The Right Search Engine

Ashutosh Garg came to Illinois to study with Beckman’s Image Processing group and left with a Ph.D. and a ticket to success. After working as a top research scientist for Google, Garg is now running his own company.

From Google to a Start-up, Ashutosh Garg Says Beckman, Illinois Helped Lay a Foundation

When Ashutosh Garg went looking for the right place to earn a Ph.D. and do graduate research, he found them at the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute’s Image Formation and Processing (IFP) group working with faculty member Tom Huang. Garg said those experiences paved the way for him to land a job, and succeed, at one of America’s most well-known information technology companies. Garg spent more than four years as a research scientist at Google, working on important projects for that Internet search titan, before deciding to take the bold step of starting his own company. Garg now runs a company that is developing technology for gathering and managing online content. Beckman’s Office of External Relations recently asked Garg about his time here, his stint at Google, and about the pitfalls of running a start-up company.

You have founded your own start-up company after working for Google. Why did you decide to leave a successful company and go out on your own? What do you see as this company’s niche in the business world?

Google is a great company and I thoroughly enjoyed working over there. However, starting your own company not only provides you with the freedom to pursue your ideas, it also provides a great learning environment. You get to conceive a product from scratch, understand user needs, take it to market, and iterate based on customer feedback.  The focus of this company will be on aggregation and management of online content. The Web is suffering from content overload. There are thousands of Web pages which provide the same or similar information. Instead of the end user going through all these pages, can we provide an environment that will allow consumers to get to what they are looking for efficiently?

What was your job title at Google, how long were you there, and what did your job entail?

I was Staff Research Scientist at Google. I was there for 4.5 years. At Google, my job was to identify new technologies that can either help existing products or become the launching pad for new products.

You graduated with a degree in electrical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology in New Delhi with a focus on gesture-based remote visualization. Could you tell people about your background in India and how you got interested in the academic path you took?

I grew up in a small town near New Delhi. For my undergraduate degree, I went to IIT Delhi. During my tenure over there, I did a project that involved controlling a robot using gestures. This project exposed me to the world of computer vision and machine learning. I was extremely fascinated by this area and developed a keen interest for technologies that can help humans do their job better.

How did you end up at Illinois?

Prof. Huang is a leading authority on Computer Vision and the Beckman Institute is probably the best place to do interdisciplinary research. During my trip to Urbana-Champaign in 1997, I had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Huang and was very impressed by the work going on in the IFP group. At that point, the choice was simple.

At Illinois your advisor for your M.S. was Tom Huang and Professor Huang and Dan Roth were advisors for your Ph.D. You also had papers with Professor Huang. Could you talk about how they influenced you and helped you, both academically and from a research point of view?

I am and will always be indebted to Prof. Huang and Prof. Roth for not only helping me in my professional life, but also for providing an environment which helped me grow as a person. The environment of the IFP lab is very stimulating. Prof. Huang and Prof. Roth, while introducing me to important problems, also gave me freedom to pursue independent thinking. Both professors were always available for technical discussions, to help refine the problem, and to guide me toward a solution.

What was your research focus while you were getting your degrees and working as a research assistant here?

My research was primarily focused on machine learning and computer vision. I had the good fortune of doing multiple internships and thus getting an exposure to industry at the same time. As a balance, I was mainly involved in theoretical work while at UIUC and applications during the various internships that I did. Speaker detection, event detection, speech recognition, and gene annotation are some of the applications I worked on during my internships. While at the University, I was involved in developing theoretical understanding of machine learning algorithms. The title of my thesis was “Learning in high dimensional spaces.”

You won the Robert T. Chien Award for excellence in research from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department while you were here. Was that a big honor for you? Are there one or two papers from your time here that stood out and helped your professional career? Did you apply any of that that research work to your job at Google or with your current company?

Yes! Indeed it was a great honor. I am very proud of it. I won’t say that there was a particular piece of work from my Ph.D. thesis that became the cornerstone of my work at Google. However, the learning I gained during this time has been the foundation to all the work I did. At Google, I was the architect of the largest online personalization system. I couldn’t have done it, had I not studied what I did during my Ph.D.

Could you explain to lay people how what you did at Google or what you are working on with your start-up company could someday have an impact on their lives?

At Google I was involved in various projects. I led the efforts to improve the ranking of product search, and later on was part of the team working on our core search system. I was also the architect of the Personalization system and Google Custom Search.

What are the most exciting and the most intimidating aspects of founding a start-up company? Where do you hope this company will be in 10 years?

Every day is full of new ups and downs. Convincing people what you are doing is the next big thing and getting the right team in place are some of the most intimidating things. Feeling that what you are doing will get used by millions of people is extremely exciting. I don’t know where my company will be in 10 years. However, I do hope that it will be a valued addition to the lives of millions.

What do you remember most about your time at Illinois and being at Beckman? How does the life of a start-up company founder living in California compare to your time in Illinois?

Time spent in Urbana-Champaign was the best time of my life. Working on exciting problems, learning from the best teachers, was just awesome. I also had the good fortune of staying with my brother (Paritosh Garg). I owe all my success to him.

If you had any advice for current students what would it be?

Be aware of the real world. Many times, we get too involved in what we are doing and lose sight of industry. While theoretical work is the right thing to do during a Ph.D., a little knowledge of industry can take you a long way.

This article is part of the Winter 2009 Synergy Issue, a publication of the Communications Office of the Beckman Institute.