30 Under 30 2024

Ashok Soota: Thinking big and taking path less travelled, even with philanthropy

Ashok Soota was among the early philanthropists in India to support disability rights and inclusion. The executive chairman of Happiest Minds Technologies now wants to define his legacy with a charitable trust dedicated to medical research

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Feb 13, 2024 12:04:48 PM IST
Updated: Feb 13, 2024 12:18:04 PM IST

Ashok Soota: Thinking big and taking path less travelled, even with philanthropyAshok Soota, Executive chairman, Happiest Minds Technologies Image: Samyukta Lakshmi/Bloomberg Via Getty Images

Ashok Soota has always dreamt big. He spent the early years of his career at business conglomerate DCM Shriram. In 1978, he became CEO of Shriram Refrigeration, a company that was unprofitable for four straight years, as per Crunchbase, and streered a complete turnaround. Then, in search of a challenge, he took up a job in Wipro, which, when he joined in 1984, had a fledgling infotech arm and was more of a vegetable oils company. In the next 15 years, he helped Wipro’s IT business grow from $2 million to $500 million revenue run rate.

In 1999, he wanted to strike out on his own, and co-founded IT firm Mindtree, which went public in 2007. Then, in 2011, he left to launch Happiest Minds Technologies, a digital transformation and IT consulting services company. At the age of 77 in 2020, he took the company public.

So, when it came to giving back to society, he was bound to think big and take the path less travelled. “I’m primarily an institution-builder,” Soota, 81, says over email, referring to his decision to set aside crores of rupees of his personal wealth to build a state-of-the-art charitable medical research organisation instead of distributing funds to various causes.

The organisation, which is called SKAN (Scientific Ageing and Neurological Ailments), was founded in 2021. As per Forbes Asia, Soota pledged $75 million (about ₹600 crore), to be disbursed over 10 years, towards SKAN.

Their “areas of expertise” are stem cells, gut microbiome, human genomics, molecular biology, cardiovascular systems, bioinformatics, diabetes, ageing and geriatrics, and Parkinson’s.

The idea, Soota says, is to “impact a million lives”, and he chose research as the way to do that, because he realised that medical research in India is only for drug discovery or in the government sector, and is “grievously underfunded”.

Ashok Soota: Thinking big and taking path less travelled, even with philanthropySKAN is still in its early stages, the IT veteran writes in a note in the 2022-23 annual report of the trust, but hopes that it will answer critical questions related to health and survival.

This could mean delaying the onset of diseases, slowing down the progression of ailments, providing people a better quality of life even as they live with the ailments, medical analytics for prevention and early diagnosis, and kinder, gentler therapies.

SKAN has nine projects, which are being implemented with various national and international organisations through collaborations or the consortium model. There is a partnership with the University of Cambridge in the UK to advance stem cell studies. “In June 2021, SKAN gave a 200 million rupee grant to Soota’s alma mater, Indian Institute of Technology Roorkee, for funding joint research projects, creating a lab and sponsoring a professorship and three faculty fellowships,” says the article on Asia’s 2022 Heroes of Philanthropy by Forbes. According to Soota, SKAN’s purview has expanded beyond ageing and neurological research. “The reason is that many medical problems begin at an early age due to mutation of cells,” he says.

The IT veteran has also earmarked an estimated ₹200 crore towards setting up the SKAN Research Centre of nearly two lakh square feet, on four acres of land, in Kanakapura in Bengaluru. It is expected to be operational by December 2025. Right now, the SKAN team is operating out of an independent building in the St John’s Research Institute complex in Bengaluru.

Also read: I regret not doing philanthropy earlier: Kris Gopalakrishnan

Ashok Soota: Thinking big and taking path less travelled, even with philanthropy

Early Mover

Soota was born in what is today the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan, as per an April 23, 2010, article in Livemint. “My parents came from Dera Ismail Khan and Dera Ghazi Khan and were part of the small Hindu community there,” Soota is quoted as saying in the article. He was the fourth chid among six, and his father was a doctor in the British Indian army. He was five when he moved to India due to the Partition. Soota remembers in the article how his family house was burnt down within hours of their departure. “But we learnt to move on in life,” he says, adding due to his father’s career in the Army, he frequently moved homes and schools as a child. This, he believes, helped him adapt to change more quickly. Since then, to his engineering days at IIT-Roorkee, to his career at companies like DCM and Wipro, and his entrepreneurial ventures, Soota has shown that he places big, bold bets with foresight and adaptability.

SKAN, too, is among the very few private philanthropic efforts funding research in India, the other being Infosys co-founder Kris Gopalakrishnan’s outlay towards brain research. Soota sees India allocating 3 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP) to research in the next five years, through a mix of venture and philanthropic capital.

Even in the for-profit space, there are “dozens of companies that are being incubated by IITs and other institutions like InStem”, he says, adding that “we should not forget the MNCs who are increasingly setting up research centres in India, since our talent is excellent and cost of knowledge generation among the lowest in the world”. He also believes that generative artificial intelligence (AI) will help accelerate research in India.

Ashok Soota: Thinking big and taking path less travelled, even with philanthropy

Soota has always been ahead of his time in identifying critical causes that are underfunded and need catalytic support, says Pritha Venkatachalam, partner and co-head, Asia and Africa at the global philanthropy and nonprofit advisory organisation, The Bridgespan Group. “It is only recently that we have a greater spotlight on equity and inclusion-related causes, but Mr Soota was supporting disability related rights through Samarthanam [non-profit trust] over a decade ago, when the conversation was much more about poverty alleviation and welfare,” she says.

Soota is aware that research takes time to get results, given that there will also be challenges like talent availability along the way. And coming from a business background, he will have to learn to be patient in this approach to philanthropy.

“Even immediate results from our projects will require three years and many of the projects are funded for 10 years. Accordingly, we will not put pressure on our teams for short-term results,” he says. “At the end of three years, we hope to demonstrate some transformational changes.”  

(This story appears in the 09 February, 2024 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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