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December 10, 1999


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The 3D Man

Kamla Bhatt in San Jose Dr. Venkat Krishnamurthy

"I like solving complex problems and make sure that they have a tangible result, " says Dr Venkat Krishnamurthy. Two years ago, he was giving finishing touches to his thesis at Stanford University, today he is the president of Santa Clara-based Paraform Inc.

Paraform produces a professional software application that costs $ 15,000 per license. A typical customer of the software is a design company -- like a car company or a toy company -- where designing and manufacturing is a hard process.

Entertainment companies also use Paraform products. Customers include ILM and DreamWorks.

"At the guts of the application is my algorithm," says Krishnamurthy, one of the few Indian Americans in the 3D business.

"A lot of people are typically surprised to see an Indian face in a 3D company," he says. "It is acceptable to see Indians in database and networking."

The company has been creating a buzz in the Valley and beyond, but Krishnamurthy can only give so many details about it.

"We can't disclose revenues at this stage," the 28-year-entrepreneur says." Suffice to say we're grateful to be enjoying a lot of success with a large pool of name-brand customers.

"We can't disclose the revenue but we not profitable yet."

"Tangible", "result" and "left and right brain," are Krishnamurthy's favorite phrases.

When quizzed what the name Paraform means, Krishnamurthy thought for a couple of seconds and replied, "It really does not mean anything. Para is beyond and form and structures are what we deal with."

Interestingly, the name popped up while he and his business cronies were flying back from visiting Paul Allen, the other founder of Microsoft, about two years ago.

That was the first time he met Allen whose company Interval Research Corp had funded Krishnamurthy's research at Stanford.

"Interval was keeping tabs and when they heard I was going to commercialize it, they wanted to find more about my research," Krishnamurthy says.

"Allen is a cool man, down to earth and technically astute about 3D," comments Krishnamurthy.

"He was one of the first persons we pitched the idea," he recalled. "We were sitting in the room waiting for him, he came in and we made the presentation -- but it quickly got derailed and instead he led the discussion."

At the end of the 45-minute meeting Allen says, "Well, thank you gentlemen and thank you for coming," and walked away, recounts Krishnamurthy.

"After the meeting we were concerned since (Allen) did give any indication (of what he thought of the idea)," he says. However, two days later they heard that that they had bagged funding from Allen.

Krishnamurthy laughingly describes himself as "a prototypical south Indian who every now and then yearns for his amma's rasam podi and kozhambu."

He was born in Cuttack but spent his formative years in Saket, Delhi. His father was a senior manager with Engineers Indian Limited.

" I went to Sardar Patel Vidyalaya and graduated from my plus two in 1988," he says. While growing up he had no firm idea on what he wanted to do.

"I exhibited a flair for mathematics which I did well and enjoyed it. I wanted to do something in computer science," he says.

He completed his undergraduation at IIT, Kanpur, where he discovered computer graphics.

"My interest in 3D did not happen until I graduated. In the last semester at IIT, I took a course called 'Foundations of Computer Graphics', which was a pretty general course," he said.

"But it had math and programming... I saw how images are generated and since I am a visual person this interested me."

Like many other IITians, he had applied for graduate studies in US and been accepted at the prestigious Stanford University, Palo Alto.

Palo Alto is also home to the famous Xerox research facility. With his new-found interest in computer graphics, he decided to spend his summer vacation exploring advertisement firms in Bombay before flying out to San Francisco.

"I spent time trying to understand how they were using graphics. What I discovered is that there exists a 'secret club of 3D graphics' -- and these were people that used both right and left side of the brain," he explains.

"Ostensibly I was going to pursuing a Ph.D. in theoretical computer science at Stanford," recalls Krishnamurthy. After landing in his graduate digs at Stanford, he discovered that Stanford had just appointed a new graphics professor, Dr Marc Levoy. By the end of his first day at Stanford, Krishnamurthy shot off an email to Dr. Levoy introducing himself and explaining about his interest in computer graphics. He went a few steps farther and met with the professor. He then visited the 3D lab and, by fortunate coincidence, saw the '3D scanner', that was to change the course of his graduate studies and life.

"The 3D scanner -- which captures 3D images -- was a complicated piece of machinery and is surprisingly busy," he notes. But the problem that interested him was, "How do I harness the power of the 3D scanner? It was an interesting device and an interesting mathematical problem. Many people had tried to solve the problem."

But what the users did not possess was a strong mathematical background to come up with a mathematical solution. "I looked at it as a mathematical problem and felt it would be a good thesis project," he adds. When he spoke with Dr Levoy about the project his response was, "I don't have the background, if you can get others to help you or if you can work on it. That is fine."

Krishnamurthy recognized that this was a risk but he was willing to take it.

"I had to constantly prove that I was making progress," he recalls.

Left to his own devices, he went back to his graduate housing and spent a couple of years in "reclusive thinking".

"I always knew I would be able to do it," he continues. "I reveled in the whole process. I did not look for any sounding board. I looked at the work other people had done." When he came out of his "reclusive thinking" phase he presented a paper in early 1996.

"Here is the problem, here is the solution, and this was something people had not seen before. I also put it up on the Web and that is when it took off. Many companies called to use the solution. It was a bizarre experience," he recalls. "I executed 2-3 licenses and was working with some other problems when I realized there was an opportunity to make a commercial impact."

In 1997 when he finished his thesis, he founded Paraform.

What are his immediate plans for the firm?

"We have not made any plans yet," he says. "But we are building the company towards an IPO. We know we want to go IPO."

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