In this series of founder spotlights, we’re highlighting founders who leverage software beyond the screen to build exciting startups. Each founder has their own nerdy background (we define nerdiness as having a deep obsession) and their own path to arrive at the founding moment of their startup.
Meet Srinath Kalluri, CEO/Co-founder of Oyla, a video startup offering the most accurate analytics and deepest scene understanding with their intelligent camera (color+depth+ML). Ubiquity Ventures backed Srinath in his pre-seed round of funding.
Can you sum up what your company does?
Oyla makes mass market “4D” IP cameras (3 color video + depth) along with video analytics software. Oyla’s fusion of depth with video enables our customers to detect and count people, cars, and other objects with great precision, and in conditions such as low light, outdoors, etc., where traditional enterprise video camera analytics fail.
How is your technology especially timely and important for businesses in light of COVID-19 and ongoing social distancing measures?
We see a lot of interest from businesses who want to measure the effectiveness of social distancing measures and to show compliance with a dynamic set of rules. It’s good for businesses to take proactive action and maintain safer environments for their workers and customers. What we hear is that many video technologies out there today lack the precision in their analytics to be of any real use. Oyla provides that precision. What’s more is that our customers tell us that with Oyla, they can finally tell exactly what’s going on in a scene. They know that they are not making a purely COVID-related investment — the technology enhances traditional security and safety as well.
Our social distancing solution counts people and alerts on social distancing violations in real time, and in difficult real-world environments where conventional RGB video struggles. The analytics provide accurate counts of incidents, location-specific heat maps, precise measurements of people density, and contact-tracing tools. The solution can also be configured and deployed as a privacy-preserving social distancing technology.
What is the story behind how you started your company? How did you meet your co-founders? What brought you together (a shared mission or circumstances)?
Oyla CTO Ralph Spickermann and I had been in industry for 20 years leading teams developing cutting-edge photonics products, mostly in high-speed optical communications. I was leading R&D for a division of Intel and Ralph was a senior fellow at Lockheed-Martin. Photonics is a small industry, we all got our Ph.Ds. from a few schools and know of each other. Ralph had this really cool idea for how to do a depth camera, and he met me over lunch to ask if I thought his idea would work.
Coincidentally, I had been around depth cameras from the very early days of Microsoft’s Kinect to the more recent Apple Face ID, where my teams designed core ingredients in these products. I also saw that there was a big trend for 3D sensing happening, an ecosystem coming together. So, a lightbulb went off: I saw that Ralph had come up with a very elegant concept — this would give us our moat — and that there was this massive opportunity especially in applications that were underserved by existing technologies.
When did you first get into the technical area of your startup? What drew you to it?
I got into photonics seriously towards the end of my undergraduate years, but I’ve been fascinated by light since I was a kid. Of all the physical phenomena in the world, light is the most mysterious. There were a lot of power cuts where I grew up in India and we would often end up killing time in the courtyard waiting for the lights to come back on. My dad taught and did research in electromagnetics and he would tell us about how things worked. I remember him telling us about wave/particle duality of light, and the stories of the people and controversies behind 20th century physics. The funny thing is I don’t think I understood much of the physics really, but it all sounded so mysterious and cool.
We think of nerds as people who are obsessed with something (see our blog post on the subject). What are you nerdy about or obsessed with?
At heart, I am a device guy. It’s the best mix for someone with an engineering orientation/mindset fascinated by physics. I got a doctorate studying device physics in graduate school and find this field endlessly fascinating. Many of the ways technology has advanced modern life in the 20th century can be traced back to really clever device innovations — lasers, transistors, integrated circuits, etc. Lasers are commonplace now, but we forget how strange a device a laser is — it behaves in a really non-intuitive way and once you see how it works it’s really sort of mind-blowing. I read a ton and like to keep up with all the cool gizmos people are coming up with.
I tend to pick a few things and try and be good at them. I love and still play tennis, but when I was younger, I played a lot of it. Was really obsessed with it. Played all the time, 90+ degree weather, mid-winter when it was so cold that the ball would not bounce properly, every day possible and many hours during summer vacation. Subscribed to tennis magazines to get tips, saved up from odd jobs to play indoors in the winter. My brother and I talked tennis all day. I eventually got good enough to make our Division 2 college varsity team, but it was also a humbling experience as I got beat often. So to this day, I find it hard to just go out and play, I love to analyze and tinker with my game. For me it’s part of the fun.
What’s your advice to budding technical founders who haven’t yet jumped off to launch their new company?
You must have the urge to build. I had a very comfortable, high-paying job in industry but missed the satisfaction of building something from the ground up. It’s not a rational decision you make by weighing the pros and cons — you do it because a company like yours “should” exist and you and your co-founder are “best”-suited to give it life.
I had a gap of 15 years between my last startup and Oyla, so I did walk into this with my eyes open, knew the challenges, and that I wanted to do this again. That said, I have come to better appreciate how important framing and storytelling is to make others believe what you do with the same fervor. In the end, you need to convince prospective investors, employees, customers, and partners about how your vision serves them, and very often with few tangible proof points at the outset.