How a University Academics’s Effort to Create Employment Opportunities, built one of South Asia’s Leading Electronics Design firms
Every shortcoming in the world, presents an opportunity to those who think differently. Dr. Ajith Pasqual, an academic, an entrepreneur and an innovator did just that when he founded Paraqum Technologies (Pvt) Ltd, a company focused on Electronics Design, a field with a great demand but largely unexplored by the Sri Lankan EE industry.
Dr. Ajith Pasqual is a renowned academic in the Electronics and Telecommunication department at University of Moratuwa which also happens to be the most in-demand field and the No 1 choice of discipline amongst the University’s undergraduates. Every year, University of Moratuwa becomes home to some of Sri Lanka’s brightest minds, those who score the highest in Physical Sciences at the Advanced Level Examination and even amongst them, only the top tier is accepted into the Electronics and Telecommunications programme, historically producing high-quality graduates who are trailblazers in their industry around the globe.
How Paraqum came in to being
In the year 2021, the Sri Lankan electrical and electronic sector produced more than $400Mn USD worth of exports. Despite this figure and the quality of graduates the country produces in Engineering, Sri Lanka is yet to be known for its capability in the electronics designing sector. There are many Sri Lankan companies in the business of manufacturing electronic components for export markets for which the designs come from the parent companies based overseas. This clearly points to a huge gap in the market and a vast territory with unexploited potential.
As a result of this, graduates from the department of Electronics and Telecommunications often find themselves in a difficult situation to find employment in the field of electronics in Sri Lanka. It is common to see many undergraduates who would have had a bright future in electronics, move into other fields because of this. In this context, Paraqum Technologies was launched with the primary aim of creating exciting employment opportunities for the talented electronics undergraduates whilst continually challenging them to sharpen their skills and discover their true potential.
Paraqum Technologies was incorporated as a semiconductor intellectual property company in the year 2013, with the initial capital coming from Dr. Pasqual’s own savings. Soon after, four final year undergraduates from the University of Moratuwa joined the company becoming its first batch of engineering recruits.
In 2013, the video compression standard referred to as High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC or H.265) was released. The advantage of this compression scheme was its superior compression ability. The conventional MPEG4 format (also known as H.264) would have taken 1GB in space to store a 2-hour video clip, and with this novel method, it could be reduced to 500 MB with a 50% compression efficiency with the same quality. However, this compression ability came with an increased computational complexity. One way to tackle this complexity was to do the compression in hardware. Consequent to a major breakthrough in late 2015, Paraqum Technologies came up with real time 4K resolution video decoding implementation in a single re-configurable chip, for the 1st time in the world using on Field Programmable Gateway Arrays (FPGA).
In December 2015, the company were in discussions with potential buyers and investors for the project and that included several reputed multinational corporations and reputed companies in the global cinema industry (Video production houses). At the time, most of those companies were using MPEG4 (H.264) and they had been evaluating the transition towards HEVC, which implied that the product was indeed ahead of time.
While the company heavily invested in the HEVC project, it suddenly became a reality that the project was burning money and that they had to come up with a solution to make their top line healthy. As a result, Paraqum Technologies partnered with a start-up based in the United States, founded by a few Sri Lankan expatriates who required additional engineering resources, propelling the company into the field of electronic designing.
This start-up was aimed at building a processor for machine learningand by extending support to them, Paraqum Technologies was able to secure their first revenue generating project. With the wheels above the ground, they went on to partner with another US - based high-end video accessory manufacturer who required engineering support in designing video capture cards. This working relationship flourished over the years and Dr Pasqual recalls that both of those experiences felt extremely challenging at the time with having to learn most of the things anew.
Venturing into product development
Youtube videos buffering, Games not running smoothly are common but frustrating experiences that has consumers linning up against the Internet Service Providers (ISP). Identifying this problem, the Paraqum team designed a traffic shaper for bandwidth management helping the operators and ISPs to provide the users with a smooth and optimized Internet experience. Thanks to this development, the ISPs are now able to offer a satisfactory customer experience with improved speed and reliability earning positive reaction from the consumers. Paraqum Technologies is also proud to announce that this product is manufactured 100% locally in Sri Lanka.
Annually, there are two regional networking conferences taking place in the Asia Pacific region for all the Telecommunications operators and ISPs organised by the Asia Pacific Network Information Centre (ANIC). In 2016, the conference took place in Sri Lanka, and Paraqum Technologies co-sponsored. The team conducted a demonstration of their hardware accelerated network analyser at the event and, an overseas ISP had shown a keen interest. Dr. Pasqual recalls despite how at the time the product was still at development stage, the ISP went ahead with the purchase, believing in the working practices of Paraqum Technologies, making it their first-ever product sale. This has encouraged everyone in the team to put more effort to accelerate network product development.
Today, the network division is the largest within the company, with the network products deployed in multiple countries in Asia-Pacific, Africa, and United States. The team has expanded from 4 employees to 45 permanent employees and 15 trainees totalling a team of 60. The embedded team at Paraqum, specialized in advanced electronics design, is well experienced to undertake a design of any complexity. A key highlight in their design process is to follow best practices to be compliant with Federal Communications Commission standards which is also a testament to the quality and reliability of their products and the brand they have built over time.
Paraqum Technologies has currently partnered with numerous customers across multiple industries based both locally and internationally. Top companies in Sri Lanka such as Dialog Axiata, Commercial Bank, CBL Group, WSO2 along with prominent Universities have already come on board as customers. Reputed overseas ISPs such as SkyNet (USA), Sacofa (Malaysia) and ROL (Maldives) , MLS and Canl (New Caledonia) are some key overseas clientele of the company.
The company does not spend huge amounts on advertising budgets but rely on attending co-sponsored events which allow face to face interactions with potential customers. The Word-of-Mouth ignited by the reputation they have built over-time with the existing customers have already become the best tool in their aresenal to reach new customers and markets.
In this regard, Dr.Pasqual commends the Export Development Board - EDB for the work carried out by the agency to promote the electrical and electronic export sector of Sri Lanka and the efforts made towards connecting exporters to potential global buyers. He also appreciated the efforts made by the EDB towards promoting upcoming R&D and Design companies of the country and facilitiating networking and promotional events for them in the global arena.
One thing that is strikingly clear is that the company has adopted a few key learnings from some of the world’s giants in innovation such as Apple, Intel and IBM and has instilled them in the company’s culture. They have clearly adopted a flat company culture where anyone can come up with ideas and opinions regardless of the title, value diversity of thoughts, exchange new ideas and practice the habit of making things happen.
Paraqum Technologies treats the selection of interns with considerable seriousness where potential candidates face multiple interviews evaluating various aspects of knowledge, skill, and talent. Each year, out of a large cohort of applications, only about 6 successful candidates are selected for internships and they are mentored by an experienced supervisor (a senior engineer) ensuring that they gain the best of knowledge and exposure during their period of training. The company goes above and beyond to support their employees and interns alike to become the best version of themselves producing a professional in par with the demands of today’s industry.
Presence in Global Forums
In the year 2017, Paraqum Technologies took part in the World’s largest media and broadcast Show, NABSHOW held in Las Vegas in the United States. They presented three of their key products HEVC decoder, HEVC encoder and HEVC SCC encoder at the event. More recently, they took part in APRICOT Exhibition in Australia where they had the opportunity of meeting many new clients from around the world. Participating in these events was a key element in their market penetration strategy.
Passion and Persistence
Paraqum Technologies being a high-end, mission critical product-oriented company, deals with a range of sophisticated manufacturing processes. Before the deployment of any product, there are long product testing periods which can be extended up to 12 months. By nature, the companies involved in this sector are engaged in a continuous evolution cycle and the agility to change as per the requirements of the customer is deemed critical. Despite all of that, Paraqum has managed to overcome all these obstacles thanks to the passion and persistence the team has demonstrated even amidst the unprecedented challenges brought forth in 2019 – 2021 by the Global pandemic.
Future of Paraqum Technologies
Dr. Ajith Pasqual envisions his company making great strides under three divisions which are Networking, Design Services and Hardware. The networking division, predominantly operates specialised networking equipment while the Designing division, works with several internally renowned organizations mainly operating in the field of tech, as an extended service provider. The company has already partnered with a US based start-up on machine learning accelerator and another company designing CPUs (processors) bringing in much needed revenue to the company. Hardware embedded division of the company focuses on developing their own hardware products and has already ventured into developing products related to communications and defence fields. The company hopes to widen its scope in the field of electronics and add more products and services to its current portfolio offering a wide range of services to clients across the board in the future.