“The problem we wanted to solve was simple but also a big one. Globally, it is a 20 billion dollar problem. And no one would say no to cool tech that can protect their money.” #NRISpotlight
This article is part of NRI Spotlight, a series of articles by The Better India to recognise inspiring Indians living abroad who have set up successful businesses and careers for themselves in a foreign country. In this series, we try to understand how they did it, and what we can learn from them.
Starting from scratch in a new place can be daunting, exciting and challenging. This is especially true if one moves to a foreign country where everything from the preferred language of communication to the culture is different from one’s own.
Entrepreneur Vijay Balasubramaniyan’s story follows a fascinating trajectory, one that is informed by his experiences — from grad student to the founder of a multi-million dollar information security company. The 40-year-old founder of Pindrop left India 15 years ago to pursue his higher studies in the US.
His light bulb moment came in December 2006. He got a call at 3 a.m. from a person claiming to be a bank representative.
Now, some background is necessary here. A year earlier, he had joined Georgia Tech in Atlanta for a PhD programme and was visiting India. His trips back home would be planned in such a way that they coincided with academic conferences. For these, he wanted to wear a nice suit, and made a purchase.
“They wanted me to verify my transaction and asked for my social security number. But, it got me suspicious as it was an odd time for a call, and there was no way for me to trace the authenticity of the caller. Identity theft is a huge problem,” recalls the 40-year-old.
After 30 minutes, Vijay grew tired and asked them to cancel the transaction, thinking it was a fraudster on the line. “Later, when I tried to confirm the purchase, it had been cancelled. The entire experience was frustrating, because there was no way to identify the caller,” states Vijay.
From Bengaluru to Atlanta
Before going to the US, Vijay spent 22 years in Bengaluru. After completing his undergraduate degree in Computer Science Engineering from RV College of Engineering in Bengaluru in 2002, he began his career as a Software Engineer. He moved up the ranks of Senior Software Engineer when he joined Siemens, where he worked for two years. He worked on telephony and voice, as team leader of the network management software. This experience helped him navigate and understand the space better, which later influenced him to pursue higher studies on the subject.
He found that Georgia Tech had an integrated Masters and PhD degree in Computer Science with specialisation in Telecommunications Security, his area of interest.
“I landed there one month before my course began in the summer of 2015. I went by the Georgia Tech Information Security Centre and met Mustaque Ahamad, a professor who led the Cyber Security Center and had just started working with IP telephony. With my experience, I offered to design his lab,” recalls Vijay.
Impressed, Mustaque offered him a research grant for his work. He later ended up teaching Vijay and was his PhD advisor, guiding him in the lab for years.
In 2011, he completed his PhD and founded Pindrop, along with his PhD mentor Mustaque Ahamad and Paul Judge, a Georgia Tech alumnus and entrepreneur.
Headquartered in Atlanta, Georgia, Pindrop provides risk scoring services for phone calls, helping users detect fraud and authentic calls.
“Pindrop provides a multi-factor authentication system for the user to identify the caller, what device has been used, and the behaviour of the caller. This is done by analysing different features of the voice, device, and acoustics. When we started, we had only 32 features, but now we have about 1,300 features,” says the scholar-turned-entrepreneur.
Currently, Pindrop offers its services to eight out of the top 10 banks in the US. They also cater to five out of the seven top insurance providers in the country, and three of the top five stock brokerage companies, and hundreds of customers across the globe.
Last year alone, they analysed 1.2 billion calls and helped prevent losses by identifying potential frauds worth $470 million. This year, they have set the target of screening 2.5 billion calls.
“Over the years, we have even developed a database of ‘bad guys’ and named each of the board rooms in our office after them,” smiles Vijay. Pindrop now employs around 220 people.
Collaborating with Experts
When Vijay thought of creating a caller identification system, he discussed it with Mustaque.
He realised that despite having telephony for years, there was no identification system to trace the caller. The only tool was the phone number, but spoofing phone numbers was child’s play. They had a breakthrough in 2010.
“Voice is a human phenomenon with a lot of variation. When it passes through a system (telephone, mobile phone, Skype), it can be analysed further using different features. Determining the acoustics of a phone call, we could determine which device was used and where it was coming from,” he says.
To understand this better, he signed up for courses on acoustics. He developed an algorithm to authenticate calls. Later, the two worked together and presented research papers in conferences.
“I had only developed this technology for myself, but I was getting calls from everywhere after people read about our research papers. At one point, even banks started calling us, and we realised that we might be onto something big,” recalls Vijay.
The two launched Telineage as a VentureLab project in September 2010. At VentureLab (launched at Georgia Tech in 2001), faculty members, researchers, and students on campus can commercialise their innovations by forming companies.
Later, speaking to an expert like Paul Judge, who had experience as an innovator and entrepreneur in security systems, helped Vijay get the ball rolling.
“I was building a voice security system, and he helped me understand how I could take my innovation to the market,” says Vijay. He also wrote to the National Science Foundation, an independent agency in the US, and in 2011, received a grant of $150,000.
Putting in the Hours
Once Pindrop identifies a client, the in-house intelligence team trains fraud analysts to operate the technology and the best practices in detecting fraud.
Every call that any of the clients receive is colour-coded in green, yellow and red to indicate the increasing levels of risk. These colours flash on the screen of the person attending to the call. The fraud analysts often visit Pindrop’s headquarters on ‘Customer days’ and share their experiences.
“A fraud analyst from a bank shared how Pindrop helped one of their oldest customers in averting a fraud. She was an old lady born in the 1930s, and this was her life’s savings. The bank got a call to transfer $97,000 to an account in England. But after the fraud call was detected, they helped their customer secure her information,” Vijay says.
But, achieving this was no mean feat.
“Having an idea is only the first step. How do you get top banks to talk to you? I would stand outside the door every time Directors or VPs of banks came for a talk; I would patiently wait to just share my idea. I had to get my pitch right, and convince them within 30 seconds,” he shares.
Even after a client gave him an opportunity, he would have to prove his mettle. “There were times when I would sleep in the car or on the data centre floor, analysing calls to catch frauds. I would spend about 21 hours a day improvising the codes to solve the problem. That was the only way to convince clients that our technology worked,” recalls Vijay.
Mustaque Ahmad has witnessed Vijay’s journey since he stepped foot in the US. Mustaque is Indian too, born and raised in Rajasthan. The 60-year-old moved to the US in 1981 to pursue his PhD and became an Assistant Professor of computing four years later. He then went on to lead the Georgia Cyber Security Centre. Academia was his passion, and as a mentor, he saw Vijay’s potential right from the beginning.
“There is a cultural difference in a student-professor relationship in India and the US. We were working like colleagues and learned from each other. His research was excellent, and it addressed a problem that was a pain point for companies and individuals,” says Mustaque.
What worked for Vijay
Looking back on his journey, Vijay reflects on a few factors that enabled him to carve a niche for himself.
Solving a simple problem: “Although our tech may seem a little complicated, the problem we wanted to solve was simple yet big. Globally, it is a $20 billion problem, and no one can say no to cool tech that can protect their money,” he says.
Hustle while you can: “As a PhD scholar, I did not have much credibility at the time or any assurance that my technology would work. I had to meet a lot of people to convince them, but this helped me learn.”
Be flexible: In the beginning, one might have to work round the clock. “Perseverance is key. Talk to people, put in the hours, and understand what you need to make your service or product more interesting,” he says.
Develop a ‘thick skin’: “Founding a startup is a lot of nos before one yes. But one must have a thick skin and understand that it is not personal. Listen to feedback and use it to improve your services,” he says.
So, is there anything he misses about India?
“Here in the US, life is very organised and routine. But in India, every day feels different, and I miss how vibrant it is. And Bengaluru especially is a melting pot of cultures. Whenever I visit India, I take a longer break to meet my high school friends, play cricket with them, and enjoy a plate of bhel,” he laughs.
Post the pandemic, Vijay looks forward to meeting his two brothers, both software engineers, based in New Jersey and California, and his parents with his wife and two-year-old son.
As voice increasingly becomes the preferred tool for smart homes, smart assistants, and smart cars, Vijay informs that Pindrop collaborates with some of the biggest players in these fields. With a presence in the UK, Canada, France, and Latin America, they are looking to explore Asia.
“The idea is to prevent frauds that take place through phone calls. We believe that ‘voice’ is the future, and we want to make every voice interaction trustworthy, secure, and identifiable,” he says.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)