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Lemelson Foundation: Inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises

What do the following people have in common?

  • William Hewlett & David Packard (founders of HP)
  • Douglas Engelbart (inventor of the computer mouse)
  • Robert Langer (prolific bioscience inventor & entrepreneur)
  • Raymond Damadian (inventor of the MRI machine)
  • Thomas Fogarty (inventor of the embolectomy catheter)
  • Dean Kamen (prolific inventor – Segway and infusion pump for diabetes)
  • James Fergason (inventor of liquid crystal displays)
  • John Rogers (inventor of bendable silicon electronics)
  • Angela Belcher (inventor of bacteria inspired catalysts)

All of the above, and many others, are recipients of the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Prize. It is the largest prize in the US given to an individual inventor. All of the above are inventors, and their inventions have saved lives, changed how society communicates, made our industries more sustainable, and have profoundly impacted lives across the globe.

I first heard about The Lemelson Foundation in the context of their sponsorship of the Lemelson-MIT Prize when I came to MIT in 1998. It was easy to tell even back then that the foundation truly sought out and supported the most inventive people in our society – people whose scientific and technological inventions would impact millions, and perhaps billions, of people around the world and change the course of history. As a scientist researcher, then an inventor who became an entrepreneur, and now an investor in startups built around breakthrough technology innovations, it was a matter of great honor that over this past summer I was asked by the Lemelson Foundation to join their Advisory Committee. I agreed, and will proudly join their Board meeting this week in Portland where the Foundation is headquartered.

The Lemelson Foundation was created by prolific US inventor Jerome Lemelson and his wife Dorothy in 1992. Jerome (Jerry – see brief video biography here) had more than 600 patents to his name (earning more than one patent a month over 40 years), and both he and his wife were strong advocates for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education even before creating the Lemelson Foundation. Jerry’s inventions ranged from industrial robotics and machine vision to medical devices, communications equipment and toys. Jerry has now passed away but Dorothy and the Lemelson family have continued their strong support of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship in the US and in several other parts of the world. As the official statement on the website reads: “The Lemelson Foundation uses the power of invention to improve lives, by inspiring and enabling the next generation of inventors and invention-based enterprises to promote economic growth in the US, and social and economic progress for the poor in developing countries.”

The Lemelson Foundation today sponsors multiple programs to support STEM education, inspire invention and promote entrepreneurship. During time I recently spent with Carol Dahl, its Executive Director who came to the foundation via Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, I learned about their focus on the following:

Education –> Invention –> Innovation –> Entrepreneurship

The above totally resonates with me as it leads to new technologies that advance humanity, save lives, protect our fragile environment & earth’s ecosystem, create jobs and improve livelihoods across the globe. Lemelson’s programs inspire youth to identify interesting problems and solve them via inventions, they provide tools to young inventors to help invent, and help college student entrepreneurs in the launch of invention-based enterprises. In doing so, the Foundation is able to maintain its vision of strengthening the US economy and helping the poorest of the poor in developing countries. 

Over the past 10-15 years I have been fortunate to participate in some of the kinds of activities that The Lemelson Foundation promotes at a much bigger scale. I am proud of the effort some friends and I put into launching the first science and engineering research university in Pakistan (LUMS SBASSE), StartLabs, an organization focused on engineer founders at MIT that I helped start, will be holding their annual Startup Bootcamp next week, and Roughdraft.vc, a student venture fund I co-founded in 2012 has now funded nearly 25 student startups, some of whom have gone on to raise much larger venture financings. Now as a partner at Lux Capital, I am fortunate to be able to spend all of my time meeting amazing inventors, entrepreneurs, and people who wish to change the world for the better. My partner Larry Bock - founder of several companies including Illumina, leading company in genomic sequencing – subsequently founded the National US Science and Engineering Festival, and several other partners are themselves PhDs and inventors on multiple patents. All of them are equally strong supporters of The Lemelson Foundation’s mission.

I very much look forward to learning and contributing to the mission of The Lemelson Foundation. My primary responsibility will be to advise the executive leadership of the Foundation in their planning, execution and assessment of the programs. As such I will be on the lookout for new ideas and feedback. So please do share any thoughts that I can pass on to the Foundation.

Time for sensors, networked devices, automation and IoT to come to our offices.

Our homes are increasingly internet connected. Of course our computers, mobile phones and tablets are, but quickly our TVs, stereos, thermostats, doorlocks, fire-alarms. lightbulbs, and baby-cams are also internet connected. There are nifty services like IFTTT, Revolv, SmartThings etc to help us automate our lives. We can practically control a lot of things in our home via our mobile devices, and they can sort of ‘speak to each other to build an intelligent connected community of their own. While I do believe that IoT needs a new interface, there is another problem that is bugging me today: Where is the IoT for my office?

I assume many of us spend quite a bit of time in our offices. We work, meet a lot of people, move from room to room, utilize communication tools regularly, take a lot of notes, store a lot of information,  eat, stretch, rest, and even sleep in our offices. But as I look around my office, I realize that ‘under-connected’ it really is. I do have my laptop/mobile phone/tablet in the office that are internet connected – they share information across apps and devices, and sync with the cloud. And my calendar app has an unfair influence on my day….but that seems to be about it.

My desk has no clue what piles of information rest on it, my chair is comfortable but doesn’t measure, monitor or adjust as my back starts to tire towards the end of the day, our office thermostat is not internet connected, windows don’t change colors to optimize energy usage, and there is no system to automatically detect, identify and utilize info on who is coming and going out of the office. The coffee-maker gets used 10-times more than at anyone’s home but it doesn’t know and cannot predict my taste, the refrigerator needs to be re-stocked regularly but it doesn’t order refills of popular drinks and snacks on its own, the videoconferencing system elicits a collective ugh! practically every day, and the whiteboards where amazing ideas are sketched by visiting entrepreneurs stand there like a dumb white wall, only for the information to be either photographed with a mobile phone or deleted with a dumb eraser. We do have a networked printer and security system though.

Why has IoT not invaded our offices as yet? I would think office managers would jump at the opportunity to increase productivity, provide comfort for workers, and make economically sound decisions around saving time, energy and hassle. Is this a sector that largely remains ignored by entrepreneurs or are there structural issues like who owns vs leases an office building space? I think there is tremendous opportunity here that could be exploited by startups. A lot of office equipment is leased anyways, and hence it may also not be so difficult to replace and upgrade existing equipment without significant capital budget allocations by companies. Offices regularly lease printers, coffee-makers, water-dispensers, vending machines and such…All of them should become intelligent so they are able to understand usage patterns and preferences better, can customize offering as needed, order repairs, refills or replacements as needed, and move towards an overall efficient process while providing a better service. I am not asking for Rosie the robot to serve me coffee (though that future is not that far away as well), but certainly lots can be improved upon…and in a world where instant gratification companies are abound, its time entrepreneurs paid attention to the office as well.

I am in a people and relationships business

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I wake up every morning thankful for how fortunate I am to be doing something for a living that I truly enjoy doing. The most interesting and important part of my life as a VC is interacting with the fascinating people that constitute the startup ecosystem. I am fortunate that some of the smartest, most bold and creative people share their time and attention with me, allow me an opportunity to get to know them, and give me a chance to share in their successes.

People who don’t work in/around startups sometimes think I am in the finance industry. I take time to explain  that I don’t spend a lot of my time developing financial spread sheets, creating powerpoint decks, or editing legal docs. I build networks and participate in them. I open doors and ask others to open doors for me. I work hard to earn people’s trust, evaluate and invest in opportunities, and then work hard on their behalf. I am in a people and relationships business.

I was catching up on email earlier and saw notes from a least three people who were generously connecting back and offering ways in which they could be helpful to me. Two of them were candidates I interviewed for senior roles at portfolio companies and one was an entrepreneur that I had recently passed on as an investment. I was not able to do business with them in the context in which we met, or were introduced, but they ‘paid forward’ to reach back out and shared their desire to continue our relationship, friendship and ability to support each other.

Just this Monday I was trying to evaluate a new investment opportunity with a short fuse, and some extremely busy and senior investors and an entrepreneur took phone calls on literally a few hours notice and provided feedback. They were generous not only with their time but also with their honest opinion and feedback on the opportunity. We were able to decide before sun set that same evening.

It is the generosity of startups founders, investors and others that makes the startup community so resilient and thriving, despite the known fact that most startups eventually fail. There is something about this culture of ‘paying forward’ and ‘pulling the other person up’ that is special. I am definitely a beneficiary of this, and hope to be able to contribute to the same in many more ways going forward.

Advisors vs Mentors and Coaches. Every founder should have them.

I was fortunate to be invited to the MIT Media Lab this week, to speak to and spend time with, a group of students, entrepreneurs and senior executives working in advanced imaging areas. It was a fantastic event and I met some very interesting new people + ideas. There was so much learning for everyone. People pitching new ideas, new mathematics in imaging, new applications of imaging in connectivity, productivity, health, and everyone open to discussing how to succeed at the nexus of technology, design, and business.

After my talk on startup activity in the imaging space, and why it was not an easy space to build companies in, somebody asked about the role of advisors in a startup. And who should be asked to join as advisors to help entrepreneurs from falling into familiar traps. A lively discussion ensued as clearly it was a topic on a lot of people’s mind.

We discussed that young startups, and especially first-time entrepreneurs, should be very careful in choosing advisors. This is not an opportunity to list all your favorite people on a PowerPoint slide. Most advisors unfortunately don’t contextualize their advice, and others carry hammers where everything looks like a nail to them. An advisor’s advice is one person’s opinion, often heavily influenced by their own (limited) experiences. Some advice can be outright dangerous. That said, the right advisors at the right time can be super helpful.

I shared two other thoughts that often come to my mind when I think of advice for less experienced entrepreneurs:

(1) Many startups list lots of advisors to artificially demonstrate credibility in front of investors and customers. Be careful not to overpopulate such lists, or add frivolous people. Not only are people familiar with this tactic and hence it could backfire, it can also create a clusterfuck of ideas in your mind if everyone’s POV is considered. For every advisor, there should be at least one topic that you consider critical to success of your company that you would really want advice from them. If you cannot assign at least one such topic to each advisor, you are doing it wrong.

(2) Rather than generalist advisors, founders should ideas look for and recruit mentors. Advisors can be dime-a-dozen, mentors are not. People sometimes easily agree to being called an advisor to an early stage company (without really contributing much in that role) but they tend to be more guarded and thoughtful before accepting to be a mentor. Mentorship involves building of significant trust, it’s a personal relationship, and it involves a much more significant investment of time/effort and over an extended period of time. I believe everyone should have a mentor…and it’s a relationship that helps one be introspective, grow, and build over time.

Two additional int’g sub-topics came up as we discussed mentors for early stage founders:

(1) several people I spoke to at the MIT Media Lab were senior executives at companies. Some of them mentioned that they feel having a ‘mentor’ vs an ‘advisor’ could signify to others a level of inferiority or lack of seniority in the team. I tried to explain my POV that I wasn’t concerned about semantics…my point was to highlight a difference in relationship. Advisors can give passer-by advice…they sometimes do, and sometimes don’t, contextualize advice to your startup, your personality, and your personal struggles as a founder. Advisors tend to share best practices, but I wish there was a recipe cook book on how to deal with startup challenges. There isn’t. A mentor on the other hand invests time in understanding you. He/she believes in you and wants you to succeed, irrespective of the particular startup you are with at that time. Mentors share their experience but also spend energy trying to understand how your experiences might be shaping the struggles you are facing personally or professionally. I think simply stated, mentors care more than advisors, and I like people who care more about founders.

(2) I found myself mixing the words mentors and coaches when I spoke and realized later there is a big difference. And I think founders need both. Mentors are people founders look up to as role models. Mentors are often in a position to say “if I was in your shoes, this is what I may have done”, because often they have been in such situations before. Mentors can sort of stand in your shoes. Coaches on the other hand are not that. They are smart, thoughtful, high IQ and EQ people who help you figure out your own strengths and weaknesses, and find your own particular solution to the problem you share with them. They are like the basketball coaches of NBA players (who are often much shorter than the players) who have never stood in such big shoes but they help players find the best in them to compete at the highest levels. Coaches are professionals. And one may not look up to the coach, but a good coach is deeply deeply respected.

I am deeply thankful for all the people who have given me advice in the past, and continue to do so. I am also thankful to all the people who hVe provided advice to my portfolio companies, their founders and CEOs. And I am thankful for the few that have agreed to be my mentors and coaches because it would be really hard to learn to be better without you.

What is a ‘pitch’? Do some entrepreneurs view it differently than investors?

A 1-hour coffee last night with a first-time entrepreneur/founder turned into a 3+ hour discussion on many topics related to technologies, startups, founder issues, CEO responsibilities, team dynamics, investor/Board management and so on and so forth (we were eventually kicked out by Coupa Cafe or it would have gone longer).

During this conversation we stumbled into an int’g discussion around what is a ‘pitch’? Investors frequently ask for a pitch and founders often find themselves giving a pitch. We realized quickly that, indeed, we both meant slightly different things when we used the word ‘pitch’, and while perhaps the difference was subtle, it actually made a big difference in communications, esp between entrepreneur and his/her investors.

This particular entrepreneur thought a pitch meant a short (or long) description of how awesome the team, idea and business opportunity was…delivered with an extremely positive filter so the investor would be compelled to open up his/her wallet and write a check asap. A pitch meant showing strengths, not weaknesses, all questions had to be shown as either already answered or getting answered, and that it was an opportunity to wow the investor.

Investor (me) thought a pitch was a description of the business opportunity such that it conveyed the opportunities and the challenges in an honest fashion so a new investor could determine if the team and the space was the one to get behind at that particular moment in the startup’s trajectory. A pitch was not a rose-colored glasses view of an idea but an opportunity to introduce the business, the team, the reasons why idea was worth pursuing and what challenges/risks would need to be overcome to reach the next important milestone in the company.

Maybe the two views described above sound rather similar to many…but in my humble opinion there is a big difference. The entrepreneur did not intend to hide anything, but when asked to ‘pitch’, he/she was basically willing to place all fears and uncertainties to a side to simply excite and entice potential investors. And not just investors, the entrepreneur would consider a ‘pitch’ to mean the same when delivering it to business partners, employees or potential employees.

On the other hand, when an investor asks for a pitch he/she is typically looking to not just learn about an exciting opportunity but also take steps towards building a relationship of trust with the one pitching, and also coming to an understanding of the risk/reward embedded in the particular investment opportunity. What questions remain unanswered? where do you need help? What keeps you up at night? etc…How could we build a partnership of trust if everything you shared with us was painted in a positive light…esp when we all know every startup has warts and challenges.

I learnt in this discussion that semantics do matter. And not only can the conversation go off rails if people mean different things for the same word, a simple misunderstanding of what is implied in a ‘pitch’ could affect how we come to trust and respect the other person, or judge their credibility. It could cause grief in existing relationships, and bring about unnecessary turmoil to startup teams. Startups, and especially investors, tend to have their own industry jargon, and the word ‘pitch’ may be one casualty of it.