How a US chipmaker unwittingly became an incubator for Indian entrepreneurs

The beginning.
The beginning.
Image: Savita Kirloskar
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In 1985, the American chip designer Texas Instruments (TI) set up a research and development centre (pdf) in Bengaluru—then mostly a pensioners’ paradise, far from becoming the technology hub it is today.

Over the years, the company hired the best talent from India’s finest engineering colleges to strengthen its operations. And these graduates were attracted by TI because, among other things, its salaries typically bested other options at that time.

The Fortune 500 company started out as a small oil and gas company in 1930. In 1958, TI entered the semiconductor business. So far, the Texas-based chipmaker, with a market capitalisation of $56 billion, has more than 40,000 patents to its name. According to its website, TI was the first global technology company to “establish its presence in India.”

Three decades later, the Indian technology startup ecosystem has a lot to thank TI for.

Here are 10 ”ex-TIers,” as they call themselves, who are at the forefront of India’s red-hot startup scene:

  • Phanindra Sama, co-founder, redBus: Sama worked as a senior design engineer at TI from 2004 to 2006. Right after he quit his job, he co-founded the ticketing services startup redBus, which was sold to the Ibibo Group in 2013. It was one of the biggest overseas internet deals India had seen until then.
  • Ragunandan G, co-founder, TaxiForSure: After completing his engineering degree at the National Institute of Technology, Karnataka, in 2003, Raghunandan worked at TI as a senior design engineer for about two years. He quit to attend the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. In 2011, along with his friend Aprameya Radhakrishna, he founded the app-based taxi hailing service TaxiForSure, which was bought by Ola earlier this year for $200 million (Rs1,200 crore).
  • Venugopal Gopinathan, co-founder, Angiometrix Corporation: A PhD from Columbia University, Gopinathan was a director at TI from 2004 to 2007. He then started the medical devices company Angiometrix. Since 2010 he has been working as the director of Kilby Research Labs of TI, which is focused on innovation in energy efficiency, bioelectronics and life sciences.
  • Tonmoy Shingal, co-founder and COO, Mettl: Shingal worked at TI between 2002 and 2006. A few years later, he co-founded the online assessment platform Mettl. The company has so far raised $4.4 million in three rounds from 10 investors.
  • Baskar Subramanian, co-founder, Amagi Media Labs: Subramanian worked as a senior design engineer at TI between 1995 and 1998. He left the job to start Impulsesoft, which developed Bluetooth solutions for handheld devices. The startup was acquired by US-based Sirf Technology for $15 million (around Rs70 crore then). In 2008, Subramanian co-founded tech and media startup Amagi Media Labs, which has raised some $5.5 million in funding.
  • Krishnan Ramabadran, co-founder, Zentron Labs: Ramabadran worked at TI for around 15 years before founding a semiconductor intellectual property firm, Cosmic Circuits. The company was acquired by US-based Cadence Design Systems in 2012. The same year, Ramabadran co-founded Zentron Labs, which provides automation systems for processes that require visual checking.
  • Lovleen Bhatia, co-founder & CEO, Edureka: Bhatia joined TI in 2004 as technical lead and worked at the company for over seven years. In 2011, he co-founded online training platform Edureka.
  • Aman Kokrady, co-founder and CEO, Acceletrade Technologies: Kokrady joined TI as a student intern in 2001 and left the company in 2011 as an IP design manager. In 2012, he co-founded the trading technology firm Acceletrade Technologies.
  • Himamshu Khasnis, founder and CEO, Signalchip Innovations: After working at TI for 10 years, Khasnis founded Signalchip in 2010. His startup was among the first few that were registered under the Karnataka government’s electronic system design and manufacturing (ESDM) policy, a initiative to boost ESDM business from the state.
  • Saptarshi Biswas, co-founder, Lifetape: An Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur alumnus, Biswas worked with TI from 2004 to 2006. He set up the home videos, music and photos sharing platform CoolCast in 2011. Two months ago, he co-founded Lifetape, a startup that lets users create their own cloud-based museum.

What TI did for them?

The two key things that these entrepreneurs say TI taught them was innovation and thinking ahead of the curve.

“There was a big culture of innovation and a lot of technical grounding at the company,” Shingal of Mettl told Quartz. “In 2002-03, my colleagues and I used to discuss about devices on which people could read—like the tablets of today.”

The company also encouraged entrepreneurship by allowing engineers to do independent research along with their day-to-day duties. “Independent opinions and thinking were highly encouraged at the company,” Ramabadran of Zentron Labs said. “It is not easy to find that kind of atmosphere to work in India.”

“It was a very entrepreneurial atmosphere at the development centre,” Sama of redBus remembered. “One thing I learned at the company was how to be result-oriented. Also, the quality of talent at TI was fantastic. I got to know many brilliant minds.”

Several other entrepreneurs believe that the work they did at TI was far superior to what their peers were then doing at other companies.

When Bhatia of Edureka joined TI, he was made to work in a division that researched and experimented with new technologies. “It did not matter whether you succeeded or failed, it was only about the joy of innovation. I got immense exposure to solving new problems during that time,” Bhatia, who did not wish to disclose what these technologies were, said. ”My peers at the development centres of other MNCs were mostly doing low-end work, while we were making new things.”

Although TI has not responded to our our emailed queries, this is what they have to say on their website about innovation in India: ”The number of patents filed in the US by our engineers in India is perhaps the highest from any technology company in the country.”