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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,"
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
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.
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 (www.metastream.com)
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
The first product, FalconEye (www.falconeye.com), 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."
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.
high resolution texture — all new for three-dimensional models
on the web. See how your sports car shines under lights from different
something they are trying to buy. For instance, try different patterns
for a sofa you want to buy.
and MTS3 will display photos of all the accessories that plug into
three-dimensional portfolios, especially important for stocks. One
3D graph can show several stock portfolios.
on, say, how to assemble the bike you are going to buy.
it over or open it.
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.
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, Styleclick.com, 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.
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