Strong infrastructure a must to market MP as IT destination: Avinash Sethi

India’s software industry is reaching its adolescence and facing challenges from several directions. While the main appeal of quality and low-cost service remains in place, price does not remain the only issue now. Customers are demanding more sophisticated services from their Indian outsourcers.

At the same time multinational competitors like IBM and Accenture have been nipping at their heels. With easy gains becoming a thing of past for the software organizations here Debashish Chakrabarty talked to Avinash Sethi, co-founder of Indore based software firm Infobeans to know the challenges a middle-sized company based at MP faces.

An Electrical Engineer from SGSITS, Indore Avinash began his stint with Tata Consultancy Services as a trainee. In 1998 he joined Intel Corporation, Oregon. The very next year he returned to Indore and launched e-Infotech along with his friends Mitesh Vohra and Siddarth Sethi, fulfilling the dream of building a software services organization of their own. In the year 2000 e-infotech was re-introduced as Infobeans.

Tell us in brief about Infobeans and its products. How would you classify the products and services?

Avinash Sethi
Avinash Sethi
InfoBeans is a dream conceived by 3 young enthusiastic entrepreneurs during their college time. We are a web-based solutions provider catering to the corporate needs of Fortune 500 companies.

It took shape in the US, where all of us were working there and wanted to do something together for Indore and at Indore. While working for our respective companies in the US, we started AaapkaIndore.com, a web portal dedicated to Indorians all over the world. Since its inception this e-Commerce portal has been immensely popular with the NRI community and helps them in staying connected with the pulse of Indore. Our other products include QGen, a questions paper generator software and RMS – a resource management system aimed at small and medium corporate.

As of now, Mitesh is taking care of all business development activities of InfoBeans in the US while Siddartha came back to Indore in 2002 to help the company get on the fast track.

What technologies is Infobeans currently working on? Is it easy to find trained manpower in these areas?

We have been working on varied technologies involving .Net Framework, J2EE and XML technologies for client server and web applications as well as Windows CE and Blue-tooth environment for wireless applications. It is certainly not easy to find right candidates in above skills in Indore. Recently we had to hire candidates from Hyderabad, Chennai, and Mumbai in order to meet our growing needs.

As a long term solution to this scarcity of quality manpower we are planning to offer training focused on industry needs. This would be open for everyone who is interested in learning from experts in the trade. This is based on our belief that the skills that our company has gathered over the years should be shared with budding software engineers of the city. Our training programs would assist them in getting acquainted with the real world problems in the software engineering space.

Talking of your portal, how do you evaluate the challenges in terms of the size of Internet advertising market in India and bandwidth issues?

At aapkaindore.com we learnt to face the challenges of constantly changing customer requirements and maintain ease of use with increasing complexity while keeping the security implementation in mind. Internet Advertising is not that significant in India owing to the low Internet usage. Internet does not come that cheap and at the same time it is hopelessly slow. Bandwidth thus would be the next step in Internet revolution in India. Ample bandwidth is a must if one intends to meet the growing needs of users.

Performance of most of the IT companies last year, including the top players like Infosys, was insipid if not dismal. How tough is it for medium sized companies like yours to survive in these turbulent waters?

It is equally tough. A distinct edge that we have over large corporations is that we can address changing client requirements quickly and efficiently. Our customers work with us because we are always there to help them in their hour of need.

Many domestic software players have got into the business process outsourcing domain, does InfoBeans have any plans to follow suit?

Yes we have plans to venture into BPO. We shall float a separate division as it’s a different business altogether.

What sets InfoBeans apart from its competitors?

Our vision – Customer’s success defines our success. We want to go beyond just customer satisfaction. We want to help our customers succeed in achieving their goals.

Your marketing base is in US while the workforce is based here in Indore. So how does the information flow in terms of data and material happen?

Internet! It is such a wonderful channel for information flow. In case of urgency the telephone is always there. Visits to the US are also required for requirements gathering, client interaction, and product deployment.

What advantages and disadvantages does Indore have for a software development company?

Talking of advantages I might include a peaceful and friendly social environment, low cost of living and a good telecom infrastructure. Among disadvantages – scarcity of trained manpower, poor power infrastructure and lack of IT initiatives both from Government and local IT forums.

How do you compare the IT initiatives of MP Government to those of other state governments say Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka? What are your expectations?

Nothing compared to what you see in Bangalore and Hyderabad. Indore can become a IT hub. To do that, the government must market MP as THE IT destination while providing uninterrupted power supply, direct transport connectivity with major IT cities in India and by building state of the art IT park.

Tell us something about your growth plans, investments proposed and any interesting upcoming project.

We have identified three areas of growth for InfoBeans for next 2 years: Software services, BPO and IT Training. Presently we are working on a Conference Management Tool for Deutsche Bank. It is going to be used in huge conferences hosted by Deutsche Bank around the world.

Lastly, your comments on the current Indian IT scenario.

I’m positive about the overall IT scenario. India plays a significant role in global IT outsourcing and would continue to do that for decades to come. Post 9/11, IT spending was adversely affected. Today, almost two years later, both global and US economy seems to be back on track. Companies are looking at IT as a growth driver and IT spending is again looked at as a wise investment.

BPO is the next big thing that is catching up fast in India. That is another IT opportunity that would generate employment for millions of college going crowd. In cities like Bangalore and Mumbai a graduate in any stream gets to the tune of 10-15k per month as starting salaries in call centers. No other industry can offer this kind of salaries and glamour to a non-professional graduate.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 14 July 2003]

Redefining course with open source

They sure have difference of opinion. Open source has been “evil” for Microsoft. Then they acknowledged that it was a problem for them. Now Steve Ballmer is on record saying :

Innovation is not something that is easy to do in the kind of distributed environment that the open-source/Linux world works in…our customers have seen a lot more innovation from us than they have seen from that community.

On the other hand, Sun Microsystems seems to have learnt few lessons. Paul Andrews informs that Sun and Oracle have thrown “their collective weight behind the inexpensive x86-based (Intel chip and clone) servers running Linux or Sun’s Unix-based Solaris”. He further adds:

Sun wants first of all to make sure it loses none of its well-heeled clients to IBM, a big Linux supporter, or to Dell Computer servers running the hated Microsoft Windows. Second, the alliance would like to lure as many Windows-based businesses to a Sun-Oracle solution as possible.

The alliance indeed seems formidable.

Madhya Pradesh government committed to embrace IT: Kay Brown

It seemed promising earlier too but India began capitalizing on this new buzzword only in 2001. Flustered after the dot com carnage Bio-informatics was the next big thing for the VCs. And their decision has never been more apposite. The biotech industry in India touched $2.5 billion in 2001, and is expected to proliferate to a $20 billion industry by 2005. Among the leading players in the field is a company from Indore, which has been in Bio-informatics “from its inception.” Among incessant debates over the ethics of human cloning, manufacture babies using genetic engineering Debashish Chakrabarty asked Ms Kay Brown, founder of Indore based Apticraft Systems, about Bio-informatics, her company and her future plans.

Ms Brown received her Master’s degree in Mathematics from the University of Bombay and studied Physics at the University of California, Berkley. She has worked as a semiconductor design and process engineer with Fairchild Semiconductor, Philco Ford and IBM. After working in magnetic bubble technology and acquiring several patents, she went back to school to earn an MBA from the University of Santa Clara. She was appointed the CEO of Intrix, a manufacturing and accounting software development and was heading it until she decided to found a new company in Bioinformatics, PREMIER Biosoft International, in the summer of 1994 and Apticraft Systems (P) Ltd in 2002.

Kay Brown
Kay Brown
What is bio-informatics? Is it already a mature science? Do all kinds of biological computing come under this science?

Bio-informatics is an interdisciplinary research area that applies computer and information science to solve biological problems. However, this is not the only definition. The field is being defined and redefined at present, and there are probably as many definitions as there are bioinformaticians.

The field is in its infancy. All kinds of companies think of themselves as working in bio-informatics, from companies that host vast amounts of biological data and analysis tools like Double Twist Inc. to companies that develop algorithms to solve specific problems such as protein folding.

Tell us in brief about your company and your products. How and when did your company decide to venture into Bio-informatics?

PREMIER Biosoft International (PBI), based in USA was founded in 1994 with the mission to develop intuitive, fully featured tools to accelerate research for the molecular biologist. PREMIER Biosoft Indore Pvt. Ltd., the company dedicated to fulfill the development needs of PBI was founded in 1996. Apticraft has now taken on this mission.

Our company did not “decide to go into Bio-informatics”, it was there from its inception. We believe that this emerging field is currently the most exciting area and is expected to make unparalleled contributions to human health and scientific achievements over the next 20 years. We consider ourselves privileged to be working in such a field.

How do you foresee the usage of Computers in bioinformatics? What according to you would be the share of Indian Software companies in this?

Biological sciences are developing new high throughput techniques and generating vast amounts of data at an unprecedented rate. Computers are an indispensable tool to glean biological meaning from this effort.

Historically, Indian companies have participated in new and exciting fields by becoming the development arms of or by supplying human resources to foreign companies. But we see a new trend emerging now. NRIs are coming back home and are establishing companies that innovate and produce new products in biological fields to be sold directly to end users. With its strengths in software development and highly educated work force, India is poised well to make significant contributions.

Computers gathering data and presenting to the researcher to draw conclusions; what’s the role of the human factor vis-à-vis that of computer here? Is it only a tool or is it also doing our science for us?

It is most certainly only a tool. How we wish it could do more!

How are advances in computer technology contributing to the progress in Bioinformatics? Does this advancement ever pose as a limiting factor for the advancement of bioinformatics?

Currently, the computer technology seems to be able keep up with many common demands of the biologist, though there are specific areas of the field that find the current compute power inadequate. Several companies offer specially designed computer hardware and software to overcome this limitation. The progress in solving certain analysis intensive problems like protein folding is hampered by these limitations. Companies like IBM are building massively parallel computers to tackle such problems. With the availability of new high throughput protocols and micro fluidics, the rate at which data can be generated is accelerating. We are sure to run head on into the limitation with this explosive growth in the available data.

What technologies are being employed and would be used in future to manage bio-informatics databases? How important are the graphical visualization tools?

Many technologies including Java, Applets, Swing and CORBA are being used. Many research organizations are collaborating and sharing data to solve challenging biological problems. It is essential to connect and communicate among large numbers of experimental, simulation, and theoretical communities flung across the world. Tools to enhance such communications and analyses are becoming increasingly more important.

Some of the biological data is graphical and is stored as images. Novel, fresh methodology to analyze this data is needed and is being developed. The graphical needs extend beyond visualization tools, into analysis tools.

How would the Human Genome Project, or bioinformatics, affect the average person?

The impact is expected to be enormous. Cures for previously incurable diseases seems to be around the corner, improved diagnostics, detection of genetic predispositions to diseases, gene therapy, drugs tailored to the individual and much more. And this is a partial list of health related impact. Then there is the impact of genetically engineered farm animals and crops… I could go on and on.

What do you think entices the MNCs into sending their genomic and proteomic data to India for analysis? Is it the cost? Is it the availability of skills? Or is it something else?

I think it’s all of the above. India produces the best skill sets in an individual. Sharp minds, right training, technical skills and the ability to read and write English, many reasons to be attractive to MNCs.

There are many big players like Satyam, Kshema technologies, IBM, BigTec in Bioinformatics arena. How do you see your company’s position among these?

We stay clear of where they play. We develop software for individual scientists to help with the needed analysis capabilities for specific assays.

How good has been the role of the state government in granting incentive to the software companies based at Indore? What do you think should the state government do to ensure further investment?

Indore is declared an IT city and the government is taking several steps to help the software industry. An excellent example is the Gyandoot project. It shows that the state government is committed to embrace the information technology. The state governments has set up an STP and created an STPI nodal agency in Indore. These activities demonstrate the forward-looking, modern attitude that is essential to nurture the growth of our industry.

Bioinformatics requires a highly skilled work force. Do you get the required trained manpower at Indore or do you source them from outside MP? What should the profile of an ideal candidate be to enter bio-informatics?

We currently source candidates from MP. Bio-informatics is new and it is difficult to get candidates with experience in the field. We, therefore, recruit highly intelligent, motivated people who would like to make a career in Bio-informatics. We have designed comprehensive training programs for all major job categories and require new hires to go through them in the first few weeks of employment with us. Our major job categories are software engineers, bio-informatics scientists and business development managers. We look for postgraduates in appropriate disciplines with a proven academic record and outstanding communication skills.

Tell us something about any interesting ongoing project at Apticraft. What are the future plans of your company?

After the successful completion of the human genome sequence, the era is moving from genomics to proteomics. With the release of Xpression Primer and Protein Networker, Apticraft is taking its first steps into the emerging field of proteomics.

Apticraft will be moving into the new facilities under construction at the electronic complex this summer. We plan to almost double the staff size by year-end. We have several new products on the drawing board for both the genomics and proteomics areas.

[This interview appeared under the column “Digital Speak” in the newspaper Free Press Journal, Indore edition dated 21 April 2003]