Co-founder & CEO, OTAinfo
Nupur Mehta is the Co-founder and CEO at OTAinfo, a company that provides AI to secure IoT devices against attackers during a data transfer.
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Rohit Mittal: Hi, I'm Rohit, I'm the Cofounder and CEO of Stilt. Today we have Nupur with us. Nupur is the Cofounder and CEO of OTA Info, and it provides AI to secure connected devices like automobiles cameras and other devices that are coming online, from cyber attacks. Nupur was also went through YC in the Summer of 2016 Batch and you have been doing this for quite some time now. Good to have you.
Nupur Mehta: Thank you so much, it was an awesome introduction, and I'm excited for the conversation today.
Rohit: Great, so let's just start with your background. You're originally from India. Give us a sense of how did you move to the US, what were you doing in India before you moved here?
Nupur: Sure, I was born in Gujarat which is on the western most part of India, in a city called Surat. And I stayed there until 7th grade, and in 8th grade my whole family decided to move here, and have been in Cupertino ever since.
Rohit: And what year did you move here?
Nupur: I was here in 2007.
Rohit: 2007, so you've been here 12 years now. Cool. So you moved here in the 8th grade, you went to high school, middle school, high school here, and all in Cupertino, or did you move around?
Nupur: Exactly, no, same place, same house, location, for the past 12 years.
Rohit: And what school did you go to?
Nupur: I went to Lawson, and then I went to Monte Vista High School, and did my first two years of college at De Anza which is literally across the street from where I stayed, so it's still very local. And then I moved to USC for about six months before I decided to take some time off and do a startup.
Rohit: And what were you majoring at De Anza?
Nupur: I was doing a dual degree program and we had Social Leadership and Change in the Community, was one, and the other was Business Administration.
Rohit: Got it. And how did you move to USC? How much time did you spend at De Anza, doing what, and why did you decide to move farther to USC?
Nupur: Yeah, I mean it is a long way right? I was in a 2-mile radius. So, the plan was because De Anza is a two-year program and they don’t offer anything beyond two years. So it's just an Associate's you get, and then you have to transfer to a four-year institution and it was just a choice between the different universities I got accepted to. I also did a few summer programs at Harvard and internships at Stanford, and got myself all the different exposures I could, and then moved to LA for USC.
Rohit: Got it. And you were there for just six months?
Nupur: I only did a semester before I was like, I need to be in the area.
Rohit: Okay, so you wanted to come back. And what did you study at USC? Just the same social...
Nupur: Pause, I don’t like this area of focus...
Rohit: Oh, okay...
Nupur: ...the Cupertino thing, I feel bad that oh my god, I've lived in that, I want to change my answer...
Rohit: Okay, it's like the thing is, ultimately don’t think too much about what's right or what's wrong. What I try to do, because now I have a sense of what talk to people about, so depending on who I am talking to, what they have to share, the big thing you have to share, or you can share, is you moved here when you were young.
Nupur: Ah, so that's why you're narrowing down on that.
Rohit: So as of now I asked that and basically at a high level it's like whether you are tech or non-tech.
Nupur: I see.
Rohit: And then you had a non-tech background, and I would have moved into if you were non-tech background, how did you decide to start such tech-heavy company. So it needs to contrast.
Nupur: Ah, you can continue.
Rohit: So I'll just basically give, like people will get a lot of context about who you are. So you have grown up here, you've been in the Bay Area, you went to high school here, undergrad here, so you're a Bay Area person...
Nupur: Right... [laughter]
Rohit: I was about to say a Bay Area girl, but that doesn't sound right. And then I'd be like, okay, so why did you decide to move to USC, and then you, whatever the story is, and then we go into, I think you decided to start a business and stuff like that. And there are a few elements that I'll focus on, so one of them, I think your unique element is moving here early and learning how to make yourself a part of the society kind of thing. Because when people are older they are more knowledgeable, but you are younger, then you have a lot more to learn and it shapes your thinking in a certain. Then later, the second part I will probably just focus on is how did your parents react to you starting a company and what did they say. Then I will focus on YC for a little bit, and I will focus on your learnings from pivoting and how that pivot went, and how does it happen. So, there is just three or four things, everything else I think people tune out. So if there is anything.
Nupur: Sorry to break the flow, go for it.
Rohit: No, no, that's fine. So where were we? I forgot. Yeah, so I was actually trying to understand. So you went to USC for six months. And what did you do there, why did you leave after six months.
Nupur: So, I always had the entrepreneur bug, and I always wanted to do something in that space. And when I was at USC, the startup environment was not as active as it is now in LA, and I would have to skip classes to go to those events in Santa Monica.
Rohit: And how far is that?
Nupur: Santa Monica was crazy. So, here's the thing, USC is at a very interesting location, all the highways that could possibly be like the major highways, connect at USC. So if you have to go anywhere, even if it was during non peak hours, you always hit traffic.
Rohit: So it took a while.
Nupur: But now they have a train that goes from USC to Santa Monica, so lucky them, but at that point we didn't have that.
Rohit: Got it. So you always had the entrepreneur, did you also start companies, not companies, but like small businesses, kids do things in school, like they sell stuff and they figure out a way to make some money, did you also do that?
Nupur: Yeah, definitely. So actually one of the first ones was inspired by my move to the US. In India, you know the education system is much more focused on learning, like memorizing things. The culture is not as practical and critical thinking is not enforced as much as it is here. So that was a huge contrast for me, that I had to adjust to, right? Going from something that was okay, if you memorize these answers that are in the answer digest, that's it. You can copy it, you can even memorize essays and copy them. It was not encouraged, but that's what people were doing. And coming here, the teacher would ask me, what do you think? And I'm like shit, what do I think?
Rohit: Right, I think whatever you say.
Nupur: So it was like a whole learning curve of even exploring yourself. So my first startup was how do you bridge that gap? Make people think critically. If you are given a problem, what is the first thing that you say, it shouldn't be like, oh, these words sound familiar, this is the formula that is associated with it, I'm going to copy the formula, put in the numbers and go from there. Actually understand why am I using this formula. What is it that is being asked of me in the problem? And step by step, think it through. So that was the first entrepreneurial thing that I did.
Rohit: Got it, so you did that and then you also left USC to start another business.
Rohit: How did that come about, and what did your family say, you quitting college?
Nupur: Yeah, so that was crazy. I remember that moment exactly. So, I had come back home for my winter break, I had already paid the fees for the next semester...
Rohit: Right, and USC is not cheap.
Nupur: No. How I paid for it, that's another story, we can get to it in the podcast. But I basically took that time and I was like here's the deal. I'm not enjoying Los Angeles as much as I thought I would. I really miss the rigor and the people and the kind of events that used to happen in the Bay Area, and I want to move. So the first thought was why don’t you transfer to another university, Stanford, Santa Clara University, all of that. And I was like no, I really, I feel like I want to dedicate six months of my time to figure out if there is a startup I can work on. And it was like much more of an open conversation than I had anticipated with the parents, and they were like, sure. They were very supportive of the decision, which was really surprising for me.
Rohit: What year was that?
Nupur: I was a junior in college, so I was 21.
Rohit: What year, 2000...
Nupur: Oh, 2015.
Rohit: Okay, 2015, so there were some startups getting popular in the Bay Area, it's four years later, but still, especially for Indian parents to have their children not...
Nupur: It was a huge step.
Rohit: ...right, not complete college and get a cushy job at one of the big tech companies here, especially in this area. It's definitely a forward thinking step on their front, that they did not ...
Nupur: Definitely and I'm very thankful for that.
Rohit: ...they didn't pester you too much and they allowed you to do what you wanted to do. So, you decided you wanted to a startup and convinced your parents, how did you get the idea of what you wanted to do, and how did you actually end up executing it?
Nupur: Sure, so at that time we were working on RigPlenish and the idea had stemmed from my brief internship at Stanford. So I was at the Goodman Simulation Lab and I was helping coordinate different classes, and literally all the doctors would come to practice on the robotic patient, and things like that. And during one of those sessions, paramedics had come to train with the robotic patient and there was just so much chaos because they were maybe spending 5, 10 minutes with the patient but 30, 40 minutes just debriefing as to what had happened in that 5, 10 minutes of interaction. And I was kind of taken aback, but I did discount it, saying that maybe they're training, things like that aren’t happening. And later on, the deeper I dug into the whole industry, the more I learned that was the normal. So, RigPlenish addressed that issue of automating paperwork and helping them be compliant faster.
Rohit: Right, and you started that in 2015?
Nupur: 2015, yes.
Rohit: But you went to Y Combinator the summer of 2016, so that's like August. What were you trying to prove in the meantime, what was your first product with RigPlenish?
Nupur: Sure, so in the meantime we actually were part of Founder Institute and that was one of the reasons I extended the "leave of absence" and at that time we were getting LOIs, and I literally remember going to customers with a product and they were paper drawings of the product, screen shots, and I went, here you go, what do think of this? If I made this, would you use this? And we got LOIs based on paper drawings. I was blown away that people, like the need was big enough that people were willing to bet on paper drawings to solve it.
Rohit: And you gave you the first LOI?
Nupur: It was actually a local company called Royal Ambulance, and I remember I was so happy that oh my god, I'm meeting with Royal Ambulance.
Rohit: Right and then you took it to your parents, it acted as a proof of...
Nupur: Exactly, validation.
Rohit: It was a validation of the idea. Cool. So, how long did it take you to get your first LOI?
Nupur: So, the first years otherwise were really fast. But the challenge for us was I was a nontechnical founder and I had to build a product. So yes, I can make a sale happen, all of that could happen, but now you have to deliver on all that. So that was the stepping stone, building the product, getting the team together. It was I think the second time I had worked with outsourced teams, so yeah, recruiting a technical cofounder, all of that.
Rohit: And where did you meet your cofounder?
Nupur: So, at that time, one of my friends was helping me out, and we were just in the library, she was working on her master's class and I was working on my startup.
Rohit: And where was that, at USC?
Nupur: No, library in Cupertino. So at this point I'm back...
Rohit: Okay, okay.
Nupur: ...working on this idea, going through FI.
Rohit: Okay, so you recruited a technical cofounder, you got the LOIs beforehand, and then you are building the product. When did you launch your first product? During YC, before YC?
Nupur: It was interesting because we got into YC when we didn't really have a proper product, and all that happened post YC.
Rohit: Got it. And so as you are building the product, what was your YC interview like, I think YC likes to demo the product, how did that go?
Nupur: So, YC interview was crazy. It's only 10 minutes, and until you experience it, you don’t realize how fast it goes by.
Rohit: Right, I know.
Nupur: And I remember it was two cofounders and we were like we have to prove that the meat is there, we have these LOIs, but we should get a paramedic to join us. And usually YC doesn't allow you to get external people who are not cofounders to be in there. So, I recruited one of our amazing advisors who is also a paramedic at the Palo Alto fire station, and I told him, you know, I'm not sure if you're going to be able to even stay, but I want you tom come and show your face. So we come in, there's Sam, there's Gusty, and a bunch of other founders, and I'm shaking hands with each one them, and I'm like hello, we sit down on the chair, get the third chair for the paramedic, and they're like, I don’t see a third founder on the application. And we were like no, no, he's not a founder, he's just our amazing spokesperson...
Rohit: Using our product.
Nupur: Exactly, using the product. And they were like, sorry, they couldn’t let him stay, but it's fine, they met him, he's willing to come.
Rohit: Okay, so that obviously went well, you got in. What did you do after YC, how was that process of building product, signing more LOIs, or getting more customers.
Nupur: Even during YC and post YC was very different for us compared to our peers, because when they were tracking metrics that were much more based on revenue and customers and user base, we were like okay, this material, this feature, things like that. So, post YC we had a product that we could give out and we on-boarded about 200 ambulances and did a full case study and perfected the product afterwards. But it was definitely a very different journey compared to all the other people there.
Rohit: Is it really difficult to sell to these companies? Because people's lives are at stake as the ambulances are picking them up and dropping them off at the hospital. How did you get over that sort of difficulty and what were the sales cycle like for you guys.
Nupur: First thing to know about the ambulance industry is it's extremely fragmented. If you make a sale to one ambulance company, you have only made a sale to one ambulance company. There are no network effects or if this company is using these people, they would be much more influenced it kind of thing. The sales cycles were at least a couple months long, and very small companies, having an ambulance oo that was 100 ambulances big, was big.
Rohit: Give us a sense of how many of these companies are there in the US?
Nupur: So, there are 55,000 ambulance companies that exist, and the average size for each ambulance company is 20. So, 20 units, 20 rigs.
Rohit: So maybe a million ambulances for 300 million people. Okay. So, you did that, and you did that for a while, you obviously sold, you built a product, how and when did you decide that you are going to pivot or switch to your current ideal of OTA?
Nupur: Sure, in the past few months we were really trying to figure out, how could we get faster to the market? Because now we had a product ready and we were working with 200 ambulance companies, and we were about to sign 500 more. But that rigor was missing. If you are doing sales or maintaining a company, you need to have a funnel that is big enough where even if you don’t have a direct point of contact, that sale is still moving on. Or if you are receiving a big enough return for the amount of one on one attention you're giving. So, we didn't fit in either one of those categories, but we were very much mission driven. So we tried to find many alternatives that we could do to address that problem that needed, or the need that existed. So, we went to Williams, we worked with Mahindra, to figure out, okay, can you put this inside your vehicle itself and sell it, and it will be like an on and off situation where we use them as a sales channel. And there were a lot of things that were happening but it was moving much slower. And around that same time, my cofounder was involved in an open source project, and a really big company reached out to him saying okay, we want to be compliant, what are you offering, and it really took us a second to realize that we have been spending so much on RigPlenish, maybe it was time to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Like, what are the opportunities, what other skill sets do we have right now, or what software have we built that can cater to a much bigger market, and things like that. So, when we took that step back, we realized that Uptane is becoming big now.
Rohit: And what is Uptane?
Nupur: It’s the next gen framework for automobile industry.
Rohit: Okay, so it is specifically for automotive industry.
Nupur: Yes. It is specifically for automobile industry, but we decided to commercialize it and bring it out of just automotive industry, because there are so many applications outside of it.
Rohit: So it is like a protocol?
Nupur: Yeah, it's a framework.
Rohit: It's a framework that you use that any manufacturer would want to put on their device if they want to protect against cyber attacks.
Nupur: Exactly, they are specifically for custom over the air updates, so whenever there is a data transfer happening, they are going to be able to do a lot of different attacks, and these attacks could be a mixed bundle attack, functionality denied.
Rohit: What's a mixed bundle attack?
Nupur: Wait, stop.
Nupur: Let me give you another example, it's an easier one. Where should we start, from what is Uptane.
Rohit: Yeah, so what's Uptane?
Nupur: Sure, so Uptane is open source framework for automotive security, and they are basically funded by the DHS Department of Homeland Security and Department of Transportation. The way cars are becoming more and more connected we need to push updates and they are really critical updates.
Rohit: So who, like the department needs to push updates to the vehicles?
Nupur: No, the OEMs, like GM, Mercedes, things like that...
Rohit: Okay, got it...
Nupur: ...need to push updates to their vehicle because, let's a take step back, your car right now has 100 million lines of code and that's crazy.
Rohit: Not a Tesla.
Nupur: Not a Tesla. And if you think of your average i-phone app they ranges from 60,000 lines of code. So if something that has 60,000 lines of code is getting updated like at least once a month, your i-phone app, imagine something that is 100,000 times bigger. A car. And you cannot have a perfect car when you send it, when there are so many dependencies, there's always recall that will happen. Right now, there are so many problems with recalls, OEM industry is spending 50 billion dollars in recalls and during one of the conferences it was mentioned that 25 of those recalls could be prevented if they had software updates that they could do.
Rohit: Tesla does a lot of software updates, I keep hearing about them. I have never heard from any other car manufacturer doing updates.
Rohit: Okay, so Uptane is basically a framework for those over the air. And you are using AI to make it more secure.
Nupur: Exactly. So we are adopting that framework and we are avoiding a lot of different attacks that could happen during a data transfer, like eavesdropping, somebody could be listening to the data transfer that's happening.
Rohit: Right, is it similar to end to end encryption that messaging companies do?
Nupur: Exactly, that's exactly what we're doing. We are the next gen way of encrypting. So now anything that you see around you is using single point verification for encryption, and what we advocate....
Rohit: What is a single point verification?
Nupur: Sure, so whenever you are encrypting something you generate keys, right? You general multiple keys to encrypt that data. And all of that data is being stored at one location. And if that one location is compromised, everything is lost, even if there were measures taken to have more duplicates. And what we are advocating for is multipoint verification. So even if one location is compromised, you are not giving out all of the data, at all. We pride ourselves in saying that even if there is an unsecured line, we can have secure communication happen in that.
Rohit: Got it. And how long have you been working on this and where are you now?
Nupur: It's barely been a month. So we are right in the middle of the pivot right now.
Rohit: Okay, and do you expect to talk automobile manufacturers or others, and their reaction to this.
Nupur: It's an amazing time to be part of this industry right now because of a couple reasons. One of them is Uptane is getting IEEE certified. It's going to be a standard for automobiles very soon. And my cofounder is actually part of the team that gets the specifications to get data compliance. Second, I don't know if you saw the automation at Tesla that was happening.
Rohit: Yeah, I heard about it, I didn't see it.
Nupur: So, they're launching a fleet of Teslas like robo taxis.
Rohit: Right, right.
Nupur: And for that thing to happen, they will need to send them over the current feed that exists. And that's exactly what we secure. When there is a communication that is happening over the air or wire between two entities. We secure that communication.
Rohit: So you're just going to focus on all the automobile manufacturers.
Nupur: So, that is a long-term strategy. We understand that the sales cycle is really long...
Rohit: Yeah, it's not going to be a couple months.
Nupur: So that's why we're focusing also on the IRT devices and the cameras and things like that, and even if there is an update that needs to be pushed to a partner, you need security, there are a lot of vulnerabilities, we need devices smart enough to understand the data that they are getting is coming from an authentic and trustworthy source.
Rohit: Right, so you basically prevent someone, as they show in movies, someone takes over a whole set of devices and make them do what they want to do.
Nupur: Exactly, we prevent that.
Rohit: Yeah, it would be helpful in all those movies. Cool, so you are in the middle of the pivot. How is the experience of a pivot? A lot of people go to a pivot very early on before a product is out or as they're bringing out a project, but after signing of so many ambulances and so many companies and having some revenue and some traction, how is the pivot process after that. How do you convince your investors and cofounders and employees to actually move in any direction?
Nupur: It's very challenging, because as a founder, you have spent years pitching the same idea, you have developed expertise in that field, and suddenly, shift, the ground has moved. And so it is a decision that of course we had to have with each stakeholder. We had to have one on one discussions with the team members, the cofounders, the investors, the customers also. So it was a whole process, it was not something that happened overnight, it was a very calculated move and it made sense for us because we had given three to four years of our time to RigPlenish and the change that we wanted to see and the acceptance of technology was not at the level that we had anticipated. Some sometimes you also have to go after the money, right?
Rohit: Yeah, fair enough. So as you have moved from India to the US and been doing companies for many years, what are some surprising things that you learned early on, some challenges you faced or things that you learned that could be helpful to others listening to this.
Nupur: Sure, at every state you're always learning. When I first moved here the challenge was accepting who I was and being confident in myself. That was the first challenge. Because you were in your comfort zone back in your country and suddenly that was your comfort zone, your friends, your family, you are displaced and move to a new country, new culture, new exposure to everything. Of course there is excitement because, it's American, new people, new culture, all of that, you have heard so many things. But at the end of the day you have to become part of, assimilate with the whole ecosystem. So I became extremely shy when we first moved. Complete opposite now. When I first moved here, I don't know what I will say, do people even understand what I'm trying to say, because I have a very thick accent. So it was a learning curve back in the day. And my advice is, looking back on it, be confident. You will be surprised how accepting people are of the culture and the values that you come to.
Rohit: Especially the Bay Area, I feel like that's more true.
Nupur: Even when I was in Boston, there were two very particular instances that I had, so that was the first time I had moved away from the Bay Area and exposed to an ecosystem that was not...
Rohit: Maybe living away from family and amongst different people.
Nupur: Exactly. And people were so intrigued to learn about your culture. They were so open. It also taught me to have an open mind. Any time that I'm going to a new situation, like making judgments or anything like that is not going to take are you anyway. Be confident in yourself. There are so many things about you beyond the culture and all of that, that people also identify and see. So, connect beyond those stereotypes.
Rohit: So that's when you were younger and on a personal level. At a company level on the professional side, as you talk to investors, as you talk to employees, what kind of things did you have to learn as you improved RigPlenish?
Nupur: Doing sales is actually about connecting with the person that is across the table from you. And my interests were very distinct. I love Bollywood music, so usually when you're talking about music, sports, all of this things come up. So being comfortable in your own skin, but still be able to have a conversation tab that and be open to learning, is also a way to connect with people. So that was a learning curve for me. If other terms, pitching, I remember talking to a coach who was also a mentor and telling me small things, like, when you start the pitch, just say hi everyone, it brings all the audience together. And if you see any other pitch that I have done after the conversation, it starts with that. So small, small things to have a pitch, or connect with the audience, things like that.
Rohit: Cool, choose your favorite Bollywood song right now.
Rohit: Difficult question.
Nupur: I'm really addicted to [00:39:52 - inaudible]
Rohit: Okay, yeah, that's a pretty good song. How do you think about the next few years of your entrepreneurial journey as you do OTA Info?
Nupur: Yeah, it's very exciting times for us right now because things re moving fast, and when I say fast, they are moving like I've never done anything at such speed at RigPlenish. Like we are releasing a product in two weeks, like from start. But one week into the idea we had a few meetings all of that, and we were like, okay, let's go build this product. In two weeks we built that product. We are doing demos tomorrow with a series of people. So that is a timeline that we did not see in RigPlenish. So there is a lot of excitement, a lot of acceptance from customers. So I'm excited for the next few years, tacking this and creating a new field and new way to interpret data.
Rohit: Awesome, I think that's a good to end the interview. Thanks for coming over and talking to us. We know you're super busy, but thanks for your time.
Nupur: Thank you so much.
Rohit: Cool, done.
Nupur: We didn't talk about two things, if you want to record it and then you can see if it fits.
Rohit: What things?
Nupur: In the immigration journey, the whole 9/11 thing and what was the other thing I wanted to talk about? Well, let's record that at least and then we'll see. If it fits, enter it, if it doesn't fit, done.
Rohit: Okay, so you moved to the US when you were in 7th grade. I think you told me a very interesting story of who you were about to move in 2001, which was a very difficult time. Tell us about that.
Nupur: Sure, it was crazy. Wait, cut, you cut my part, you keep your question, your question was perfect. So, every immigrant family has a very unique story that they have gone through. And I'm really happy that Stilt is doing this to bring spotlight to these stories.
Rohit: No, no, cut, now you tell your story, like is Stilt is fine.
Nupur: Are you sure?
Rohit: Yeah, yeah, yeah, you just tell your part, nothing about Stilt. Because it seems out of place to me unless you talk about that basically you had to take student loans and no one was giving you, something like that. Actually it doesn't flow with that, so we would rather just have you...
Nupur: Talk about the story.
Nupur: So yeah, every immigrant family has a very unique story and let me share ours. [crosstalk]
Rohit: So yeah, you were supposed to get here in 2001 and what happened then and it was yeah, it was crazy, we were actually be here in September 2001.
Nupur: So in 2001, I was about 7 years old, and my family, both my parents are engineers, and they had applied to jobs in New York and we had got the confirmation from the job, all the visa stuff was already under way, and I have this very distinct memory of going to Mumbai to go shop, because we're going to the US and we need formal clothes to go to work and all that. And then 9/11 happened, and fortunately or unfortunately both of my parents were supposed to work in the World Trade Center. The situation that happened was completely unimaginable, who would have thought kind of thing. So we couldn’t make it to there because the company didn't exist anymore after the World Trade Center bombing, so we couldn’t make it then, it was very disappointed, but we tried again in 2007 and so I'm here.
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