ACT on this: How internet baron Sunder Raju is planning to re-engineer India's students

Sunder Raju, Chairman of ACT Fibernet speaks about their upcoming Atria University and how it'll be a game-changer for aspiring students and the education sector 
Sunder Raju, Chairman, Atria Convergence Technologies
Sunder Raju, Chairman, Atria Convergence Technologies

ACT Fibernet is not an name alien to those with an internet connection. In fact, ACT was crowned as the third largest wired broadband service provider in India with over 1.36 million subscribers (data as of August 31, 2018). That's proof that the brand is quite a well-known name. But what (or who, in this case) is not as well-known is Sunder Raju who has worked extremely hard to establish the brand. The 65-year-old started this service with a mission to provide children with information and knowledge in schools via the internet. 

The Chairman of Atria Convergence Technologies (ACT) believes that students must not pursue a degree for the sake of getting a job but gain knowledge to provide solutions to real-life problems. To bring life to this belief, the Atria Group will soon be setting-up Atria University in Bengaluru, an institute that will not only empower students but also give the education system in India a new dimension. Experts from the interview:

While you set-up this new engineering university, what are the new teaching methodologies you will introduce?
Currently, the curriculum we have designed is being administered and tested in various universities to understand its impact and we want to bring in the same through an integrated engineering university. Everyone has their own pace when it comes to learning. Even if you have a great teacher in class, the attention span of students is only seven minutes and if you have six classes for an hour each, then that’s only 42 minutes of concentration. The rest of the knowledge comes through induced learning like peer-to-peer interaction, discussion with teachers and so on. We don't want to provide a conventional one-to-many delivering format. We want to enable students to learn better and at their own pace. The teacher will only be a hand-holder and engage in more interactions with the students. We believe in curiosity-led learning as this will lead to them exploring more.

Which skills will you focus on?
We do not want to be one of those higher education institutions that will focus on imparting skills. I would rather say that we will introduce the domains in which our students will become experts. A student should be able to provide a solution to a problem in a way that it can have an economic, social and technological impact on society. Hence, we will introduce five domains — Life Sciences, Mobility, Digital Transformation, Energy Services and Information Technology. I feel that students must be able to seamlessly find solutions to the problems in these areas while pursuing their education and not after the completion of their degree. The top 10 per cent of the student population is bright. Whether you put them in the IITs or government colleges, their performance will be the same. The bottom 10 per cent needs a different kind of hand-holding. The remaining 80 per cent, which is 50 to 70 million students, need a totally different rule breaker for an enriching journey when pursuing their degree.  

The applications for their institute are already online and they are hopeful that it will begin this August 2020

Can you tell us about the various institutions you have partnered with?
For industrial and digital transformation, there is a lot of knowledge that the students can gain from Central Manufacturing Technology Institute. They can engage with this institution and disseminate it in our institution. As we go along, we will partner with other institutions so that students can gain knowledge to provide solutions in mobility and transportation. Similarly, there are institutions that are leading in Biological Sciences with whom we want to engage and gain knowledge. We have seven to ten industrial sectors and research institutions with whom we will engage and get on board. We believe that children learn with practice. Every year, the curriculum will be carved out in a way that 12 to 13 weeks will be dedicated to working with industries.  

What do you think existing colleges and universities must do to skill students?
When I became the Managing Trustee of Atria Institute of Technology, I started observing the challenges children were facing when it came to academics. We have 300 colleges under one university that create a standardised curriculum and a testing methodology which is the same across all the colleges and this is the real challenge. Ultimately, narrowing down the purpose of the degree, it is to get 60 per cent in the exams to get job placement and not gaining knowledge. While the current generation of youngsters might make three to four career changes, the new millennial needs to skill themselves to work in a gig economy. There will only be a contractor who will hire you based on the knowledge you have rather than looking at your qualifications. At present, the curriculum that colleges are teaching is not relevant to what the industry needs. I think it is important that the academia re-engineers itself to understand what it is supposed to teach to gain relevance with the industry.

We'd like to know more about you. How and when did your entrepreneurial journey begin?
Our family has been into the engineering and construction business for several years now. The real journey for me began in 1981, when we were the first ones to introduce Unix-based computers through Sunray Computers. This became the backbone of graphic workstations or high-end computers. In 1984, Personal Computers became prevalent and we were at the top of the market. At the same time, when the atomic energy industry wanted training simulators on the nuclear runway, we provided them with key solutions. In the 1990s, the company went through a rough phase due to the foreign exchange crisis and importing large components became expensive. We had to maintain the production with a limited components available here and thus had to close down. But this phase was for time being and I moved to taking care of the hospitality business. 

Atria Institute of Technology is currently located in Bengaluru's Hebbal 

When was ACT Fibernet born and how did it become a $1 billion broadband service provider, despite uncertainties?
If you remember, in 2001, people were accessing cable television and wired internet. Linked to philanthropy for many years, I had observed that the schooling system was not enabling children to learn to the best of their ability. Children are sponge-like and they have to be taught in a way that they can absorb information easily. My idea was to provide knowledge to children with the help of the internet. But how do we reach them because cable operators will not allow us to intervene in their business and reach homes? For more than three years, we tried to find answers and solutions via technology from a business perspective. Meanwhile, the cell phone entered the market and people, irrespective of their social status, started using it. It was the right time to introduce broadband internet. All we wanted was to deliver knowledge to children through technology. ACT Fibernet was first introduced in Bengaluru but we grew faster in Hyderabad as well. Instead of spreading across the country, we penetrated deeper into Tier II and Tier III cities in Andhra Pradesh. Despite regulations and uncertainties, we are maintaining the best standards with regards to providing internet. Every day, there are people who might be looking at the law in a different way and telling us that we are getting it wrong, but we make it a point to maintain a certain quality of service.

What are your future plans?
We are one of the larger players in the renewable energy space, education and technology and are engaging with experts who are looking to provide solutions to real-life problems. For example, we are working with a neurosurgeon who is working on brain and cranial issues. Apart from this, we are working on a project that can provide consistent electricity in places where there are constant power-cuts. The finished product will be launched soon. I think we will soon expand this research in the Life Sciences field. Areas that have real social impact is what we are focusing on.

Here are the five futuristic skills students will learn at Atria University:
Digital Transformation: Using digital manufacturing technologies and 3D printing, students will be skilled in AI, ML, Data Sciences, Robotics, Mechatronics, Additive Manufacturing, RPA, Business Automation Tools, IoT, Geospatial, Design Thinking and Industrial Automation
Energy Sciences: This will help students develop skills in energy storage, geothermal, solar thermal, photo-voltaic, wind turbine, nuclear and wave energy
Mobility: Students learn how to improve transportation using electric-powered vehicles and skills when it comes to electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, automotive battery management systems, aerodynamics, avionics, unmanned aerial systems and mass transportation
Interactive technologies: Students will learn how to enhance user experiences using AR, VR, UI, Animation, VFX and web design
Sustainable Life Science: Students will learn how to implement sustainable solutions to improve human health and reduce dependency on industrial agriculture and will be skilled in Biotechnology, Biomedical Instrumentation, Data Sciences, Gene Alteration and Agricultural Science

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