Ashok Balakrishnan is the Director of Product Development at Enablence Technologies in Kanata, Ontario. Ashok was a co-founder of Enablence Inc., and is a co-inventor on the key patents that define Enablence’s proprietary technology. He has extensive product development and commercialization expertise spanning several markets, including spectroscopy, telecommunications, and biophotonics. Prior to Enablence, Ashok was the manager of product integration at Optenia, a Staff Scientist at SDL (now JDSU), a Photonics Development Scientist with Mitel Semiconductor (now Zarlink). Ashok holds a Ph.D. in Physics from the University of Toronto and was a postdoc researcher with the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). In his spare time, Ashok enjoys running and spending time with his family.
I first met Ashok when I came to work at SDL in 1996. For two years we worked together in the Systems Group developing single-frequency tunable lasers for spectroscopy applications. It was great to reconnect with him and get his perspective on this topic.
Here is an excerpt from my interview with Ashok:
What did you find to be the most challenging about the transition to industry?
I was surprised to find that in product development there are a lot of tiny little problems that have to be solved. Of course you have to get the science and the fundamentals of the design correct, but even if that’s right and everything looks elegant, there are all these little tiny things. You have to get the size of a screw right and there may be certain things you want to do but are too expensive. You might also have a problem finding a vendor that sells the right parts or is willing to make things the way you need them to be made. There are a lot of practical issues that you are faced with.
I was also shocked by the time pressure in industry, where a very long project might take a year and often much less. Projects take much longer in an academic research environment. A Ph.D. takes many years and you are expected to take your time, look at every single detail of your problem, and know it inside and out. In industry, it’s the bottom line that counts and it’s okay if you don’t understand every little detail of your product as long as it works properly. It is only when it doesn’t work properly, that you invest the time to go back and understand it better.
What would you consider your biggest career achievement?
In 2004 a few colleagues and I formed our own company. The company is called Enablance and that is where I’m working now. When we started the company, it was very small and just a way to stay employed and keep food on the table, but it has grown in surprising ways. Now it employs 25 people or so locally, and close to 200 people internationally.
What would you say are the primary skills that enabled you to accomplish that achievement?
Being able to face the truth – whether it’s something you like or not – is important. I learned this from graduate school. There were times when I would struggle for months trying to figure out why I was not getting the results I was expecting. I would spend time pursuing problems I could fix more easily such as a mirror alignment or laser power, but all the time have this nagging feeling that something else was really the problem. It was something else that had been staring me in the face for a long time, but I was not willing to admit it. The moment you admit that, you can solve the problem.
Facing the truth is just as important in industry. Sometimes you are in the middle of developing a product and you realize, “Uh oh, this is not the way to go.” You have to be honest with yourself and change direction quickly if you want to be successful, regardless of what you prefer. When you want to try to sell a particular business idea or product, you might think this is the niftiest thing in the world, but people may actually want something else. You have to deliver value, so be honest what that value is.