Alum’s startup aims to democratize creativity by expanding our access to software
By Michael Seele, originally published in ENGineering, Spring 2016
Nikola Bozinovic’s vision of the future – one that’s being realized in his Silicon Valley startup – can be traced to the day he arrived as a new graduate student at the College of Engineering from his native Serbia. For Bozinovic, who had been long deprived of anything but the most basic computer hardware and software in a country torn by war and hobbled by international sanctions, August 22, 2000 was the day his life changed.
“My first day at BU, I’m at the computer lab on Cummington Mall and I’m like a kid in a candy store,” he said, recalling the exact time and place vividly. “All the software I needed was there. And my first thought was, ‘There are so many people around the world who don’t have access to this.’”
Today, Bozinovic is the founder and CEO of Frame, which is making creative software available to users via the cloud. His goal is to democratize creativity and make any software — even the most powerful design and engineering applications — accessible to any user from any device. He sees this model as the future of computing, and major software companies and investors are agreeing.
Last summer, Frame secured $10 million in venture capital funding, the latest investment in a company that is generating revenue and gaining a customer base drawn to the cloud’s technical and financial advantages. Frame’s initial foray was a low-key demonstration that made the popular Adobe Photoshop application available to users on Amazon Web Services in the fall of 2013. Within two days, tens of thousands of people from 190 countries were using it on desktops, tablets, and phones. Since then, Frame has attracted customers like SolidWorks, MathWorks, Procter & Gamble, Siemens, and others, and is scaling up operations to lead at the newest frontier of computer technology.
If there’s a single case study of the American Dream, Nikola Bozinovic might well be it. Born in what was then Yugoslavia, he came of age during the tumultuous 1990s, when the country had fractured along ethnic lines into several smaller republics. War, genocide, and other atrocities were common throughout the region, including in Bozinovic’s Serbia.
While studying for a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the University of Nis, 22-year-old Bozinovic organized rallies protesting the rigged election of 1996 that kept the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in power. In this pre-Twitter age, he gathered representatives of 17 voting precincts, who collected evidence of voting fraud, and marched 150 miles to Belgrade with a letter petitioning Milosevic to hew to the law. Opposing the strongman was dangerous – dissenters were sometimes murdered – so Bozinovic successfully courted international news coverage for protection. The march culminated in a 50,000-strong rally in Belgrade and a knock on Milosevic’s office door.
“We were trying to bring the democracy to the country without getting killed,” Bozinovic recalled. “As we were ushered into his office, you could hear the roar of the crowd. I read him the letter and presented the evidence of fraud.”
The protest undid the election and started the movement that ultimately forced Milosevic out of power in 2000, the same year Bozinovic arrived to begin studies in the ECE PhD program at BU. He chose BU for its engineering program and the fact that the University also admitted his then-fiancee (now wife), Mina, as an English PhD student.
Bozinovic joined Professor Janusz Konrad’s (ECE) group, working on ways to compress video and deliver it efficiently. “That turned out to be the fundamental basis of my companies and it’s at the core of what we do now,” Bozinovic said.
Konrad remembers Bozinovic, his first PhD student, as “extremely enthusiastic. He won a best paper award from a European scientific journal for a very interesting new approach to video compression. You need to come up with something very novel to win that kind of award.”
Following graduation in 2006, he headed for California, determined to start his own company. He helped start MotionDSP in San Mateo, where he developed software that stabilized and clarified low-resolution video in real time. His innovation drew the attention of the defense and intelligence communities interested in refining video shot from unmanned aircraft. Within a couple of years, the company had more than two dozen employees and customers in and out of the government, but further growth appeared stymied.
“The software needed a very powerful workstation, a high-end computer that many potential users didn’t have,” he said. “Lots of customers wanted software delivered from a data center. In this new scenario, the user would open a browser, click on an application, and start using it few seconds later, with nothing to install.”
Such technology had existed for years, but it was slow, expensive, and hard to use. As the market for tablets and smartphones began to take off, Bozinovic had an idea for delivering applications – either custom-made or off-the-shelf commercial products – to any device, but he didn’t have the millions of dollars it would take to build a data center. Then another technological revolution presented the opportunity Bozinovic needed.
“With the early emergence of the cloud in 2012, I thought that if we built a platform to deliver apps from the cloud, we would have a great product,” he said.
With its huge storage capacity and low cost, cloud-based computing quickly revolutionized the industry. Bozinovic likens his product to Dropbox, the app that allows users to share documents, graphics, videos, and other files via the cloud. “They made access to any file really easy. We wanted to do that with software,” he said.
Bozinovic launched what would become Frame in the fall of 2013. He put the Photoshop demo on Amazon, along with a YouTube-like embeddable player that worked with any operating system on any device without needing to be downloaded. Users were able to effectively run Photoshop on demand.
“There was a humongous response,” he said. “It was an experience never seen before. Click on the app and five seconds later, you’re in business. It’s full-feature software, running on robust, stable, and secure platform. People’s minds were blown.” But an instant success story, this is not.
For the first year, Bozinovic “bootstrapped” the business, funding everything with savings and forgoing a salary while starting a family. He wore every hat: technology development, marketing, human resources, and – importantly – salesmanship, as he attracted venture capital with only a prototype and a vision.
“The story of every startup is selling the vision and the promise,” he said. “First, I had to sell it to my wife, when we had a young child and another one on the way. I had to sell it to potential customers. I had to sell it to employees. Want to come work with me? By the way, I can’t pay you right now. Then I had to build something and sell it to investors. In the Valley, these guys are looking for the next Google, the next Microsoft. They are thinking big.”
Not every VC pitch produced funding, but he was able to secure escalating investments, culminating in $10 million last year, while being careful not to give up too much control of the company in return. That vision is being increasingly validated. Recently, Forbes seized on this idea of ubiquitous computing as the future in the post-mobile age. “That’s what we see – access to computing from everywhere,” Bozinovic said.
And with that access will come the democratization of innovation, he believes. Engineers, scientists, designers, and others will no longer need to purchase high-performance computers and expensive software to create products that can improve people’s lives.
“We can unleash creativity and help people create the next medical device, make more fuel-efficient cars, a better airplane wing,” he said.
He remembers how his BU experience opened the world to him, with computer resources that revolutionized his life. “In Serbia, I couldn’t get to engineering or design software that I needed. At BU, I could be a designer, an engineer, a creator, with every tool at my fingerprints. What BU did for me 15 years ago is what we’re trying to do for the world today.”