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Lokvani Talks To Dr. Shiva Ayyadurai

Ranjani Saigal

V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai is a Fulbright Scholar, MIT-Lemelson Awards Finalist and Westinghouse Science Award recipient. He is a scientist, educator, inventor and entrepreneur. He was born in Bombay, India and moved to the United States at the age of seven. He completed his secondary school education in New Jersey. He is the inventor of one of the world’s first E-Mail systems and holds three US Patents in pattern recognition. His scientific research is at the intersection of computing, modeling and biology. He has published scientific articles in conference proceedings and refereed journal articles. Shiva has started several companies and runs an investment venture fund in the United States funding, mentoring and incubating young startups. In January of 2000, one of Shiva’s inventions and companies EchoMail was the featured story in The MIT Technology Review. He has appeared in columns and articles in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, NBC News, USA Today and other major publications. He was named Top 40 in the Improper Bostonian. He is also the author of two books: Arts and the Internet and The Internet Guide to Publicity. He has been a teacher and educator to students at MIT as well as to CEO’s and Executive Management at Fortune 1000 companies.

He is a member of Sigma-Xi, Eta Kappa Nu and Tau Beta Pi. He is a founder of the Shanthi Foundation which raises money to provide scholarships for education to orphaned girls. He is also a supporter of various arts and non-profit organizations including the Guggenheim Museum, Very Special Arts, National Public Radio and the National Geographic Society. Shiva enjoys yoga, travel, tennis, animals, art and architecture, and lives Belmont, MA, USA.

You seem to have tried your hand at so many different things and with a Midas touch, turned everything you touched into a phenomenal success. Why did you branch out in so many different directions?

My life has been defined by striking contrasts.  I was born in Bombay. I remember Bombay vividly as a city of extremes in terms of wealth and poverty.  I moved to New Jersey at the age of 7.  Living as an Indian in New Jersey I was exposed to two very different cultures, a traditional Indian one at home and the American world at school. In those days my sister and I were the only brown kids in our school and we had to reconcile the vast differences in cultures.  My interests also were equally divided between academics and sports. I was part of varsity soccer and basketball teams while excelling in science and math at school.

I visited India when I was 12. I stayed in my grandmother’s village and again was struck by the differences between that village and New York. There were members of my family who were doctors and scientists living in urban areas and others who were farmers and lived in huts.
While I have worked in a variety of fields, the common theme throughout my life has been to build bridges – be that between cultures or between the haves and have-nots. I am very curious about how the world works and all my
initiatives have been motivated by that drive.

You have the copyright to the first email system ever built, which you did at the age of 13.  What inspired you to build this system?

In 1977, a professor from Rutgers University Medical College noticed my interest in programming asked me to help him build an electronic mail system. When he mentioned it I thought it was something to do with taking physical letters, vaporizing them in some form and sending it. !!!  I worked for 3 years during my high school. I used an HP RTE 4 to build the system and won the prestigious Westinghouse award for my work.

The next accomplishment for you was to join MIT where, in addition to getting degrees in electrical engineering and computer science, you were also an activist and later developed the famous website artists – Artsonline.com. Could you describe that phase of your life?

At MIT I was founder and editor of a newspaper called “The Student” and an activist.  I worked to raise awareness of global and campus issues such as apartheid, U.S. policies overseas, cuts in student aid and sexual harassment on campus. My intention was always to make the MIT community aware of our being part of a larger global society, and the fact that we as leaders had a duty to fight for those who had less.

After graduating from EECS in 1986, I worked at a small company and helped to develop a product called Freelance, a precursor to Powerpoint which we later sold to Lotus. I always had a fascination for the arts and at the very beginning of the Internet era decided to build a web site for artists to be able to sell their product directly to the consumer without any middlemen. I built Artonline.com in return for a space to work at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts building and it became a great success. The site built on theme of bridging gaps between cultures.  We hosted Alvin Ailey, Boston Ballet and at its peak were hosting up to 5000 artists online. We pioneered internet advertising and created the first banner ad . We charged 7c/ hit for Zima, our first Internet advertisement.

From then on you moved to creating EchoMail which grew into a multimillion dollar business.  How did you make that leap?

After LOTUS, I went to the MIT Media Lab and got a master's degree in animation, focusing on how to present scientific data visually.  When Bill Clinton was President and the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit, the Whitehouse was getting overwhelmed with Emails. NIST and the Whitehouse partnered to create TREK which was a competition to create software that can look through content in emails, do feature extraction and automatically sort and channel emails.  I won the competition.  The product was the genesis of EchoMail. Our first customer at EchoMail was AT&T which was receiving nearly 10 million emails a month on their call center. They did not want to buy our software but were willing to use our services. Thus we pioneered the concept of an ASP or Application Support Provider.  It grew into a Multimillion dollar business.

You sold EchoMail and went back to school to get a degree in Computational Biology and now have a Fulbright grant to go to India to study Eastern medicine. Why did you decide to enter this new area?

I always come back to the concept of building bridges.  As a child I grew up watching my grandmother act as a local “Shaman” in her village. I felt that if Western medical techniques are applied to Eastern medicine we can learn a great deal. We can have a lot of positive interactions between the two. Computational Biology has given me a great of understanding of the basis of western medicine. I hope to raise funds to establish a center of East West medicine at MIT so that a systematic study of Eastern medicine can be undertaken.

You have accomplished so much already. Where do you see yourself ten years from now?

Would love to be in the White House, but can’t since I’m not born in America.  So, I guess it will have to be Rashtrapati Bhavan!  Seriously, I see myself in having greater impact on helping to improve health worldwide and changing the existing paradigm of discovery in modern medicine.  Most of all having more fun doing the same things and not taking things as seriously.
Thanks so much for your time

Thank you!

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