Emerging Entrepreneurs

It’s a MAD world out there

N Ramakrishnan | Updated on January 20, 2018

Anand Chandrasekaran, Founder CTO, Mad Street Den, and Ashwini Asokan, Cofounder and CEOBIJOY GHOSH

But this start-up’s AI platform has some plug-in solutions

MAD Street Den’s office in a residential area in Chennai fits the idea of a start-up that you would have in your mind – there are a bunch of 20-somethings at work on Apple Mac computers and there are others in animated discussion. As you walk in, a fawn coloured Labrador playfully jumps at you, even while Ashwini Asokan, co-founder and CEO, greets you. The office is being done up. “We still have a week’s work to go,” Ashwini, says as her husband Anand Chandrasekaran, founder and CTO, of the start-up that is into artificial intelligence and computer vision, joins you.

MAD Street Den (MSD) recently moved into this premises after the rains in December flooded its basement office, a stone’s thrown from the present location. You wonder what the MAD in the company’s name stands for. And, before you can imagine of something outrageous, Anand, who has got a doctorate in neuroscience from Stanford, explains that it stands for something as simple as Mind Abled Devices.

So, what does MSD do? It provides artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision as a plug-and-play solution to businesses that can tap into the platform on the cloud using API. “We have got a cloud-based AI platform on top of which we have built several different technology modules. Like object recognition, expression and emotion recognition,” explains Ashwini.

She demonstrates one of the products by photographing the T-shirt that Anand is wearing, using an Android phone. Then she goes on to the website of a retailer that is their client and the site throws up similar products of the exact colour and texture. This is just one of the tasks, she says.

Think of it, she adds, as giving machines eyes. “We have given machines eyes and the ability to see, understand the world around them, read the expressions and emotions,” she says.

The guiding principle of MSD, according to her, is to bring AI into everyday life – to put it into the hands of people in a meaningful way for them to use. The second objective, chips in Anand, is about generalised intelligence.

Even though the venture is about core technology, the duo did not want it to be pure-play tech start-up. Their product finds use in online retail so that it improves the shopping experience of customers. MSD has a handful of clients in India, South East Asia, West Asia and is doing some pilots for big brands in the US.

Both Anand and Ashwini worked in the US before deciding to pool their individual expertise and start something on their own. The best place to do this, they decided was in India. They first moved to Bengaluru, but had problems in hiring the right kind of people as they were competing with e-commerce giants. They then decided to settle down in their home base Chennai.

Anand specialised in AI after graduating from IIT Madras, while Ashwini, a Visual Communications graduate from MOP Vaishnav College in Chennai, did her Master’s in product design at Carnegie Mellon. Anand had an academic background before joining a start-up in Silicon Valley and then doing some consultancy, while Ashwini worked in Intel in product design for more than a decade.

It was in January 2014 that the venture took off, fully bootstrapped. About a year later, they raised Rs 9 crore ($1.5 million) in seed funding. MSD earns its income from customers through revenue share, usage or licence fee. It is looking to raise the next round of funding. Neither of them provides details, apart from saying you will know soon.

How big is the team? “We are 41, in exactly 12 months,” says Ashwini, “we have got everyone from data scientists, computer vision, AI, product development, back-end, marketing…” The company is hiring both in Chennai and in Silicon Valley.

This will be the year, says Anand, of scale, maturity and stability. “And then we will try out new things as well.”

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Published on March 21, 2016
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