Back in 2000 I founded a distributed computing startup called Popular Power. Simple pitch: a for-profit platform like SETI@home, selling scavenged CPU cycles to big businesses. We couldn't raise the venture capital we needed and shut down in fall of 2001. A sad ending, but I'm still proud of what we did.

As is typical with big idea startups, when we started our business there was no competition. By the time we launched the product in April 2000 we knew of three or four competitors and when we shut down there were about ten. What happened to the most serious competition?

Entropia was founded by Scott Kurowsi, the GIMPS guy, and Andrew Chien, a distributed computing professor from UCSD. They raised over $30M from Mission Ventures, Moore Capital, and RRE Ventures. But it seems to have gone nowhere; the website is down today and Wikipedia says the business stopped operating in 2004.

Applied Meta's founder Andrew Grimshaw started a company to commercialize his experience from the academic project Legion. Over time they raised over $20 million (mostly from Polaris), renamed themselves Avaki, and recast themselves as enterprise middleware. They were acquired by Sybase in 2005 for $3.1 million.

United Devices got my attention when they hired David Anderson, the designer of SETI@home. They never took off as hoped but are still in business delivering "application-centric virtualization solutions for data center and HPC environments based on industry-leading grid technology". I believe they've raised over $45M from Oak, Mobius, Intel, GE, Constellation, AOL, and a European consortium. Dave left long ago and is now running BOINC, an open source distributed computing platform.

Data Synapse was founded by someone we had talked to when developing the Popular Power idea. Early on they specialized in the financial services market and seem to be surviving as a small business, including Nov 2005 funding from Goldman Sachs. They now describe what they do as "virtualizing applications across a real-time infrastructure".

It's clear that none of these businesses have had a huge success. One is gone entirely, one was bought for about 15% of the investment. Back in 2001 all of these companies abandoned the idea of being a utility on the public Internet and moved instead to selling their technology as a enterprise software product. Popular Power made that switch too, we even had one small sale before shutting down the business. But enterprise sales is a tough business with year long sales cycles and lots of custom work. While I'm genuinely impressed with the tenacity of the two survivors, neither seems particularly interesting now.

  2007-03-09 18:20 Z