Year: 2008. Time: 5 AM. Not too late in the night for most of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The phone rang in the room of an undergraduate.
It was Krishna Gupta, another undergrad, on the line. He had called Rajat Suri to resume a conversation they had had on and off for a while. It was time to take things to the next stage.
Gupta, a budding investor, and Suri, a techie with an idea, had a deal: a first for both. It was at the peak of this century’s worst economic crisis, but they were undeterred. Capital was the issue now.
Gupta came up with $100,000 and another MIT friend chipped in with $50,000. And Suri was in business. He hasn’t looked back since, and didn’t didn’t even wait to finish college.
“I am an MIT dropout,” he says with unvarnished pride.
Today, Suri runs a rapidly expanding business that sells tablet devices to restaurants, automating the process of ordering food and drinks, and re-ordering.
The tablet is called Presto, and his company is E La Carte, which counts leading restaurants in the US among its clients, including an old favourite of Steve Jobs.
In 2008, Suri and Gupta were just 21. But where does a 21-year-old find $100,000?
All that Gupta, now 25, will let on is this: the money came from friends and relatives. His family immigrated to the US from Hapur, Uttar Pradesh many years ago. He was born here.
While still at MIT, he and friends founded Romulus Capital, named after the mythical founder of the city of Rome> It soon raised $1 million for investing in ideas such as Suri’s.
Some of those original investors have moved on. Neil Chheda, who is from Harvard and later Yale, remains as a co-founder. He worked with McKinsey and Zynga before jumping in full-time.
“When I looked around at MIT I saw a lot of innovation,” Gupta said. “But most of them were not making it out of the eco-systems in which they were.”
Romulus would, through seed investment, help these ideas-men make it through the early stages — which were often also the hardest, when other investors never returned calls.
It was through a close network of people comprising himself and Suri that Gupta met Anmol Madan, another Indian American ready to bolt the MIT’s den of ideas, the Media Lab.
Gupta remembers Madan had an idea about using data on phones to customise user experience, for customer relationship management. It was a good idea, but not good enough.
“We discussed this for a year,” Gupta recalled. He eventually passed up the project, but stayed in touch with Madan. A few months later, they had found the right mix.
“He decided to pivot his project to health care,” Gupta said. Madan’s vision is now a company called ginger.io, and Romulus an early investor with $40,000.
Ginger.io is now counted among the pioneers of the use of smartphones to help healthcare providers track patients better. It raised $6.5 million last November. Khosla Ventures, the investment firm of the legendary Vinod Khosla, a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, was one investor.
Romulus has 17 investments, all start ups lauded for their vision and global reach — from online stylist for men Bombfell, to soundtracker, a music station.
Gupta is single, and says he has no interests beyond work. But he actually does leave his smartphone and laptop to work out in the gym, religiously.
He is also a political junkie who likes to get a first-hand feel of hotspots making news — he has been to the northeast and J&K to understand the unrest there.
But it is Romulus that keeps him focussed. Said Suri, who has now known Gupta for five years: “He will be immensely successful one day.”