IT marvels: Forbes praises Pakistan’s youngest VC
ISLAMABAD: Frobes has recently published an interview of Umar Saif, who has done a lot in his 35 years. A Pakistani, he earned his PhD in computer science from the University of Cambridge at 22. He began a post doctorate degree at MIT at an age when most of his peers – age wise – had not completed their bachelor’s degrees.
He worked at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory where he was part of the core team that developed system technologies for the $50 million Project Oxygen. He collaborated with Anant Agarwal, now the president of edX, among other legendary computer science and artificial intelligence professors.
After spending years away from his native Pakistan, he found that he enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit of MIT and of the US more generally. However, it was a conversation with a colleague about what he wanted to achieve in his life that got him to rethink his plans for the future. He decided that he wanted to help establish a comparable entrepreneurial hot-bed like the one he found at MIT back in Pakistan.
He returned to the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), where he found that his top students were the equivalent of the top students at MIT, but they did not realise the potential they had. His own story became an inspiration for a series of entrepreneurs, many of whom he has started businesses with.
He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum in 2010, selected as one of top 35 young innovators in the world by MIT Technology Review in 2011 and received a Google faculty research award in 2011.
In 2011, Saif became the Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB), heading all public-sector IT projects in the province of Punjab. In 2013, Saif was appointed the founding vice-chancellor of the Information Technology University (ITU). At the age of 34, he became the youngest vice-chancellor of a university in Pakistan. Saif has accomplished a lot, but, as he explains it, he has only just gotten started.
Peter High: Umar, you recently joined the Information Technology University as the founding vice chancellor. What is the charter of the new university and what role do you plan to play there?
Umar Saif: ITU is focused on cross-disciplinary teaching and research to solve locally relevant problems. It is a publicly chartered university, but run like a private-sector university, much like the land-grant universities in the US. We are focused on research with real-world impact. One of the keystone courses at the university is the Design Lab, where students work with grassroots organisations to build solutions to problems like clean drinking water, maternal healthcare and off-grid energy solutions. The curriculum philosophy is inspired by Olin’s design-oriented learning.
PH: You are a native of Pakistan, but you did your graduate education in the UK and in the US. You returned to Pakistan to join the faculty of the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). How was your experience abroad during your formal education?
US: I did my undergrad in Pakistan at LUMS. It was a very new school then. I was in the second batch of the undergraduate programme, and I was the first student of LUMS to receive a PhD. I started as an economics major, but I quickly became mesmerised by technology. I was enchanted by writing code and then seeing it work. It got me hooked on computer science. As soon as I finished my undergraduate degree, I applied to MIT. It was the only school I applied to, which is a sign of my admiration for the place, but also of my misguided trust that I would be accepted. A professor of mine encouraged me to apply to the University of Cambridge, and I got in. I got my PhD three years later, and applied for a post-doctoral program at MIT, and happily they took me. Soon thereafter, I joined the research institute at MIT called “Project Oxygen,” which was a large project. The goal was to make computing as ubiquitous as oxygen.
One of the most interesting things about MIT is that they frowned upon graduate students and postdoc faculty writing papers about things that haven’t actually been used by the people. It was a laser-like focus on real-world impact, and I thought that was great. It gave me a great focus on building things that go beyond a research paper. It helped make me an entrepreneur. I like going after risky, edgy ideas, knowing that most of them will fail, but that I might also have one or two home runs. MIT teaches you that you will not be remembered for what you publish, but by what you create. That is one of the key lessons I have brought with me to Pakistan.
PH: Can you talk a bit about the bridge between your time at MIT and your return to Pakistan.
US: I had a conversation with one of my professors, and he asked me “Have you ever thought about what you’d like to achieve in your life?” I became very philosophical about the question. Unfortunately, many people are unwittingly slaves to their circumstance, and rarely endeavor to discover and pursue their true passion. After about 2 months of soul searching to find an answer to that question, I finally realised that I really wanted to go back to Pakistan to contribute to improving my country.
PH: You mentioned that the culture at MIT breeds entrepreneurs. This clearly was something that you hoped to replicate at LUMS. How did you help foster this in a place that did not have that culture?
US: At MIT you are surrounded by brilliant people who are changing the world. They are risk takers, and willing to work the long hours to produce ideas that will change the world. They do not want to focus on the two percent improvement of an existing idea. They want to create something that has never existed. At the top of our student body at LUMS, we have equally brilliant people. The issue is that many do not realise how to take risks. They do not have the belief that they can change the world. This is what I have tried to bring to our students. I have identified the top students, and I have involved them in entrepreneurial projects, and I have held them to very high standards. The more examples there are among the student body, the more others will emulate them.
PH: Since your return to Lahore, where have you focused your attention? What practical solutions that people will use have you attempted?
US: Most of my research has been focused on information and communication technologies for development or ICTD. In the past several years, my research group at LUMS has become one of the top research groups in ICTD. I was fortunate to have a lot of talent and focus from the university to help develop solutions with real-world impact.
Also, there are so many opportunities to pursue in Pakistan, and I don’t have to go far to find problems to solve. Problems come looking for me, it turns out.
We built a BitTorrent client for users in countries with low bandwidth, called BitMate, which has been downloaded by over 45,000 people from 173 countries. Our speech-based systems for low-literacy users have over 164,000 users in Pakistan. Our system built for early epidemic warnings in Pakistan became a center piece for targeted Dengue prevention activities by the government of Punjab in Pakistan.
One of my more successful startups came from a media ban imposed by the president of the country at the time, Musharraf, who had enforced a ban on all media from covering the political movement going on in Pakistan to restore the judiciary and freedom of media. I had a teaching assistant at the time who gave up his fulltime job to pursue a startup. During the media ban, we started working on a system that would allow people to send reports and pictures of the political movement using their cellphones. The idea was to take the place of what we were missing with the media crackdown. We wanted people to report eyewitness accounts of what was actually happening in Pakistan.
We called the company SeeNreport. It grew in popularity, and soon we had requests from media organisations like the BBC to syndicate our pictures. We were viewed as a credible news source in Pakistan and quickly became Pakistan’s largest citizen journalism initiative. We would eventually affiliate with Samma TV and Geo TV (launching GeoDost), which extended our audience tremendously. It went through a variety of iterations, and was used rather extensively during the next election cycle.
PH: A more recent idea that you have pursued with considerable success has been SMSall. How did that idea germinate?
US: It dates back to 2005. I have long been frustrated by the lack of appropriate Internet connectivity in Pakistan. I needed to communicate with my students, but I could not be assured that the Internet connection would be available. It dawned on me to leverage SMS as a way to send group text messages. Two freshman in a programming class with me became enamored with the idea.
We began by hooking a cell phone up to a desktop. The cell phone received the SMS, looked up a database of people registered for a given course, and then broadcast SMS to the people registered for it. It took about three months to complete the project. As we opened it up for other classes, the traffic grew exponentially. Two months into the project we had thousands of people using it, with hundreds of thousands of SMSs being sent. A year into the project we had a whole part of the lab dedicated to cell phones connected to many machines that were sending millions of SMSs for tens of thousands of people, now well beyond the University.
We called the company chOpaal, which is a place in a village in Punjab where people get together to chat. In our country, only ten percent of people have an Internet account, but cellphone penetration is among the highest per capita in the world. So there was a pent up demand for a service like this one. Unfortunately, a person who was associated with the project started a rival platform and commercialised it before we could do so. We became disheartened by this at a time when the cost to do it increased substantially. Therefore, we let it go, and my team of students took other full time jobs.
I had essentially moved on from this idea, focusing again on SeeNreport.com, while also working on another startup BumpIn.com. At this time, two students of mine with the most passion of any that I have worked with, Idrees Butt and Waqas Farooq, approached me to work with me on a startup. They wanted to find a way to resurrect chOpaal. That company was close to my heart, so I was excited by the prospect of pursuing this anew.
On the day we decided to do this, we reconnected the network cable to the desktop, and two million SMSs were sent the very first day. It had been down for two months, and again the pent-up demand showed itself. We realised that there was a real business opportunity. In two months, these great entrepreneurs had developed a radically new model of SMS communication, renamed SMSall. We launched it with all five telecom operators in Pakistan.
PH: How has the idea evolved in the time since the re-launch?
US: At the second beginning, we tried to address the shortcomings of the initial model. Above all, we focused on building meaningful conversations on SMS, rather than one-way broadcasts, with a view to monetise the network effect.
SMSall has been used from everything to casual friend chatting to blood donation drives to coordinate political protests in the country. In the recent elections, SMSall was heavily used by several major political parties in very innovative ways. The platform was used for membership drives, coordination of political activities and voter mobilization campaigns. More than 800 million SMS were sent in a short period during the elections.
SMSall is now the largest SMS social network in Pakistan, with over 7 million users. The platform has been used to send over 5 billion SMSs. What has us most excited is the social bottom line of the business. Idrees recently called a person who has a network of thirty thousand people through SMSall. He lived in a tiny village in Pakistan that I had never heard of. He had developed a network for blood donations. The service he provides is enabled because of the network he has built through SMSall, and that service saves lives. It is tremendously exciting.
In terms of new ideas, Idrees and Waqas are working to develop something similar to hashtags on Twitter over SMS. As people use terms as hashtags, we can facilitate the creation of communities around certain topics of interest. This inference of interest and social connections is a powerful recipe. SMSall recently launched a smartphone messenger application, which combines one-to-one and group messages with interest-based conversations around hashtags. With so much potential and interest in messaging platforms, and with its current momentum, SMSall looks set to become an important player in this space. With Idrees and Waqas driving the company, I have taken a backseat.
SMSall is expanding towards international markets, as well. In a joint venture with one of the largest media companies in Pakistan and SMSall is expanding to Pakistani diaspora in other countries and appear well on our way to become the dominant messaging platform in Pakistan.
PH: You also lead one of the first incubators in Lahore, SCI, and as Chairman of the Punjab Information Technology Board you have launched the Plan9 incubator. As such, you have great reason to think about trends and areas of opportunity where you might invest time and money. What excites you as you look forward?
US: There are two industries that are going through a fundamental re-think: education and media. The changes in each are just fascinating. Companies like edX, Udacity, and Coursera are really changing the way in which students will be taught. In five years, I think the classroom will be much different from the historical norms. Fewer professors will be lecturing at the head of a classroom of hundreds of students. Rather students will have watched the lectures before they get into the classrooms, and professors will have to stimulate more conversation and collaboration. We are actively experimenting with variants of the MOOCs, possibly in collaboration with initiatives like edX, in ITU, especially evaluating how cellphones can be leveraged as a platform to extend the reach of education in Pakistan.
Print media is dying, and technology is partially the reason. My work with citizen journalism has informed my opinions here. I get most of my news through Twitter today as opposed to the newspapers and television reporting that my parents use. This is the new wave. Old media companies were powerful and profitable. They are losing each, and the means of monetising opportunities in the new world is unclear. This lack of clarity is exciting. It means many entrepreneurs are trying new things. Some will succeed and others will fail.
Ultimately, I hope to create the kind of entrepreneurial spirit here in Pakistan that exists in the US. I am optimistic with the progress we have made thus far.