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   04.11    

Technology Entrepreneur Profile                                       << back
Ashwin Ram, Ph.D.  
Current Employer: Georgia Institute of Technology
Key Startups: Dr. Ashwin Ram Ashwin Ram has been involved with three universtiy spinoffs: Ardext Technologies, an electronics test company; Enkia Corporation (acquired by Sentiment360), an artificial intelligence software company; and Inquus Corporation (OpenStudy.com), an e-learning company.
Education/Certifications: B.Tech. in Electrical Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi; M.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Ph.D. degree from Yale University
Professional Societies: Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), the Cognitive Science Society, the Case-Based Reasoning community, ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and TAG (Technology Association of Georgia).

Q: What does a technology entrepreneur do? How does that relate to your position as professor?

A technology entrepreneur brings new technologies to market. She or he is an innovator, inventing, adapting, and applying new technologies to solve real world problems. A professor does basic research, developing a deeper understanding of fundamental issues, whereas an entrepreneur lives in Pasteur’s Quadrant, using that deeper understanding for broader impact.

Q: What kind of entrepreneurial ventures have you been involved with? What are some of your current projects?

I’ve been involved with three university spinoffs, two that I co-founded with my colleagues and students based on collaborative research projects, and one that I helped a colleague create based on his research. My current project is OpenStudy, the first large-scale open social learning network, which engages students around the world in peer-to-peer learning and support study groups. The site was based on my research in collaborative learning technologies. It was launched in September 2010 and has been adopted by leading universities to provide interactive study groups for open courseware. It currently has over 50,000 unique visitors a month from 151 countries, and was recently named one of Fast Company's ten most innovative companies in education.

Q: When (and how) did you first become interested in doing a start-up company? What was the first step in launching it?

I was up for sabbatical after obtaining tenure at Georgia Tech. At the time, I had three graduate students with entrepreneurial interests. So, instead of a traditional sabbatical at another university, I decided to create a startup company with my students. We wrote what I call a “baby” business plan, which was selected for funding by Georgia Tech’s commercialization program in 1999. I then raised additional funding through SBIR (small business innovation research) programs and venture capital in 2000.

Q: What's your academic training and background? Are there other courses, degrees, or certificates that you think could be valuable for success?

I have a traditional faculty background: Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering, Master’s in Computer Science (at which time I became interested in Artificial Intelligence and Cognitive Science) and a PhD in Computer Science with my dissertation research being in AI/CogSci. I learned entrepreneurship “on the job,” so to speak. My wife (who is also an academic entrepreneur) did an executive MBA after her PhD, and seeing her experience I think that kind of program would have been useful in shortening my learning curve. I am also a big believer in a broad liberal arts background; while I have an engineering degree, my graduate work at Yale exposed me to a wide range of perspectives from psychology, cognitive science, philosophy, and other disciplines. I always encourage my students (even the non-entrepreneurial ones) to use their free electives on courses outside their concentration area.

Q: What was the most challenging aspect to starting a company for you? What part of the job do you find most satisfying?

I faced two challenging problems that were outside the realm of my faculty job: administration and marketing. While I learned to manage personnel, create cost accounting systems, and set up business processes, I discovered that I didn’t particularly enjoy this aspect of the work. Marketing was the opposite experience; I discovered I was actually quite good at it. I found it was similar to teaching, which I also love—both are basically a process of explaining difficult concepts to non-experts. I love marketing my technology—understanding the problem from their perspective, developing a solution to that problem, explaining the product and its value proposition in both conceptual and financial terms, delivering on that promise and demonstrating its value. I also love marketing the startup—explaining to an investor or customer why they should rely on my company.

Q: How many years have you been working in your current position?

I joined the Georgia Tech faculty in 1989.

Q: What have been some of the most interesting and rewarding things that you’ve had the chance to do? [Of your many achievements, is there one of which you are proudest?]

Professionally, I love working with young minds: students, both undergrads and grads. I also love research—developing a vision, creating new ideas, inventing new technologies. I get a lot of satisfaction from making it real, from seeing something I invented solve a real problem. Take OpenStudy as an example: imagine doing something that 50,000 people care about! I can’t wait to reach a hundred times more people. Personally, one of the things I’m happiest about is that I have done all this while having a lot of time for my family. For these reasons, a professor is one of the best jobs you could have!

Q: What are the main or most important personal characteristics for success in entrepreneurship?

You need vision, passion, and the determination to pursue the vision despite all odds. And there will be odds, many of them. You have to believe in what you do.

Q: What is a typical career path for a technology entrepreneur?

I don’t think there is a “typical” path. Entrepreneurs know they are entrepreneurs because they have a deep belief in their ideas and their personal ability to make a difference. It’s not so much about where you are in your career. I know technology entrepreneurs who come from a broad range of backgrounds, from science and engineering to liberal arts to law.

Q: What do you like and not like about entrepreneurship?

I like creating and expounding a vision. I like developing innovative solutions, and seeing them make a difference in the real world. National Science Foundation (NSF) requires you to summarize both “intellectual merit” and “broader impact” of your proposals. What I love most is the “broader impact,” the knowledge that you did something that made a real difference to someone. What I don’t like as much are the operational aspects of management. The absolute worst part of the job is when you have to lay someone off. It’s different from firing someone. When you fire someone, it’s because they didn’t do their job. When you have to lay them off, it’s because you didn’t do your job.

Q: What would be your advice to an 18 year-old, budding entrepreneur?

Just do it. Do it for yourself, and do it for society. Many studies have shown that young companies are the primary driver of job creation in our country. Be part of that ecosystem. Succeed or fail, you won’t regret the experience.

Q: What are your plans for the future?

I want to focus on the education problem because I’m passionate about both teaching and technology. And I believe that education is the single biggest factor in larger social and economic issues. There are two big problems. Scale: It is estimated that we need to create one new university a week (!) to educate all the young people coming of age in the next decade. That’s not going to happen. Engagement: Students who do have access to colleges (or high schools) are disengaging in large numbers. We need a new approach, one that is scalable, one that is geared to the Facebook generation. There are many people trying to solve this problem—academics, entrepreneurs, business people. I’m proud to be part of this movement and I hope to be a small part of the solution. Maybe a big part :)

Q: Are you a member of any professional associations or societies (e.g., IEEE)?

I’m a member of AAAI (Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence), the Cognitive Science Society, and the Case-Based Reasoning community (which I hope to organize into a professional society). Also ACM (Association for Computing Machinery) and TAG (Technology Association of Georgia).

Q: Are there any career or policy issues that you follow regularly?

I follow local, national and international issues in education, technology, economics, and politics.

 

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