Bala S. Manian

General Partner
Saraswati Partners Inc.
PhD '71

[Bala S. Manian]

For his outstanding contributions as an engineer, innovator, and entrepreneur in the fields of optical imaging, digital cinematography, and biotechnology, the Schools of Engineering are proud to present the Distinguished Engineering Alumnus Award to Bala S. Manian.

On discovering Purdue

I came to the U.S. from India in 1967 with a bachelor's in physics and master's in instrumentation. At the University of Rochester, I obtained a master's in applied optics. My background had been oriented toward applied sciences—using technologies as a tool to measure and discover things—and I originally thought to pursue my PhD at Rochester with an emphasis on quantum physics. But Purdue was just starting a program in engineering optics, and even though I lacked a mechanical engineering background, I was able to come to an agreement with Warren Stevenson [a mechanical engineering professor]. I think I was the first doctorate-level student in that program. That was 1968.

Fundamentally, my Purdue days were unique. I was venturing into a new domain. I was interested in using optical technology and applying it to various measurement requirements within the engineering discipline. While I did have formal training in optics, Purdue gave me an interesting cross- discipline experience. Beyond mechanical engineering, I had this wonderful opportunity to work with students from civil and electrical engineering as well. This one key ingredient has been the nucleus of my success. I think it helped lay the seeds for my entrepreneurial future.

A career of surprises

I thought my career would turn out completely different. I was sure it was going to be academically oriented. And I went back to the University of Rochester as a faculty member. I love teaching and research and never saw myself as being outside of a university environment. The environment to me, as a foreign student, was very comfortable. There's a cosmopolitan atmosphere, and I enjoy interacting with bright young students. But in 1975 I left Rochester to pursue commercial activity.

Today, I am what you might call a serial entrepreneur. I've been involved with starting six successful companies in Silicon Valley. I have been in Silicon Valley since 1978. There everyone knows me as “Bala,” the guy you come to with optic issues. All six companies that I started use optical technology to address unmet needs in the life sciences area. I call my start-up experiences “technology translations” involving the adaptation of proven and mature technologies from one area to address unmet problems in another. We developed the first laser film image recorder for medical imaging, inexpensive protein and DNA analysis instrumentation, and the first whole-blood, homogeneous cell assays for management of AIDS and cancer patients.

In 1999, I was awarded a Technical Academy Award for special-effects advances in movies like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. That's certainly something I could not have envisioned while at Purdue.

On future concerns

Right now we spend one out of every seven dollars on health care in the United States. And as our demographics change, there's going to be tremendous pressure to spend more. Technology will play major roles in managing health-care costs. Our goal is to empower patients with knowledge to better manage their day-to-day life. One company I'm chairman of, Pattern Rx, offers disease-specific Web sites that focus on the person with chronic disease. Diabetes and arthritis are two such examples. Internet is truly the medium of empowerment. Through interactivity and interchange, people with same illnesses can help each other to lead their lives to the fullest. That remains my focus today—to take technological developments and apply them to health care.

1999– :
General Partner, Saraswati Partners (a venture capital partnership)
Founder and Chief Technological Officer, Biometric Imaging
Founder and Chief Technological Officer, Lumisys and Molecular Dynamics
Venture capital investor and independent consultant to several venture capital partnerships
Founder and Chief Technological Officer, Digital Optics Corporation (acquired by Matrix Corporation in 1984)
Independent consultant for Ford, IBM, Kodak, and other major companies in the area of machine vision and quality control
Senior Specialist, Eikonix Corporation
Independent Contractor for the Defense Mapping Agency
Senior Scientist, Spectra Physics Corporation
Senior Research Associate and Assistant Professor, Institute of Optics, University of Rochester
BSc '64, Madras University; MS '68, University of Rochester; PhD '71, P urdue University