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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on April 19, 2000. All rights reserved.

From Russia, With Love and Determination: Part I


Smart scientists never turn off their thinking caps.

For the ones with 24 by 7 brainpower and boundless energy, good ideas

seem to pour out in a never-ending stream. For the lucky ones, those

ideas pay off.

Alexander "Sasha" Migdal is smart (most say brilliant), energetic

to a fault, and lucky. He left the Soviet Union in 1988 and taught

at Princeton University. With Bob Rice in 1996 he founded Real Time

Geometry and was wildly successful with making software for electronic

commerce’s 3-D images. Last year he spun off a variation of those

ideas to Metastream, which also promises to be quite successful. In

1998, with Keith Danko and Ward Tomlinson, he founded Tachyon Systems,

now on Hulfish Street, to do selective real time analysis of stock

pricing, and Tachyon’s software could play a dominant role in online


Ideas seem to pour forth from Migdal. That they have paid off is,

nevertheless, more than luck. Part is due to the cadre of Russian-born

computer scientists, many including Migdal’s former students, who

have come to work with him. His braininess and his charisma also act

as a magnet for savvy executives who — knowing a good thing when

they see one — sign up to work in his companies.

His success is also due to his scientist wife, Tanya, who co-founded

Real Time Geometry, and his son-in-law Alexei Lebedev, Migdal’s former

student and now a co-developer of the software. This family —

husband, wife, daughter, son-in-law, and mother-in-law — plus

two dachshunds and a Pekingese — all live on Cherry Valley Road

in one big country house with two sides, "We meet in the kitchen,"

says Migdal.

Russian and American values also meet here. "There is a great

civilization in Soviet Union; some of that is very valuable,"

says Migdal, now a United States citizen. "There are people who

represent that and are trying to carry it forward. But merging with

American culture is what I am doing, and I am proud of it."

In a recent scuba diving trip off Ecuador, where he was diving with

hammerhead sharks, Migdal was greatly impressed that sharks were such

nice and friendly animals, and jokes that he prefers the sharks of

the Pacific Ocean to the sharks of Wall Street. But he does not admit

to ever having been cheated in compensation for any of his great ideas.

"I am very aggressive in my own way," says Migdal.

Here is a summary of the companies that Migdal has started.

(This list doesn’t count the ones that are still in his head or under


Real-Time Geometry (RTG) opened at 300 Alexander Road

in 1996 and was moved to Washington Square in October of that year.

It was sold in December, 1996, to a company in Santa Barbara, then

known as MetaTools, which owned some of the most popular shrinkwrapped

programs for graphic designers. At that time RTG had 23 workers, including

many researchers from Russia; they received a total of 800,000 nonqualified

stock options in MetaTools.

When MetaTools bought Fractal Design Corporation, the company name

changed to MetaCreations; it trades on Nasdaq (MCRE). Corel, owner

of some of the most popular computer graphics programs, invested in


For MetaCreations, Migdal’s firm helped decrease the time needed to

make, render, and display 3-D images and environments and to develop

an affordable 3-D camera that can produce a 3-D image that shows texture

and allows viewers to decrease resolution to improve speed. Migdal

and his cohorts fashioned impressive image compression algorithms

decrease the download time.

MetaCreations is divesting itself of its shrinkwrapped products for

the graphics industry — Corel has bought many of them.

Metastream is owned 80 percent by MetaCreations and 20 percent

by Computer Associates. It has just moved from Washington Square inn

Princeton Junction to Manhattan. Though MetaCreations is still in

Santa Barbara, all the employees are moving to Metastream except those

doing sales and marketing for graphic products. "Metastream was

founded with an unwavering conviction that visualization and interaction

will drive the next stage of the digital economy. Metastream Corporation

is the global leader in developing solutions that transform content

into experience," says a press release (

Tachyon Systems LLC. ( "Sasha had a huge success with

Real Time Geometry, now Metastream, and when he realized that the

stock market has tremendous amounts of data not being analyzed, he

came to me to ask whether his plan made sense," says Keith Danko,

CEO of the company headquartered on Hulfish Street. "We worked

on it for four or five months and decided to form a company to develop

it fully."

The first product, FalconEye (, offers a way to

capture, clean, and analyze real time market data. It visualizes Nasdaq

stocks with streaming Java technology. Anyone — broker or consumer/day

trader — can get real-time charts, alerts, and analytics of more

than 6,500 Nasdaq stocks and compare "insider" data.

Smart scientists don’t compartmentalize their brains

and they don’t turn them off. "What I have learned about Russians,"

says a company insider, "is that they work day and night, they

never rest." The terms "mad scientist" and "absent-minded

professor" also come to mind. It helps that all those, connected

with Sasha Migdal, particularly his family members, are quite accustomed

to his exhausting and fragmented schedule, and they make allowances

for the fact that daily details are not his strong point and that

he does not like being tied to a clock.

Migdal’s father, who died of cancer during a 1991 visit to the United

States, was a well-known atomic energy scientist who, says the son,

was devoted to developing peaceful uses of atomic energy. "My

father was an extrovert. He taught me to be curious, open minded,

and rebellious — not to follow the crowd. He was a very tough

father. He taught me to swallow hard and admit you are wrong even

if somebody explains that to you in a very insulting manner,"

he says. "When I moved away I respected him even more."

His mother’s father was a Frenchman who came to Russia after the Revolution

to help create a new way of life. His mother lives in Milan with his

sister. "My mother, in a different way, is very Russian, very

ambitious but kind of shy. I switch between the two modes. Sometimes

I like to open up and impress people and be the middle of attention,

and sometimes I like to hide and just talk to myself."

After earning a master’s degree from the Moscow Physical Technical

Institute he acquired doctoral degrees from the Landau Institute for

Theoretical Physics and Chernogolovka, where he was a senior research

fellow. He was head of the Laboratory of Computational Physics in

the Cybernetics Council of the Soviet Academy of Sciences, sometimes

referred to as the Star Wars lab.

Migdal waxes positively poetic when he talks about his wife, Tanya,

a PhD biologist from Moscow University. They met at a wedding of a

long-time mutual friend. "It was love from first sight. Everybody

forgot about the wedding and was gossiping about us," he says.

"We were married in a couple of weeks. I was 23, and I was not

just sitting around but I hadn’t found anything close to what I found

at that wedding. What I felt was — like the sun inside, a very

special feeling that I never felt before."

Even though Russian scientists do attach more emotion to their work

than Americans do, Migdal admits, the work emotions could not compare

to the love-at-first-sight feelings. "Work brings a lot of excitement,

and you forget about everything, but it is not love."

In 1988 he left from the USSR with his wife and their daughter Anya.

After a year at the University of California, San Diego, Migdal came

to Princeton University in 1989 as a joint professor of physics and

applied and computational mathematics. He has written more than 100

scientific papers on such topics as theory of phase transitions, high

energy physics, mathematical physics, and computational fluid dynamics.

Tanya Migdal worked as a doctoral fellow at Princeton University.

Then she became a successful jewelry designer, and her husband proudly

recounts that a photo of her work was published in the New York Times

under the title "Jewelry with Radiance." At the time Real

Time Geometry was founded, she worked there as CEO for a year and

then went back to her jewelry. She is accustomed to his all-hours

work schedule. "We basically see each other when we escape on

a trip," he admits.

They have one grown child, a daughter, Anya, who was a child actress

in Russia and starred in a movie entitled "Somersault." She

graduated from Manhattan School of Music but is now studying acting

in New York City. "She is used to the crazy lifestyle so she is

very tolerant of her husband working late nights," says Migdal.

Her husband, Lebedev, is her father’s former student. They were introduced

by Lebedev’s mother, Tatyana Tolstaya, a leading Russian novelist who

contributes to the New York Book Review. (She is the granddaughter

of author Alexei Tolstoy, but not related to Leo Tolstoy.) When she

spent a year teaching at Princeton she mentioned that her son Alexei

was crazy about computers, and he ended up studying with Migdal and

helped him found Real Time Geometry. Anya married him in the Russian

Orthodox chapel in Jackson and had a reception at Prospect House.

"To me, he is almost like son," says Migdal.

The Migdals live in one half of a big house on Cherry Valley Road

and their daughter and son-in-law live in the other half. Also living

in this house is Ludmila Levina, Migdal’s mother-in-law. "We

have an exceptional family," he says. "Usually even your own

kids don’t want to live with you."

Top Of Page

Migdal’s first company, Real Time Geometry, has evolved

into Metastream. It has moved out of Washington Square to Manhattan,

and the two companies now share a CEO. On April 10 Bob Rice, CEO of

Metastream, became president and CEO of MetaCreations as well.

Rice attended college and law school at Florida State and was a partner

at Milbank Tweed Hadley and McCloy until he joined Migdal at Real

Time Geometry. "I got him obsessed with my inventions and he is

now my partner," says Migdal.

Also on the board is the chairman, Howard Morgan, a former Wharton

professor who actively supports idealab!, a Pasadena-based incubator.

Sree Kotay commercialized STG’s technology after it was acquired by

MetaCreations, and now he is chief technology officer. David Feldman,

the former primary product engineer on the Macintosh File System at

Apple Computer, is chief strategist, and the chief marketing officer

is Paul Kadin, former executive vice president of the Dreyfus Corporation.

The other officer local to Princeton is Christopher T. Gentile, vice

president of production. An engineer from Syracuse University, Class

of 1981, Gentile co-founded two companies, Abrams Gentile Entertainment

and Millennium Rush. At the latter he developed a PC application called

Dance Studio, real-time character animation technology to allow you

to choreograph a dancer’s natural movement and then direct a fully

interactive music video of the final performance. It was the first

time that characters inside a computer have intelligence, and knew

how to act on their own, he said then (U.S. 1, February 24, 1999).

At that point Millennium Rush and its sister company, Katrix, had

approximately 20 employees in 8,000 square feet on Airpark Drive.

(Both have vacated that space.) Gentile has also developed and produced

more than 23 consumer products, including the Nintendo glove and "Ride

the Comix," a networked virtual reality location-based entertainment

attraction for the Walt Disney Company.

Though a public company owns Metastream, Metastream is not public.

Since September, 1999, Rice has been positioning Metastream to

take the dominant market position for 3D E-commerce visualization

solutions and secured an investment from AOL.

The firm has streamlined its big camera with a five-figure price tag

and now has a Minolta version that sells for under $4,000. With the

software you can edit and change the design — a feature that is

useful for more fields than E-commerce — plastic surgery, for

instance. But the biggest product is the Metastream software.

Here are some features from the latest version of the software.

Appearance. MTS3 has real-time shadows, reflections, and

high resolution texture — all new for three-dimensional models

on the web. See how your sports car shines under lights from different

camera angles.

Design. Users can switch parts, colors, and patterns of

something they are trying to buy. For instance, try different patterns

for a sofa you want to buy.

Accessories. Zoom in on the port of a notebook computer

and MTS3 will display photos of all the accessories that plug into

that port.

Presentation. You can see multiple sets of data in interactive,

three-dimensional portfolios, especially important for stocks. One

3D graph can show several stock portfolios.

Information. Teaching features offer more information

on, say, how to assemble the bike you are going to buy.

Manipulation: You can pick up a virtual object and turn

it over or open it.

Speed: Thanks to a combination of what is called "wavelet

technology" and "procedural textures and materials," files

are smaller yet better in quality to two-dimensional image formats,

according to the company’s press releases.

Since the E-commerce frenzy might not last forever, it’s fair

to ask how this company will make money when Wall Street money dries

up. Rice has come up with a business plan that combines the mentality

of "shareware" (the honor system arrangement) with the greediest

of licensing opportunities. Because anyone can request a free license

to broadcast MTS3 content from a site, the little guys — schools,

hobbyists, and smaller vendors — can use it for free and get it

established among consumers. Commercial clients can use it for free

also. But once a commercial client gets heavy traffic on an MTS enabled

site, then that client must purchase a broadcast license.

A baker’s dozen of strategic partnerships with companies like Grey

Interactive, Catalog City, and IP Technologies has just been announced.

Even more important alliances were put in place in March. In conjunction

with its MTS3 technology, Metastream users will be able to incorporate

images fashioned by iPIX, based in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to use as

background environments. "With iPIX, viewers on MTS3-enabled Web

sites will be able to `step inside’ and feel as if they are actually

in the picture. MTS3 is the first Internet solution that incorporates

3D images with other forms of Web media, including iPIx Full 360 degree

by 360 degree spherical images, allowing for interaction with virtually

any type or online content," says a press release.

Also announced is that Adobe Systems will support the Metastream format

in all its tools including the popular Photoshop and Illustrator.

Such companies as Nike, J. Crew, Warner Brothers Online Store, CBS,

@Home,, Lego Mindstorms, and NASA are using Metastream.

Last year’s version won Popular Science magazine’s Best of What’s

New award and PC Magazine’s technical excellence award. In the future:

such features as real-time interactive character animation, integrated

video streaming, and synchronized audio events.

For Part II click on Next Story.

Next Story

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