By Susan E. Campbell
Lisa Avila is the only woman among five founders of Kitware Inc., developer of an innovative visualization software toolkit and other open source platforms.
The business partners worked together at GE’s research unit in the mid-1990s. Up to that time, there was no software available to visualize one’s data without purchasing an expensive license. In 1998 they went out on their own and developed an open source product that could be downloaded and used directly.
“The toolkit may come close to providing free solutions the user needs,” said Avila. “But our revenue comes from modifications they cannot provide for themselves that bring the software to the next level.”
Now 20 years later, this international company has 150 employees in five offices, including headquarters in Clifton Park. Avila attributes their exponential growth to improved functionality and popularity of their software platform, she said.
In the early years, all the partners worked on software development, contract issues, finances, even emptying the wastebaskets. Avila said her primary focus was on leading the proposal team and on marketing and public relations as vice president of commercial operations. In March of 2017, when the CEO transitioned to a software development role, she took over the executive position.
“As a company starting out in a budding technology field, the team had a difficult time figuring out an exact strategy,” she said. “We were a software company like every other and were focused around a visualization tool kit. But we found out in the first five-plus years that our passion was really in delivering innovative solutions that clients could build upon.“
That business paradigm involved giving software away in order to fund other research opportunities. And that required a large sales force as well as a financial department to collect accounts receivable, said Avila.
Most clients are commercial businesses with complicated needs. The firm also does software development for the federal government, which Avila said is thinking forward on issues such as national security and health care outcomes, which call for enhancements and customizations to its data visualization programs.
“We are competitive and collaborative across a wide range of industries as well as federal agencies, such as Department of Defense and Health and Human Services,” she said.
Kitware celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and in December relocated headquarters within Clifton Park by consolidating two spaces into one larger building.
“Clifton Park is low turnover but it is a growing office,” she said. “Growth is limited only by our ability to hire and we are continually working to find people in a hot field that competes with Google and Amazon.“
As she looks back to the early years, Avila said, “I don’t feel entrepreneurial anymore because we are no longer a small business. We now hire employees that are younger than our company.”
Her definition of an entrepreneur envelopes a “willingness to take risks, to do something positive, and have a chance to be successful despite the risk.“
Her big challenge as a company today is making sure it has a diverse workforce that includes qualified women. She said she is encouraged by universities who are recruiting more women to pursue degrees in computer science.
“We try to create an environment women can get excited about,” Avila said. “As a company we look for interns among high school and college students and by attending events geared toward women.”
“Kitware is set apart competitively by an amazing work force,” she said. “About 40 percent has a Ph.D in a technical field.”
“They can solve very complex problems, write proposals, and accomplish the client’s specific goals,” said Avila. “They enjoy our friendly, flexible work environment and get paid for every hour, including overtime after 40 hours per week, a culture of fun, the obligatory free food in the kitchen as at all software companies, and the ability to work with leaders in the field.”
By Susan E. Campbell