Interview with Dijam Panigrahi, COO, Gridraster
“Passionate and excited about how technology is challenging norms and changing the way we interact and engage with the world around us. Particularly excited about the convergence of mobile technology, cloud computing and AI.”
What does Gridraster bring to the marketplace?
We observed, and we strongly believe, that augmented reality and virtual reality will change the way we interact or work and live in the long run. But we also had a strong feeling that if all those things were to be possible, they have to be made possible on a mobile device. On Oculus and other heavy devices, not all those experiences are possible.
As part of our team’s previous functions in Qualcomm, Broadcom, Texas Instruments, and Apple, we have worked on mobile, the network, and the cloud. We have seen a few technologies merging. For example, data pipes are becoming thicker, and you can do more using the network. The cloud computing thesis is falling into place with the virtualization of GPU’s. We saw that you cannot do this sort of intensive experience on the mobile device, but mobile is the only way that we can actually make this use case of this medium mainstream.
What we can do is leverage the cloud infrastructure, which is available to act as a co-processor to the mobile device, and be able to enable any kind of complex intense immersive experience at scale, not just trying to confine it to a single device or two. Essentially, what we bring to this industry is the software stack to allow any content provider to enable those experiences on any of the devices over the network so you don’t need those heavy devices anymore. You can use the software stack that we are building to make the experience possible across different devices.
Can you tell me a little bit of your background and the team’s background before starting Gridraster?
We started the company back in 2015. Before that, in all of our fourteen to fifteen years of experience, we worked on the next generation of network-based products, whether it’s the first dual processors for the smartphones or the 3G and 4G networks. We have built those products and taken them to different markets, international markets and scaled the revenues from zero to multimillion dollar sizes.
So I bring mostly product and business development expertise. Rishi Ranjan is the technical brain. He was a system designer within Qualcomm and Broadcom, working on the product for five or six years ahead of when they came into the market. Venkat Dass brings expertise in delivering to the customer. As part of Broadcom, he was the person who was applying 4G, 3G, and LTE into the networks for Samsung and Apple. He led our engineering effort.
Recently Bhaskar Banerjee, somebody we knew over the years, joined us from the Apple team, where he was working on the immersive display technologies there. Now he takes over the CTO role.
How does your experience in business development and product management help as Chief Operating Officer? Could you talk a little bit about your experience more on the BD side versus your co-founders experience on the technical side and how you are able to bring that together?
What we’re doing is deeply technical, and we have multiple patents that have been filed, a couple of which have already been approved. We weren’t trying to do a research project, but rather make something commercially viable. That’s why we wanted to have multiple people come together.
When we started out it was Rishi and I who were both outward facing. We both had the technology base but we wanted to commercialize it. Before we conceptualized it, we actually spoke to at least fifty customers, trying to understand their pain point. I was trying to understand how it was going to be used, what business problem we were going to solve, what value it was going to bring, and how we can take this technology and productize it. Rishi was focusing on how you map that out from the technical requirement and from the systems requirement so that the engineering team, at that point led by Venkat, could implement it and come up with viable product that we can show to customers in our target audience.
We continued to iterate and evolve our roles. We started developing the product and we raised some funding and strengthened our team. Rishi focused more on the fundraising and top leadership and Venkat focused more on ensuring successful deployment with customers.
There are a lot of specific applications to aerospace and industrial industries. Can you go into detail on those applications and give a few examples?
Those use cases were developed from the conversations that we were having. The first part of the process for us was: okay, we have this awesome technology, how do we leverage this?
We needed more data points that in a certain industry, there is a problem they’re facing that we can solve. When we went out to the market and spoke to the customers in aerospace and defense, we talked a lot about value for price. For example, the HoloLens costs anywhere between $3,000-$5,000. That’s going to be pretty expensive if you’re looking at medical, education, or any other industry. But the amount that the aerospace customer or automotive customer or any of the manufacturing companies were actually spending on a device like Hololens was humongous.
For an aerospace customers that we’re working with today, one use case is the manufacturing process where they’re building out the spacecraft. What they’re doing is aligning the virtual CAD models, which are pretty heavy and complex, onto the physical assets. When you’re overlaying those virtual assets on top of the physical spacecraft that you’re building, you’re identifying spots where it needs to be put. If you can get those accurate overlays done using our technology, the cloud infrastructure, which you can do to almost a millimeter precision, you are able to save big by cutting down the time required to do the job and eliminating errors.
Another use case is engineering design. One of the automotive companies has been designing cars using the clay or foam model. The problem is, any changes that you want to make to the design takes weeks and months. Now they’re replacing the clay or foam modeling with the mixed reality pieces where you could overlay those virtual assets very precisely on the physical assets . This they can do now in near real time instead of waiting for weeks or months.
What was the most valuable thing you learned from Alchemist?
Learning to stick to the process and believe that the outcomes will come. If we focus on the outcomes too much and we don’t focus on the process, we won’t have a scalable design. That’s the thing that I found very valuable that we got from Alchemist, whether in the fundraising process or the building process.
If you were in Alchemist again, would you do anything differently?
I would get my co-founders to be much more immersed in the program instead of it being mainly me.
From my side, I think many of the processes, like for example creating a customer advisory board, we created over a time period, but we could have done it much more quickly. If you look back it looks pretty crystal clear but in retrospect there are many things I would have done differently. The two things I will say is that I would have put up those processes much earlier and I would have gotten my partners to be more involved in the Alchemist program.
What is the most challenging thing going forward?
Exploring product market fit. I know that our technology is going to be applicable across different domains and different industries, but we have to navigate that over a time period. Considering the team that we have, we can only focus on maybe a couple of use cases and a couple of industries. Based on all the data points that were available to us and customer conversations we had, we decided that aerospace, defense, and automotive will be our focus in the short term.
What entrepreneurial lesson takes the longest to learn, or are you still learning?
As an entrepreneur you’re learning every day, such as, for example, building up the team. I’ve learned the value of letting go of certain roles. Maybe you at this point are the best person to do certain things, but maybe it’s a good time to let go of a few of the things because it frees you up to focus on some things that are more important that others cannot do.
For example, my co-founder is the best in terms of technical skills, but as a CEO you know he has much more things to do now. But if he continues to get into the technical chops, he may not be able to do the CEO role effectively.
Beyond that, from a sales point of view, everything takes longer than what you expect.
Do you have any insights that you want to share to the next generation of Alchemist founders?
Bring the right team. Before you even build any of the product, validate with the customers or the users who are going to use it. I’m sure that’s been said so many times, but when you are technical founders, you are so convinced of the technology that you lose sight of viability.
Apart from that, you are trying to build a business, not building a company to raise money. Sometimes that part of the process gets mixed up,as if you’re just trying to raise another round. Right from the beginning I think you should be focusing on building out a company which can sustain itself. The capital should be able to accelerate that growth but should not be the end goal.
About the Alchemist Accelerator
Alchemist is a venture-backed initiative focused on accelerating the development of seed-stage ventures that monetize from enterprises (not consumers). The accelerator’s primary screening criteria is on teams, with primacy placed on having distinctive technical co-founders. We give companies around $36K, and run them through a structured 6-month program heavily focused on sales, customer development, and fundraising. Our backers include many of the top corporate and VC funds in the Valley — including Khosla Ventures, DFJ, Cisco, and Salesforce, among others. CB Insights has rated Alchemist the top program based on median funding rates of its grads (YC was #2), and Alchemist is perennially in the top of various Accelerator rankings. The accelerator seeds around 75 enterprise-monetizing ventures / year. Learn more about applying today.