Saturday, September 16, 2000
M A I N   F E A T U R E

An Indian
Byte at the Silicon Site

It all began in the 1960s when a handful of Indian IIT students went to the USA in search of jobs. The immigration laws changed in 1965 and created opportunities for highly skilled Indian engineers to study and settle in the USA. Slowly, but surely, Indians in America have begun to show their mettle in terms of astounding achievements that left a worldwide impact, writes A. P. Salvi

IN various IT centres of America such as California, the heart of the Silicon Valley, Massachusetts, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles, Indians have proved to be the most successful of the immigrants. More than 6,000 Indian Americans in the Silicon Valley alone have earned India a distinctive place in the IT industry. These Indians include Anant Aggarwal, who developed SPARC chips at Sun Microsystems that drives most of today’s workstations, and Vinod Dham, who headed the team of Intel, which developed Intel Corps top-of-the line chip Pentium. Later, Vinod was with AMD which developed a number of chips that competed with Intel chips. As a large number of Indians and Chinese work at the Silicon Valley, the term ‘IC’ is referred to as Indian and Chinese.


Kanwal RekhiMost of the Indian Americans who have made it big in the Valley maintain links with India. The development facilities set up by them are now coming in handy for the MNCs. Prabhu Goel, for instance, left his job at IMB, and started Gateway Automation Systems on a shoestring budget of $500. Five years later, when Cadence Design planned to set up a subsidiary in India, it bought the firm for $80 million.

Many gained experience in the USA and then put it to profitable use in their country of origin. People like Pradeep Kar, CEO, Microland, who moved to the USA to gather more knowledge on the hows and whys of IT, returned to India to start a leading company in networking and communications solutions. He is also president of the Silicon Billionaires Club.

It all began in the 1960s when a handful of Indian IIT students went to the USA in search of jobs. The immigration laws changed in 1965 and created opportunities for highly skilled Indian engineers to study and settle in the USA. Sam Pitroda, who served as first Chairman of India’s Telcom Commission and is currently Chairman and CEO of World Tel and holds more than 50 worldwide patents, is a household name now. The other big name is Anshoo Gupta, who is today the Corporate Vice-President of the Xerox company. He had joined the company as an electronics engineer in 1969.

Indian Americans began to show their mettle in terms of astounding achievements that left a worldwide impact.

In 1984, Narendra Karmarkar, a young computer scientist working for AT&T Bell Labs, astounded the world by developing alogarithm that is capable of solving incredibly complex problems 50 to 100 times faster than known methods. The mathematical notations for his alogarithm run into 20 printed pages and provide a high-speed, parallel-processing programme involving nearly a million variables.

While New Jersey State has a sizeable Indian population, AT & T Bell Labs, situated in the scenic Murray Hill, boast of having the cream of Indian professionals like Bishnu Atal, head of the Speech Research Department; Nikhil Jayant, head of the Signal Processing Research Department; and Ashish M. Vengsarkar, technical manager, optical fibre research.

Sabeer BhatiaAnother scientist whose research has made considerable impact is Praveen Chaudhary of IMB (Director of Research in Physical Sciences). He headed a team that developed a new ceramic material that is capable of handling 100 times more electrical energy than any of the current superconducting materials. The discovery, according to IMB, is to electricity what breaking the sound barrier was to aviation.

The exciting and fast expanding future of computer technology continued to attract some of the best minds. Soft-spoken Raj Reddy headed the Cernegie Mellon University Robotics Institute, the world’s largest industry centre for robotics and manufacturing technologies. Having done his Ph.D in computer sciences from Stanford University in California, in 1966 he worked on making mobile robots for use in underwater exploration, nuclear research and space manufacturing and handling.

He has been made to serve as Co-Chairperson of the President’s IT Advisory Committee (PITAC) by President Bill Clinton. A member of PITAC since February 1997, he has been its Co-Chairperson for the past two years.

An Indian scientist living in Canada was awarded a US patent in 1996 for his invention, a miniature single monolith chip that could revolutionise the TV and computer industry by replacing the expensive and bulky picture tubes with simple goggles.

K. Nayar, professor of computer science in New York, developed in 1996 a new video camera that can see in all directions at once. Called Omnicam, it can,with the use of a set-top box and joystick,bring any frame in the camera’s view to the viewer screen without parabolic distortion and with normal undistorted linear perspective.

In 1981, Dr Srinivasan a chemist-physicist at the IBM Thomas J.Watson Research Centre, New York, discovered that the ultraviolet beam of the excimer laser, unlike other beams which burn living tissue, caused tissue only to decompose.

Dr Anil Jain, an engineer from Sonepat, belonged to a select corps of entrepreneurs involved with the advanced opto-electronics technology in the USA. In the late 1980s, NASA decided to purchase $500,000 worth of multipurpose scanner devices he had perfected and manufactured in the USA.

A Bangalorean and IISC alumnus, Dr Sitharama Iyengar ran the Robotic Research Lab at Louisiana State University. He and his team designed an intelligent autonomous mobile robot for the Star Wars programme in the 1980s in the Oakridge National Lab, while Harihara Subramaniam Shrikumar, a computer scientist studying at the University of Stanford, built a webserver on a matchhead at costs less than $1.

Guru DeshpandeIn 1994, Arati Prabhakar, an Indian American, was handpicked by Clinton to head the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She holds the distinction of being the first woman with a doctorate from the California Institute of Technology, and is also the youngest director of the institute.

In the male-dominated Silicon Valley, Lata Krishnan is an entrepreneur who pooled resources with Ajay Shah and M Patel to start Smart Modular Technologies Inc. She is its Vice- President and the highest paid woman executive in the Silicon Valley.

Jayshree Ullal, in charge of LAN switching for Cisco Systems and previously Vice-president of marketing for Crescendo, is considered a leading light in her field.

The fine-tuned achievements ring out loud when we hear Indian names like Anil Kriplani, who has been named as Vice-President of Standards Planning and International Administration by Qualcomm Inc, based in San Diego. Another name is Arun Netravalli who became the ninth president of Bell Labs. He is recognised as one of the world’s leading experts in the field of multi-media communications.

But it isn’t just inventions and coveted positions that stand out. There have been a number of achievements in entrepreneurship too, and that is extremely encouraging. What made many of them enterprising was the problem of breaking the glass ceiling for Indian executives to reach higher positions and the downsizing of several firms in the USA. This made some of the Indian employees like Jaggi Tandon, Kanwal Rekhi and Suhas Patil move to the Valley with start-up firms. Vinod Khosla started Microsystems and many Indians moved from engineering to marketing.

K. B. ChandrashekharPeople like Sanjiv Chitra, Chairman of Integrated Process Equipment Corp, who made it big in the Silicon Valley without venture capital,is one who saw a potential in the development of chips by the chemical-mechanical planerisation. Then there is Sycamore Networks’ founder Gururaj Deshpande, who has become a billionaire since his company was valued at over $3 billion in an initial public offering on the NASDAQ stock exchange in the USA. Or take Amplidyne , an obscure NASDAQ listed firm led by a family of first generation Indians, which gained on the Wall Street 224 per cent of its stock value in a single day on September 9, 1999. The technology announced by Amplidyne involves achieving faster wireless Internet access in a situation where speed and bandwidth are said to be the most serious bottlenecks to growth.

There has also been a breed of entrepreneurs who have made it rich by selling their companies to ready buyers like Anil Godwani who sold his company to Netscape, Sabeer Bhatia who sold Hot Mail to Microsoft, Hemant Kanakia who sold Torrent Netscape Technologies to Erricson, or the quartet that founded Internet browser "Junglee" that has been bought over by Amazon. com for a whopping $100 million.

There are people like Kanwal Rekhi, an entrepreneur with a long trail of enterprises behind him, who are actively seeking Indian enterprises to promote start-up firms . The other name is that of Vinod Khosla who made it to the pages of the Wall Street Journal just as quietly as he came to the USA and went on to negotiate big deals and helped many build multi-billion dollar companies in the Valley, translating ideas into reality.

Incidentally, Rekhi is the Director of the Indus Entrepreneurs(TIE), a non-profit organisation set up in the Valley in 1992 to provide a networking forum for South Asian entrepreneurs.

The Silicon Valley chapter of TIE has 100 invitees and 1000 regular members with 25 chapters which include Atlantic, midwest and southern California. It has opened chapters in Banglore, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai, Delhi and Chandigarh with help from NASSCOM. Their aim is to create a chain of entrepreneurs in India for which it is ready to provide capital as well as advise and contacts. TIE has so far floated over 60 start-up firms and Kanwal Rekhi has funded more than 12 of them. The search is on for more.

Kanwal Rekhi who donated $2 million to IIT, Mumbai , wants to see other IITs in the USA raise large funds to breathe more life into IITs across the country. TIE members feel they all owe it to their alma maters for the intensive technical training they have received from them.

The Indian byte into the USA is particularly being led by electronics, IT and knowledge-based enterprises. One cannot forget that Infosys and Satyam have made it to the NASDAQ stock exchange. Another 10 companies are set to be listed on this stock exchange. All these companies want to show that they are internationally competitive and can compete with the best, and be judged by investors as international companies.