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Lokvani Talks To Imran Qidwai

Ranjani Saigal

Imran Qidwai is a technologist and entrepreneur with recent work in mobile entertainment & data services, enterprise software, clean tech and ICT in emerging economies. He has started companies and helped other startups, and is a founding charter member of OPEN.

Over the past six years he has provided advisory services to many organizations of different sizes in senior business and technical roles. In 2007, he helped raise a sizable angel round as president of a Web 2.0 startup. During 2007-08, he was acting CTO of two New England VC and angel funded startups focused on secure mobile messaging and women's social networking. In 2000, he co-founded and was VP of Engineering at MessageMachines, a mobile messaging startup, and took it through angel and venture financing to a successful acquisition by NMS Communications in 2002. Over the past five years he has also used his broad industry experience to help technology entrepreneurship in Egypt, Kosovo, Pakistan, Serbia and Dubai on USAID-funded and other projects.

Past employers include Philips and ICL (now Fujitsu). He has a BS (EE), a post-graduate diploma in Digital Electronics from PII, Eindhoven, The Netherlands, and a MS in CICE from University of Michigan.
Zaviah seems to provide consulting to companies operating in apparently three different fields - Telecommunication, Clean tech and Mobile entertainment and data services.  What motivated you to choose these particular fields for providing strategy consulting?  

Zaviah's consulting practice and advisory services cover several diverse areas matching our clients' needs and interests based on our collective expertise. I spent many years in software engineering management at large and small, public and private companies, including Lotus, NMS Communications, MessageMachines, SoftLinx and Digital Equipment. During this time I led the development of complex vertical systems, such as real-time data distribution for financial trading and related applications, as well as leading edge systems in wireless messaging, mobile entertainment, ASP applications and platforms, unified messaging and other computer telephony applications. While some of these were consumer-oriented, others were implementations of robust enterprise software.

In 2009, I had the wonderful opportunity to learn all about clean tech when I was invited to NECEC's Clean Energy Fellowship (www.cleanenergycouncil.org/fellowship). With my own knowledge and that of my associates, we are very comfortable working in these diverse areas providing a range of services, including the formulation as well as implementation of business and technical strategy. We are extremely pleased to have helped organizations in the US, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia over the past several years. The interesting element is the edge we provide over others for inter-disciplinary projects covering the diverse areas in our domain.

You served as the CTO of a company focused on Secure Mobile Messaging, when this field was almost an unknown. Could you describe that experience? 

My work with LegiTime Technologies was indeed ground-breaking. With their focus on spam prevention, the company's founders formulated patentable ideas to legitimize messages where the sender and recipient may not have “a priori” relationship. This is quite different from using contacts in the address book to determine who is safe to receive messages from. With LegiTime's technology, the sender's computer must perform significant computational work and provide robust "proof of work" as part of the message. Conversely, the recipient's computer can validate the proof of work with very little computation.

With texting, or SMS, taking off in the US in 2007, the company decided to focus on this area for market entry. Using the founders' basic ideas, I created the overall architecture, and then we implemented a working prototype on smartphones operating on an existing major mobile network in the US. The most notable thing is that we cleverly layered our "proof of work" technology over the fairly mature existing SMS infrastructure so the security tokens could pass through the existing network within the small SMS packet size. Over time, the company's base technology has evolved into other interesting applications related to mobile messaging which are useful for enterprises interested in the security and archiving of SMS messages used by their employees.

What opportunities do you see in the Mobile Space in the next five years?

Let me start by cautioning that a wise man once said "Never make predictions, especially about the future." The way the Mobile Space has progressed in the past 15 years from almost nothing, my assessment of opportunities over the next five years has to be taken with a grain of salt. What is for sure, though, is that data speeds will continue to increase. While many in the US still complain about the mobile Internet experience on handsets, some mobile operators already claim to have launched 4G networks in the US providing increased data speeds. The higher network bandwidth means that the progress along the untethering continuum is significant, where we can do more and more things without being tied to a physical network such as in an office or home. Geo-location information will continue to enhance many applications, without people even mentioning Location Based Services whose time supposedly came and went a few times over the past decade. My wish is that voice recognition technology makes a quantum leap to cover the remaining ground towards perfection so users are not constrained by the tiny keyboards or other means of tactile input.

One significant thing to note is that mobile phone usage has evolved differently in the developed vs. emerging markets. To a great degree this has been a function of what alternatives were already available and adopted by the user base to fulfill its pressing needs. Just in the past decade, many areas of the world that had not seen significant landline or Internet penetration were transformed by the arrival of the mobile phone as it provided many people a new electronic communication medium where there was none before. One area where many emerging markets are ahead of the US is the use of the mobile phone for a variety of "payment" systems, be it the purchase of transport tickets or transfer of money. We will eventually see this come to the US as a convenient alternative or as a complement to cash and credit/debit cards. In some advanced countries, such as Japan, the mobile phone is being used for security and authentication, and people use their phones for keyless entry systems to their homes and apartments. Very recently one US airline announced paperless tickets and boarding passes using mobile phones. More such things will happen, and these types of services can potentially  replace the other two things we don’t leave home without: our keys and wallets.

We have already seen the mobile phone become an inseparable companion for many, and its usage will continue to evolve as a single device usable for all kinds of services such as communication, navigation, interaction, social networking, commerce, entertainment, information, identification, and community, not to mention voice calls and business applications.

You served as the CTO of a company that was focused on Women's Social Networking.  Could you tell us about that opportunity? Do you still consider social networking a space with opportunities for entrepreneurs?

A startup entrepreneur's mantra for success is "differentiation" since most "new" ideas have already been tried in some form. This women's social network was one of the first to introduce the concept of paired profiles or personas for its target members -- early to mid-career women. It provides a convenient way to link the woman's professional and personal profiles while keeping them separate. This is especially useful for the woman to manage her professional relationships separately, while providing similar tools and shared contacts and calendar to manage her personal life. In addition, the website provides an easy to use home for women's groups, and various aggregation services to women bloggers.

Social networking is still a space with opportunities for entrepreneurs. Some may be in developing applications around the more popular existing social networks, while others may be niche angles for new networks. An entrepreneur must learn from others who have been there before, and find real life solutions to problems that have not been solved as yet. Despite the success of others who may have an apparent lock on a market, one can always identify a new niche. What greatly helps the entrepreneur with the new idea leapfrog the incumbents is that newer technologies enable things that may not have been possible before and often easier (think cheaper) to implement.

Can you describe your experience in the clean tech space and what you see as potential opportunities? 

My experience in the clean tech space is relatively short-lived, and I continue to see great opportunities moving forward. In a market-driven environment, one challenge is that moving ideas from science to working technology and products takes a long time and lots of money. On the other hand, there are many technologies in the market that are ready to be deployed. The interesting thing is that some of these appear expensive today, but in many cases lower price points can be achieved simply by economies of scale and evolution. While the green industry continues to get attention and the business volume is showing an increase year over year, we may see a growth spurt based on a somewhat predictable future when carbon is assigned a price in the leading economies. Also, many believe that water is a bigger problem awaiting solutions in many regions across the globe, but innovation to solve critical problems will likely happen when water is priced right. To wit, on World Water Day just recently, the UN reported that more people die from unsafe water every year than from all forms of violence, including war (http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=34150). My hope and expectation is that this area soon gets the attention it deserves.

During the brief time I have been active in this space, I have identified several major areas of opportunity:

1. Electricity storage, ideally grid scale, but also distributed

2. Energy efficiency, especially for buildings, and demand reduction during peak day times

3. Harnessing of industrial and building waste heat for productive use

4. Industrial wastewater treatment, and possible harvesting of various materials and minerals

5. Low cost efficient drilling for residential geothermal systems

What motivated you to start OPEN?

A handful of us Bostonians started the Organization of Pakistani Entrepreneurs in 1998 mainly as a small local networking organization to support each other in our entrepreneurial endeavors and executive responsibilities. Within a few months of establishing a critical mass, we started getting requests from other compatriots in the region and, subsequently, from across the country who wanted us to expand the model. OPEN is not exclusive to people of Pakistani heritage, although a large part of our membership started out that way. From Boston we expanded to New York and Silicon Valley in early 2000, and now have chapters in Chicago, Houston and Washington DC. There has been local interest in starting additional OPEN chapters in North America as well as overseas.

How does it differ in its mission from TIE?

OPEN's primary mission is to enhance business opportunities for entrepreneurs and professionals, and to promote entrepreneurship, leadership, and professional excellence within the community through various networking opportunities. There is clearly some overlap with TiE in terms of our mission and activities, although TiE operates at a much larger scale and is now global in nature. However, we don't consider these organizations competitive in any way. In fact, there are many people who are members of both organizations across the country. Individuals have also had leadership positions in one organization and the other at different times. I myself have benefited greatly by participating in many TiE events and activities. Some individuals find comfort for certain activities in a smaller organization such as OPEN. Over the past three years, we have also teamed up with the MIT Enterprise Forum of Pakistan, and its predecessor MIT EF Club of Pakistan, to conduct an annual Business Acceleration Plan competition in Pakistan. The BAP helps mid-stage companies benefit from the experience and other resources available through the OPEN membership in the US. The winners have typically attended the MIT Entrepreneurship Development Program the following January. The winner of the first competition in 2007 has achieved almost 30 times revenue growth during this time, based on the added insights, mentoring, capital investment, and other support received as a result of the competition.

Despite the difficult times, would you consider investing in Pakistan?  What opportunities would you consider worth pursuing? 

Bad news always gets the best press. Pakistan has much good news about happenings in technology and business that don't make it to the headlines. We have to remember that with about 160 million people it is the sixth most populous country on earth, sometimes dwarfed in the shadows of the #1 and #2 most populous nations in the same neighborhood. Pakistan has a large domestic market, with a significant young and increasingly educated population. In addition to the relatively easy access to the Internet, the recent opening of the media market has seen a burgeoning TV and cable industry which has served well to inform and entertain the people. On the other hand, with a growing population and industrial usage, the supply of electric power has not kept pace with demand and this area is suffering from acute problems. Some of the best investment opportunities in Pakistan today are in energy, technology, education and infrastructure. 

Why should people consider becoming a member of OPEN? How would they go about applying to become a member?

OPEN members benefit in many ways from access to others within the organization and its extended network. This works at the local level as well as across the various chapters. Each chapter is somewhat autonomous, and has its own schedule of meetings and events, with each chapter conducting several major events a year. The Silicon Valley chapter hosts OPEN Forum, the biggest annual national conference in May or June (this year on June 5, 2010), with hundreds of attendees from all over North America and abroad.

In terms of specific membership benefits, entrepreneurs can get help with mentoring, business plan reviews, and introductions for investments etc.; professionals can get assistance with job placements; and, members also get admission to smaller capacity special events where they learn from accomplished entrepreneurs and businessmen. Membership information can be found on the OPEN New England website, and some of the benefits are listed at http://open-newengland.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=40&Itemid=76.

Thanks so much for your time

Thank you for providing this opportunity.

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