Techies in the U.S. have largely been defined by high-profile Indians such as Microsoft's Satya Nadella and Google's Sundar Pichai. These are the role models for almost every Indian kid today. But just as there's more to tech than Silicon Valley, there's more to techies than these two. How about a low-profile engineer who has created a new technology for screens, and who counts many of the Fortune 500 companies as clients? Meet Amit Jain, CEO of Prysm, a San Jose, California-based display technology and digital workplace platform company.
The 55-year-old electrical engineer from Boston University hit the big time seven years ago when Prysm showcased a breakthrough display technology called laser phosphor display (LPD). But LPD isn’t just another acronym in the alphabet soup of LED, LCD, and OLED display systems; the company says it is a technology that provides crisp picture quality, is more energy efficient, and is cheaper.
Not surprisingly, Prysm soon found many takers for its new display technology in the boardrooms of Fortune 500 companies like General Electric and, today, it also sets up video wall systems for agencies like NASA and leading television studios. “This was the beauty of the way we developed LPD. Manufacturing LPD required negligible amount of capital expenditure compared to LCD or OLED fabrication where you need $5 billion-10 billion to set up the unit,” says Jain. “This is because LCD and OLED need semiconductor processing on glass, which is generally a very complex process. Compared to this, we spent a drop in the bucket.”
Prysm and its proprietary LPD technology are not household names. But that’s because it has chosen to stay out of the business of manufacturing household products, which is dominated by Asian behemoths like Samsung and LG, and focus on corporate clients instead. The strategy adopted by Jain and the company’s other co-founder, Roger Hajjar, paid off: As Prysm’s business grew, it managed to raise $100 million (Rs 631.7 crore) in equity funding in 2011 that allowed it to begin volume production.
Today, Prysm is a far cry from the tenacious display startup that defined its early life. It is also revolutionising the workplace with a range of digital products that allow you to set up a virtual workspace anywhere you want. Its signature product, Visual Workplace, makes it easier for employees to connect, collaborate, and work remotely with shared content, applications, and video conferencing in an interactive virtual office. “Knowledge workers no longer work within the four boundaries of a meeting room, office, or a boardroom. They can work from anywhere and we have the tools to ensure this,” says Jain.
Working from home is a concept that's gaining acceptance worldwide. A research paper published in a Stanford University journal, based on the results of an experiment by Nasdaq-listed Chinese travel agency CTrip, shows that the performance levels of employees who worked from home were higher and they were more satisfied with their work. Prysm sees an ideal business in enabling companies to provide employees with that option, by taking the workspace digital.
Prysm’s launch of Visual Workplace was a tactically astute move to grow the business organically. Today, software development accounts for a large chunk of Prysm’s revenues. “We started selling the LPD screens to Fortune 500 companies and others… But we thought it would be better if we could come up with a killer app or use-case. That’s when we launched Visual Workplace. Once we did that, the hardware and software combination allowed us to visualise a whole range of content simultaneously.”
Jain is quick to give credit to his business partner, Hajjar. Their association goes back nearly 30 years from their days at Boston University’s College of Engineering. The duo worked together on three startups before forming Spudnik, which eventually changed its name to Prysm. From all accounts, Hajjar is more academically inclined while Jain brings business acumen and management skills to the table. Both though, can fill in for each other when required. In fact, Jain’s master’s thesis involved the design and construction of a magneto-optical ellipsometer, a device that measures a change in polarisation as electromagnetic waves reflect or transmit from a material. Magneto-optical ellipsometers were used on optical data storage like compact disc in 1980s.
“I had no idea at the time that Amit would turn out to be a great manager, businessman, and high-tech executive. Of course, I fully expected him to excel as a professional engineer in the computer industry, but did not recognise his immense managerial talents at the time,” says Masud Mansuripur, professor and chair of optical data storage at the College of Optical Sciences, University of Arizona. Mansuripur was Jain’s masters’ thesis advisor and Hajjar’s Ph.D. thesis advisor.
Jain and Hajjar’s partnership is strong. Josh Patrick a financial planner who has worked with the Prysm partners, wrote in a blog published in The New York Times: “They have the same belief systems about what makes a business successful; their disagreements are rare. It’s what has allowed them to stay together in three separate partnerships over more than 20 years.
The duo’s first major success as entrepreneurs was Versatile Optical Networks, the communication network startup that was acquired by Vitesse Semiconductor for $240 million in 2001. From there Jain went on to be the CEO of optical network equipment maker Big Bear Networks, before founding Prysm.
But today, Prysm’s flagship product is the Visual Workplace. When I ask Jain whether the company has become a software developer, he quickly corrects me, “We have not moved from hardware to software. What we are saying is now we offer not just the hardware but a total solution. You buy our hardware for the rooms and buy software licences to access it from remote locations.”
The software industry is, of course, where most Indian-origin leaders made their name, from Sabeer Bhatia and Hotmail in 1990s to Sundar Pichai at Google. But Jain has succeeded in hardware innovation, and merging it with a unique software solution to make a successful business case.
Jain and Hajjar’s academic mentor Mansuripur is proud of their achievement. “It is a cliché that a successful parent is one whose children far surpass him in intellectual and/or worldly accomplishments. By that measure, witnessing the technical and business accomplishments of Jain and Hajjar over the past three decades, I am proud to be known to the world as their academic supervisor,” he says.
Prysm is privately held and Jain is reluctant to share any financial details, but he is confident about its growth prospects. “We might have come when Internet services weren’t good enough, and cloud services may not have evolved, but there is a perfect storm that has allowed Prysm to shine.”