Govardhan Poondi is a rising college freshman from Texas. This fall, he is attending Johns Hopkins University. Govardhan and his team founded ListenIn, a product designed to solve the cocktail party problem – This idea won second place in Diamond Challenge 2021’s Business Innovation track. We’ll learn more about him and the team’s brainchild during the interview.
Bhargavi: Let’s start off with an icebreaker question – If you could choose any family from a book/TV show/movie to join, which one would it be and why?
Govardhan: If I could join any family from a book/TV show/movie, I would probably join the Bartlett family from The West Wing. The Bartlett family is very accomplished to say the least. The two parents are the president and first lady and also a Nobel Prize laureate and cardiothoracic surgeon respectively. On top of that, one of their daughters is a PhD student at Johns Hopkins in cell biology. Surrounding myself with such highly intelligent individuals would motivate me to work harder and be smarter. Plus, I would have many great resources in case I ever needed help.
Bhargavi: Alright! Let’s get into it then. Can you tell me about your idea, ListenIn? How was it conceived?
Govardhan: ListenIn is a tech start-up dedicated to intelligent hearing solutions. ListenIn was founded to develop a hearing aid to address the Cocktail Party Effect, a problem that renders audio comprehension extremely difficult in noisy environments and disproportionately impacts hard-of-hearing individuals. The company was conceived from a 20-minute conversation between my friend John and me. We had already developed a prototype of a hearing aid that addresses this problem, but since John is pursuing entrepreneurship, he convinced me to enter our idea in the Diamond Challenge. We decided to change our framework from simply creating a scientific prototype to starting a company that produces this technology individually and/or licenses the technology to other hearing aid manufacturers. Bringing Shivam and Kaustubh on board, we assembled a team that could legitimately bring this idea to the masses.
Bhargavi: How did you hear about Diamond Challenge, and why did you decide to enter?
Govardhan: My science fair partner John first introduced me to the Diamond Challenge as he had entered the competition in a previous year. At first, I was quite skeptical about entering our idea. Entrepreneurship and business had never been my forte, and I felt that I did not have the skills to create a successful company. However, learning more about the Diamond Challenge, I began to see it as a unique opportunity to pitch our idea to the world but also bridge science with the means to bring that science to the masses.
Bhargavi: What was your favorite part of the Diamond Challenge experience?
Govardhan: My favorite part of the Diamond Challenge was probably the speed networking. Having an opportunity to meet my fellow entrepreneurs and share our ideas was so special and truly underscored the global nature of the Diamond Challenge. It’s so inspiring to know that there are so many passionate individuals around the world, and hearing about their stories motivates me to work harder to bring my idea to a reality.
Bhargavi: What are your future plans for ListenIn?
Govardhan: In the coming years, we plan to develop ListenIn as an LLC and work on miniaturizing our technology so that it is implantable in a generic hearing aid. We are also connecting with hard-of-hearing individuals across the country to hear about their needs and problems, incorporating these considerations into our design. Our end goal is to establish ListenIn as a company that provides the next-generation hearing aid at an affordable price.
Bhargavi: What are some problems you faced, and how did you overcome them?
Govardhan: One of the biggest hurdles we faced with ListenIn was with the technology itself. Auditory attention decoding, the approach that undergirds our technology, is relatively new and extensive research has not been done on its applications in hearing aids. Thus, we had to teach ourselves the technological and biological facets of auditory attention decoding and find a way to incorporate this complex algorithm into a DIY neuroscience kit EEG since we could not obtain access to a medical EEG.
Bhargavi: Great! Next, why do you think you placed at Diamond Challenge? What are some things you did that you think really impressed the judges? Can you give this year’s DC participants a few tips?
Govardhan: I am honored that our team placed second in the Business Innovation category of the Diamond Challenge, and I believe that the judges shared our passion for the problem we are trying to tackle. Communication is essential to being a member of our global society and when one’s ability to communicate, to understand others, is impaired, life becomes exceedingly difficult. By developing a product that can address this problem, we established a legitimate value for our company, and I believe the judges appreciated our dedication to the problem, especially considering this technology has been the result of two years of research.
Bhargavi: Now, let’s look at the bigger picture. High school is tough to navigate – If you could give students three tips, what would they be?
Govardhan: High school is definitely a challenging period of life. You are bombarded with homework and tests in class, participating avidly in clubs and extracurriculars, and trying to make time for decent sleep, all with college applications looming over your head. However, there are three main things that I did that helped me manage the workload and maintain my mental health. First, spend time with friends, but on a schedule. Many high-schoolers believe that spending time with friends on weekends is a source of distraction. However, this could not be further from the truth. Your mind needs time to decompress from all the knowledge it is receiving and taking this time to have fun with friends will improve productivity, reduce fatigue, and improve mental health. Second, don’t wait until tomorrow to finish what can be done today. High school demands proactivity. If you have spare time in the middle of the school day, use it to get a head start on an assignment due later that week. You can’t control what happens in the future, but by making the best use of the time you have in the moment, you will be saving your future self a lot of stress. Lastly, don’t be afraid to fail. Of course, don’t try to fail, but don’t let failure define you. Even the best and brightest minds have failed. Everyone does. But the mark of the successful individual is dealing with failure in a healthy way and bouncing back from adversity. Use failure not as an excuse to wave the white flag but as a reason to prove your abilities to yourself.
Bhargavi: Sounds great! Can you tell me the name of one famous figure that you would want to be friends with, and why?
Govardhan: Daniel Ricciardo, the Mclaren Formula 1 driver, would be an obvious choice for friendship. Although I’ve only ever seen him through TV, he seems like a very fun-loving and down-to-earth guy. In my opinion, he is the literal definition of work-hard-play-hard. Having a friend who motivates me to work when I have to but also encourages me to decompress when I have the opportunity would be invaluable.
Bhargavi: What is one field you’re really interested in pursuing the future, and what got you into it?
Govardhan: Particle physics, especially theoretical particle physics, has been a very interesting field for me recently. As someone who likes to think about the big questions (Why am I here? What is the meaning of life?), I find particle physics as a field that could offer some very real answers. Understanding the composition of matter and forces on a fundamental level helps us piece together the formation of the universe, a realization with monumental importance. I would probably attribute my interest in particle physics to one of my good friends from high school. Before I met him, I was not considering physics as a profession at all, but his passion for the subject and particle physics in particular sparked a curiosity in me that remains to this day.
Bhargavi: Finally, what is the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
Govardhan: Definitely, the best advice I have ever received came from my parents: Try not to worry about what you cannot control.
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