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November 25, 1999
Chicago Kid Writes Software Program, Sells It to Canadian Firm
Movie Actor and Whiz Kid Rishi Bhat Has Had One Busy Summer
Shanthi Shankarkumar in Chicago
Many toddlers are happy with simple stuff like building blocks but two-year-old Rishi Bhat's favorite toy was a hand-held computer game that taught addition and multiplication. His mother remembers him pestering her to teach him multiplication when he turned two. When she refused, saying she did not know multiplication, Rishi came back to her a few days later, wiser after doing his research into the subject. He now offered to teach it to her.
As a seven year old when most kids were busy playing with computer games, Rishi was creating them.
By the time he was eight he had taught himself programming (with just a little help from his dad) and the DOS manual was his favorite bedtime book. Internet software, chat programs, his web page then just followed, logically. At 11, he was already an old hand at computers. The computer was like play dough to him, he was having so much fun, there was just no stopping him.
"I found computers very interesting. I could make them do whatever I wanted," said Rishi.
About four years ago, he played the pivotal role in the well-reviewed and mild hit, Indian in the Cupboard, with a script by Melissa Mathison (ET) and distributed by Paramount.
The University of Chicago Laboratory School's excellent learning environment has nurtured the growth of his special talents. Bhat has been a student of this exclusive school since kindergarten. When he was eight, in third grade, the teacher explained the concept of probability with the help of a computer program that flipped a coin. While the other kids were more concerned about the number of times the coin would land on its head or tails, Bhat was interested in how the program had been made.
But he was too shy to ask his teacher. Instead he came home, teary-eyed over the unsolved mystery. His parents promptly called the teacher. Amazed, she was only too happy to explain the program to him the next day.
Now a 15-year-old 10th grader, Rishi has developed software that has just been bought by a Canadian company and which could someday yield him a fortune.
This summer when his school's math camp was canceled abruptly, he was not exactly disappointed -- he wrote some software instead. His program allows you to surf the web without revealing personal information, which is now recorded by every site visited. "There are a few companies who have done this, but I took it to the next step. It took me about a month to create the software. I thought it was pretty easy," he said.
Once the technical details had been sorted out, he brought in his friend and classmate Antonio Guillen to design the web site.
"It was a little complicated designing the web site, but I was very excited about the whole thing. It was my first project", said Guillen. The two started a company, Seigesoft, and the orders started coming in. It was in existence for just a month before it was bought over by Rocca Resources Ltd, a small firm based in Vancouver, Canada.
The company flew Rishi and his father Shrikant, director of research and development at Inland Steel, to Vancouver, for negotiations. His parents were particular about two issues -- the agreement should not in any way require Rishi to work for them on a daily basis, since they did not want his schoolwork to be affected in any way, and his name should be on the finished product.
"Money was not the motive either for Rishi or for us. He did not develop the software to sell it as a business deal. He only does what he loves and loves what he does", insisted his mother Rita, a social psychologist and research associate at the University of Chicago.
Once Rocca agreed to the two stipulations, Shrikant Bhat stepped back and let his son take over the financial negotiations.
"He knows what he wants. I thought I would protect him as a parent but not as an entrepreneur," said the senior Bhat.
The deal shows Bhat has as much of a head for business as he has for computers. Thirty percent of the profits the first year, 15 per cent after that, $ 40,000 in cash upfront and options on 1.5 million shares of stock once the company re-organizes itself.
Bhat will also serve as consultant for the next two years. This will mean he has to work with the technical people to operate the site, develop new aspects and programs for Seigesoft.
David Hodge, president of Rocca Resources, is very pleased with the deal. "His site was technically better than the ones already on the net. Besides privacy, his software offered encryption, which nobody else does," said Hodge.
He was also astounded by Bhat's mature demeanor. "He is a well-rounded young man. I was very impressed. He was able to talk about anything to do with computers, but he was happy to talk about hockey and football as well. He was good addressing a roomful of adults," said Hodge.
"Even when he was speaking to stockbrokers, he was very confident and comfortable," Hodge added.
His company intends to start marketing Seigesoft in a couple of weeks.
An only child, Rishi Bhat is a boy with diverse interests. He plays the piano and clarinet, is on the math team, on the model UN team and plays junior varsity tennis. And, of course, he has acted in a movie.
Rishi had asked his father during their business trip to Vancouver, not to disclose that he had acted in a Hollywood film.
"He did not want to bias them in any way," explained his father. "He told me, 'we are going there to talk about my programming, so stick to that.' "
Of course, after everything had been settled they did tell Hodge about the film and even gave him a tape of the movie to watch.
So is Bhat a "normal" teenager?
"Of course," answers his dad vehemently. "He hangs out with his friends, listens to rock music and has his "moments" like all teenagers."
Unlike many teenagers, however, Rishi has spared his parents all those agonizing parental prods. On the contrary, they have had to constantly ask him to slow down. "We have had the reverse problem. We keep telling him, don't work so much, come to eat, go to sleep. He gets so interested in what he does that we have to pull him away," said his mother with a laugh.
Nobody is going to pull him away from his computer though. He has already started another company, Myedesk.com which will let people access a Windows-like desktop online from anywhere. "I think it would be very useful for people who travel a lot," he said.
If you have got visions of Rishi Bhat being another Bill Gates, think again.
He has no plans of pursuing computers full-time because he wants to be a doctor.
"I really don't like computers as much as people think I do," he says. "Being a doctor will be much more satisfying. I use computers because they make my life go faster and easier." However, his mom said she would be not surprised if he combined medicine and his computer knowledge to develop technology or modify existing technology. After all these years, nothing her boy genius does surprises her anymore.
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