ELECTRONIC DREAMS

Driven by the urge to give electronics its due place in Sri Lanka, Ajith Pasqual was undaunted by challenges and founded a high-tech startup that made a big breakthrough

Ajith Pasqual is a man with the ability to connect. He draws an apt analogy between Lego and electronic devices. After all, like the objects created by interlocking plastic building blocks, every electronic device is made from a vast ensemble of electronic components. An academic, Pasqual once thought that such components – called intellectual property blocks or more commonly ‘modules’ – could open new paths for local graduates. If they could successfully develop modules, these could be sold or licensed. The students could either launch their own companies or join established firms, and push them in new directions. It was not so easy. The design and validation process that a module had to go through before it could hit the market was very rigorous. And if something went wrong, the consequences would be ruinous. Pasqual now realised that such a project would have to be shifted from the university to an industrial setting. Undaunted, he launched a company with four of his graduate students in a makeshift office at his own home. He knew that his personal funds wouldn’t last long. They embarked upon a promising new initiative. The ‘Eureka!’ moment came after nine restless months. Pasqual and his team had succeeded in doing something that no one in the world had done before.

THIS IS THE STORY
Every year, the University of Moratuwa graduates a batch of 100 electronic and telecommunication engineers. They come from one of its most sought after programmes – just behind computer science engineering. Almost 30 of them promptly get absorbed into the vast brigade of engineers of the telecom behemoths.

An overwhelming number of the rest are enticed by the hefty pay packs offered by burgeoning software development firms. The graduates who move into core-electronics jobs have always remained a handful – on a good year, amounting to just ten.

For Ajith Pasqual, a former head of the department of electronics and telecommunication engineering and the rest of the staff, the dearth of jobs in electronics presented a vexing conundrum. After all electronics comprised half of the curriculum.

“Here, we have the best set of students and they are passing as graduates each year, but there are so few employment opportunities,” he says. “Because the electronics industry did not take off the way we expected it to.”

For nearly three decades, the programme continued producing graduates with top-of-the-line skills in electronic engineering. But there was hardly any build-up of a local electronics industry. The only companies dabbling in electronics were ‘contract manufacturers’ primarily involved in assembling electronic products in large factories. In these companies, cutting edge R&D was scarce; and the jobs mainly sought out were for managing factory operations like production engineers.

If there was any glimmer of hope, it would have been the expectation that the juggernauts of the telecommunications and software development industries would eventually branch out and venture into electronics manufacturing. This prospect was not entirely groundless – these companies had the tenacity and financial muscle to invest in costly infrastructure, attract high-quality talent, and withstand the harrowingly long and risky product development cycles.

Pasqual continued knocking on the door. He tried to convince executives of large tech firms to look at electronics as a potential commercial venture. But it was all in vain. As he says with a hint of despair, “We met many companies, asking them to go to different areas. Get out of your comfort zones and start doing some new things. But none of them were actually prepared to do that.”

The weight of driving the industry forward thus fell upon the academics in the electronics and telecommunication engineering department. Fortune was on their side – the University of Moratuwa was undergoing a cultural shift, startups were gaining currency, and students were less inclined to take up jobs in high-paying conglomerates and more willing to start something of their own. As Pasqual puts it: “Employers were not going into new areas, but the students were keen to venture out alone or join smaller companies.”

Going with the tide of the startup frenzy, the department with Pasqual at the helm swiftly revised the curriculum. More advanced material and cross-functional subjects like robotics, bio-engineering and machine vision were introduced to the programme. The staff pushed students towards challenging projects to stretch their potential.

“We raised the bar in the final year projects of the students to such a level that the prototypes were on par with the industry,” says Pasqual.

The curriculum revision looked beyond equipping students with a unique and superior set of skills. There was a far more overarching goal. The strategy was to get students to develop intellectual property blocks (commonly called modules) for electronic devices.

Students reached the stage where they had the confidence to do things on their own. The expectation was that those who succeeded in developing modules could sell or license them. The department aimed to produce a set of graduates who would ultimately create their own companies or drive established firms in new directions.

“We wanted the students to build the industry,” says Pasqual.

A leap forward for Pasqual and his department came with access to new infrastructure. In 2014, the government
granted Rs160 million to set up the advanced electronic design centre. The funds enabled the university to purchase electronic design automation tools, software that assists engineers in designing circuit boards and chips through automation processes. “These tools are extremely expensive,” says Pasqual. “Not even a local company could have afforded them.”

The new infrastructure enabled efficient simulations with greater accuracy to design printed circuit boards – the green panel with copper outlines linking electronic components to a complex network that acts as the ‘brain’ of any electronic device. This implored further experimentation towards a realistic crack in developing real world commercial applications.

But, there was a snag. They underestimated how difficult it was to take a module to the market.

Pasqual explains: “Manufacturing integrated circuits (ICs), into which modules are incorporated, is an extremely expensive affair. Let’s say we produce something and it gets integrated into one of these ICs and there’s a fault in it, that’s $10 million in the dustbin at minimum. So there’s an extremely tough design and validation process. What we found out was that you can’t do this particular process in a university. It’s a full-time industry job.”

In 2014, Pasqual launched his company Paraqum Technologies with four of his graduate students in a makeshift office at his own home. “When I recruited them, I probably had 6-8 months of personal funds available,” he says.

Its initial project was building products for video compression – the process of converting a video file in such a way that it consumes less space than the original file. The H.265, a new video compression standard, has twice the compression ratio than its predecessor, meaning a 1GB movie will now only take 500MB of computer storage. This, coupled with the popularisation of 4K resolution videos, brought together a surge in demand for efficient compression software and hardware, especially among television broadcasters.

After nine restless months, the team developed a hardware decoder, a computer chip that can decompress H.265 video signals into 4K resolution video format. “It was the first time in the world that 4K – H.265 video was decoded in real time in a single chip,” says Pasqual, describing the company’s most notable achievement thus far. The research was subsequently published in the prestigious IEEE publication. In fact, the product exceeded expectations so much that it is far ahead of current market requirements. It also earned Paraqum a reputation as a high performance electronics company.

For nearly three decades, the programme continued producing graduates with top-of-the-line skills in electronic engineering. But there was hardly any build-up of the local electronics industry

In 2015, Paraqum started a collaboration with Wave Computing – a US-based semiconductor chipmaker. The partnership provided high-end electronic design services for manufacturing computer processors. The venture now generates the major share of revenue for Paraqum.

The company also ventured into the design and manufacture of Internet bandwidth management appliances like network traffic analyzers, which are greatly in demand among Internet service providers. It soon acquired its first customer – a French internet service provider – after a chance meetup at a tech conference in Colombo. Paraqum’s success has resonated beyond the confines of the company. Students are now perceiving electronics as something greater than a mere academic exercise or hobbyist pursuit. For Pasqual, the company was a foray to get students interested in electronics. His effort is finally paying off.

“Four years back, less than 10 out of 100 students went into electronics. Today, that number has risen to 45,” he says gleefully.