India has high quality AI scientists but Indian businesses yet to make the most of AI solutions: Romesh Wadhwani

The Indian-American billionaire and CEO of SymphonyAI on his 50-year entrepreneurial journey and why businesses that are early adopters of AI will be the ones to create sustained business advantages

Naandika Tripathi
Published: Oct 1, 2021 01:25:00 PM IST
Updated: Oct 2, 2021 02:10:43 PM IST

Romesh Wadhwani, CEO of SymphonyAI

From getting rejected by 124 VC firms to building a company which brings in $2.5 billion in annual revenues, and becoming a listee of Forbes’ richest people in the world, SymphonyAI CEO Romesh Wadhwani has transformed and built over 40 companies in his 50-year entrepreneurial journey. In a conversation with Forbes India, the 74-year-old speaks about starting his first company in a foreign country, the challenges he faced along the way, diversifying business into AI and its role in replacing jobs. Edited excerpts:

How is SymphonyAI different from other AI firms?

One of our biggest differences is the way we've structured our company around various vertical business units, each of them serving a different purpose. We are targeting life sciences, hospital systems, retailers, consumer packaged goods companies, financial services companies, manufacturers, and media companies.

The second thing we've done is that rather than trying to sell the technology platform, we are selling solutions. We have developed our EurekaAI technology platform primarily to help us offer the best value generating solutions for our customers, not because we want to just sell the technology or the platform technology by itself. So we use the platform technology as an enabler to create better solutions faster than we would be able to.

According to you, how far has India come in implementing artificial intelligence?

It's coming along pretty fast. I would say India has come very far, we have a fast growing team of very high quality data scientists and AI scientists who are helping build some of our solutions but also helping other companies. But talking about how far has Indian business come in using AI solutions, I would say, not very far.

You have built/transformed over 40 companies. What are some of the challenges you have faced in your business career?

When I was starting my first company, Compuguard Corporation, in Pittsburgh, to develop and commercialise software for energy management and security in commercial buildings, immediately after getting my PhD, no one would give me any venture capital. I only needed $100K, but I had to call 125 different VC firms all over the US; the first 124 said No, the last one, Urban National Corp in Boston, said yes, and that led to my building Compuguard and the start of my business career.

When I was building my second company, American Robot, in Pittsburgh, as a robotics technology leader, I raised over $40M in venture capital. Unfortunately, Japanese manufacturers of robots started dumping their robots in the US at below their manufacturing cost to win market share. As a small company, we were caught in this trade war, and I could not think of a successful business model in this brutal environment. At the same time, I felt honour-bound to do the best for the VCs who had invested because of their faith in me. So I spent the next several years working round the clock to transform the company into a computer integrated manufacturing software company, ultimately delivering most of their investment back to the VC firms. After 10 years of working 90–100-hour weeks, I came away from this grueling experience with just a few hundred thousand dollars as my equity reward but a wealth of experience in how to build a technology business in a tough market with large, aggressive, well-financed competitors.

When I was building my third company, Aspect Development Inc, a leader in enterprise software for supply chain management, I decided that I’d need to do this in Silicon Valley to attract the best talent and compete with the best technology entrepreneurs there. So I moved to Silicon Valley with my wife and daughter after resigning from multiple boards in Pittsburgh. We left behind a large circle of business colleagues and friends in Pittsburgh and started life as an entrepreneur all over again in Silicon Valley with no network of any kind. It was difficult but ultimately very rewarding.

What was the thought behind the Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence which you founded with your brother at the University of Mumbai in 2018, committing over $30 million?

My brother Sunil and I jointly established Wadhwani Institute for AI for social good to leverage the power of AI in improving public health, agriculture, skilling, infrastructure and other areas of social need. Our approach is to identify important areas of social need, develop AI-powered solutions, and then work with the central government, state governments, foundations, and other partners to validate these solutions in pilot programmes. If these pilots are successful, we then implement these solutions at a much larger scale. The institute has grown rapidly to about 100 talented AI programme managers, engineers, data scientists, and researchers, all based in India.

To what extent do you predict AI will replace jobs? Has it started happening already?

For the most part, AI doesn’t replace jobs—it helps humans make better decisions. In some cases, it allows humans to focus on what they are good at, and offloads things that a computer and AI algorithms can do better. For example, in life sciences, AI can help find new drugs faster by giving researchers better insight to select trial patients, which accelerates trials and increases the likelihood of success. In manufacturing, an engineer can use his/her limited time to service equipment in the factory right before it breaks, by better predicting when machines will fail. AI can help risk officers in banks sift through the millions of daily transactions to pinpoint likely fraud, so they can reduce the time wasted investigating false positives.

That said, AI is automating typical mundane tasks, and the nature of work and the types of jobs will change. Certain types of jobs, like first-line customer service or IT help desk, are already impacted—AI handles many initial issues so humans can focus on higher-value, more complicated matters. Like previous tech waves displaced jobs, AI will too, but remember that all new technologies unleash new types of work.

What recommendations would you give CEOs who haven’t started looking into AI yet?

Get going now. The early adopters of AI will be the ones to create sustained business advantages. The best recipe is to focus on AI use cases at the senior level for buy-in and to do the work to ID the right use cases where AI can drive rapid value. Don’t waste time on general AI platforms—get packaged software to solve specific problems. Many companies have wasted years and millions on large sprawling projects that don’t yield results.

What does wealth mean to you?

Wealth is a privilege and a responsibility. I worked hard to achieve success, just the way others have done. Wealth means that I have the means to help others achieve success, which is what the Wadhwani Foundation efforts are for. I’m part of the Gates Buffett Giving Pledge, to contribute the majority of what I have to philanthropic causes.

You have had lots of successes in your career, but were there any failures? What were the lessons from those?

After 50 years and 40 companies, I’m thrilled that I’ve had no corporate disasters or meltdowns resulting in the complete failure of a company. My first two companies were mediocrities: I didn’t know that then, in the ’70s and 80’s when I was leading them, but I know that now with the benefit of hindsight and experience. Aspect Development and Symphony Technology Group have been extremely successful. SymphonyAI is going well, and we hope to get to $1 billion in revenue in the next four years.

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