Interview with Jagadeesh Kanna
Tell us a little bit about Vaayusastra and what prompted you to form the company.
Vaayusastra is a startup funded by IIT Madras to teach children and college students aeronautics. There were four things that I identified as gaps with regard to aeronautical sciences and these are what led me to start the company.
The first is knowledge transfer to children. If a child is interested in aeroplanes, where can he/she go to learn more? This was something I faced as a child as well, I didn’t find anywhere to learn even basics until after I finished school. This is a gap we fill here; we offer training based on age and have a curriculum that starts in Standard I and goes on until Standard XII. We don’t teach in a theoretical or formula based way. The students learn holistically and through theatre arts.
The second gap that I felt was there was no knowledge transfer to college students. Again, this comes from my personal experience. Everything I studied was theory based and focused on examinations, without much practical/industry based knowledge. You can even use a paper plane to show how pilots control an aircraft but I didn’t find many people teaching in non-traditional methods. So I designed a programme for college students where they can learn everything hands-on, like how to build an engine, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle), drones etc. We have a 3D printer and we use it for these purposes.
The third thing that I found in my personal experience was the lack of information and guidance with regard to careers for students who have completed their BE or ME in this field. A lot of people end up teaching after their PhDs simply because they don’t know what options are available to them here. After IIT funded us, I have contact with the CEOs of the other startups funded by IIT. I’ve gotten in touch with them, asked them what skills they are looking for in people they want to hire, train people and send them to those companies as interns or employees. Basically, we’ve been trying to bridge the gap between companies in the field and graduates looking for jobs.
The last thing that led me to start the company was my experience as a theatre artist. In 2013/14, I left my full time job as an R&D engineer to become a theatre artist. I experienced how difficult it can be to survive because you simply don’t make enough money sometimes. I wanted to see how I could support theatre artists and provide a living for them as well. This worked well as it tied in with my idea of using stories and other methods to teach aeronautics.
The company started out with just me, but now, after two-and-a-half years, we have around 15 engineers and more than 30 theatre actors. We have reached around 30,000 children, out of which 1000 are a part of regular programmes and all of this has mainly been through word of mouth.
Why theatre and science?
I’ve had two trainers in theatre – Krishnakumar Balasubramaniam (KK) and Yog Japee. When I first joined the Little Theatre in 2009/10, I could barely speak English. That’s where I met KK, he was the director. I could dance well so I was selected. KK tried a lot to train me to speak. In 2011, I had one dialogue in English but still wasn’t confident enough to deliver it on stage. Then I auditioned with Theatre Y, which is where I met Yog. He told me that I was thinking in Tamil and trying to speak in English. He asked me to perform in Tamil. That was a huge breakthrough for me. In 6 months, he transformed me – I was comfortable with improv and even writing scripts. I realised how much power the theatre had, to transform. I went from being an introverted boy from Tanjavur who couldn’t speak well, to performing and writing plays. I wanted others to feel the same way and this stayed in the back of my mind.
After I left my job in 2013, I wasn’t sure what to do. I contacted TLT and Theatre Y, and told them I wanted to do paper plane workshops for children. Yog suggested I add some stories to it. I was doing the paper plane demonstration, Yog was helping me and saying the story of Dedalaus and Icarus. I was teaching them to fly like Icarus. The kids loved it and wanted more. I started doing more of these for other theatre companies.
Another friend suggested I look at IIT for funding. I didn’t know anything about running a business when I went there; they gave me a model. The funding came after a very low point in my life, where I nearly quit everything and went back to Tanjavur because I wasn’t earning much. Halfway there, I got down from the bus after a call from a producer about a script of mine and things started looking up after that. After the funding and being given a space, I called some friends from my Masters and asked them to work with me. I couldn’t pay them for the first four months, but they still came and are with me even today. I had to practice writing scripts so we combined theatre and science.
Then parents asked how this would be useful for school. So I started looking at various curriculums and took aspects of physics to see how I could bring them into aeronautics. So the children study school level science but from an aeronautical perspective. Classes are taught by aeronautical engineers and experienced theatre artists. The concept became incredibly popular, I remember we had a 100 registrations overnight and had to book 3 halls! We’ve also started a branch in Coimbatore inside Bharathiyar University. Work has stopped because of Covid-19, but we’re hoping to resume soon.
This whole company came about because I was passionate about aeronautics and theatre and didn’t want to give up either one.
How has the company coped with the pandemic?
We had zero traction in March because of the pandemic – everything we do is hands on and obviously, that couldn’t continue. Luckily, IIT had given us a grant in January so we had enough to pay people and continue for two months. And because of this cushion, I also had the mental space and confidence to get a bit creative. Every startup at IIT is provided a journey mentor. Ours is Mr. Ravichandran and he suggested going online through live sessions. I was initially against it but he insisted. So I started reading about different scientists and realised that all of them had a defining moment in their lives that triggered a spark. Inspired, I started a 10 day workshop that is moderately priced where we tell stories and make a small model with them, like a paper plane. The response has been incredible; we’ve had around 1800 children between April and September, and from 8 different countries, which was very surprising. We designed more stages and now we have 99 stories. The kids who joined in March are still continuing. After Level 8, we converted them to the Vaayusastra Young Research Group and now, we make them do presentations every week, either alone or in groups. This way, we also work on team building and presentation skills.
What are your current projects?
Air Science Programme – this is a 3 month course for Grades 1-9. The curriculum is graded for different levels. After Level 5, they get to build things like cube satellites, UAVs and drones. This is on the weekends. Triggered A Spark – this is a 10-day module that happens on weekdays. We are able to do this now because schools are online. Programme for college students – for engineers from any of eight domains other than aeronautical. Any engineer, if they’re passionate about aeronautics can sign up for this programme. It is also reasonably priced so that it is more accessible. Rise to Sky – this is for ages 5-7. Online module not effective at teaching science for this age. So the focus is more on story telling, with a little bit of science at the end of each story.
If you would like to know more about Vaayusastra and their various projects, here are their contact details and social media handles.