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Hustle to success — The unlikely entrepreneur

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

In February 2008, while working towards his degree in computer science, Sam Pasupalak found out that Bill Gates was speaking at the University of Waterloo. He had no ticket, but it didn’t stop him. Carrying T-shirts and bags to appear as a volunteer, he slipped past security and received a pink wristband. To get the one remaining seat and past the second round of security, he pulled off his first hustle.

photo of Bill Gates and Maluuba founder Sam Pasupalak

Cheriton School of Computer Science alumnus Sam Pasupalak (BCS 2012) with Bill Gates, co-founder of Microsoft.

Sam was so inspired by Bill Gates’ 2008 campus talk that he went on to co-found an AI start-up that Microsoft purchased last year.

Growing up in the small town of Bhubaneswar in eastern India, Pasupalak didn’t know anything about entrepreneurship. He was more interested in learning Sanskrit or playing Cricket. After that talk, he was so inspired by Gates’ tremendous impact in the world that he decided to start his own company as soon as he graduated. 

Pasupalak kept the hustle going. In 2010, he and his future business partner, Kaheer Suleman, built a piece of software for robots to understand natural human language commands in Professor Chrysanne Di Marco’s class. He loved the freedom the class provided to build whatever students could imagine. The prototype he developed in that class became the basis of his future company. Between his computer science classes and co-op terms, Pasupalak’s excitement about programming and artificial intelligence (AI) grew.

Sam Pasupalak and James SimpsonAt the time, not many people talked about AI, but Pasupalak was dreaming about making the future happen. With his best friend James Simpson (then classmate at Waterloo and future colleague at Maluuba), Pasupalak drove to Carnegie Mellon University to show the prototype to a famous professor. The professor rejected the idea outright, telling Pasupalak if he ever managed to build a real-world product with that technology, he would offer him a PhD in computer science.

In 2011, at the Velocity Garage, Pasupalak and his team continued work on the algorithms he developed in Di Marco’s class. Before Apple's Siri was publicly launched, they developed mobile search algorithms where users could speak naturally into the phones and get the information they wanted. Velocity set them up with everything Pasupalak needed to start thinking about building a business, which he named Maluuba

“We were razor focused on solving the problem of language understanding and we didn’t care if technology giants like Google or Facebook were pouring billions of dollars into developing this technology,” said Pasupalak. “We just wanted to be the best at any cost.” 

With his degree complete, Pasupalak didn’t take a job and had little money to survive, let alone run a business. While crashing on the couch of another successful Waterloo entrepreneur, Iyinoluwa Aboyeji, Simpson encouraged Pasupalak to take his passion to venture capitalists in Silicon Valley and raise funds for his company. Simpson even booked Pasupalak’s flight with $700 he had saved during his last co-op term.

Although hesitant, Pasupalak had no option but to take the pre-booked ticket. He hustled his way to meet his first investor from Samsung Ventures. He also tried to meet with the business team of Yelp without a pre-arranged meeting. It led to security guards escorting Pasupalak out of the building. His persistence eventually paid off and Yelp became Maluuba’s first commercial partner. Then the next big hustle began. 

First, Maluuba won the Velocity Venture Fund in the fall of 2011. With $25,000, Maluuba developed training data and built a prototype to show investors. After graduating from the Velocity Garage, the company raised $2 million in seed funding from Samsung. Pasupalak and the team struggled the first few years as they were rejected by hundreds of investors and almost went bankrupt three times. He never gave up hope and flew more than half a million miles, hustling around the globe attending thousands of meetings, signing business deals and raising funds for his company.

The hustle paid off. By 2014, Maluuba had a Waterloo headquarters just across the street from campus. In 2015, Maluuba landed $9 million in Series A funding from a number of institutional investors and Maluuba’s language recognition technology had launched as personal assistants across more than 50 million smartphone and smart TV devices worldwide, including partnerships with Samsung, LG and BlackBerry. 

With even larger ambitions, Pasupalak became interested in extending the technology beyond personal assistants. He envisioned a world filled with intelligent machines capable of understanding and reasoning language just like humans. In 2015, before Montreal became a hot spot for AI, Maluuba strategically opened an office there for its research and development initiatives.

The research in Montreal helped the development of applications in Waterloo, where they continued to refine dialogue understanding, machine-reading comprehension, and some human capabilities like common-sense reasoning and memory. Unlike the closed operating systems and apps for some smartphones, Maluuba released huge datasets and research to other AI developers, and worked with researchers at University of Montreal.

“We believed in making AI more open and accessible to the community worldwide,” said Pasupalak. “Advances can be made more quickly in the field when the community at large works together and shares the knowledge.”

Pasupalak credits his passion and amazing comrades like Simpson for getting him over the numerous obstacles that he met along the way. It paid off handsomely when Microsoft purchased Maluuba and the entire 50-person team for an undisclosed amount in 2017.

“Maluuba was my baby — from an idea in Velocity to building one of the top AI start-ups to being acquired by one of the largest technology companies in the world was quite the adventure,” said Pasupalak. “It required a tremendous amount of guts, determination, perseverance, and 80–100 hours a week most weeks for a period of six years. I would say a little bit of luck, too. We had to believe that there was definitely light at the end of the tunnel, and even if there wasn’t, we had to create it ourselves.” 

Sam Pasupalak at the peak of Mount KilimanjaroThe sale meant that he could take time off to realize some of his other passions, like climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, studying world history, and doing social service in India. It also meant he could give back to the University of Waterloo — the place that inspired him to be an entrepreneur. His half a million-dollar gift will provide a scholarship for Computational Rhetoric lab and the Robotics lab, support for research by Di Marco in Computational Rhetoric, Velocity awards for Computer Science Capstone projects and a graduate student start-up award, and — in the field of AI — a scholarship with a focus on AI through Women in Computer Science, an AI Fellowship for Kate Larson and the AI Lab renovation. 

“I would never be where I am today if it weren’t for the University of Waterloo,” explained Pasupalak. “I have travelled around the world and gained a wide variety of experiences, but I am indebted to Waterloo for making me who I am today.

It’s not lost on Pasupalak that the man he admires — Bill Gates — is also a philanthropist. Despite his attempt to meet Gates in 2008 at Waterloo, it wasn’t until he sold Maluuba to Microsoft that he met him in person. It was an opportunity of a lifetime for Pasupalak, and an opportunity to tell Gates the story of his very first hustle.

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