With one purchase already under its belt, US graphics giant Autodesk is scouring Israel for more technologies in an effort to take advantage of the country’s innovative R&D scene.
When graphics giant Autodesk recently bought Israeli startup PlanPlatform, in addition to gaining a web interface for its design software tools, it acquired a ready-made R&D facility in Israel, which top Autodesk executive Amar Hanspal describes as “one of the most exciting startup and R&D scenes in the world.”
The company, which is now looking to buy new Israeli technologies to expand its local R&D team, has evolved far beyond its staid reputation as a maker of modeling and design software, and is now on the cutting edge of computer graphics of all kinds – like the 3D graphics in the Hollywood sensation Avatar, which were developed using a device that interfaced with Autodesk’s Motionbuilder software.
PlanPlatform developed a web-based interface called VisualTao (also the previous name of the company) that enables users of design software to work together, online, “Google docs style,” says Tal Weiss, a co-founder and the (former) CEO of PlanPlatform, who is now director of Autodesk’s AutoCad Israel R&D facility. Autocad is Autodesk’s main product.
The acquisition of PlanPlatform from Israel just over a year ago gave the multinational Autodesk – estimated by Wall Street analysts to be worth $5 billion – its first Internet collaborative platform. It’s a purchase that the California-based company is delighted with, Hanspal tells ISRAEL21c.
Enabling designers to collaborate online
“I’m really impressed with the level of entrepreneurial energy and the willingness to take risks that I’ve seen here – it’s like that book, Start-up Nation, come to life,” Hanspal enthuses. “We’re impressed with the quality of the people here – especially with Tal and his people – and we look forward to working with more people here. We’re proud to be associated with Israel.”
What made PlanPlatform such an appealing purchase for Autodesk is that its web platform allows designers to share their work online, with teams in different locations able to log in and make changes and additions to designs, Weiss tells ISRAEL21c. Before the advent of PlanPlatform’s web product, architectural and design teams had to either meet in person when collaborating, or coordinate using e-mail or video conferencing. “Either way it was a hassle,” says Weiss.
PlanPlatform was founded by Weiss and his partner (former VP) Jonathan Seroussi in 2007. Both men had previously worked for Israel Aerospace Industries and had a long history in computer design. Rounding out the core team is project manager Iris Shor, with a background in architecture.
A beta version of the VisualTao platform came out in early 2009, and Autodesk immediately began making inquiries. “We hadn’t even taken the platform live,” Weiss remembers.
Hoping to mine Israeli advances
By November, Autodesk had grabbed the company, buying it out for an undisclosed amount that industry insiders estimate at between $20 and $30 million. VisualTao is now online as Autodesk’s Project Butterfly.
While in many cases a multinational buyout will lead the purchased company to be broken up, or subsumed into the larger company’s universe, the Israeli unit has been left as is. “We’re continuing to work in the web space as we were before, building design tools for use online – now using Autodesk software and technology,” says Weiss. There are now plans to expand the division as Autodesk expands even further into the Web.
To celebrate the official launch of Project Butterfly in late January, Autodesk sent a high-ranking delegation of executives to Israel – “a clear sign that the company takes what we are doing here very seriously,” according to Weiss.
Hanspal, who is Autodesk’s senior vice president for platform solutions and emerging business, agrees, affirming that the company is very interested in Israeli technology, especially for online “cloud” applications and services.
Project Butterfly building a cadre of users
“Autodesk was actually involved in the Web way back in the 1990s, but the tools to properly work with high-end design tools – and the bandwidth needed to efficiently work with relatively heavy design files – have only emerged in the past couple of years,” he explains. “We decided to acquire PlanPlatform and Visual Tao to get involved in what was clearly going to be a successful design collaboration project.”
Successful it certainly is. In the first few weeks of operation, says Hanspal, Project Butterfly already began building a loyal and rapidly growing cadre of users.
While Autodesk has had a sales team in Israel almost since the company’s inception in the mid-1980s, this was the first time it seriously considered Israel as a development center.
Now that Israel has been ‘discovered’, however, the company intends to continue enjoying Israel’s technology genius – not just through Weiss’s team, but via other companies as well.
“Israel is an acknowledged leader in cloud technology, and as more computing that traditionally took place on the desktop moves online, we hope to be able to work with other Israeli cloud innovators,” Hanspal reveals. “I’ve already been meeting with companies, and we’ve put the word out – we want to expand. We see Tal’s team as the beginnings of our Israeli research and development unit, and we want to grow that unit.”