October 4, 2006
Hotmail co-founder is helping India create its next Silicon Valley
By Brian D. Lee
If Sabeer Bhatia's vision comes true, 5,000 acres of Himalayan foothills could become India's city of tomorrow.
Bhatia, who established the web-based e-mail corporation Hotmail, hopes to transform farmland into Nano City, a modern, sustainable urban center with first-world infrastructure. Once built, the city would provide 500,000 people with water, power, transport systems and Internet connectivity. "My goal is to really make this the center of creation of intellectual property in India," Bhatia said.
He shared his vision for Nano City on Sept. 25 at the first talk in the Global Projects Seminar Series hosted by Stanford University's Collaboratory for Research on Global Projects (CRGP). When a student asked why he picked the name Nano City, Bhatia noted that, just as silicon was the "substrate of the '60s," the future now lies in nanotechnology. "Nanotechnology sits at the confluence of a number of areas of research, not just computing," he said. "It's material science, biotechnology, pharmaceutical research and nanotechnology itself."
From Hotmail to public works
After earning a master's degree in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1993, Bhatia entered the private sector, where he pioneered the field of Internet mail. As president and chief executive officer of Hotmail, he guided the company from its infancy to its acquisition in 1998 by Microsoft Corp. for $400 million. He then completed a number of public works projects in his native India, including rebuilding his high school in Bangalore and setting up high-speed Ethernet networks.
Bhatia initially sought to establish a science university in northern India near the city of his birth, Chandigarh, in the state of Haryana. He felt that Haryana needed a technology center because, historically, universities had been built in southern India, far from the border with Pakistan. When the Haryana government heard of his idea, they approached him with a more ambitious request: to build a large, high-tech city in a rural part of the state. "They said, why don't you come over here and help us develop this new city, and we want it to be 'the knowledge city,'" Bhatia said.
Resistant at first, Bhatia said that he took to the project once he recognized the growing need for planned urban development in India, where a huge migration from rural to urban areas is creating unsustainable growth. "The existing cities are crumbling in terms of their inability to provide infrastructure," Bhatia noted. "I know there is so much demand in the region that this region is going to get developed no matter what."
Public and private partnership
If everything goes as expected, Nano City will be located about nine miles from Chandigarh, a city that he said has a 97 percent literacy rate but inadequate infrastructure. "There is not a single city in India today that you can actually open the faucet and actually drink the water and feel safe about it," Bhatia said. "If we do this, it will be the first."
Bhatia predicted that the construction of the city will provide better opportunities for Chandigarh's well-educated youth, who in turn will make discoveries to benefit the entire country. By attracting expertise from world-class universities, such as Stanford, as well as cutting-edge technology companies, Bhatia said that Nano City someday could become the source of the next generation of chip design, drug discovery and Internet software creation.
Bhatia is hoping to finance Nano City through a public and private partnership. As an example, he pointed to a proposed $2 billion power plant for the city, which he said could be financed by investors who in exchange would get the rights to generate and distribute power for a number of decades. "A private company may come and put in the money and then monetize the investment over the next 10, 15, 20 years," Bhatia explained. "This is the mechanism by which many Asian countries have developed their infrastructure over the last 20 to 30 years, an example being Thailand."
The state of Haryana is helping speed the process by granting special privileges to encourage investment, he added. "We've identified the zone and region, and the government has given unrestricted rights to the development of the first stage," Bhatia said.
Established in 2005, Stanford's CRGP brings together the expertise of various disciplines to address global-scale construction projects, such as the Three Gorges Dam in China or the rebuilding of New Orleans. This seminar was just one of many CRGP activities inviting researchers, faculty and graduate students from such fields as business, economics, sociology, engineering and law to share their insights and develop cross-disciplinary, cross-industry and cross-national links.
Brian D. Lee is a science-writing intern with the Stanford News Service.