Rochester is a city of technological prowess. Approach any building on nearly any street in the metro area and you’re bound to come across someone picking away at something, be they a fledgling garage startup with a good idea and a dream or a well-established industry leader pumping out products for the optics industry.
Of the hundreds of minds who power the Rochester tech scene, few are as well-versed as Sujatha Ramanujan. Now the managing director at Nextcorps’ Luminate incubator, Ramanujan follows up on a storied career both in the major corporate world of Eastman Kodak Co. and in the network of Upstate New York’s startup culture. And much like her knowledge in the tech field, Ramanujan’s life glows with intensity. A scientist, a Bollywood-style dancer, a businessperson, a women’s advocate and a mother—they’re all hats she trades seamlessly depending on the time of day.
Ramanujan’s Rochester tale begins in 1995, when she obtained her Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the University of Michigan. Following her Kodak-employed husband, she made her way a couple of Great Lakes east to Rochester.
“I eventually got a job at Kodak, and I was at Kodak for a number of years, and had a number of different positions,” Ramanujan said. “I started out as a research scientist at the research labs, and I kind of moved up to group leader, what they call program manager, lab head. I went through basically moving up the technical groups at Kodak.”
It was at Kodak that Ramanujan merged her scientific background with the economics of startup companies, beginning a collaboration with Kodak Ventures Group, the venture capital arm of Eastman Kodak.
“It started out that I had an interest in a particular small company, because I wanted to get a component from them, and the VG group came to town and took a look to see if it was worth investing in,” Ramanujan said. “And they actually pulled me aside and said ‘don’t do this, this company won’t last.’ And I was curious as to why they thought that, because being a scientist at that time, I didn’t have a lot of business background, so I didn’t know what made them so alarmed. And they were correct. It was a concern not with the science or with the technology, but with the way the business was running.”
Looking in a different way
After her first experiences with the world of venture capital, Ramanujan began to look at tech companies in a different way, separated from just good ideas and good products.
“I became very interested in what makes a company successful and what makes it not successful,” Ramanujan said. “So I started working with the Ventures Group, first on the technical side to see if they were worth investing in, then being more involved in seeing what it takes to invest in them.”
From there Ramanujan moved around the Kodak world, first to the Eastman Kodak Health Group, which is now Carestream. There, she worked her way up the chain to chief technology officer of mammography CAD and pediatrics.
In 2011, she moved to Rochester’s Intrinsiq Materials Inc. as chief operating officer. And this past August, she was tapped for her position at Luminate. For Ramanujan, it was a seamless fit—a culmination of 25 years’ worth of work on both the science and the business sides of the tech industry.
When evaluating startup proposals, Ramanujan takes a particular approach. “You have to start with this: does it work, and does it have merit?” Ramanujan said. “Because you can fix businesses, but you can’t fix stuff that doesn’t work. If the product doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. So that is really critical.
“We’ve picked 10 companies, and while we might be putting $1 million into one, I want them all to succeed. I think it’s terribly important that they all succeed.”
Economic driver decline
In her time at Kodak, Ramanujan watched the former Rochester powerhouse and economic driver decline. But even during that period, the innovation at Kodak never subsided. The research labs hummed vibrantly, pumping out new concepts and potentially groundbreaking products all the while. That spirit has never died: check out any of the major Rochester optics companies such as Rochester Precision Optics, Sydor Optics or Lasermax Inc. and you’re bound to find a few former Kodak researchers still toiling away at new ideas. But it’s a spirit in a different body; it’s no longer ideas built around businesses, but rather businesses built around ideas.
“The engineering physics in Kodak Business Park was a large, innovative, creative, vibrant environment, with research scientists at their best and senior scientists who I learned so much from,” Ramanujan said. “We made some really neat stuff; we invented some incredibly cool things. And it was extremely frustrating watching those things not be capitalized on or commercialized properly.”
In the tech world, startups have become the new norm. Self-starting companies with a good idea and a dream are tasked with the need to commercialize themselves, find their funding streams and compete in a highly selective marketplace. It’s an environment that decentralizes and encourages innovation, an industry that places inventors on a pedestal. It’s a world that Ramanujan, who holds 28 patents herself, calls very American.
“We are a nation of innovation, of growth, of self-starters,” Ramanujan said. “We are educated from the word go on the concept of raising yourself from the ground up. We admire self-made millionaires, and we admire the self-made person here. It’s also in our education DNA to want to do that, to want to create, to want to be that person who makes that incredible new invention everyone grows and sees. And you want to run that business and be a part of it.”
But there are, of course, downsides. According to a study by the Harvard School of Business’s Shikar Ghosh, venture-backed startups have some of the highest failure rates of any business model, with up to 75 percent failing to return a profit. Thirty to 40 percent of those companies end up liquidating assets entirely.
It’s a harsh reality, and one that Ramanujan, though hopeful for the 10 Luminate companies, is all too aware of. Yet, as she explains, Luminate is bigger than the 10 companies in the program.
“We, as a region, need these businesses to succeed,” Ramanujan said. “If we put money into programs like Luminate, we far increase the chances that they will succeed. If you simply put money into a company and leave them out there by themselves, they do not have the infrastructure and the pieces of a business, or even the knowledge to be successful. So putting money in Luminate, we increase the odds of small businesses, startup businesses, succeeding in the area.”
Perhaps no word better fits Ramanujan than “passionate.” It conveys her fervent belief in the region, of the encroaching economic sun rising again over Rochester. But it’s passion not limited to her current post at Luminate. She is a tireless advocate for women in STEM, and she serves as an executive board member with the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.
“Every other year we host an induction in Seneca Falls, the birthplace of American women’s rights,” Ramanujan said. “We induct 10 to 12 amazing women for their notable achievements and contributions to American society. It’s quite the A-list of American women—they run the gamut. We have scientists, we have entertainers, we have women who have impacted American society in so many different ways.”
In 2017, honorees included Matilda Cuomo, founder of Mentoring USA; Temple Grandin, the autism and ethical livestock advocate who was named one of Time magazine’s top 100 most influential people in the world in 2010, and Aimee Mullins, double-amputee athlete, model and actress.
Sandy Sloane of PR firm Solutions by Sloane, who helped organize last year’s events, called Ramanujan “very, very, very humble,” from her advocacy to her work in the tech field.
“She speaks to women’s groups and engineering groups everywhere, and I think that is a really wonderful way of giving back,” Sloane said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen her turn anyone down. If someone asks her to come speak, she goes.”
Pursuit of recreation
It’s a life that doesn’t allow Ramanujan too much downtime. Even so, she’s creative in her pursuit of recreation. A lifetime Bollywood-style dancer, Ramanujan teaches dancing when she’s not coaching startups, speaking to tech leaders or bringing together some of the most prominent women in the world.
“I started with dance when I was 6, and have belonged to professional dance groups for most of my life. Now that I’m older, I can just do what I want for fun,” Ramanujan said. “So I teach Bollywood and other types of dance forms to communities running from little kids to, one of my favorite, the Older Women’s Bollywood Dance Club. It’s highly social, and it’s really fun.”
It’s a love of dance she’s passed on to her children. Rohan at only 3 was already up on stage.
Ramanujan finds as much joy in fostering a new economic era in Rochester as she does teaching her son some new steps.
“You choose your future,” Ramanujan said. “That’s the message I try to get out through the Hall—I even get out through dance.” She conveys that same message to her children: “Nobody gets to tell you who you are but you.”
Title: Managing director, Luminate
Education: Ph.D., electrical engineering, University of Michigan
Family: Husband, Jim; daughter, Sarita, 16; son, Rohan, 9
Hobby: Bollywood dancing
Quote: “You choose your future.”