This year, Convergent Science turns 25 years old. On December 7, 1997, the seven original founders of Convergent Science—including current co-owners and co-vice presidents Keith Richards, Kelly Senecal, Eric Pomraning, and Dan Lee—filled out the paperwork to incorporate Convergent Thinking, LLC, and paid the couple hundred dollar fee (although, as with all company lore, there is some disagreement over the exact amount).
Seven young University of Wisconsin-Madison engineering graduate students set out that day on a snowy trek to a government office building. 25 years later, three have since moved on to other careers, while four are still with the company, still good friends, making major business decisions together as co-VPs. “People have told us, you need a CEO,” said Kelly. “You need a single person who sits at the top and makes all of the final decisions. And maybe it’s because we started out as an LLC, which is a partnership, and we were structured as a partnership when we incorporated, we kind of kept that structure.”
How does a company survive to be 25 years old? In the current business environment, when so many startups flame out quickly, what lessons can be learned from the success of Convergent Science? One of the keys is luck. More than that, though, the key is knowing how and when to capitalize on that luck.
From the beginning, Convergent Science faced its share of obstacles. The owner-engineers spent seven years building a computational fluid dynamics (CFD) code designed to model internal combustion engines, and it was ready for release in 2008. At the time, several automakers were facing bankruptcy. “The automotive industry was hit pretty hard,” said Keith. “That’s right when we released CONVERGE, and it felt like the world was crashing down around us.”
But there was a silver lining in the market crash, at least for Convergent Science. “It turned out to be one of the best possible times to start selling CONVERGE,” continued Keith. “We didn’t have to convince any of the major automotive companies that they needed to be doing CFD more efficiently. They knew that their financial difficulties were rooted in the fact that it was taking them too long to do research, and there was too much effort involved in developing new products.”
CONVERGE, a CFD software designed to eliminate all user meshing time and accelerate iterative prototyping, was quickly embraced by the automotive industry. Major U.S. growth spawned from there.
In 2009, the four U.S. owners were approached by Rainer Rothbauer, now co-owner and geschäftsführer of the European branch of Convergent Science, when he was working at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas. One of the first users of CONVERGE (or the very first, depending on who you’re talking to), Rainer was interested in distributing the software in Europe. He spoke to Dan first. “One of the first calls I had with Dan, I said, ‘Wow, this guy can talk,’” said Rainer. “And I still think he can talk pretty well, but I also know now that he knows CFD very well and is a fantastic friend.” In 2010, Rainer returned home to Austria and started Ignite3D, a CONVERGE distributor. In 2014, Ignite3D became Convergent Science GmbH, allowing the company to better expand its operations by hiring support and sales staff specifically for the European market.
Around the same time Rainer began distributing CONVERGE in Europe, the owners also started targeting the Japanese market. It was a hard sell. An initial distributor did not work out. “We struggled selling our software in that area due to non-technical reasons such as language barriers, cultural differences, and time zones,” said Dan. “We needed to have a local representative.” In 2013, the opportunity arose to partner with IDAJ to distribute CONVERGE in Japan, South Korea, and China, and the owners seized upon it. The partnership with IDAJ was a boon for Convergent Science, and the Asian market continues to contribute significantly to the company’s revenue.
More international opportunities presented themselves. In 2017, Convergent Science India, LLP, opened in Pune under the leadership of Ashish Joshi, who had worked with CONVERGE in his previous position at CEI. “We realized that a lot of our clients have an international presence in India,” said Eric. “In order to support them better, we really needed to have local support. An opportunity opened up for Ashish to start a branch in India for us. That’s been very successful. Now we have 20-some people in that branch in India, and we’re continuing to grow it.”
25 years ago when they were trudging through the snow, Kelly, Dan, Eric, and Keith could not have imagined that one day they would be co-owners of a company with branches in Madison, Wisconsin; Detroit, Michigan; New Braunfels and Houston, Texas; Linz, Austria; and Pune, India. Or that their software would be used all over the world in industry and academia. If you ask them, they will admit that they never wrote up a business plan. However, they have been lucky to get some good business advice along the way, some of which they did listen to. Eric remembers being told, “Choose your partners carefully.” “Maybe I didn’t choose my partners carefully,” he said, “but I got lucky. I probably didn’t take that very seriously when we were starting out, but I was very fortunate that my partners ended up being very good people and good people to be in business with.”
And it has worked out well. The owners have transitioned the company from a handful of graduate students coding together in a broom closet into a successful international business. “At Convergent Science, we’ve been fortunate enough to always experience significant growth in our software revenue,” said Dan. “To continue that growth, we’re going to have to solve more problems in more application areas. We need to continue to hire the best people, including individuals that have an expertise in applications that are new to Convergent Science. We need to partner with world-leading organizations, research labs, and universities, and continue to promote CONVERGE and extend the value statement into applications that are new to us.”