By Nur Isyana Isaman
Move over 5G Internet speed, Rohit Jha (EEE/2011) and his engineering team have built a laser network to deliver wireless and high-speed Internet at up to 25Gbps without using fibre-optic cables. His ultimate goal is to become the Internet provider for deep space.
But to begin with, he is thinking about how to use his technology for the future to solve today’s problems.
“I came from a small town in India, where I have seen a lot of challenges in getting high-speed Internet to smaller cities and towns, so I wanted to solve such connectivity issues first,” said Rohit. “Our laser communication technology, also known as wireless fibre optics, can be used to reduce the investments from telecom companies and authorities for laying fibre-optic cables in the ground.”
Rohit started his company, Transcelestial, in 2016 to develop the first-of-its-kind wireless laser communication technology. Its Centauri device is capable of transmitting a point-to-point virtual fibre network for a high-speed Internet. Each device weighs less than 2.5kg and can be deployed in less than half a day.
Rohit (first row, first from right) with members of his Transcelestial team.
Transcelestial has already undertaken projects to use their device in outlying areas, ports, hospitals, and the campus of Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore. They are also working with the Ministry of Defence to help secure the country’s borders.
“We have a manufacturing line in Changi, which we jointly run and operate with one of the world's largest contract manufacturers. We also have an office handling research and development in Eunos,” said Rohit.
The Centauri device has so far been deployed in Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines, and the United States.
Rohit’s mission to roll out Internet in deep space by the end of 2024 is making good progress, with a significant milestone to be announced in September 2023.
“We have been doing a lot of background preparation to get us active in space, to gather data and do something that satellites have never done before. In terms of design, research and development, we have been building our software, hardware, algorithm, and patents by considering how our technology can work between two points in deep space. We want to fulfil the future communication needs of civilisation, be it on ground or in space,” said Rohit.
Transcelestial developed the Centauri device to deliver high-speed Internet without the need for fibre-optic cables.
For his ground-breaking invention, he was recognised by the Tatler Gen.T List 2023 as a frontrunner in creating positive impact and shaping Asia’s future. The list honours 300 entrepreneurs, creatives, and young leaders in the region.
Besides Rohit, five other NTU alumni were named. They are the co-founder of VFlowTech, Avishek Kumar (EEE/2010); content creator and musician, Annette Lee (ADM/2015); head of product (Angelhack) at Tribe, Dr Jackie Tan (SBS/2021); marine biologist and co-founder of Our Singapore Reefs, Sam Shu Qin (SBS/2012); and the general manager of FastGig Malaysia, Joelle Pang (NBS/2007).
Innovating storage for renewable energy
Avishek (left) co-founded VFlowTech with Arjun
Trained engineer Dr Avishek Kumar (EEE/2010) has been recognised for his work in commercialising vanadium flow batteries that are capable of storing a large amount of solar energy and can be used to power buildings and villages.
With the help of Energy Research Institute @ NTU (ERI@N), he co-founded VFlowTech with fellow alumni Dr Arjun Bhattarai (MSE/2018) in 2018. Arjun takes on the role of Chief Technology Officer, while Avishek runs the company as its Chief Executive Officer. The start-up is the first and only energy storage solution provider in Southeast Asia to make use of vanadium flow batteries.
“While lithium-ion batteries are a phenomenal technology used commonly in our daily lives through our phones, laptops, and cars, there are certain demerits including performance degradation and thermal runaway,” said Avishek. “When you are powering a building, you need a technology that can deliver a safe and reliable supply of heavy power for a long time, say 25 years - these are some of the merits of vanadium flow batteries, which makes it a technology suitable for renewable energy integration.”
VFlowTech's battery system preparing for deployment
Currently, the vanadium flow batteries provide electricity to the JTC CleanTech One building in Singapore – which houses VFlowTech’s office – using net zero energy. Two major local projects are underway – one at Pulau Ubin, a rustic island off Singapore’s northeastern shore, and another at the industrial area of Jurong Island.
He adds, “Our battery will power some parts of Pulau Ubin round the clock using solar energy. The battery has been shipped there and we are conducting some final tests. Hopefully, we can switch on the battery by next month. We have also collaborated with another local start-up, which collects industrial waste from Jurong Island to make vanadium that will go into our batteries. That promotes circularity.”
VFlowTech’s battery system is manufactured in a Singapore factory, while its research and development are carried out in collaboration with ERI@N. The company will soon expand to a 10,000 square feet facility in Tuas to accommodate the higher demand that the company is experiencing, while still developing its products. It is also currently developing vanadium-based charging stations for electric vehicles.
“Research to keep improving our technology is in our DNA. We have managed to improve the efficiency of vanadium flow batteries from 60% to 70%, which is ground-breaking. Our research and development team also developed an additive, which allows our batteries to operate in hot and humid conditions without any active cooling. The team is now working on newer membranes to help reduce cost,” explained Avishek.
Beyond Singapore, VFlowTech’s battery system, which is equipped with in-house cloud monitoring, has also been deployed in six countries – Japan, Australia, India, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Thailand.
The company is also expanding its operations to Africa. “Approximately 1.2 billion people in Africa have no or limited access to electricity. We have formed a joint venture with Sing Fuels to build and operate micro power grids in Africa, whereby those grids will be powered by solar energy stored in our batteries with 25 years lifetime, to provide clean and affordable power to the people there. Many people in Africa use diesel for power, so our project will also help reduce carbon emissions,” said Avishek.
Rising above tough beginnings
Being the first in their own fields has come with challenges. Avishek and Rohit had to chart their own paths and build everything from scratch. They also had to convince investors and clients to support them purely based on their vision, without any products actually ready, so they could raise enough capital to build their technologies.
“We spoke to almost 70 investors from May 2018 to April 2019. We eventually secured a grant, which we used to build our battery prototype. We took nine months to build it, then the COVID-19 lockdown happened,” said Avishek.
Echoing the frustration, Rohit said, “Our biggest challenge was to change people’s mindsets to adopt our new technology. Another challenge was to find engineers with specific skillsets and mindsets to build something new, so we hired multi-culturally and globally to tap on unique talents. There are about 30 people in Transcelestial now.”
Recounting his days as an NTU student, Rohit said that the university fired his passion for practical innovation projects, which is what he works on today at Transcelestial.
“I have always been a hands-on person and NTU provided me with many opportunities to excel in that, such as the self-driving car project. I truly enjoyed lab lessons, where we had well-equipped facilities and worked in small groups so we could learn from and with each other. I also appreciate that we could take a wide range of minors. I took the Minor in Entrepreneurship, which helped me develop an independent thinking mentality,” added Rohit, who graduated with a Bachelor of Engineering in Electrical and Electronic Engineering.
Rohit (sitting, second from right) and his friends developed Nightingale, an autonomous robot nurse, for their Design and Innovation Project in NTU Year 2
For Avishek, the highlight of pursuing his Master of Science in Electrical and Electronic Engineering at NTU was the strong focus on research.
“Part of my master’s programme was an eight-month-long thesis working on a real-time project to commercialise scientific research into real-world application. The insight and experience of going through that incubation process really helped me. The entire ecosystem is strong, and we could not have been a company today if there was no lab access to build it. We did not have capital and NTU generously helped us to incubate the technology,” said Avishek.
Today, both companies hire staff members and interns from NTU.
Avishek and Rohit have come a long way since they left school and started their own companies, but as movers and shakers of their respective fields, their journey has just begun.
“Our technology is still in its adoption stage, used by early innovators. I think as we do more marketing and grow our company, we will reach the mainstream consumers sometime by the end of next year. At scale, we are aiming for at least 20% of the world's new infrastructure to deliver Internet through Transcelestial's lasers,” said Rohit.
Sharing his aspirations, Avishek said, “I would call VFlowTech successful if we can reduce the use of diesel in Southeast Asia by at least 20%, and at the same time, improve the integration of renewable energy by 20%. In five years, I believe we will be able to power 10% of Africa and be a dominant player in Southeast Asia. We would like to be listed in the New York stock exchange and make us one of the first deep tech hardware start-ups to become a billion-dollar company out of Singapore.”
Avishek (centre, last row) leads the VFlowTech team of 50 staff, including NTU interns.
Photo Credits: Tatler, Avishek Kumar, Rohit Jha.