Rajiv Khemani, Innovium — Founder Story
Success is not a straight line. It’s a very bumpy road.
If there’s a consistent theme throughout Rajiv Khemani’s career, it’s his willingness to go all-in.
Figuratively, that is — and for the record, Khemani is more of a poker and bridge player. What’s clear is that when opportunity has knocked, Khemani has tried to defy the odds with the opportunities that came his way. After leaving his native India to decamp at New York University to pursue a PhD in computer science, it wasn’t long before he put his original plans on hold to take a career detour — first at Stanford University to get an MBA and then it was off to Silicon Valley as the internet revolution gathered steam.
Compiling a resume that included pit stops at startups including NetBoost, NetApp, and Cavium, as well as more established tech mainstays like Sun Microsystems and Intel, Khemani was ready to do his own thing. In 2015, he co-founded Innovium, a developer of semiconductors designed for data centers.
That’s not usually the sort of business that drums up investor excitement. When venture capitalists hear about semiconductor startups, the first things they think about are the vast capital costs and the extended product cycles. But Innovium has successfully challenged conventional wisdom. With data center traffic exploding and bandwidth demands doubling every 12 to 15 months, the company has outraced older and bigger rivals, developing scalable Ethernet Switch silicon tailored to the needs of next-gen Cloud, Enterprise and Edge Data Centers, where performance and latency are critical to high-performance.
We spoke with Khemani about entrepreneurship, the importance of being persistent, and the technology shifts he believes are destined to force transformative changes over the next five years.
Q: Where in India did you grow up?
I was born in the western Indian state of Gujarat. My dad was a senior official in the Indian government and he would get transferred from place to place. So, when I was young, we would relocate roughly every 12 to 18 months to a new city.
Q: Where, I suppose, they spoke different languages, depending on the region?
Yes, depending on the state, you’d arrive at a place where the people living there used a different language.
Q: Did you find that more than a little bit challenging?
It was hard. When we moved away from Gujarat to Himachal, for example, I was in the third grade and did not know any Hindi. And I had to pick up the local language from scratch. My mother taught me before school started to help me catch up. So, obviously that was challenging, but eventually I ended up understanding Hindi as well as a lot of different local languages. Maybe that helped me later in life because it gets you to understand different people who might have different perspectives as well.
Q: What sort of student were you?
People talk about geeks and nerds and I very clearly belonged to that category. From the beginning, I enjoyed math and science — plus, I was very introverted.
Q: Did you think about what you might want to do later on in your life?
Growing up in India, when someone was in the middle class, there were two things that promised a decent life: you either become an engineer or you become a doctor. It was very clear to me that I did not want to become a doctor. So, I studied engineering. I wasn’t thinking too far into the future, but technology seemed like an area that I wanted to be in. And so, I majored in computer science at the IIT in New Delhi.
Q: You wound up doing graduate work at NYU. What were your first impressions when you got to the US?
This was the first time I had ever left India as well so you can imagine what it was like to land at JFK airport.
Q: And you were a city kid, right? You had been living in New Delhi through high school and college. So that part of it wasn’t that much of a culture shock, right?
Yes, but it was more of a change then it is now where people are much more connected, and they have more information about the rest of the world. Cell phones didn’t exist back then. Neither did the internet at that point. But the fact that there were so many people around did remind me of India, because, obviously, India is a very populated country and that actually was the good part.
Q: New York can be overwhelming for a lot of people. Did it take long for you to find your rhythm in the big city?
Well, it definitely was different, but I really enjoyed my time there.
I was living in Greenwich Village and it was beautiful. You had people playing chess in Washington Square Park and all the stores and restaurants and bars. It was quite an enjoyable experience.
Q: You had come to the US with the idea of getting your PhD in computer science. And then was the idea to return home?
Yes, that was the original plan.
Q: So, what happened?
After a couple of years, I got my master’s degree. But I decided at that point to take a leave of absence. I wanted to get some real-world business experience, so after a few years of working as an engineer, I enrolled at the Stanford Business School, which certainly influenced me a lot. I not only took several courses in entrepreneurship, but it also gave me the opportunity to meet with a number of very successful people who had done it before.
Q: And in coming out to California, your timing couldn’t have been better. You arrived just as the dot-com period was taking off.
Yes, the first startup I worked at was NetBoost. The company made chip and board-level devices and was acquired by Intel.
Q: Going from a startup to an established company is a big change, isn’t it?
Yes, but I got to learn a lot at Intel, both on the technical side as well as on the leadership side. They had great managers and that was a critical part of my career evolution.
Q: Let’s fast-forward a few years. I read a blog that you wrote in 2013 where you talked about the future role that semiconductors would play in the deployment of the cloud, mobile, and the data center. A couple of years later, you founded Innovium. Turns out that you were spot on. As you look back, what trend lines did you see emerging that convinced you this was going to happen?
When we started the company, it was super-clear to us that the world was moving from an enterprise and service provider-based infrastructure to a cloud-based infrastructure. We thought that trend would last a long, long, long time. Meanwhile, the people who initially built these data centers had built them using silicon that was first created for these other segments. We said, `How about if we focused on the data center as opposed to segments that were legacy. Let’s focus on the future.’
Q: Why did you think there was a big opportunity to focus on building a product optimized for data centers?
Networking was on a different trend line than compute and storage. We wanted to provide a way to bring networking up to par with the level of innovation going on in compute and storage. And so those were the two fundamental ideas that led to the formation of the company.
Q: Even before COVID-19, we’ve seen this relentless hunger for bandwidth from big data centers. How far into the future do you think that’s likely to continue?
We’re just in the very early innings. First, data continues to grow exponentially and is moving to the cloud for analytics. AI is being adopted by practically every application in the cloud. Also, 5G is going to happen as the world transitions away from 4G.
Q: There’s a lot of hype around 5G. How big, realistically, is the impact going to be?
People may not realize the amount of bandwidth that 5G is capable of delivering within a certain unit area. Look at a cell station — each 5G connection or each 5G base station — has a 10X bandwidth relative to 4G. The 5G signal, the millimeter wave, travels about one-third of the distance relative to 4G. So within that same area, you have roughly 10X the number of base stations with 10 times the bandwidth. That’s a 100X bandwidth that will hit the network. And we haven’t even gotten started. This is a five year-plus type of trend. And you mentioned COVID-19. The other thing that has impacted all of us is the move to remote work, and that is adding an additional bandwidth overload on the network.
Q: Stay with that thought. Do you believe that the health crisis provided an accelerant to this process of digital transformation you’re talking about?
Definitely. One hundred percent. You now have everyone using collaboration tools, where before the adoption rate was very low. You see this everywhere — at our company as well as at other companies. Meanwhile, people are watching movies online instead of going to movie theaters, they’re ordering groceries online and getting them delivered, and they’re buying items through e-commerce. The hunger for bandwidth is just going to be incredible. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind.
Q: As a leader of a young company, what do you focus on to maintain an edge against bigger and better resourced rivals?
In this space, many companies have tried, and many companies have failed. People ask us not just how we succeeded but also how we can maintain this going forward. A few elements will remain critical. The number one element is the team that we have put together. We have a super-talented team that has a mindset of innovation, but also has a mindset of first-time success. So, when we build products — and especially complex silicon products — they do it right the first time. That’s not easy in silicon. But as a small company, you don’t get many second chances. The second thing is we’ve done a lot of innovation as we built this product from the ground up. We have over 80 patents and that’s created an IP foundation that allows us to deliver a differentiated product, not just for one generation, but that IP advantage is going to help us persist in the future. There’s also a cultural element. We talk a lot about the growth mindset and about trying to be a single team that operates as one entity rather than as a different set of teams. We are all in this together but there are ups and downs. You need to recognize that getting to success is never a straight line. It’s a very bumpy ride.
Q: By nature, are you a risk taker?
I would definitely say so. I mean, this is my third startup. I believe in persistence. I believe in endurance. And I believe in not giving up. But I think that taking risks has to go along with a growth mindset because failures happen. The important thing is whether you can adapt. And can you make the failures into micro failures, not macro failures. If you say, I won’t fail in anything, well, that’s not going to happen. You are going to fail, but when you encounter failure, you have a choice. You can either let that become a micro failure, or you can let that become a macro failure. And if you can look at your failures as micro failures and then adapt, that’s really what matters.
Q: Do you think that we’re close to the day when entrepreneurs from other parts of the world won’t have to leave home to enjoy this kind of success. Or is Silicon Valley the magnet and people are just going to have to come here, continuing what is essentially a global brain drain?
Silicon Valley has a culture that is, frankly, unmatched in the world. You need this kind of culture along with the system that’s in place. The system consists of a tremendous amount of capital in the VC space, but also the people that manage that capital have a mindset where failure is okay. They also have a mindset of shooting for the stars and dreaming big. That kind of mentality is very hard to duplicate. Many parts of the world have tried to do that. You can certainly get the talent, but that mindset of saying failure is okay is one of those things that is very hard to implement.
Q: Tell me one thing about yourself that would shock your employees.
I don’t know if they will be shocked, but I love card games. When I was at NYU, I started the bridge club at the college. We ended up winning the college championship in New York City. Then, of course, poker. I love the game. I play both for relaxation and as a means to socialize.
Q: Do you have a favorite book?
I’ll give you two that have impacted me. One is called “Outlier” and the other’s called “Blink” — both written by Malcolm Gladwell.
Q: What’s your favorite movie?
Q: Is there a motto or saying that you use in your professional or personal life as a touchstone as you go about your daily routine?
Success is not a straight line. It’s a very bumpy road.
Q: Last question. Who is the one person in your life you most admire?Andy Grove. Not only was he the CEO of Intel, but also one of my teachers when I was at Stanford Business School.