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Interview Published March 17, 2003

Chuck Ames, Oak Grove Systems

Chuck Ames is CEO and Founder of OakGrove Systems (, a spinoff of JPL. I talked a bit with Chuck about his company to learn a bit more about how his company spun out from JPL, the challenges of doing so, and what they're doing now.

BK: Tell me a little bit about Oak Grove: what's your product/technology?

CA: We provide Business Process Management (BPM) software that helps companies operate more efficiently by coordinating and streamlining key activity flows. Using our tools, Corporate IT can build and deploy managed workflows very quickly, and adjust them as needed. Some of the world's leading software companies, such as Plumtree Software, Sybase, The SAS Institute, and 360Commerce, also use our technology in their products to provide managed support for specialized flows around their applications.

BK: How did you decide to spin the technology off from JPL?

CA: We had just deployed the second major version of World-Wide-Workflow, or WWWorkflow for short, to coordinate processes for the global network of engineers collaborating to build the International Space Station. We were able to link together applications, processes, and people from around the world and help them work together more efficiently on a very complex project, and we thought "I bet other people have this problem!" So we changed the name of the product to "Reactor", and the rest, as they say...

BK: How long did it take you from deciding to spin off the technology to actually spinning it off?

CA: The process took about a year, mainly due to the complexity of negotiating license agreements.

BK: What was the most difficult part of the spinoff--and did you get any assistance in turning it into a company?

CA: The transition from being a JPL employee to being the founder of a JPL-technology based business is a delicate process. In order to manage that transition successfully, you often need to navigate the constraints and responsibilities of both positions -- responsibilities that may, at times, be in conflict.

JPL understandably has a cautious, almost reluctant approach to privatization. The economy benefits from Government-sponsored research when new technologies are turned into commercial products, and JPL is one of the most prolific producers of publicly-funded innovations in the world. At the same time, all federal labs have to be concerned about controversy from perceptions of misuse and exploitation of tax-payer dollars. It's a controversial issue, and creates a real gauntlet for the entrepreneur to navigate.

On the other hand, CalTech's Office of Technology Transfer, which is the final gateway for JPL technology to the marketplace, was very supportive of our efforts and served as a terrific resource for Oak Grove. In particular, Larry Gilbert and Rich Wolf, the directors of the Office, were a terrific resource and played an integral role in getting Oak Grove financed and off the ground.

BK: What kind of financial backing do you have, and who are your investors?

CA: We're privately financed by Southern California-based angels and other private investors. We have been profitable since Jan 2002.

BK: What's your own background?

CA: I'm an "entrepreneurial engineer" -- always looking for ways to use technology to solve problems in ways that unlock value, whether that's time, energy, money, whatever. My training as a Systems Analyst along with a decade at JPL working on unmanned space programs -- where Faster Better Cheaper is a way of life -- has been a good base, but building a company and keeping it alive and growing through very tough times has been a terrific challenge -- and a lot of fun, too!

BK: What are your future funding plans--are you intending to raise more capital?

CA: We're currently operating profitably, but will take steps this year to raise growth capital so we'll be ready when IT spending improves.

BK: What's has been the most challenging part of starting a company?

CA: I think every entrepreneur has to come to grips sooner or later with the fact that it's the customer's needs -- and not the entrepreneur's vision -- that ultimately drives adoption of new products in the marketplace. The intellectual boldness that is required to start something new has to be refocused on serving the customer's needs, and that can be an unnatural act for some.

BK: Finally, what do you think has been the most valuable lesson you've learned in taking your product from JPL and turning it into a commercial product? CA: Ideas are what inspire people, but persistence, flexibility, and resourcefulness are the keys to success.

BK: Thanks!

Copyright (c) 2003 by Benjamin F. Kuo. All rights reserved.
May not be reprinted without permission.