Pittsburgh Data Guru Making Mark in Hollywood
Ron Bianchini is on his third successful startup venture with Avere Systems, the North Side data-storage firm that played a critical, if unsung, role in the Academy Award-winning movie “Gravity” and dozens of other recent blockbusters.
Photos by Tom M. Johnson
Ron Bianchini strides through the headquarters of Avere Systems with the confidence of a man who’s building his third successful multimillion-dollar company.
“This building is as solid as they come,” he says with a sweep of his hand, pointing to steel trusses overhead. “Forklifts used to run up and down these floors all day long. You could drive a truck through here.”
Bianchini, 52, is the CEO, president and co-founder of Avere, a company that is quietly building a seismic reputation in the world of computer-data storage. While Avere is generating headlines among those who follow the industry — and particularly among moguls in the business of making blockbuster movies — in Pittsburgh, the company’s story largely has been waiting to be told.
Computer-data storage isn’t the sexiest topic, yet it’s as integral to data-driven lives as the air we breathe. All of the data that we save, send and crunch has to live someplace until we need it again.
Avere develops high-performance systems that drive some of the largest industries in the world — from movie production to energy companies to the Web server for the entire continent of South America.
It’s an exploding business. Avere’s bookings with clients in 2013 resulted in year-over-year growth of more than 100 percent, and it’s on a similar pace for 2014. As the company’s success and reputation grows, Bianchini remains committed to keeping it in Pittsburgh, where he juggles work and a lifestyle that revolves around family.
He’s unmoved by opportunities to become a bigger fish in a global pond — an unusual stance in an industry in which the resignation earlier this year of Silicon Valley-based executive Max Schireson, who stepped down as CEO of database vendor MongoDB to spend more time with his wife and children, made international news.
Avere, which derives its storage-inspired name from the Italian verb “to have” or “to hold,” now houses a team of 110 computer engineers in its headquarters, a 24,000-square-foot former warehouse on the North Side overlooking the Allegheny River. The selection of the building was serendipitous; it previously had been used as a paper mill and as warehouse storage for StarKist, Heinz and Del Monte.
“It was built for storage, and now we’re building storage in it,” says Bianchini.
The data-storage business today is a highly competitive, multibillion-dollar industry with a history of multimillion-dollar acquisitions of rising tech startups. One such early acquisition took place in Pittsburgh in 1996 when FORE Systems, founded by four Carnegie Mellon University professors, acquired several companies. Among them was Pittsburgh-based Scalable Networks — Bianchini’s first company, founded the year after he left his post as a computer science professor at CMU.
Scalable, which FORE acquired for $34 million, specialized in networking technology that vastly increased the performance of Ethernet connections for enterprises. Three years later, FORE itself was acquired by a bigger company for $4.5 billion at the peak of the dot.com bubble.
From Scalable, Bianchini moved on to start his second company, Spinnaker Networks, in 2000. Spinnaker marked a major shift in focus for Bianchini. It provided data storage for other companies that, as they grew and amassed more files, needed a way to coordinate their data. Spinnaker’s solution was to build a server — a filing cabinet-sized system that stores, organizes and controls a company’s filing system, pulling it all in one compact unit. The company had a successful three-and-a-half-year run on its own; in 2004, Silicon Valley-based NetApp acquired it for $300 million. Bianchini remained with NetApp until 2007, when he again felt the pull to start something new.
Avere is Bianchini’s third act. While he’s still in the business of computer-data storage, he’s taking a radically different approach to scaling storage, earning accolades along the way and attracting the attention of big investors in Silicon Valley. “Enterprises today need to be really fast, really efficient and really cost-driven,” says Bianchini. “We didn’t want to start Avere until we knew we had something that would actually be a huge differentiator in the market.”
Avere is all about processing massive amounts of data in the blink of an eye. The key to this transfer is Avere’s flagship product, the FXT Series Edge filer — a platform that, while half the size of the Spinnaker filer, boosts performance and makes the transfer of data from computer to storage and back seamless and fast. The execution is easy, says Bianchini — think of an enterprise version of Dropbox.
“A little network drive shows up, and you write your files to it. Except that you’re sending BIG files,” he says, emphasizing the word. “Once you write it, it’s our responsibility to get it there.”
The FXT Series Edge filer harnesses two types of computer storage — disk storage and flash storage, Bianchini explains. Spinning disks, akin to those that grind away in your computer, provide dense, bulk storage and are economical. Flash, found in smartphones, is faster but 10 times more costly to use.
Avere’s FXT Series Edge filer uses the two in tandem to maximize benefits of both — disks for capacity and flash for performance. The filer is the quintessential gatekeeper, steering flash data one way and disk data another while getting the job done fast and at a lower price point than other products on the market, Bianchini says.
“Before Avere, you had to pick slow and cheap or fast and expensive,” he says. “Power down, performance up. That’s what I’m all about.”
Bianchini is gregarious and loves talking shop. So when he says that he can’t reveal the names of his company’s biggest clients, you get the sense that he’s dying to tell you.
Here’s what he can share: Half of the world’s major oil companies use the FXT filer to run their enterprises. Life-sciences companies use it; the FXT filer is helping researchers to gain faster access to the world’s largest, centralized repository of whole genome sequence data. Anyone who’s ever downloaded an image from the U.S. Library of Congress has used it. The largest Internet service provider in South America, Locaweb, which runs the Web server for the entire continent, is an Avere client.
The fastest-growing segment of Avere’s business, however, is the movie visual- and special-effects industry. The Avere filer was used in production of 12 hit movies in 2013, including “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,” “Despicable Me 2” and “Iron Man 3,” as well as “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” and other top-drawing 2014 films.
“A cheer went up in the office” when Framestore, an Avere client, won the 2014 Academy Award for special effects used in the movie “Gravity,” Bianchini says. He gives credit for technical wizardry to “the true brains of the company” — Michael Kazar, his co-founder and CTO, recognized with a lifetime achievement award in 2013 by the world’s largest technology professional membership association for his contributions to data storage.
The movie industry today is under extreme pressure to rein in costs and get the job done fast, Kazar explains. To accomplish this, movie producers often outsource special effects to production studios that concentrate on that work. He uses the swirling sandstorms in “Zero Dark Thirty” as an example of that process.
The studio used an array of 10,000-20,000 computers to create and track each speck of sand in the sandstorm, frame-by-frame, he explains. Avere’s filer assisted in making this happen by copying all of the image data and distributing it across the entire computer array, making it available on demand for creation of each frame. The results are spectacular and fast, helping artists to achieve realistic effects such as swirling storms or spaceships, asteroids and George Clooney floating through space.
“There’s a huge amount of processing involved to track 15 million specks [of sand] on the screen one frame at a time,” Kazar says. Being fast is a lot harder than it looks.
Bianchini is at a point in his career when he could be flying in corporate jets, drumming up business with some of the world’s largest corporations. He considered such a lifestyle briefly but chose instead to make Pittsburgh his home.
Some say Bianchini relishes being a big fish in a city with a blue-collar history that resonates with his build-it-and-they-will-come work ethic. Bianchini says it’s more that, first and foremost, he is a family man. He and his wife Emily, their three daughters and their Goldendoodle, Ella, live in Fox Chapel, where they recently built a sprawling stone Colonial home. Being a hands-on dad to Elaina, 20, Elizabeth, 18, and Emilia, 14, is his first job, he says, and one he wouldn’t miss for the world.
Bianchini grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., the eldest child in a large, boisterous Italian family. “If you drop a pin on my grandmother’s house and draw a 10-mile radius around it, you’d find nearly everyone but me,” he says.
While some company executives prefer not to weave family into professional or public conversation, Bianchini has no such reservations. One minute he might be working in the office, the next excusing himself to run out to the river to wave to the passing Fox Chapel high school crew team (and his daughter Emilia).
“It’s embarrassing sometimes,” says Elaina, who studies opera at CMU’s College of Fine Arts. Not so for middle daughter Elizabeth, who inherited her father’s almond eyes and disposition. She is a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, her father’s alma mater.
Wife Emily says her husband’s outgoing nature pales in comparison to that of his father. Ron Sr. was a professor at New York University, where he ran the hardware lab. In those days, universities built their own computers so students could learn programming. The elder Bianchini taught his son how to assemble the circuits. When Ron Jr. was in high school, he returned the favor by showing his dad how to improve upon his original design, using fewer links and shorter wires.
After MIT, Bianchini moved to Pittsburgh for graduate school at CMU. Upon completing his doctorate in electrical and computer engineering, he joined the faculty and taught computer engineering and hardware.
In 1994, he filed for his first networking patent through the CMU Tech Transfer Office. Emily, a former assignment editor with CNN in New York, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. Within a year, the patent had earned $3 million in licensing fees. Then Lycos, a CMU spinout, changed the game, becoming one of the most profitable Internet companies in the world at the time with one of the fastest initial public offerings to date in 1996.
Inspired by the success of Lycos, Bianchini says he saw a future in which he became a major player in the industry by starting his own company and taking it to a successful initial public offering. In 1996, Bianchini left CMU and founded Scalable Networks with Hyong Kim, a CMU graduate student.
“My mother was pretty disappointed,” he says with a laugh, recalling her conflicted response. “She asked me if she would be lying before God if she still told everyone that I was a professor at CMU.”
“Scalable Networks was five guys in an office in our house, from 9 a.m. to late at night, with a newborn baby,” recalls Emily, who had just given birth to Elizabeth. “It seemed like every time he started a company, we would have a baby. After the third one I said, ‘No way. We’re not doing this again.’”
Nine months after Scalable’s founding, FORE Systems acquired the company. Bianchini stayed on long enough to connect with several key people who followed him to his future companies. “FORE was pulling in people from all over the country,” Bianchini says. “You go to the reunions today, and the people you see are all very powerful people in the industry.”
Several years later, Marconi had taken the reins and, while restructuring, called Bianchini with a job offer that he admits he had a hard time refusing. Emily was in labor with Emilia at Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC.
“Imagine my day,” he says. “I’m in Magee, answered my phone and they asked me to be CTO.” Bianchini recalls pacing the hospital hallways, unable to make a decision. “I thought I was going to take it, but in the end I turned them down,” he says. “One day I’d be in a corporate jet flying to Texas. The next I’d be in Italy. [Marconi] was a massive company. I didn’t want that. I prefer helping customers solve problems.
“So I said, ‘OK, you have me for a month, but I gotta go do something small.’ Then I left and started Spinnaker Networks.”
When Bianchini and Kazar started Spinnaker, it generated buzz all the way to Silicon Valley. John Jarve, manager director of venture-capital firm Menlo Ventures, had known Kazar at MIT. He says he knew the two were a dynamic combination. Menlo Ventures and Norwest Venture Partners came on as lead investors.
Scalable had been a modest success, Jarve says, but Spinnaker blew away its competition. When NetApp bought Spinnaker for $300 million in 2004, the transaction signified the first big-storage merger in the country at the time.
“Ron is an absolutely brilliant product strategist,” Jarve says. “It’s very hard in technical products to find an individual who is capable of meeting with customers, understanding those needs and taking those needs and crafting them into a product that customers will love. That’s one of his multiple skills.”
Bianchini is more comfortable talking about his reputation in his neighborhood than what colleagues are saying about him in Silicon Valley. After leaving NetApp and before starting Avere, he spent a few months at home with his family, a time he fondly refers to as “the summer of building things.” Elaina and Elizabeth were in middle school; Emilia was 8. Together they mapped out plans to build soapbox derby-style go-carts — until Bianchini and Elizabeth got carried away.
They started with a simple plan for a pushcart, but it proved to be too heavy and cumbersome to push. They shifted gears. By the time they were done, father and daughter had built a souped-up, electric racecar with headlights and racing stripes. Elizabeth took it for a spin around the yard. As her mother looked on, the car caught fire. Bianchini shakes his head. “We needed to beef up the electronics,” he says now.
“Everything just kept getting bigger and bigger,” explains Elaina. “That’s how everything works with my dad. Our neighborhood thinks he’s the coolest dad on the planet.”
Bianchini returned to work later that year to found and self-fund Avere with Kazar. Within the year, they had raised their first of several funding rounds. To date, Avere has raised $72 million from original investors Norwest and Menlo, who followed Bianchini, plus several others; it has shipped nearly 1,000 FXT Series Edge filers from Pittsburgh.
Rich Lunak is CEO of Innovation Works, the Pittsburgh-based early-stage investment firm that selects and advises young companies with potential for regional economic impact. He met Bianchini when he was running Spinnaker Networks. Today Bianchini is chairman of the board of IW.
“[Bianchini] is a nationally and internationally known entrepreneur,” Lunak says. “It’s important to have someone like him who has built numerous companies as a sounding board to keep [Pittsburgh startups] on the cutting edge.”
And if Bianchini and Kazar take Avere to an IPO in the next few years, which they have made a public goal? “It would be phenomenal to have that happen in Pittsburgh,” says Lunak. IPOs of Pittsburgh-based companies have been rare — less than 25 over the last 20 years. More often, local companies that grow to a good size generally are acquired by other companies.
“They have dramatically changed many communities,” Lunak adds. “When you have a astronomically successful company, it can accelerate that community.”
Avere’s investors agree.
“Avere is one company that I really hope we can take public,” says Jarve. “It can be a model company for other companies and entrepreneurs.”
“We come to Pittsburgh because we want to compete on a global scale . . .” says Matt Howard, co-managing partner of Norwest Partners. “The plates are shifting. The value proposition of Avere is just as good as any company in Silicon Valley.”