Prakash Yalla’s superpower lies in getting behind a good idea and pushing it through the rigors of incubation. The technocrat who once innovated with Honeywell’s mission critical products and developed corporate research labs today leads the Products Lab at IIIT Hyderabad. We walk you through his life that began in the space port of India, rubbing shoulders with giants in India’s space program.
When Prakash Yalla, with over thirty years of industry experience in startups and innovative engineering design joined IIIT Hyderabad, it was like a fish took to water. As head of IIIT Hyderabad’s Technology Transfer Office (TTO) and Products Lab, he has whipped up a certain level of excitement in the academic ecosystem, that has witnessed a spike in patents being filed ever since he took charge! The Entrepreneur- in-Residence Program and the courses that he teaches in technology product entrepreneurship & product management are oriented towards productizing research, seeding and incubating startups. His team recently won the second place in the Make It Move challenge, that came out of this program.
Journey to the Center of IIITH’s incubation pod
Ever wonder what it would be like to grow up on a remote island surrounded by cerebral rocket scientists? Yalla has this to say. “We were the first inhabitants on the Sriharikota island and have literally seen the large structures that you see today, grow from dust. My father was a civil engineer who built the launch pads and the roads infrastructure on the island.”
With so much early exposure to technology and the sciences, opting for engineering was a given. With a B. Tech in Electronics and communication from Tirupati’s SVU College of Engineering, Yalla would join HAL Hyderabad as a design engineer and would work on the Light combat aircraft project and Advanced Light Helicopters, developing the transponders, mounted on planes.
One cherished experience was an assignation of great national interest. To prevent the grounding of a fleet of 40 Jaguars, the challenge was to innovate the VHF radio hardware and software and make it available in the field within 90 days. “My colleague and I achieved our target in half that time and received a bunch of recognitions and an award”, says Yalla who did some very interesting work in defense aerospace, at a time of technology restrictions by the US government, post-Pokhran.
When Yalla moved to the aerospace division of Honeywell, he was part of the task team working alongside renowned aerospace architects investigating an air crash where he observed and learnt the rigors of mission critical software development.
Back in the nineties, the first work on IoT actually emerged from his team when they built a ZigBee stack, a part of IoT devices used today. He explains, “At the Frankfurt Building show, the first ever concept on an Internet-controlled home that we worked on was demonstrated to the world”. Earlier, as Domain Leader for engineering services at Honeywell Aerospace (USA), his team developed both the embedded systems and internet-enabled controller for one of the world’s most silent 75kw power generator.
As Director of Advanced Technology & Emerging Markets, Yalla would set up research labs and innovation systems, among the initial MNCs in India to do so, with focus on wireless communications and controlled systems. Honeywell India had registered ten patents in the previous decade, and when he left, they were batting a thousand invention disclosures per year. The Professor of Practice has co-authored a Harvard teaching case study with IIM Bangalore on social networks within an enterprise.
One high point during his tenure as head of Advanced technology labs was when Nobel Laureate Dr. Eric Cornell interned in his lab to get an India-industry perspective.
After a short stint as Lead R&D at Acme Tele power, Yalla joined Bangalore-based startup Wooqer as investor cum founding member, where he spent six years in building it to a reasonable size. When contemplating a career shift to a new challenge, Prof. Ramesh Loganathan, his childhood classmate and college roommate would suggest IIIT Hyderabad to him. The Products Lab was being set up to translate research from their Centers into a viable product-market fit and the idea looked interesting.
Professor X and a generation of Innovators
Premier Badminton League, the first project that Yalla curated looked like a good way to jumpstart Product labs. “We started with Matchday AI, a technology that allows players to track their improvement using objective parameters. Star Sports had approached IIITH for technology for another sport and Prof. Jawahar’s team had adapted it for the Premier Badminton League. “Subsequently Star Sports did a lot of analytics in different tournaments and it is currently being used in academies, especially Gopichand Academy and in the Olympics. It also built a lot of confidence in our own teams that we had the meat and bones to build a startup around the concept”, he notes.
Subtl.Ai., a startup built around cognitive semantic technology to “understand” information in documents and unstructured text was the next Product to come out of the IIITH Stable. “From a casual conversation in the corridor with Prof. Manish Srivastava, Me and Prof. Loganathan, we built a market prototype that Vishnu Ramesh transformed into a company and was successfully deployed”.
NeuralSync AI co-founded by Pavan Reddy and 2 Ph.D scholars created Way2Lip, a compact video editor with an AI algorithm to generate accurate lip movement based on the target’s speech. Pistar Tech’s PhysioFLEPS is a platform that provides foot pressure distribution to assist practitioners to perform a comprehensive foot function analysis. Tryd.AI, a startup venture in Tryon technology allows customers to visualize how 3D clothing fits their avatar and their app promises to be revolutionary. Arka is developing the world’s first commercial re-configuration drone and their application areas include drone delivery, warehouse movement and other multi-payload applications. Hydrow Tech, a retrofit model for an analog water meter to measure and transmit water metrics to a dashboard, is currently in the pipeline for incubation at IIITH’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship.
Two most enriching assets that Yalla cherishes is the wealth of research and product development expertise garnered in the aeronautics industry and lessons learnt in the startup domain that gave him a vantage view of both the entrepreneur’s and researchers’ pain points.
A patently good thing
“In the last year, we have had a rich harvest of impactful patents”, he confesses. One good thing to come out of the Products Lab is awareness among professors about the value in protecting the IP for their cutting edge research; not only because of its commercial value but also to practice technology the way they would want to. “A lot of interest in our technologies is coming up through CIE and the incubator network”, informs Yalla who is a mentor on the T-Hub panel and the Bhashini team, taking care of the engineering aspect.
Growing vegetables on an island and other family stories
“When my parents moved to the Sriharikota island, I was five years old and with nothing around, we had to even grow our own vegetables”, says Yalla. “But being part of something that big being built from ground up had a significant influence.” When the world outside didn’t know what a computer was, the youngster had access to large mainframes and a brush with great visionaries like Abdul Kalam. The conversation for technology came naturally, along with the ability to think big. Yalla credits his friends with being a significant influence on what he is today.
“Any physical activity that makes me move around keeps me alive”, comments the yoga practitioner who was a cricket player during his HAL days. He also enjoyed writing musicals on diverse themes with humor and satire. With two grown up daughters who are settled in their careers, and with his engineer-wife Prashanti helping their younger child run a café, his spare time is pretty much taken by Neon, their 10 y-o labrador who rules their house. The music buff loves evergreen tunes from the ‘70s and ‘80s in the Indian and western genre but has recently tuned into the contemporary choices dictated by his daughters’ online playlist!
“Many of us from the industry are wary about academic campuses, but IIIT Hyderabad is altogether different in a very good way”, observes Yalla who recently moved into campus housing. The thrill of getting technology running at the Star Sports-Premier Badminton League, the heady rush experienced when a startup takes off, an award won, IITH’s seeded startups making waves or a successful R&D Showcase are always exciting moments that create a lot of buzz on campus and are the high points of his academic life.