Shiva Ayyadurai is credited with starting more than five companies. Millennium Productions, which is headquartered in Chennai, was set up in 1997. This R&D firm developes technologies in the fields of media and medicine. General Interactive is a technology incubator located in Cambridge, MA. EchoMail offers industry solutions, monitors and manages email and social media marketing for Global 2,000 companies.
International Center for Integrative Systems focuses on scientific research, lectures, open forums and education intiatives. Shiva started CytoSolve along with some of his MIT colleagues. “CytoSolve provides a revolutionary way to create new medicines. Currently, it takes 13 years to produce one drug, and an investment upwards of $5 billion. The current process, moreover, produces drugs which have significant side effects and are only efficacious for a small group of people. The process is based on lots of test tube and animal research,” he explains.
“CytoSolve is based on a technology I developed to mathematically model the whole human cell. With this technology, we can model molecular pathways of disease, then use those mathematical models to discover new medicines, which are not based on a single molecule, but on multi-combination drugs, derived from both herbs, plants, vitamins as well as potentially synthetic drugs.” An ongoing project is a tool called Your body, your system. This software allows people to use the principles of systems theory as well as Siddha and Ayurveda to diagnose their own body.
The multi-faceted Shiva Ayyadurai on his most celebrated invention, the Email, obsession with health and technology.
In 1978, a 14-year-old boy invented the world’s first email system in Newark, New Jersey (NJ), USA. VA Shiva Ayyadurai, whose family moved from then Bombay to NJ in 1970, went on to complete his bachelor’s in computer science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA. This was followed by a master’s in scientific visualisation (1987-89) and applied mechanics (1988-90) at MIT. Ayyadurai also completed his PhD in systems biology from the same institute in 2007. Today, he heads several companies and takes lessons on systems visualisation at his alma mater. On the 31st anniversary (August 30) of his invention, edex caught up with the tech entrepreneur and educator. Excerpts from an interview...
What led to the invention of email?
It all began in the summer of 1978 when I was fortunate enough to attend a programme at Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University (NYU) on seven computer programming languages. After I finished this, my mother, Meenakshi Ayyadurai, was excited to see that I had an aptitude for the new technology and she introduced me to Leslie P Michelson, who taught at University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, Newark. Michelson challenged me to find a solution to an office technology problem. The doctors in the medical school were starting to use computers, but they were still isolated from each other so much so they still used an interoffice paper mail system. He wanted to know if I could invent a computer program that will replicate electronically the entire interoffice mail system. This challenge became my obsession.
I created a computer program called “Email”. I solely wrote the program, which consisted of nearly 50,000 lines of original code. Email was the first-of-its-kind — a fully integrated, database-driven, electronic translation of the interoffice paper mail system. It provided electronic equivalents and features of mail receipt and transmission including inbox, outbox, drafts, address book, carbon copies, registered mail, ability to forward and broadcast along with a host of other features that users take for granted in Web-based email programs such as Gmail and Hotmail. In 1982, I successfully registered a copyright for that program.
What did this invention teach you?
The invention of Email by a 14-year-old Indian immigrant reveals a bigger truth that innovation can take place anytime, anywhere and by anybody. It also reveals what is truly necessary for innovation to take place: supportive family and community, a mentor, and freedom, respect and equality. Money and infrastructure, while important, cannot replace these three important ingredients.
What do students learn in VA Shiva Systems Health, Visualisations and Innovation Corps courses?
Systems Health is an online course that focuses on the foundation of all systems of medicine. This is offered in partnership with the Chopra Center for Wellbeing and consists of three courses: Systems biology, Systems medicine and Systems care. (www.systemshealth.com)
Systems Visualisations course lets students visualise complex systems. For example, can you visualise corruption or the healthcare system. Students visualise these complex systems and incorporate them into designs. (www.systemsvisualization.com)
Innovation Corps courses is to teach people on how to be innovators. This will help them move out of the same conditions that I found myself in when I started out. (www.innovationcorps.org)
What is the role of technology in education?
Technology is very valuable for enabling the online access for courses, and this has been happening for some time. The future ‘schools’ are the Smartphones, iPads and other mobile devices. However, this technology is also going to force teachers to be real teachers, Technology should support what we do and not be the be all and end all.
What is the state of research in India?
We have a lot of smart people in India. The Indian research institutions system, however, are fundamentally feudal. Our leadership in these institutions still operates the same way it did during the British occupation, and in some ways worse. In fact, we had two Nobel prize winners during the Colonial rule. But after 1947, we have not seen many such recognitions. Many people had to leave India. The problem in India is that a lot of promotions are not based on merit. When I was in CSIR, many of the leadership of the Labs were afraid and jealous of the people who worked under them, afraid they would receive more recognition for their work. This results in the really good people being sidelined. For quality research you need people. If your boss is not going to recognise your work, then you are not going to create anything.
What are you passionate about?
I am passionate about creating new things, love understanding complex systems, discovering what one has to do to be truly healthy, and have an intense attraction to beautiful art and design.
How do you manage to multitask?
There is this saying that people who do more well keep doing more. The common thread to what I do is that all of it is based around creativity and systems, and they all tend to integrate together. The other thing is to take care of your health. I also take time to meditate and take the effort to spend some time reviewing my own actions, positive and negative, to be a better person — and that I think is essential.
What would you like to convey to students?
I am optimistic about the youth of India. They are the future of the country and the world. That future requires both creation and destruction. We need to create a world where equality, freedom and respect for each other are at the forefront. And to achieve this, we will have to destroy old institutions like the caste system. The youth also need to take on responsibility and become active citizens.
Born in Bombay, Shiva Ayyadurai, shifted to USA in 1970 along with his parents. His father, Vellayappa Ayyadurai, has previously worked with Colgate-Palmolive, Mennen, Helene Curtis and Parke Davis. He is currently the managing director of Millennium Software Productions, Chennai. His mother, Meenakshi Ayyadurai, is a maths graduate. When the family moved to Bombay in mid-1960, she was appointed as HoD of mathematics department at Don Bosco schools. Shiva has been inspired by his grandmother, Chinnathai, who was an agriculturist in Muhavur, a village in Tamil Nadu. She also practised Siddha. This intrigued Shiva, who has been researching alternative medicine and is keen on bridging western and eastern medicinal practices.