Business India, January 24-February 4, 2001
Thinker, teacher, soldier, sailor: Paul Raj
Rarely does one meet a personality with as varied an accomplishment list and as interesting a career path, as Prof A. Paul Raj, of Stanford University. When his name was suggested to us by another academic at IIT Madras, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, we dashed off an e-mail expressing our intent to meet him. We asked for an appointment, giving a brief outline of our purpose. We got a reply that said: "I am not sure whether I fit the profile of the people you are trying to meet. I worked for almost 25 years in the Indian Navy, now I am doing research and teaching at the EE department of Stanford University and have just done a startup called Gigabit Wireless (now renamed Iospan Wireless) while I was on sabbatical."
Our naval contacts said: "Oh Paul Raj, he was a most unusual whiz kid." Naturally, our antennae were up with curiosity to meet this off beat entrepreneur. When we met him, Paul Raj dropped names, accomplishments, career changes, patents and so on in his staccato narration of a fascinating story. It was so incredible, that we had to check with all sorts of sources to confirm various parts of the story, which we had heard sitting in a Palo Alto restaurant. Needless to say, it all checked out and we gladly admit our own ignorance in the subject.
Paul Raj joined the Indian Navy through the National Defence Academy and completed his engineering degree from the Naval Engineering College at Lonavla. Since the degree was not recognised in those days by various non-military engineering colleges and IITS, it was not possible for him to pursue higher studies. The naval brass, however, were impressed and, as a special case, sent Paul to IIT Delhi in 1969, for a MTech.
However, after the M-Tech, Prof P.V. Indiresan of IIT Delhi, encouraged him to do a PhD. But the navy said no. Then, in the 1971 war with Pakistan, battleship INS Khukri was sunk, torpedoed by a Daphne class submarine at close quarters. Clearly, Khukri's sonar had failed to detect the attacking vessel. Khukri was sunk at around 1 am in the morning. At 6 am Paul was pulled out from IIT Delhi's campus and taken to Mumbai to see another ship of the same class and figure out how the Sonar failed. "I was very theoretical those days and even my thesis was in stochastic communication theory. But still I said that the sonar could be improved," says Paul. He worked on the problem at IIT Delhi and improved the sonar system by using techniques of digital signal processing. Bharat Dynamics manufactured it and put it into all Naval ships. It became a major success for Naval R&D.
"Then British Naval R&D invited me. There I discovered that India had given a majors Sonar contract to some British and French companies. I also found that we knew more about the system than they did. I told the navy that we would do it on our own. Between '77 and '82 we did a major project. Today, INS Delhi, INS Mysore and all other modern ships have my Sonar. In 1983, Indian Sonars were more advanced than American sonars and the CIA was very worried about whether we were selling them to the Russians. For shallow waters, it was the best in the world. It was unbelievable that we went from zero to there."
At that time, Paul got an offer from Prof Tom Kailath of Stanford University, a doyen in control systems, to teach in Stanford for two years. Paul finished the assignment, honed his research interests further and went back. "I was asked to start the Centre of Advanced Robotics and later the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC). Meanwhile, I also built two labs for BEL. I started CDAC'S Bangalore centre to develop software. My view was: 'Let us not publicise too much.' I also felt that building a parallel computer using transputers was an M-Tech project. What we needed was software for parallel processing without which we cannot use it, either for weather prediction or computational fluid dynamics. Because of these differences I left CDAC," says Paul.
Since he had already retired prematurely from the navy to join BEL, Paul was free to pursue his academic interests. In 1992, Paul joined Stanford as a faculty member. Here he switched to wireless. Today, his group at Stanford is recognised as a leader in wireless technologies in the world. It has done pioneering work in spacetime coding and modulation of wireless data.
"Our technology, in which I hold the principal patent, is called MIMO (multiple input multiple output). It is a huge multiplier. It is like Wavelength Divisional Multiplexing (WDM). Just as WDM lets you shoot more data through different wavelengths, in MIMO every additional antenna gives you more bandwidth. We started Gigabit Wireless to develop broadband wireless access. Using our technology in fixed wireless, it will provide 5-15 MBps bandwidth in a radius of five to ten miles. This will be way ahead of 3G," he adds. Iospan Wireless, formerly Gigabit Wireless, has 50 PhDs in a team of 150. Two major customers for Iospan are Worldcom and Sprint. The product is expected to ship in June 2000.
Paul Raj is a good friend of the Nambiars of BPL and is on their board. He is also trying to help the Navy by bringing in Naval students to Stanford. "The Navy is like a strong family, you can never forget them," says this partsailor, part-teacher, part-thinker and part-tinkerer.
Clearly, Paul Raj is a man of many parts.