraints coupled with the Indian entrepreneurs ambition have ignited a new genre of innovation. Such innovations are more evident in India compared to other parts of the world, especially the developed world. Smart Indian companies have come up with new technologies and radical business models to penetrate the countrys mass markets. They have done this by transforming almost every element of the value chain, from supply-chain management to recruitment, and creating novel business ecosystems.

Though the Mangalyaan is primarily a demonstration vehicle, it is a great leap in space science, innovation and management. The remarkable thing about its success is that it was made entirely with home-grown technologies. The craft itself is a great example of frugal innovation that India has shown to the world. The satellite cost only $25 million (Rs 150 crore); the rest of the budget has been attributed to ground stations and relay upgrades that will be used for other ISRO projects. The success is sweeter considering that only the US, Russia and the EU had successful Mars missions so far, but 60% (30 out of 51) of all previously attempted missions have failed in the first attempt. ISRO scientists have done it; it is high time Indian politicians create brand India and the Indian business creates the made in India brand through frugal innovation.

Arun Sahay

The author is dean (Research), Birla Institute of Management Technology