Dr. Sujatha Ramanujan of Luminate: “A product or service that solves an actual problem”

A product or service that solves an actual problem. Whatever you are selling, you need to determine whether it is something that people really need. You also have to prove that they need it. Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams […]

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A product or service that solves an actual problem. Whatever you are selling, you need to determine whether it is something that people really need. You also have to prove that they need it.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Sujatha Ramanujan, managing director of Luminate, a startup accelerator focused on advancing next-generation optics, photonics, and imaging-enabled companies.

Sujatha is a serial entrepreneur and seasoned executive with 25 years of experience in Clinical Devices and in Consumer Electronics. She has founded and built three startup businesses in cardiac surgical equipment, optical communications, and nano materials. In addition, as CTO and Product Line Manager of Mammography CAD and Pediatric Businesses within Kodak and Carestream, her team developed and launched clinical equipment and clinical IT on every continent. Sujatha has held scientific, technical leadership, and laboratory head positions in Chrysler Corporation, GE, Kodak, Carestream, and Intrinsiq Materials. She holds 28 issued US patents.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I have a deep love of mathematics so pursuing a career in engineering and science, and specifically in optics and photonics which is a balance of quantum physics and abstract mathematics, was a logical career path for me. As an undergraduate electrical engineering student at the University of Michigan I had the privilege of working with a small business focused on optics and lasers. That experience sparked an interest in entrepreneurism, something I revisited after first working within established companies, including GE, and also going back to graduate school. My time working at a physics lab at Kodak taught me that fantastic inventions sometimes never see the light of day, and working with Kodak’s venture capital arm helped me to understand why, as well as what it takes for emerging companies to get the investment they need to commercialize products.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current organization? Can you share that story with us?

After building three startups, I realized a need for what I call an Entrepreneur’s Wish List, a systematic framework to provide startups with everything they need to know to create a business. Luminate empowered me to do that within an industry I know and love — optics and imaging. Through Luminate, we have already been able to help 50 new companies by providing them with the resources, support, and investment they need to grow.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your organization? Can you share a story with us?

I come from a family of startup entrepreneurs, so you could say entrepreneurship is in my blood. But, I’d say that my mother has inspired me most. She is brave and fearless, creating a new life in a new country with very few resources. She and my father gave me the ability to accept that I may fail and to be ok with that. They taught me to just do it, to go for the goal despite the risk of failure.

What do you think makes your organization stand out? Can you share a story?

Luminate brings together people with good ideas and gives them systematic discipline — a financial and business plan, expertise, and the know-how to execute as professional executives with a viable business.

One example is SunDensity, which created Photonic Smart Coating (PSC™) technology that increases solar power output. The company is led by a professor at MIT who had a good idea. When he first came to us he had little more than that idea and no data or plan to back it up. Luminate allowed him to audit classes without being part of the program. He diligently took part, leveraged our resources, followed the proposed process, and then reapplied to the next cohort with a solid business plan and staff. He was accepted and went on to win the Cohort’s million dollar follow-on investment. He now has multiple investors around the world enabling him to continue to build his business.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

By combining the vision of charity organizations with the pragmatism of business, we can create greater success in both. When working in mammography, we launched a technology which was not necessarily the most technically advanced, but was by an order of magnitude more affordable. Suddenly hospitals and countries that were unable to provide breast cancer screening to underserved populations were well equipped to do so. Running as a business ensured more facilities could adopt the technology. We bring this philosophy to investment as well. By funding companies such as Lumedica Vision (which offers hand held OCT), we hope for similar success.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One is perseverance. I have thick skin and it’s immensely helpful. Two is that I am outgoing and helpful to others. That has helped me to create a fantastic network. And, the third quality is scientific curiosity. My work couldn’t be done without it.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

We learn a lot early in our career from the people we work for. We can also gain new skills and experience by trying new businesses. However, there comes a point in your career where it is important to lead, and for your experience to be valued. More than once in my career I have listened to the following phrases, “sometimes you need to take a step backwards or sideways to step up.” For too many women in particular, this leads to always being “Girl Friday” or “Second in Command” to those less competent. Know your worth.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

Truthfully, the greater challenges in my entrepreneurial career came later. I found raising money as a female entrepreneur was very challenging, both within my organization and outside. I did not have the confidence of my board that I could raise a significant round without a lot of “oversight”, (a perspective largely from older men who had not raised money before). There were funds and some investors that needed to see that I was a “second in command” to an older man. I think the investment situation is improving, but it remains quite challenging for women and minorities to be seen as competent leaders. With Luminate, we play close attention to our own judgement and behavior, as well as to our recruiting methods to ensure we do not treat people unfairly.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Startups are hard, and they are especially hard when facing prejudice. My love of science — the core of what I do — has given me the drive to continue when things are toughest. Also, I’ve made sure to surround myself with a staff that shares the same moral compass. While diversity of thought is important, it’s just as important to have similar core values.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs and lows of being a founder”?

With my startups, we treated each other like family. We had family picnics, baby showers, went to our colleagues’ children’s graduation parties, etc. When you celebrate with each other and support each other in hard times, you survive and you thrive in tough times. It is very important to celebrate the little victories. In one of my jobs, we used to perform an “Engineering Victory Dance” when things went well in the lab. It was more comic than graceful, but fun for all.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

I’d ask them three questions:

  1. Where do you envision yourself in five years? If they hope to achieve wealth in that timeframe, they need investment. Bootstrapping is a long road with far slower growth.
  2. How much money is it going to take to bring your business to life? If you need a lot of capital, bootstrapping is likely not an option.
  3. What brings you joy? If it’s to grow the business and get out, look at investment. If you want to build a business as a legacy and lifestyle, then bootstrap it.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

Here are the five things you need to create a successful startup:

  1. A product or service that solves an actual problem. Whatever you are selling, you need to determine whether it is something that people really need. You also have to prove that they need it.
  2. Your solution is better than others. You may not be the only one providing a solution to the identified problem, but your solution has to be somehow unique and superior. Is it faster, better, less expensive, or can you provide it in a way that is totally differentiated to sustain customer loyalty?
  3. Your solution is protectable. Can you maintain advantage even if someone else does it too?
  4. You have a team to execute. If not, get one. Lone wolves are a poor investment.
  5. The right balance. Investors will look to better understand the entrepreneur before the idea. Do they have the DNA to do this? You need to have the right balance of confidence and humility — strong enough to hear no, and humble enough to learn and grow without arrogance and fear getting in the way.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs and founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I see two common mistakes, again and again:

  1. Not doing proper customer discovery. Things change quickly. Are you talking with potential and existing customers to ensure your solution remains relevant and meets actual needs?
  2. Arrogance. Arrogance sinks ships. Arrogant leaders cannot surround themselves with confident and competent people, nor can they take advice. A successful business demands they do both.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

Find your joy. For me, that means being a mother and pursuing a life-long passion in dance. I’ve been a classical Indian dancer since I was six and belonged to professional dance groups most of my life. Now, I dance just for fun. I also teach Bollywood and other types of dance to various groups in my community, including little kids and an older women’s Bollywood Dance club. It’s all about doing what you love and making the most of your time.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

If I could get women investors, entrepreneurs, and scientists who could reach out to girls and young women early to help them cultivate a love for science and to learn how to create and lead, we could bring great things to life. We have to start much earlier to reach young women who are not always seen, and to stay with them to support them on their journey. There are piecemeal solutions at a community level, but a comprehensive outreach plan at a national or even global level would be remarkable.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Melinda Gates

Maria Salamanca

How can our readers further follow your work online?


This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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