U-spawned technology start-up flourishes

Sistina maintains offices in Stadium Village, California and England.

Nathan Hall

When tech start-up Sistina Software hired Ben Marzinski six years ago, the University computer science sophomore was spending so many late hours studying in the school’s computer labs that janitors knew him by his first name.

It appears hard work might be paying off for him and the company. Marzinski – now a salaried head software developer and University alumnus – recently bought a house with some of his friends, and Sistina is expecting to post a profit for the first time early next year.

“Everyone else I know now Ö is working for monolithic companies and hating their jobs,” Marzinski said. “(At Sistina) you get an awful lot of responsibility thrust on you right away, but at the same time you really get to run with something.

“The problem is that if something is broken, it is solely my fault. There is no one to turn to except for me.”

Founded in 1997 by former University electric and computer engineering professor Matthew O’Keefe, Sistina currently employs about 30 workers – mostly University alumni – and maintains offices in Stadium Village, California and England.

Sistina, whose name refers to the Sistine Chapel, produces two main products: global file systems and logical volume managers.

The first allows large clusters of computers – 180 and counting -to use files simultaneously. The latter lets computers view multiple hard drives as a single hard drive.

Linux-based applications are pricey and designed primarily for the type of gigantic computations required by processing-heavy conglomerates.

“It’s not really for the home user,” Marzinski said.

Sistina’s client base includes Hewlett Packard, IBM, Red Hat, Dreamworks, the U.S. Department of Defense and several oil companies.

Sistina started as a University research project funded by NASA, which needed complex data-crunching power to map galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Frustrated with academic beauacracy, O’Keefe set out to hire the then-best minds of the University’s computer engineering department and started Sistina, Marzinski said.

Sistina currently operates on approximately $20 million obtained by investors St. Paul Venture Capital, Crescendo Ventures and Validus Partners.

“The venture capitalists are not in there to grow our company so we can become a big private company,” Marzinski said. “They usually want a humongous return when we go public Ö either that or those who are funding us are betting we’ll get bought out by a really big company who’ll buy us for a good deal.”

Marzinski, who works about 50 hours per week, described his work environment as “great,” citing an absence of dress codes and the occasional Nerf gun or laser tag game in the basement for team stress relief.

Currently, University provisions allow inventors to receive 33 percent of licensing royalties and 25 percent for ongoing research. The University also typically approves a two-year sabbatical to start a business.

“The University has had to step in at multiple points to clarify ownership rules,” Marzinski said.

Between 1998 and 2002, University research resulted in 40 start-up companies. Total University revenue from start-up companies was nearly $11 million during the same period.