[Techie Tuesdays] He is 52 years old, has been a successful entrepreneur, still codes and is a now a VC
Yes, age has nothing to with coding, but the combo we're talking here is a rare one. Entrepreneurs often complain that most VCs in India haven't been entrepreneurs themselves or don't understand technology. Meet Srikanth Sundararajan, an investor with Helion Venture Partners since the past year, a man who has seen the whole technology space evolve- both in the US and India.
Sundararajan graduated as an engineer from IIT Madras back in 1984 post which he went to Colorado State University and Universtiy of Illinois for his MS and PhD, respectively.
Early introduction to technology
During his education in the US, computer technologies were just coming in and most of the web technologies were in their infancy in research phase.
“I got involved with these projects, which were still funded by the government and were explorations that may or may not have materialised. But, as we see, it was definitely not the latter,” Sundararajan tells me over a phone conversation. This is where he fell in love with Computer Sciences, and he took up his first job as an R&D engineer with Hewlett-Packard. Here, he was a part of the core team that developed HP SoftBench (C/C++ IDE on HPUX and Domain OS), and other initiatives included working on messaging interface for 3rd party tool integration, work on SCM tools like DSEE 5.x (a fore runner to Clear Case 1.x); Case Communique Standards, & etc.
The startup bug
Post HP, Sundararajan did a small stint with Informix, but the itch to do something on his own was growing. The time was 1992 and the technology startup scene in the US was also pretty new. He took the plunge and founded Pretzel Logic, a company focused on providing Product Engineering Services. Pretzel went on to be ranked as one of Top 100 privately held companies 3 years in a row, became a part of the Inc 500 and was later acquired by BEA for their venture called Webgain. “This journey was very exciting, mentors were few, and access to capital limited, hence one learnt from mistakes; luckily for us we were able to surmount these hurdles, and grow the company," says Srikanth. This was more difficult for him personally because of a personal exigency; and hence post the exit of Pretzel, he decided to transition to India in early 2002.
The India journey commenced with a role as part of the executive team at HCL, where Srikanth helped with consolidation, technology, M&A activities. Subsequent to this he was offered a role as Cognizant's CTO, where he spearheaded more technology initiatives like establishing 8 critical COEs, all of which scaled and are still in action.
Cognizant was followed by yet another product start up, in the financial lease management space; the goal was to productize services and offer it to some of the leading enterprises, the company was acquired by a PE fund, and Srikanth transitioned to the role of COO at Persistent Systems, funded by Norwest Ventures. He was part of the executive leadership team which scaled the company from an early stage through a successful IPO. He transitioned back to the US in 2010 to drive Corporate Developement and Strategy for Persistent until 2012.
Views on the startup ecosystem
Sundararajan is a gold mine of information for anyone who is starting up in the technology space. With experience spanning 25+ years in US and India, Sundararajan has seen a lot over the years. I asked him about his observations over the years, here is the distilled version:
- From an entrepreneur's point of view, the start up ecosystem in terms of support and funding in India right now is equivalent to what it was in the US back around 2003, not the irrational phase of the late 1990's in the US.
- Unlike the US, the university system in India is not as proactive, it is very common to see some very cool plays evolve from schools in the US, ie Google, Yahoo, Inktomi, Akamai, Facebook, Ingres, Netscape; just to name a few from the 90's/2000. While all the leading engineering institutions are catering more towards start ups by encouraging students, setting up incubation centers, the nexus between industry, investors, and these institutions still needs to improve a lot. (Srikanth along with a bunch of colleagues is attempting to help in this regard. "The early signs are definitely very encouraging", says Srikanth. He is a visiting faculty in the IIT eco system, and also works closely with the incubators at IIT Madras, and IIIT Hyderabad.)
- The kind of deep technology plays in areas like vision, search, data/analytics infrastructure as it relates to cloud and mobility is definitely at par with what is happening in the US, the key distinction is early intervention in terms of mentoring, and also getting these companies to get connected with the customers, so early PoCs are possible, and once can refine the offering quickly in order to provide a truly global offering. These start ups do need a lot of guidance from a technology as well as product management perspective, initially; and then would need help getting connected with eco systems, ie partners, customers etc.
Life Goes On...
The association with academia happened when Srikanth took a break for two years to spend time with his family. “I took a break to spend time with my father and be closer to home. A perfect opportunity came along when the Director of the newly established IIT Bhubaneswar mentioned that he was planning to build the CS department. The 2 years spent in doing this, and time spent teaching and interacting with 400 students was immensely invigorating!” says Srikanth.
Coming out of the break, he found joined Helion Advisors as it aligned well with his need to stay focused in the technology and start up eco system. Helion is very focused on core enterprise and customer technology investments. “In the tech arena things move at such a rapid pace , it is critical to take out a day or two every week to keep oneself updated . Hands on experimentation is the only way to do this,” he adds. The energy provided by Helion, and the startup eco system has pulled Srikanth back to what he loves and cherishes;working with entrepreneurs and helping them scale.
Srikanth can be reached out at email@example.com