Success Lies in Envisioning the Future

Author: Linda Thomas Terhune

Karthik Ramani is excited. He speaks rapidly, his voice animated as he locks in on a favorite subject-innovation and enterprise. As the mind behind several startups and patents, the professor of mechanical engineering knows about the subject and has definite opinions about the place of entrepreneurship in academia. It is a subject of equal interest to his colleague, Jayathi Murthy, Robert V. Adams Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who came to Purdue with a background that includes 10 years in the trenches with a startup. Now back in academia, she views engineering as a natural fit with entrepreneurship. What follows is a closer look at the two researchers and how enterprise has shaped their work.

Driven to Exceed

Karthik Ramani is a mechanical engineer. He's also a serial entrepreneur, a term he uses to describe a friend who has opened coffee shop after coffee shop. If you track Ramani's activities, he has had a hand in enterprise for years, ranging from technical patents in graduate school to co-founding an online international grocery store with his wife and others-that did not grow or materialize as he had expected. He was a bit ahead of his time-online grocery is being reinvented today again in the Bay area and even has entered the market.

Karthik Ramani with shapeshack. The algorithmic application of his latest NSF-sponsored research allows users to turn sketches into 3D objects.

Ramani's most well-known effort to date is, however, not in food service. It is Imaginestics, a company based in the Purdue Research Park for which he has been a key partner since April 2003. It is based on the first online visual search engine for manufacturing, Vizseek, which Ramani developed that allows users to search for parts using a rough sketch, photograph, or professional design.

Ramani, also a courtesy professor in electrical and computer engineering, is never content to stop exploring. "A lot of my current and future work is about imagining new worlds and creating new paths, rather than
walking on existing ones, he says. He particularly likes research that can lead to disruptive technologies.

Ramani is currently working on a project, funded by the Computer Science (IIS) Division at the National Science Foundation (NSF), inspired in part by his children. It will enable amateurs and professionals alike to
take sketches into 3D shapes without knowing how to use a computer program or the technicalities of computer-aided design. He is also working on proteomics research funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and would like to explore its use in computational drug discovery.

During the past academic year, Ramani has returned to his educational roots to incubate his ideas during a sabbatical at Stanford and the Institute of Pure and Applied Mathematics at UCLA. Ramani's roommates and good friends at Stanford included one who developed (consumer opinions); one who co-founded Neoteris acquired by Juniper; another who developed Snapfish, which was acquired by Hewlett-Packard; one who developed the search engine Junglee, purchased by Amazon; and another who created the recently acquired Stratify. "I'm a product of Silicon Valley," he says of what may be entrepreneurial contagion. "You see others, you learn how to think about the "so-what's very much part of the culture here in the Bay area."

Invention and Intellectual Property is Key Concept

Jayathi Murthy (standing) works with graduate student Dipali Pradhan on a computer simulation to analyze how heat is transferred through a silicon nanowire.

Ramani is a convert to entrepreneurism and its related areas. He cites a remark by former Federal Reserve Chairman Allen Greenspan during a 2004 lecture at Stanford to illustrate the importance of its place in modern
society. "As America's economy shifts from emphasizing the production of material goods to the creation of ideas, the issue of intellectual property rights has assumed increasing importance," Greenspan said.

Intellectual property (IP) concepts occupy enough of Ramani's thoughts that he initiated the development of a course on the subject in the mid-1990s, when it wasn't part of the academic lexicon. This well-attended class, taught by Indianapolis attorney John McNett, introduces students to concepts such as claim writing, how to protect ideas, licensing, and litigating intellectual property.

Ramani says he created the course out of a personal need and its importance to education in general. "I wanted to write my own patents and understand other IP, and I knew it was going to become important. I didn't know enough about it, so the only way was to educate myself. Knowledge about what an invention is and how to think about it helps one become a better engineer."

While the place of the entrepreneur in an academic setting is evolving, Ramani is adamant that there is room for significant transformation and growth.

"To have impact, we have to change what we measure as success-not directly the number of publications or amount of funding. This involves profound changes in university culture," he says. "We have to engage in entrepreneurship wanting to push the boundaries of research and the real world," he says.

"Imagining a future and wanting to change the present is not linked to traditional university metrics. You have to go across the boundaries of campus into the real world and be able to think globally in terms of new areas of applications, then scale that up to a research company, grow larger, and gain a dominant position. You also get feedback from the startup to help define new research."

Engineering as a Conduit

When Jayathi Murthy was in graduate school, she balanced thoughts of a future life in the business world with one in the academic community-the scales were even. She wanted ultimately to do something that mattered; the setting didn't make a difference.

Murthy, a professor of mechanical engineering and founding director of Purdue's new PRISM: Center for Prediction of Reliability, Integrity and Survivability of Microsystems, managed to embrace both worlds when she left the University of Minnesota with her doctorate. She joined the faculty at Arizona State University and, a few years later, was drawn to the cosmos of startups. Friends from graduate school were launching a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) product that she says, "sounded very exciting, and was a chance to make a real impact in a new field." The company that launched the product is now known as Fluent Inc., a world leader in the CFD business.

Murthy took charge of the startup's Research and Development group and successfully navigated the challenges of funding with the development of robust unstructured pressure-based methodologies. The decade-long experience vastly broadened her research focus.

"It taught me a huge amount," she says. "The most important was listening to the customer-they were your clients and their needs mattered the most, not simply what interested you intellectually. This determined our entire product strategy, the types of computational techniques we developed, the physics we addressed, the science we targeted. So it was a terrific lesson in doing technical development in the context of market need."

Murthy left Fluent in 1998 and arrived at Purdue in 2001 after teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. She sees a growing interest in entrepreneurship within the academic world, an offshoot, she says, of the IT Revolution and companies nurtured at universities.

"Engineers doing research are the natural conduit between the academic and entrepreneurial worlds," she says, adding that her time in industry can only improve her performance as a researcher and teacher. "I hope the experience has given me a good view of what industry is doing so we don't cover the same bases here in academics. We should be addressing fundamental issues that industry would not naturally cover, but
Keeping Ultimate Technological Relevance in Mind."

As director of PRISM: Center for Prediction of Reliability, Integrity and Survivability of Microsystems, Murthy can apply her entrepreneurial skills to an academic startup. Her CFD and heat transfer work focuses primarily on the nanoscale and, within the center, will address the development of computational methods for Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS) simulation. The research center, also affiliated with Purdue's Discovery Park, will develop advanced simulation tools for commercial and defense applications. It is funded by the Department of Energy and the National Nuclear Security Administration.