KAUST Ph.D. graduate Kiran Narayanan (M.S., Ph.D. ’18, mechanical engineering) made use of his entrepreneurial spirit when he and his Ph.D. supervisor KAUST Professor and Acting Dean of Physical Science and Engineering Ravi Samtaney created UnitX, a University-funded supercomputing startup.
UnitX harnesses both of its founders’ supercomputing expertise to provide customized products and services on the UnitX online software platform for its varied client base. In turn, these products help companies across several industry verticals, such as finance and insurance, government, retail, telecoms, healthcare and logistics and manufacturing in two ways: to make data-driven decisions by adopting big data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI); and to design better products in a swift manner by adopting a simulation-assisted prototyping approach that relies on parallel computing.
“A typical supercomputer has 50,000 times the number of processors compared to a laptop and has larger data storage capacity and faster interconnects,” Narayanan explained. “What that means is that a calculation that may take up to a year on a laptop can be done within a day on a supercomputer because [supercomputers] can crunch more information faster. However, they cost millions of dollars and require large and skilled teams of engineers to operate. As a result, only the largest companies have had access to the massive potential supercomputers offer [in order] to innovate.”
“UnitX aims to change that,” he continued. “We want to democratize supercomputing by delivering it on demand in a cloud-like business model along with an easy browser-based user experience so that non-experts can use supercomputers and reap the benefits of accelerated innovation. The global market for supercomputing as a service has been estimated to be $224 billion [and is] growing at 25 percent year-on-year.”
The UnitX Team
“Our team has experience in the four pillars that constitute supercomputing: computer architecture; algorithms; expertise with front-end supercomputing applications; and big data,” Narayanan said. “We want to help regional enterprises save costs and increase productivity by facilitating the move to a fully infrastructure-agnostic IT paradigm that integrates their on-premise computing infrastructure (if any) with supercomputing centers and public clouds.”
“Together, these machines constitute a variety of hardware configurations that are each suitable for different tasks, such as training machine learning models and physics-based simulations,” he added. “As a result, we help data scientists and engineers focus on business outcomes instead of dealing with the complications of hardware and software management, and [we] therefore ensure long-term sustainability of their AI and simulation-based prototyping initiatives.”
Created From a Difference in Perspective
“As a member of Professor Ravi Samtaney’s Fluid and Plasma Simulation Group, I had a rigorous learning experience in the tricks of the trade of developing software for supercomputing,” Narayanan said.
It was during his Ph.D. that Narayanan discovered he and Samtaney’s views differed in regards to the study of science for applied research purposes versus fundamental research purposes.
“Professor Samtaney was passionate about fundamental research, and I was more interested in applied research that would ‘push the envelope’ of technology adoption in the industry,” he explained. “My natural inclination is to see the methods and algorithms we developed being translated to industry applications and usage—as opposed to a purely academic pursuit. This difference in perspective, coupled with Ravi’s rational approach to debates and mentoring, led to long discussions—out of which the idea of UnitX was born.”
“Along our journey, we grew our team, and Ankita Shree, a member of the KAUST community, joined us as our CFO and brought several years of experience in finance and business law that [are] vital to business operations and negotiations,” Narayanan continued. “In fact, the complementarity and legal-financial mindset that Ankita brings has been a core strength of our team.”
Support from KAUST
UnitX’s founders were assisted by the University, which helps budding entrepreneurs and provides the infrastructure, resources and workforce necessary for innovation to thrive. The invaluable mentorship provided by the KAUST Entrepreneurship Center during events like the University’s TAQADAM Accelerator Program helped Narayanan and Samtaney refine their business concept and model and understand their customers’ needs.
“They say entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down,” Narayanan noted. “The KAUST Entrepreneurship Center and the staff at Innovation and Economic Development gave us the motivation and courage to make that ‘jump’ and the ability to quickly iterate the design of our ‘plane.’ They helped us with the resources and business know-how to build a fully functional plane.”
“KAUST has the correct infrastructure to help upcoming entrepreneurs,” he continued. “During my time here, I have been a user of the state-of-art computer infrastructure available through the KAUST Supercomputing Laboratory and a keen attendee of many of their workshops, which has contributed immensely to my learning curve.”
Bringing Down the ‘Barriers’ to Efficient Supercomputing
UnitX aims to foster its unique capabilities for localized change in supercomputing by partnering with several institutions and R&D centers in-Kingdom and in the MENA region to build a fully integrated supercomputing platform to enable customers to “compute and pay as they go.”
“We break the ‘barriers’ of cost and skill for the adoption of supercomputing through our software platform that provides easy-to-use workflows for big data analytics, AI and simulations,” Narayanan explained. “We do not own the supercomputers that are connected to our platform. Instead, we partner with institutions with supercomputers—[for example,] KAUST and King Abdulaziz University—that have spare capacity on their machines and make it available to end-users who need it. This makes UnitX very scalable because we are not as capital-intensive as a ‘traditional’ business.”
“The applications docked on our platform are tailored for extremely high performance: this is where our team’s IP and combined experience of more than 30 years comes into play,” he continued. “A simulation—or big data analytics application—deployed to a supercomputer through the UnitX platform runs anywhere between 10 to 15 times faster compared to a public cloud environment, with almost 60 percent reduction in cost. End-users of our platform do not have to be programmers or have experience with Linux environments; the platform is almost as easy to use as Netflix! End users belonging to these enterprises can start generating results from day one.”
A Seamless Transition
UnitX currently finds itself transitioning from a pre-seed investment phase to an early-stage funding phase. Leading up to the official public launch of the UnitX platform this summer, the startup’s founders have created several key partnerships with different supercomputing centers in the Kingdom and abroad with the goal of expanding the UnitX team to better serve their customers’ evolving needs.
“The UnitX platform is currently in Beta and will be publicly launched in August 2019,” Narayanan said. “In the meantime, we have revenue coming in and have forged vital partnerships with supercomputing centers. It is important that we celebrate the little successes of the team along the way and still be humble enough to remember to stay agile and attentive and be ready to pivot as and when required.”