Grameen Intel CTO Profiled on Cornell's Link Magazine

October 22, 2012

Sundararjan creates high-impact technologies as he strokes his passion for filmmaking.

by Sheri Hall

Narayan Sundararajan, MS 96, PhD 99, came to the College of Human Ecology to study polymer science because he was fascinated by the flexibility of polymer materials and their value to fields ranging from microelectronics to textiles to plastics. In many ways, Sundararajan’s life and work—as a technologist, humanitarian, writer, and filmmaker—has revealed a similar versatility.

Sundararajan has worked as a microchip process engineer, developed new ways to apply nanotechnology to the life sciences, and partnered with a Nobel Peace Laureate to improve the lives of people in developing countries. He holds 40 patents and has co-authored a book on microfabrication. Sundararajan also is an actor, director, and producer of four foreign-language films.

Currently, Sundararajan is the chief technology officer of the Grameen Intel Social Business, founded by former Intel chairman Craig Barrett and famed economist and Nobel Peace Laureate Muhammad Yunus to develop new technology to help the world’s impoverished populations.

“I work with a team that is developing solutions to improve health care and agriculture for underprivileged people across the globe,” he says. “My job is a real privilege.”

At Grameen Intel, Sundararajan oversees technology and product development. The company is now implementing a software program that identifies high-risk pregnancies in underserved populations, developing a system that notifies families when children miss vaccinations, and launching a soil- testing program to help local farmers increase their yields by using the proper seeds and fertilizers for their land. The systems are paired with a mobile computing device for portability into the field.

Serving through science

Sundararajan grew up in the port city of Chennai, India, as the son of a government forensic scientist who was passionate about giving back to the local community, schools, and orphanages.

“My father enjoyed working in the community immensely,” Sundararajan says. “We were middle class, but we saw a lot of poverty and many people who didn’t have their basic needs met. It’s always in your subconscious. I’ve always thought, ‘how can I help people who are underprivileged?’”

Sundararajan completed his undergraduate work at the Indian Institute of Technology, and then came to Cornell for his master’s and doctorate degrees in fiber science and nanotechnology. He worked under FSAD professor Kay Obendorf, whom he credits with influencing his career.

“She instilled in me the idea that we should bring technology to where it is relevant and tailor it to meet the needs of people,” he says.

Sundararajan earned a doctorate degree in materials science working under professor Christopher Ober at Cornell’s College of Engineering. His work—focused on using polymers in microelectronics—was sponsored by a consortium of technology companies that included IBM and Intel.

After Cornell, he joined Intel to build microchips for flash technology, the kind of memory used in USB storage devices, digital cameras, and laptop computers. He also was one of the first members of a group at Intel created to research how nanotechnology could be applied to biology, which led to the creation of the Digital Health Group, Intel’s first foray into health care.

When former Intel chairman Craig Barrett envisioned a collaborative venture between Intel and Grameen Trust, Sundararajan, with his broad expertise across technology, management, and emerging markets, was among the first to be pulled in to help build the company.

“It doesn’t matter what field you are in; the concept is to make something that helps people,” Sundararajan says.

A creative outlet

A commitment to science and developing life-changing technology is just one side of Sundararajan, who lives in California’s Bay Area with his wife and 4-year-old son.

His long-held passion for movies has blossomed into a growing hobby as a filmmaker. In 2001, he played a small role in an independent film, One-Way Ticket. On the set, he made some connections that eventually led to him co-directing, producing, and acting in a Tamil-language feature film called Meipporul, which won a 2009 Tamil Nadu State Film Award from the state government.

“It was the first time a Tamil movie was fully shot in the U.S.,” Sundararajan says.

“That was really exciting, and it put us on track for the second one.” His next film, a bilingual romantic thriller called Panithuliin Tamil and Tum Ho Yaara in Hindi, will be released in theaters across the world this summer.

Based in Silicon Valley, Sundararajan and his friends try to bring a structured approach to their movie ventures by borrowing tools from the technology and the investment community. He believes that, before long, the films he makes will carry a strong social message along with entertaining storylines. Perhaps like the way Sundararajan conducts his own life. 

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