It’s hard to imagine a person interested in dance and performing arts launching a startup of her own in the field of Artificial Intelligence (AI). But that’s what happened with Ashwini Asokan, the founder of Mad Street Den (MSD). After spending close to a decade in the Silicon Valley, Asokan came to India and started MSD from a garage – which she calls a ‘den’ – in Chennai.
Another woman with ideas, Geetha Manjunath, forayed into the field after a personal setback. She lost her cousin to breast cancer, which led Manjunath to launch a screening solution named Niramai, which is based on AI. Manjunath spent a long time in two leading companies – Hewlett Packard and Xerox – where she got a lot of opportunity to innovate. That gave her the idea of starting something of her own.
Both these women entrepreneurs appeared on HT NxT, a first-of-its-kind platform that is bringing together the Next-Gen leaders & newsmakers to discuss pertinent issues and offer innovative solutions for a better tomorrow. Asokan and Manjunath talked about their respective journeys and what they plan to do in the future.
Asokan said that AI has been expanding its footprint and more and more sectors are adopting it – from education to automobiles. “The culture of the company is very much about making sure that the people are engaging with our AIand they feel empowered enough to be able to have all the tools at their disposal to create next versions of their industries,” she said.
Her goal is to make society AI native.
Talking about the challenges, Manjunath said that though the focus was on creating the product and brand, leaving an established brand and trying to get the trust of doctors to endorse a health-tech product took time. “It does have a flavour of making your own path. It was for the first time in the world that someone was using thermal imaging and AI. I had to bring more confidence in myself. And a lot of learning and unlearning is needed,” she said.
“Change is the only constant in this environment. There is no preparing you for this. You just have to believe that you have to get the way you want. What’s interesting is that everytime you hit a milestone, you actually have to reinvent yourself for the next one,” added Asokan.
“It can get hard when you are wearing every hat at all points of time,” Asokan said, adding, “parenting is a lot easier.”
Both the entrepreneurs further said that it’s not a level playing field when it comes to launching startups. Presenting statistics, Asokan said that less than one per cent of women were actually able to raise funds in comparison to 2.5 per cent last year.
The entrepreneurs said that it is a great time to launch a startup in India. “But the only thing worth asking is: Are you ready for the challenge? Because it’s nothing like what you have seen so far or going to see in the future,” said Asokan. Manjunath said a startup is not about making money, but solving a problem. “It’s not about failure, success, money after many, many years. It’s really about enjoying every day and solving a problem you feel so deeply about and sitting in the driving seat.”
Manjunath’s company Niramai doesn’t only mean ‘free from illness’ (its meaning in Sanskrit), but is an acronym for ‘Non-Invasive Risk Assessment with Machine Intelligence’. Its core is Thermalytix, a computer aided diagnostic engine that is powered by AI. Niramai uses a high resolution thermal sensing device for reliable, early and accurate breast cancer screening. Mad Street Den, meanwhile, is a computer vision and artificial intelligence company, building the AI architecture of the future.
HT NxT, a thought leadership programme, is being held virtually for the first time. The theme for the inaugural year is ‘Leading the change’.