Founders Spotlight: Josh Patterson & Wes McKinney of Voltron Data

Revolutionizing the Way We Interact with Data and Hardware

Voltron Data launched in February 2022 with $110 million in Seed and Series A funding from Walden Catalyst. Patterson says he couldn’t be happier. “Honestly, working with Lip-Bu Tan has been amazing. I’ve never met someone so galactically busy who can still find time to answer questions, make introductions, and be intimately involved with the company. He quickly built trust and paid that trust forward very early on, so the growth of our company is, for a lot of reasons, because of our partnership with WCV.”

Voltron Data's co-founders Josh Patterson and Wes McKinney share insights to their entrepreneurial journeys:

Josh Patterson, cofounder and CEO of Voltron Data, got his first taste of entrepreneurship—and adversity—right out of college, when he took over his family’s commercial construction firm.

But then the Great Recession hit and projects started to dry up. His father quietly took him aside and broke the news: “Josh,” he said. “You’ve done a great job running the company but there’s no new work, so maybe it’s time for you to explore other options.”

Patterson left the company and secured a position at Freddie Mac, where he worked as an economic research analyst, delving into—of all things—housing market data and trying to piece together the roots of the financial crisis.

“That’s really when I started thinking about systems differently,” he says. “We had very many internal clusters and I had to spend a lot of time manually mapping data together across many silos in increasingly efficient ways.”

A better way to data interoperability

Patterson came to believe that there must be a better way to handle and process large sets of disparate data. And he held to this belief as he moved forward in his career. Several years after Freddie Mac, he took a job as senior director at Nvidia, where he and his colleagues foresaw the potential of GPUs to accelerate analytics workloads.

In 2017, they created the GPU Open Analytics Initiative and later RAPIDS, which has demonstrated the potential of accelerated high-performance columnar analytics. Patterson and the cuDF developers collaborated extensively with BlazingSQL to bring GPU-accelerated Arrow analytics not only to the Python community, but to modern SQL workloads as well.

At Nvidia, Patterson continued to focus on the problem of delivering efficient and fast data interchange. He met others interested in the same problem, including Wes McKinney, Rodrigo Aramburú and Darren Haas, who would go on to be his co-founders at Voltron Data.

A prominent open-source software developer focusing on analytical computing, McKinney created the Python pandas project and is a co-creator of Apache Arrow. Today, pandas is one of the main tools used by millions of data analysts working in the popular programming language Python.

The year before their meeting, McKinney had co-created Apache Arrow, a multi-language toolbox for accelerated data interchange and in-memory computing that was quickly becoming the de facto standard for seamless interoperability among computing engines, modern computing hardware and programming languages.

“One of the motivations I had with helping to start the Apache Arrow project was to bring standardization not only at the data interoperability level but also to make  computing engines modular and reusable,” says McKinney.

The goal of Arrow, McKinney says, is to better enable collaboration and provide accelerated analytics across the different types of modern computing hardware. “That’s actually how I came to meet Josh, because he was at Nvidia looking at how to expand the use case for GPUs beyond deep learning to AI and data science.”

McKinney noticed that there were actually many groups of developers in the Apache Arrow ecosystem who were creating next-generation computing systems from different directions. “I think each group felt limited in certain ways and thought there were missed opportunities for collaboration,” explains McKinney. “That’s when we saw the opportunity to create a unified, accelerated computing company built around the Apache Arrow project that could accelerate us toward what we call the Arrow-native future.”

Unlocking the potential of data analytics

This was the origin of Voltron Data. It would bring together groups that were all working on Arrow-native analytical computing  to create more unified, impactful solutions.

Building a company around Arrow also made good financial sense. After all, Arrow has enjoyed skyrocketing popularity in the developer community, with more than 50 million downloads per month. Today, companies like Amazon AWS, Google, Meta, Microsoft, Netflix and Snowflake have adopted Arrow to speed data access and analytical processing.

Voltron Data is now one of the most significant corporate contributors to Apache Arrow and is committed to developing open-source data standards, thereby unlocking the untapped potential of the data analytics industry. The company believes deeply in building more bridges across the data analytics ecosystem to accelerate the growth and adoption of the new Arrow-powered software stack. Through these standards, customers can work with massive datasets between the applications and tools they already use and love.

“At its core, Voltron is about standards, modularity and composability,” says Patterson. “There’s a lot of waste at every level of the stack. But once we have these modular reusable building blocks, it allows people to really focus on the part of the stack they care about most, while leaving the repetitive things to others. If we do this correctly, massive new systems can be built easier, faster, better. Being able to empower developers to do that is really our long-term mission.”

A commitment to more than data

On a personal level, Patterson says that serving as CEO of Voltron Data has been one of the greatest honors of his life. He and his co-founders successfully assembled a world-class team during the height of the pandemic, rewriting the rules for how new companies work by operating 100% remotely with employees spread across the globe.

Patterson is especially proud of creating an organization built around the principles of diversity, equity and inclusion. The company is committed to adding new employees across the spectrum of race, gender and sexual orientation and ensuring that everyone feels heard and empowered.

Today, Voltron Data has nearly 100 employees, of whom 20% are African American, 15% Hispanic, 15% Asian and roughly 20% women. “It’s one of the best feelings to know that people feel included at Voltron and understand that this is a place where they can bring their superpowers every day and get things done,” says Patterson. “It’s hard to build an inclusive environment but that’s something we’re continuing to improve on.”

An ideal venture partner

Voltron Data launched in February 2022 with $110 million in Seed and Series A funding from Walden Catalyst. Patterson says he couldn’t be happier. “Honestly, working with [Walden chairman] Lip-Bu Tan has been amazing. I’ve never met someone so galactically busy who can still find time to answer questions, make introductions, and be intimately involved with the company. He quickly built trust and paid that trust forward very early on, so the growth of our company is, for a lot of reasons, because of our partnership with WCV.”

Lip-Bu is equally glowing in his praise for Patterson and the Voltron team, noting that they have made great strides in a short time. “The Voltron team has illustrated a vision of a united analytical-computing world in which practitioners can transcend data silos to easily access and compute upon data,” he says. “Together with Voltron Data, we seek to unite hardware, frameworks and programming languages to accelerate this vision.”