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Veteran tech entrepreneur bridges academic, business worlds

When Rohini K. Srihari started her first information-technology company, Cymfony, in 1998, there wasn’t much of a startup ecosystem in Buffalo and the Internet still was little used outside academic and government circles.

After surviving the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the recession, Srihari today is a high-tech veteran who has launched three companies.

A native of India who moved at age 4 to Waterloo, Ont., where her father was a professor, she later followed her husband, Sargur, also a professor and researcher, to the Buffalo area.

She is a longtime University at Buffalo professor, now on leave, who focuses on helping computers and machines sift through and make sense of vast amounts of text and other data.

Srihari recently sold her latest company, Content Savvy, which works with marketers and in health care analytics, to SmartFocus, a British company. With SmartFocus’ backing, Content Savvy is moving to larger offices in Amherst and planning to expand from 13 employees to nearly 20.

Stephen T. Watson: In college you switched from studying literature, an early passion of yours, to studying computer science. There’s been a push to get more girls and women interested in science and technology. What do you think needs to change to make that happen?

Rohini Srihari: This question, I’ve been giving it some thought. There’s a lot of discussion, even in our department, why aren’t there more women? I hear, sometimes, women are turned off by this kind of macho, coding-all-night type of thing. But in my opinion, I think this whole gender imbalance starts much earlier. High school at the latest, where there’s so much peer pressure on girls. And that’s where I really think there needs to be some different type of propaganda campaign, to say it’s cool to be smart, and really influence girls at that age.

SW: How are you applying data mining to health care?

RS: For example, with certain, I would say, niche type of medical conditions – sometimes conditions that afflict children – the best kind of information people get is through these discussion forums, where people are exchanging stories about their own experiences. And I think you can’t dismiss all of that as just, “Oh, it’s social media. It’s not relevant.”

SW: Today there’s an endless supply of digital data to mine, particularly photos and social media posts. How do you analyze that information so that it has value for your customers?

RS: The things people want to extract nowadays, it’s not just factual information, like, whose face is it? It’s more, what kind of expression do they have? Do they like something? Do they really like it? Do they really hate it? So it’s much more nuanced information they’re trying to gain. It’s a never-ending series of challenges, and I enjoy it.

SW: UB for years has tried to encourage an entrepreneurial spirit in its faculty. What’s the key to successfully moving from the academic to the business worlds, and what guidance would you give to young CEOs?

RS: What I would recommend is, you could have the world’s greatest idea, or the world’s greatest product, but get some very early feedback from potential customers, from potential users, about everything: Where would they use it? How would they price it? You really have to spend a significant amount of time gathering that information, because that influences product design, it influences product pricing, how you market it. So I think if you’re just doing the technology development, sometimes they try to say, “Well, we’ll bring in a management team around you.” And it works to some extent. But I think there’s got to be that burning desire, at least on the part of the founder, how is this really going to be sold or used and how am I going to make money off it?

SW: Is Buffalo a good place to start a company?

RS: If you’re committed to having the company in Buffalo, and are willing to do whatever it takes to make that succeed? Yes. OK, is it as easy as launching a company in Silicon Valley? No. I’m going to be honest about that. If this company had been launched and operated in Silicon Valley, I probably would have had an exit sooner. So, hiring wise, it’s very possible to bring in talent to Buffalo. Sometimes you have the talent here, sometimes you don’t. You have to recruit from outside. So we recruit from Canada. One thing that’s worked with us is when someone has a spouse who’s from Buffalo, who’s dying to move back here. But I would still recommend that any entrepreneur wishing to set up in Buffalo go and spend a little bit of time in Silicon Valley, at a startup, just to see what the ecosystem of a startup is like.

SW: Buffalo’s high-tech business community is a work in progress. We have few large-scale success stories, outside of Synacor and Computer Task Group, but there is a widening pool of startups. How optimistic are you about its future?

RS: I think it’s great. And I really see a difference in the past two years, and even more so in the past year, in the number of organizations that even have websites that talk about “these are the different stages of a company.” That never used to be there. There used to be one angel investors group that met once in two months or something. Now you have all this exciting stuff.