Startup sees big market for PDF tools

David Durand, Abe Dane, Francisco Rosa and Anne Orens sit facing each other in the cozy, cramped attic of Durand’s East Side home. Blue light cast from the screen of a laptop computer becomes visible as the sun sets in a corner window.

The four partners have worked closely in this space since last March, when they set out to launch Tizra, a tech company that will market a Web interface that enables users to manipulate PDF files cheaply and quickly.

Many businesses and organizations have compiled voluminous backlogs of documents as unwieldy PDF files, and Tizra is putting the finishing touches on a product that essentially brings standard Web navigation features to such PDF archives.

“PDF is great for the person that’s creating the documents. It’s not very great for the end-user,” said Dane, Tizra’s chief operating officer. “There are a lot of limitations, especially for long documents. You know, you don’t want to download a 500-page PDF before you can drill down to the piece of information that you want to get to.”

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Traditionally, a company or organization will spend months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to reformat a large PDF library, said Oren, Tizra’s chief marketing officer.

In contrast, the Tizra AgilePublisher takes content in PDF form and enables its users to do all the things they would traditionally have only been able to do with XML or other very expensive data formats.

“We’re bringing the typical desktop experience to the Web,” said Rosa, Tizra’s chief technology officer. “So if you know how to move things around on the screen, you know how to use the software. That’s it.”

Tizra’s four partners met while working in the Providence office of Ingenta, a provider of technology and services to the publishing and information industries.

Durand, an adjunct assistant professor of computer science at Brown University, has been working with markup languages and hypertext since 1984. He contributed to the development of XML and is the co-author of “Making Hypermedia Work: A User’s Guide to HyTime.”

Dane, a former science editor at Popular Mechanics magazine, has worked in publishing and e-commerce for 20 years.

Rosa is a software developer who worked at Ingenta as manager of U.S. development. He and his group were responsible for the delivery of several multi-million-dollar projects. Orens has made her career in publishing-related sales, marketing, and business development.

The four left the firm together to form Tizra. Durand said he named the company after an extract of sumac trees used to make leather for traditional Moroccan book bindings that are famously flexible, valuable and enduring.

Tizra has completed work on its product software and is currently tweaking its Web user-interface. The company is going to begin beta testing its product in February, with a handful of users.

The company’s biggest beta tester is the American Diabetes Association, which has a $30 million publishing program that accounts for 12 percent of the association’s revenue. Titles published by the association in PDF form range from information packs for diabetics and their families, such as “Diabetic Meals in 30 Minutes,” to the “Annual Review of Diabetes 2006,” a collection of the ADA’s newest research.

Tizra is helping the ADA to create, repackage and sell customized product bundles of its PDF content to particular audiences of scientists, health care organizations and the public.

At the same time, it will enable visitors to the association’s site to use Tizra’s Web interface to search the ADA’s PDF library and pull the content they want, enabling professionals to create course or patient packs, and consumers to design cookbooks and nutrition plans.

“Our tools split everything up into page-at-a-time delivery, and those pages can be packaged together as products of different sizes,” down to a single page, Durand said.

“You can sell a chapter of a book, you can sell five chapters together, or you can sell any 10 chapters out of a set of 100. All those things, the publishers control themselves – without technical staff – so they can just sign up, make their site, control it, set colors, and brand its style, with no special software installation or tools required.”

For the past year, Tizra’s partners have been financing their startup alone, but they have also been working closely with the Slater Technology Fund and hope to be financed by the fund.

Durand, Rosa, Oren and Dane said they envision moving their company out of Durand’s attic and hiring a sales team of at least 15 within the next year. Their business plan forecasts the company could be worth more than $100 million, conservatively, and go public in five to seven years.

“This year is really about getting off the ground, with enough customers to really go out, and then at that point we’re going to have to look for funding again,” Durand said.

Initially, the partners said, they will target the publishing world, but they aim to move into other markets as governments, academic institutions and manufacturers increasingly look to move their documents, reports, books, manuals and other content online.

“We really think this has the potential to go pretty broad,” Durand said.