ALUMNI: Joyeeta Das Kell

Force of nature

Serial entrepreneur and CEO of Gyana, Joyeeta Das Kell, loves nature. So it's no surprise that she was surrounded by it when her big business idea struck.

‘Potentially the biggest gamble of the lot is to make Gyana more predictive so users won't just be able to see historical or real-time trends - they might also be able to glimpse the future’

I was taking a break from studying and walking around Port Meadow in Oxford when the eureka moment hit me,' recalls Joyeeta Das Kell. 'I spend a lot of time among nature and I was doing just that: sitting down enjoying the sunshine, the birds and the grass. It suddenly occurred to me that the reason everything seemed so wonderful in that moment was because it was all happening to me at the same time. So it seemed to me that there was a value and a need to make something that brings together a lot of different data sources, because you see an interpretation of the world that is very cohesive and coherent and that, in turn, brings more clarity.'

The upshot of this eureka moment was the Saïd Business School-incubated artificial intelligence (AI) start-up Gyana. Gyana uses a sophisticated algorithm to combine big data and complex data analytics to identify and record patterns across cities and present them in an interactive 3D format.

Entrepreneurial zeal

Das Kell, who is now based in London, had already developed a prototype for Gyana before she joined the full-time MBA at Oxford Saïd in August 2014. Prior to the programme, she had worked as a software engineer at Cisco Systems, and on weekends she was an entrepreneur, funding and exiting two companies. So by the time she got to Oxford Saïd, she had been well and truly bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, but she needed the know-how that would help her turn her big idea into a big business.

‘Once you hit the ground you realise how difficult it is to recruit people, get the necessary capital and convince your first set of customers and investors’

'I had the prototype and I had the eureka moment and now I wanted to make this prototype catch fire and go crazy,' says Das Kell. 'I couldn't wait for it to happen, but once you hit the ground you realise how difficult it is to recruit people, get the necessary capital and convince your first set of customers and investors,' she says. 'You also need a huge amount of confidence and emotional strength because the number of refusals that you receive as an early-stage start-up is ridiculous. You get hundreds of refusals every day from investors, from friends, family, people you're trying to recruit, from people who are working with you but want to leave. Everyone tells you that your idea will not work because if it did then why didn't someone else do it before you? So you're constantly battling refusal.'

Thankfully, the staff and fellow students at Oxford Saïd helped Das Kell navigate the choppy waters that can sink many start-up businesses, and by the time she completed her MBA, she had attracted seed funding of just over £1m. She had also persuaded a number of 'really smart' classmates from across the University of Oxford to come and join her at Gyana - a Sanskrit word that means "true knowledge".

‘You can see how different people are feeling in different parts of a city on social media’

Together, Das Kell and her multicultural team, who hail from four different continents, have created an interactive 3D tool that's built from a number of different layers of data. When these different layers are unified, it creates a rich picture of what's occurring in a particular location at any given time, she explains.

'For instance, you can see how different people are feeling in different parts of a city on social media,' says Das Kell. 'You can see what pictures they are posting and what things they are seeing. You can also see the transport patterns of a particular place, and you can do that minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day. You can also view what events people are going to, or how the air quality is changing, or what the demographics of a location are, and you can do all of that in a very interactive user experience. So you don't have to dig into very complex data and hire a lot of data scientists to produce a complex project report that you can never really use for anything else.'

Quantified cities

Das Kell says that 50% of Gyana's USP is in the proprietary AI algorithm it has developed. The rest of its uniqueness surrounds the data partnerships it has built up over the last couple of years with a wide range of different organisations. 'We have gathered all of this data together, gobbled it up and put it into our interpretation of the world to make it a little bit richer,' she explains.

Gyana is targeted at businesses large and small, and existing customers include marketing houses, media firms, government agencies, consumer goods companies and real estate developers - essentially any business or organisation that wants to understand how the meta- and macro-factors in an area are changing. To illustrate how these customers might use the product, Das Kell cites the example of a large consumer goods company that wanted to run a campaign in a particular area to increase sales of a food product.

'We gave them the entire area that they wanted to study on this platform, so they were able to see how that particular city changed on an hour-by-hour basis with regards to the pattern that they were interested in,' says Das Kell. 'They were able to do all of their analytics within 15-20 seconds of receiving the platform because it's so easy to use. You don't have to go into complex databases, use Excel, or hire scientists. It's a cloud-based licensed software, so you just buy it, download it and start using it straight away.'

Gyana's functionality is so impressive that US space agency NASA is working with the company.

The network effect

Since launch, the company's growth has been stratospheric and none of this would have been possible without the help and support of Oxford Saïd, admits Das Kell.

'The business school has been incredibly useful for me to make Gyana what it is today. It gave me an incredible opportunity to meet so many different individuals from around the world.

‘It's an incredibly affectionate and close relationship that I have with the School’

'My class was the most multicultural class that I had ever sat in - only seven were British, so it really opened up my mind. It made me understand global issues and problems and how they could be solved.'

She adds that the School's staff also played an invaluable role in helping her bring Gyana to life. 'The Dean has been a mentor and he has helped me directly understand many complex issues around setting up a business.

'The professors have also been amazing. They empathised with me and I'm still friends with many of them. So it's an incredibly affectionate and close relationship that I have with the School.'

As well as giving Das Kell the knowledge and support to grow her idea, the School also proved to be an invaluable networking tool.

One of her co-founders is from her MBA class, her first seed funding was from the family of a fellow MBA student and a number of members of the Gyana team were recruited from across the University. She was also introduced to another important member of the Gyana team while studying for her MBA. 'I met our CTO, who is the brains and the vision behind the AI platform, in Oxford - he is also my husband,' says Das Kell.

‘We are trying to fight centuries of oppression and discouragement from taking risks and small measures cannot fight centuries-old norms’

Despite the success she's enjoyed since launching the company, Das Kell acknowledges that it hasn't always been plain sailing. She believes that society could be doing more to help female entrepreneurs get their business ideas off the ground.

'Government and investors need to have special schemes for women,' says Das Kell. 'We are trying to fight centuries of oppression and discouragement from taking risks and small measures cannot fight centuries-old norms.

The home, the School, the state and financiers - everyone needs to participate to make this happen, because entrepreneurship requires a mindset of risk-taking and adventure and that is something that girls - when they are children - are not encouraged to have.'

‘Gyana is a platform that is learning all the time’

Das Kell intends to eventually take a calculated risk and develop a consumer-facing version of Gyana. She's confident it will be a success because during the EU referendum, her team created a "Brexit"? version of Gyana online that allowed users to click on different parts of London and see what people were saying about the vote in real time. In a matter of hours, more than 10,000 people had flocked to the site.

She also wants to roll the technology out to other hardware formats to make it more accessible. At the moment Gyana can be used on iPads, laptops and it's also possible to create a mobile version, but she wants users to also be able to access it on devices like smartwatches.

But potentially the biggest gamble of the lot is to make Gyana more predictive so users won't just be able to see historical or real-time trends - they might also be able to glimpse the future.

'Gyana is a platform that is learning all the time,' says Das Kell. 'It is learning how people use it, it is learning from using different data streams. It is like a brain that is incorporating different things. So in the future - and I don't think it's that far away - it will be a little predictive.'

Although Gyana may one day become more predictive, the one thing that's certain - given Das Kell's entrepreneurial zeal and love of unifying different technologies - is that it will never become predictable.