Interview Published July 24, 2000|
Dr. Ursula Schwuttke, High Tower Software
My interview today is with Dr. Ursula Schwuttke, Founder and head of High Tower Software (http://www.high-tower.com), based in Irvine. I spoke with her about her journey from JPL researcher to head of a cutting edge startup.
BK: What is High Tower all about, and what market do you serve?US: High Tower Software is the world pioneer in a distinct form of data analysis software that helps convert massive amounts of rapidly changing business information into clear, manageable results and knowledge that users can access at any time.
Until recently business intelligence and data management had to be practiced in an after-the-fact, purely reactive manner. Our Towerview software product bridges gaps between business intelligence tools like OLAP, data mining processes and standard data visualization products because it detects events occurring in the present and makes it possible to react while the information is still timely. This kind of near-proactivity can help most data-intensive businesses prevent costly problems and capitalize on new opportunities.
The market for this capability could be nearly as large as the estimated $3 - $4 billion data access tools industry segment that is part of the larger data warehousing industry. It can include any business that relies heavily on information gleaned from regularly changing data -- from clinical pharmaceutical trials to commercial satellite performance monitoring or even something as "down to earth" as making sure that an e-Commerce Web site is capturing a greater percentage of the its "click-through" business traffic.
The bottom line for High Tower is to take the data overload problem that is burying the corporate world and make it a thing of the past.
BK: I'm interested in the story behind how you took NASA technology and turned it into a commercial product -- something lots of people talk about but few manage to do successfully.
US: My first position out of graduate school was with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. Over the course of twelve years there, my career evolved to a point where I was heading up a 35-person team that did R&D for automating mission operations. JPL's environment of technical freedom and creativity made it possible for us develop a cutting edge technology that far surpasses other available products in really critical areas like analysis capability, real-time performance, and the cost/benefit of information delivered. This is because NASA was at least a decade ahead of the business world in terms of producing more data than could be effectively analyzed. Today, more and more businesses are experiencing the same problem. The result is that our product has increasing applicability to a wide range of business intelligence applications, to which it delivers almost immediate returns on investment.
During the last few years at JPL, I realized that I needed to stop supressing my entrepreneurial spirit, seeding the idea to spin off a commercial venture. In 1997, I started High Tower with Robert Angelino and Alan Quan, two of the key technical innovators who worked on the technology that has become High Tower's product. I had obtained an exclusive worldwide license from Caltech for the commercial use of the technology, however, JPL still hadn't been entirely successful in aligning its institutional support for commercialization projects. It was seen as something that was "a good thing to do, in theory" but there were alot of hurdles to overcome in terms of actually making it happen. By overcoming these, I think High Tower actually ended up helping JPL to learn some things about what not to do when attempting a commercial spin off.
BK: How applicable did you find your core technology was to the commercial market--did it take much to adapt it from what you were doing at JPL and applying it to the market?
US: The core technology was 100% applicable. We spent the first eighteen months adding functionality-- as just one example, we added a complete set of statistical analysis functions. We added interfaces to all the standard commercial data bases. We changed the architecture from traditional client server to a thin-client that supports a Java plug-in -- for web-enabled functionality. And despite adding all this, we also improved performance almost 1000-fold.
BK: What is your background, and how did you get to where you are?
US: I have an engineering degree from Brown University and completed my Ph.D.in electrical engineering at USC, while working for JPL. I spent the first 12 years of my career with JPL in missions operations project management and at least a portion of that envisioning how to take advantage of a strong, growing need to become an entrepreneur.
BK: Who are your investors, and what stage is your company at?
US: We closed our first round of $1.9 million in 1998 from a group that included Inroads Capital Partners, Merrill Lynch, Hallador Venture Partners and the J.F. Shea Company. These early funds have been used primarily to finance converting the basic technology into a commercially viable application and to deploy it in carefully selected applications that prove the product in our most important markets.
High Tower is now in the final weeks of completing a second round of financing. We are raising about $10 million to finance broader marketing efforts in the initial key markets we have identified. We are signing up customers in several vertical markets including the pharmaceutical industry and e-commerce infrastructure, and we are looking at even more information-intensive market segments.
BK: Recently there's been a lot of attention paid to the difficulty women have in getting access to venture capital in the press, and as one of the few I was wondering if it was it difficult for you, as a woman, to raise the venture capital and start a company?
US: Its difficult for anyone to raise venture capital, especially in the current investment climate. I don't have any way of assessing whether or not its more difficult for a woman -- though I would tend to think that the VC community is less gender biased than the corporate world. The data that has been getting attention in the press recently indicates that 10% of venture funded businesses are woman operated, but that only 2.3% of the venture funds have gone to women-operated businesses. That's not enough data there to conclude that its more difficult for women to succeed at raising venture capital. Women are newer to the VC world and hence may be doing earlier stage deals, which tend to be smaller deals. Maybe only 9% of the businesses seeking capital were woman operated -- that would indicate that women are doing proportionately better than their male peers.
The most important ingredient in a successful business plan is a very large market. Second is the team. I haven't felt that gender is an issue. Venture capital is about return on investment -- in other words its about greed -- I can't imagine that many astute VC's would steer away from a company with a great business model, a great team, and a huge market because of gender.
BK: Finally, what advice would you give to researchers and others who want to be successful at their own technology spinoff?
US: Researchers should only endeavor to spin off technology if they want to stop being researchers. Technology spinoff is not about research. That being said, I'd offer the following: 1) unless you have a market that exceeds $1 billion dollars, recognize that you'll have a difficult time attracting venture capital; 2) if your previous career was as a technologist, build the sales and marketing side of your organization as quickly as possible -- its not something you will be able to learn quickly enough without outside help; and, 3) be prepared for the process to be all-consuming.
Copyright (c) 2001 by Benjamin F. Kuo. All rights reserved.
May not be reprinted without permission.