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Autodesk targets the scientific market.

"When we find The Next AutoCAD' it will look just like the last AutoCAD did in 1982--a non-obvious product in a market waiting to be created, with a large body of potential users who haven't ever really thought about how useful such a product might be."

-John Walker, 4/1/91

A year ago, retired Autodesk co-founder John Walker warned that "timidity and unrestrained risk-aversion" had transformed his company from a market leader to a potential also-ran (Soft*letter, 8/25/91). Walker's Final Days' memo precipitated a shakeup in Sausalito--in management, marketing, and product development--that is still under way. But perhaps the most interesting outcome is the company's new "scientific modeling business unit," headed by Autodesk rising star Joel Voelz.

Voelz dropped by recently to show off his unit's flagship product, a 3-D molecular modeling program called HyperChem. HyperChem (created by a small Ontario development firm called HyperCube) is one of those products whose merits we have to take on faith: It lets chemists build "designer molecules" on the screen, much as architects and engineers use AutoCAD to design buildings, machine components, and other gadgets. Besides lots of specialized algorithms and modeling tools, HyperChem comes with a thorough knowledge of the rules of chemistry; it automatically knows how to connect carbon bonds, calculate energy levels, and find a complex molecule's backbone. And it makes pretty pictures of things that look like globs of colored ping-pong balls.

We do know enough, however, to know that there are tens of thousands of chemists who already use mainframes and workstations to perform HyperChem-like calculations. In fact, says Voelz, modeling--which is Autodesk's real business focus, not just the chemical market--is arguably the mission-critical task for millions of scientists and engineers in industries that range from steel-making and pharmaceuticals to aeronautics, chip design, and biotech.

Autodesk's not-so-modest plan is to build a franchise for itself in scientific modeling that eventually replicates the company's success in the CAD business, which is now worth in excess of $200 million a year. Other mass-market software companies (notably Lotus in 1986) have made similar runs at the scientific and engineering market and were defeated by the lack of high-volume distribution channels. Voelz has no illusions about the barriers to entry; he knows that it will take a good many years and perhaps a hefty chunk of AutoDesk's otherwise idle cash to build a serious scientific market.

But Voelz also points out that Autodesk knows the ground rules for penetrating technical markets. When Autodesk first entered the PC-based CAD business, the market was dominated by expensive, proprietary systems; to generate sales, Autodesk had to piece together a network of VARs and convince users to accept compromises on power in return for deep price savings. Along the way, Autodesk developed some useful tricks--like making low-cost copies of AutoCAD available to architectural and engineering schools, and encouraging an active third-party add-on market--that should play equally well in the scientific and engineering market.

"We've done this kind of thing before," says Voelz, "and we're ready to do it again."

Joel Voelz, general manager, Scientific Modeling Division, Autodesk, 2320 Marinship Way, Sausalito, Calif. 94965; 415/332-2344
COPYRIGHT 1992 Soft-letter
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Copyright 1992, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Title Annotation:software publisher banking on success of HyperChem simulation package
Publication:Soft-Letter
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Mar 23, 1992
Words:523
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