“We thought it was a crazy idea at first,” Hakim Karim, GridMarkets’ Director & Co-founder, says.
However, both Hakim and his co-founder partner Mark Ross recognized the industry need for their business idea — to aggregate computing resources and to provide it to entities and individuals who needed it, on an on-demand basis — and decided to validate it. They approached and talked to an insurance company and were invited to present to a team of IT executives there.
After finishing his high-level pitch, Hakim recalls an unnerving silence and anticipation, as he waited for their response. “I couldn’t read their body language since it wasn’t a video call. And then they said, ‘we’re interested.’ It was like a penny dropping moment for us,” he recalls.
It was a proof-of-concept of sorts for Hakim and Mark. After all, insurance companies are known more for their conservatism than for their risk tolerance.
However, it was the media and entertainment industry that held the greatest promise and where the first opportunities came from. “One of the big challenges that any studio, or even independent freelancers, and students in the visual effects trade need is support for visual effects rendering and animation, which are very computationally heavy,” Hakim explains.
While larger studios had the capital to attain this computational power, smaller entities or individuals would have difficulties. “That’s where GridMarkets comes in. We are a solution which provides the means to leverage the cloud and the computing power of hundreds or even thousands of machines, at the push of a button,” he says.
One preeminent value proposition, Hakim emphasizes of GridMarkets’ solution, is its ease of use. “Previously you bought machines, installed them, bought software, upgraded them regularly and managed things on an ongoing basis. There is a fair bit of technical overhead in doing all of that.”
According to Hakim, even when customers work directly with cloud companies, their instructions are not straightforward: “There could be 20, 30 steps, and along the way things can go wrong and even after it’s all set up, you need to ensure that it’s all secure and encrypted at the right places. And that’s a headache.
He adds: “Many of our customers today are artists and scientists. They are not IT people. But we make it really simple for them. They just press a button and put in their requirements. And we take care of all those 20 or 30 steps and instructions. Everything is encrypted, and we just bill them for whatever they use.”
Hakim describes small to midsize enterprises and SMEs, particularly studios in the visual effects space, as the “sweet spot” that GridMarkets is targeting. “There’s also a very long tail of everything from freelancers to hobbyists, to students. This is a market of hundreds or thousands of studios, plus millions of individual artists around the world who can benefit from our platform. These are people who don’t have the capital, or the expertise — they just want to be able to press a button and have it all happen — and then scale on demand.”
Demand for GridMarkets’ services is also emerging from the biotech/pharmaceutical and research industries. A tremendous amount of computing power is needed in the biotech/pharmaceutical research space, where scientists often need to perform hundreds of simulations of compound behaviours, in the lead up to discovering new drugs to cure diseases. “There are like a hundred different use cases where large amounts of computing power will be needed,” Hakim says.
GridMarkets has built a global client base across a hundred different countries. Currently, 40 percent of its clientele are in North America, another 40 percent are in Europe, and 20 percent is from the rest of the world, including from Asia, Africa, the Middle-East, and South America.
“We often get people calling us at five in the morning and they are in panic mode, suddenly requiring 100 machines,” Hakim says. “Things are very dynamic in the visual effects industry, such as if you are producing a TV series, then every week you need to have output. They are often under pressure, thanks to crazy deadlines, and it can get even crazier when the director changes things out of the blue.”
He adds: “On the other hand, nobody wants to commit to buying a bunch of machines and then have their project suddenly cancelled or if the series itself is cancelled. So that’s why they don’t want to spend the capital. There are a lot of peaks and troughs.”
GridMarkets works with various cloud service providers including Alibaba Cloud to provide cloud computing capacity. In tandem with the growth of the business, Hakim foresees further solidification of this partnership and reliance. He cites price performance, service, and reliability as key reasons for this.
He also highlights several industry reports that have rated Alibaba Cloud highly, for his confidence. For example, a recent Forrester Wave report placed Alibaba Cloud in the Leaders category (one of only two vendors), in terms of cloud product offering and strength of strategy.
Hakim says that he feels more passionate about the difference that he is making through GridMarkets than at any other point in his career: “Previously I was selling to investment banks, just making investment bankers’ lives better. It’s not that what they do is not important. It just wasn’t very fulfilling.
“With GridMarkets, we are democratizing computing power to lift the barriers on creativity and innovation. Any artist or researcher anywhere in the world with a reasonable internet connection can have the kind of computing power that was previously accessible to only large corporations.” Notably, GridMarkets’ first customer was a visual effects freelancer from Uruguay.
Hakim has tremendous pride in what artists have accomplished through the platform that he co-founded. On the gallery page of GridMarkets’ website, stunning images of animation/visual effects created by artists around the world are displayed. “It’s something that’s much more visual, something you can show anyone,” he says. “Sometimes when I see ads on TV, I recognize that it was created using our platform. It’s also something to show my kids.”
Hakim feels that beyond providing computing capacity to his clientele, GridMarkets can also offer another value — that of fostering greater collaboration. “Digital artists in the entertainment space don’t do the whole thing. Some people specialize in characters, others in backgrounds, yet others in lighting, compositing, and so forth. If the entire team is in the same studio, then that works just fine, but very often that’s not the case, especially when you engage subcontractors.”
It’s something that his clients have been clamoring for in fact. He says: “We have clients all over the world. And they’ve told us how it’s hard to find people. And then we have conversations with artists who produce wonderful work, who are looking for jobs and who suggest that there should be a platform for it. And I’m thinking, ‘they’re already on our platform!’ So, we want to bring talented people together. It’s one of a number of things that’s on the list.”
Hakim is excited particularly about making a difference in the biotech/pharmaceutical space. “Drugs are increasingly going to be designed in silicon. Given the processing power and the amount of modelling and simulations that you can then run, the potential to speed up the whole drug discovery process as well as the cost savings are just enormous. Just think about the difference that CAD CAM made to engineering.
“You see how fast they’ve come up with a vaccine for COVID. It’s astonishing, 5,10 years ago, that really wasn’t possible. Imagine the future, the computing power that we can provide. Can we create a vaccine in a day?” he muses.
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