From Bay Area to Bangalore

Monday, 16 August 2010 - 8:43am IST | Place: Bangalore | Agency: DNA
Presenting Thomas Binford, the father of computer vision, who lives and works in Bangalore because he believes he can find some of the world’s best minds here.

Bangalore has been Thomas and Ione Binford’s home for the past nine years, ever since they uprooted themselves from their beloved Bay Area, California, to set up home — and shop — in what was, at that time at least, a remote corner of the world.

In 2001, they set up Read-Ink Technologies, a start-up that creates software for handwriting recognition. Since then, the Binfords and a team of 15 engineers led by them have been developing and refining the product, and they will be ready, in a few months’ time, to hand it over to the marketing department.

Binford is an emeritus professor with Stanford University, where he taught and supervised research for 30 years between 1970 and 2000. He is recognised worldwide as a leading expert in computer vision, artificial intelligence and image analysis and is often referred to as ‘the father of computer vision’.

The last nine years, of course, have been devoted to handwriting recognition — an idea whose time has come, believes Binford. In fact, with the advent of touch-based tablet PCs such as Apple’s iPad, handwriting recognition technology could enjoy the same boom as barcoding did with the explosion in organised retail, say experts.

All roads led to Bangalore
“When I retired from Stanford, I worked with a start-up in the Bay Area for a year. In 2001, we decided to come to Bangalore to start our company here. We figured there was a definite cost advantage and along with that, we could get the kind of people we wanted to work on this project with us,” says Binford in his precise, slightly halting speech, his piercing blue eyes lighting up every once in a while with a spark of sudden humour.

When their plans were almost final, 9/11 happened. It cast a shadow over their plans, certainly, but the Binfords decided to follow it through. “We decided to fly a non-American carrier as we figured it had fewer chances of getting blown up or hijacked,” says Binford, smiling.

One of the main reasons they chose to work in Bangalore was the talent pool of young technology graduates — IITians, mostly —  they hoped to lure to work with them. “We have put our lives on hold and nine million dollars into this project. Not many people would be ready to do that,” says Binford. Yet, they found enough young people with the vision and energy to hitch their stars to their wagon.

“Although most people don’t want to start a company, today there is a new generation emerging,” says Binford.

Bay Area vs Bangalore?
Initially, the Binfords did miss the Bay Area, where they’d lived a large part of their lives. Leaving behind the entrepreneurial zest and energy of Silicon Valley, which saw unprecedented levels of innovation in the years leading up to the dot-com crash of 2000 (and even thereafter) was also a wrench for the Binfords.

Today, however, Binford believes the Indian financial environment is more encouraging of entrepreneurship than the American one, which is still recovering from the global recession following 2008’s sub-prime crisis. “In the US, the current economy seems much less tolerant of innovation and entrepreneurship,” he says. 

As for their social life, all that has been put on hold until Read-Ink is ready with its flagship product. “Ione and I don’t go out that much,” says Binford. “The last few years have really been about putting our heads down and working.”

At the same time, being in Bangalore has meant they can stay in touch with many of the people they knew and worked with in the Bay Area as more and more of them come back here on work, at times to set up their own companies. As Binford puts it, “there’s a hurry-up-and-do-it attitude in Bangalore” and that suits them just fine.


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