Vinay Ravuri was barely a teen in India when his parents told him the news: prepare yourself because the family is moving to the United States.
It took time, but Vinay got over the initial culture shock as he and his family landed in Elmhurst, Queens (New York), and rebuilt their lives in a new country. It was a hard scrabble experience whose life lessons formulated the bedrock of his belief system — refusal to be deterred by difficult, seemingly impossible challenges.
“Most likely you’ll fail in doing that,” he said. “However, if you do succeed, you will have achieved something that sets you apart.”
And that’s what Vinay has been doing since leaving Qualcomm to start EdgeQ in 2018. The company, whose 5G chip combines several functions to offer wireless connectivity for applications such as robotics, machinery, and autonomous cars, has developed a new way for enterprises to design, deploy, and pay for upgradeable 5G features in chips, which has never been traditionally done.
Built around an open standard, EdgeQ’s “base station-on-a-chip” lets operators, cloud service providers, and enterprises mix and match suppliers in their radio networks. EdgeQ’s software-defined silicon model doesn’t require customers to pay a lot of money upfront for unwanted features. Instead, they only need to pay for the features they use, with over-the-air updates toggled from EdgeQ and its partners.
Not only does that herald a sharp break with how organizations have historically paid for telecom equipment, but this a la carte approach also offers a more cost-effective on-ramp for them to make the move to 5G networks. Indeed, EdgeQ has democratized the entire 5G industry through its thoughtful design, frictionless simplicity, and TCO reduction of 50% compared with existing current market options.
All this has ramifications for a fast-emerging future that Vinay envisions will involve 5G combining with artificial intelligence (AI) as EdgeQ semiconductors wind up powering base stations for 5G telecom towers or 5G access points in factories to run robots and autonomous vehicles wirelessly.
We talked with Vinay about the evolution from a smartphone economy to one defined by a constellation of edge devices that can think intelligently. Vinay also shared how building 5G and AI hardware in a more software-friendly manner will impact customer innovation and differentiation.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I was born in India near Hyderabad. In 1985, as I finished eighth grade, my parents decided to emigrate to America. It was a pioneering move steeped in search of a better life for us kids.
Q: What were the circumstances around your parents’ decision?
My aunt, who was a doctor, had immigrated in the 1960s to America. She had six siblings and had applied for a bunch of them to come to the US. But my parents weren’t sure if this would work out. So, they moved here first with my sister while my brother and I stayed in India at our uncle’s home for a year until my dad could get his footing.
Q: That’s a big change. Where did you wind up and what was that like?
We moved to Elmhurst, Queens, where I started school in the ninth grade. A lot of people talk about culture shock. It couldn’t have been more extreme. In fact, I think my first time seeing a non-Indian person was at the consulate when we picked up our visas. Back then, air travel wasn’t that common for people in India. There were many personal “firsts” — my first time on an airplane, first trip to America, first time traveling overseas.
Q: What stands out in your memory?
I’ll give you a simple example. In India, when you go to school, the teachers change, but you sit in the same classroom from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. On my first day in junior high school, you go to what they call homeroom where teachers take attendance. And then you go to a different class each period in a different physical classroom. Well, guess what? I sat in the homeroom all day because I didn’t know that you needed to go from one class to the other. I thought the teachers were coming to me. So, I saw different teachers and different students all day and was totally confused.
Q: But you were still young. How long did it take before things started to make more sense?
Youth and curiosity certainly have their formative advantages! It didn’t take that long, to be honest. It took me maybe three or four months to get used to the routine and make some friends. But experience-wise, it just kind of hit you in the face. That’s what I recall.
Q: You grew up in New York as an immigrant in the 1980s. Was that hard for you and your family?
My father came to this country with little formal education and that made it hard to get a job. The only thing he could do was open a store of some sort — which was what he did. And that shaped me for the rest of my life.
Q: What do you mean by that?
Starting over is the true essence of tabula rasa. It is the very root of character building and entrepreneurship as well. We started with a living state of humble beginnings. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. For example, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment — three kids and my parents. As a result, I’m not at all uncomfortable with that. Even today, if I had to do that again, no problem. I also became comfortable taking public transportation, which is what everyone does in New York. We had to develop the will, the urgency, the compulsion to live and persevere.
Q: Fast-forward. You got BA and MS degrees in electronic engineering. What attracted you to that field?
I went into electrical engineering as part of a herd mentality. At the time, it seemed that was what everybody was studying. If you’re an Indian, there’s medicine and there’s engineering. If you’re not in one of those fields, then something must be wrong [laughing]. Anyway, this was the obvious path that existed, and I knew I’d be going to college in New York largely because we didn’t have a lot of money. City college back then was free.
Q: At what point did the idea of becoming a company founder start percolating?
My dad had a jewelry store and I worked in his store. That’s where my entrepreneurial fire comes from. I always knew that I would do something on my own. There is a visceral compulsion in wanting to build. Entrepreneurs are really “artists.” You are pulled not just by an unexplained vision, but by a certain reaction to the world that’s been preconceived around you. Once you realize that, you are left with a choice and a decision.
If you really think about it, I will submit that the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of our nation were our founding fathers. They operated on the purest spirit of entrepreneurship.
I always felt more comfortable when I oversaw things or had autonomy. It’s in my DNA where I want to create my own rules and run things in a certain way. All I knew back then was that I wouldn’t be happy just being a cog. And after working for a bunch of people over the years, it became very clear to me that I would be better off on my own.
Q: While you were at Qualcomm, what convinced you to give entrepreneurship a shot?
There are two ways to live life. One is to do something that everybody else is doing but incrementally better — and perhaps you can succeed since success is linearized and an extrapolation. Or, you can do something that only a very few people can do, and that’s very difficult. There is the likelihood you’ll fail in doing that. However, if you do succeed, you are going to be one of very few people. So, do something that sets you apart.
Even prior to Qualcomm, I always had this yearning to go out there and do something by myself. When I was at Qualcomm, it was serendipitous that 5G was up and coming. Here was this new, not well understood “thing” that was very different from 4G and transformative in properties and lifestyle. I just felt it was something where I could uniquely play a role.
Q: Leaving a big established company like Qualcomm for an idea about the future — sounds like a big risk?
As an entrepreneur you must be a risk taker. In 2018, I saw something that a lot of people didn’t see, that these things are going to happen. And that gave me enough confidence to say, this is the time to go!
Q: You see tech transitions periodically, such as 3G to 4G and 4G to 5G, that take about a decade to unfold. When all’s said and done, how do you think 5G will be notable? Particularly in terms of how we think about connecting things that have applications beyond smartphones?
Absolutely. The 3G to 4G transition was all about putting the internet into your pocket. I think the transformative part of 4G to 5G is enabling things to think — like semi/autonomous cars, robotic automation in factories, and VR headsets for immersive experiences. Machine learning is an enabling technology and so 5G would also be for these types of applications. My feeling is that 5G will be that transformative thing.
Q: That was also around the same time that more data was getting generated at the edge. It wasn’t necessarily going to the cloud as it had been under 4G.
That’s right. You do everything with the phone and then the data goes to the cloud. The human is in the middle. You’re the one taking pictures. You’re the one enabling all this. But now remove the human. The applications are not just humans anymore. Or if you’re in a self-driving car, you are not necessarily playing a role in those algorithms. If it’s a surveillance type of application, or a robot doing its thing, that data cannot go to the cloud. It’s just not possible because it’s not realistic. And so, number one, you need connectivity. And then you need to somehow figure out a way to compute that at the edge. That was the seed of the idea I had when I left Qualcomm to work on it. And that’s what EdgeQ is today.
Q: As you see this growing confluence of 5G and AI, what impact do you think it must make so data is more useful?
5G is about extracting full value of data as a currency. It is also about securing and protecting that currency. With 5G, connectivity and compute go hand in hand. They are two parts of the whole. For 5G to be everywhere, AI as a technology needs to be there because you want to be able to compute things. If you can’t make local intelligent decisions, why do you need that data to begin with? I think that as AI matures, 5G will also get better at what it does, whether it’s coverage or reliability. 5G has this ability to literally give you 10 gigabits of data per second. It is very difficult to do that without wires nowadays. And then what do I do with that data? A video camera running 24x7 is not very useful unless that video can be used for something. And that’s where you will see compute and connectivity converge.
Q: Eventually, would you want to migrate into clients and to edge devices themselves? Or am I extrapolating too much?
We do see ourselves going into large adjacent markets. I think the phone is almost yesterday’s story. It’s more about where the world is headed. It’s going to be more immersive. It’ll take different modalities, like a sleek pair of eyeglasses with heads-up holographic displays. It is about being open-minded to unexplored areas, like spatial computing. There are a lot of things that are not as far away as you might think they are. It just takes a company like an Apple to introduce something first, and then everybody follows.
Q: So, if you’re talking about this future where there’s a big evolution from a smartphone economy to one dominated by edge devices that think, what does that edge data economy look like?
That’s the trillion-dollar question. But one thing we’ll see is a lot more automation. Cars will be made in much shorter turnaround times and you won’t have to wait long periods of time for your new Tesla or Honda anymore because things will turn around faster than they are now. You will also see major transition points. Today we are in the first inning of infrastructural buildouts. The true disruptors are supplying the technology fundamentals and rudiments for 5G and AI. But this will quickly lend way to a second wave of the services market that will capitalize on killer apps and a service-based economy.
Q: Is it harder to do a chip startup because of the nature of the challenge?
I do think it’s substantively harder. At times, we feel like artisans crafting a product of extreme specialty, knowledge, and skill. It is a harder technology as well, requiring intensive capital, expertise, and time. But going back to what I said earlier about the value of doing something that’s difficult, if you’re good at that, you will be at the front of the pack.
Q: I’m sure you’ve had to learn lots of things on the job as a startup founder. What’s been the biggest challenge you needed to overcome?
Elon Musk has a saying about running a startup. He said it’s like being in the abyss while you are chewing glass. We started the company toward the end of 2018 and had one year to hire people and build a company — and then Covid happened. I think the biggest challenge was how difficult it was to raise money in difficult times — and raise the money during Covid. It is a true testament to what we have built at EdgeQ. We were lucky and survived while a lot of companies didn’t. But then, now that we’re getting into productization, the world changes again with the recession and high inflation rates. These are all difficulties that we’ve had to face. While there are a lot of ups and downs in a startup, I still say there are more ups than there are downs. But yes, it’s not for everybody.
Q: It doesn’t hurt that you can turn for guidance from an advisory board with former Qualcomm executives Paul Jacobs and Matt Grob, and former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai. Those are some heavy hitters and not the usual roster you find associated with a startup.
Yeah. I’m humbled that these folks want to be associated with EdgeQ and super happy that they’re working with us. But it also goes back to the fact that there are few people that can do what we’re doing. They intuitively recognize the transformational impact of EdgeQ.
Q: Before closing, I do want to ask — is there anything about New York that you really miss?
Q: Favorite book?
“Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari.
Q: Favorite movie?
I’m a big Christopher Nolan fan. I love his unconventional narrative structure and inspired fusion of art and science.
Interstellar was my favorite for a long time. Now, it is Predestination. It’s about time travel.
Q: Any motto that sums up your approach to leadership and business?
Mark Zuckerberg has a saying, fail fast.
I have my own version of it: “Approximate is good enough.” Don’t wait to make the best product and cover every little thing. If you fail fast, you learn to minimize the impact of your failures. Time and speed are the greatest enemies for a startup. So, fail fast, get approximate, and that’s good enough.
Q: Who’s the one person who has had the most impact on your professional career?
We started our conversation talking about my dad. I learned the art of entrepreneurship from my dad at his jewelry store in Levittown, New York, on Long Island. It’s not that he taught me, but I watched him and through osmosis and reflection, I learned how to deal with people by standing behind the jewelry showcase. He showed me how to create a rapport, how to be credible, and how to be an honest human being. These are the core human values that we infuse at EdgeQ.