Vivek Wadhwa is building an AI-powered anti-Theranos device. Now he’s taking it to anti-India Silicon Valley territory

Vivek Wadhwa is building an AI-powered anti-Theranos device.  Now he’s taking it to anti-India Silicon Valley territory

Vivek Wadhwa has decided to move his AI startup Vionix Biosciences to India. Courtesy of Vivek Wadhwa

I just remembered the days when I was a budding entrepreneur going door to door on Sand Hill Road for financing. I remember venture capitalists making me wait for hours and trying to look smart in front of their partners by finding trivial errors in my business plan. They were kings and kingmakers and treated businessmen like beggars. Fortunately, the cost of starting software companies soon fell to the point that crowdfunding and angel capital offered a better alternative. This shift in the balance of power forced venture capital firms to defer to entrepreneurs instead.


However, this transformation was only in the software area. In capital-intensive fields such as biotechnology, not much has changed. Moreover, because of the Theranos fiasco, VC firms are more risk averse than ever — literally blindsided.

With tremendous advances in technologies such as artificial intelligence, computing, sensors, and synthetic biology, not only have costs fallen, but cutting-edge innovations are now globalized.

Today, there are few better places to build world-changing technologies than Silicon Valley. One such place is India, where you can hire the best talent for less than 10% of their cost in the valley, and the pathology data needed to train machine learning algorithms is abundant.

While San Francisco is the global center for AI development due to positive network effects, technology leaders like Sam Altman say India cannot build complex AI technologies. But what I saw in India leads me to believe that Silicon Valley’s advantage will be short-lived – and that its isolation, arrogance, and overconfidence may be its downfall. As AOL founder Steve Case has long argued, the rest of the world is rising.

What I’m trying to build with my startup, Vionix Biosciences, is much more ambitious than what Theranos pretended to achieve. In India, I believe I can build early versions of this technology for just $1 million, which is less than 0.1% of the $1.4 billion raised (and squandered) by Elizabeth Holmes.

I approach medical diagnosis in a completely new way, taking advantage of the fundamental scientific advances of a Chilean company I invested in more than a decade ago, and not just throwing money at the problem as Vale often does. Instead of keeping my devices secret and doing everything myself, I plan to make the devices available to researchers at several universities so they can validate the technology and do things with it that I can’t even imagine.

This technology modifies the molecular structure of water by converting it into non-thermal plasma and returning it to water using the same amount of energy as a hair dryer. It enables real-time spectroscopic analysis of organic materials. Just as DNA sequencing opened a new dimension in medical research by converting biology into letters, this technology is capable of converting biological matter into a light spectrum that artificial intelligence can decode. They are similar to the techniques used in the gold standard of materials analysis, mass spectrometry, but without any consumables, sample preparation, and mass-to-charge ratio measurement. This technology can analyze not only water, but also human fluids such as blood, urine, saliva and breath. It can do this in less than five minutes for just the cost of electricity.

The problem is that this requires sophisticated AI training to understand complex light patterns such as genomic data, which has taken decades to decipher. Training this AI would require tens of thousands of medical samples for each disease or cancer marker, something that would be virtually impossible for a Silicon Valley startup to obtain in the United States. However, India has an advantage with a population of 1.4 billion. With informed patient consent and privacy protections, it is not difficult to inexpensively access hundreds of thousands of biospecimens in many pathology laboratories that are already analyzing these specimens using advanced medical diagnostic equipment.

Recruiting high-quality AI talent is another challenge. In Silicon Valley, entry-level salaries often exceed $150,000 a year, and employees expect luxury perks and 35-hour work weeks, as well as the right to moonlight and hold two or more jobs.

In India, hundreds of thousands of computer science graduates earn $4,000-$7,000 annually. I have interviewed many recent graduates and found that they are more enthusiastic and willing to learn than their peers in the Valley. I hired a student on the spot when he told me he wanted to work for me as an unpaid intern, learn the machine learning tools I plan to use, and then work 70 hours a week when he graduates in June. Of course, I would pay him a lot more than that and let him have a life, but you don’t see that attitude in graduates of Stanford or UC Berkeley.

The Indian government is also supporting the AI ​​ecosystem. Instead of creating obstacles to regulation, restricting immigration, and stifling the tech industry, India is creating a new fund to support its AI ecosystem. Ajay Sood, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s chief scientific advisor, told me that his mission is to do whatever it takes to facilitate entrepreneurship and support startups, and that the government will do everything it can to welcome foreign companies like mine.

Taking all these factors into consideration, it became clear to me that India was the ideal location for the R&D of my startup. I have decided to forego several scheduled meetings with Silicon Valley investors in favor of India’s vibrant and supportive ecosystem.

Vivek Wadhwa is an academic, entrepreneur and author. writingfrom incremental to exponentialExplains how large companies can see the future and rethink innovation.

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