Dr. Kumar Ganapathy graduated with a B.Tech. degree in Electrical Engineering from IIT Madras in 1987, receiving the Siemens Gold Medal. He went on to complete an M.S. in Electrical and Computer Engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst in 1989, then a Ph.D. in the area of computing architectures for Digital Signal Processing from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1994. By 2013, he had co-founded two successful start-ups (VxTel and Virident), which were both acquired for a combined net worth of over $1.2 billion. Dr. Ganapathy has over fifty patents along with twelve research articles. He is a recipient of IITM’s Distinguished Alumnus Award for the year 2016.
What made you choose Electrical Engineering as your major at IITM?
Electrical Engineering department is one of the prestigious departments at IITM where my uncle was a professor. I wanted to remain at Chennai, so given my All India Rank of 575 in IITJEE 1983, choosing IITM Electrical Engineering was a clear choice for me.
Any memories of IITM you would like to share?
The best memories at IITM are with friends. I had a lot of deep relationships built during my time here.
In our first year, the courses offered by the physics department were quite tough. All incoming students are usually very good and come from the top of their high school class, so physics courses made us struggle bringing our egos to the ground level teaching us to fight and be resilient. That was a great memory.
The electrical department had a number of amazing professors and lots of good memories there. We used to mess up our experiments for B.Tech projects (semiconductor area) which upset the graduate students. They were working on their PhD thesis very hard and seriously, but the undergraduates took it casually and had fun. Some of professors were famous for their difficult exams – again they test not just our electrical engineering skills but also our ability to cope with pressure.
I represented IITM in gymnastics in the inter IIT. Gymnastics was one of the easier ways to get into inter IIT team. We also played hostel football regularly which created many lasting bonds with hostel and wing mates.
Friendships are the best memories, I would say.
Was it an obvious choice for you to pursue research in Electrical Engineering after your graduation?
Yes, it was. But I switched my field later. I worked on Electronics in my later part of my graduation. During my PhD in University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, my work was inclined more towards Computer Science and Engineering. I worked on array processing, DSP algorithms and architecture. After my Ph.D, I worked in Rockwell semiconductors for 5 years designing DSP chip sets in cell phones, ADSL modem where I became a Technology Fellow. After that I have been a technology entrepreneur for the past 18 years. I have been working on start-ups for a very long time.
Can you tell us more about your famous start-up, Virident?
Virident was the most recent start-up I worked on. It took 7 years from start to finish.
We mainly focused on storage for enterprises. In 2006, when iPhones first arrived, we used the same memory as the iPhones and built fast storage for new web properties such as Facebook, Linkedin, eBay as well traditional enterprises. In 2009, when there a stock market meltdown due to real estate crisis in the United States our company Virident almost died. But, we managed to get through the tough periods, and successfully pivoted and rebuilt Virident products. Virident was acquired by Western Digital for $685M in 2013.
What motivated you in becoming an entrepreneur?
I am an accidental entrepreneur. When I was a fellow of Rockwell semi-conductors, I pitched my idea to the vice-president of the company. However, in a big company it’s hard to get your voice heard, and my idea was not pursued considering the risks involved. I decided to take a chance as I had a deep understanding of the DSP technologies that were critical for VOIP market, and knew a few venture capital investors who had worked with me.
What does it take to start a start-up?
To build a start-up, you need good ideas, a strong and trusted team, and take the plunge to work hard. Things go wrong all the time – success depends on grit, resilience and problem solving capability at many levels – people, product engineering, market, customers.
In Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship is a way of life. In the Bay area, you can recruit people who understand every aspect of the ecosystem. They understand how to work in a start-up, how to build a complex product, how to market and sell products as a start-up against large incumbents. This magic combination of venture capital, expert talent and risk-taking is what makes the Bay area unique and has helped me in my entrepreneurial journey.
Any ideas for students who are interested in starting a company?
The first thing needed to succeed in a start-up is the integrity and trust of the team. Especially coming from IIT background where everyone is intelligent, but you need to build a world class team to succeed in new emerging market opportunities. To work cohesively in such a smart team, the trust of all the team members is essential. Also, you should pick an idea and space, where you have unique skills or knowledge, which is changing rapidly with inflection points that enable small startups to succeed quickly.