4 minute readVivek Lall leading new RIL tech venture

Dr. Vivek Lall, who was heading Boeing’s Defense, Space and Security unit in India is now leading a new technology venture being set up by Indian industrial giant Reliance Industries Limited (RIL).

Industry sources have informed StratPost that Lall, who joined RIL two weeks back, is reporting directly to the Chairman and Managing Director, Mukesh Ambani. His brief is to stand up the new venture, which will focus on technologies like advanced materials and advanced communications systems, that are likely to have a bouquet of applications in the homeland security, aerospace and defense sectors, not to mention spin-offs into other areas.

Although the immediate intention is not to necessarily produce complete products for these sectors, the underlying idea is to conduct fundamental research and development, and effect partnerships with companies around the world to bring these basic critical technologies to India, along with the associated knowledge and skills.

The purpose of this is to create capabilities in India that would be necessary for any meaningful and genuine indigenous development and manufacture of equipment and services in these sectors.

He is currently putting together a business plan and a core team to take the project forward, and has cast a wide net to snag talent, especially capitalizing on his time spent in the US, including at the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Significantly, the new enterprise will be based in Gurgaon, near New Delhi, and not in Mumbai.

In setting up this company, which has not been christened yet, RIL seems to have done things differently in two important ways. Firstly, the recruitment of new talent to drive the project forward rather than depute existing RIL leadership and executives for the task.

And secondly, this is in contrast to the existing approach employed by many other Indian industrial majors that are the usual suspects queuing up to conclude Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) with foreign companies in this domain, as their ticket into the defense sector.

Indian companies are known to end up manufacturing minor components for their foreign partners, which have the primary objective of merely fulfilling the letter of their obligations for defense offsets.

About Vivek Lall

Lall began his technical education at Canada’s Carlton University, where the dean told him to ‘Get a social life’ after he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. It appears he’d spent too much time working on circuits.

Undeterred, he then conducted research on single-engine blades for Canada’s National Aeronautical Establishment. With his father, an Indian diplomat, posted to Panama during Noriega’s time, he moved to Florida’s Embry Riddle Aeronautical University. Like his old dean, his parents too hoped he would get social at Daytona Beach. Instead, he earned a Master’s degree in Aeronautical Engineering, more interested in the ‘effects of acoustic oscillation on carbon particles’.

During his master’s work, he took up a summer job with Eastern Airlines. Ironically, the airline packed up soon after he joined.

People who’ve known him for a long time and have followed his career to Boeing in Seattle say he seemed to have ‘run out of gas’ when he moved from Florida to Wichita in Kansas, where he received a fellowship to do his PhD in aerospace engineering and modeling.

At Raytheon, also at Wichita, he worked on the Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS) Beechcraft T-6 Texan II and once had to sit, shivering, in a green King Air aircraft, holding up two mikes for acoustic profiling. He learned to fly in this period and also worked on various disciplines at the NASA Ames Research Center.

Before he finally joined Boeing on September 17, 1996, he attempted to ‘negotiate a salary’ but was gently reminded with which company, he, a neophyte, was attempting to do so.

He worked on computational fluid dynamics and air elasticity and loads and dynamics for the 757-300 aircraft. He moved from engineering to management and later, the CEO of Boeing Commercial Aircraft (BCA) Allan Mullaly, now the President and CEO of Ford, put him on his seven-member Technical Excellence Team.

He also found time be the President of the Mathematical Association of America

Lall was appointed Managing Director of BCA in India in 2003 and was part of the team responsible for the USD 11 billion deal to sell 68 aircraft to Air India in 2005, till then the single largest order in Indian aviation history and the largest BCA order that year.

He became Vice President of Boeing Defense, Space and Security in 2007, one of the few Boeing employees to have worked for both the commercial and defense units. Since then, Boeing has been contracted to supply eight P-8I long range maritime aircraft, with indications that an additional four are also on the way to being ordered by the Indian Navy.

The company has also supplied the 737-based Boeing Business Jets for VIP transportation to the Indian Air Force (IAF) and has been contracted to supply Harpoon anti-ship missiles for the IAF’s Jaguar aircraft. Boeing is also waiting to receive an order for ten C-17 heavy lift aircraft and is competing in tenders to supply the IAF with 15 heavy lift helicopters, 22 attack helicopters and 126 fighter aircraft.

When asked how he explained his productive run at Boeing and its success in India, he once told this reporter, “The products speak for themselves. People like me can only screw it up.”

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