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Early-stage company execs talk partnering with CIOs

For an early-stage company, an enterprise CIO or CTO can be both a customer and a source of advice.

Relationships bridging enterprise IT and IT startup companies came to the fore in last year’s MIT Sloan CIO Symposium and the pattern also stood out at this year’s event. The conference’s Innovation Showcase features young companies with cutting-edge offerings. A couple of showcase participants shared their C-level experiences.

Joris Poort, co-founder and CEO at Rescale Inc., a San Francisco company that runs customers’ simulation and high-performance computing workloads in the cloud, said his company has convened industry advisory boards where C-level executives describe their challenges. In turn Rescale, an Innovation Showcase participant, shares its direction with the executives.

“C-level executives are concerned about a number of issues,” Poort said. “CXOs in industry verticals we serve are very interested in digital transformation and cloud migration — especially how to achieve a great return on investment while minimizing risk.”

The discussions have shaped the early-stage company and its hybrid-cloud orientation.

“CIOs and CTOs have influenced our direction on hybrid platform solutions and that is why we now offer the ability to extend your on-premise HPC to the cloud and match the best possible architecture for the job,” Poort explained.

On the other hand, for customers ready to move 100% to the cloud, Rescale has developed what Poort described as a “turnkey alternative” to on-premises data centers, combining copious compute resources with enterprise-level administration.

Conversations with CIOs can also spark the launch of a startup.

Joel Mulkey, founder and CEO at Bigleaf Networks, an Innovation Showcase finalist, said his conversations with IT directors and CIOs while he was the CIO of a regional internet services provider, helped generate the main idea behind the Beaverton, Ore., company. He found that technology managers struggled with the performance of cloud applications across internet connections. Bigleaf’s SD-WAN platform aims to optimize internet and cloud performance.

“The core of Bigleaf came from some of those [CIO] interactions,” Mulkey said.

Those conversations haven’t stopped. Earlier this year, the company embarked on a process of interviewing customers to gauge how the company’s technology is lining up with the problems they are facing. Mulkey said.

“We just don’t want to be storming forward with what we think is right,” he noted.

Mulkey said the customer talks confirmed the company’s general technology direction, but also revealed some additional customer needs. One example: Bigleaf provides visibility along a business’ WAN path to the cloud, but customers are also looking for insight into what’s happening in their local-area networks and in the cloud. Mulkey said such direct feedback will influence the company’s technology investments going forward.

At CloudZero, another Innovation Showcase participant, CEO Erik Peterson said feedback from CIOs has “influenced and solidified” the company’s understanding of the market and problems that need solving. CloudZero, based in Boston, provides a serverless reliability management platform.

Peterson said CIOs have told the early-stage company that serverless computing offers cost savings and enables businesses to quickly adopt new business strategies. CloudZero has also learned from CIOs that businesses are moving to serverless regardless of their cloud maturity.

“The third is an important insight because CIOs see serverless as an express train to the latest in cloud computing,” Peterson said.

He said businesses can adopt serverless technology at any stage of cloud adoption. That’s the case, he noted, whether those organizations operate a centralized, monolithic architecture; a de-centralized architecture built on microservices; or a distributed architecture based on cloud platform services or serverless computing.

Peterson said CloudZero views the shift to serverless as an opportunity to partner with CIOs, offering assurance that their investment in the technology provides the performance and value they require.

The shared objective: harness startups’ research and development activities and benefit from the resulting innovation.

For an early-stage company, guidance from CIOs or CTOs helps to take a product from what potential customers may initially view as an “interesting technology” to something they may actually want to purchase. But the benefits of collaboration cut both ways. CIOs can and do harness startups as defacto R&D centers to develop innovative technologies they would otherwise struggle to incubate on their own.

Startups can plug a technology gap in emerging fields from serverless computing to high-end simulation. They can also help enterprises “innovate with speed,” as Poort puts it.

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