Blog Post

Goodbye Old Friend. R.I.P. Rajeev Motwani

Updated, June 7, 2009Rajeev Motwani, one of the savviest angel investors in Silicon Valley, a Stanford professor and most importantly a close and personal friend passed away earlier today. He was 47 and is left behind by his wife Asha and kids.

It is hard for me to write this post — this morning the news of Steve Jobs’ improving health put me in a good mood. My day is ending with a broken heart and tears in my eyes. It is the day which reminds you of the unpredictability of life. Rajeev and I had been swapping emails, hoping to get together for a cup of coffee and discussions about technology. Alas, that shall never be.

After working tirelessly in anonymity, his tutelage of two Stanford University young grad students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, made him a household name in Silicon Valley. He started the Mining Data at Stanford project (MIDAS) and was one of the earliest backers of Google. He was an early investor in Paypal and a special adviser to Sequoia Captial.

That success never came in the way of Rajeev’s quest for knowledge and innate desire to help others. There wasn’t a startup he didn’t love. Like his chosen specialization of search, Rajeev was searching for the unknown. He was still active as a professor and was teaching a couple of classes as recently as the last semester.

I have known Rajeev, his wife Asha and their family for a long time. Rajeev, like me, was from New Delhi. In my professional career (and personal moments of crisis) Rajeev was only a phone call away, sharing his vast rolodex. Just like a true friend. Only a few weeks back, I had a simple Indian lunch in his house with his family. I am sure, I am not the only one who has benefited from his generosity of time and knowledge and his ability to create connections and help others.

My prayers go to his young family. I hope god gives them strength and courage to navigate through these rough seas of life.

Update, June 7, 2009: The San Jose Mercury News reports that the Artherton police are waiting for an autopost report on Rajeev’s accidental drowning. The Silicon Valley chapter of TIE is planning a memorial service on Wednesday. Details of a memorial service to follow.

In addition, there were will be a visitation event on Monday June 8th at their home between 5-and-8 pm. Instead of flowers and gifts, family would like you to make contribution, please mail checks made out to “Rajeev Motwani Foundation” c/o Ash Chopra, Merrill Lynch, 101 California Street, Suite 2100, San Francisco CA 94111.

Tributes from around the tech community:

Sergey Brin pays his tribute on his blog. “…Yet his legacy and personality lives on in the students, projects, and companies he has touched. Today, whenever you use a piece of technology, there is a good chance a little bit of Rajeev Motwani is behind it,” he writes.

David Hornik of August Capital writes: Rajeev just wanted to be helpful. And he was. To so many of us. Perhaps that is why so many of us thought of Rajeev as a friend. It is one thing to be friendly with someone in the business world. It is another thing altogether to consider them a friend. Rajeev genuinely liked people and people genuinely liked him.

Dan Gould, co-founder of Newroo, emailed this story about Rajeev and wanted me to share it with you: “I didn’t know Rajeev well, but he was a great guy who helped us quite a bit. We were the classic two kids with some software who had just moved to California. I only knew him from using his Randomized Algorithms book in school, but he spent a bunch of time with us. He helped us improve our algorithms and ideas and introduced us to Ron Conway and to other folks which led to the acquisition of our startup. I ran into him several times since and he was always both kind and brilliant. I had hoped to work with him on a future project. While that’s not to be, I imagine dozens of other computer scientists-turned-entrepreneurs can tell the same story.”

If you have a Rajeev story you would like to share with rest of us so we can all remember and grieve together, please leave it in the comments section or email me.

203 Responses to “Goodbye Old Friend. R.I.P. Rajeev Motwani”

  1. Rajeev was perhaps my closest friend in UC Berkeley. We arrived in the same August of 1983 and I remember spending countless evenings at his Durant apartment going through his full collection of Isaac Asimov, having tea and ending the evening with fried chili and rice. …and then we went our separate ways.

    10 years later – one email and we were connected again. His first request to me was to see if I could help a budding entrepreneur who was looking for some technology. So was Rajeev.

    For me it was like growing up with Greatness. Rest in Peace my Friend.

  2. Pankaj Parekh

    I am not at amazed to see the overwhelming feelings that all of us have. I have known him personally since almost 8 years and almost every time, I needed to discuss something, he was definitely there and for looking at all this response and how many people he touched, I don’t know where did he get time to be so personal to so many of us during such short life? A lot to learn.. I am sure all of us will miss you Rajiv. Thanks for your tribute to technology, business, entrepreneurship and most importantly to all the people you met and made them feel special.
    With mixed feeling of sorrow and pride, I know that I will remember you still sitting in that University Ave. café during many of our meetings.

  3. To pay my respects to Rajeev, his family, and his legacy in Silicon Valley I’ll just say this:

    I met Rajeev almost 20 years ago, and since that day I’m not sure I’ve met anyone with a stronger intellect and business acumen.

    At the time of his death, Rajeev was a member of our advisory board at Rocket Fuel Inc. One of my fondest memories of our early days was pitching the company concept to him — when we described our technological ambitions, he said “That’s going to be hard!” It meant something, coming from him.

    He was a great advisor. As others have said he went out of his way to be helpful.

    We’ll miss him.

  4. Praveen Sinha

    The news of Prof. Motwani’s untimely death shocked me. I was introduced to him via email by a friend few years ago regarding my start-up. I don’t live in the valley (I live in Madison, WI) and wasn’t sure he would care to return the email. To my pleasant surprise, he not only returned my call; we set up a conference call, talked and he followed up with an unsolicited introduction to another valley entrepreneur.

    I have been to Standford’s CS dept to meet some other people many times since then. I crossed his office on the 4th floor (I think) many times, hoping to see him to thank him personally for his help. It was not to be.

    My heart goes out to his family.

    Praveen Sinha

  5. James

    This is very sad and shocking, although I did not know Rajeev personally.
    May his soul rest in peace. May the Almighty give strength to the family members to weather this tragic loss.

    Regarding POOLS at home:
    Please protect pools with very inexpensive Safety Nets (approx cost $1,200 to $2,000) …. if anyone in your home is not a swimmer, the safety pool or some other form of covering is a MUST. Safety net can be taken off within 5 mts if you need to use the pool and reinstall takes less than 10 mts.

  6. a young and brilliant professor just ‘accidently’ drowned himself in his own swimming pool? i don’t buy that. did he have health problems?

  7. My heartfelt condolences to Asha and the kids at the sudden and expected loss of Rajeev Motwani.

    I am still under shock and cannot believe that he is no longer with us. He was a brilliant and an incredible human being, who loved connecting people and making things happen. As Om mentioned Rajeev opened up his rolodex to anyone who asked him for help, including my husband in whose startup he was an advisor and investor.

    It was just a few weeks ago that I met him and Asha at the TiE annual dinner and spoke to him. And then he asked that predictable question: “I am looking for Asha…have you seen here?”

    I realize now how lucky I was to get an opportunity to interview him. He had given me 45 minutes, but graciously extended it an hour. This was a no-holds barred interview where he answered questions about the early days of Google, MIDAS, data mining and his involvement with startups. In the interview he recounted the early days of how Google started and how the co-founders of Google set up their computer and got their project underway.

    As some wise person put it: You just need one person to believe in you and and your idea. Rajeev was that one person who believed in your idea and vision as many, many people will unhestitatingly tell you.

    Rajeev leaves behind a huge gaping void in many people’s lives.

    Thank you Rajeev in believing and helping so many people that knocked on your door.

    Kamla Bhatt

    • Adam – It is eerie as to how similar one of our “Rajeev stories” is.

      During the dark days of the dot-com-bust of 2002-2003, he and Asha (with dot edu) patiently stood behind us at Vialto while other investors were getting cold feet. Long story short – we survived the winter and were acquired by Cisco in 2004. It was no questions asked, only support (financial, cajoling other investors) and counsel on staying the course…

      Simple, but a powerful ending to your blog post – “thank you Rajeev.” Indeed.

  8. Om

    One can’t even begin to count the stories to share. Very sad and extremely tragic. There is no other way to describe this.

    Thanks for this post and giving us friends a place to grieve together. For those several of us grieving in our own quiet way; those who knew Rajeev as a fellow alum, a colleague, a mentor, an investor and most importantly as a friend. A friend you could trust with technology, business, personnel or personal challenges, anytime, anywhere.

    Rest in Peace – Rajeev my friend. We all carry a piece of you in our hearts and minds – especially your enigmatic smile.

  9. I am just shocked to hear of the sad and untimely demise of Rajeev Motwani, well-known angel investor and professor of Computer Science at Stanford. He was an adviser to the Google founders from the start and invested in several start-ups. After graduating from IIT, Kanpur in 1983, Rajeev joined EECS at UC Berkeley and got his Ph.D. Then he joined the faculty at Stanford and has been teaching/researching for last 20 years. His special interest was in data mining, computational theory, and algorithms.

    Back in 2003, at the suggestion of a few friends, Rajeev and I started a technology think-tank group to share new ideas. It did not last very long due to our hectic schedules. But the first meeting was held in San Jose, where Rajeev spoke of his work in “data streams” and Eric Brewer of Berkely talked about his CAP theorem and BASE theory. We had several very smart folks who enjoyed listening to Rajeev’s passion for new technology. I was fortunate to have been invited to a few of Rajeev’s investment companies as an informal adviser. I always enjoyed talking to him and was impressed with his inquisitiveness to ask many real-world questions about new technology.

    He will be missed in the silicon valley technology circles. I pray for his wife Asha to have the courage to sustain this terrible loss.

    I feel extremely humbled at this moment on the ephemeral nature of life.

    Rest in peace my friend.

    Jnan Dash

  10. We were deeply saddened to learn of Rajeev’s death and we would like to express our sincere sympathy to his family. Rajeev’s contributions to the field of IT in the past many years of dedicated and selfless service has been many and varied. We are sure he will be missed by many. Let his soul rest in peace.

  11. kunal

    i am really moved . i dont know what to tell, i have read about him, its a great loss to all of us, HE HAS MADE EVERY INDIAN PROUD..may u leave in peace sir..

  12. Sandeep Pal Singh

    My Batchmate from IIT Kanpur. Lectures together for first 3 years (I was in Mechanical), since we were both in the same B section. Same halls of residence for all 5 years, as far as I remember. Both of us from Delhi. Did not know he had touched so many lives after leaving IIT. He was regarded highly even back then.
    Could not write this earlier even though came to know of it quite early.

    My condolences to Asha and children,

    Sandeep Pal Singh

  13. Vivek

    I read about his work 3-4 months ago while i was doing the Google search on some topics which filled my mind with great respect for this genius…. and read about his death in today’s TOI which was really astonishing . I don’t know much about him but i know he was an excellent computer scientist,mentor and most important a wonderful human being . …… God give peace to his soul and strength to his family to survive this major loss

  14. lavista4u

    I find the whole circumstances leading to Rajeev’s death very suspicious. There must be a proper investigation.

    Point 1. Didn’t Rajeev had two small kids, in that respect, will he allow his swimming pool depth to be more than 5 feet deep at any point. As Om has visited his home, could he please confirm the length, breath and depth of the pool.

    Point 2: At what time did this happen, where were his family members. Didn’t he shout for help, what were the neighbors doing.

    Point 3: It is typical of western corporate media to hush hush the matter without checking the facts. I find it hard to believe, a person with such a high education, would construct a swimming pool and for all these years did not learn to swim.

    Point 4: Depending upon the breath of the pool, even with no swimming experience, he could have reached to one side, no matter what the circumstances were. Common it was his home.

    It is very hard to digest the news that Rajeev must have fell into his own swimming pool late at night. This is too simplistic and sounds like covering the facts.

    It is really a tragic moment for all those who were close to Rajeev. Yet, for the sake of finding the truth, will someone in America, do please think in these lines to find the TRUTH.

    • Prakash Iyer

      Maybe he was drunk. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
      Btw, Rajeev Motwani ranks high in the list of people who impressed me when I was a PhD student.

  15. Tejpal Chadha

    Rajeev helped me start Vhayu Technolgoies, as he was an early investor, advisor and a board member.

    I will remember him as an out of box thinker.

    Was shocked to hear of the news as it all reminds us how fragile we are.

    May God rest his soul and give strength to Asha and his family to bear this tragic loss.

    Tejpal Chadha

  16. K. V. Rao

    “Whom the gods love dies young”

    I met Rajeev only a couple of times, and had a few email exchanges with him. Beyond his obvious intelligence, he was incredibly down to earth, and went out of his way to help me, opening up his vast network of investors in the valley to me and my cofounder.

    Despite having a pretty hectic schedule, he was incredibly curious and willing to taking the time to meet with strangers, particularly enterpreneurs of technology start-ups, and share his valuable insights freely. I deeply regret that I did not take advantage of his generosity to meet with him more often and learn from him.

  17. I have known Rajeev for over 10 years and through out the times, he was always just a phone call or email away. He advised and introduced me to a lot of people in the Valley when I started PlaySpan and during times of crisis through previous start-ups.

    Despite his brilliance and overwhelming success, he was probably the most unassuming and generous person I have ever met. He had the touch of divinity and it reflected in everything he did and he touched. Our deepest condolences to Asha and kids. Rajeev- you will live forever in our hearts!

    Karl Mehta

  18. shaheel

    It’s a very sad end for such a scholar and humble person!

    but I can’t stop thinking, such a strong(in the contemporary context) individual didn’t think of learning swimming and hits the mishap leaving his family behind, what can possibly explain those two young daughters?

  19. Alaknanda Mukherjee

    I first met Rajeev Motwani at TiEcon in 2003. He was one of the nicest and most helpful friends one can have. I am shocked and saddened. Silicon Valley has indeed lost a great one.

  20. Venkat Prasad

    I had met Rajeev in 2000 when I consulted for one of his startups. I was impressed at his ability to explain the
    concept clearly & succinctly. I had also worked with Asha in the startup. It is shocking news to hear Rajeev passing away at such an young age. My sincere condolences to Asha and the young family.

    Venkat Prasad

  21. Sridhar Gopaluni

    This is really shocking news to me.
    I’ve not met Rajeev in person but over the last several years, I did read a lot about him and his contributions to the community.

    Only when we see people like him will we know how much a single individual can accomplish in his life and contribute to the advancement of intellect and the community.

    It is a tragic loss to the scientific community. Life well lived Rajeev.
    May your soul rest in Peace.

  22. Beerud Sheth

    I feel such a deep sense of loss. Rajeev was a friend and adviser. I just met him recently and we talked about getting together socially. My heart goes out to Asha and the young kids.

    Rajeev contributed so much to so many, both through his technological inventions, as well as by advising so many entrepreneurs. He was always ready to help and had great insights. Rajeev will be dearly missed.