Vamshi Ambati: AI entrepreneur’s charmed journey from Bapatla to Bay Area

IIITH alumnus Vamshi Ambati considers himself fortunate to have worked closely with AI titan Prof. Raj Reddy at Carnegie Mellon and seen the early days of IIITH. The Founder of US-based PredEra, an AI product and solutions company, talks about the early years of IIIT Hyderabad and its longitudinal impact.

When Vamshi Ambati first met Turing Award winner Prof. Raj Reddy, an early pioneer of artificial intelligence, at IIIT Hyderabad, little did the youngster know that one day, he would be a start-up entrepreneur in sunny California. After graduating with honors in AI/NLP from IIIT Hyderabad in 2003, he went on to complete his Masters and Ph.D from the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University, specializing in machine learning (ML), software engineering, NLP and language translation.

In the run up to his Ph.D, Vamshi served as faculty at IIIT Hyderabad and initiated several government-funded research projects. An adjunct faculty at IIITH and Indian School of Business, he has published extensively in his areas of specialization and has been extensively cited in the research community.

Cracking EAMCET and a tickertape parade in Bapatla
It was a feat of great accomplishment when Vamshi Ambati snagged the 43rd rank in EAMCET, a first for the beach town, especially since he had struck it out on his own. “They actually called up Guntur to find out that it was not a print error!”, laughs the conquering hero who was given a ticker tape parade around the beach town, in an open top jeep with a bus behind him.

It was just providential that AP Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu informed his uncle about the newly launched IIIT Hyderabad and thanks to his persistence, Vamshi joined the second batch of B.Tech in 1999. “It was blind faith in the stalwarts, who were converging from everywhere to make things happen. Slowly we began to appreciate just how different the institute was. We assembled computers, set up labs, and were proud that we were part of establishing a very good community.  In our 3rd year, when IIITH became a deemed university, celebrations broke out on campus”, he reminisces.

Early days on campus
“The library, laboratories and cafeteria were great spaces that I really enjoyed, since they were open till very late”, he recalls.

“The hostels had not been built and we hunkered down in makeshift dorms with partitioned half-walls and iron cots. Those with permission to bring computers got the least sleep since they were being constantly bothered with requests for computer access for work or to watch a movie. There would be thirty of us watching a movie, sitting on beds and atop partition walls”. There was also that embarrassing time when they decided to mass bunk Prof. Govindarajulu’s 9.30 am class.  Realizing that more than 25% of the class was missing, the professor took it upon himself to storm into the dorm and shepherd the batch back to class.

IIITH stalwarts who made it happen
“IIIT Hyderabad’s pre-eminent advisors and faculty included Chairman Prof. Raj Reddy, Prof. Rajeev Sangal, Prof. P J Narayanan, Prof. Arun Agarwal et al. Prof. Govindarajulu had a larger than life persona; deeply revered and equally feared. Working with IBM, everyone was in awe of what he was bringing in as professor of recognition”, recollects Vamshi. “My introduction to NLP and AI was accidental and thanks to my friend Sriram Venkatapathy, I joined the LTRC lab that was working on interesting projects in the space of AI. The English to Hindi translation project paved my way into AI and working with Prof. Rajeev Sanghal taught me a lot about being a researcher and the passion for work. Sometimes he would code with us and debug our programs”.

Around then, Dr. Raj Reddy was visiting the campus and soon Vamshi had the opportunity to do a research internship at CMU. “It was there that I realized the respect that Dr. Raj Reddy commanded around the world. My whole career shaped around Prof. Reddy”, he states. “At that point, Dr. Reddy was putting together a team of 10-15 researchers in diverse areas, with a IIIT connection, who would go back and contribute to the Institute. To come to an environment with one skill set in NLP linguistics and attend courses in different areas in software engineering and ML and then organically stitch it back to linguistics really broadened my horizon”.

IIIT Hyderabad and the Millennium project
The Universal Digital Library project was Dr. Reddy’s pet project.  In 2003, this was a first of its kind, multi-continent project with National Science Foundation funding, to digitize the knowledge of the world; involving the Alexandria Library and other universities from Egypt, Africa, Australia, US and India. Called the Millennium project, one million books from multiple languages and geographies were digitized, with India contributing about 400,000 books, some from ancient libraries.

“During my Masters at CMU, I returned to IIITH for 1.5 years, helping Dr. Reddy with building the software, aggregating books, transliterating the images into a language that was searchable and working with librarians, copyright and digitization teams.”, he adds.

Vamshi was a Co-Principal Investigator of Digital Library of India (an MHRD project) with Prof. Jawahar and as Technical Director, collaborated with Indian Institute of Science and 18 regional centers across India. Concurrently, he curated the software engineering and language technologies Masters’ program and was founding faculty of an online distance education program.

From academia to entrepreneurship
In 2009, while working on his Ph.D thesis, Vamshi launched a small crowdsourcing startup called Crowd Eagle, to help collate data labels from India, Bangladesh and Mexico. With inputs from thesis advisor, Jaime Carbonell and Prof. Raj Reddy, the startup was angel-funded as a part of CMU’s Olympus Project. He met his wife Pooja Reddivari in CMU and they were married at the end of his Ph.D in 2011. “Looking back, while I missed out on most of our courtship, in that one year, I had 5 publications”, he remarks.

His entrepreneurial aspirations began to take shape during his stints at AT&T as a research scientist and at PayPal as lead data scientist. To garner a deeper understanding of the startup world, he joined Base CRM as Director of Data Science & Engineering. Around that time, it was his father’s health issues that got him invested in applying data to healthcare.

Building PredEra
“In 2016, when our son Virat was 8 months old, I quit my job to become an entrepreneur. As I was new to healthcare, initially I worked on some consultancy gigs, including the 5th largest chain of hospitals in USA. I always believe that India has the best talent, and US provides the best opportunity and I was fortunate to have my feet in both continents. In 2017, Nazeer Shaik, a IIITH alumnus joined me, and we founded PredEra with a small team”, he observes. “Our goal is to solve, simplify and operationalize AI and LLM operations for enterprises. Since 2020, we put together a product suite called AIQ and LLMCloud, a service that was launched late last year”. They have diversified into healthcare, pharma, fintech and retail industries and being a bootstrapped company, they have preferred to remain lean and operate out of two offices, in Hyderabad and in the US. (At the point of going to Press, PredEra has also been successfully acquired!)

Building blocks and mental calisthenics
Vamshi’s early schooling was in Khammam where his father was a government employee. “When we moved to Bapatla, I enrolled in the local college and began my EAMCET preparation, studying for 7 straight hours every night”, admits Vamshi who credits his mother as the inspiration who steamrolled him into achieve his potential.

“I played a lot of cricket and basketball in school but haven’t played a lot of sport in college. The music that I enjoy, whether driving around the Bay Area in my car or working at my office, is definitely any Indian rhythm that keeps me connected to my roots, both classical and film tunes. I enjoy autobiographies and books on spirituality and history. We love travelling to different places and deep diving into its culture and cuisine”.

Vamshi is quite active on the social circuit “but it is my IIIT group that keeps me sane”, he remarks. “We have 25 families from my IIITH batch who make it a point to meet for events or just a cup of coffee.  While meditation and raja yoga has made a big difference to my productivity, helping others keeps me balanced”.

Looking back, Vamshi recognizes that while the EAMCET rank gave him the key to unlock aspirations way bigger than his local college, it was meeting Dr. Raj Reddy in IIIT Hyderabad, sitting in his CMU Lab, looking at his Turing Award bowl filled with candy, that was the game-changer.

“I remember the weekly trips to his office, celebrating birthdays in the same space that hosted diplomats from different countries and CEOs of top companies. Just being there in those academic rooms at CMU and IIITH and having that level of access shaped me”, he mulls. “Prof. P J Narayanan, Prof. Ramesh Loganathan and I have been exploring the possibility of curating a course in LLM, to bridge the gap between economy and industry. Today, I realize that beyond chasing money, it is also about things that you value, which for me is enabling others to achieve their dreams”.


Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.


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