Friday 30 November 2007

Profile: Paul Raj

Business India, January 24-February 4, 2001

Thinker, teacher, soldier, sailor: Paul Raj

Shivanand Kanavi

Rarely does one meet a personality with as varied an accomplishment list and as interesting a career path, as Prof A. Paul Raj, of Stanford University. When his name was suggested to us by another academic at IIT Madras, Ashok Jhunjhunwala, we dashed off an e-mail expressing our intent to meet him. We asked for an appointment, giving a brief outline of our purpose. We got a reply that said: "I am not sure whether I fit the profile of the people you are trying to meet. I worked for almost 25 years in the Indian Navy, now I am doing research and teaching at the EE department of Stanford University and have just done a startup called Gigabit Wireless (now renamed Iospan Wireless) while I was on sabbatical."

Our naval contacts said: "Oh Paul Raj, he was a most unusual whiz kid." Naturally, our antennae were up with curiosity to meet this off beat entrepreneur. When we met him, Paul Raj dropped names, accomplishments, career changes, patents and so on in his staccato narration of a fascinating story. It was so incredible, that we had to check with all sorts of sources to confirm various parts of the story, which we had heard sitting in a Palo Alto restaurant. Needless to say, it all checked out and we gladly admit our own ignorance in the subject.

Paul Raj joined the Indian Navy through the National Defence Academy and com­pleted his engineering degree from the Naval Engineering College at Lonavla. Since the degree was not recog­nised in those days by various non-military engineering colleges and IITS, it was not pos­sible for him to pursue higher studies. The naval brass, however, were impressed and, as a special case, sent Paul to IIT Delhi in 1969, for a MTech.

However, after the M-Tech, Prof P.V. Indire­san of IIT Delhi, encour­aged him to do a PhD. But the navy said no. Then, in the 1971 war with Pakistan, battle­ship INS Khukri was sunk, torpedoed by a Daphne class subma­rine at close quarters. Clearly, Khukri's sonar had failed to detect the attacking vessel. Khukri was sunk at around 1 am in the morning. At 6 am Paul was pulled out from IIT Delhi's campus and taken to Mumbai to see another ship of the same class and figure out how the Sonar failed. "I was very theoretical those days and even my thesis was in stochastic communication theory. But still I said that the sonar could be improved," says Paul. He worked on the problem at IIT Delhi and improved the sonar system by using techniques of digital signal process­ing. Bharat Dynamics manufactured it and put it into all Naval ships. It became a major success for Naval R&D.

"Then British Naval R&D invited me. There I discovered that India had given a majors Sonar contract to some British and French companies. I also found that we knew more about the system than they did. I told the navy that we would do it on our own. Between '77 and '82 we did a major project. Today, INS Delhi, INS Mysore and all other modern ships have my Sonar. In 1983, Indian Sonars were more advanced than American sonars and the CIA was very worried about whether we were selling them to the Russians. For shallow waters, it was the best in the world. It was unbelievable that we went from zero to there."

At that time, Paul got an offer from Prof Tom Kailath of Stanford University, a doyen in control systems, to teach in Stanford for two years. Paul finished the assignment, honed his research interests further and went back. "I was asked to start the Centre of Advanced Robotics and later the Centre for Development of Advanced Computing (CDAC). Meanwhile, I also built two labs for BEL. I started CDAC'S Bangalore centre to develop software. My view was: 'Let us not publicise too much.' I also felt that build­ing a parallel computer using transputers was an M-Tech project. What we needed was software for parallel process­ing without which we cannot use it, either for weather pre­diction or computational fluid dynamics. Because of these differences I left CDAC," says Paul.

Since he had already retired prematurely from the navy to join BEL, Paul was free to pursue his academic interests. In 1992, Paul joined Stanford as a faculty member. Here he switched to wireless. Today, his group at Stanford is recognised as a leader in wireless technologies in the world. It has done pio­neering work in space­time coding and modulation of wireless data.

"Our technology, in which I hold the princi­pal patent, is called MIMO (multiple input multiple out­put). It is a huge multiplier. It is like Wavelength Divisional Multiplexing (WDM). Just as WDM lets you shoot more data through different wavelengths, in MIMO every additional antenna gives you more bandwidth. We started Gigabit Wireless to develop broadband wireless access. Using our technology in fixed wireless, it will pro­vide 5-15 MBps bandwidth in a radius of five to ten miles. This will be way ahead of 3G," he adds. Iospan Wireless, formerly Gigabit Wireless, has 50 PhDs in a team of 150. Two major customers for Iospan are Worldcom and Sprint. The product is expected to ship in June 2000.

Paul Raj is a good friend of the Nambiars of BPL and is on their board. He is also trying to help the Navy by bring­ing in Naval students to Stanford. "The Navy is like a strong family, you can never forget them," says this part­sailor, part-teacher, part-thinker and part-tinkerer.
Clearly, Paul Raj is a man of many parts.

Friday 23 November 2007

Profile: Vinod Khosla

Business India, January 24-February 4, 2001

Ceasar: Vinod Khosla

Shivanand Kanavi

You can put my name in any search engine and you will get enough mate­rial on me, and I have said whatever I have to say in most of my interviews. So you can dis­pense with the usual questions and fire away," said Vinod Khosla, when we met him in his office at Sand Hill Road at Menlo Park. The words were not tinged with arro­gance but were a genuine attempt at getting to the core issues quickly.

That is how Vinod has made his famous picks: Juniper Networks, Cerent, Sierra, Redback and more. Which, according to Fortune, have made over $16 billion for KPCB, thereby making him "the most successful vc of all times". Clearly he has gotten to the core of the next generation of networking.

Vinod is famous for his brevity. Rajvir Singh, who has become a fountain of Optical start-ups, recalls how the first thing Vinod advised him in an e-mail when he invested in Fiberlane (later split into Cerent and Sierra) was: "Keep the B.S. out of all communication".

We say amen to that, and give below a few notes from our conversation, albeit pared with Occam's razor:

Money: In 10 years I have never done a rate of return cal­culation. I have only looked at economic contribution. After all, if you have made economic contribution, then money will come anyway. Many people talk about how much they will be worth. I reject all those who only talk about money. That is Wall Street mentality. It goes against my intellectual curiosity, predicting trends and so on.

Venture Capitalism: It is all about helping entrepreneurs build companies. Juniper is a classic example. When Pradeep Sindhu came to me, he had no business experi­ence. I guided him in building Internet routers and then helped him find the team, I helped him find Scott Kriens. All these things are really hard to do if you are just an engi­neer, because you have never done anything like this. What we do is help make an idea into a company. It is like being a coach for a soccer team or a football team.

Startups: I do not miss being in a startup myself. It is a lot of work and you get stuck in one area. Technology is mov­ing rapidly in so many areas and I have interest in so many areas. Every two to three years I completely change the area I am investing in. I take a few months off to learn the whole technology and develop a vision of what the world is going to be like - it is literally going back to school- then start investing.

Current interests:
Whether it is optical components, which is physics and material science or enterprise soft­ware, the only way to do it is to take three months off, learn and come back. My position lets me do it. I have got curiosity. I change my interests regularly when I get bored .All three of my degrees are in com­pletely different areas. Right now, as hobbies, I keep up with string theory and evolutionary biology.

Big vs small companies: It is not big vs small. People who refused to take risks are losing. Lucent had more talent than Nortel. But Nor­tel has changed: they have absorbed entrepreneurial culture. Lucent has wrong acquisition strategy and wrong culture. People don't leave Cisco when it acquires, but they do when Lucent does. It is much harder for big companies but Nortel has done it.

Optical Networking: In both opti­cal and wireless, valuations are hyped and over-hyped. But if you look at the impact they are going to have on society, on the way business is going to be run and so on, then they are underestimated. Investors are like lemmings, suddenly they go from greed to fear.

Indian entrepreneurs: The stockmarket is not a good indicator. Some have built businesses but some have built market caps. It is a bad value system. Issue is what can you create that has lasting value. Desh has real rev­enue. I like what Desh did. In the end his value will be judged if he makes an eco­nomic contribution. That is what Pradeep is doing. Intel, Sun, Dell, Microsft, Oracle all made contributions.

Education in India: A country of the size of India, a billion strong, does not have a major university which is world class and which is leading in research so that it does not have to depend on all the research in US. You have to take a SO-year view of this, not five to ten years. Over the long haul, India has the talent, language (English), enough infrastructure. It will grow in a very, very big way in the knowledge economy. Hopefully, people from all over the world will go to India to do research. That is the genesis of my interest in Global Institutes of Science and Technology.

Role models: I was 15-16 and living in Dehi Cantonment, as my father was in the army. I used to go to Shankar market and rent old issues of trade journals in electronics, which you get free there. I read about Intel being started up by a couple of engineers. That was my dream long before I went to lIT. In 1975, even before I finished lIT, I tried to start a company. Those days in India, it was not possible if your father did not have connections. That is why I resonate with role models. Andy Grove and Intel became role models for me.

Vinod Khosla loves travel and photography. Blown up pictures of his children taken by him are all over his office

Weather forecasting, Monsoon

The Weekend Observer, June 1992

Vagaries of weather forecasting

Shivanand Kanavi

The monsoon is not only a meteorological phenomenon for Indians but it deeply affects their literature, music, culture and the very psyche itself. Not only are the famous raga Megh Malhar and the poetic work Meghdoot expressions of it, but D.D. Kosambi, one of the great Indian encyclopaedists observed that the regularity of the cycle of seasons might have given rise to a fatalistic world view and even the myth of satyug, tretayug, dwaparyug and kalyug

Thus anybody who can predict and hopefully change the pattern of monsoons is always sought after, be they sooth sayers, astrologers, sadhus, performing yajnas and havans and even scientists. When the predictions or promised changes in weather do not come through, Indians seem to find any number of justifications for the failure of all the traditional wisdom but the meteorologist is never spared. He is the cartoonist’s delight. Who can forget R.K. Laxman’s cartoon of a long bus queue in pouring rain where everybody has provided himself with a raincoat or an umbrella except one fellow, and a guy whispering “must be from the weather bureau”!

All this is good for a laugh but when you meet a hardened weatherman like Dr. S Kumar, Deputy Director General of Meteorology heading the Colaba (Bombay) observatory and responsible for the western zone, and learn the rudiments of meteorology then you start appreciating the complexity of the subject.

The word monsoon owes its origin to the Arabic word mausam meaning season. It is believed to have been used by seamen, six or seven centuries ago to describe a system of alternating winds in the Arabian sea, these winds appear to blow from northeast for six months and from the southwest for another six months. Seasonal changes of wind are primarily the result of differences in the quantity of heat received from the sun by different parts of the earth.

As a consequence of its chemical composition and its soil structure, the conduction of heat into the earth is a comparatively slow process. Thus most of the solar energy received at the ground by the continents is used up in hating air rather than the earth’s surface. Whereas oceans are heated up to greater depths due to convection currents and a smaller part of the energy is available for heating the air, monsoon as a system of winds has the following notable features:
1. A system, with marked seasonal shifts, caused by the differential heating of the land and the sea.
2. A wind system that is largely confined to the tropics, that is the region between 20° N and 20° S latitudes on both sides of the equator.
3. Indian monsoon can be thought of as southeast trade winds which on crossing the equator are deflected to the right by the earth’s rotation (Coriolis force) and hence approach the land from a south-westerly direction.
4. The trade winds of the northern and southern hemispheres are divided by the Inter Tropical Front (ITF) which is a region of considerable cloudiness and rainfall. The southwest monsoon, originates in the ITF and moves northwards, due to the pull of a low pressure area in the hot Indo-Gangetic basin, but of the subcontinent after reaching the southern tip of India around June 1, it splits into two branches; the Arabian sea branch, and the Bay of Bengal branch.

The Arabian Sea branch gradually advances northwards to Bombay. The advance from Trivandrum to Bombay takes about ten days and is fairly rapid.

The Bay of Bengal branch moves northwards into the central Bay of Bengal and rapidly spreads over most of Assam by the first week of June. On reaching the Himalayan barrier, the bay branch of the monsoon is deflected westwards. As a consequence, its further progress is towards the Gangetic plains of India rather than towards Burma. The arrival of monsoon at Calcutta is lightly earlier than at Bombay. By mid-June, the Arabian Sea branch spreads over Saurashtra-Kutch and the central parts of the country. Thereafter the two branches tend to merge into a single current. The remaining parts of western UP, Haryana, Punjab and the eastern Rajasthan experience the first monsoon showers by the first of July. Some times the first showers at Delhi arrive from the east as an extension of the Bay of Bengal branch and sometimes from the south that is from the Arabian sea branch. Often it is a race between the two. By mid July it will extend to Kashmir and remaining parts of the country but only as a feeble current because by this time it has shed most of its moisture.

The normal duration of monsoon varies from two to four months. The withdrawal is much more gradual than its onset. Generally the monsoon withdraws from northwest India by the beginning of October and from the remaining parts of the country by the end of November. Though theoretically it seems possible for both the southwest monsoon and the northeast monsoons to co-exist in the southern half of the peninsula in October, in reality such situations are rare.

This in brief is the story of the monsoon but there are any number of disturbances of local and regional origin that can upset the text book schedule for example a cyclone in the Arabian sea that starts drawing the moisture away can lead to delays and dissipations.

The short term forecasts deal with a period of twenty four to seventy two hours which are mainly done with the help of data from over 500 weather stations spread all over the country, the data from the ships in the ocean, the satellite pictures from he NASA polar satellite NOVA which scans India every six hours, pictures from the geo-stationary INSAT satellite and even input from airline crews.

But a satellite picture, as Dr Kumar points out, is like a X-Ray photograph in the hands of a physician. It needs interpretation which is bound to be subjective. This is where the years of experience of our weathermen count.

Attempts are on to developing computer programmes to forecast weather in the medium term that is three to ten days at the Super Computer facility in Delhi.

The long term forecasting that is from ten days to a few months, is being attempted by the group in Pune. Over sixteen phenomenons all over the globe are being watched by this group and correlated with the Indian monsoon. Some of tem are the total snowfall over Eurasia during the previous winter, the convective wind between Darwin in the southern hemisphere and Tahiti islands in the pacific, the El Nino oceanic current off the coast of Peru in south America etc.

Considering the enormity of a weather system like the Indian monsoon, and the usual constraints of funds and technology and the very nature of a field where controlled experiments are well nigh impossible, our weathermen are doing a competent job, to say the least.

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Optical Networking, Tejas

Business India, August 7-20, 2000

Will Tejas light up?

Brought into being by Sycamore Networks, ASG-Omni and Desh Deshpande, the new technology baby in Bangalore, Tejas Network, aims to put India on the global hi-tech map

Shivanand Kanavi

“The bible of Optical Networking, which we all study at Sycamore and other Optical Networking companies, was written by this guy, in Bangalore," said Gururaj 'Desh' Deshpande introducing Dr Kumar Sivarajan, chief technology officer of Tejas Networks, while launching Tejas recently. "The technology business is totally people centric. If you have a world-class team, then you can compete in the global market. Our first milestone is recruiting 100 world class people with the right mindset in the next six-nine months," adds Sanjay Nayak, CEO, Tejas Networks.

"Tejas will be India's first globally competitive product company," says Deshpande. With that kind of confidence bordering on cockiness, Tejas was launched in a simple function in Bangalore on 25 July. Tejas aims to develop products for the fast growing optical networking market, which is expected to reach $40 billion by 2004 and also sell and support Sycamore's optical networking products.

Everybody in India claims to be globally competitive, "state-of-the-art,” etc which needs to be taken, not with just a pinch of salt, but a fistful. However what makes Tejas special is the track record of the team which is launching it. Deshpande, founder and chairman of Tejas, is fast becoming a folk hero in India. Though Deshpande has been a successful entrepreneur in North America for almost 20 years, what made him an icon in India, and a highly-respected figure in the cutthroat US market itself, is the launch of his third startup Sycamore in 1998. The Sycamore share which was offered during late 1999 on Nasdaq at $38 listed at $210. A start-up struck a market cap of about $18 billion within weeks of listing and is currently valued around $35 billion, of which Deshpande owns 29 per cent.

"The new economy unfairly rewards excellence and unfairly punishes mediocrity," says Deshpande. "Today markets do not look at your balance sheets and revenue streams to decide on valuations. They are looking at the people leading the company, their track record in trying their darnest to turn their convictions into reality. There is no stigma attached to failure as long as you did your best in a transparent way. After all, one of my start ups, Coral Networks did not work out and when I disagreed with my partner on business strategy, I had to walk out. At that time, my wife had also given up her job to bring up our children and we had to manage our family with no income for 9-10 months. But I still decided to quit Coral and start a new company called Cascade Communications which took a longtime to attract any investment by venture capitalists," adds he. Later, of course, Cascade grew into a large company with $500 million in revenues prior to its acquisition by Ascend Communications in June 1997 for $3.7 billion. (Ascend in turn was acquired by Lucent.)
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"Sanjay has been a successful CEO when he headed Synopsys India, and View Logic's operations in India. Similarly Kumar Sivarajan who was working in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore has earlier worked in Caltech and IBM'S Watson Research Centre. Our director engineering Arnob Roy has over 13 years of industry experience and has contributed significantly to product development in Synopsys, View Logic Systems and Cadence Design Systems and is an expert in Electronic Design Automation. We have in a short period of time recruited about 17 excellent people and are already talking to our first customers," says Deshpande.


"Products company is a big poker game,” Desh Deshpande

Q. Why is Tejas the first such start-up in India?
A. Products is a very different game. It requires a different level of confidence. In the services business you boot strap. You put some money in, more comes out. You use it to expand etc. It is a cost plus business. The product business is a big gamble. You have to say: here is my 25 million dollars, bang. It is a big poker game. That is not the culture that exists in India. It exists only in US, nowhere else in the world. That is the culture I built my business on. That is the only thing that I know how to do. I don't know how to build a service business.

Q. Will Tejas support Sycamore products worldwide?
A. Absolutely. You build the capabilities and then go wherever you can. So the professional services group in Tejas will go to the US, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and so on. There won't be any territorial issues. Right now the market is growing at such a rapid pace that everybody can have a piece of the pie if they can deliver.

Q. You promise bandwidth nirvana, but do you have a problem of bandwidth in India for Tejas? A. Of course. The amount of money you have to pay in India is ridiculous. For a 2 MB pipe to US, it is $50,000 a month. In Europe, it is $3,500 a year and Singapore it is even cheaper.

Q. Europe is a large market, so if closeness to market is the issue then how come there are no great product companies from Europe except in mobile telephony?
A. Because they are not entrepreneurial. It's the same thing in Japan. You look at Siemens, Alcatel, etc, they are not entrepreneurial. They cannot think out of the box, they cannot innovate. As a result, all these companies and countries are very good at going after a large market: 1 million cars, 100 million watches, 10 million cameras, they are good at that. But whenever the market changes very rapidly where you have to innovate and competition is very intense, they are not good at it. The only country which has done very well in such markets is the US, because they are a very, very open country. They do not say, "Hey Desh, you are from India and so you cannot set up a company in the US. So you can get the best people in the world and go after the competition. India needs to do the same thing.
Indians are very entrepreneurial too; that is why they have done very well in the US. You need people in India with ambition, you need role models and benchmarks. After all, one lives against so many odds here that you have to be entrepreneurial. There are a few start-ups in Bangalore but you need a big hit.

Q. There is a lot at stake in Tejas since everybody will be watching it. Does that create pressure?
A. No. If you want to win the Olympics then you have to say I am going to win it and you will be watched every minute of your life and you have to live up to it. But you have to sign up. If you don't, you will never win

Q. DoT has about 200, 000 km of fibre in the ground. What if it teams up with you and provide all the bandwidth we need.
A. Internationally innovation does not favour the incumbent. Look at AT&T, Mel, WorldComm, Sprint and so on. If they all did the right things, there would never be a Williams, Quest, Level Three and any of these guys. It is the speed at which you can implement and innovate which creates a brand new market. If you open up the market, there is always room for others. DoT's market share which is 1 00 per cent now will fall, but its revenues will go up. There is not enough fibre in India which will meet the demand for next 1 0 years, so there have to be a lot of players.
Today in the US, voice is practically free. It used to be 50 cents a minute and now it is 1 .5 cents. It (demand) will come from data and new applications which require high bandwidth. Pure capacity is also not an issue, it is speed of service, quality of service, etc. For example you go to a company and say I need 2 GB for two days from Mumbai to Delhi and one guy says I have got 1 00 GB capacity but it will take me six months to give it to you and then you have to sign up for five years and another guy says it will take me five minutes and I will give it to you for two days, then the second guy wins.



"The speed with which this project has been taken from concept to market place is truly amazing and is setting new benchmarks," says Ashok Vasudevan of ASG-omni, a Connecticut-based consulting and incubating firm. "In less than three months we incorporated it, recruited our top team and got our office ready from scratch to where a hundred people can work. Even in Boston this is difficult to beat," adds he.

"In fact Sanjay Nayak, our CEO, joined in two-and-a-half days," says Hans Taparia another member of the ASG-omni team who is involved with Tejas. "We had breakfast one day, he took the evening flight to Boston, spent a day with Desh and Sycamore, he returned the next and joined us as CEO!"

"The way Sanjay was talking to other people while interviewing for Tejas was like a veteran of many years. It is conviction that matters. Once you have people who have the conviction then you need the structure that gives them the independence. Kumar and Sanjay have the full power to take whatever decisions and we are there just to help. If this was a startup of a couple of people in Bangalore then you would not have the confidence, but if you know that you are going after a $40 billion market in 2004 and you have the right group of people then you will invest a lot of money. The confidence comes because Tejas is associated with Sycamore, that means you have market access," emphasises Deshpande.

How much money have the three promoters Deshpande, Sycamore and ASG-Omni put into Tejas? They are still very tightlipped about it. "We will disclose it at the right time but money is not a problem. At Sycamore itself we are sitting on $1.5 billion in cash after our IPQ, which is more than many of our large competitors. But I am on the board, Kevin Oye of Sycamore is on the board. Our management time is at a premium and I am spending a lot of time here. We are looking for some thing really big here," says Deshpande.

We have had several very successful software services startups in India which have become world class services companies. However, we still do not have a successful technology products company. One reason that has been always given by the industry pundits is that we are far from the market place (read the US). So will Sycamore playa facilitating role in this startup? "Definitely. Access to market knowledge is an absolute must for any product company, but Sycamore will straightaway provide a tunnel into the US market, which is still the most important market. Tejas is at a different vantage point from Sycamore. Sycamore had to live on its own, it had to compete with Lucent, Nortel and all the big boys. Tejas does not have to fight for survival, it just has to execute. If you can get 100 very, very talented people with a certain culture then that is a huge asset. To build products you need market knowledge, you need the process, domain knowledge, etc of world class which does not exist in Bangalore. So you need a lot of interaction with Sycamore and that is what we have been doing. Some of the speed at Tejas is coming from there. At Sycamore we take a lot of pride in all this. Everybody says the last guy did something in 30 days and I will do it in 27 days and so on. You can already see the flavour of that at Tejas and once you have the culture and the machinery to execute, then developing products is just identifying the right target and going after it," explains Deshpande.

"If it needs about $25 million to develop a world class product, it does not mean that anybody with $25 million can successfully build a product. It needs deep market knowledge and domain knowledge. Thus Sycamore is key to Tejas' success," adds he.

Tejas will have two divisions working in tandem. One at product development and the other vending Sycamore products in India which will also build capabilities for network design, deployment and support. The Tejas team is already talking to many people in India who have declared their intention to build large, broadband networks.

So what is new? Have not all Indian companies started with services and then slowly ventured into components and products? The crucial thing is not to look at services as bread and butter and invest the revenues from services into product development later, as is wont with Indian companies. The services team will build for the global market. "Even this is being done with our product strategy in mind; after all there is a lot more to do in a product company than just build products. While we build a world class R&D centre for products we will be building a sales and marketing network for Sycamore's products which will be very crucial when we come out with our own products. Opportunities will not wait at that time for us to build up our marketing," adds Sanjay Nayak.

"People like Sanjay and Kumar would not have joined us if we had started a sales office for Sycamore. Such talent can be attracted only if it is a product startup with all the attendant challenges and rewards. They have built products in the past, but for others. Now they will be doing it for themselves," says Deshpande.

Tejas, is a Sanskrit word that means brilliance, radiance and energy. A million eyes are literally watching Tejas to see if it will light up. For their first product roll out, watch this space.

Brahmi, Memory enhancing pills

Will you remember to take your memory pills?

Middle- aged people with failing memories, parents pushing their children to join IITs, students cramming the year’s syllabus a month before exams- these are being targeted by the manufacturers of memory-enhancing drugs. Shivanand Kanavi investigates the efficacy of these drugs.

“I trust Memory Plus,” grandmaster Vishwanathan Anand has been assuring TV audiences in the country. Though he does not explicitly say that regular ingestion of Memory Plus helped him achieve phenomenal success in world chess, that is what the ad implies.

Velvette International Pharma Products Ltd., a Madras-based listed company, introduced the product in the market in July 1996. Whether the drug really had an effect on Anand during the past 18 months is a moot point. Anand was a grandmaster well before the drug was launched.

According to V.P. Kambhoj, an eminent drug researcher and scientist emeritus at the Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, Memory Plus has been tested on mince for several years, It does improve the “Short-term and long-term memory” of mice.

But, hey, we want to know if we can become grandmasters after a course of Memory Plus! Conclusive proof of Memory Plus helping human beings has yet to come. Kambhoj says data is being collected at various research centres about it effectiveness on human beings.

One thing is certain, says Kambhoj: the drug is not toxic. In accordance with the standards of modern medicine, research at the CDRI has shown that Memory Plus does not have any harmful side-effects on human beings.

According to C.K. Rajkumar, Velvette International’s effervescent managing director, trials on the drug’s effect on the elderly are now under way at the Ayurvedic Research Centre at G.S. Medical College, attached to the well-known King Edward Memorial Hospital in Mumbai.

In short, it is still an opent question whether your memory will improve if you do remember to take your two ballets of Memory Plus a day for 90 days (a box of 30 pills costs Rs.105). You can’t be sure whether your investment of over Rs.630 on these tablets has improved your memory. By the time you finish the course, however, there is one thing you are unlikely to forget: how much you spent on it.

Research conducted on mice at the Industrial Toxicology Research Centre at Lucknow has shown that Memory Plus reduces anxiety and stress. Researchers found that Memory plus lowered the levels of HSP-70, a protection associated with stress, in the brain cells of mice.

The active ingredients in Memory Plus, which were chemically isolated by the CDRI, are called triterpenoid glycosides. They are also known as bacosides A and B, as atey are extracted from the brahmi plant (bacopa munniera).

In the charak Samhita, written nearly 2,000 years ago, brahmi has been prescribed as a nerve tonic for “anxiety, weak intellect and lack o concentration”. The Sushruta Samhita, written about 100 years later, also mentions brahmi as “effective for loss of memory and intellect”. Still later ayurveda texts also sang hosannas to the powers of brahmi.

Brahmi extracts have been indicated as therapeutic for patients of epilepsy and asthma as well. This is why the CDRI took up the study of brahmi in the 1960s, using modern pharmacological and chemical means.

Today, Memory Plus is being marketed as a herbal medicine and not as an allopathic drug. The studies conducted so far are more than enough to qualify it for such a table. Since 1976, the World Health Organisation has allowed the introduction of traditional medicines in to the market without further clinical trials, provided they have been in use for a long time. Brahmi, which has been used in India for thousands of years, certainly qualifies.

Rajkumar seized upon the idea, bought from the CDRI the technology for separating enough bacosides in the very first extract of brahmi, and introduced Memory Plus. He has pulled off a coup of sorts in imaginative marketing. Within the first 15 months, he claims, he sold about Rs.15crore of Memory Plus, making other pharma entrepreneurs jealous. International enquiries are pouring in, and Velvette Pharma recently launched the drug in Sri Lnaka and Malaysia.

FLATTERY BY IMITATION
The ultimate tribute to success is imitation. Dalmia Industries Ltd., the New Delhi-based Sanjay Dalmia group Company, has introduced a drug called MegaMind 2 Plus(available for Rs 108). It contains a brahmi extract, and small amounts of a herb called vacha. The company introduced it in July 1997, and says it is too early to provided sales data. It explains that, while brahmi is recommended for retention for facts, vacha helps recall. Whether human memory can be divided into retention and recalls is a big question. But the company claims that G P Dube of the Centre of Psychosomatic and Biofeedback Medicine at the Banaras Hindu University has researched the drug’s efficacy on human beings.

Dube claims that trials on normal people, as well as on those with degenerating memories, showed beneficial effects. Ayurveda, and not modern medicine, motivated his work. However, Dube has not been able to chemically isolated the active compounds.

Dalmia Industries is banking on his preliminary tests and advertising the drug as having been tested on human beings- a questionable claim. Without getting into the controversy of “retention and recall”, Dube claims that the use of small amounts of vacha, an ingredient o MegaMind, helps people with communication difficulties like stuttering and stammering.

So, for now, we have to depend on testimony of our grandmaster, roped in by Memory Plus, or some other celebrity that the makers of MegaMind may rope in tomorrow. If you do want to give in a try, remember to take the drug regularly without sipping a day. Both manufacturers warn that if you miss even one dose, the drug may not be effective, after all.

But if you can remember to take your two tablets every single day for three whole months, then do you really need the drug?