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  Meet The Techpreneurs
  India’s new breed of technology entrepreneurs is opening new frontiers in consumer Internet, wireless and semiconductors

Nelson Vinod Moses

Read Ink

Thomas O Binford chairman and CTO,
Read Ink

At 70, most people prefer to put their feet up, relax and fade into retirement. That just won't do for Thomas O. Binford. A professor in Stanford University's computer science department for 30 years, Binford decided to commercialise nearly four decades of research in image analysis, artificial intelligence and computer vision by launching his own company, Read Ink.

He shifted lock, stock and barrel to Bangalore in 2002 and set up R&D operations there. Till now, Binford has sunk close to $8 million of his own money into the venture. Read Ink is building document analysis and handwriting recognition technologies, using complex algorithms based on systems analysis, machine learning, artificial intelligence and signal analysis. Binford has recruited about 20 engineers (mostly from the IITs and other premier engineering institutions) to engineer the products. The first two products are scheduled to be out in a month.

Binford is gung-ho about the sales prospects of his offerings. “Our products are significantly better that what the competition is offering at present. Read-Ink's product is more accurate, has a lower error rate, by a factor of 10. In automating forms processing, it lowers cost by a factor of 10.  For mobile devices, its accuracy passes the threshold for user acceptance, ” he says.

In an environment where pen input based devices are ubiquitous, highly accurate handwriting recognition has become the most important element of the user experience. That's where Binford's creations come in handy. The automated systems work on varied writing styles and still manage to maintain very high levels of accuracy. Read-Ink's products recognise handprint and cursive handwriting for mobile
devices and paper forms.

The company is already in talks with a few customers. These include mobile devices firms, third party vertical market developers, hardware vendors, enterprises and BPOs (data capture, health care claims, financial, records).

So far, he has had a good experience of doing business in India. The cost of starting a business here is 50 per cent cheaper than in the US, and talent at the entry levels is relatively easy to find, he says. “Retention was a problem initially because not everybody believes in a startup story. We seem to have that under control, but there are still issues with finding talent at mid and senior levels.”

Read Ink's primary target market will be the US, but Binford would be happy to get a few customers in India as well. Having sunk in all the seed and early stage investment, he would like the company to reach critical mass before seeking VC investments. Considering the pace he's keeping, cash should be around the corner.

Atlantis Computing

Chetan Venkatesh founder and CEO,
Atlantis Computing

Chetan Venkatesh was top geek in his hometown Bangalore's Army School. And after multiple cities, three startups and many failed attempts to work for a company, Venkatesh is back in his hometown with another startup in the SaaS (software-as-a-service) space. His management team consists of another geek from his school Martin DeMello; the technical team is manned by Kartikeya Iyer, Bernard Kerckaenaere and K.P. Krishnamoorthy.

At 30, Venkatesh is already a startup veteran, having dropped out of college to start his first company. He has big ambitions for his latest venture, Atlantis Computing, which aims to deliver cost effective on-demand computing (or hosted application model) on a global scale. 

In the traditional application service provider model, the user or enterprise pays a one-time fee for software licences and forks extra money for upgrades later. In the on-demand model, customers pay a monthly fee to access software applications with no initial investments. In this case, applications are accessed via a web browser and do not rest on the customers' desktops or servers. “We believe that the way we compute (technologically and economically) is ripe for disruption simply because computing today is not inclusive,” says Venkatesh. “The benefits of IT don't reach everybody.” 

Atlantis' grand mission: To develop the planet's leading computing fabric and leverage it to deliver software applications, storage, connectivity and collaboration via the Internet to everyone, everywhere.

To achieve the goal, Atlantis will deliver two things: In early 2007, an on-demand computing service for the consumer and SOHO (small office home office) sectors. This will have a stack of desktop, work group and personal productivity applications, accessible over a web browser integrated with storage and collaboration. Two, in late 2007, it will introduce application delivery network (ADN) which will provide an end-to-end software hosting platform that can transform and deliver any software application developed for any technology platform into a web consumable service. 

The ADN will be designed to support millions of con-current (simultaneous) users at any given time. The ADN is similar to AppExchange, a model introduced early this year by Salesforce, the world's leading ADN. The platform allows for independent software vendors to post their applications online and market to prospective customers.

Helped by angel funding and early stage investors, Atlantis Computing developed the infrastructure for its two services and deployed its SaaS ADN globally.

Atlantis is banking on the networking power of its board and advisory members for partnerships in the US and the Europe. It is also betting on Mentor Partners, a Bangalore-based startup advisory outfit, to help shape its technology and market development efforts. In India, Mentor Partners is led by Ravi Narayan (founder of startups such as Nextone, American Systems International (ASI) and Astuto Networks) and Prabhakar Valivetti (co-founder of RelQ Software). The US team is headed by Rosen Sharma (co-founder of VxTreme, which was acquired by Microsoft, Ensim, Teros, which was acquired by Citrix, Green Border, Teneros and Solidcore).

Atlantis is also in the process of appointing a senior executive as president to spearhead its marketing and business development efforts.

Atlantis' SaaS stack for the consumer and SOHO space is ready for tests and validation. “In the next quarter, we would go to trials with 2 leading global telecommunication players, each with substantial SMB customer bases in the US and Europe,” says Venkatesh. 

If its offerings can deliver what they are promising, Atlantis could be competing with SaaS giants such as Salesforce.com and Webex for a global market worth $6 billion and growing at a furious pace.

Cosmic Circuits

Ganapathy Subramaniam
founder and CEO,
Cosmic Circuits

In the semiconductor industry, the most rarified space belongs to that of analog design. Even in a hi-tech driven country like the US, only 500 engineers are estimated to have specialisation in this area. Sensing the big opportunity in this edge-of-the-wedge realm, Ganapathy Subramaniam along with C.Srinivasan, Krishnan, Prakash and Nagaraj quit Texas Instruments India (TII) and co-founded Cosmic Circuits in 2005.  

Subramaniam, who is now CEO of Cosmic Circuits, was earlier director for mixed signal technology products at TII. Before he moved to India, Subramaniam headed the WLAN (wireless local area network) silicon development division at Texas Instruments, US and managed five global centres.

Cosmic Circuits' leadership team has a cumulative experience of 65 man years and has developed 40 analog design products till date. These include critical circuits required to drive the power management chip for a cell phone or an MP3 player. The company has intellectual property (IP) in products such as battery chargers, white led drivers, switching converters, linear regulators and precision references. It has also developed an analog front end for video and graphics ICs (integrated circuits).

So far, Cosmic has not had a problem finding customers. The first customer signed a large business deal without even meeting anybody from Cosmic in person, says Subramaniam. Cosmic also has been lucky to snag clients in Bangalore itself rather than scouring for them in the US. “Many of our potential customers visit India for several reasons and hence the opportunity to meet them is very high in a city like Bangalore,” adds Subramaniam. “We have a local sales partner who works with us closely to promote our IPs.” Currently, Cosmic's 12 customers are in the US and Asia, ranging from big semiconductor companies to startups in California.

Since Cosmic relies heavily on IP and licensing technologies, innovation forms an important part of its business. The company has filed four provisional patents till now and aims to end the year with 12. Claims Subramaniam: ”We are the only analog IP company which has the full set of power management IPs in 0.13um technology. Our power and die area (performance metrics in the semiconductor industry) are usually 60 – 70 per cent of our competition. Most of the customers are coming to us for differentiated IPs. On video AFE (analog front-end), our power is the bench mark in the industry.”

Having seen a good first year of operations, Cosmic is now creating analog front end products for the Wimax and WLAN markets . “ Cosmic wants to be known as best in class analog design company in the world,” says Subramaniam. “Currently, the products we have created are creating attention worldwide—even top semiconductor companies in the world are licensing our IPs. In the pipe, we have a total of 10 IPs which are ready to be licensed.”

As funding, Cosmic got a term sheet from a VC in Silicon Valley in the initial stages. The founders decided against taking the money and instead ran the company with their own funds. As of now, they see no reason to look for funding and seem happy to manage the company with internal accruals. But with a revenue target of $25 million by 2010, it might be difficult for Cosmic to push ahead at full steam without a bit of VC-funding.

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