Betting high on the Indian market and being convinced that a new wave of industrial change is going to usher India into the fourth industrial revolution is what has helped Paresh Patel, managing director of System Level Solutions (India) Pvt Ltd, flag off his entrepreneurial journey in the Indian electronics industry. In an interaction with Electronics Bazaar, he shares his hardships as an Indian entrepreneur residing outside the nation, and how he plans to take his organisation to the next level of product design and development.
|Some of my favourite things:
Favourite music: Rock music by REM, U2, Goo Goo Dolls, etc, and intelligent rap from artists like Eminem
Favourite food: Mexican dishes such as enchiladas
Favourite films: Animation movies like The Iron Giant and Up
Favourite books: The Sea Wolf by Jack London and Innovation Blind Spot by Ross Baird
Hobbies: I still play with Lego blocks, and I love to dismantle electronic things just to find out what’s inside, but they don’t necessarily get put back the same way!
Childhood and its memories
Born in Anand, Gujarat in January 1969, I was taken to the US as an infant. My father received an opportunity to obtain a PhD in soil science from the University of California, Riverside and the family flew to USA in September 1969. Graduating in 1972 with a PhD, my father carried out post-doctoral research in soil science at the University of California, Los Angeles. During the latter part of his post-doc days, around the time I was 5 or 6, we used to go to the on-campus research facility as well as a waste treatment plant in LA for his work on hydroponics. That experience got me into science.
After completing his post-doc, my father worked in plant nurseries until the time he decided to start his own plant nursery. He bought a small nursery in Southern California. I spent a part of my childhood in this nursery, doing various jobs and helping out my father with the family business. Sometimes my parents would leave me alone when they had to run errands. So there I was, a third grade student, servicing customers, selling them plants, taking money from them, giving them change—my first foray into business. After selling the nursery in Southern California, my father went back to work for a large grower in Northern California. At the same time, he purchased a 5 acre plot of land just south of Silicon Valley. Later, he built a thriving wholesale nursery business there. At almost every step of his business journey, I was with him watching him do things and soaking up all the learnings. Besides directly working in the nursery like loading plants and driving trucks to deliver them, I helped in various aspects of the business like writing an invoicing program using Pascal or trying to automate the greenhouse facility. This entire journey kind of shaped me into the kind of engineer I am today, finding solutions to problems both from the business and technical points of view.
Developing business acumen
My entire education was in the United States. College shaped my engineering acumen and career path. I graduated from Santa Clara University with a bachelor’s degree in digital analogue electronics. After that, I completed my masters at Santa Clara in electrical engineering with a specialisation in microlelectronics or semiconductor physics. During the two years of my masters, I was a research assistant placed at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre researching high temperature superconductors. So I was effectively working at Xerox as a research assistant for my professor in the Santa Clara University.
We were looking at novel techniques to see how we could take advantage of superconductors on silicon. Once that was finished I kind of knew what I wanted to do, as my time at Xerox was an eye-opener. At Xerox I had the opportunity to work with all sorts of cutting-edge equipment and was put in a situation where I had to work with very intelligent and motivated people. That was intimidating but at the same time quite exciting.
I knew that I did not want to go into pure play semiconductor processing in a fab. So instead, I opted to join Hitachi America Limited’s chip design section. I was part of the ASIC (Application Specific Integrated Circuit) chip design centre, where I was first put through the new college graduate programme. Here, I spent time with various departments within Hitachi. This included new product engineering, chip design as well as marketing and sales. It was a one-year programme, which shaped me further and introduced me to the marketing angle and customer visits for chip design.
The turning point in my life
For the next stage of my career within Hitachi, I was put into pure play engineering, where I would help design chips from various companies. This continued for the next 4-5 years, after which I moved to another division of Hitachi that was focused on the software side of things. We developed tools to help the chip designers with the floorplans of ICs.
During this time, another Hitachi IT employee and I teamed up to start a firewall company with Hitachi’s blessings. We had a good product and later, in 1995, we also sold the company while I was at Hitachi. We did not make a whole lot of money from the company but it was a great learning experience. Once I did that, the startup fever and bug hit me. In 1996, I joined another company called Eclipse International whose charter was to create handheld Windows CE devices. I was brought in to convert an FPGA prototype of a chip and release an ASIC chip to a fab. My charter was to get the environment together, start prototyping the functionality and release the ASIC. I built up an entire team to help accomplish that mission. Since it was a startup environment, I wore many hats. I acted as an engineer, business development manager when I went out to talk to customers, wrote low level software for Windows CE, and also helped design some of the boards that we were working on. Within nine months, we had a working companion ASIC to the Hitachi SH3 processor and subsequently released more ASICs.
My input helped Eclipse secure funding of around US$ 20 million. I also saw the company being run into the ground because of various business and marketing missteps. Seeing all this, in 2001, I realised that instead of working 60-80 hours a week for someone else who reaped the benefit while I got only a small chunk of it, I would try and do something myself. This is how System Level Solutions (SLS) USA was created in that same year. I did not have enough money to hire a dedicated team in the States or lease office space. So I set the office up in a hotel room in Sunnyvale. Using the hotel room as a base, I asked some ex-employees from Eclipse, who were seeking new jobs, to help me make the new venture a success. We started off well, but there was not enough revenue to hire them permanently. They were H1B holders from India, Malaysia and Ireland, and getting this visa for a startup is pretty difficult in USA. I also had to think of growing the business with my limited budget since I did not want to go for venture capital. At the same time, I was also consulting for Toshiba (USA) for the PCI bus interface.
So, in the same year, I decided to travel to India to see if I could find the right skillsets. I placed my bets on India in 2001 for I felt that the country was gaining traction. I was convinced that India was going to change and I wanted to be a part of that change. I wanted to start my business near my hometown since it made sense to me at that time. I got an apartment in the Gurukul area of Ahmedabad, hired a few people and started off.
Making the right choice
Honestly, I did not like the work culture of Ahmedabad since it was pretty commercial and the people were less inclined towards research. The mentality of doing something together and then sharing the rewards was missing there.
Many people suggested that I move to Bengaluru since the culture I was looking for did exist there to some extent. However, I felt that 5-6 years down the line, the multiple MNCs in that city may go all out to woo the people working in small companies. That is when I decided to move to Anand. I felt much more comfortable in that city, since I was born there. Some of the engineers who were willing to relocate also came with me and we started growing. We rented a house, then bought a house, and then bought land in GIDC (Gujarat Industrial Development Corporation). In all these places, a small part of the building was used as my apartment because I wanted zero commute time.
SLS gets the taste of success
By 2006, SLS had established its name and we were part of Altera’s (now Intel PSG) Design Partner and University Program, developing PCB boards and FPGA functional cores. We started getting IP core business, which brought funds to our small company but from the viewpoint of growing fast, that money was definitely not enough. With some marketing efforts we connected with some Tier 1 companies within the USA, who purchased our USB IP. Then we started driver development and developing PCBs, along with providing customised solutions for them. Very soon we had a service division besides having the IP product division. We still perform services for some big clients but the main focus has shifted to developing products.
Right now we are focused on product development and product research. For product development, the engineering part is easy but the next steps such as certification prove challenging. The compliance part itself takes a real toll, because if you are not compliant in one area then you have to redesign a board or the software completely. SLS has all the tools in-house today to be successful from the start, as we have a vertically integrated company for product design.
We have the ability for original design manufacture (ODM). We have mechanical engineering facilities to do the ground level plastic design and development, a design team for PCBs, and an SMT line to assemble the PCBs. All of this is in our factory in Anand. Additionally, we write low level software drivers, and develop software applications on Linux, Windows, Android and iOS. On top of these capabilities, we have our own real-time cloud connectivity framework. So it’s a complete next-generation end-to-end solution that we are offering.
The much needed exposure
My semiconductor physics teacher was Dr Cary Yang. He was renowned for conducting the toughest semiconductor class with the most challenging question paper. We used to invest nearly all our energies in preparing for his class. We were a group that used to fair pretty well in his subject, and he used to mentor us. Later on, he also sponsored my research assistantship for my masters. At that time, I was the president of the IEEE society on our campus, and that gave me many opportunities to interact with people.
During my research days, I tried getting into the housing and residence life on campus for two reasons. The first was that they would pay for my living expense on campus, and the second was that as an engineer I was pretty curious how the other non-engineers lived. Till then, even though I had spent my entire life in America, I really did not know a lot about Americans. I was finally hired as the assistant resident director for a residence hall, and that was my foray into American society. I was in charge of a five-floor residence that had wings for both men and women. This role opened me to American culture, both good and bad. That exposure was very helpful in the whole journey of SLS, since knowing technical stuff is great but if you do not know how to talk to people and convey your ideas, then you are basically missing out on half the equation.
A close knit personal life
From the personal aspect of my life, my mom was an extremely supportive and hardworking lady. My mother and father were a team at the nursery. My father took care of the operational side whereas my mother took care of the production side. I have seen her work hard at the nursery, and then come back home and carry out the typical duties that are expected from women in Indian society. My grandparents lived with us so there were many expectations. To make things easier for my mother, my sister and I were given daily household chores (vacuum the carpets, take out garbage, clean the bathrooms, etc). This taught us that there is no shame in doing any sort of work.
I am the middle child of the family. My brother is four years younger than me. He is into sales and marketing for software companies in USA. My sister is four years older than me. She also graduated from Santa Clara University with a degree in electronics and communications and has worked for various organisations. At present she is into the consulting business.
I was married in 1994. It was an arranged marriage and my wife is from Vadodara in Gujarat. She used to work for Sun Microsystems. Right after our marriage, she realised that I was a workaholic. In May 2001, our twin boys were born. It was indeed a very hectic time since that was the year I set up SLS, and I was in India for the entire nine months before they were born. But we did receive a lot of help from all our families and siblings who took care of my wife and later looked after the boys as well.
In 2006, when my boys were 5 years old, it was clear that I needed to stay in India to make sure that the business was a success. So I moved with my family to India in 2006, assuring my wife that it will be for a time span of just two years. Alas, seven years later, by the time our sons were in their 5th grade, my wife wanted them to have the US education. So we moved back to the States, I one thing I do want to make clear is that throughout the SLS journey, my wife fully supported me–hats off to her!
Five years down the line
In the next five years, I see SLS expanding to a size that’s three times what it is today. Currently, we have about 270 employees. I see the growth coming not on the service side but more on the product development side. So I want to empower companies having a vision, to use our technology and make their dreams a reality. I also see myself having products in the Indian dairy, agriculture, defence and industrial spaces. The unifying item around this is our Nebulae platform and our capabilities in RF connectivity. For us the dairy sector is a huge potential growth area in the agricultural sector. We are also focusing on asset tracking. So we have created an infrastructure using the Nebulae platform; we can use various technologies and thereby not be beholden to any one technology since asset tracking can be used in multiple industries. Basically, the idea is to provide real solutions to real problems.
Employees are my family
I have been blessed with wonderful extended family! I don’t see myself as their boss or them as my employees. I do not have any ego, and have given the right to employees to come and tell me if I ever develop any such attitude. We have a very open and fairly flat structure. We do have some level of hierarchy for reporting purposes, but that is not for ideation. When it comes to ideation, everyone has an idea and sometimes it’s the people on the lowest rung, who are actually doing the work and witnessing the problem, who come up with a brilliant idea. So in terms of ideation I maintain a very flat structure. For management purposes, we do follow a rigid structure for yearly reviews and meetings. We have groups that have expertise in various domains and come together for working on a project and solving problems. The core expertise is segregated in various groups depending on their skillset, which is then pooled together at the time of development.
When it comes to motivation, it boils down to fundamentally keeping an eye on the performance of the employees and rewarding them based on that. We follow a balanced remuneration policy along with maintaining a nice and pleasant office infrastructure. Certain types of employees focus mainly on the monetary takeaway, while others are motivated by challenging work so that they get to see the fruits of their labour in the form of creation. That gives them pride. Therefore, I try to hire people who have that innovative spirit, which in itself motivates them.