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Alumnus Spotlight: Rakesh Agrawal

Agrawal capitalizes on video capture, search niche

rakesh01_largeFew folks have seen the serious side of perhaps the nation’s hottest comedic property, Stephen Colbert.

Rice School of Engineering grad Rakesh Agrawal ’97 has. He said Colbert’s humor and satiric bombast quickly fall by the wayside when it is time to talk about ways to improve the comedian’s highly rated show, The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central.

“Of course, Stephen is always hilarious when he’s ‘in character.’ But he drops that stuff when it comes to ways to enhance his show,” Agrawal said of the comedian. In fact, Colbert is often the first one into the production office and the last one to leave.

That same kind of dedication is true of Agrawal, who founded his company, SnapStream Media Inc., in the same building that houses his father’s Houston piping factory. Since 2001, it has been a video skunk works where bright and energetic engineers continue to improve their video capture, search and editing system. The technology, Agrawal says, is somewhat like crossing a DVR with a search engine in that it allows users to record video and then search within it for specific content, such as the mention of a name or word.

The young CEO said producers at both Colbert’s program and at Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show rigorously tested the system at their New York studios while SnapStream technicians stood by to offer advice and support. Each of the shows’ producers were sold on the system when they saw they could search closed captioning and data embedded in video of programs, scouring through as many as 15-30 shows at a time, to find the nuggets that allow them to create topical comedy.

“The SnapStream technology replaced hours of laborious sifting through television newscasts that they used to do,” said Agrawal. “It meant they could retire their banks and banks of DVRs and TiVos.”

Agrawal, who earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science and in mechanical engineering at Rice, said his education inside the hedges was perfect for the career he has chosen. “I understand the issues that come up with both software and hardware,” he said.

Energetic and excited, he chooses to stand rather than sit at work. “I find it’s easier to be standing when you have an idea or think of something. You don’t have to get up… you just walk over to talk to your colleagues,” he said.

The approach is working, with the SnapStream technology being used by a couple of hundred commercial customers, ranging from government agencies to the U.S. Senate, to state and local governments, universities and hospitals, public relations firms and others, Agrawal said.

Ironically, those types of customers weren’t the original intended sales target. SnapStream started out in 2001 selling a product directly to individual consumers, with the idea of turning personal computers into digital video recorders. But in 2007, it started going after commercial accounts when it discovered that individual users were using the technology for business purposes like monitoring media coverage of their organizations.

SnapStream variations of its systems sell from $2,000 for a consumer edition that records two channels to a commercial version that costs up to $60,000, depending on the amount of disk space, number of tuners and other features. The company then charges an annual maintenance fee to its clients. Agrawal stays in touch with those customers and tries to attract new ones by creating “buzz,” such as recently announcing his company has developed the “world’s largest DVR.”

That announcement came just as SnapStream was to attend the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas in April, and helped generate publicity and interest in the firm. At the event, the company hyped its hybrid device that can record 50 channels simultaneously while storing approximately 13 years of traditional television content, all searchable.

Advancing video capture and search isn’t all the CEO and father of young children does. Agrawal strives to carve out time for fitness when at home near the Rice campus. That means he watches his diet (he’s a longtime vegetarian) and takes a 6:30 a.m. run on the path that surrounds Rice.

“I love Rice,” he said. “Running along the hedges continues to inspire me.”

SnapStream’s blog: http://tvsearcher.snapstream.com/

Rakesh Agrawal’s blog: http://rake.sh/