Gururaj (Desh) Deshpande is the one who got away – the young engineer who left Canada, launched a batch of U.S. start-ups, built an influential foundation, and has served as an adviser to President Barack Obama. Now, at 61, he is putting money and ideas into the Pond-Deshpande Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at University of New Brunswick – where he had arrived as an Indian graduate student in the early 1970s. Teaming up with local tech investor Gerry Pond, Mr. Deshpande seeks innovation that meets both commercial and social needs. And he knows the ups and downs of innovation. His high-tech winner of more than a decade ago, Sycamore Networks, recently announced it will be liquidated and will sell its technology. "Sycamore is a public company and we have to do what is in the best interest of the shareholders," Mr. Deshpande, still chairman, said in an e-mail.
How did you end up as a U.S. serial entrepreneur?In the early 1980s, I was working [as a manager and engineer] for a Motorola subsidiary in Toronto. In four years, it went from 20 people in a garage operation to 400 people, to $100-million in revenue, and very profitable.
I thought, "If I can do this for Motorola, I can do this for myself." Unfortunately there was no venture capital in Canada at that point. The only two places to go were Silicon Valley and Boston. That got me to Boston and I have been there since.
So you went from a manager in Toronto to launching a number of Boston-area tech companies?
I've done about 10 of those but now my wife, Jaishree, and I spend a lot of time with our foundation. What we are trying to do is use that innovation/entrepreneurship to make a better world.
Don't entrepreneurs sometimes make the world worse?
Yes, they do. It's a tool, like a chainsaw, which you can use for good or bad things. Essentially, entrepreneurship is thinking about a product that you believe people need and then making it happen. You could be trying to make an economic intervention or a social intervention. It requires the same thing – the conviction, the passion, the execution.
Is that the game plan at the Pond-Deshpande Centre?
At UNB, we founded a centre that will do both technological innovation and social innovation. The professors at UNB who come with great ideas can be connected to the centre and we will teach these people how to deal with the real world and solve problems that have relevance and real impact. As well, Saint John and Fredericton have among the poorest populations in Canada and there are a lot of people working on social issues. We are trying to use the same methodology to solve these same problems.
What is the link between commercial enterprise and improving society?
We are trying to bring the compassion of the social sector to the for-profit sector. But for-profit companies are very Darwinian in nature, and so they have to have excellence in execution. The idea is to bring that execution excellence into the compassion of the non-profits – and you can create solutions that scale up in size.
Has that worked in your native India?
Our foundation took an area of 5 million people and created a social innovation sandbox, where you try to have a critical mass of activity. You need a lot of local leadership, and we took ideas from college students and young social entrepreneurs. We are working with about 50 social interventions.
For example, many children in India come hungry to school. One organization said, "If we use supply-chain and engineering methods, maybe we can solve this problem." So they built a kitchen and they are making about 185,000 meals a day. They start at 2:30 a.m. and are done by 8:30, and they put the meals on the truck and take them to schools. The meals cost 12 cents, they use local produce and the kids love it.
In the past four to five years, they started scaling it up. Today, the project does 1.3 million meals every day – all across India. The idea is to develop those models … and once they are perfected, take them to other parts of the world, just like a company would.
After Sycamore Networks went public in 1999 – and its market cap ultimately exceeded $25-billion U.S. – you were called "the richest Indian" in the world. Are you still?
Are you still a billionaire?
I've been very lucky. I can't complain. It's like what we try to do [as a foundation]. A lot of people go through life feeling very constrained … They look at the problems of the world and don't feel they can do anything about them. The magic about entrepreneurship is, no matter how small or big a problem, if you take charge and believe you can do something about it, it is a very empowering feeling.
But with your net worth gyrating with the tech industry's fortunes, how do you deal with failure?
Failure is part of the deal. There is always the high from trying something. It's a bit like when you see young kids who love soccer and they just want to play. If they lose a game today, it is not like they won't show up to play soccer tomorrow.
Can Canada produce more people like you?
Yes. It has fantastic educational institutions. It has access to global markets. What holds it back? It is the culture of entrepreneurship, which is what we are trying to change with the centre.
In the U.S., people tend to be pretty aggressive, in taking the initiative and doing things even if they don't know much. They just do it. In Canada, people know a lot but they always hold back a little bit. If there is a way to bring that hustle to Canada a little bit more, they can do wonders.
If you are not entrepreneurial, you will not survive. It is fortunate that Canada has some natural resources. But you won't maintain your standard of living and position in the global economy if you can't constantly do things that are value-added.
Why does Canada seem to lose tech champions, such as Nortel and now, possibly, RIM?
It is not that much different than in the U.S., where Lucent was the Nortel counterpart and it doesn't exist any more, either. But the U.S. has Google and Facebook and all kinds of new companies. What Canada has to do is to pay more attention to the renewal process. It takes about 20 years to build a company to $1-billion in annual revenue. You start out with 5,000 ideas, and venture capitalists might look at 500 of them, but examine just 50 in person. They might fund five companies out of which maybe one will make it. An enormous amount of entrepreneurial activity ultimately leads to a Nortel and RIM. You just have to ramp up entrepreneurial activity in the country.
Do you worry about President Obama's chances in the election?
I've been [co-chair of the president's National Advisory Council on Innovation and Entrepreneurship] for a couple of years and we made recommendations for the JOBS Act [the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act]. It passed with full bipartisan support in the House and Senate. It's a way to ease up on regulations so that young companies have more access to capital. It doesn't make a big difference who wins – it gets support from both parties.
But aren't you a Democrat?
I'm more about policy. I like to say, 'This is the right thing to do.' It doesn't matter to me who does it.
GURURAJ (DESH) DESHPANDE
President and chairman, Sparta Group LLC, Boston; chairman of four other companies
Hubli, India, 61 years old
B.Tech in electrical engineering, Indian Institute of Technology; master's of engineering, University of New Brunswick; PhD from Queen's University
Left India in 1973 to attend UNB, moved on to Queen's in 1976.
In 1980, joined subsidiary of Motorola in Toronto.
Left Canada to build start-ups in Boston, 1984.
In 1997, sold Cascade Communications for $3.6-billion (U.S.).
Co-founded Sycamore Networks in 1998; in 1999 it went public, valued at $14-billion.
Supported MIT's Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, 2002.
Co-founded Pond-Deshpande Centre at UNB in 2011.
Join the conversation on Canada's competitiveness by following Canada Competes on Twitter:@CanadaCompetes