Semiconductor materials are a key part of the solution to some of the most pressing problems in the world, be it through advanced solar cells, or energy efficient devices, automotive electronics or health tech.

Ravi Sundaram, our next pathbreaker, Head of R&D, Strategic Markets at Oxford Instruments (UK), leads the emerging technology segment strategy, looking at advanced semiconductor materials for disruptive applications in Quantum computing, Biosensors, chips for faster data and telecommunications etc.

Ravi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about transitioning from academic research to the business world and leveraging his understanding of deep technologies to identify opportunities in the semiconductor market.

For students, with sustainability gaining a lot of traction, there is a significant need to explore the next generation of novel materials for applications in the ubiquitous world of electronics.

Ravi, what can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in Hyderabad as the only child to my parents who instilled the foundational values which serve as the north star as I navigate through every aspect of my life. My father spent his career setting up and running businesses at a time when entrepreneurship in India was nowhere as popular as it is today. My mother chose the challenge of raising me as her career along with exploring her interests in fine art. 

As is the norm in ‘Tam Brahm’ families, education becomes priority number one and luckily for my parents, I wasn’t half bad at school. Perpetuating the stereotype further I had a natural inclination towards STEM subjects (although I do recollect my math was not solid in the beginning) and ended up studying engineering. The Mr. Hyde in me however, constantly presented itself through my love for sports which I have pursued alongside everything I did through my education and career to date. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I was fortunate enough to clear the central examination for IITs and was pursued metallurgical and materials engineering at IIT Kharagpur. That’s pretty much where the tried and tested career path ended, and I took some lovely detours through the lakes and mountains in Switzerland where I pursued my Masters in materials sciences and followed it up with a doctorate in Physics at the Max-Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Germany. 

Max Planck Institutes are independent non-governmental and non-profit research centers. This means that they function as a private entity and the group directors there are professors at different universities. My supervisor was a professor of physics at EPFL which was the body that awarded me the PhD though I conducted my research work and spent all my time in Stuttgart, Germany. 

My PhD was fully funded by the institute and  for my masters I got a research assistantship which allowed me to work in a research lab for a stipend. This RA-ship followed by my masters thesis research was critical in setting me up for a smooth transition to my PhD research.

What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

My career path was carved by an equal measure of choices driven by my love for learning new things as well as serendipity. The one constant that still drives me is the happiness I gain from learning and growing as a scientist and as a business professional.  My career path so far is a result of me just enjoying the process of learning and in doing so, contributing to the success of the teams that I have been fortunate to be a part of or lead. 

I distinctly recollect that I had absolutely no intention (nor did I have any idea) of entering the world of academic research when I started my engineering course. In my second year I worked with and was mentored by people who really got me addicted to the bug of scientific research. One was a friend and batch mate (who is now an established professor himself) and the other was a professor and thesis advisor who was pivotal in training me in the principles of the scientific method. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

After that start, I was afforded so many wonderful experiences. The summer internship in Germany during my 3rd year made it less daunting for me to decide on pursuing higher education in Europe, which led to my masters and PhD research experiences in various research groups studying physics of advanced semiconductor materials. 

My work on solid oxide fuel cells indeed ended up being my B.Tech thesis work though I had started working on it part time along with my courses towards the end of my second year. The idea was to augment the properties of the electrolyte material using nanomaterials to make it more efficient and easier to fabricate.

My work on fuel cells formed the basis of my interest in exploring more advanced nanostructures particularly in electronics and optoelectronics. This is one of the reasons why the EPFL masters in materials science program appealed to me as they had a specialization track for electronic materials. My experience in Karlsruhe, Germany for my summer internship where I fabricated artificial noses from nanoparticles of tin oxide further helped me realize that this is something I’d like to learn more about.  

During my masters I worked on a couple of projects on nanofabrication of electronic devices which helped me firm up my mind further towards a specific emerging field of carbon based nanomaterials for my PhD. In particular, I worked on learning about the electronic physics in what was a fascinating new material (then called graphene) for my masters thesis project which flowed nicely into my PhD work. Here I dove deep into a wide variety of semiconductor fabrication techniques to make chips and studied their electronics at ultra-low temperatures or by optical probing in many different ways.

My career post my education was also very eventful. I spent some time at one of the leading corporate R&D labs in the world, IBM Watson Research Center in New York, building electronic devices with cutting edge semiconductor materials and understanding how they work, in order to improve them for future applications in the ubiquitous world of electronics that we live in today. 

At that time IBM had several strong R&D efforts (not just AI/ML) and I was part of what was called the Physical Sciences division and in particular, the carbon electronics group that was tasked to explore next generation materials for electronics and optics. 

I consider my career full of turning points and so it would be difficult to pinpoint one that I consider pivotal. However, perhaps a sequence of events that I am particularly satisfied about started with a research fellowship I was awarded at Cambridge University trying to build electronics and optical devices using a new material called graphene which is a single layer of carbon atom connected in a honeycomb shaped lattice. I also worked on the process of making this material. Nature does a great job of assembling single atoms of carbon in sheets. We see and use that every day as graphite in pencils. However to try and mimic nature and build this material from ground up was a challenge and a half ! Scientists all over the world working together managed to make this happen to a great extent.

This work led to me being approached by a company, Oxford Instruments, that produces equipment for making such complex materials in order to develop and commercialize a product. I have been working at Oxford Instruments since then and my career has evolved through roles in R&D, product management, marketing. I currently lead a team responsible for our emerging technology segment strategy looking at advanced semiconductor materials for fascinating applications like Quantum computing, Biosensors, chips for faster data and telecommunications etc.  

My immediate career post PhD i.e., my research fellowship at Cambridge University was directly related to my previous research experience of exploring new “graphene-like” non carbon materials and making light sensors and light emitting devices out of them. In the industry, I was definitely pulling on both my technical experience and my transferrable skills that I had gained during my research career. Skills like clear logical presentation and communication, project management and collaboration is something that PhD life teaches you automatically and is extremely applicable in all professional fields.

How did you get your first break? 

My work at Cambridge University led to me being approached by Oxford Instruments, a company that produces equipment for making such complex materials in order to develop and commercialize a product.

I believe that was my first break.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: As soon as I started my engineering degree, I knew this was not for me. I felt it was un-inspiring and taking me down the path which I could have taken in any engineering college in the world. Dealing with this realization was difficult especially after the amount of toil and work I had put in to get into an IIT. However, the trick in these situations is to keep an open mind and look for small bits of inspiration. This helped make the most of what ended up being a wonderful educational and all-round character-building experience. In my case, I found that as late as in the second year of engineering through a couple of encouraging professors and colleagues.

Challenge 2:  I wanted to study in Europe, but the course I wanted to do was partly taught in French ! Though this was daunting, here I drew upon my love for learning and just ended up learning enough French to do those courses. In fact I studied and cleared one of the most fascinating and confusing subjects i.e, Quantum Physics in French as the professor would not teach in English! 

Challenge 3: Transitioning from the world of technology and scientific training to the world of business. This was a steep learning curve and needed an entirely different way of thinking and decision making. I consider overcoming this a challenge as difficult as Quantum Physics. Owing to some great colleagues and falling back on my skill of learning, I was able to do justice here and consider myself lucky to be able to understand the mechanics of a successful business. In my current role, I constantly depend on my ability to understand deep technology to identify technology opportunities in the semiconductor market and balance it with my experience to understand if it’s a good business opportunity. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I lead the strategy, partnerships and early business development for the emerging technologies segment at a high-tech instrumentation and wafer fabrication equipment company in the UK called Oxford Instruments.

In this role I pull on all the skills, both deep tech understanding from my education and scientific research career, and business skills from the various functions I have worked with within this company. The challenge of this role is to understand future technology trends and make choices and advise the business to pursue ones that would have the maximum benefit for the company. This requires a deep understanding of the technology and how quickly it is maturing combined with a commercial understanding of the optical answer to the when, where and how any new technology can be brought into the market.

There isn’t one typical day and each day is unique in its own way, but I guess the constant every day is I work with some great technology experts as well as successful businessmen together in one big team that helps me draw on both my backgrounds as we try and create high tech products for the semiconductor industry and R&D. This is also what I really love about this job combined with the satisfaction that I feel when I see our products being used in this field successfully helping advance the careers of so many scientists and engineers as well as aid in the growth of some companies. 

How does your work benefit society? 

Semiconductor based technologies are a key part of the solution to some of the world’s major problems today, be it climate change through advanced solar cells, or energy efficient electronics and automobiles or health care. The work that my colleagues and I do directly contributes to making better materials and devices that benefit society by addressing these challenges.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

That’s a tough one, I am proud and remember each and every piece of contribution I have made over the years but I guess if I had to pick the one I am proud of, it would be the work put in across both academia and industry to take something I did some research on and deliver a product to the industry out of that knowledge that is now enabling more scientific research and jobs for many people.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My only advice is keeping an open mind and keep learning. If you can master the art of learning, then you can drive your career in any way you wish to as you can pick up skills easily on the go. 

Future Plans?

Continue to contribute to deep technology industries and help grow businesses.