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Archive for January 2003

IITB’s KReSIT: Key to future of Indian IT

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First printed in Express Computer

In a nation and industry that’s focused on IT services you hardly hear of companies that dare to be different from the crowd. IIT Bombay’s Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology (KReSIT) is a rare oasis where you’ll find such firms. Abhimanyu Radhakrishnan, Srikanth R P and Stanley Glancy tell you what makes this school so special, and why it is perhaps India’s best ticket to true glory in the global IT scene

As you drive into the IIT Bombay campus in suburban Mumbai you realise that it is the perfect example to prove the adage about lotuses thriving in muddy ponds. The condition of the road outside is a textbook case of all that can go wrong with infrastructure planning, and the pollution and noise doesn’t help. But enter the campus and as a fresh breath of air greets you it seems like you’ve stepped into an oasis.

The lush green environs and sleepy surroundings of the Kanwal Rekhi School of Information Technology (KReSIT) hardly give the impression of frantic activity. One just has to reach the fourth floor of this futuristic building however, to witness the future of technology being rewritten by some of the most ingenious young minds in the world. Welcome to the Business Incubator at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IITB)—the first of its kind in the country.

The Business Incubator idea originally entailed the institute leveraging its renowned academic strength and outstanding industry interface to review business plans submitted by students and pick out those that were conceptually sound and financially viable. The students whose plans were selected were provided with financial and infrastructural support to set up a company that could then work on its products and/or services till it got sufficient funding to move out and make way for the next start-up. The support today includes office space in the Business Incubator, computers and connectivity, and most importantly access to the who’s who of academia and industry to guide these fledgling enterprises.

While the Incubator’s initial location in the Physics Department was makeshift (the KReSIT was initially housed in the Maths department), its beginnings were by no means humble.

Junglee.com founder Rakesh Mathur created history of sorts by funding India’s first campus start-up—Iportia and thus the student entrepreneurship ball was set rolling. Iportia, which later changed its name to Righthalf didn’t exactly take off and after a recent merger with Mathur’s Purple Yogi, now goes by the name of Stratify. Former employee Ketan Pandya, who has just completed his bachelor’s degree from IITB believes that the idea was ahead of its time. “The main concern then was building a user base, which was the currency that VCs dealt in then, rather than actual revenue.” Pandya now works for MyZus, the second campus start-up which met with tremendous success and moved out of the Incubator into its own premises in Powai’s posh Hiranandani Gardens Complex some months ago. MyZus has created cutting edge products in the wireless domain and some of its services have already been implemented by cellular service providers.

Herald Logic and Deus Co Technologies started at around the same time (a few months after MyZus) and made the transition into the new KReSIT building where they are still housed. Herald Logic has been working in the area of reconfigurable software and intelligent enterprise applications. The company headed by Vishal Gupta whose final year project at IITB was the inspiration behind the venture, has developed a host of products and services. That the rest of the world is sitting up to take notice is more than evident. At the last Global Entrepreneurs’ Challenge organised by Stanford University, Herald Logic won the award for the ‘Best Strategy for bringing disruptive technology to the market’ and picked up a cheque for $10,000. The glittering trophy sitting pretty in the office is just the beginning.

Deus Co Technologies on the other hand used a radically different approach. “We decided to adopt an alternative start-up model,” says co-founder Ramashish Bhutada, who was a member of the second batch of M.Tech students to graduate from the KReSIT. “Instead of looking for funding we decided to do some hard core research in computer science for the first two to three years, which is essentially the time frame for a good PhD. The difference however is that a PhD student single-handedly looks at a problem whereas we are a group of people looking at a large number of problems.” While one may think that this approach makes Deus a research group rather than a business start-up in the true sense of the word, the sheer scale of Deus’ ambitions and the fundamental nature of the work being carried out more than justifies the rather long incubation period.

“People say that technology moves fast! That’s absolutely untrue. In the true sense it really doesn’t” says Bhutada whose tremendous passion for the larger issues in the field stands exposed. “In the last four decades of computer science we haven’t been able to create the perfect OS. In the last ten years the only real radical innovation has been the World Wide Web”, he continues. Bhutada contends that unlike the other branches of engineering such as civil, mechanical, electrical, etc., computer science has not got a chance to establish solid engineering foundations. For a large part the commercial application of computer science completely overshadowed its scientific development and as a result almost all the core technologies are yet to be studied thoroughly and perfected.
Kanwal Rekhi (extreme right) and Dr D B Pathak (extreme left) lay the building block for KReSIT

This is precisely the goldmine that Deus plans to excavate now and in the future. Deus is looking to revolutionise the way technology is used in business by developing a layer between existing platforms and applications that will allow one to keep making real-time changes in the system easily, by using extremely user friendly methods such as ‘drag and drop’ for example. They also hope that the complete platform independence and ability to integrate seamlessly with any software will allow companies to combine the presently separate areas of business processing and knowledge management.

The adjoining office has been recently vacated by e-infinitus, who have moved to Pune after securing initial funding from Sicom, the venture cap arm of SIDBI. Set up in October 2001 by final year students of IIT Bombay, Siddarth Tandon and Jayant Bansal, e-infinitus is a rarity in the country’s services intensive software industry, by virtue of being a pure product enterprise. The team has completed work on a new protocol for routers, which will allow ISPs and corporate networks to utilise bandwidth far more efficiently within their existing infrastructure. Both Tandon and Bansal are currently in the US making a pitch for their product that fellow incubator inhabitants tout as a sure-fire winner.

And then you have Powai Labs. Reapan Tikoo, the CEO of Powai Labs, did his Masters in Management from IITB and assembled a team of world class scientists and engineers to form this firm. This newest member of the incubator was selected after a meticulous review of over 200 business plans received by the KReSIT this year.

“The idea, research and product were nearly finished even before we moved into the incubator in April 2002. We will get our funding in the next two months and then move out,” says Tikoo, whose confidence is hardly misplaced considering that just last month he gave a slew of presentations to the bigwigs of the semiconductor industry, including the worldwide head of a European electronics giant. Powai Labs is involved in cutting edge innovation in the field of VLSI technology. Provisional patents are already being filed in the US and Tikoo believes that his team of nine has what it takes to give the major players in the field a run for their money.

Probably the most unusual innovation is occurring in the office of Embedded Robot Technologies (eRT). CEO Randeep Singh was the first ever winner of ‘Yanktriki’—IITB’s unique annual robotics tournament in which robots attempt to outwit, overpower or outperform each other in enthralling techno-combat. Randeep was working on a robotics problem when he realised that vision empowerment would be the next step in making robots more intelligent. An ‘artificial vision software protocol’ became the focus of eRT’s development activities. Initially eRT looked at applications in the toy industry with an eye on the East Asian market, particularly Japan. The business model was simple. A $10 increase in the manufacturing cost of making a toy ‘visually intelligent’ could result in a $100 increase in the selling price. The post-September 11 scenario however, opened up new avenues.

Although eRT is still awaiting funding for their futuristic innovation, Phonologies seems to have no problem on that end. Founded in July 2001 and promoted by Valuepay.com they have an office in South Mumbai along with the one in the Incubator. Phonologies is the first Indian company to integrate VoiceXML and VoIP whilst aiming to be a part of the ‘Voice Web revolution’ by making it possible to access the Internet from any type of phone. Users of this technology will be able to conduct a variety of V-commerce transactions without WAP enabled phones.

“There’s no place like IIT”, says Randeep Singh of eRT with a broad grin on his face. He should know, considering he did his Bachelors and Masters at IITB and is pursuing his PhD whilst running the company. “When I say I’m from IITB and my mentor is Prof D B Phatak, half the pitch is complete”, says Bhutada of Deus. Such is the awesome reputation of the institution and so phenomenal is the networking and reach of its alumni in the industry that getting funding is almost a formality even in the worst of times. “Type microelectronics in Google and you’ll find Dr Madhav Desai’s name right up there amongst the top three in the world”, says Tikoo of Powai Labs who is full of praise for the scientific prowess of his team. “The intellectual environment is sometimes almost too heavy,” claims Bhutada who says that he deliberates with professors at 2 in the morning and advice from experts is readily available. The success of the incubator programme has been phenomenal and all the young entrepreneurs agree that many more are needed all over the country. “The government is sitting pretty with forex reserves. Why? Thanks to software! If they want to continue the trend they have to encourage innovation by supporting ventures such as these,” insists Bhutada. It is rather impossible to disagree. All in all, talking to these future doyens of the tech industry is a heady experience. Not as heady as making a presentation to the CEOs of the world’s top companies, insist these young entrepreneurs.

Bhutada narrates an experience of preparing thoroughly and comprehensively for a major presentation to one of India’s most influential CEOs. “We cracked it through and through. We had answers to all his questions, cornered him on all his arguments and basically proved that we knew exactly what we were talking about. Then he just looked at me and asked, “How old are you?” Bhutada says he grinned sheepishly and replied “Twenty Four”. The CEO stared at him questioningly. Bhutada knew, that for once, he had no retort to offer!

Written by Abhi 2.0

January 13, 2003 at 12:54 am

Posted in Express Computer

Tagged with , ,