“I was a small, troublemaking school girl from India. The best that was expected of me was becoming a housewife, a receptionist or another IT engineer at best. No one ever thought I’d get here,” Sampriti Bhattacharyya, the founder of Hydroswarm, smiled.
Growing up in India, Sampriti went to a small engineering school. Due to the rise in outsourced IT, she studied electrical engineering to prepare for the job market. However, Sampriti was a dreamer.
“As a kid, I would watch Discovery Channel. I was really fascinated by outer space, robots and NASA. I wanted to be an astronaut. But I went to a small college, so I realized that I couldn’t really do that.”
However, one day a close friend told her about an internship he took in a U.S. at a university lab.
“I didn’t even know what an internship was, so I went on Google and I typed in ‘internship + America + national lab.' Then, I literally emailed everything that said internship—I sent out about 532 emails in two weeks,” Sampriti laughed.
After the first week, there was no reply. The second week, no one got back to her. Finally, Sampriti received a total of four replies. Out of four, two asked her to interview and Fermilab, a particle physics and accelerator laboratory, gave her an offer.
“Through many adventures and misadventures, I landed in the United States by myself. It was the first time in my life that I went anywhere. Not even just a different city but a different country. I’ll never forget the first airplane ride of my life, from India to Chicago.”
After working in a national lab and gaining experience in state of the art engineering, Sampriti couldn’t imagine returning to India to work in IT. After she graduated school in India, she went back for a co-op with Fermilab that next summer.
After nine months at her co-op, Sampriti returned to India to do a fellowship in a lab. But most importantly, she went back to get married.
“When the whole marriage thing didn’t work out, I felt like I had failed. I was so frustrated because I was twenty-two and I was getting too old, ha ha! At least I thought so at the time. After that, I didn’t know what to do with my life, so I decided to push myself out of my comfort zone and backpack across the entire country alone.”
When I asked about what her parents thought of this, Sampriti laughed.
“My parents and I have an interesting relationship. Of course, they did not approve. I was always known as the person who didn’t listen to anyone- the rebel and the troublemaker.”
Before she went backpacking, she applied to a graduate program to have a backup plan. She ended up getting into The Ohio State University. So, after her backpacking trip, Sampriti came back to the US to study aerospace engineering.
“I still wanted to realize my teenage dream of working for NASA. As an international student, when I started writing to people to ask for a position, basically everybody said ‘no.’ But when I set my heart to something it feels so impossible to accept a ‘NO!’ I considered ‘no’ as a maybe and maybe as a ‘yes.’ So I went on LinkedIn and found other people that worked at NASA who weren’t from America. Another 200 emails later, I ended up working at NASA.”
Interning in airplanes and flight control with NASA over in Silicon Valley, it was her first introduction to startup entrepreneurship. Meanwhile, an impressive MS degree focus on designing an innovative nuclear reactor for producing energy from radioactive waste got her accepted into MIT’s Ph.D. program.
“At MIT, I chose mechanical engineering—my third different major now. Electrical engineering, did a lot of high energy physics, aerospace, now mechanical. I choose mechanical engineering because I wanted to build the nuclear reactor. However, what I understood was building a nuclear reactor wasn’t up to me, but the politicians!”
So instead of building a nuclear reactor, she started working on robots.
“I had no idea how to build a robot. I started in a basement lab where I was the only girl working with a dozen guys. As you can imagine, it was the roughest chapter of my life at MIT. My advisor thought I was the slowest student they’d ever had. I remember thinking I was going to get kicked out of there in no time, which was scary because I had no place else to go.”
The subject that Sampriti most dreaded and dropped out of - was the area in which she ended up having her most fundamental inventions of her PhD. Her research was a small, football-shaped robot that used special properties and would go into a nuclear reactor. That spun up into small underwater drones used to monitor the ocean—the idea for her startup, Hydroswarm.
“The goal of my startup, Hydroswarm is to be able to enable large-scale ocean monitoring. If you think about it, 70% of the world is the ocean and you know less than 5% of it, which is less than you know about the moon’s surface. The thing is, it’s a huge economic value because 95% of organics, new sources of food, energy and soil is right in our backyard. But the ocean is a really difficult problem to solve. We joke about rocket science being hard, as a former aerospace engineer, I would have to say ocean science is way more difficult in so many ways."
When I asked her how she thought to apply her thesis research to the ocean, Sampriti explained her thought process.
“I’m a person who really likes hard problems. But I want to solve hard problems that have a large tangible impact. Remember when the Malaysian aircraft got lost? The problem was we didn't have a solution that was scalable. We didn’t have something that could go and search very quickly in a cheap way. That’s when I realized I could use the same robot that I was making for my nuclear reactor for ocean monitoring—it’s very cheap, scalable and simple in design.”
Right now Hydroswarm is still in its early stages. Although they’re still incubating, they have won numerous awards and mentions, including a Frbes 30 Under 30 nod for Sampriti. They plan to significantly impact the government and commercial spheres and expect to launch soon.
Rapid Fire Questions
Brie Shelley: How do you manage stress?
Sampriti Bhattacharyya: By venting it all out. If I have to cry, I cry. Stress is good sometimes because it pushes me. But I remind myself of my big goal and that there has been worse, and that I just need to push through this. Breathe, cry if you have to, complain and then get back to work!
BS: How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
SB: I drink one cup of coffee, maybe a frappe. I need a lot of sugar, ice cream, and energy drinks to keep up my energy.
BS: What do you like to do in your free time?
SB: I build robots! Other robots. Code. I’m really passionate about AI, cyber cloning and self digitization. I hang out with groups and communities and I also continuously engage with policies, politics, and technologies. I love outdoors and hiking - but haven’t had a chance for a while.
BS: Where is your favorite spot in Boston?
SB: There are two places actually. One is walking on the Harvard bridge from MIT and looking at the Boston skyline at the dead of night when it’s quiet. The other is the Killian Court, the big field in front of the dome at MIT.
Whenever I think I’m going to drop out when things get too hard, it’s really inspiring to look up at all the names of the scientists inscribed on the walls around me in the Killian Court, those who changed the world and reminding myself how incredibly fortunate I am as the ordinary girl from India, to be here. To remind myself of the purpose that’s bigger than myself and tell myself I am not giving up.
BS: Ten years ago, is this where you would have seen yourself?
SB: Honestly, I was one of the more imaginative kids. I had all these dreams and it’s sometimes creepy because I think I’ve lived most of them for now. I don’t know how it happened but it did. It never felt that I was actively doing anything to get here. I didn’t plan but my subconscious may have kicked in, I’m not sure.
To the people back in India, it’s crazy to imagine that I am even starting a startup. Sometimes I just stare back at my life in disbelief. But despite the struggles, rejections and so many failures, I am very grateful!
BS: What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college student?
SB: You only live once. Do something that you really love because there is no magic to all of this other than really hard work, lots of sleepless nights and being comfortable at taking risks. Find something bigger than yourself that you feel truly passionate about. Once you do that, you’ll figure out a way to get what you want. You got to go for what’s yours in the universe.