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Bitten by the Startup Bug, Augen Loosens The Tie and Leaves IBM for TurboWorx

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“You’re probably wondering why I did this,” said Jeff Augen last week, speaking about his recent decision to leave a cushy post as worldwide director of strategy for IBM’s Life Science Solutions unit for his new job as president of New Haven, Conn.-based TurboWorx.

It turns out that startup fever can be contagious: While working with the smaller company under an alliance the two firms formed in the spring, Augen said he was simply won over by the company’s potential and felt the urge “to do something more entrepreneurial.”

Now splitting his time between TurboWorx (formerly TurboGenomics), a new post as entrepreneur-in-residence at investment bank Trautman, Wasserman & Co., and writing a textbook on post-genomic computational biology for science publisher Addison-Wesley, Augen said, “the first week has been pretty interesting.”

Despite the obvious cultural differences between Big Blue and the tiny IT startup, Augen hopes to apply lessons learned from IBM’s rapid growth in the life science sector to his new firm. “Definitely the goal is to make this a big company,” Augen said.

While running lean and keeping the company’s burn rate down, “we don’t plan to keep the revenue small,” he said. Pinning the market for the type of parallelized workflow management software TurboWorx provides at “tens of billions of dollars,” Augen said he expects the company to capture “a few percent share of that market,” reaching the hundred million dollar range within the next five years.

Augen said he left IBM under good terms, and will miss certain aspects of the company. “Carol [Kovac] deserves a lot of credit” for building IBM’s life science business unit, he noted. Citing IBM’s multi-pronged approach of distribution channels, direct sales, and alliances with key vendors, Augen said he plans to implement key elements of this strategy in the smaller firm’s roadmap. “I learned a lot from working with [Kovac] at IBM and I think our strategy also will depend to some extent on building the right alliances rather than building everything ourselves.”

Having held positions at EDS and Compaq before joining IBM, Augen is a first-timer in the small business realm. The biggest adjustment so far, he said, has been the “pace at which decisions are made.” Unlike the large meetings and debates of larger firms, “there's no resources or time for lengthy discussions. You just make your decision and that’s it.”

As for other advantages to the smaller startup world, “Everybody's heart is in it,” he said. “There’s less politics, and everybody is focused on the same thing.”

Of course, Augen was quick to point out, “You can build a business of hundreds of millions of dollars inside of a $90 billion company. It’s much easier because you have the resources.” However, that doesn't dim his enthusiasm for the future of his new company.

TurboWorx’ technology “could really change the way people do bioinformatics,” Augen said, adding with a laugh, “Of course I'm kind of bullish on it, because I risked my career. Most people don't do that.”

— BT

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