512tech Q&A

Meet the Austin tech CEO leading the Chamber's innovation efforts

Posted April 28th, 2016

Akshay Sabhikhi came to Austin in 1989 to study engineering and never left. 

After graduating from the University of Texas with degrees in electrical and computer engineering, he joined Trilogy, where he spent seven years in product management roles.

Following Trilogy, he held positions at other software companies, including Webify, which was acquired by IBM in 2006. The acquisition led to an eight-year stint at Big Blue. Then two years ago, he broke out on his own, launching artificial intelligence startup CognitiveScale.

"In my 25-plus years here I've seen Austin through three different lenses," Sabhikhi said. "First -- working for an up-and-coming startup and small software companies; then joining IBM, where my job was around building billion-dollar businesses; and now starting a company as a co-founder."

Sabhikhi will be drawing from those experiences as he steps into a new role as vice chair, innovation, at for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. 

In a recent interview with 512tech,  he talked about what he hopes to achieve.

512tech: What sets Austin apart from other tech communities, and how can we capitalize on that?

Sabhikhi: We are very different than Silicon Valley. I'm there almost every week. I find it's a very non-collaborative, it's very cutthroat. It seems like everybody has their own mission. I look at Austin very differently. It's a smaller community, and a lot of companies here were built by people who worked at larger companies. There's a sense of being connected, and the question is how do you foster that network effect?

I think it's about connecting the dot with companies here so they can leverage the bigger ecosystem. When you are trying to solve really big technical problems, it's not about a single company or a single technology. It's about bringing together a variety of capabilities and skills and technologies. I see us being different in terms of how companies can collaborate and solve these big problems in areas like healthcare and financial services and commerce.

How do you do that?

It starts with keeping  the talent coming out of the university. We are no longer second tier. We have a phenomenal university and an engineering school and computer science department that are in the top 10 in the country.  We need to work to keep that talent here. I recruit every day from this pool. At CognitiveScale, we show them how they will have a chance to make a difference. We say, 'You're going to be working on bleeding edge technology every day.' 

We also need to attract experienced talent. Because of the nature of this city, people tend to follow people that they like working with. As we bring more companies into the city, you're going to find more and more talent that doesn't want to leave when their company is acquired. They will stay and build new teams and new companies.

What is the biggest challenge facing Austin startups?

Traditionally Austin has had a lot of self-made millionaires who provide a lot of initial seed capital. There are a lot of people who belong to angel investment groups. But when you get beyond that, funding typically comes from more established venture capital firms. And those are traditionally based on the East and West coasts. For Austin startups, money is the lifeblood. You need capital and you need it at all different stages. The question is how do you bring capital into the city? It starts with reaching out to large venture firms and growth capital firms and letting them know what's happening in Austin. What we're doing with cognitive computing, with big data, and other emerging technologies. 

We are saying,  'You should establish a local office here, you should have local partners, you should see everything that's going on.'



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