The Wall Street Journal was kind to me and ran a feature today on my story of “How I Got Here”. I must thank my friend Kevin Phelan for introduction to Dennis at WSJ, and thank Dennis for patiently listening to my stories of toothpastes in Pakistan etc.
Here are some facts to add to what’s in the article:
- This photo was taken in a basement lab at CMU, where I spent some time building GEO2’s first catalytic reactor, and ran experiments to prove our hypothesis around enhanced catalytic activity on highly porous substrate materials.
- Yes, my father did think toothpastes would make good business in Pakistan, partly because he had a relative who did well by formulating starch for collar inserts. No harm in making money by solving local problems.
- I was introduced to research early on in my undergrad education – and the values learned there of being somewhat humble, mega-curious and just-do-it remain very central in my life.
- MIT is a dynamo when it comes to embedding entrepreneurial instincts in students. I distinctly remember telling myself as I took the jump into a startup that hey, if all other MIT grads can start companies, why not me? That was a big help, really.
- I want to stress that venture capital is all about starting companies, taking risks and bringing innovation to market, and aiming to build long term value. People I respect in the VC business have often come from that path themselves. They have been in the shoes of entrepreneurs and have known what it means to feel the hurt when things appear to hit rock bottom. They have also been on the other side of managing Boards and setting culture/character. I often find myself thinking back to my own experience when giving advice to entrepreneurs in portfolio companies. Not surprisingly, it also gives me credibility with them.
- Last, but not the least, I am thankful to General Catalyst for an opportunity to be a part of their awesome team. Seriously, I had a few choices when I joined GC but I chose them because they are the kind of firm who would have taken a bet on a first-time entrepreneur like me. I am passionate about technology innovation, and about young, enthusiastic, bold entrepreneurs who think BIG and want to change the world. I have s oft spot for first-time entrepreneurs, and so do the rest of the partners at GC. It is for that reason I am also co-founder of a program called ENTER which promotes local first-time entrepreneurs by introducing them to VCs, CEOs/CTOs etc. I also co-organize the University Research & Entrepreneurship Symposium, designed to highlight technology innovations at universities that can be commercialized. Both programs are open to the wider entrepreneurial community.
Judging by the number of emails I got since the article published , its clear that people still read the WSJ. Hey – I even got text msgs from a wall street trader friend – somebody who never responds to my emails during day time. Not bad!
Being Green to Growing Green — By Dennis Nishi
Full name: Bilal Zuberi
Hometown: Karachi, Pakistan
Current position: Principal at General Catalyst Partners
First job: Tutoring
Favorite job: This one
Education: B.A. in Chemistry from the College of Wooster; Ph.D. Physical Chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Years in the industry: 7
After doing post-doctoral work with Nobel laureate Mario J. Molina, Bilal Zuberi decided to apply his environmental-science knowledge toward launching a company, GEO2 Technologies, that aimed to develop fuel cells and a new kind of automotive catalytic convertor. His success as an entrepreneur attracted the attention of General Catalyst Partners, a Boston venture-capital and private-equity firm that focuses on early stage technology companies. They offered him a job. Mr. Zuberi now works with a wide variety of green companies and he feels he has a bigger impact on the environment. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: What did you want to do with a chemistry degree?
A: My father [an engineer] always told me there’s a shortage of [good] toothpaste in Pakistan. But if you can create a nice toothpaste formulation, we can start up a company. It was kind of silly, but it was how you did things in chemistry. He knew as a chemist, you can make things and sell things. Mathematics and physics was a lot more theoretical.
Q: Did you still want to make toothpaste when you went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
A: I moved on from wanting to formulate things like toothpaste to doing something big like being able to characterize new materials. That was an intersection of the physical and analytical chemistry.
Q: What sparked your interest in green tech?
A: My adviser, Mario Molina, won the Nobel Prize for his research on ozone-layer depletion. He was starting to look at the reactions closer to the Earth in the troposphere and things that feed into the climate-change debate.
Studying these fundamental reactions of nanoparticles, pollution essentially, you can apply this science to pharmaceuticals and a lot of other things.
How You Can Get There, Too
Best advice: “Don’t think of venture capital as a career,” says Mr. Zuberi. “Start a company first. Have empathy for the entrepreneur’s journey. You’ll never know what it’s like until you’ve done it.”
Skills you need: “You have to be easy going. The industry is all about making connections, and you don’t want to come across as cocky and obnoxious to deal with. Also, be curious,” he says.
Where you should start: A solid academic background is a good start. Become an expert. And learn how you can apply that expertise in a commercial way, Mr. Zuberi says.
Professional organizations to contact: Many universities have entrepreneurial associations including the MIT Enterprise Forum (enterpriseforum.mit.edu), a networking and educational organization with 25 chapters.
Salary range: According to Salary.com, the median salary for a venture capitalist is $158,222 per year, with the top percentile earning over $192,469. Bonuses can be in the millions.
Q: But you ended up giving up research?
A: There are three ways you can work in the environmental sector: You can do academic research; you can do policy or nonprofit work; or you can work in industry. I wanted to study impact on a bigger scale and realized it only happens when you have support of the CEO and the board. I joined a consulting company because that’s one way you can gain access to the board room. I went to Boston Consulting Group.
Q: You were only at BCG for a year. What drew you away?
A. Some early investors were looking for an application for their new technology. It’s based on a material invented by NASA in the 1960s and 1970s for the space shuttle to protect it during re-entry. The tiles have very high insulation capabilities so are a great substrate for catalytic reactions in emission control systems for automobiles. They asked if I’d be a co-founder of this new company [GEO2 Technologies]. Myself and a senior partner from BCG left to start the company together. I was the MIT Ph.D., and he was the Harvard MBA. We started the company at his garage in his home.
Q: What made your catalytic-convertor idea better than what’s in use today?
A: The catalytic convertor we use today was invented in the 1970s and has only incrementally improved since then. To meet increasing emissions standards, automobiles like the Ford Explorer have four catalytic convertors. It’s a brute force solution. What we were trying to do is take that four and turn it into one.
Q: Why did you leave?
A: After four years helping to develop the product, my job was done. It became more business and less technology. I wanted to apply what I learned and thought of starting another company when a couple of [venture capitalists] came calling. [Venture-capital firms] were a place where I could work on multiple companies at the same time. I started at General Catalyst in 2008.
Q: What do you do there?
A: General Catalyst generally handles $2 billion, mostly working with early-stage technology companies. I spend a lot of time at universities reading papers [to see] if there’s anything that should be commercialized. I put that together and present it to the partnership, trying to convince them that we can build a business. I’m currently working with a company developing a LED light bulb with warm light.
Q: Does your role end after you hand a start-up the check?
A: We try to help them afterwards. We help hire the right people, make the right introductions, solve some of their technical problems, help with strategy. Hopefully, they will grow and can help us make a lot of money down the road. Investors took a bet on me when I was starting out. That’s what attracted me to this job.
Write to Dennis Nishi at firstname.lastname@example.org