CEO recounts 20 years of growth for Kitware

Halfmoon software company has expanded to 160 employees, will move to new Clifton park headquarters
Kitware co-founder, President and CEO Lisa Avila speaks Thursday at the New York BizLab.
Kitware co-founder, President and CEO Lisa Avila speaks Thursday at the New York BizLab.

SCHENECTADY — Kitware said Thursday it plans to occupy its new headquarters on Route 9 in Clifton Park this summer.

The move will follow a mostly upward 20-year curve in which the software company has grown from five employees working at a kitchen table to 160 working in five offices and bringing in $17 million in annual revenue. 

Additional workforce growth is expected in the near future, although finding skilled computer scientists has proved challenging.

Kitware co-founder, President and CEO Lisa Avila spoke Thursday at the New York BizLab incubator/accelerator on State Street for the 11th edition of the lunchtime entrepreneurship series the BizLab started last year with Clarkson University. 

Kitware is a software consulting, research and development company with a wide variety of clients working in a wide array of fields. Since its founding in 1998, it has specialized in open-source software, which is free for all to use. So its business model is heavily skewed toward service and expertise, rather than products.

Kitware’s five co-founders all worked at General Electric’s research and development headquarters in Niskayuna when they decided to start their own company. Avila, with one infant at home and a second baby on the way, recalls the decision as terrifying. She thought if the partners could make Kitware last two years that would be OK, because keeping a startup going for two years would look good on her resume.

At the two-year mark, Kitware didn’t fail — it hired an intern and a full-time employee. Growth was slow through 2005, when Kitware moved out of product sales to focus on service.

It now has about 160 employees, 100 of them in two headquarters buildings off Sitterly Road and Route 9 in Halfmoon, the rest spread among offices in France, New Mexico, North Carolina and Virginia. A new headquarters building is under construction near routes 9 and 146 in Clifton Park.  Kitware will occupy 40,000 of its nearly 60,000 square feet.

The company is receiving multiple forms of assistance to make the project happen, including more than $400,000 in sales tax and mortgage fee waivers and property tax exemptions worth more than $900,000.

The Saratoga Economic Development Corporation, which helped Kitware secure the mortgage, property and sales tax exemptions from the Clifton Park Industrial Development Agency, said the move retains a roughly $14 million annual payroll in the area.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised the expansion in January as he announced Kitware would also receive up to $400,000 in state Excelsior Jobs Program tax credits, provided it adds the 41 jobs it projected.

Kitware jobs pay very well but are nonetheless challenging to fill — demand for computer professionals exceeds supply, Avila said.

The company currently lists 24 job openings on its website.

On the plus side, Kitware does have very low turnover, Avila said. Vacancies are mainly due to growth. That first RPI intern brought on in 2000 has been with Kitware ever since; he’s now a principal engineer and holds a doctoral degree. The second person hired left eight years later when her spouse relocated, but the third is still with the company.

Why the low turnover? “It’s interesting work with an outsized impact,” Avila said. “We worked very hard to make a good culture.”

Kitware’s work can range from developing safer nuclear power practices to fighting human trafficking to designing treatment for babies with craniosynostosis, or prematurely fused skull plates. Kitware might program activity-recognition software to automatically alert police when someone puts down a backpack and walks away from it, or it might devise a way to determine if images have been manipulated to create fake news.

Avila said some of this involves work well beyond computer programming, sometimes uncomfortably so. 

Kitware’s project with the Department of Defense and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop tools against human trafficking, for example, led to a new company policy that allowed employees to back out of projects they found too unsettling.

That project involved “looking at data on the dark web and looking for/analyzing patterns and creating tools for law enforcement to use,” Avila said.

“This actually was a real challenge for us because some of the things we were looking at were disturbing to be looking at, and the data we did get was disturbing to have to view, to be able to write the algorithms to be able to parse all of that.

“But then, when you have that, law enforcement can use that and they can find the ads that were placed selling that person and use that to track down where that’s happening,” she said.

“There’s a great sense of doing something good for society but there’s an awful lot of horrible things you have to go through and look through to be able to do that work.”

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