Academic entrepreneur extraordinaire

Academic entrepreneur extraordinaire

In just five years, NUS Computing Assistant Professor Prateek Saxena and his team of students, past and present, have spun off six start-ups built upon their deep technology research that sought to solve large scale computing issues in fields like blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

The start-ups, which Asst Prof Saxena either co-founded or has a role as scientific advisor, have collectively raised about US$50 million in the last five years for product and market development. Their combined net worth is respectable US$130 million.

The start-ups are Dexecure, which optimises website performance; Zilliqa, a next generation high-throughput blockchain platform; KyberNetwork, which allows for the exchange and conversion of digital assets; TrueBit, a scalable verification solution for blockchains; SmartPool, which is in the mining of cryptocurrencies; and Anquan, a distributed ledger platform for financial markets.

All have rock solid technology credentials with researcher founders who are studying the field and building new knowledge, and all are based on new emerging technologies. For instance, Zilliqa was founded by its CEO and NUS Computing graduate Dr Dong Xinshu after he and a team of researchers produced a research paper in 2015, just two years after the field of blockchain technology began. Recently in October, Zilliqa announced a breakthrough transaction rate of almost 1,400 transactions per second.

Asst Prof Saxena’s message to his students has always been that research must be to add to the body of knowledge in computer science, not merely for self-improvement.

This power house team of young researchers and entrepreneurs did not emerge by mere chance. Asst Prof shared that students ranging from second-year undergraduates to postgraduates often do a “cold call” via email. Without fail, he reads his email every evening, looking out for the special spark that denotes passion. He engages a few, giving them exercises to solve, each one more difficult than the last. Every year, he picks about 50 students, interns and post-doctoral researchers.

“Those who survive this process are the sharp, self-motivated ones who want to contribute to the body of knowledge in computer science. In most cases, they do create something that is a substantial technology body of work,” he explained.

These students undertake 12 to 18 months of research under his tutelage, working on research projects for their final-year undergraduate theses or postgraduate degrees. A good fraction of these students convert to doctoral program at NUS or at an overseas university, he added.

The spin-off occurs when Asst Prof Saxena recognises market potential. He encourages the researchers to become entrepreneurs, advising them on technical and market strategy, linking them up with investors and relevant businesses, as well as ensuring they have the relevant staff.

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