I grew up in Singapore, a tropical island in the Far East. At age 20, I packed up my bags and headed to California, where I studied computer science at the University of California-Berkeley and Stanford University. The mid-1990s and early aughts were an interesting time to be in Silicon Valley as a self-professed nerd. I remember proudly wearing a “Java 1.0” free T-shirt given out by Sun Microsystems at the launch of its revolutionary new programming language called “Java,” a language I lost no time in learning.

But what I remember most vividly about the Bay Area was the startup culture.

I was in awe at the IPO of Inktomi, an internet-infrastructure company that spun out of a research team at Berkeley. Inktomi, at one time, powered the world’s internet search infrastructure. It was my first realization that university research can really shape and change the world. As I went across the bay to Stanford for my master’s degree, I had the good fortune of working at VMware during its formative years as a university spinoff, learning the ropes from a Stanford professor and his highly talented team of engineers who later developed a multibillion-dollar company behind what we call “cloud computing” today.

My leap
While my interests in startups were shaped by my experiences working in Silicon Valley, it would take me a whole 13 years, after my Ph.D. studies at Berkeley and promotion to Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania to take my own entrepreneurship plunge.

In 2013, Gencore Systems was born out of research work that my students and I did at Penn. We built a piece of easy-to-configure software that allowed us to understand complex application interactions simply by observing network traffic. We soon realized the hard way that cool technology does not make a business, and after numerous pivots, we converged on a good use-case based on microservices performance monitoring. Gencore was born and raised in Philly and backed by StartUp PHL. The company moved to San Francisco after two years, raised a Series A, rebranded as Netsil, and was successfully acquired 2.5 years later by Nutanix Inc. (ironically, a competitor of VMware).

The most important lesson I learned from my first startup experience is that a technology, no matter how sophisticated, does not make a company, unless one ties the technology to a compelling business case.

I take great pride in seeing our own Penn Engineering students (doctoral, master’s and undergrads) lead Netsil to great heights, further than I myself could as a professor. That to me is my most satisfying part of the Gencore/Netsil’s story.

I am now working on my next startup, Termaxia, backed again by StartUp PHL and Ben Franklin Technology Partners. I cofounded Termaxia with a former Ph.D. student of mine, addressing a pain point in the costs of running exabyte-scale storage systems in data centers. We offer a promising software-defined storage solution that consumes little power but outperforms competitors on the market by a large margin.

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