An American Dream Story, With A Silicon Valley Twist

Author

Alexander, Dan

August 14, 2013

Aster Data founder Tasso Argyros remembers when his father headed to the United States to teach for a semester in 1988, leaving him and the rest of his family behind in Greece. His father promised he would bring back a souvenir for him. Argyros, who was seven years old at the time, wanted an especially American toy—an Apple computer.

“He brought me this very early Apple computer, and from that point, I just got addicted,” Argyros said. “I was spending as much time with the computer as my parents would let me.”

Twenty-five years later, Argyros is a Silicon Valley millionaire after selling his big-data startup, Aster Data, to database giant Teradata in 2011 for a $300 million valuation. He is now senior vice president of global product development and strategy for Teradata—a database company with $2.7 billion in revenue last year. FORBES has named Argyros one of 11 NextGen Innovators.

The Apple computer souvenir was the first step toward a success story that merges two very American narratives. Argyros, along with Aster Data co-founder Mayank Bawa—also named one of FORBES’ NextGen Innovators—are both immigrants who came from overseas and found fortunes in the United States. In some ways, they are rare embodiments of the age-old American Dream.

But their stories add a new twist. As American technology products have spread worldwide, their consumers have become their students, meaning the tech innovators are coming from around the globe. Argyros and Bawa, from Greece and India, made their millions in Silicon Valley, building a massive technology company while they were still students. Think Andrew Carnegie mixed with Mark Zuckerberg—albeit on a much smaller scale.

Their business is reshaping how companies catch fraudsters, banks handle customer service, and doctors make decisions.

Businesses can use Teradata to identify small, previously undetectable traces of fraud spread across thousands of accounts that add up to a material loss. If a fraudster is taking $2 from 100,000 accounts, a giant company might not notice the loss. But by using Teradata’s pattern recognition, they can identify the pattern and stop the fraud. That’s exactly what one online gaming company in Europe did.

“In the first 20 days, we were able to save them something like $20, $30 million,” Bawa said. “These are like parasites, and you’ve got to have a system that can find where these parasites are and start blocking them.”

Hospitals are also using Teradata products to analyze admittance data and determine which decisions by doctors lead to people being readmitted to the hospital shortly after they were released.

Bawa and Argyros met as Ph.D. students at Stanford University. Both started their own academic research, not imagining what they discovered would one day be a business idea worth hundreds of millions. Bawa developed complex algorithms that could process massive amounts of data, and Argyros researched ways to spread the work of processing over hundreds of small computers rather than one supercomputer. They combined their work and solved a problem for businesses across a range of industries. With their product, even companies that did not have access to supercomputers could analyze previously unimaginable amounts of data.

They also got help from a Stanford and Silicon Valley legend. “I stumbled across a professor named David Cheriton, who had almost a seductive personality,” Argyros said. “His thesis was that most academic research was nonsense and that we needed to focus on things that were going to make a real impact.”

Cheriton was a master of identifying transformative projects. He had written a $100,000 initial check to two of his students who were founding a tech company in the late 90s. That company was Google, and that check is now worth over $1 billion in the tech giant’s stock. Thanks to other early investments in companies like VMware and Arista Networks, Cheriton is worth an estimated $1.7 billion today.

Cheriton, another professor and Silicon Valley angel investor Ron Conway bet $1.25 million on Bawa and Argyros’ startup Aster Data in 2005, when company headquarters were Argyros’ on-campus apartment.

Through Conway’s vast network—he had made early investments in Google, Facebook and Twitter—Argyros and Bawa got introductions to leading tech companies, including MySpace, then one of the internet’s top social networking sites. MySpace agreed to sign up as Aster Data’s first customer for nearly $10 million in 2006. With only three employees and a few key Stanford connections, Aster Data was off and running.

Aster Data was a big data company before the term “big data” existed. Argyros and Bawa struggled to explain their technology to customers who were only familiar with old school databases that housed mostly financial information but nothing else.

“If someone called us a database, there would be discipline,” Argyros said. “We were something new.”

The new company expanded quickly. The first five members of the company were all immigrants—from Greece, India, Romania, Canada and Brazil—who had all come to Silicon Valley to be a part of the tech boom.

“What an eclectic mix of countries,” Bawa said.  “I remember thinking this can only happen in the Bay Area.  It brought a lot of perspective to the experience.”

Aster Data had 20 people by 2006 and over 100 by 2010, when the market for big data took off.

As soon as it did, the heavy hitters in technology jumped into get a piece of the action. HP, IBM and Microsoft started their own big data arms, and Aster Data feared it would get bullied out of the market.

“They started going at it from a marketing perspective,” Argyros said. “We were like, do we want to fight this game and have a 10 to 1 handicap essentially. Or did we want to sign on with a company who could sell?”

Enter database giant Teradata.

Teradata bought 11% of Aster Data in 2010 for $30 million and added the other 89% the following year for $267 million more. Teradata named its line of big data analytics products “Aster” and brought Bawa in to head the Teradata Aster research and development labs. Argyros signed on to lead big data deployment and strategy for the corporation.

The move has paid off for Teradata. Revenues slipped in 2009, but have increased 56% since 2010, when the company first acquired a stake in Aster Data. Profits have increased 72% over the same period.

Now Bawa says there are untapped industries that big data can revolutionize, like oil and gas. But his next big project is to make big data accessible to more people—not just analysts but everyone in a company.

“The next leaps are going to come when we put the tools of big data in the enterprise hands and when we open up analysis to more than just statistics,” he said. “When these two things happen, there will be a second wave of big data.”

And that wave will have broader reach. Argyros says further expansion into Europe and Asia are on the horizon. Twenty-five years after his father brought him an early Apple computer from the United States, Argyros is taking another American product—big data analytics—to places like India and Greece.

Related From Forbes:

Next Gen Movers: 10 Rising Stars At The World's Most Innovative Companies

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