Ajay Sethi
B.Tech., 1990 Computer Science and Engineering

Dr. Ajay Sethi is a Venture Partner at Accel India. He obtained his Bachelor of Technology in Computer Science and Engineering from IIT Bombay in 1990. He also acquired his Ph.D. in Computer Science from Rice University in 1996. His Ph.D. dissertation received the ‘Best Paper Award’ at the High-Performance Computing conference. He earned a Certificate in Finance from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.

After completing his Ph.D., Dr. Sethi joined Oracle in the Bay Area in 1997. This was the beginning of the internet era and everyone needed a scalable and flexible platform to store the exploding amount of data that was being generated and, as a result, Oracle grew rapidly. This also amplified the need to parallelize the execution of programs written in procedural languages. Dr. Sethi leveraged the parallel and distributed computing/compliers experience he’d gained during his Ph.D. and B. Tech. studies. He moved to Bangalore in 2000, just before the dot-com bubble burst.

In 2005, Dr. Sethi left Oracle to start his own company. The Indian startup ecosystem at the time was nascent and his first startup ‘Ziva Software’ was amongst the initial cohort of companies that raised institutional venture capital in India. ‘Ziva Software’ was selected as an innovative startup in India and was nominated to present at the Mobile World Congress.

After an enriching startup journey, Dr. Sethi joined Accel India – one of the largest and most successful venture capital firms. As a venture partner, he had the opportunity to work with and advise hundreds of startups; several of which scaled up rapidly to become household brand names in India and across the world.

During his work at Oracle and Ziva, Dr. Sethi filed several patents in the areas of parallel programming, mobile search engine technology, search networking etc. More recently, one of the papers authored by him was voted and ranked amongst the top-35 papers (out of a total of 1800 papers published between 1987 and 2011) by the International Supercomputing Conference.

Recollecting an instance from the monsoon rains in 1987 when he was at IIT Bombay, Dr. Sethi said, “We had returned back to IIT Bombay after our summer vacation and the entire campus was thoroughly drenched by the beautiful monsoon rains. Cack sessions were in full swing. And then everything changed. One of my friends tragically lost his 16-year-old sister due to the monsoon-related localized flooding.”

Introspecting further he asks, “Why are we here? Are we destined to live the roller coaster life dictated by the unrelenting karmic cycle – or do we have the ability to script the captivating drama in our lives? Can we influence at least the ending of our lives? There’s nothing unique about these questions; Indic rishis have posed these questions since millennia. But these questions have stayed with me since that traumatic day”.

Dr. Sethi, in collaboration with his batchmates and several IIT Bombay faculty members helped define and jump-start the IDEAS Program, a Legacy Project of the Class of 1990. In the first three years, the IDEAS Program supported more than 100 teams; several of them graduated to the next level and a few of them successfully raised funding from investors. But why IDEAS Program? Dr. Sethi explains that there are two ways to create value: inside-out thinking and outside-in thinking. Inside out thinking manifests as cutting-edge research and, subsequently, as ventures that commercializes IP-led innovations. Outside-in thinking manifests as customer centric and market-centric ventures that strive to identify customer pain-points or market gaps. In order to maximize value creation, it is important to expose innovators and creators to both these mechanisms so that they can choose the most suited value creation engine that meets their needs.

The IDEAS Program makes the mechanics and frameworks of outside-in thinking available to everyone at IIT Bombay. Its goal is to support any IITian willing to roll-up his/ her sleeves to gain invaluable experiential knowledge. In order to do this in a scalable manner, the IDEAS Program is an alumni supported program that leverages the expertise and experience of past entrepreneurs to contextualize frameworks and mentor teams through different stages of their journey with relevant actionable insights.

Dr. Sethi’s hobbies include traveling and says, “I love visiting places and, together with my family, have been fortunate to travel to and explore several countries across the globe. I am also a sports and outdoors enthusiast. I got to observe creative geniuses and magicians while playing football, hockey, volleyball (despite my 5’3” height!), etc. for H2 and greased my way to the “Sports Colour” award”

Motivation towards contribution to IIT Bombay

“Whilst collaborating with hundreds of startups at ‘Accel’, I realized that there are distinct patterns that enable early-stage startups to validate their ability to create value, and later-stage startups to accelerate their growth trajectory. In order to share these learnings with more entrepreneurs, I worked to build a not-for-profit platform that caters to the broader Indian startup ecosystem. During the Silver Jubilee Reunion of our batch in 2015, the Class of 1990 donated generously to start/ support Legacy Projects. One of these projects was the IDEAS Program which enabled anyone at IIT Bombay to get a jumpstart on his/her entrepreneurial journey. Given my experience and interests, this was a wonderful way for me to contribute back to IIT Bombay”.

Sharing other interesting facts about his time at IIT Bombay, Dr. Sethi, said, “I’ve been interested in spirituality from my IIT Bombay days. I used to see the beautiful golden spires of the pagodas in Igatpuri during my train rides between Bhopal (hometown) and Mumbai. Curiosity led to learn about the Vipassana technique and, around a decade back, I finally attended the long-overdue, 10-day silent Vipassana session. This and subsequent sessions intensified the yearning to understand the connection between science and spirituality. And if you look at the big picture – these two should be the two sides of the same coin – complementary paths for observing and understanding the ultimate reality. This led me to write ‘Songs of Science’, a book that explores the foundations of science and to define Indic science’s worldview that can accelerate scientific enquiry about the nature of reality”