An Interview with Suhas Patil

Danielson :   Did it seem like a very competitive field you were going into at the time? And did that maybe give you some negative vibes about going into this field, or was it something where you were pretty confident about?
Patil :   That situation was comfortable for me all the way from elementary school. I was not afraid of competition. I just wanted to do better than the others.
Gemperlein :   Talk about things you blew up or burned down. Where and when did that happen to you?
Patil :   In high school, I got very interested in chemistry. Having a lab in school just wasn't enough for me, so I was trying to create my own lab, and I liked to experiment with things. There was no gas at home, like here. The Bunsen burner needed gas. So I read enough to see how would you actually manufacture gas so I could have a lab. It was so basic, so, clearly, you know, I was just a high school guy. All theoretical learning. And that led me to this thing where you crack the petrochemical to create gas. It tells you how far off I was.

Companies are like children. They grow. From elementary school stage to teenage. We seem to be in late-teenage here. I have two children who go through that, and the behavior is exactly like that.

You know, cracking gases is a very difficult process. So I devised things to actually build an apparatus to start taking kerosene, cracking it to make a gas, so that I might have Bunsen burners. Ridiculous. The apparatus, when I tested it, actually caught fire, I should have known. But, you know, it was done in a safe enough situation. It didn't ignite anything but ... when it did catch fire, I tried to lift it, and it was all hot and I had burns on my fingers. That was the most dangerous of all the experiments I did.

Danielson: I am interested in the program you have on entrepreneurs. How does it work?

Patil: The IndUS Entrepreneurs, I am the mentor, along with other people have succeeded in entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley. The people we're mentoring already have degrees, already are doing things. The issue there is they get interested in creating companies. You know. Giving expression to their ideas. These are fairly senior people. Senior in the sense that they've already gone to college...

It began in late fall, 1992. Us from the Indian background, we come from South Asia, as we succeeded, we were saying, well we ought to be doing something for the society here, the community.

And always we wanted, but didn't know quite how. And we actually gathered together. . . at the Hilton in San Jose to just try and figure out. And at that meeting, we said, well, we'll figure it out by having dinner together once every month and sort out how we might help. That evolved to what is now the IndUS Entrepreneurs Group.


There was too much gap between what I was suggesting how integrated circuits ought to be designed or could be designed and what the normal practice was in the industry. So I couldn't give it away!

And then they basically elected or drafted me to become their president. . . We defined it to be a non-profit group, a very inclusive group whose objective would be to nurture entrepreneurs, mentor them, and help them succeed better than they might otherwise...


Courtesy of Photographer Suhas Patil

Once a year, we do this entrepreneurs' conference. The first time we did it was 1994. And when I proposed that, people said, well, who would come? I said I thought we could expect 300 people. . .The very first year, we were sold out; 500 people came to attend, and it was a smashing success. We had found that we were filling a need in the community. And it has grown. It has grown to a very much bigger situation.

The first set of companies we helped actually are succeeding beyond our expectations. The company I personally got involved in, Cybermedia, just went public last week with evaluation of $250 million, and there were revenues of $40 million. You can go to Fry's and buy their product. And seeing that happen gives tremendous joy to all those who were involved with them.

Gemperlein :   You were a teacher for 10 years? Why did you decide to leave? Did you do it for money?
Patil :   Why did I stop being a professor? Well, actually, how did I become a professor in the first place? I went to graduate school at M.I.T., a very, very fine institution. Definitely shaped my personality as well as my becoming what I am. Then towards the end of it I was about to get my doctorate. I had received a sort of invitation to join the faculty, both at M.I.T. and at Carnegie-Mellon.

I did choose to stay at M.I.T. and join the faculty. I had been a teaching assistant and instructor prior to that for 5 years. So it was kind of something presented that really intrigued me. And I joined the faculty and 5 years later, I went to University of Utah. I had known lots of people there, and a particular lab that ... I was attracted to. So I spent 5 more years at the University of Utah.


If you talk to anybody who has received a doctorate, there has always been a time in their program when they were not very sure of whether they were going to make it. Whether there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel. And going through that human process, you learn a lot.

But the research that I was conducting in my field as a professor had reached a stage where, you know, either somebody had to adopt it and take it further, and that's what I was seeking. But it was so different that industry didn't want to pick it up. There was too much gap between what I was suggesting how integrated circuits ought to be designed or could be designed and what the normal practice was in the industry. So I couldn't give it away! With all offers of any amount of help for me and my students. And this was the story of Silicon Valley.

One company called General Instrument Corporation, which had funded some of my research, said. . . We will provide you with a contract. . . I had always been fascinated, or I was always interested in, if I could build an enterprise company, So here was a perfect opportunity.

Gemperlein :   Were you a success immediately, or did you have a hard time?
Patil :   Well, It was very nice in the beginning. When the contracts were there. The hard times came when the contracts ran out and we had to make it on our own. Instead of getting the large, nice contracts, the smaller contracts. And that is really where the true entrepreneurship came into play.

Danielson: What sort of impact do you think your time in education had on your success?

Patil: I think very much. I think the industry by and large does not understand that the best preparation for starting and making companies happen is to go to a doctoral program. And I will explain why I think so.

You know, you can finish your undergraduate degree by simply presenting what is very well-learned in a very efficient manner. You go to master's thesis ... under very strong guidance. . The doctoral thesis is all uncharted territory. The professor is your guide and is not feeding you ready-made material.


Courtesy of Photographer Suhas Patil

And towards the end, you will know more in your field than anybody else including your teacher/professor. And this is a very arduous, taxing process, taking many years. Five years sometimes, sometimes even longer. At that point, you have to learn not only to do the science, but also to cope with disappointment and how to handle yourself as a person and how to pick yourself up even when something doesn't work, you know. Deal with the blues.


That's a perfect training if you would ever start a company.

If you talk to anybody who has received a doctorate, there has always been a time in their program when they were not very sure of whether they were going to make it. Whether there was going to be light at the end of the tunnel. And going through that human process, you learn a lot. And there are lots of people who couldn't do doctoral work. Only those who actually manage to deal with it their entire self, keeping themselves going, are the ones who get Ph.D.s.

That's a perfect training if you would ever start a company. My personal opinion is someone who has gone through that and has the practical sense, has the advantage. Some people who get Ph.D.s live in a dream world. They will not get anywhere in starting a company. But then there's others who are practical. And with that training, they can do that. It's a pity that not very many people understand this aspect. So I've had no problem with hiring Ph.D.s and putting them to very good work.

This company's early employees were all my students with unproven industry record, and we outperformed people in our own field.

Danielson :   Given your experience in education, what do you see as something schools need to do with their students to prepare them for companies like this? Or what students need to do to prepare themselves?
Patil :   That's a very broad question. I'm not about to solve all the problems and issues of education in this country. I will say, though, one thing. That I think education ought to be number 1 priority of this country.

Gemperlein: And it's not right now?

Patil: It is not. It's actually better this year (1996) an election year, than other times. But, this is a view I've held, and I've spoken about it.

A country is its people. So if you're endowed with learning, it doesn't matter where you are, you will do well. I am an example. If you care about the country, you must care about people. And in the world, the way it is going ... the better educated you are, the better your opportunities are to avail whatever is going to be around.


What would happen if the teachers were to act like the coaches and would the environment allow them to be? How well would students learn science?

The economic benefits will come to that population that is really well-endowed in this way.

So if you want America to be prosperous from that, after one thinks through many things, really, there is no alternative for other, next generation to be better educated, better learned, than any other country. Everything else will take care of itself if you do so...

Where I grew up, we never questioned that we were going to go to college, that we would go as far as our abilities would allow. Nobody had to tell me that, no parents had to tell me. It just was kind of in the air. It's a very different situation than I see here.

Gemperlein :   Is technology helping the situation in the classroom?
Patil :   I think technology is important, but it isn't the only thing. But you don't want to be behind in technology because it is enabling. And what I see here in school, the coaches do a far better job in coaching how to play football or swimming or other athletic things than teachers do in terms of motivating people. Not all teachers, but I'm saying , by and large, I'm amazed that sports gets a different kind of attention and flavor and much more one-on-one contact .

Gemperlein: Is this an American characteristic?

Patil: Oh, yes. Very much. That's why I'm no good in sports.


Somehow, girls aren't expected to be tops in math and science. It baffles me. Where I grew up, there was no such tone to it. The girls did actually better than the boys in these subjects.

So, what would happen if the teachers were to act like the coaches and would the environment allow them to be? How well would students learn science? And then the other thing I have to say is that there are certain presumptions or biases that are woven into the society that are very detrimental here.


A country is its people. So if you're endowed with learning, it doesn't matter where you are, you will do well. I am an example.

Somehow, girls aren't expected to be tops in math and science. It baffles me. Where I grew up, there was no such tone to it. The girls did actually better than the boys in these subjects. So these are the kinds of things that must be proactively overcome because they give strong messages to our kids.