Boston technology startups get a new VC booster
It was announced last week that Pillar was adding Russ Wilcox as an investing partner. It’s a big move for the growing (in both size and influence) firm started by Jamie Goldstein last year. Wilcox is best known for his role as the CEO and founder of E Ink, the company behind the electronic ink technology used in Amazon’s Kindle readers. E Ink’s tech was spun out of MIT, as was Wilcox’s most recent venture, Transatomic Power.
As his track record — as a founder/CEO and an angel investor — makes clear, Russ is someone who seems to have a knack for uncovering and harnessing some sophisticated technological innovations and bringing them to market…often before the market is even ready for them.
Wilcox grew up in a family, led by an MIT-grad father, that was passionate about science and technology. He credits that for piquing his interest into the possibilities of innovation. That led him to study applied mathematics at Harvard and later to earn an MBA from HBS.
But while many of his HBS classmates took a career path down the road to management consulting, Wilcox had a realization that put him on a trajectory that led him to multiple chief executive roles and his new career as a VC.
I asked Russ a few questions about his journey thus far, including what led him to seek out opportunities such as PureSpeech (where he first met Pillar’s Jamie Goldstein), E Ink, and later Transatomic Power and Piper Therapeutics.
Utterly Biased: What was the impetus for the shift from management consulting, which you had already started doing some work in, to technology?
Russ Wilcox: I was doing some project management around the time I was at HBS, and I had this one little project that made me look at what I was doing differently. One client asked me to figure out how billionaires get created. So I did a bunch of research, read a lot of biographies on billionaires, and quickly discovered that none had gotten that way by working for someone else.
I realized that it was a smart idea to be an owner of something, so started to try to figure out how to make that happen. As someone who loved science and technology, I thought I could be the founder of a tech company, so I focused on startup founders. I wasn’t sure exactly how to do that, so I was caught in a struggle many MBAs face about working for a larger existing company or going out on your own.
I decided there was a middle road between being part of a big company like Facebook or trying to start my own thing, and that was to go work for someone else’s startup. That’s how I ended up at PureSpeech right out of business school, which was the first time I worked with Jamie.
UB: So after you have this startup experience, you are ready to do your own thing, how did you get involved with electronic ink?
RW: I started to look for something else and was introduced to Joe Jacobson (E-Ink’s technical founder) at the MIT Media Lab. At the time, he was working on this light gray and dark gray screen technology. It didn’t seem like much on its own, but when I looked at the electric ink under a microscope, there was just this gorgeous jet black and titanium white pixelation.
I fell in love with the technology; it was just an intellectually fascinating idea. So I helped launch E-Ink. It was about six years in the wilderness from the Media Lab to shipping, but we got a huge lift when Amazon launched the Kindle and picked our technology. Just prior to that, I had become the CEO, after various other roles, and we started ramping up to meet the demand. In 36 months, we went from doing $9 million to $160 million for the product. Ultimately, in 2009, we sold the company to Prime View International, and they wanted to have their management team managing E-Ink.
UB: So what did you do next after working on that project for 12 years?
RW: I reintroduced myself to my family. We took kids out of school and traveled around the world for a year. It was a great experience; we visited 32 countries. I had learned so much while traveling for business; I really hoped that the kids would pick up a more global perspective and realized how much is changing outside of the U.S.
Returning to Boston, I looked for new projects, especially one that could do something about pollution. I started looking into nuclear reactors, which are safer, cleaner, and cheaper.
So I co-founded Transatomic Power and helped to get it up and running. Eventually, it was clear that fellow co-founder Dr. Leslie Dewan was ideal to be the CEO, and I moved to the board.
Also, after coming back from our trip, I had begun to invest as an angel. I would only back founders who I thought were spectacular humans. One of the companies that I backed early on that has gone on to do well is Disruptor Beam.
UB: And now you are joining Pillar. What led to the move?
RW: I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an investor until Jamie reached out. I was really impressed by what he was building.
More than anything, Jamie is just the type of guy you want backing you. So that was a draw.
But, I was also attracted to the philosophy; especially, the vision of bringing up the next crop of startups in Boston, that resonated with me.
Pillar is all about becoming highly aligned with founders and entrepreneurs. From the beginning, Jamie built in this philosophy of having founder friendly term and always leaning towards what’s best for the founders. Having been on the other side, I realize how important that is.
UB: What has you most excited about this new role?
RW: I would like to see an impact in terms of bringing together the next generation of Boston startups, more pillar companies. We want to be involved in all of them, but it won’t be Pillar alone that does that.
This week, the company that isn’t getting the attention it should be was suggested by local VC Jeff Bussgang of Flybridge Capital Partners. The interesting thing is that the company he thinks is under-the-radar isn’t a Flybridge portfolio company.
Bussgang sent a note about Cognex, the Natick-based machine vision company that has been kicking around since 1981. The reason for Bussgang’s interest is that he thinks that Cognex is one of Boston’s hottest tech companies, and yet no one talks about them.
According to Cognex‘s website, they have shipped more than 1 million of their vision-based products, including barcode readers and other laser vision devices, which represents more than $4 billion in cumulative revenue since its founding.
While it is a great story about long-term value, Bussgang is right that the company is currently “hot.”
It now has a $7.3 billion market cap and its stock price has increased more than 125% over the past year.
The reason for the company’s sudden success is most likely due to the evolving demand for the automated manufacturing processes and the increased use of machine learning in an array of industries. The company is already working across the globe, using its machine vision readers to improve all parts of manufacturing and assembly. It is also being used by the automotive, solar, biotech and life sciences, electronics, and semiconductor industries for automation and product quality optimization.
What went down this week…
Drones – Brandon Tseng is a former Navy Seal who is a co-founder and the CFO of Shield AI, a company that has developed AI software for military purposes; specifically, for guiding reconnaissance drones during ground combat. Currently finishing up at the Harvard Business School, Tseng is leading the east coast arm of Shield AI, which just raised a $10.5 million Series A from Andreessen Horowitz.
- With contracts already in place with the Department of Defense and the Department of Homeland Security, Shield AI has the potential to play a major role in reducing the number of US ground casualties in the theater of war, which is it’s primary, stated mission. While it has had a small presence in Allston, the company and Brandon will soon completely be headquartered in San Diego, where Brandon’s brother, CEO Ryan Tseng, and the majority of the team is located. The company was on the radar of a lot of VCs in Boston but ended up finding it was most aligned with a16z.
Player Personnel – I had the pleasure of working with Eric Trickett during my day’s at VentureFizz, where he was an advisor to the company through its sister business Dissero. Trickett, who was most recently the Head of Global Engineering Recruiting at TripAdvisor, just move to a role at Wayfair as the company’s Director of Talent Acquisition.
- While I have stated that people moving from job to job isn’t really newsworthy, in this instance, it actually is and not just because Trickett is one of the best guys in Boston tech. From what I have heard, Trickett played a vital role in TripAdvisor’s growth over the past year as it expanded into its new campus in Needham. More than that, word was that Trickett quickly became one of CEO Stephen Kaufer’s most trusted advisors. The reason for that has a lot to do with Trickett’s track record with high-level hiring and talent placement, something that many companies screw up often, sometimes with disastrous results. The move to Wayfair is an indication of two things: One, that Tripadvisor is now in a great place with its leadership going forward and that Trickett’s expertise is no longer needed; and, second, that Wayfair is about to grow exponentially.