Hey! I thought I should add a bit of Delhi musings. It was a trip to Delhi after a long time. Though I hardly got any time to roam about except for the last day of the session which ended a bit early. The plan was to go to PVR Anupam at Saket to watch Matrix Reloaded but being a Sunday the shows were houseful. So me and the fellow faculty (his maiden visit to the city) decided to go visit the Qutb Minar the grand edifice built by Qutubuddin Aibak. From there we took a bus (believe me its the best way to tour any city). For a paltry Rs.10/- we went to India Gate. After a brief stay and a bhel later we decided to visit Cannaught Place (CP) forgetting in excitement that on Sundays both CP and Palika Bazar are closed. But to our respite there were those pavement shops selling; export-surplus clothes.
Finding a bus to C.R.Park (where we put up) was bit difficult but exciting. When we returned to guest-house after finishing dinner it was almost 11 PM and we had to rush to bed at-once as we had to get-up at 4 the next morning to catch the early morning flight to Indore. The last day in the whole stay at least granted me the chance to refresh my Delhi memories.
India will have 50 million Internet users by 2003 and at least half of them don’t speak in English.
With DataQuest pegging its potential market size at Rs. 500 crore, local language internet market is destined to be the next big thing. Suave entrepreneur Vinay Chhajlani foresaw this much earlier. In a tete-a-tete with Debashish Chakrabarty Vinay talked about his company and his vision of building a global dot kaum using local lingo.
A graduate in Electrical & Electronics Engineering, topper of 1984 batch from BITS Pilani and MS in Printing Technology from Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), New York, Chhajlani is the founder and CEO of Indore based multilingual portal company Webdunia.com.
You come from a background of newspapers publication. What inspired you to shift focus from print media and start Suvi?
I was always interested in application of technology and did a lot of programming during my engineering. Even in my first job in 1985-87, as a planning executive with Semline Inc. a leading printing company in Boston, in parallel to my job I focused on applying technology to management of paper inventory, machines and schedules. That was the time when IT was limited to payroll and accounting systems. In 1988 when I started Suvi, it was an additional responsibility, we began with MIS solutions made in FoxPro/Clipper. In 1990 Suvi was shifted from Bhopal to Indore. It was not by design, but guided by our expanding customer base at Dewas and Pithampur Industrial belts and other family business decisions.
Was the motivation to venture into Indian language software there right from the beginning or were there other factors that led you towards it?
It came as a wild thought. We simply wanted to do something different, which nobody has done before.I always believed in building a data enabled society and knew that broadband connectivity can go a long way in creating an internet-enabled society and eventually a knowledge society. Products providing data-services with a proven mass utility are bound to succeed. Few years ago getting a telephone was tedious now every other guy on the street has a mobile. Soon we would see internet connectivity with our TV.
Webdunia has invested Rs. 12 crore in language software development till now and committed some 15 crore more. How do you evaluate the current state of Indian language market and your company’s role in it?
Different agencies have estimated the market potential variously, as far as the return are concerned we are interested in making a decent profit at the end of year. We do not see ourselves as Software developers, we are an infrastructure player providing language enabled solutions for your hand-held devices, PCs, set top boxes, your name it. If Simputer manufactures want a language framework they will come to us, if Microsoft wants a Hindi thesaurus tomorrow they will have to consider us. Today our turnover is around 10 Cr and I expect that within 5 years we shall be 100 Cr firm.
The scope for quality content development in Indian language is very high. There is utter lack of content in Hindi, 12 terabytes of information on web available in English compared to the trifling 1 gigabyte of Hindi. Consider this example: The world’s largest mountaineering training institute in India but if you search the web there in hardly any content on mountaineering available in Hindi. There is ample scope for language software in the area of machine translation, voice and handwriting recognition as demand for better human interfaces escalates.
You met bill gates during his recent India visit. What transpired?
I just met him to say Hello (smiles) but somehow developing software in Indian language also featured in the discussion. We do a lot of work for Microsoft, in fact, we are one of their largest vendors in India. But we want to go beyond and convert this into a strategic relationship. We want to tell them- look we can advise you on what to do and we can do it together.
Tell us abut the Indian Language research and development laboratory started by GSITS and Webdunia.
The first batch of 12 students are working on projects involving Linux localization and its enabling in Hindi. We are not doing any fundamental research work right now nor are we expecting products of commercial worth immediately. But I am confident that in 2-3 years time this lab will become self-supporting with its own products gaining commercial viability and royalties coming back.
You coined the slogan ‘Jan-Jan Ka Internet’. Isn’t it more of ‘Urban Jan ka Internet’?
I have all alone been advocating that a common Indian can be brought to the net with the help of the language in which he is comfortable. The slogan ‘Jan-Jan ka internet’ entails the desire of making it available for the common people, the benefits on Internet. We have made a big effort to convince various provincial governments aspiring to implement e-governance solution that unless the applications are developed in vernacular language the entire e-governance activity shall become futile. I am glad that our voice is now being heard.
Despite of initiatives, the software Industry in Madhya Pradesh hasn’t been able to rise up to expectations. What are the reasons? Lack of government initiative, Entrepreneurship backlash or poor quality of IT manpower in M.P.?
It’s just that Madhya Pradesh missed the bus initially. During the early 90’s when IT revolution was at its peak the commitment was lacking and the state was never seen as an IT destination. The government is willing for investment now and I have a gut feeling that the situation will improve. The quality of Manpower in MP is good; at Suvi almost 80% of the employees are from M.P. we must soon expect to see big players coming to M.P. situation will also improve after the first STP is setup.
You had recommended the computerization of state’s revenue and Land record departments. You also said that IT solutions must form an integral part of Gram Panchayats. How much has the e-government initiative in Madhya Pradesh taken this into accord?
As a member of the take force I participated in formulation an IT policy for the state. However, I feel the success of e-government projects have not even been marginal. The project concept was good but only as a prototype, not on production-level. If it’s your first, model you need to put in serious money for infrastructure development and if you’re able to raise user awareness then the whole scale of operation could go up, you can augment more service and the customer has the surety of getting his money’s worth.
Not many Indian portals have has the courage to go for the paid-model. What’s your opinion about charging for contents?
It’s still difficult to go for the paid model and I don’t see it in near future. On Webdunia only a small portion, like the astrology service, charges the user; there is no critical mass. You can perhaps charge for value added services like providing data on mobile devices or rendering mandi-rates, matrimonial services or financial advice.
What are your future policies and growth plans for Webdunia.
We will continue with our focus on Indian language software. At the moments we have our hands full and can’t think of anything else. We recently had a retail launch of Windik Professional ,a multilingual word-processor and spreadsheet along with a browser. We see it as a low-cost alternative to using pirated software. NIIT is giving a 180 days licensed version of the software with its course-ware for SWIFT. Apart from Indore we have development centers at Chennai and Trivandrum who are involved in content development for websites in Dravidian languages. We are currently providing technology support and services to various clients including Chitralekha.net, Manorama.com, Dailythanthi.com, Bigcoop.com and Southasiafoundation.org.
(Originally Published in the Free Press Journal, Indore on December 23rd, 2002. Disclaimer: I had worked with Webdunia.com, but that was after this interview was taken & published.)
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.
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.
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]