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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.

Computational Sound: the next frontier in hardware+software+internet revolution

Lets state the obvious upfront: we are witnessing a hardware tsunami. Cost of developing hardware has gone down, computational power accessible even on mobile platforms has gone up, connectivity is widespread, and amazing things are being done at the intersection of hardware + software + internet.

One of the areas that has benefitted tremendously from the this revolution is the field of imaging. Over a few short years we have gone from traditional 2D photography to advanced digital imaging, 3D imaging, augmented reality and virtual reality. Cameras are now able to capture a tremendous amount of information at very low cost leading to amazing innovations in both image production/processing as well as image mining for data. At Lux, we have invested heavily in the computational imaging space with our investments in MatterPort (3D scanning), Planet Labs (satellite imaging), CyPhy (aerial/drone imaging), LensBricks (computational imaging), Orbital Insight (image analytics), AltSpace (virtual reality).

But one area that I feel we are just barely starting to recognize as almost equally important is sound. I am really interested in what I have been calling ‘Computational Sound’. Sound is present and adds color/data to wherever we capture images (for example consider all the examples I listed above and how they would benefit by capturing the right sound for their applications). But we have taken it for granted, or have had very complicated and expensive ways of working with sound. I am interested in how we capture sound, manipulate it, analyze it, play it and share it. As we try to capture smart sound in an otherwise noisy environment, we need better sound collection devices. We need better microphone technology, but we also need to be able to triangulate sound from multiple sources to paint a more holistic 3D view of sound, or only capture sound from a certain direction or form a certain distance away. We should be able to create a 3D sound stage using computational techniques (and perhaps with use of simple hardware accessories if needed). We should be able to project sound in certain directions, selectively cancel sound in certain applications, and provide immersive experiences in sound not dissimilar form immersive experiences in virtual or augmented reality. Let me give just some examples:

  • canceling noise of drone in your ‘follow-me’ drone video
  • capturing low threshold sound from an interesting subject on camera despite noise from other sound sources
  • projection of surround, 3D or holographic sound in spaces. Create elaborate sound stages across devices and environments
  • optimizing sound in cars without using 6-7 speakers. Canceling ‘highway noise’, better hands-free phone experience
  • immersive sound experience in VR, including dynamic movement of sound with scene in view
  • new music instruments, synthetic sound
  • simplified/accessible sound engineering and encoding etc for consumer apps, games across devices, platforms
  • others…

As I have dug into this over the last few weeks and months, I have realized there are amazing scientists and engineers innovating in the space…but what we need now is entrepreneurs to focus on the space and bring exciting companies to life. I would love to hear from anyone working in this space. And hopefully become a partner in building a great company in this space. Contact me at bz@luxcapital.com.

Optometry: a field ready for innovation

I have been wearing eye glasses since I was probably 10 years old. I don’t enjoy wearing them the least bit and don’t look forward to going through eye check-ups every 2-3 years. But unfortunately I have to. As a result I went in today to get my eyes checked, especially to make sure my prescription had not changed in the past few years.

I went to a local optometrist, who was extremely nice, professional, and qualified. However, I walked out of her office thinking this business is going to die. Or at the least get transformed in a very significant manner in the next few years. We just need more entrepreneurs focused on the space, and also put up the kind of fight Uber and Tesla have had to put up against regulatory fiefdoms.

A few observations:

  • American Optometric Association represents roughly 36,000 optometrists across the USA. They work out out of stand-alone offices, doctor’s offices or retail locations. They are the primary eye-care providers but it is clear that quite a bit of what they do on a regular visit should no longer be a part of their offering. They take up an hour for a regular eye check-up when that entire process could potentially be automated and done in a few minutes, either at home or at something resembling a minute-clinic. As health providers beyond eyesight prescription checks, they obviously have a role to play, but their offering and workflow needs to be altered and brought into the 21st century so they can provide better service at a lower cost to the system.
  • The equipment most optometrists use has practically not changed for 25 years. The entire check-up process still seems so manual, and frankly is no different than the process a local optometrist used with me ~25 years ago when I got my first set of eye glasses in Pakistan. It includes putting a variety of lenses in front of my eyes and asking if I see better with 1 or 2, 3 or 4, 5 or 6?…and so on and so forth. Could there not be a more automated, quantitative and less subjective way of doing this. I sit in that seat always stressed if I may be straining too much to read, or squinting, or not focusing enough.
  • Given such a significant part of the test is simply changing focal lengths and refraction angles etc, why can’t this be done on a mobile device that I could use at home myself ? I am hoping Eye-Netra may have a solution for this.
  • The optometrist showed disdain for my online purchased WarbyParker eye glasses by informing me that the lenses were off-centered by 1mm, and if I had bought them at a store this would not have been the case. She may be right, but I think that is also a problem that could be easily fixed with a digital tool. Her solution was itself a tool that was probably invented in the 1950s and I have to believe this can be replicated a dozen ways using my cell phone and/or Oculus type device.
  •  As a part of the test, my eyes were dilated. Well, here’s the fun after-effect if you haven’t had this done before: you see really blurred for a few hours. So I left the store unable to drive, and unable to read anything on my phone or laptop. In fact had to cancel all my afternoon meetings, and 5 hours later I am still waiting for it to become safe enough for me to drive home.
  • Many optometrists also try to sell you eye glasses. These can cost anything from $150->$500. Through the founders of WarbyParker I know that they really should not and its all monopoly pricing from one company. In fact the actual cost is likely not more than $10-20. No surprise that when I did not show any interest in a purchase, the store brought up “high quality Asia-made” frames that they could sell me at very low pricing. They are kept in a separate drawer and not displayed publicly.
  • Since I am significantly near-sighted, when I try new frames at the store I have no idea what I actually look like! I am blind enough that I can’t see myself in the mirror when I don’t have my glasses on. Unfortunately there is still no solution to this (what I do? I take pictures of myself with frames on and see them later…alternatively, my wife picks for me :)

It is estimated that nearly three-quarters of the US population needs some type of vision correction. This is a very large market. And is desperately calling for attention from innovative entrepreneurs. I hope to learn more about them.

Startup sausage-making: from idea to company

Great companies are built around brilliant ideas, great people and strong execution. It takes a lot of work to take a brilliant idea and turn it into a fundable company, and we are proud to invest in founders who put their blood, sweat and tears into doing so. At Lux Capital we invest in seed stage, and sometimes even pre-seed stage, companies and hence often find ourselves as partners with the founders in doing the messy work that is involved in moving from idea to a company. We sometimes politely call it startup sausage-making.

This kind of startup sausage-making is messy. It is not always fun. And it is not always successful. Trust me we have lots of debates internally how much of our efforts should focus on such super early stage opportunities…but as entrepreneurs in our previous lives, some of us cannot resist the temptation to take the risk and put in the hard work in bringing such companies to life. We fall in love with ideas and we fall in love with entrepreneurs. We also don’t always succeed but for sure its always a team effort at Lux, and we give it our best.

I was recently discussing some of the things involved in such startup sausage-making with a friend and thought it was worth sharing so founders we have yet to invest in would know where we have some experience and can help:

  • Completing the founder team — this is the toughest, and frankly most frustrating. You can’t really hire a search firm to help find the missing founder (trust me, I have tried). Yet, we regularly meet founder teams that are incomplete. Either all technical with nobody understanding the business/market/customer needs, or all business and nobody really having the technical depth and breadth to address issues quickly. At Lux we maintain a wide network of experienced entrepreneurs across all kinds of spaces who can be pinged as opportunities arise where they might be able to play a critical role. But there is no magic formula to it. The process of dating takes a long time, and even then there is no easy fit. Arranged marriages have their advantages and disadvantages. Most important for us at Lux is to have an honest dialogue with existing founder(s) on what we think is missing, and then getting on the same page vis-a-vis what we would like in an ideal co-founder(s).
  • Technology to product — Technology doesn’t sell, product does. Yes all companies go through this process but in some industries this step can be too time consuming, expensive and/or unpredictable. It is important to understand that early. Supplementing in-house competences and capabilities with knowledge gained from experienced consultants maybe the best way to triangulate on this at early stages. Understanding this also helps determine how much funding would be required to take company through to exit velocity.
  • Customer discovery — Companies get built around customers. Early conversations with customers help build the right product, the right team, and the find the right investors. This is very tough if the business team is incomplete or does not exist. Investor team can help pitch in, and we open lots of doors, but somebody is needed to own the problem and build a vision for the product with customer input in mind.
  • Financing — Very early stage companies have to delicately balance their pitch between being bold/visionary/change the world and here’s what we will do in concrete/focused/viable fashion over next 12-18 months. We spend time helping companies understand not only the art of pitching to investors, but realizing that a good pitch is also a document that can be used to help with recruiting and in organizing execution.
  • Ugly details — Depending on the nature of the startup there are often lots of loose ends that need to be tied up for the company to succeed in the long run. For example company registration issues, IP licenses, non-compete agreements, no-hire agreements, visa issues, payroll, HR policies etc. Oddly these these are things that pester entrepreneurs most (esp first-time entrepreneurs) but fortunately these are areas that investors understand well and typically have lots of vendors and partners who can help companies gets et up the right way.

SBIR/STTR grants are great. ‘SBIR shops’ are not.

As a partner at Lux Capital I search for, and invest in, technologies that are often based on fundamental innovations in science and engineering. Our team is not turned off when we encounter deep scientific facts or publications. In fact, we thoroughly enjoy learning about them – a lot of our internal communications are around discovering/sharing amazing inventions in all kinds of domains. We regularly spend time with academic researchers and small companies who are recipients of non-dilutive SBIR/STTR grants. As such we are supporters of government funding programs to sponsor translational research and invention-to-commercialization efforts.

However, it is unfortunate that along with many amazing entities that truly benefit from SBIR grants, I also routinely see entities that are frankly called ‘SBIR shops’ in the industry jargon. These are life-style organizations that frankly feel like leeches feeding off these government programs without any real interest in commercialization, or in bringing their technology into the real world. They go from one SBIR grant to another for years, some times decades, and their teams have professional grant writers who are paid to do nothing else but submit successful grant applications into multiple agencies. My problem with these organizations is not that they are not accomplishing the explicit goals of the SBIR/STTR programs, but that they are sucking away precious resources from the system that would otherwise be available to enterprising technical entrepreneurs, especially younger researchers, who are genuinely interested in commercializing their inventions. They are hurting innovation in the long run.

SBIR/STTR programs are sponsored by several large government agencies (such as Departments of defense, agriculture, commerce, energy, homeland security, EPA, NIH, NASA and NSF). Approximately $2.5-3B are awarded in such grants every year. These are not small dollars, and if utilized properly, they can provide much needed capital to support commercially relevant technical innovations in new biology, materials, devices, systems, and software. SBIR awardees produce >2500 patents per year and more than 15% receive outside funding to continue with their ventures. A lot of good has come from SBIR grants in the past, but much can be done to improve the system, and to get rid of the ‘SBIR shops’.

Formally none of the awardees can receive a Phase III grant without external funding towards commercialization, but these ‘SBIR shops’ have figured out how to perfectly game the system. They move from agency to agency, and from one set of grants to a different one. When I meet young researchers who are working on securing their first SBIR grants, they appear nervous and unsure if they will get it…In contrast, these ‘SBIR shops’ are easily identified as they exhibit complete confidence in their ability to secure multiple grants worth millions of dollars per year to continue to operate for years to come. They abuse the system, and can be easily identified when they pitch to venture investors, but unfortunately the SBIR management system itself doesn’t have enough resources to put the right checks and balances in place to stop them in a timely fashion.

I am not sure what the solution is…maybe angel/VC community can be more actively involved in awarding and management of SBIR grants? Maybe there should be a limit on the total number of grants (not dollars) that can be given to any single entity/organization? Maybe there can be an easier and faster way for people to identify ‘SBIR shops’ so award administrators can investigate abuse of the system? Other ideas? Lets improve the system so our resources can be used to more efficiently foster technical innovation.

As an aside: if you are a technical entrepreneur int’d in securing SBIR funding, or an investors looking to unearth gems among previous recipients, SBIR Source can be one of the more helpful resources.

Celebrating Mario Molina, Nobel laureate in Chemistry, and my Ph.D. advisor.

Mario next to the equipment I used to understand phase transitions in atmospheric aerosols.
Mario next to the equipment I used to understand phase transitions in atmospheric aerosols.

I am headed to UCSD tomorrow to join generations of previous graduate students, post-docs and research collaborators of Mario J. Molina to celebrate his 71st birthday, and his receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 (Mario Molina Symposium).

Mario was my Ph.D. advisor at MIT from 1998-2003. Mario’s contributions to science earned him the Nobel Prize in 1995. He, along with Sherry Rowland and Paul Crutzen, discovered the fast chemical reactions in the stratosphere that were destroying the ozone layer. And then worked tirelessly to prohibit the use of CFCs by industry, leading to the passing of Montreal Protocol that banned the use of ozone depleting substances. He was the first Mexican-born citizen to receive the Nobel Prize.

My Ph.D. work with Mario focused on phase transitions in atmospheric particles, and heterogeneous chemistry that affected the troposphere. Climate models (that are used to predict global warming) carry uncertainty due to their inability to predict indirect effects of aerosols in the atmosphere (cloud albedo etc), and my work focused on understanding when, where and how cirrus clouds form, and how global warming inducing carbon soot particles are washed out of the atmosphere.

Some of the work we published together:

My time spent with Mario is among the most memorable in my life. I didn’t just learn chemistry from him…he was a role model on how science (and engineering) was critical to solving some of the most important problems facing the world. He was a strong supporter of environmental causes, but his views were not based on philosophy – he was a student of science and rational thought. He was a lead author on the IPCC reports, and we frequently discussed the benefit of such outreach beyond the scientific community. He took his role as an ambassador of science and environment very seriously, and worked tirelessly (including sometimes sleeping overnight in his office). We published technical papers together, I read and commented on drafts of his book on pollution in megacities, debated whether governments or industry would be first to take action on environmental causes, discussed science and engineering more broadly for developing countries, and traveled to Mexico together for several months on an international field campaign to understand air pollution in Mexico City. He was also instrumental and very supportive of my decision to not purse academia as a career after my Ph.D. and convinced me to spend some time at a DOE national lab (PNNL) before I began my career outside the academia.

Mexico issued a stamp in Mario’s honor.
Mexico issued a stamp in Mario’s honor.

There is a funny side-story about me becoming a member of his lab. After admission in to MIT’s graduate program in chemistry, I reached out to several faculty members to learn about their research interests. I was entering MIT after an undergrad degree at a liberal arts college, and my grasp of chemistry was rather basic. MIT faculty profiles were not just impressive, they were intimidating. Some faculty members  had distinguished memberships into national academies, others were founders of companies, and some were advisors to major corporations, institutions and Presidents of various countries. Back in 1998, Mario had a short web profile that probably some IT guy had dug up and put online. It had no mention of any of his accomplishments, but just his research interests in aerosols and chemical kinetics. I thought “here is this nice guy from Mexico, another developing country. He doesn’t seem to have many awards etc either. I should join him because unlike other faculty, he might actually have time and attention to give it to a lowly student like me”. I sent him an email indicating my interest in joining his group and asked if he would please point me to some of his publications so I could read up. Mario’s reply was essentially “I apologize I am not very internet savvy. I don’t have a website. But somebody has posted some of my publications online and you can go here to find them.” And the link he sent was something like www.nobel.se/…. I was flabbergasted when I got that mail. In my search for a not-yet-as-accomplished advisor, I had somehow landed in the lab of a Nobel laureate! He was a superstar in the chemistry department. I guess Nobel laureates don’t have to advertise the awesome work they do. He was humble, awesome…and loved hosting gatherings at his house. He was generous with me, his family met my wife before my own family did, and he even wrote a letter to the US State Dept to encourage them to give me a residency permit so I could stay in this country and start my company. In fact my startup conducted our early experiments in his lab with his students’ help.

Thank you Mario, for continuing to be an inspiration. We follow in our teachers’ footsteps.

Mario, my wife and I at his favorite eatery near the MIT campus.
Mario, my wife and I at his favorite eatery near the MIT campus.