Business India, September 17-30, 2001
Indians in Silicon Valley aren't famous just for the big bucks they made as hi-tech entrepreneurs - quite a few have made an impact as technology pioneers
Indians in the United States are down in valuations, but not in value added. Business India celebrated the success of Indian hi-tech entrepreneurs in the US in a special issue at the start of this year. Many of the Silicon Valley millionaires then mentioned fell sharply in net worth after the Nasdaq index crashed from 5,000 points in March last year to less than 2,000 points in August this year. But the downturn also separates the men from the boys. We introduce here three individuals who have pioneered technology and entrepreneurship in diverse fields such as fibre optics, tunable lasers, digital cinematography, optics, biotechnology, microprocessor design and broadband communications and networking.
Through the fibre glass
With his hearty laughter and easygoing nature, the ebullient Dr Narinder Singh Kapany reminds you of a neighbourhood innkeeper. But his appearance misleads. Kapany, at 74, has launched a start-up, K20ptronics, which makes tunable lasers and other components for optical networking. The firm hopes to commercialise products based on state-of-the-art Dense Wave Division Multiplexing technology, patented by Kapany. However, not many people know that Kapany also launched what was perhaps the first hitech Indian start-up in the US in 1960 - when Silicon Valley's poster boy, Sabeer Bhatia, was not even born.
Kapany's unassuming manner does not indicate that he had demonstrated, for the first time SO years ago, that light could be sent through glass fibre. His path-breaking project, as a PhD student at Imperial College in London, led to his being called the "father of fibre optics". "From my high-school days, the idea of bending light around the corner was rattling in my brain," he says. "When I was at Imperial College in 1951 to take an advanced course in technical optics, I discussed it with my professor, who added some ideas of his own and took it to the Royal Society, which gave me a scholarship to do a PhD."
Why the fuss about bending the path of light? The reason is that light normally travels in a straight line. But when light moving through air enters another medium, such as water or glass, part of it bends and is transmitted, while the rest is reflected. When the angle of incidence is more than a certain critical angle, light gets totally reflected at the interface. Thus, if light has entered a totally internally reflecting pipe, it will be transmitted along the pipe, even if the pipe is bent into various contortions. British scientist John Tyndall had shown in the 19th century that light can travel through a jet of water, even if it's curved. This effect is used in fountains, in which a coloured light source at a fountainhead gives the impression that different coloured water is springing from the fountain. However, nobody had succeeded in using glass fibre to transmit light and images. There was even the fear that even if it were possible to pass light through the medium, the signal might suffer a loss on the way and not come out at the other end of the fibre. But Kapany was bent on trying just that.
Born in 1927 in Moga, Punjab, Kapany was brought up in Dehradun where his father had settled after retiring from the Royal Air Force. Armed with a BSc in physics, Kapany joined the local ordnance factory. Here he gained experience in designing and making optical instruments. In 1951, Kapany got the chance to study optics at the University of London, and grabbed it.
Testing his ideas in a laboratory experiment, however, was not easy. He had to get glass fibre drawn. So he went to the then famous Pilkington Glass Company, where he learned how to draw glass fibre to make glass fabric such as fibreglass. The optical quality of the glass was not important to the firm at all. "I took some optical glass (optical glass is pure glass with no bubbles or any kind of impurity) and requested the company to draw some fibre from it. I also told them what I was going to use it for, and they humoured me," recalls Kapany. However, what Pilkington sent a few months later were spools of fibre, made of green glass meant for beer bottles, which was very fragile and almost opaque. "I spent months making bundles of fibre and trying to shine light at one end to see if I could see it at the other end, but no light was coming out. That was because it was not optical glass. So, I had to cut the bundle to short lengths and use strong light from a carbon arc source and finally I was able to demonstrate it in 1952-53," he recalls.
By 1955, Kapany completed his doctorate and was all set for a return to India. However, the Institute of Optics at the University of Rochester in the US drew him. He decided to go to the US for "one year", and this eventually stretched to nearly 50 years. After Rochester, he went to the Illinois Institute of Technology near Chicago to head the Optics Department. "I did a lot of exciting work there for four years, but did not want to live in Chicago, he says, "So, I came to California and started my first company in 1960 called Optics Technology."
Lasers were hot technology at that time. Charles Townes had just demonstrated a Ruby Laser and Ali Javan was building the first helium-neon laser in Bell Labs. Kapany demonstrated that Ruby Lasers could be used for eye surgery. "I made lasers for eye surgery and optical filters and other instrumentation. I took it public in 1967. They were crazy times like we had here in the Valley last year. We were very successful,” recalls Kapany.
In 1973, Kapany started another company called Kaptron, built it up and sold it to AMP. This made optical connectors for FDDI (fibre distributed data interface) "I stayed there 10 years as an AMP fellow and developed a number of new technologies and products for them. I left them a year-and-a-half ago and started the present company, K2Optronics. Last year we got two rounds of funding, totalling $42 million. We are making DWDM components, tunable lasers and so on. We specify what we need and buy the chips and produce very high quality lasers for Metropolitan and Access networks. We have some cutting-edge special designs for lasers, which is patented technology. We have a fairly aggressive programme,” says Kapany about his latest venture.
How does he view the multi-billion dollar industry his inventions have spawned? "In every place a number of friends come up and say accusingly, 'see what you have done,” he guffaws. Kapany has taught in Stanford, Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz, and has published over 100 research papers, besides holding over 125 patents and four books. Besides optics, Kapany is interested in promoting Sikh heritage and culture. His collection of Sikh art has done the rounds in several museums around the world. He is also a patron of the Sikh Foundation in the Silicon Valley, which he founded in 1967. He has generously donated to academia to create a chair in Sikh studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and a chair for optoelectronics at UC Santa Cruz.
Besides playing with light, Kapany's hobby is sculpture, and he has had several exhibitions of his work. Kapany visits India almost every year and is a keen observer of the fibreoptics scene here.
One would think Bala Manian, who lost an eye in childhood in a ghastly accident while playing with a sharp compass from his school geometry box, is limited in his vision. But that would be only physically true. He is probably one of the most versatile entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley. Digital cinematography, optical imaging, bioinfomatics and biomedical instrumentation are his playgrounds. In the last 20 years, he has created seven successful start-ups in as many different fields of technology. Manian who is a mechanical engineer by training, is the closest one gets to an 18th century French encyclopaedist in a Valley full of frenetic people with narrow vision and a QSQT - quarter-se-quarter tak - approach to life.
When Business India met him at his home in the Valley, he was preparing to visit India and speak to biologists and computer science experts here on the new opportunities in creating an information infrastructure for biological discovery. "Today, by the term bioinfomatics, is understood genome sequencing and protein sequencing. Actually it is much more than that. It is pattern recognition. But there are too many people who talk the talk and very few who walk the walk," says Manian, who cannot suffer shallow conversationalists. "I will see if I can interest some people in it. It needs a confluence of understanding, of data mining, pattern recognition, clustering algorithms and biology. The cost advantage of doing this in India is clear to everybody. But I have been away from India for 35 years and 1 call myself an NRI - Non Relevant Indian. For me to assume that just because I am of Indian origin, I know what needs to be done in India in the sphere of policy formulation, is presumptuous. As it is, there are too many people going there and pontificating. However, what needs to be done technologically is very clear to me."
"I want to illustrate that even though I am a mechanical engineer, I did the whole cell analysis. I did not have biology background, but I did not hesitate. People need to shed fear. Also, they need to focus on what they can do better, since there are so many things one could do. The window of time that is available to you in this life is small. Fads come and go, but when it comes to science, the only way to succeed is hard work. If I can make these three points, then my trip would have been worthwhile," he says.
Manian's understanding of novel technologies and their possible commercial exploitation is legendary. In 1978, when he first moved to Silicon Valley, Eugene Kleiner of Kleiner Perkins, the best-known venture capital firm in the Valley, asked him to be a consultant for the firm. When ICICI started the venture capital firm, TDICI, its chairman N. Vaghul, who is Manian's elder brother, asked him to advise TDICI on which ventures to invest in biotechnology.
Manian studied physics in Loyola College, Chennai, and graduated in mechanical engineering (instrumentation) from the Madras Institute of Technology in 1967. He wanted to set up a business, but one of his professors advised him to apply to the University of Rochester to study optics. "But Rochester was more interested in laser physics and physical optics than the engineering aspects. Hence, soon after getting my MS, I shifted to Purdue University for my PhD and became the first graduate student in engineering optics," he says. However, Rochester beckoned him after his PhD to set up engineering optics there and he spent the next four years in Rochester. Meanwhile, he got involved in industrial consulting for Spectra Physics, a Silicon Valleybased firm and developed the first portable laser barcode reader for supermarkets. Manian also did a lot of work for the US spy satellite community in Washington on digital imaging. Besides establishing Manian as a name to be reckoned with in optics, Rochester also helped him get his soul mate. He married Tasneem, a Pakistani pediatrician and both moved to the Silicon Valley in 1978.
At that time, the Star Wars films from Hollywood were gaining immense popularity and set a new dimension in the quality of special effects. Having heard of Manian's reputation in digital optics, George Lukas, director of the Star Wars series and founder of Industrial Light and Magic, approached him to develop new digital special effects technology. That led to Pixar. Manian developed the first three-colour input-output device to take live scenes, digitise them, put special effects, and put them back on film. These effects were used in Indiana Jones-The Last Crusade, The Return of the Jedi and The Adventures ot Young Sherlock Holmes. The Motion Picture Academy, which awards Oscars in Hollywood, honoured Manian with a special award for his technical contribution to digital cinematography during the 1999 Oscar ceremony.
Manian goes to the roots of a technology, sees its possible applications elsewhere, and does not see any borders in his way. This ability to cross boundaries took him into medical imaging. "In those days, CT scan and MRI images had enormous depth in terms of dynamic range. But doctors had to take photographs from CRT monitors, which had poor resolution," he says. "I took the technology that I had developed for Lucas' films and for the army for digital reconnaissance satellites and developed the first laser film recorder for medical imaging. I worked with Kodak on that. I took digital images and printed them directly on film without going through the CRT, so all intermediate degradation in image quality was avoided."
"At the time, I was approached by a new start-up called Adobe, to see if I could apply it in the printing industry. But then Cannon came up with a laser printer, so I saw no point in getting into it," he recalls, "So I focused on medical applications, In 1980 I started Digital Optics Corporation and that was acquired in 1984 by Matrix, which was later acquired by Bayer-Agfa, Gene Kleiner told me that time: 'This is not your first or last idea, so you should go ahead and sell the company: He opened up doors for me, I provided venture capitalists with free consulting. Within two years I found something else to do. I had two ideas in life sciences, and thus started two companies simultaneously. One was Molecular Dynamics, which developed the most successful product, called storage phosphor technology, which is used in radiography. It used a radioactively-labelled phosphor in radioimmunoassay, animal studies of drugs, and also in genetics as a marker. The other company was called Lumisys. It did the opposite of what I did in Digital Optics. I knew wideband communications was coming, so community hospitals, which do not have radiology experts should be able to digitise x-ray photographs and send them to experts through modems. Lumisys quickly captured the market for film digitisers. This is called telemedicine today. Lumisys went public in 1995 and Kodak acquired it in 2000. Molecular Dynamics, which had gone public in 1993, was acquired in 199R by Amersham-Pharmacia Biotech."
Bala started Biometric Imaging in 1993, which was subsequently acquired by Becton Dickinson. Biometric Imaging's technology can make thousands of measurements in a blood sample.
In 1999, Manian came across a technology from MIT and Berkeley (the original work was done at Bell Labs) relating to nanocrystals, which showed that when very small semiconductor crystals developed some very interesting optical properties - they emit coloured light when light is shone on them, just like dyes do. However, while dyes bleach in a short time, nanocrystals do not. This property makes them useful as markers in studying a biological process in situ. "We can send them inside a cell and see what is happening - did the gene get activated by what I am doing, is there a message there, am I able to detect RNA? Is it expressing cytokine, (a small molecule that plays a role in cell-to-cell communication)? If I put a cytokine, is it activating the cell? Now I can put thousands of them in a small bead, which is only two microns (micron is a thousandth of a millimetre) in size, and use it as a sort of barcode and then follow that individual bead. I can uniquely identify that head," says an excited Manian. And that marked the birth of a hot new start-up called Quantum Dots Corp.
Manian, the serial entrepreneur-cum-scientist, holds 35 patents and has about 30 research papers to his credit. "Unlike most other entrepreneurs you have met, I don't go and start companies. I find a solution to a problem then I use a company as a way to implement the idea. Even though I am the chairman of the company, I can go and sit with somebody in the lab and go to the component level in hardware or check the software code. I en joy all that. In a lot of ways my approach to entrepreneurship is different from most others," he says.
All his companies are a driving distance from his home. His main preoccupation now is how to apply the information that science has, to biological discovery. He says science is generating islands of information and likens the situation to a Tamil proverb that says five blind men in a room with an elephant will each come up with differing pictures of the beast, depending on which part of it they touch. "People who work on SNI', proteomics and clinical informatics are looking at different parts," he explains. "I believe the next decade is going to be, not one of new discoveries, but of putting it all together and seeking connections. In order to make big strides we have to shed the Pavlov mentality. We have a tendency to do what is being done in University of Pennsylvania or some other place. Somebody has to break out of this and leap frog either from the clinical side or from the basic biology side. There is a great opportunity to recognise multi-dimensional data and begin to see patterns in it and there is no better machine than the human mind for that. That is how IT and biology have to converge."
His wife Tasneem has stopped practicing medicine and is very active in a support network for victims of domestic violence. Manian is on the board of trustees of the University of Rochester. "I want to figure out how to give back to India in education, instead of sitting here and pontificating," he says. We hope Indian universities, CSIR Labs and the Department of Biotechnology are listening.
The Raza of semiconductors
If one needs an example of enlightened India-Pakistan cooperation in the hi-tech Silicon Valley, then one need look no further than Atiq Raza of Raza Foundries. Unlike Kapany and Manian, Raza is not a pioneer in technology but one of the first to have ventured into the semi-conductor business, taken on giants such as Intel and given Indian and Pakistani engineers a break in his ventures.
"I have been playing a role in the hi-tech industry much before virtually any Indian arrived on the scene," says Raza. "During that time there was a tendency among some Indians who were beginning to move up, to distance themselves from other Indians. They probably thought that it would appear parochial. For me, exposure to Indian professionals had shown that they are very good. So when Nexgen happened, there were enough Indians coming out of IITS and other colleges and from the industry here and they appeared to be the cream of the crop. In Nexgen we made no differentiation between somebody who came from the Indian subcontinent or outside. One of the earliest cases of an immigrant-friendly environment was in Nexgen, Rajvir Singh and Vinod Dham were all part of it. Between 25 and 30 per cent of the engineers were Indian. Many of them have gone up and become extremely successful and have remained very close to me."
"We also created TiE (The IndUS Entrepreneurs) organisation with Kanwal Rekhi, Suhas Patil and Prabhu Goel taking an active role. I was not that active, but I emphasised that there should be no dividing line between Indians and Pakistanis. Whenever a Pakistani came to me, I told them also that we should remain completely united with Indian organisations and that is the way I have operated for the last 22 years in the United States. Most of the people who have known me have seen my consistent stand," he says. Recently, when Arjun Gupta, of Telesoft Partners, a venture capitalist firm, wanted a Pakistani expatriate to partner him to fund a project in Stanford University on how to reduce military tension and nuclear risk between India and Pakistan, he called Raza and got instant co-operation. "I did not fully understand the project until later, but I had enough faith in Arjun's values and judgement and so I signed up," says Raza.
His own value system has its roots back in the subcontinent. His family hails from Allahabad but his father, who was a brilliant radio engineer, though not formally trained as one, had settled in Lahore for health reasons. Raza was born in Lahore and when after Partition the family returned to Allahabad, they saw their home had been commandeered for refugee rehabilitation. Instead of entering into a dispute to get their home back, the family migrated to Lahore for good. Raza studied physics and philosophy simultaneously at two colleges of Punjab University. His interest in philosophy was kindled by his maths teacher in Aitchison College, a many-splendoured personality, who knew Sanskrit and Persian and had read the Upanishads and the Mahabharata and the Ramayana in the original. Raza then went to the Imperial College in London to study electrical engineering.
Unlike most of his peers, he felt obliged to give something back to the country he was born in, and went back to Pakistan in 1972 where he joined the Telephone Industries of Pakistan, Raza worked there for six years, but he saw the social fabric being increasingly taken over by extremists. "The liberal in Raza made him spend his spare time in the slums of Lahore after office hours, trying to help people out. He used to be called "masterji", since he was teaching them how to fill forms or fight for some basic services. But he started seeing Pakistan spin out of control into the hands of fundamentalists and armed groups of all sorts, and migrated to the US with his wife and child in 1978. He joined the University of Oregon and then later Stoanford University, for a masters in electrical engineering.
Soon after his graduation, he joined Synergetics and then Trilogy and later VLSI Technologies. When he was ready to take over as the chief executive officer of the US operations of a European semi-conductor company, Rajvir Singh came to him and asked him to join Nexgen as vice-president, engineering. Nexgen was a pioneering Indian start-up in 1987 in computer hardware, founded by Thampy Thomas. However, its business plan of making clones of Intel 386 processors and making pcs around it was not succeeding. Raza, who grew to be chairman and CEO of the company, changed the business plan. They started focusing on microprocessor design. Nexgen went public and its technology was coveted by another chipmaker AMD, which was struggling against Intel. AMD acquired Nexgen for $615 million in 1995. Raza became the president and coo of hamd and was the prime driver behind its new generation of chips: K6, K7 or Athlon. Their success made Intel see competition for the first time. “The foundation that has been built in AMD is quite solid and will bother Intel for a long time. Andy Grove used to call AMD the 'Milli-Vanelli of the chip industry who were lip-synchers and not singers, but today AMD is very strong,” says Raza.
However, in 1999 Raza had enough of AMD. His long-time friend Vinod Dham had left AMD in 1998 and joined a start-up, Silicon Spice, as CEO. Silicon Spice (it was acquired last year by Broadcom for a stock swap worth $1.2 billion) was trying to make broadband chips. At that point, another start-up was coming into being in the same space. This was called Vxtel, and was funded by Arjun Gupta's Telesoft Partners. Raza too had invested some money in Vxtel. Arjun Gupta asked Raza to run the company, and Raza accepted. "Vinod is a good friend and a highly competitive guy," says Raza. "But I saw that he was burdened with legacy issues at Silicon Spice, whereas we had a clean slate, so I had a better chance of succeeding" explains Raza. Consequently, when Vxtel produced its chips, Intel acquired it in February this year for $550 million in cash. The deal has shown that even in a downturn when many start-ups have shut down, there is demand for high technology. "I had seen what happened in the case of Silicon Spice-Broadcom deal (the stock of Broadcom has slid down so much that the acquisition is valued at less than $200 million today). So when Intel offered us stock and many of my board members were ready to accept it gladly, I put my foot down and insisted on cash," recalls Raza.
Raza has always encouraged other hi-tech entrepreneurs. When Rajvir Singh was trying to raise a million dollars for his Redwood Ventures fund, Raza was the first to write a cheque for $100,000 while being dropped to the airport.
Today Raza wants to set up more start-ups than just become a venture capitalist. So, he has started an incubator called Raza Foundries. “lt has a holding company structure where you not only invest, but support start-ups. We are concentrating on broadband networking communication products. If you ask people in the venture capitalist community, they speak reasonably well of us. We do not incubate companies, but we invest in strong start-ups and then grow them. Cisco has invested $60 million in us, Broadcom $10 million, AMCC $10 million, PMC sierra $10 million, Electralogic $10 million, Siemens and Infineon $12 million. They want an introduction to the companies we invest in and strategic partnership. They would like to have early access to products, and may be strategic acquisitions. We are now treated on par with large corporations in the chip industry," explains Raza.
Going back to his pet theme of subcontinental cooperation, Raza says, “Clearly, we need statesmen and not politicians. Today there may be more statesmen in India than Pakistan. If we build these bridges, and the statesmen establish their vision, most of the differences will disappear. It is the most natural alliance and I was telling Pakistan's ambassador to UN that these 22 years I have not understood the division and I did not understand it when I was in Pakistan too. Every time I run into Pakistanis, I tell them that it is an artificial boundary and it can be at least reduced in its sharpness," says Raza. We say, may his tribe increase.
When the history of high technology is written, the boom and bust of the past five years will appear as a blip. But the contribution made by Indian technologists and entrepreneurs in inventing new technology and successfully commercialising it, will have several luminaries listed. The three we have profiled here are definitely part of that select group.