“I’ve discovered that, if you’re truly offering value in any market, you’re going to actually make money at it”


What’s really special about products targeting academia? Why not treat a hobbyist as a student? What is the main driving force behind the academia programme? Those are some of the questions that Rahul Chopra posed Dave Wilson, director of academic programs at National Instruments.

Dave Wilson

Q. What is the main driving force behind the academia program? Is it the revenues? Because Eric just mentioned that a major chunk of customers come from the academic side. So, is it the market or is it a future market? Are there different ways technology companies look at that particular segment.
A. First thing I’d like to say in my experience, any academic program that an industrial/commercial company has begins with a decision at the leadership level, and it’s very important to start there because it’s a very likely probability that this is a long term plan. We have to go and show exemplary elements of our products and enhance the students, so that, by the time they graduate, they’re reaching for the tools they’ll trust to build and design things. And in fact it’s interesting because once the student graduates often time they’re not really given the choice. They’re told “here’s what you’re going to use and what you’re going to do”, but those students might then go on to run these departments or companies at some point of time.

Secondarily I’ve discovered that, if you’re truly offering value in any market, you’re going to actually make money at it. That’s really important because, regardless of any commercial or industrial program for academia, FAP comes through as nothing but a huge money sink where they’ll just dump in money, then you will reach a plateau level where you’ll not be able to invest more. And, regardless of the good intentions and regardless of the size of the company, if you shovel in money and you have no sustenance model then it will plateau. The myDAQ is 25% lower in India as compared to the US.

Q. What’s really special about the products targeting academia — are they just being marketed as such, or are they specially designed for this sector?
A. Both. In fact, a better way to look at it, is to say that it covers all the products that are going to the universities. The products used for research are often the same products we use in the industry, so many a times our marketing efforts are covered for researchers by our industry messages. However, the teaching products require a special focus because these products, unlike the research focused ones, are specific to teaching. Thus the teaching products get a special treatment before going to educators.

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Q. How do you assess whether the person who is buying or wants to buy the product, is a student or not? And why not treat hobbyist as a student also, who is trying to learn by himself/herself?
A. First, the usage is different. When a university comes to buy this, they will get it at a slightly higher price point because they are also looking for more service, longer terms of this service, and more attention too.

On the other hand, the student price for the unit varies from region to region. When somebody calls in as a student, and says that they want to buy something, we would have several questions for them. These questions would be on the line of what classes they are taking and which university they are in, which would help us understand if it’s someone from the industry pretending to be a student – this is a real problem. When we give things to a student, we don’t make as much money, but this is because we are doing it for the betterment of education for the student. You can also say the we rely a little bit in the goodwill of people and their nature, in addition to which we would also be placing a few verification checkpoints in the future.

As far as your other question, “why not hobbyists”, right now it’s more about the support function, because with the student and with the new institution, we’ll be a little more tuned and a little more centralised to understand how we can help them. For instance, in a university we have mechanisms to check and analyse which helps us understand how to support and help somebody. This is not possible in the hobbyist setting. However, National Instruments as a company is looking more into it, tough we don’t have pricing or support structures set up yet.

Q. In the hobbyist arena, at least the current phenomena seems to be just leave it to the community and they’ll just figure it out themselves. Arduino, Raspberry Pi; none of these companies/organizations provide any support, it comes from the community.
A. The experience that we want to ensure when people come in and buy a National Instruments product is that we have a good product which everybody can use and learn, but also that we have good access to all of the ways to use it, as a starting point. So if you are an institution, or even if you’re a student and use a connect within an institution we can still put something out. We can say “Here’s sort of the package: here’s LabVIEW, here’s all the warranty information, here’s all the curriculum. So now you’ll have a bunch of professors and teachers who are connected with this year’s courseware.” So all of this comes as a package. To throw that out there and say “Everybody just go” wouldn’t be where we want to start.

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Primarily, because they’re doing doing important things like systems design, so we want to make sure that we were contained enough, so that we can actually go out and ensure great start with the right kind of communications and the tools and the messaging and the support, so that when you’re going to get started, we support it in the best way.

At some point you’re exactly right, and this could flow out to become a much broader self-sustaining thing, but usually it’s not the best way to start when you want to ensure that the experience is really first class for students.

Q. But if I understood correctly, the experience in the Indian context is being provided through the faculty of the institution? Are they a key enabler in the whole equation, that the support is expected to come from them?
A. We have an office in India where we’ve got applications engineers, and we do a lot of work for educators so they can gain training from us. We also do events where we invest in the relationship, the communication, the information and the supporting elements. Thus there’s a real strong relationship in India with many of the institutions that we go to. And then yes, often times in those institutions there will be lab managers who will be educators that know things. We even have a program where there are LabVIEW student ambassadors, the students that we invest in and they learn about the technologies and can actually go and work with other students. This is all part of this first class experience to make sure that all of these things blend together.

I’ll give you another example. We talked about other smaller targets, but remember that on those targets you’re typically not doing things like fast Fourier transforms or Kalman filters. You might be doing some type of closed-loop control, but maybe not fuzzy logic and things like that. All of that stuff can run in here – all of the image acquisition libraries, image morphology, image dilation, the complicated digital signal processing, it all can be done in here. This is just a treasure trove of different functionality.

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I’ll give you another one – MathScript real-time operating: we’re actually running and doing all the complex MathScript calculations real time on this. This is a whole platform. So our communications and working with universities, we have to make sure they understand the pieces, and then getting this out to students. Now students will typically attach to those programs, they can come in and buy it, often we’re finding that they’re doing that through the universities themselves.

Q. Just to get again a bit of the Indian context, what is the filtration process in India to figure out the person who’s ordering a myDAQ or myRIO is a student or not? Is there a validation process?
A. We try not to do that. The more you try to do that, the more people try to find ways to circumvent it, so goodwill is the best way. There are some spot checks you can do, like when you come in and say who you are and your university, we may ask what course you’re using it in, and we can go to universities and ask which class this is being used in. It’s one of those things where everybody understands that the things we do for students have a lower profit margin, so the student can gain an experience. That’s the right thing to do. We’re not at the profit level, because we want to help students and we hope that the people out there would respect that.

Q. Is there an interconnect between the academic program and Planet NI? Planet NI is more about the start-ups and a lot of students actually go into start-ups, right?
A. That’s exactly the answer. There’s this threshold between what the universities are doing and spitting people out, and that’s a question between this and how we go out and get the small and medium enterprises up and running, we’re very interested in it. Planet NI helps to take, give and make sure that the technology is available for an effort that was going to happen in part of the world where you could actually begin to spin professional knowledge and participation. And so yea, we look at the universities a lot, and when they start to come through to go to industry, and Planet NI sometimes as well get involved to make sure that this happen.