The self-proclaimed ‘outlier professor’ and ‘rebel’ shares his journey of innovation and entrepreneurship, how to turn ideas into impact and why it’s going to be the “young guys” and not big companies who will lead technological transformations.
Professor Sang Kyun Cha is a man of many hats. A data science professor at Seoul National University (SNU), he is also a venture capitalist and innovator who describes himself as a “global entrepreneur” in his LinkedIn profile.
This is no exaggeration. The 65-year-old Ho-Am Prize Laureate in Engineering is best known for leading the development of three generations of in-memory database engines, which have since disrupted the world by enabling transactions to take place at unprecedented speeds.
Regarded by many in the industry as a rebel and a visionary, he defied the conventions of typical database architectures which relied on slower storage drives. By having these transactions take place within the computer’s memory instead, data can be acquired and queried in far higher volumes and in real-time.
To many, this concept was unfathomable some 20 years ago. To Prof Chia, this was a vision he turned into a reality.
In 2000, he founded startup Transact In Memory, Inc. to develop what he called the Parallel* Transact-In-Memory Engine (P*TIME) on SNU’s campus.
Two years later, the technology went global when he moved to Silicon Valley. The startup was acquired in 2005 by software giant SAP, transforming Korea-based Transact In Memory into SAP Labs Korea.
He then led SAP’s research team for four years that eventually yielded SAP HANA (“one” in Korean). The revolutionary in-memory database design enables companies to store, process and manage huge amounts of data on a single platform, and remains a flagship product of SAP.
Since leaving SAP in 2014, Prof Cha has helped set up the SNU Big Data Institute which focuses on digitalisation, Big Data and AI research, and welcomes students of all academic disciplines.
Named Distinguished Professor by SNU in May 2023, he is also the founding Dean of its Graduate School of Data Science, where he coaches startup founders and consults with Silicon Valley venture capitalists (VCs). Today, he has recently transitioned to a VC firm, Storm Ventures, as an executive venture partner.
Here are some key takeaways from his discussion at SGInnovate’s Firestarter Series, which was moderated by Ms Nidhi Gupta, CEO and Founder of Singapore-based logistics tech startup, Portcast.
1. What does it mean to be a rebel? How can entrepreneurs think like one?
When you start a business, you think about partnering with the big companies. You need some big companies to help you to grow.
On the other hand, sometimes you want to challenge the big companies. If you're not afraid of being a rebel, you can find the weak points of the big guys.
How many of you know of the innovator’s dilemma? That’s the problem of the big guys – they cannot get away from their existing way of thinking, partners, products and services. You find out how to challenge them – whether it is through technology or a business model - I think there is room for that.
Watch the full conversation here.
2. How did you build a great team to transform ideas into success?
One of the benefits of being a professor is that you have students. If the students have the same vision and conviction, some of them will follow you. They went through difficult times together and ended up developing SAP HANA with me. I thought at one point, that it was all too much. But now, these guys are enjoying life.
They were the first to develop this in-memory technology. They are wanted by many companies, but I encourage them to start their own companies.
3. As a deep tech specialist, what global trends in Generative AI do you foresee in the coming years?
I have seen lot of investments in Generative AI (Gen AI), with billions of dollars being invested in foundation model companies.
Successful companies need to understand their ABCDEs, where ‘A’ is ‘AI’, ‘B’ is ‘Big Data’, ‘C’ is ‘computing’. And on top of that you will also need domain knowledge, business logic and workflow, and entrepreneurs.
The most important part of Gen AI is data – understanding and securing it. Only then can you start a company and get investments.
What is Gen AI good for? Automation of repeatable knowledge. You can find a lot of cases where you can automate with data.
4. Now you are on the other side, looking at companies as a venture capitalist. What do you look for in a company?
I am looking for talent, technology or the ability to develop new technology, and also commitment. Once I find those talents – even if they don’t have good business models, so long as they have good potential – then I can nurture them, create business models together, and build a company together.
I’m approaching it with a better understanding of the technology, better than other venture capitalists.
5. What’s the secret to bringing an idea to life?
Your decision to start is the most important. Then comes your commitment to continue the experiment. Soon, you'll learn that no business plan survives forever – you have to keep changing your business plan on the fly as your understanding of the world grows.
When the VCs see the potential and commitment, they will invest, and they will work with you to grow the company.
Failure gives you a really valuable experience. Based on that experience, you can start a company and (be more likely to) succeed.
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