How often do you find someone willing to give up even the highest of honours, only to build something for his country? Not many. And that too from someone who went from not being able to write well in English to heading a division in one of the biggest corporations in the world? He is an inspiration for many entrepreneurs in the electronics and semiconductor industry and he is striving endlessly to make the dream of the country’s many chip design startups a reality by pushing forward the India Semiconductor Mission. This is Dr Satya Gupta’s story as narrated to EFY’s Siddha Dhar
Born in the city of Jaipur, Dr Satya Gupta comes from a family of eight with five siblings. His father worked in the Income Tax Department and his mother was a homemaker.
Fascination with carpentry, BITS Pilani and the struggle with English
While he is currently pioneering the development of the semiconductor industry in India, Satya’s tryst with building things started from an early age. “I was fascinated by the work of carpenters. They would finish their work and leave their tools behind, and I would ransack those tools and use them to make something useful.”
He would spend hours looking at the carpenters chopping wood and sculpting it to make something out of it. Looking back, Satya believes it was this interest in seeing things getting built from scratch that helped develop his interest in electronics and semiconductors later in his life.
After finishing his schooling, Satya looked to pursue an engineering degree from one of the premier institutes in the country—BITS Pilani. And that is when the trouble began. “I came from a Hindi-medium school background and was not very well-versed in English. Fifteen of us from the same school got into BITS Pilani together and none of us could speak in English fluently!”
Being part of an institute like BITS, where students came in from all over the country and were fluent in English, language was a huge barrier for Satya in the initial days. He remembers how he would take down English notes in Hindi. “Once, during placements, a recruiter asked me what Osmosis was. I said ‘Sir, I don’t know what Osmosis means. If you can translate it for me in Hindi, then I can give you the answer’,” he laughs.
But not one to be bogged down by challenges, Satya quickly caught up with the others as he slowly and steadily learnt the language with the help of his peers. Whether it was teamwork, the importance of perseverance, or dedication and hard work, Satya credits his time at BITS Pilani with having helped build a different set of personality traits in him, which would otherwise not have been built.
Interestingly, while most final-year students eagerly wait for placements to take place, Satya had his eyes set on a different prize. It was a time when placements were not as structured as they are now, but companies like TCS, which provided high packages, were dream companies for students. But not for Satya.
Refusing to move with the crowd, Satya chose to pursue a different path for himself by opting for a Research Assistant position at IIT Delhi, where his first real interest in semiconductors began. Joining a project under the renowned Prof. Anshul Kumar, Satya learnt the intricacies of silicon while working at IIT Delhi, where he also obtained his master’s degree.
“I met a lot of fantastic people there and learnt a lot while working with tech-savvy people who helped me in understanding the complexities of tech.” And with these learnings in his heart and mind, Satya was ready to come yet another step closer to strengthening his relationship with silicon.
Love for teaching and moving to the USA
In 1988, while supercomputing was taking the technology world by storm, Satya decided to further his knowledge of technology by moving to the United States to pursue his PhD at the Old Dominion University.
Living so far away from home in a different country with different cultures was a trying period for Satya. In a time when a one-minute call cost $3, Satya tried hard to save his paltry student stipend and instead wrote letters back home. He also learnt how to cook Indian dishes as he tried to ease his homesickness and settle down in the United States where vegetarian food was a rare sight. He quickly became the go-to-guy if any student wanted to eat fresh chapati or paratha.
Satya, however, did not stray away from his desire to learn. He spent four years in Virginia, where he spent two years as a research assistant at NASA Langley Research Center, where he deepened his understanding of supercomputing.
During this time, Satya also took note of his love for teaching. “I always loved teaching people. I was always helping fellow students, clearing their doubts, and helping them with their assignments. I would spend time clearing their doubts and then go to my room to study at midnight.”
Hailing from Rajasthan, a state known for its harsh summers, the severity of the winters in the USA was not something that Satya was familiar with. One day, after attending a conference in Chicago during peak winter season, with no suitable winter clothing, Satya walked back stopping every fifty metres at a shop to warm himself up. While that day changed Satya’s perception of the winter in America, it was also the day he was properly introduced to someone who would become a lifelong friend, mentor, and business partner.
Journey with Intel and return to India
Soon after finishing his PhD, Satya joined one of the giants in the semiconductor industry—Intel Corporation—while they were just starting out their supercomputing division. He recalls, “Before they became famous for their iCore and Pentium processors, Intel was looking to make supercomputers using their own processors. I joined in to help develop breakthrough technology.”
Those two years working on building supercomputers were the most satisfying and important part of his career. Satya says, “I learnt a lot while at Intel—the values of creating an organisational structure, values of disciplined engineering, attention to detail, delegation which nobody teaches you. You learn by being part of the process.”
“We were working on groundbreaking technology. We developed the fastest computer at that time and broke the teraflop barrier in a single machine. Nobody had been able to do that before. We were 2.5x faster than the previous fastest computer,” he continues.
After working on supercomputers for two years, Satya moved on to become part of the Strategic Cad Labs at Intel, where he spent another four years. Intel was also where Satya worked very closely with the man he met while attending the Chicago conference—Naveed Sherwani.
A fine morning in 1999, Naveed came to Satya with a proposal of starting a new initiative at Intel to build ASICs. A precursor to Intel’s Foundry Services initiative today, the goal of this new initiative would be to create chips for any customer. And thus, under the leadership of Naveed and Satya, Intel Microelectronics Systems (IME) was formed. But six months into the implementation of the initiative, they realised they need to build capabilities in India to help them grow this venture.
This was a period when Satya’s career in the USA was flourishing by leaps and bounds as a semiconductor leader. From being a young student at BITS Pilani, who struggled with English, he now held the esteemed position of Director, Intel at the headquarters—a position many professionals aspire to reach. But fancy titles did not tempt him as much as the desire to contribute to building his country did.
“I thought it was the right time and I always wanted to do things for India in India,” he recalls.
And within a week’s time, Satya packed his bags and left everything behind to come back to India to build Intel Microelectronics Systems.
Back in India, Intel’s operations had very limited chip design activity. As such, Satya and his team were only provided with a small office on Infantry Road in Bangalore to work. Even then, Satya made the most of the situation, focusing on building the expertise of the team.
Satya says, “This team has produced some of the biggest names in the industry who have gone on to become VPs and MDs of global chip companies.” Heading the production of something so important allowed Satya to be involved in the intricacies of end-to-end chip designing.
Satya comments, “Chip design is an extremely difficult process, and one mistake can cost you millions. Making it work after months of pouring in your sweat and tears is so satisfying. You have to live and breathe silicon. Which is why I say that silicon runs in my blood.”
But with his arrival in India, something bigger was waiting for Satya.
Beginning to startups
After toiling for years for the IME, in 2003, Intel decided not to pursue ASICs business. Satya saw this as a chance to do something more, out of the bounds of being tied to a corporation. “We built a beautiful model to build ASICs and we used to call it an Open-Model of chip design. So, we deliberated and decided to do this independently.”
And thus, despite having all the abilities to move up the ladder of professional success at Intel, Satya decided to leave as Director from the corporation—a place where he had his first and last corporate job. On being asked why he chose the tough road of startup and leaving a comfortable position at the world’s biggest MNC, Satya says that it was his desire to build something from scratch, much like the carpentry he adored in his childhood.
He says, “I wanted to do something in India for India.” But most importantly, like a true leader, he wanted to build a team and see them grow. “Seeing them become a VP or a Director gives immense satisfaction, telling me that we did something right because of which so many people are growing in the industry.”
With this in mind, Satya started his first venture—OpenSilicon—along with Naveed Sherwani. While Naveed was in Portland, Satya was in India. They now had to make a commitment.
“We knew that if we wanted it to take off, we’d have to start in the Silicon Valley. We packed bags and decided to give us three months to find funding, otherwise we would go back and find new jobs.” During this time, they spent nights at hotels for $30 a night and ate meals for 1.5 dollars, just to save every penny they had and put it into their company. Luckily for both the co-founders, they succeeded in bagging funding from some of the top VCs, Sequoia Capital, Norwest Venture Partners, and Goldman Sachs, in just two months of setting up shop in the USA.
But for a person who just escaped the constraints of working in a large corporation, the reality of building a startup with their own resources soon started to catch up. He says, “When you work in an MNC, you tend to take a lot of things for granted. Even things like HR, finance and infrastructure become a big deal to take care of when you are building a startup. Money also has to be spent judiciously since it is not company funds anymore, but your own money or funds.”
One space where Satya made sure OpenSilicon strived for the best was the team. Onboarding not just the big shots in the industry, Satya wanted to get people who had the zeal and drive to make something happen. He opines, “In a startup, you have to get employees motivated to work.”
Channelising the teacher in him who taught peers in college, Satya imbibed it into his team building and leadership style. He would sit down to tape-out chips along with his team, despite being the co-founder of the company. “You need to sit down with them and get down to business. Work in the trenches with them as a team member instead of supervising them as a manager because that is not going to motivate your team. Sitting down with them makes the biggest difference instead of a few lofty words. It builds a bond that shows in the work.”
This zeal to build the team also helped Satya and his team bag the award of Best Silicon Design team from EE-Times. Notably, this is just one of the many awards OpenSilicon, under Satya’s leadership, won for its remarkable work.
After working on OpenSilicon for more than four years, the company was acquired in 2007 for $245 million, marking it as one of the biggest exits in the chip industry.
Satya went on to start two more ventures—Concept2Silicon and SenZopt Technologies. While Concept2Silicon had a similar idea as OpenSilicon, which was to design ARM-based chips, it was acquired by HCL Technologies. SenZopt dealt with sensors and IoT solutions for automating buildings and turning them into smart buildings.
Satya’s association with Intel, however, was far from finished. “I have worked with Intel for one project or the other in every startup of mine,” he says. Even though he held the senior-most position in his ventures, Satya is someone who does not shy away from doing the dirty work, and quite literally so.
In 2008, Intel wanted to build a fully automated parking facility in Bangalore and SenZopt was roped in to handle the work. “We had to install the sensors at a multi-storey parking lot while the construction was going on, and for 3 months, along with my co-founder Chitra Hariharan, we worked in that dust and rubble for 16 hours, doing the installation and completing work in time.”
Such is Satya’s commitment to work! But Satya humbly adds, “The commitment is needed but more than that, the willingness to get down in the trenches and do it is what is very important.”
In 2019, SenZopt was acquired. Parting with a startup as a founder is undoubtedly one of the toughest things to do. It is like your baby, but Satya believes that as long as it does good, it does not matter whose hands it is in. “Just like your child needs to go out and learn from others to grow, a startup acquisition is a push for that idea to blossom which you began it with. It is not the money that matters, pursuing an idea does.”
Building the core of India’s electronics industry
Satya’s love for his work translated into doing something big, but he was not satisfied with those efforts. He wanted to help propel India as one of the global leaders in electronics and semiconductors, which he slowly started doing.
Satya says, “When I moved to India, after a couple of years we felt that there was no platform for semiconductor companies in India. So, a few of us got together and started the Indian Semiconductor Association.” This association grew on to become the Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA), one of the biggest industry associations in the electronics industry. “We realised that electronics cannot work without semiconductors which is why we changed it to IESA.”
Satya is currently the President of the VLSI Society of India, an association helping to grow Indian R&D and talent in semiconductors and chip design. Many of these efforts of Satya and others, right from the early 2000s, have resulted in the India Semiconductor Mission—a mission aiming to make India grab a seat at the global chip design and manufacturing table.
But building a strong chip ecosystem is not enough. “Products drive manufacturing rather than manufacturing driving products.” With this in mind, Satya along with two HCL founders, Ajai Chowdhry and Arjun Malhotra, began the EPIC Foundation—a consortium of leaders aiming to drive electronics product development in India and build Indian brands.
Satya makes sure to not let his passion for teaching die. He is a visiting faculty at IIT Roorkee and other academic institutions. But Satya refuses to take a permanent post. He says, “I felt I will not be suitable for regular teaching. I would rather guide them toward the right kind of technology and the right kind of design expertise rather than teaching a semester-long course.”
Finding love at IIT, keeping up with hobbies and retirement plans
Satya might be a trailblazer in the semiconductor industry, but he is a romantic at heart. He has been married to his wife for 32 years now. Although it was a love marriage, it has had its twists and turns, just like every aspect of Satya’s life. Satya and his wife were working on the same project at IIT Delhi, and while there, they developed a close bond as friends. He recalls, “We were very close. It reached a point where she and a couple of my friends were trying to find a girl for me!”
They ended up in the U.S. together when both Satya and Madhurima went on to pursue their PhDs. His wife was a strong support system for him there, and it was during a meeting with their advisor that they realised that what they had could not be dismissed as just friendship. He says, “Our advisor told us: You guys must be mad. You are so close, why don’t you try being in a relationship.”
These words resonated with the couple, who soon decided to tie the knot. But since his wife was a Bengali, Satya had some convincing to do at home. “They eventually agreed and we got married in a Hindu-Bengali wedding in 1990, while I was two years into my PhD,” Satya recalls.
His wife is also in the chip design industry but she quit her job in Qualcomm a few years ago to teach underprivileged children at an NGO based in Bengaluru. The couple have a son, Abhishek, who is on his way to becoming a faculty member at the University of Washington at Seattle.
Despite handling multiple fronts of multiple organisations, Satya finds time to keep up with his varied interests and hobbies. His love for carpentry still prevails. “When I was in the USA, I used to watch a TV show, The New Yankee Workshop, on carpentry, after which I bought a few carpentry tools and started building furniture myself. When we shifted to India, half of the luggage consisted of woodworking tools!”
Satya is also an avid painter. While he was interested in charcoal sketching initially, digital painting has been his recent hobby. If all this was not enough, Satya also enjoys music—although he says he does not have the voice to sing—and knows how to play the keyboard.
For a person handling so many fronts successfully while also keeping up with his interest, we had to ask—when does Satya plan to rest? “I have no retirement plans,” he concludes. “If I do not work, what will I do? I can pursue my hobbies, but if I do not do something professionally, I don’t think I’m going to enjoy it. I want to keep working till my mind and body works.”
Showing a glimpse of his impeccable commitment to his craft, Satya refuses to work for money anymore. “I only want to work on a pro-bono basis, I opt-out if someone offers me money.”
Having spent so many years building multiple startups and working tirelessly on a common mission, what is something Satya would like to say to his younger self?
“I’d say, be committed to whatever you’re doing. If you are committed to whatever you are doing, it will make everything better. Whenever opportunities come, take judicious risks, because risks are going to be there whenever you want to do something special. Also, don’t make decisions based on work-life balance—your decision should be based on your commitment to your profession and then focus on having a balanced lifestyle.”