Professor Manoj Gopalkrishnan is an Associate Professor at the Electrical Engineering department at IIT Bombay. His research interests include algorithms in nature, information processing in networks, and deep learning. He is a recipient of the DST Ramanujan fellowship and the Viterbi Graduate Fellowship. He is also an entrepreneur and the Founder and CEO of Algorithmic Biologics Pvt. Ltd. We spoke to him about his research interests and experiences from his entrepreneurial journey. Here are the excerpts from the conversation.
I am a first-generation Ph.D. in my family and the first to pursue research. I did my Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Southern California, working on molecular information and molecular computing. I was a part of a molecular biology laboratory building DNA nanostructures. This gave me different kinds of exposure, not just to programming computers but also to programming molecules and mathematics. Since my Ph.D., I started a faculty position at TIFR Bombay and then moved to IIT Bombay in a faculty role in 2016. It is from IIT Bombay that our company Algorithmic Biologics began, bringing together threads of algorithmic and biological ideas, along with software acting as the medium to capture the unity of ideas. The software can be executed and replicated at scale with much ease. That power of software has allowed many pursuits that were previously too intellectual to have a real-world impact, so that's what we are riding on to make this a real business.
As a first-generation researcher, you come into research without certain preconceived notions. I believe science enables us to understand the world and to impact the lives of people positively. I wanted to go beyond writing publications, getting citations, etc. which are crucial parts of academic research. Moving to IIT Bombay was a significant step in my career as it gave me access to a larger pool of student talent, broadening our base and expanding on what I had been doing. When the COVID pandemic struck, I realized that the kind of ideas that I had been reflecting on for 18 years had a path to market and the ability to transform people’s lives. Hence, I took the opportunity and decided to start a company.
We decided to set up our base in Bangalore. It has the most evolved ecosystem for start-ups in the country. Most of our current customers are from Bangalore and it has helped us to be there locally to go around various laboratories and ensure that they know us. This kind of recognition is essential for building trust and is advantageous for business, especially in the early stages.
Watching my wife’s journey as an entrepreneur, I was aware of the challenges ahead along the path that I was planning to embark on. You have to prepare for these challenges in a start-up journey, which does require a lot of improvisation. The ability to think on your feet, understand current trends, and be effective at people management are necessary business skills.
People management is a key part of our roles as academic researchers. Faculty members use sales skills when trying to get an idea across for a grant application or trying to publish. These skills are transferable and have been useful in my entrepreneurial journey. I have been fortunate to have had mentors who have helped me learn abstractions useful for a business setting. This has been a great learning experience. We have a small team of about a dozen people spread across four continents, and four time zones. As we started during COVID times, everybody was working remotely. Finding ways to ensure that people were connected even when working across continents was crucial to working together virtually. Communication among the team is essential and the team must interact with each other even outside the group channel. We arrange fun events and group activities online and offline to encourage communication and bonding among the team. At Algorithmic Biologics, we don't see our employees as just the function they perform at the company, but as real people, which I think has helped us.
At Algorithmic Biologics we develop software solutions to bring scale efficiencies to molecular testing workflows to make discovery and diagnostics accessible, affordable, and accurate. We are introducing a new idea on the software and algorithmics side with coding and decoding. If you take the analogy of Telecommunications, the challenge was to get a lot of information from one place to the other, from one human being to another human being. It went through an era of multiplexing, followed by the coding and decoding era, which allowed satellite cell phones and Netflix on your cell phone. We envision bringing this to the world of molecular information, getting information from the molecular scale to the human scale via coding and decoding.
Our customers are laboratories that are usually very good at testing a single sample for a single target but find it challenging to efficiently handle test samples in large numbers (thousands and millions). Here is where we come into the picture. We provide the tools to encode the information in the test samples into a form that is more amenable for testing using the expertise they have honed in their laboratories using the same machines and protocols. Using our software on the cloud, we help them decode the data they have acquired and provide the quantitative results for every sample as if they tested that sample individually.
We have come a long way and learned a lot of things. One thing I realized during this journey is that the progress of a start-up in the early stages is measured by learning. In addition to product and technology, it is essential to learn about the market. We understand our customers, we are running multiple precommercial pilots. We understand the value we deliver for them, which I believe has been our real progress over the past 18 months. On the technology side, we will continue to innovate and build, and the journey will continue toward making discovery and diagnostics accessible and affordable and towards making a positive impact on people's lives.
Two sources of funding for us that enabled the journey in the very early stages were WRCB support and support from a Campus Rakshak Program from DST. To support software development, we could bring in some senior researchers and engineers to help drive the project. We also got access to CSR funds with the help of NCBS which helped to drive the empirical validation of the ideas through laboratory experiments. I think all this funding support has played a role and helped to get our start-up off the ground. I think WRCB funding has been very helpful and is one of the easiest to work with.
At IIT Bombay, we have access to some of the best talent pools in the country. Our initial development got off the ground thanks to some great students. Having that quality of students around was a big deal. At that time, my colleague Professor Ajit Rajwade was teaching the kind of algorithms we needed to use in our work to a class of undergrads in computer science. We could directly tap into that rich vein of talent and overnight had some 15-20 people collaborating with us on our project. This allowed us to drive the whole process very fast. Additionally, IIT Bombay as a brand name helps a lot. It provides access to the decision-making circles in the country so that there is a possibility of uptake of the innovation appropriately.
I think everybody has their journey and has something that gives their life meaning. Not everybody needs to be keen on the entrepreneurial journey. However, people have to find their own way. I know many professors who are not interested in the start-up journey but have encouraged their students to take up the start-up path, where they stay as faculty members and play the role of advisors and mentors advancing the knowledge. The transition for students may be easier because they are at that earlier stage in their careers where they can make such choices about their professional journey.
IIT Bombay has been very generous in terms of their support. This kind of support is like a safety net for faculty members and can reduce the risk of failing. I believe the expertise gained by faculty in their entrepreneurial journey would be looked upon as valuable by the administrators. Likewise, the students also would appreciate the knowledge they bring. I would encourage faculty members as they can be just as successful in their start-up journeys as in academia.
Professor Gopalkrishnan received WRCB’s intramural funding support in 2020 to conduct research on ‘Compressed Sensing Algorithms for Group Testing of Pooled Samples’ under COVID special call for proposals.