Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Cisco's John Chambers dons 'Chief Guru' hat, picks up 10 percent in Indian startup Uniphore

Uniphore is the first major commitment Chambers has made outside the US, and he plans to invest in more Indian ventures

Harichandan Arakali
Published: Dec 1, 2017 05:18:32 PM IST
Updated: Dec 1, 2017 05:26:25 PM IST

Cisco's John Chambers dons 'Chief Guru' hat, picks up 10 percent in Indian startup UniphoreJohn Chambers, executive chairman of Cisco and chairman of the recently-formed US-India Strategic Partnership Forum in New Delhi [Right], with Umesh Sachdev, co-founder and CEO of Uniphore Software Systems
Image: Madhu Kapparath

John T. Chambers, executive chairman of Cisco Systems, who will soon step down from his role, plans to be very engaged as an investor and mentor for startups in India, and has just picked up his first investment.

Chambers bought a little over 10 percent of Chennai’s Uniphore Software Systems, a venture that was founded in 2008 and incubated at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. The venture specialises in speech-recognition technology. He will have the formal title of ‘Chief Guru’ at Uniphore.

Indian startups will have to play a much larger role in the domestic economy than they are doing currently, if the nation is to add 1.2 million jobs every month, Chambers told Forbes India in a brief phone interview from New Delhi, on November 30. For this, they have to scale faster than they’ve been used to thus far, and this is where he expects to make a difference, Chambers added.

"I want to be very involved as I move out of the Cisco role. Hopefully I’ll be able to pick up a couple more startups, give the government some feedback on how to scale, what needs to be done differently and how to create 1.2 million jobs every month," Chambers said.

India’s startups also have the chance to build gender diversity and equality into the way they do business from the get go, he said, "not just as a social and moral imperative, but also because it is the right economic and productivity driving model.”

Uniphore was co-founded by Umesh Sachdev and Ravi Saraogi. They have built intellectual property in speech analytics and virtual assistance and count some of India’s biggest corporations as customers, including State Bank of India [SBI], Tata group and ITC Ltd. Airbus and American Express are also customers from overseas, according to the company’s website.

“What we wanted to do was to use vernacular speech as the lowest common denominator to bridge the digital divide in India,” Sachdev, who is CEO of the venture, told Forbes India in the same conference with Chambers. In doing so, they have created pieces of technology – with patents for their intellectual property – that work in 17 Indian languages.

Their technology takes into account Indian conditions such as high noise levels and the existence of multiple dialects. "This unique IP doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and we are now able to replicate it in 80 plus languages around the world with a similar approach," Sachdev added.

While Chambers and Uniphore didn’t reveal additional financial details, the Cisco veteran is said to have invested as much $4 million, according to a person with knowledge of the deal but didn’t want to be named.

The series B round, meaning the second major funding raised by the venture, saw participation from most existing investors including IDG Ventures who led the previous round. Other investors include Senapathy ‘Kris’ Gopalakrishnan, co-founder of Bengaluru-based Infosys, India’s second biggest software services company, India Angel Network, YourNest Angel Fund and Ray Stata, Uniphore said in a press release on Thursday.

Uniphore expects to use the money to deepen its core research, add more features to its products, improve customer service, expand sales and recruit new talent to support its rapid growth. Chambers expects Uniphore to "double every year" in the foreseeable future and Sachdev too anticipates staff strength to rise from the current 100 to a few thousand in the next few years.