Metamaterials and Computational Imaging: Our latest investment in Evolv Technologies

August 29, 2013

At Lux Capital we pride ourselves in backing great entrepreneurs working on important and relevant problems. I’ve written before that great entrepreneurs pursue problems they can relate to, and build great companies in those spaces.

Security and safety have become an increasingly important consideration in our daily lives. Against formidable foes, individual and organized, that sadly seek to harm innocent people, technology remains our friend—to identify those people and catch them before they can carry out their nefarious plans.

Today we announce our latest investment in Evolv Technologies ($11.8m Series A) to help keep people safe everywhere. And I am proud to join its Board of Directors and partner again with a longtime friend, serial entrepreneur and industry veteran Mike Ellenbogen.

metamaterials

After achieving success with Reveal Imaging and staying abreast of both real-time threats and the evolution of cutting-edge technologies to address them, Evolv was formed by Mike, based on intellectual property from Duke University and Intellectual Ventures.

Evolv is commercializing breakthrough security & imaging solutions based on technical innovations in the field of metamaterials and compressive sensing/imaging.

This is Lux Capital’s second investment in the metamaterials space (we are also founding investors in Kymeta (joined by Bill Gates and Liberty Global)– utilizing metamaterials for satellite communications) and another investment for us in the exciting theme of computational imaging. We believe tremendous opportunities lie at the intersection of hardware innovation combined with the power of computation and networking.

ellenbogenI have had the pleasure of knowing Mike for the past several years as a friend and a colleague. Mike, and his co-founder Anil Chitkara, represent the kind of focused, thoughtful, and patient entrepreneur teams that I am attracted to. Evolv will seek to provide security and imaging solutions to a range of markets and applications around the world, and to win they will need to execute on multiple fronts: hardware/software product innovation, manufacturing, international marketing and sales, regulatory processes, customer training and support . Their experience in building great teams around them to solve similar problems in the past will come in handy.

Adding to my joy of backing a great team working on an important problem is the strong investment syndicate that came together for Evolv, including General Catalyst, Bill Gates and Osage University Partners. I also look forward to working with my former colleague Joel Cutler on Evolv’s Board. This journey begins…and oh, Evolv’s hiring! Join us.

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Women founders of hardware/software startups.

August 28, 2013

A few days ago I caught up with my friend Helen Greiner who is a world-class engineer and a successful entrepreneur. Helen is an amazing person, a fellow MIT engineer, co-founder of iRobot, and now founder/CEO of CyPhy Works. I was proud to have been an investor and a member of her Board until earlier this year. My conversation with her motivated me to think of other women founders of hardware/software startups. I was embarrassed that only a few names immediately popped into my mind. But I knew there were many more. So I asked the twitterverse if they could think of some other awesome women hardware entrepreneurs and several names were added to my list.

Here are some such entrepreneurs I know, and some others that I would love to know better:

  • Limor Fried – Limor is an MIT alum and founder of Adafruit Industries, a pioneer in bringing electronics and maker philosophy to people of all ages. Limor founded Adafruit in 2005 and was the first woman engineer on the cover of Wired magazine.
  • Ayah Bdeir – Ayah is also an MIT alum and I was introduced to her by the current MIT Media Lab Director Joi Ito. She is the founder and CEO of Little Bits – an open-source kit of pre-assembled electronics parts that are plug and play into gadgets, devices, toys, etc. Think of it as the legos for the 21st century. Parents and kids love her gadgetry equally.
  • Kegan Fisher Schouwenburg – Kegan is the founder and CEO of Sols, an awesome new solution bringing 3D scanning and 3D printing together. Everyone I know who has met Kegan describes her as a force of nature. She was an early member of the Shapeways team (disclosure: Shapeways is my firm, Lux Capital’s, 3D printing portfolio company), and helped them build The Factory of the Future.
  • Lenore Edman – Lenore is a co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories, designing and producing “DIY and open source hardware for art, education, and world domination.
  • Meredith Perry – Meredith is the founder and CEO of uBeam – a wireless electricity company. I really find what she is working on fascinating as (a) I hate carrying all kinds of wires and charging devices with me, and (b) wireless charging might be critical for an internet of things that some of us imagine in the not so distant future.
  • Jeri Ellsworth – Jeri is famous for building Commodore 64 emulator within a joystick. I would love to own one! She is a hacker/builder extraordinaire and seems to be developing a new company called Technical Illusions to commercialize a projected augmented reality game system.
  • Amanda Bynes – Amanda and her co-founder met at UC Irvine and created Fabule to build smart domestic devices, i.e. internet of things for the home, with personality. At Haxlr8r, she developed the first product, Clyde, which is a smart lamp.
  • Alice Brooks – Alice is an MIT/Stanford alum and founder of Roominate. She is determined to make STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education fun, esp for girls aged 6-10, via a series of building toys.
  • Erin, aka RobotGrrl – Erin loves robots with a personality. She is a great role model for young women in robotics. She is also the designer behind Robobrrd which checked in at 151% of its funding target on IndieGogo.
  • Vanessa Green – Vanessa is an MIT alum and co-founder/CEO of Finsix which is developing a very high frequency power converter (transformer). Vanessa is also a board member of Community Water Solutions, a non-profit she co-founded in 2008.
  • Heidi Lubin – Heidi is the founder and CEO of Hybrid Electric Vehicle Technologies (HEVT). She is building high efficiency motors that are free of rare earth materials by utilizing innovations in hardware and software.
  • Mary Huang – Mary seems to be doing some very interesting work at the cross-section of hardware/software/design and fashion. Check out her 3D printed products at Continuumfashion.com.
  • Nancy Liang – Nancy is the force behind Mixeelabs, a platform for designers to create customizable products and sell them online. She is a Shapeways alum, now utilizing the 3D printing manufacturing capabilities of Shapeways to enable distributed product development and e-commerce.
  • Star Simpson – Star was the genius behind the TacoCopter. She is a maker and equally comfortable with electronics and robots as she is with code. Check her out at starsimpson.com.
  • Samantha Snabes – Samantha is a co-founder of re:3d, a 3D printing company based in Austin utilizing large format 3D printers to maximize production.
  • Dorian Ferlauto – Dorian is founder and CEO of Elihuu, a company that connects designers with the appropriate manufacturers so the product ideas can be turned into delivered goods in customers’ hands. I find the community they are building, of designers and manufacturers to be quite interesting.

This page of Lady Ada Lovelace Day also includes names of several other women entrepreneurs who are building awesome hardware/software products and solutions. There are obviously many many others who are doing amazing work. Please feel free to add other names in your comments. I am excited my daughter will have great role-models to look up to in STEM, hacker/maker culture, and engineering entrepreneurship.


A new chapter in my life – investing in our future.

May 9, 2013

New-BeginningsI spent much of the day yesterday with Salman Khan of Khan Academy, walking around the MIT campus and at events geared towards raising awareness and funds for his amazing effort to democratize education for all people of the world.  It was nice for both of us to walk around the campus where we not only got educated and ‘grew up’, but also found our spouses and some life-long friends. At one point in his talk at MIT Sal said “I am having the time of my life. I am pursuing my passions”. I could not agree with him more. As an entrepreneur and an investor, I have been privileged to be able to do the same for the last 10 years of my life. A new chapter in that life begins today as I announce starting June I will join Lux Capital as a partner in their Palo Alto office to continue to do what I am passionate about: investing in our future.

Lux Capital is a NYC and Palo Alto based venture capital firm focused on founding, seeding and making early stage investments in emerging technologies. I have known Lux for many years, we have co-invested together in the past, and have spent a lot of time learning from each other about ideas, innovations and themes that would be considered extra-ordinary even for our innovative times. My partners at Lux – Josh, Peter, Rob and Adam – are entrepreneurs at heart who share my mission to partner with great entrepreneurs early to help them build great companies. As friends I have found them to be humble and genuinely nice people, and as professional colleagues I find them intellectually curious, rigorous and honest – ready to roll up their sleeves and do what it takes to help entrepreneurs achieve their successes. I am excited that with their help, and with the help of the rest of the awesome Lux team, I will be able to focus on identifying and leading early stage investments across Energy, Technology and Healthcare sectors.

We are living in extra-ordinary times where innovation is happening at an unbelievable pace across so many different disciplines. During the last 15 years that I have spent on academic campuses and then in the startup world I have witnessed ground-breaking work happening in areas such as genetics/genomics, synthetic biology, materials science, data analytics, informatics, communication and energy/climate sciences. As stated above, I want to invest in and build our future, utilizing breakthroughs across science/engineering disciplines, and not just software engineering, and coupling with business and marketplace innovations. I want to partner with entrepreneurs that are tackling big problems in commercially interesting ways. New materials, 3D printing, robotics, internet of things, sensing/imaging, big data, genomics, personal health, security, wearable computing, energy/cleantech and other areas…possibilities are endless. And Lux has a proven track record to think differently and invest in unconventional areas. With a new $245m fund, and now with a new partner, we are ready to double-down.

I have spent the last 15 years of my life in Boston and the transition to California will not be easy. But I also know I will keep coming back here to invest time and again. I continue to believe Boston is one of the most fertile grounds for innovation and startup talent. It has some of the world best universities, a self-replenishing student cohort that is unparalleled anywhere else in the world, and a thriving startup ecosystem in IT, energy and healthcare. General Catalyst is a great bi-coastal firm and I am sure we will continue to partner together on ambitious projects in the future as well. I want to thank GC for teaching me what I know of the VC business, and especially Hemant, Joel, David, Larry and others who have been great mentors and friends. Most importantly, I want to thank all the founders, CEOs, CTOs and other people in GC companies that I have invested in and been a part of at GC. You are heroes and no doubt will change the world! I will also stay involved as a co-founder and advisor to the ‘baller’ students at RoughDraft.vc and StartLabs. They make me proud.

I am humbly embarking on this journey of investing in big, bold ideas, and backing great entrepreneurs who are not shy to take on challenges worth committing 10+ years of their lives to. I am not looking to make momentum investments, but as my partners say, we want to invest in spaces where when we win, we win big!  I grew up in a middle class family in a relatively poor country. If anything I do can impact those billions of people who have even less than people around me growing up had, I will feel I did a good job. I have lots to learn and I look forward to this new chapter…


Why I still focus on cleantech?

May 31, 2012

Green EnergySomebody I know well recently asked me why I still focused on cleantech investments? Had I not been dissuaded by all the rather public failures of cleantech startups? Was the political climate not anti-cleantech almost everywhere, and was this really solving the biggest problem faced by humanity today?

These were well meaning questions and came from someone I trust to be smart and thoughtful. I think he wasn’t trying to tell me I am crazy, but as a friend who knows me well, was just wondering if this was the best thing I could be doing with my limited time in this world?

And the answer back to him was “I couldn’t think of a bigger challenge than this to take on, and such an important one at that.” So far I have loved working in cleantech despite the down cycles and the spate of negative news that have hit the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, I get it that it kinda sucks as far as cleantech successes are concerned. There are few of them, and seen from 30,000 ft they look like tiny specks instead of inspiring feats. And it gets tougher when your colleagues discuss billion dollar exits in 15 months. But we are just in the 3rd inning of this game and those who give up now may be should not have played at all.

This is not meant to be a long philosophical post. But I apologize in advance. Just wanted to expand on some thoughts I shared with my friend. I don’t think I convinced him, but that’s OK. We have always loved that we can agree to disagree. It pushes us to think harder about our positions. So here are some reasons why I still focus on cleantech:

  • Long term trends are secular and not changing no matter what some might like to believe. Global warming is happening, fossil fuel supplies are limited and geopolitically troubled, much of the world is just coming up the development curve and is hungry for energy/water, and people around are more conscious about their ecological footprint than ever before in modern times. Just imagine when all of China gets to travel the average 12000-15000 miles per person per annum that average Americans travel. We may not have enough cars, fuel, or roads to support that. How do we solve that problem? And what’s the commercial opportunity? This is a resource-constrained world no matter how we look at it, and therein lies the opportunity to optimize and build the next generation companies.
  • I would never bet against technology, and cleaner, more efficient technologies are not science fiction but already mainstream and important part of our lives. Reverse Osmosis is not expensive technology that Arabs or Israelis use to produce fresh water, but Coca Cola uses it as well to produce Dasani water bottles. Apple, Facebook, and Google are buying solid oxide fuel cells to power energy hungry data centers, I no longer have to remember to shut lights off at work because every room in the building is equipped with advanced proximity sensors, and I can download apps on my cellphone that would give me turn-by-turn driving instructions optimized for fuel efficiency. Let’s be clear that technological breakthroughs have allowed shale gas found in the US and elsewhere in significant quantities to be extracted in economically viable ways. Don’t bet against technology.
  • Today’s generation of adults have grown up in a networked, globalized world and are more aware of the disasters that can result from extreme weather and climate change. They have a more personal understanding of the impact of drought in sub-Saharan Africa or floods in Bangladesh that the generation before them did reading National Geographic. Our children are growing up knowing about happenings in Syria and Japan faster than their parents who watch cable news. How this world works and is at risk is ever more present in their conscience, and they want to make it better.
  • Einstein once said “God does not play dice with the universe”. In the same vein, I believe we have a one-shot at this experiment we call life on earth. I don’t want to play dice and see if all ends up well on the other side of this great human experiment. Lets correct our course as we go and to improve our collective lives while preserving the future. Our predecessors used wood, coal, oil and gas. What will we use going forward? All of the above plus solar, wind, biofuels, nuclear? Just like we went from large digital computers to personal computers to iPads, why won’t we make the switch from incandescent to fluorescent to LED light bulbs? Batteries twenty years ago barely powered hand-held radios for a few hours. Now they power powerful computers for hours. Why would the same not happen in electric vehicles that could drive 300+ miles without recharging?
  • Solar, wind etc are variable sources, and inherently there is uncertainty in their availability. But if you take a long term view (5-10-20 years), I woud wager that perhaps even the most variable natural resource like wind or solar is more predictable in availability and pricing than fossil fuel that remains at the whim of dictators and other idiots, and on yet-to-be-developed extraction techniques. Unfortunately our financial system just hasn’t developed ways to monetize clean energy well. Can that change and unleash capital that is otherwise tied up?
  • Cleantech is not a single industry but so many different industries. From the renewable power sources such as solar, wind, biofuels, hydro, automotive to lighting, energy efficiency and energy IT, to devices, sensors, robotics, behavior psychology, big data analytics, cloud computing to gaming. There are cleantech opportunities abound, and there is no shortage of buzz words if cleantech is now a four-letter word. A rose by any other name is still a rose, right? 🙂
  • The quality of entrepreneurs I see entering cleantech fields today is impressive. They are ten times better than my peers from 10 years ago when I started my cleantech company. They understand the challenges they are taking on and are determined to succeed. They understand that their markets are large and real (not virtual), lifecycle of their products & companies would be decades (not months), and acceptance of their products if economically viable would be nearly universal.  It’s just that they have to usually build stuff, and building real stuff at scale is tough and takes time/money. Not only that, they are sometimes also dealing with unfair business practices from their competitors in other parts of the world. So be it. Creative entrepreneurs will always win in the end. Generations of entrepreneurs before them built the electric grids, railroad systems, highway systems, aircrafts, and nuclear power stations. So they know who their ideals are and are aiming high.
  • Great entrepreneurs and good investors build companies that last, not exits. Exits come when companies reach a certain level of maturity, or when luck shines upon them. I hate to see investors chasing dreams of exits when they really should be building companies in large markets, solving real problems, and building products that customers truly need and want. And such companies are being built today. Let’s just have some patience. The entire freaking country of Greece melted away in less than 2 years, so please cut these entrepreneurs some slack! They will rebound with better products and more robust businesses.

While I am hopeful that I am not totally wrong, that is perhaps besides the point. At the end of the day I am just a cog in the wheel; but a wheel that is on an important journey. I am an entrepreneur at heart and entrepreneurs want to solve problems they see before themselves. And I see this as a great challenge. And in every challenge lies an opportunity that would pay plenty if successful.


The Entrepreneur: A Masterpiece of Dexterity, Grace and Risk | New England Clean Energy Council | Blog

April 26, 2012

Thank you to Kimberly from NECEC for rather eloquently summarizing some of the thoughts I shared at a workshop on “Resourceful Entrepreneurs” at URES 2012.

Bilal Zuberi led the 2012 University Research & Entrepreneurship Symposium (URES, pronounced by those in the know as U-Rez) breakout session titled “Resourceful Entrepreneurs.” An innocent title, it called up images of a boy scout with a good Swiss army knife and a set of dry matches, but what followed seemed more like instructions on how to be part of a contortionist trapeze troupe embedded in an every changing landscape of ropes and bars.  Let me explain.

Zuberi said that, from the viewpoint of a potential investor, technology usually comes in second in importance to the quality of the entrepreneur. He went on to praise entrepreneurs who could operate effectively on a shoestring budget, overcome the many and varied hurdles set before them, call upon their own internal resources to pull together necessary analytics and due diligence, be the champion for their idea and do whatever else was required to give wings to their idea; in short, a contortionist.

In their flexibility, great entrepreneurs clearly identify their place in their team, they recognize the critical role of mentors and role models, and importantly, they understand that, maybe, they may not be the best person to step into the role of CEO, notwithstanding their passion for and dedication to their blossoming idea.  The successful contortionist entrepreneur exists as part of a team. She understands when to let go of the trapeze bar and trust that her network of experienced team members will do their part in the aerial ballet to make the move successful.  She must pay attention to the commands and signals of the troupe and react with humble and coordinated aplomb.

Similarly, the successful entrepreneur outlines a path, describes scenarios, and imagines what each step of the process must look like for success.  She’s got a plan. She’s outlined the supply chain, she knows where she fits in, she sees clearly and can even describe the road to market. Thank goodness, because with all these team members coming together, proper execution depends first on careful choreography, but also on being a well rounded athlete – especially when the landscape of ropes and bars changes, the plan takes a radical detour, and mid-swing it’s not clear how to land that triple summersault.

Zuberi described the resourceful entrepreneur with equal color, significantly less chaos and in a more concise way than I have.   He summarized that raw intellect and the willingness to learn are at the root of the successful entrepreneur. She is a living paradox, a self-reliant and yet humble part of team, maneuvering the business forward with an astute and agile plan.  Oh, and let’s not forget she’s got some really fantastic technology too.

via The Entrepreneur: A Masterpiece of Dexterity, Grace and Risk | New England Clean Energy Council | Blog.


Over-simplification of hard problems and nuanced technological innovations doesn’t really help.

April 12, 2012

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Just saw this tweet and was left quite confused: I thought we were done making speeches like this in 2008!

My assumption is that Vinod’s description of the technology got a bit too simplified in somebody’s attempt reduce it to quotable 140 characters. Of all investors, Vinod probably knows best how difficult it is to realize and commercialize crazy materials science ideas and discoveries in real life.

My guess is that this “magic material” is possibly a bit like the new material described in a business plan I recently saw with the tag line: Zap material in a kitchen microwave oven to produce power from heat. That actually quite turned me off from the biz plan until I checked in with the professor whose lab this had came out of and learned that the reality was a more nuanced materials science project developing novel nano-structured materials for thermoelectric power generation. Microwave energy was only a way to orient crystalline structures resulting in higher than average ZT values. They fully understand how much more they need to characterize and understand the materials’ properties before making real world claims.

Just a request: for real progress’ sake, let’s make sure we don’t over simplify what are indeed rather complicated science and engineering problems.


Tradition of Presenting Scientific Innovation at URES

April 11, 2012

Every year I look forward to one special event that is held in Cambridge, MA – the annual University Research & Entrepreneurship Symposium (URES). This year it will be held on April 18th at the Microsoft NERD. Where else would you get approximately 30 universities presenting their most exciting research & innovation in the fields of Energy, IT and Healthcare? Professors, graduate students and post-docs present their ideas to an audience of angel and VC investors, entrepreneurs and CEOs to get feedback and help in commercializing technology out of universities.

I have been a part of organizing this event since its beginning and once again will be leading the Energy track and a lunch discussion on “What are Resourceful Entrepreneurs?”. Inventors who have presented in the Energy track in the past have gone on to create companies that have attracted top talent hires, won Arpa-E grants and received venture funding. This symposium is specifically designed to not be a pitch competition, a business plan competition, or a fundraising event. It is really to bring raw and early, but commercializable technology to the attention of the entrepreneurial ecosystem to facilitate the next steps in spinning these technologies out as successful enterprises.

Below is a brief teaser on the energy technologies presenting at URES 2012. I look forward to them telling their stories and presenting the brilliant work done in the labs. I encourage presenters at URES to (a) Try and define what could be their unfair advantage as a startup in the space, (b) Let the audience know how they can be helpful, besides the immediate funding needs. Most people do act on the advice, making for not just a more fruitful 1-1 interactions that continues after the event, but for a more engaging discussion for all those present.

This year we have chosen 6 technologies to present in the URES Energy Track. They were selected from a bigger set that could all have easily qualified to present…but below lists the ideas we eventually chose based on creativity, boldness and viability as a potential commercial entity.

  1. Drexel University team will present a very interesting energy storage concept that is partly an ultracapacitor and partly a fuel cell. The configuration leads to development of a battery system that has high energy and high power densities…at low cost.
  2. Cornell University team is working on nano-organic hybrid materials for high energy li-ion batteries. Technology allows for 3x the energy density, has been tested to at least 1000 cycles and integrates with existing manufacturing techniques.
  3. MIT team is focused on polymer-ionic liquid rechargeable batteries, with a very interesting initial application focused on oil and gas drilling, down-hole activities.
  4. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute team has developed an extremely low cost manufacturing technique for nanostructured thermoelectric materials that show marked improvement in ZT characteristics over incumbents.
  5. Utah State University team has developed an integrated sensor that is applicable for lighting, HVAC, fire and security markets. Technology is getting spun out of the Energy Dynamics Lab.
  6. Columbia University team is using autolithoautotrophy to  convert CO2 into chemicals and fuels by using safe, soluble mediators that can be utilized by chemolithoautotrophic bacteria and that can be reduced electrochemically.

URES 2012 has been sold out and we are working with a waiting list. However, if you are really eager to attend, please drop me a line to let me know why you should be included. We would love to make space if we can at all.

I look forward to the URES tradition continuing into the future. Boston is not just an eco-system where great technological progress gets made in the labs, but also where amazing technologies get converted into products and businesses. Thank you to all the entrepreneurs who make that possible.

This post was also featured at: BostInno