Monday, January 18, 2010

Yash Sabharwal Talks about His Startup Experience

Where are you from originally?

I am originally from Rochester, NY. I was born there and lived there through my undergraduate years. I spent a few years when I was a kid in Queens, NY.

What university did you go to?

I went to the University of Rochester and studied Optics at the Institute of Optics. I received my B.S. in optics in 1992. I went on to the University of Arizona afterward to get my Ph.D. in Optical Sciences. I finished in 1998 specializing in optical system design, fiber optics, and image processing with an emphasis on medical and biological imaging applications.

What brought you to Austin?

My decision to come to Austin was based on a number of personal and professional considerations. After graduate school, I started a company with two other students at the University of Arizona. In 2005, we were acquired by Roper Industries and at the end of 2005, I moved on to another medical imaging startup based in Silicon Valley. At the end of 2007, I decided to take some time off to re-energize. During this time, I met my fiancee who is from Austin. I think this was a sign, because I had been thinking about moving to Austin to explore new entrepreneurial possibilities here. We just moved here at the end of 2009 and I am starting to look for an opportunity with a local startup.

What is the idea behind your startup?

The idea behind this first startup was the development of spectral imaging systems for biological, medical and industrial imaging applications. Our products were intended to provide lower cost, more flexible solutions for customers who needed to analyze the spectral content of images for diagnostic or inspection tasks. We were very good at taking the idea of the spectrometer, combining it with an imaging system, and packaging it in a way that reduced the cost of access to the technology without sacrificing performance.

What need does it fulfill?

The products that we developed addressed the need for acquisition of images in different spectral bands simultaneously. Prior to the development of our product, most customers were forced to take images sequentially using a filter wheel or some other product that changed the spectral bands sequentially. However, for any real-time imaging applications where changes are occurring rapidly, a sequential imaging system is useless. With the advent of our spectral imaging products, the capability to simultaneously acquire two or four spectral images on a single digital camera was readily available as a standardized product line.

What exactly does your product do?

The product was a lens and filter system that attached to the front of a high-end digital (CCD-based) camera. For the two-band system, the product would optically divide the sensor of the camera into two sensors. So, an identical image is formed on each half of the sensor. For example, if the system was looking at someone's face, the sensor would show two faces, one on each half of the sensor. By creating two separate imaging channels, each channel can be individually filtered however the user desires. A similar product created four different imaging channels, one in each quadrant of the sensor. We also developed a software package with application-specific image processing algorithms that customers could use to process the acquired images.

Who is it for?

These products had applications in a number of areas. Our most significant market was in the biological imaging arena specifically for microscopy applications. University professors and research scientists used these products in the study of cell structure and function.

What was the most challenging aspect of starting up a business?

There are two aspects that I personally found most challenging. First, and this is not unique to us, there was the issue of cash flow. Cash flow management is very challenging during the initial years as you are trying to grow the company. I think we were very creative in how we financed the company in the beginning without having to get funding from VCs. The second challenge started once we entered the growth phase. When the growth really kicks in, it comes at you fast and finding the personnel to staff the growth was also very challenging. But, I think this challenge was a function of where we were located and the lack of a large pool of young talent.

What is the next step for you and your startup?

This startup is no longer an independent company. We were acquired a few years ago. So, I am looking for another startup to get involved with. Maybe it will be an existing startup or a new one.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs?

I think that many entrepreneurs, especially tech entrepreneurs, get too caught up in the technology or product they have developed. It is really important to remember that the most important component of your business is the market you are trying to address, not your product. Without a market, your product or technology doesn't have any value. So, the first piece of advice would be to stay focused on your market.

The second piece of advice is to understand your competition very well. I have heard many entrepreneurs say that their technology is so great, they have no competition. I once heard an investor fire back that if you have no competition, then you have no market!

The last piece of advice is that perseverance is a critical factor. Starting and building a company is the hardest thing I have ever done. There were so many times when I was ready to give up because there was no money or too much stress or I was working 100 hour weeks. I just had to put my head down and keep working through all of these obstacles. It takes a lot out of you. But, it can be extremely rewarding also.

What Austin-based resource have you found to be the most helpful and why?

I am very new to Austin. So, I haven't had a chance to really explore the different resources based here. However, the one thing I have already noticed is that people in Austin are extremely friendly and approachable. This makes it very easy to network with other entrepreneurs to share ideas and uncover interesting opportunities.