The Indian Village Riding a Global AI Boom

Laxmi Challa (in pink) at her school in Tangutoor, in the Indian state of Telangana, that will be funded for future generations by her son’s software company.

On the morning of 17 October 2017, as the temperature was an almost-perfect 23 degrees in Sydney and the clock ticked over to 9.30am, AI scientist Dr Subhash Challa waited for the electronic trading screen of the Australian Stock Exchange to blink into life.

It was an important day for Challa and his company, SenSen Networks Ltd. After 13 years as a startup with a jagged trajectory, an IPO on the ASX would finally allow worldwide investors to share in the growth story of a company with seriously smart technology and people.

A quarter of the globe away — a distance of 9,500 kms and five time zones ­– it was still dark in the Indian village of Tangutoor. Here, in the middle of a rural dust bowl 80 kms from Hyderabad in the state of Telangana, retired school principal Laxmi Challa was waking up in time to coax last night’s campfire back to life to begin her daily breakfast ritual.

Despite a continual struggle to find water on her dusty farm, 64-year-old Laxmi spends time at the ancestral home surrounded by paddy fields, lime trees and Amla trees — the Indian gooseberry renowned as an excellent source of Vitamin C.

Life isn’t easy for Laxmi. In these parts, the soil is tough and the sun unforgiving, and water has to be fetched from wells scattered across 58 hectares — conditions that would have forced most people to abandon the village a long time ago.

While land and a farmhouse are Laxmi’s most visible assets in this remote hamlet, home to around 600 families, they are not the only holdings on her personal balance sheet. She also holds 1% of stock in her son’s technology company SenSen Networks.

Subhash Challa (left), born in a remote village of India, has made a circuitous journey that includes a stint at Harvard Robotics Lab.

The Three F’s: Family, Friends & Fools

Laxmi Challa was not the only person in India affected by events in Sydney on that day in 2017. When trading opened, SenSen’s shareholders register had more than 20 names from Telangana, many of whom had long ago given up hope their shares would have any value.

Most fell into the category of the three F’s — Family, Friends and Fools. Only one had come on board the traditional way: industrialist and co-chairman of Dr Reddy Labs, GV Prasad, the first angel investor to write a cheque to budding entrepreneur Subhash Challa before the company even had a name.

Others had entered in a more roundabout manner. Hyderabad company director Mahipal Reddy and retired engineer Mr B Manohar had been friends with the late Raji Reddy Challa, Subhash’s father and Laxmi’s husband. Both had staked the young Subhash Challa when the headstrong graduate announced he wanted to straddle the worlds of academia and business.

There were four university buddies who’d befriended Subhash in a college dorm: Indu Shekar, Vijaya Chandrahas Maddukuri, Nipun Singhal and Kiran Ramineni. They had chipped in whatever they could afford at the time.

Then there was Ajaya Kumar Vemulapati. Meeting Subhash at a wedding banquet, Ajaya jumped aboard with introductions and relentless optimism — two abundant resources that dwarfed his cash commitment — and he too was the proud and hopeful owner of a tranche of shares.

Subhash Challa (left) in his R&D Lab in Melbourne, Australia.

Maintaining the Indian connection hadn’t always been easy. Several times when SenSen was in trouble, the company’s accountants advised Subhash to liquidate the company and start again with zero debt on the balance sheet.

The first time came soon after moving to Australia in the mid 2000s. Despite encouraging word of mouth and no shortage of meetings to hear about SenSen, contracts were simply not landing.

But Subhash Challa was brought up in a country where karma is instilled early and he couldn’t bring himself to abandon allies who supported him when he needed it most. So he fought the accountants. And won.“We were a decade too early. The market wasn’t ready for our tech offering built around object detection, object tracking and data fusion. It was half a decade before the Internet of Things entered the lexicon,” recalls Challa.

Challa did what every good entrepreneur does — he pivoted. Ignoring his accountants, he shifted operations to focus on analysing data gathered by a network of sensors and sent to a centralised control room for processing and pattern matching.

In doing so, Challa made sure all his original supporters retained their shares. In the face of objections from ‘financial experts’, no-one was left behind. This worldview echoes that of global spiritual leader and poet Thich Nhat Hanh: “My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”

Upon pivoting, Challa enjoyed sporadic success securing a roster of blue-chip clients paying SenSen to monitor speeding, parking infringements and congestion in public places. But it wasn’t long before the financial pressures built up again. A reliance on government clients means sales cycles are long and cash flow is lumpy... and the accountants stepped in once more.

Their second attempt at an intervention came on 2 February 2013. While staff were waiting to be paid $140,000 in combined salaries, the company’s bank account held just $2.03.

Again, the rational — and perfectly legal — advice was to liquidate the company and start with a new shareholder base. Just like before, Challa refused. If he was going to pull his company out of the abyss, he wanted to look his early supporters in the eye when he emerged out the other end.

For 35 of the next 36 months, the company juggled credit cards, overdrafts and personal loans to stay afloat the cash flow issues were sorted. The result? While salaries were almost always late, not one person quit in that eventful three-year period.

For Challa, who excels at applying AI to solve real problems faced by business owners and consumers, the decision was not difficult. No fancy algorithms or decision trees were required — doing the right thing was a clear-cut decision.

“The early investors supported me when I was at my poorest — $1000 here, $2000 there. They were small amounts but every one was important,” says Challa. “Every time I was about to run out of cash, someone always turned up.”

It’s a philosophy shared by author and futurist, Erwin McManus: “Gratitude changes your perspective about life. You see the future, experience the present, and remember the past in a dramatically different way.”

Pride of the Father

In his lifetime Raji Reddy Challa was a village elder as well as an entrepreneur. He didn’t just plant acorns, he nurtured oak trees. Not content with being a chemical engineer, he started a chemical plant. Joining a local chit fund — an informal credit co-operative common in rural India — he turned it into a bank. Seeing that a lack of affordable education was keeping people in poverty, he started a school that was led by his wife Laxmi as its Principal.

Through the village networks, local residents all got to know the young Subhash Challa as he made his meandering journey from the dusty roads of Tangutoor to the waterfront campus of QUT on the Brisbane River in Queensland, Australia, while pursuing a doctorate degree, and to the glass-and-steel towers of Sydney and Melbourne, with a detour at Harvard Robotics Lab along the way.

Tangutoor was where the boisterous and incessantly curious young man sat at the feet of wise old men as they discussed strategy, product mix and price points. Not in fancy MBA jargon, but in the street language of Indian village life.

“If you look at why I started a technology company, it definitely goes back to my father. He was an entrepreneur who I absolutely admired — the way he built his companies, being able to create an enterprise out of nothing,” says Challa in a break between global road shows for SenSen.

“My father was able to start from nothing and create a business which gave jobs to thousands of people. By the time he died, there were 2,000 or 3,000 people with a job and if you add their families then the benefits were spread over 10,000 people or more. I was fascinated by this and thought, ‘How can I create an enterprise that is self-sustaining and create a livelihood for so many people?’”

“My father never wanted me to take over from him, instead he wanted me to go out and do my own thing. So I did my PhD and all that academic stuff and there came a point in life when I was already an ‘expert’, author of several original ideas, a book and a noted plenary speaker at international conferences. I had a really solid foundation around my life as a professor but I wanted to live a life of passion like my father did. And I wanted to do it my own way. Instead of chemicals, I chose to do it with sensors to transform the way people live for the better.”

“Not all great people become famous. I would class my father as one of those great people who didn’t become famous but he inspired others all his life. His mom died when he was 11 days old. He grew up drinking milk from beggars because his father couldn’t find anybody else to sustain him at the time and he went through a life that was a lot harder and harsher than we can ever imagine. But he was kind and sensitive throughout his life, and he always wanted to help people.”

What is AI, Anyway?

Many people claim to know what AI is, but few can tell you how to make life better with it. Challa is one of them. Where others see problems, he uses AI to come up with solutions.

Stuck in traffic, he invents ways to remove obstacles and unblock roads.

Waiting in a queue, he invents ways to reduce waiting time.

And in a casino, he can calculate the ratio of dealers to gamblers to create an optimal balance of investment and enjoyment.

Best of all, he makes AI work in real life taking advantage of the twin forces of big data and the Internet of Things. Now, with a worldwide customer list that sees him on the road for more than half the year, Challa leads from the front as Executive Chairman, CEO and Evangelist in Chief.

“It took a long time for society to catch on but we are finally at a time when there are enough data sets and enough computer processing speeds to make it happen fast enough to be really useful,” he says.

Traditional blessing of the company’s new office in Hyderabad, the closest city to the ancestral home.

Bringing it Back to the Village

Laxmi Challa already knows what she’ll do with her shares if SenSen continues to grow. Building on the education work of her late husband, she has taken on the task of funding and leading a new primary school on the outskirts of Tangutoor.

Money is always an issue, so Laxmi is the chief fundraiser and benefactor. Her other pressing issues are much more basic — making sure pupils have clean toilets and restoring pride in rural schools in the face of aggressive marketing by district schools enticing children to leave their village.

Laxmi is fighting back. She has led a fundraising drive to build a new toilet block and has recruited several respected teachers to deliver the curriculum. From zero enrolments in 2018 there were 100 students on the first day of the current school year.

As film director Rohit Shetty once said, “Your karma should be good, and everything else will follow. Your good karma will always win over your bad luck.”

So if SenSen shares do well on the stock market, the local school at Tangutoor will have a better chance of producing smart and resourceful graduates for many generations to come.

That’s karma, Indian style.

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