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The Power of an Idea: Naveed Sherwani

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Dr Naveed Sherwani is the Chief Executive Officer and President of Open-Silicon, Inc.

Naveed Sherwani has worked his entire life. Though he graduated from NED University and got his PhD from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, his entrepreneurial journey, however, began much before that.

His first job was in 9th tutoring other students but setup his first enterprise prepping students to have a better chance at getting into NED University. An astute young Naveed actually noticed the niche and identified the opportunity while waiting in line to pay his own entrance fee for the university. His neighbor saw his success and put down a capital investment of a building and the business grew. However Naveed’s family had no entrepreneurial experience and pushed back. “They essentially forbade me to continue, which only increased my resolve to do it.”

He worked his way through his PhD and worked with many companies along the way. His forte had always been to question things and figure out how to do them in a more efficient and innovative manner. The inquisitive and innovation sparks actually kindled back in his childhood. Naveed was encouraged by his parents to envision a world and then work hard to build that world. And that’s pretty much what he did. Whether it was electronics or healthcare, education or manufacturing, he designed things that made it possible to develop products nobody else thought possible.

With all the incredible experience he gained over the years, today Dr. Sherwani is the President and CEO of Open Silicon; a leading edge System on a Chip (SoC) and Custom IC design.  Providing open market IP integration, and high-quality silicon manufacturing services to customers worldwide. A fabless company, Open-Silicon develops the most cost-effective, powerful and custom SoC solutions. They started off as a venture-backed startup in 2003 and by 2007 they had raised $252 million.

Much of Naveed’s interest resides in developing solutions that power innovation, and if the innovation is disruptive, even better! Whether that means developing a chip that will save a law enforcement agent’s life or be it the power behind Bitcoin Mining. If there is innovation that can be solved with computing power, Dr. Sherwani is your guy.

How It All Began

Naveed had an almost magical childhood. From a middle class family, his mother taught him his most valuable lesson in life: work hard and be independent. He had to do everything his siblings did, everything from sewing to doing chores around the house. His father, a meteorologist, would often pull the charpoys out, pick some constellation and talk about it till everyone slept. “I know my parents made many sacrifices, except when it came to our education.”

His PhD in Electrical Engineering in Computer Sciences from Lincoln-Nebraska gave him the impetus for his second enterprise. “I ended up writing a textbook for the field of chip design because there was none at the time, and based my second company executing my learning into software.” And so he started CSTI with his own funding.

“I lovingly refer to this phase of my life as the ‘tree hugging pinko phase’ which meant I was in a ‘can’t be rich and help humanity, stock market is evil’ phase.” The idea behind the company was to create software to give anyone the opportunity to create chips and not have to rely on expensive software to do so. Once he had the design, Naveed traveled to Pakistan to setup a design center and ‘productize’ that software. “It was 1992 and I was looking to raise $1 million so I landed in Lahore to meet several banks. The feedback was the same from everyone: we don’t do projects like this; but will happily do $100 million sugar mills and cement plants.” Eventually I was sent to Bank Al Taufiq to meet a woman who might be able to help.

Sabahat looked at my project and she said a design center like this wouldn’t be possible because Naveed was looking for PhDs in Electrical Engineering who weren’t being produced in Pakistan as yet, and advised me to look towards India. Until this time, India actually didn’t have any such design centers either. “Not only did I start up a design center in India, first for Intel and then later for my own company, Open Silicon, I also married Sabahat.” By that time he had joined Intel and his goal was to implement everything he had authored in his textbook.

To put it very simply, Dr. Sherwani’s book laid down a step-by-step process on how you can take and create a very complex chip, in a way that the results would be known ahead of time. “My mission was to apply some of these principles and methodologies to improve the processes that Intel goes through in making chips.

There are a few different models. You can buy chips from the market, put them on a board and design a system, but sometimes the need it so unique that it requires a custom chip with a specific feature-set. He saw an opportunity in the market that wasn’t being served and he moved onto create his next company, Intel MicroElectronics, was to apply the same principles to custom chips. In 2003, Naveed spun that out to Open Silicon, where his team owned 25% of the company. “We raised $45 million to finance Open Silicon and we were able to exit for $252 million by 2007.”

Custom Design

With time, custom chips played a more critical role in the evolution of technology and it wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that Intel Microelectronics became the largest ASIC company in the world. “Imagine putting in a hundred off-the-shelf processors into a supercomputer you were building. If each processor consumed 100 watts of power, the computer would consume so much power that it would not be viable to build it.

There needed to be a specialized chip that used a fraction of that energy just to be in the range of feasibility. “Battery life for mobile devices is very important, and you cannot achieve feasible results without custom designs. Almost every product you use has some features that require at least a few specialized chips else the product itself cannot exist. And that’s why you’ll find ASICs in just about everything we use.”

But after the product becomes commonplace and high volume, certain companies or divisions take that particular chip and make it into a standard chip because it is now used so often. So ASICs sit on two extremes: they are either on the forefront of some new area where other companies have yet to pay attention to, like the work Naveed was doing at Intel Microelectronics, or they are needed in such small volumes that it is not worth company’s time and resources to build it.

In order to build these chips further, the company needed to setup a design center outside the US. Since Naveed does everything in a very scientific manner, he developed an 11-point criterion that could help determine where the best location to setup the design center would be. “We looked at 17 cities; Lahore, Karachi, Colombo, Pune, Shanghai, amongst others. We wanted to create a design center where we could have people work for long periods of time and remain focused, a place that had lots of second tier colleges with a large student population who we could train in the flow and process of our chips.” Bangalore ranked number one on their list. At that time, there were only two design centers, Texas Instruments and Infosys, surrounded by barren land.

The company published the study saying that Intel determined Bangalore to be the right place to put up its design center. “I think the published study coupled with the partnerships Intel made with the local colleges to give kids classes on our technology, did much to position Bangalore as it is now. Y2K just added impetus to the location and the growth of Bangalore. “

“Today,” says Naveed, “Pakistan’s ranking does show improvement over the past 10 years and does better in some of the criteria than others. If you look at the cost, availability of talent, rate of attrition, ability to set up centers in universities, I would say Pakistan will score very well right now. I’d expect to see more design centers being set up in Pakistan in the next 3-5 years.” The biggest issue with Pakistan, according to Naveed, is the perceived geopolitical risk that the customers and some of the investors have. “If that is something which can be brought under control, which the Ministry of IT actually has no control over, things can change for Pakistan.”

“I think with the democratic change in Pakistan, there is some hope but it will still take a few years before Pakistan stops showing up in the news for some threat, and instead shows up to showcase development or inventions. Once that turn happens, I think we’ll see a very positive change. I am hopeful because I have seen other countries do that.” He shares the example of Vietnam from the 70s and its transformation today. “The media played a big role in positioning Vietnam as it is today. I don’t see the same effort in Pakistan, which is unfortunate.”

And while on the subject of Pakistan, Naveed speaks of some of the way to package and positions the local IT industry. “One strategy is to step in the shoes of India and announce you can do everything they do at lower costs. This approach, which was followed by Bangladesh and Vietnam, will give you good initial results, though you will eventually learn that cost is not the major benefit. “It is the talent pool that we don’t have in Pakistan. If I need to 30,000 engineers, that would be a tough number to find. However, if quality is projected rather than cost reduction, it’s a longer road, a higher road, a better road, which is the path I think Pakistan should take.”

Even though Pakistan will be able to create more jobs in the first approach, the labor arbitrage will eventually come to an end. “That’s why I think we should fight for quality, loyalty, hard work and good ethic and produce high quality products, creative and commitment. That’s the kind of workforce Pakistan should be developing and it will be better for our image also.

Backseat Innovation

Experiences accumulated over a period of time refer to a lot of valuable data that allows you to understand behavior and establish trends. While there is no way to predict the future, there is certainly a scientific way to forecast a trend based on historic data, which can help the business function more optimally. It definitely sounds like an interesting set of crossroads, which is why Dr. Sherwani is developing a value proposition around it.

“Funny enough, sales and engineering have one thing in common: both are stage-based projects. There are multiple stages that happen in each project, which has its own success criteria. Once you complete it, you are typically authorized to move onto the next stage,” explains Dr. Sherwani. By looking at the historical data of an organization along with the work that is being done presently, Naveed should be able to extrapolate what the success rate will be, the time it will take you to complete, how many resources, financial and otherwise they may need. “If you can have those kinds of tools available to businesses, that can help improve the forecasting, budgeting, customer satisfaction, increase the value of the company.”

You’ve heard it time and again, that the most important part of a startup is its people. The team. In a vast majority of cases, the ideas morph and at times, dramatically. But as long as you have the right team, they will figure out how to make even the changing ideas work and present the greatest value to the market without sacrificing their ethos. There is a reason for that. “Personally speaking, I have had many ideas that could have created incredible wealth which I skipped simply because I couldn’t put the right team together for it. There is no point in executing a great idea with a sub-par team, because it won’t go anywhere.”  Naveed has been very fortunate to be surrounded by incredible people in every venture he has set up. “Not only have they contributed to the ideas and morphed them, but they have worked incredibly hard. The great fun about a startup is that there is no start or end time. You work 24 hours and then as much as you need to in order to meet your milestones, and it’s the whole camaraderie of the team and collaborative accomplishments that make this worth the while.”

There are two kinds of innovation: the ones that grow incrementally, and the ones that disrupt. The incremental innovation is a guideline where the technology leads the markets towards the faster, better, more in an incremental manner. “We know what kinds of cell phones or cameras we want in the next 2-3 years. Incremental innovation helps to get there.” But the disruptive innovation is where the idea is so extreme and contagious, it completely changes the behavior of the users and at times, creates a new behavior. “Who would have thought that anyone would be interested in watching millions of hours of amateur videos online? But since YouTube, look at the number of video sites that have come into the space. This is not something that you can imagine incrementally. Having said that, if you look at the vast majority of companies that are created, most are not like that. They grow and innovate in increments.”

The market always knows and they may not always be able to articulate it. A good entrepreneur listens to the market, and pieces together the fragments of the various needs that are being voiced. “Not everyone can articulate what they need or want, and so you might hear a lot of people telling you different traits. If you build on all of them together, you will be surprised what you come up with. The market usually knows what it wants; it just articulates it in pieces.”

In the last 13 years, Dr. Sherwani has been in a business where the vast majority of his time is spent with customers, trying to understand their need, creating what would ultimately sell. “We essentially become the support organization to make their dreams happen, rather than have our own dreams come true,” he says. His customer base is also very vast, from cell phone manufacturers to aircraft designs and everything in between. Customers identify some niche need they have and then his team formulates a chip, designs it and makes it happen. You get a lot of satisfaction out of knowing that what you are doing is the engine that makes all this innovation and excitement happen. “I can point towards a large number of things you use in your everyday life where we can say one of our chips is making that happen.”

He shares a few examples. “Turns out a large number of policemen in the United States, are killed by their own guns. So one of the designs we worked on a chip that goes into a handgun and a watch, so if anyone takes a gun away from the policeman and tries to shoot, it won’t fire. In order for the gun to fire, it has to have a certain distance between the handgun and the watch. We addressed the unplanned event which had a unique application.”

Another project is Bitcoin, the crytpocurrency not governed by any regulator. “Anyone can get a Bitcoin as long as you have a way to solve certain hashcode.” Despite the element of disruption here, what attracted Dr. Sherwani to the idea was that the value of Bitcoin is completely determined by market forces and cannot be devalued or revalued by governments. “Just as social media platforms were part of a social liberation movement, Bitcoin is part of an attempt to give financial liberation for people. We are working with a client to actually make the most powerful Bitcoin maker in the world – a machine that can create Bitcoin faster and much more economically as compared to any other solution that exists today. If Open Silicon and I can play a small role in making that happen, that’s an exciting thing to do,” he explains.

With travel becoming easier and people from all over the world moving to different countries for work. Nobody really cares where you are from as long as you can do the work. Why shouldn’t currency facilitate this movement and behavior? “I see a utopia where your background, religion or ethnicity makes no difference, as long as you bring talent or skill of substantial value to the table. Bitcoin plays a very important role in the way a lot of people, including me, see the world.”

Creating Low Cost

Dr Sherwani, like a lot of expatriates, frequently visits Pakistan and develops workable ideas based on his scientific prowess and experience. “My vision for education is to identify what technology can do for it. What their compute and networking needs are and developing those.” After all, that’s what he does best, so why not take on the challenging problem of getting the education out there?

“One opportunity,” he says, “exists in taking hardware from first world countries, which becomes obsolete in 3 years, and apply that to education in big way.” Simultaneously, a lot of innovation needs to be applied to make the delivery mechanism of education more affordable and disruptive. “Not a low-cost tablet, but a very low-cost tablet. Within the context of India, this project is called Akaash; and for Pakistan, the project is Takhti.” The purpose of the Takhti would be to produce a low-cost tablet for students priced at Rs.2-3,000, which they can microfinance and pay off over a year or so, but the pride of ownership is important. According to Dr. Sherwani, the public school system, as bad as it is, creates a very large number of highly functional human beings who are running the vast majority of Pakistan. “Many ministers, intellectuals, poets and senior government official are products of the 200,000 or so schools in the public school system. The percentage of families who are able to afford private schooling is a very small percentage of the population.”

The idea Dr. Sherwani is pursuing is to build tablets with ‘defective’ components. Take the example of a high quality laptop. It may cost $1200. The way the screen is engineered, which is a large part of the product, is that every part of the screen is equally touch sensitive. “Suppose I designed a screen that had a few dead areas and didn’t respond as well. Turns out building screens and glass that meets a lower spec, is much cheaper than building the kind of equipment available today. Once you understand what the developing world needs in a piece of equipment, you can built it. The needs are certainly not the same.”

In the case of a low-cost device that delivers video, you actually don’t need a highly functional touchscreen because students will be doing a lot of listening. One of the reasons why the One Laptop Per Child program did not take off in Pakistan is that – a $100 is too simply not affordable. “But a $20-30 range device with micro-financing options can be. “It’s important to understand that in a device like this, we are not trying t replicate a complex computer that does everything – we are actually trying to replicate a teacher and a text book in areas where they are just not available.”

Since Dr. Sherwani has built millions of these devices, the cost structure of these devices is well understood in terms of effort and costs associated. “The way to make low cost is to take the BOM or Bill of Material, apply the functioning quality metric to it and cut down the functionality dramatically. If you cut down the number of functions, that reduces the number of chips and you reduce the cost.

According to Dr. Sherwani, low-cost requires you to rethink technology based on what the needs are, and match the requirements to meet those needs, based on the market. 100% reliability and the technology that is feature-rich, is an expensive proposition. “The metric for the developed world is time. People need high-speed functionality. In the developing worlds, cost is the most important metric. So far, products have been manufactured for the ‘next one billion people’, when in reality, we need to be creating products for the next 3-4 billion people. And if you try and level the world and work towards making it an equal place for all, then your approach to building things will also be very different. If technology is to really level the playing field, then no longer should just those who have money, get everything – everyone should have a chance.”

According to something referred to as Moore’s Law, chip design is not done any faster, however the complexity of chip design increases every 18 months or so. “So every 18 months or so, we have the capability to design a chip that is two times the complexity but produced in the same time.” To explain this further, he gives the example of cars. “Car manufacturers don’t build cars that are much faster because highways don’t support them anyway. Cheaper cars don’t matter because people are willing to pay for them anyway. What car manufacturers do is add new features into the cars each passing year for essentially the same price and speed. In chip manufacturing, we keep the time constant and give you more functionality, which means more per chip. If you look at it, the kinds of computer power we have in our hands today, were the super computers of 20 years ago.”

But Dr. Sherwani believes that with the future he sees the ‘More than Moore’ Law applies. “This is a theory based on the new world we live in where computing is just a small part of what you do. The sensory data from various different sources around us through cameras, microphones, temperature and pressure sensors, now needs to be taken into consideration so we can compute with that data. People actually don’t need more computing power. They actually need more ways to acquire signals from their environment.”

Dr. Sherwani believes that a more holistic view of the ecosystem is needed in order to increase the total capability of technology. The vision of the future, according to Dr. Sherwani, is a world where we would have embedded technology that will help humans. The human body is a very complex machine that always is constantly changing and one its biggest flaws is that it cannot run diagnostics on itself. In order to do that, embedded technologies are essential so you can collect data and be proactive rather than reactive in the treatment.

“Right now, everything is a problem before we do something about it – If you could figure out he problem earlier, we can improve the quality of life, reduce the cost of medical care and generally improve the overall quality of the collective lives of people around you.”

Being Linda McEntire

When Naveed came to the US, he was a die-hard Pakistani. He wanted to go back the day he completed his PhD. But then a sequence of things happened which made him appreciate the US for the equal opportunities it gave.

Because he was used to supporting himself, Naveed got a job as part of the campus police. “Everyone always had plans for the weekend and I didn’t, so it was a win-win.” Two days into his job of physically policing the relatively large campus, he figured out how to reduce the team 22 by half and increase their work output. Since he was the newest hire, his supervisor suggested that he would probably be the casualty of the reduction, but he said that wasn’t important if more efficiency could be brought in. “My supervisor’s name was Sergeant Linda McEntire and she liked the idea a lot. When she told the supervising members, they refused to implement it and she came back to me saying, ‘I think your idea is good. I have fired the supervising members because they were being complacent. You are now the supervisor and you get a raise. Good luck.”

Naveed claims he couldn’t sleep that night. “I couldn’t think of any nation in the world where a senior who has worked with you for just two shifts, understands the strength of your idea and gives you the opportunity to make it happen. That day I became 10% American.”

Over the years, many things happened and kept convincing Naveed that there is something worth fighting for, preserving. “That is the kind of culture I wish to see in other parts of the world, where ideas will dictate the shape of the world we live in. Such is the approach I try and have in my companies – I can tolerate everything except discrimination. I am where I am because someone heard my idea and gave me an opportunity. The least I can do to repay Linda McEntire, is do that for others.”

Naveed acknowledges that his greatest contribution is working with a lot of people from diverse expertise and backgrounds to achieve their goals and realize their dreams. “My greatest strength in life is working with people, understanding what their goals are and helping them to achieve those goals. To me, that is the greatest satisfaction. Doing something for someone else, doesn’t cost anything.”

Speaking from experience, he encourages people to listen. “Listen to an idea because some of the greatest accomplishments have come out from the stupidest ideas. Ideas need encouragement, because the network of friends and relatives and people who have time to talk. Don’t put them down. Listen.”

Technology can create many products and solve many problems. But there is no algorithm or solution that can replace the value of what another human can mean to you. “The resolve, struggle, and strength people around us live through disaster-stuck areas or war-torn countries – there is nothing in the world of engineering I know of that can replace or even match the human spirit. People. They are indeed the most important components in all the puzzles we are solving.”

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