Why Aren’t There More Startups in HPC?

By Nicole Hemsoth

October 13, 2014

As we watch the mainstream technology world capture attention and garner massive amounts of funding, many are asking why some of the most bleeding edge tech on the planet in high performance computing doesn’t attract the same level of interest. While supercomputing is at the pinnacle of both performance and price in many cases, the technological developments make it an exciting area—one that should bring in far more funding and value.

In an effort to answer these and other questions—as well as to dig into how we can work together to spur this new culture of investment of market attention—there is a new effort which will kick off at SC this coming year. The inaugural event for StartupHPC will be a forum focused on how to become an entrepreneur, with a roster of all-star speakers.  It is held on Monday Nov 17th in New Orleans, where the Supercomputing-14 (SC14) will be this year.

We spoke with Shahin Khan and his team working to create a more vibrant startup culture to get a better sense of what lies ahead and what work needs to be done before HPC can start reaching into the broader mainstream for funding, adoption, and use beyond supercomputing.

Why is HPC a fertile ground for entrepreneurship?

The HPC community has a great track record of leading the creation and adoption of new technologies. 64-bit computing, open systems, scale-up systems, visual computing, hierarchical storage management, scale-out applications, extreme scale systems, parallel file systems, and even web browsers and the worldwide web, all trace their roots to HPC. What a fabulous record of leading the IT industry and some of the most dynamic and transformative technologies in history.

In fact, some of us have always seen HPC is having as much to do with heat-seeking scientists and engineers as it does with high performance numerically intensive or data intensive computing. Certainly as a company serving it, seeing HPC as an early adopter market is very helpful to explain customer requirements and behavior.

This early-adopter nature of HPC is nicely on display when you attend a supercomputing conference. You don’t just see supercomputers, you see everything across the technology spectrum from semiconductors to apps, from mobility to cloud, from graph analytics to streaming big data…

What is the historical trend for startups in the high performance computing world?

There have been several successful companies in HPC. Supercomputer and minisupercomputer companies did very well and while there’s been consolidation, the leaders continue to do very well. We’ve also seen successful interconnect companies, several app vendors, storage specialists, etc. But when it comes to commercialization of promising technologies, HPC punches below its weight. That, we can and should change.

A great example is web browser software, which got its start at NCSA, a supercomputing center, but the companies that took it to market were not HPC companies.  But this is not just a question of mega successes. Even within HPC, there should be many more startups.

Why don’t we see more HPC startups?

A big reason for that, in our view, is that the HPC community does not get training on entrepreneurship. How do you become an entrepreneur? Does it have to be in your blood, or can you actually learn how to do it? It turns out you can learn most of it, and in the process (since nobody is excellent at everything), you also learn how to surround yourself with others who are good at other necessary things.

Another obstacle we see is with technologies that come out of HPC but transcend HPC. Web browsers or 64-bit computing are old examples of those and big data, cognitive computing, cloud computing architecture, and some aspects of social media are very current examples. In such cases, one obstacle is recognizing that the bigger market is very interested in the technology but is not really interested in HPC per se. It uses a different vocabulary than HPC, has different requirements, different buying behavior, etc. But you’re not going to face those challenges if you didn’t form the company to begin with.

I assume StartupHPC is formed to address that?

Exactly. StartupHPC is initially focusing on entrepreneurship training, tapping into an amazing network of experts, and crowdsourcing of how-to experiences.

For existing HPC startups, there is a chasm to be crossed when you extend beyond the HPC market and want to serve the mainstream IT market. StartupHPC community will help with that as well.

You also mention STEM. How do you distinguish between STEM and HPC?

There is a growing recognition in society about the importance of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) as an important foundation for educational systems.

HPC is very much a logical continuation of STEM in the digital world. It applies STEM disciplines to the vast amount of digital data to solve problems: to better understand natural phenomena, to build better products, to gain insight from existing evidence, to better evaluate the ramifications of social policies, etc.

Ideally, we’d also add Arts and Entrepreneurship as necessary ingredients, and we’d highlight the importance of Design, which would bring it all together in just the right way.

Why is this a good time for HPC-inspired startups?

There is really no good reason why there should not be more HPC-inspired companies out there, a lot more. HPC professionals are at the leading edge of their fields and come across inspiring ideas all the time. But two trends are making is easier than ever to take things to the next level and to seriously consider an entrepreneurial plan.

First, forming and leading a technology startup is not as mystifying as it was a few decades ago. There is a vast body of experience and knowledge that is available. Providing access to the best of such expertise and wisdom is an important aim of StartupHPC.

Second, the IT industry is entering a phase where mainstream IT requirements are highly aligned with HPC strengths. As has been covered widely, we have gone from dumb-terminals and mainframes through the client/server phase and now entering the mobile/cloud world. Back-end systems, software, services, and the economic model that supports them are all changing, and they are changing towards what the HPC community is very good at: scale, performance, productivity, and the ability to handle large volumes of data and extract value from it.

How is the startup event in New Orleans shaping up so far? Who should attend?

The event is focused on how you become an entrepreneur with practical advice, discussion, and Q&A together with some of the best minds in this area. The types of topics we’ll cover are: how you build a team, get funded, manage legal issues, determine the right strategy, build a product, find early customers, launch the company, expand, raise additional rounds, etc.

We are truly honored to have such prominent speakers. Their enthusiasm to participate is an indication of how much fun we’re all going to have learning from them and interacting with them.

The forum will be a must-go event for anyone in the HPC community who wants to become an entrepreneur, foster entrepreneurship in HPC and STEM, fund HPC-inspired startups, or simply plug into this important startup community.

Are you charging a registration fee for your event?

Membership in the StartupHPC community is free. Since a 6-7 hour event requires non-trivial costs for the venue, meals, a/v equipment, etc., there is a modest registration fee for the event, which will cover less than 20% of costs. StartupHPC handles the balance.

For future events, in addition to considering short (low cost) meetups, we are also considering sponsorships and annual membership fees for companies to defray costs, and would adjust registration fees accordingly. We are also looking at annual membership fee for some StartupHPC members who might need higher-level services, and that would include free admission to all events. We’ll evaluate all that with the StartupHPC community.

What sort of reception have you received so far?

There has been universal endorsement of the idea and the recognition that it fills an important gap, it doesn’t compete or duplicate any existing effort in HPC, and that it can serve a really valuable purpose to the benefit of the whole HPC community. We gratefully sought, and continue to seek, advice from many: HPC professionals, VCs, Corporate executives, Media, and Founders and CxOs in actual startups.

The event has generated a lot of interest too, registrations are coming in, and we are looking forward to a very high quality gathering. Hope to see you there!

StartupHPC aims to accelerate the creation of STEM- and HPC-inspired startups. It’s first in-person meeting will be held on Monday November 17th at the Royal Sonesta hotel in New Orleans. Learn more at StartupHPC and register here for the event.

StartupHPC is a grass roots community for STEM- and HPC-inspired entrepreneurs, corporations, VCs, and support organizations.  We’ve never had a resource center like it that is focused on and shaped by HPC. By becoming a member, you can register your startup, get expert answers to your questions, get recommendations on resources and suppliers, and generally accelerate your progress from shaping the original idea, to building a team, getting funded, creating a product, launching the company, etc. If you are a company, you can gain first-hand knowledge of HPC startups out there and what their needs are so you can craft more attractive services for them. And what better place to frequent if you are a VC and want to tap into the leading edge of STEM-oriented innovation.

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