Few technology entrepreneurs start one unicorn, a tech company with a market valuation of over $1 billion. Elon Musk has started three. Xiaomi’s Lei Jun two. Bill Gross has started and exited from seven, and has another two in his active porfolio.
Gross is the founder and chairman of Idealab, one of America’s oldest and probably still most successful technology incubators. Idealab was established in 1996. Gross was 38 years old then. He had already started and sold two software companies. He decided to take some of that money, as well as some from investors he knew, and start his own incubator.
From the beginning, Idealab has pursued a unique path among technology investors in California. Unlike most other incubators and VC funds, Gross himself comes up with most of the ideas for the new Idealab companies. Idealab then provides the first round of capital for each new company, hires a CEO and Gross takes on the role as non-executive chairman. Idealab has a full-time team to manage the back office work like HR and accounting for new companies during their early stages. Idealab headquarters is in an old brick warehouse in the California city of Pasadena, near Los Angeles, and close to Caltech, where Gross went to school.
In the last 20 years, Gross has started 150 businesses. Of these, 45 have had successful exits, either through IPOs or M&A. A similar number are still in the Idealab portfolio.
The unicorns Gross created include some of the most successful early successes in e-commerce and online advertising. The companies are: eToys, Overture, Tickets.com, Netzero, Centra, Shopping.com and Citysearch. Two other Idealab companies have recently merged with other tech startups. These merged companies, Twilio and Taboola, also now have valuations above $1 billion. Over the years, Gross also started and sold companies to Google, eBay, AOL, AirBNB. Along with internet companies, Gross has also started companies in solar and renewable energy, robotics, online education, wireless networking, 3D printing machinery, home medical care.
Gross long ago stopped raising money from outside investors. Idealab is a corporation, not a fund. Gross has the kind of freedom most tech entrepreneurs can only dream of – the imagination and drive to start new technology companies, a few new ones every year, and the capital to help them grow. Idealab’s capital contribution into each new company is about $250,000. If a company begins to grow according to plan, Idealab then raises outside money from VC firms, mainly the large ones based in Silicon Valley. Idealab’s return on invested capital up to now: 13.5 times.
Gross was born in Japan, but moved to California as a boy and got his start as an entrepreneur while in middle school. For 20 years, he has seen technology business opportunities earlier than most people. Anyone interested in where technology is headed, the important problems it may solve, how to incubate successful startups, and how China and East Asia may become more deeply integrated into California’s innovation ecosystem should listen to what Gross has to say.
Venture capital investing and incubators have grown very large in the last few years, both in the US and also elsewhere including China. There’s still a lot of capital looking for good ideas. Let’s dissect please how you look at the world. What are the key “metatrends” you see that will impact the shape and size of the global economy over the next 35 years?
Let me take you through those quickly. Start with population growth. The projections are there will be 9.7 billion people on the planet by 2050, up from 7.4 billion today. Larger population means lots of possibly negative impacts and so areas where technology needs to come up with new solutions. What are the major challenges in the future? I think mostly about six. I’m an engineer, so let me give you a list:
- climate change;
- how to the meet the need to provide better, more affordable healthcare and prevention against global epidemics
- food security, having enough safe food available across the world
- the growing technological divide between people living with the benefits of modern technologies and those who are left behind
- the workforce of the future, how to make sure people have the right skills to find productive jobs
- the future of the internet, how to provide security and privacy to everyone using it.
The people working to solve these problems probably hope to win Nobel Prizes, not become technology entrepreneurs. So, where do you see the concrete business opportunities, where there’s both a future market and a potential for some kind of new technology breakthrough?
Of course, you wouldn’t expect me to hand over the keys to my kingdom, to give you the exact business areas we are now working on. But, I can share the industries where I think there’s lots of opportunity worldwide and where we’re actively coming up with new business ideas and looking to start new companies. Again, if you don’t mind, let me give it to you as a list.
- Autonomous cars and drones
- Clean water and clean energy
- New education models, including MOOCs
- Agriculture technology, including urban farming, growing food closer to population centers
- Advanced machine-meaning and deep neural networks to provide better, smarter data and decision-making
- 3D Printing, using metal, new materials
- IoT consumer and business
- Home automation
- Virtual reality and human-computer interaction
- New forms of transportation, including hyperloop and perhaps even flying cars
- Space, inexpensive launches, to space mining and microsatellites
- Software and information security systems to manage each of these
While it’s still possible to start successful companies with limited capital and get to market quickly as we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, some of the newer business opportunities I like will need much larger amounts of money and a longer incubation period. But, the rewards for success will be larger than anything we’ve seen up to now.
Up to now, you’ve focused only on building breakthrough tech companies in California to serve to US market. There are other places in the world with money and markets for good technology.
Yes, I definitely see a fusion of powerful and positive forces taking place in Asia that could allow Greater China to emerge as an important constituent in globally-important innovation, both as a market and as a base of ideas and manufacturing. This will be good for China, good for Asia, good for the US, good for the world.
I’m an inventor, and so have always looked to China. I have huge respect for the ingenuity, diligence and entrepreneurship of the Chinese people. Look at the example of China’s greatest inventor, Lu Ban, who lived almost 2,500 years before America’s Thomas Edison. He came up with ideas for flying machines and all kinds of advanced wooden implements .
So what role can you envision China playing as one of the world’s centers of technology innovation?
China, like the US, is a place where a large domestic market, manufacturing strength, capital and entrepreneurial culture all come together.
A few years ago, I gave myself a challenge, to come up with one new business idea every day. I’ve mainly been able to keep up that pace. We could start even more companies, but there’s often one big constraint. We can’t find enough great people to run each new company. Greater China is blessed with having a large number of talented managers and engineers. That’s a huge and valuable resource. On the downside, intellectual property protection in China isn’t nearly as robust as it needs to be.
All of Idealab’s billion dollar exits happened during the early years of the internet, with IPOs for companies including eToys, Citysearch, Tickets.com and the sale of online-advertising business Overture to Yahoo. Have big exits become harder?
IPOs have certainly slowed down. The total number of annual IPOs in the US has been falling since we got started 20 years ago. It used to be over 300 companies on average IPOd every year in the US. It’s now below 100. This year is looking like one of the slowest for US IPOs. A big reason is the cost and regulatory burden of being a public company in the US. Our exits now come from M&A. We continue to do pretty well.
Let me quickly go over our three of our most recent M&A exits. The three are all in different industries — mobile phone security, solar energy and robotics. We started Authy to provide simple but more effective mobile phone data and transaction security. We merged it last year with Twilio, which IPOd this summer on the New York Stock Exchange and now has a market cap of over $4 billion.
RayTracker is a company we started to improve the performance and energy production from solar panels by getting them to track the movement of the sun across the sky. This has been a passion of mine since high-school, to make solar energy more affordable and efficient. We sold RayTracker to First Solar, a Nasdaq-listed company. Today ground mounted trackers like RayTracker invented account for more than 90% of all solar installations in the US and First Solar is a leader the field.
The other recent exit is a little bittersweet, because we may have come to market a little too early with a product consumers originally didn’t really understand. They do now. Being too early with an idea can lead to failure just as quickly as being too late. Our company was Evolution Robotics, which was probably the first company to design hardware and software for a home robot to clean floors. We had to come up with substantial new technology in vision recognition and spatial mapping, including our own proprietary indoor GPS system using infrared. We sold our company to a competitor, iRobot, which is now by far the largest company in this industry.
Can we have a peek inside the current Idealab portfolio? Talk to us about companies you think have the potential to grow into billion dollar businesses within the next few years?
I mentioned already my lifelong passion for clean energy and making solar energy cheaper and more efficient. We have two companies now, Edisun and Cool Energy, that have unique solutions that are finding a lot of market acceptance. Edisun both generates and stores solar energy, so it can be delivered to the grid when it’s needed. Cool Energy uses a Stirling Engine to capture low temperature waste heat, like from machines in a large factory, and turn it into clean electricity. It can also make electricity from waste cold, like the huge refrigeration vessels used for LNG storage.
Mark Andreesen, the guy who invented the first commercial web browser and is now a successful venture capital investor, has said that “software is eating the world”. He means that just about every product and service is going to need more and better software in the future. I agree. The problem is, where are all those new software engineers going to come from? We’ve started two companies to teach kids how to write software, CodeSpark and Ucode. We’re noticing CodeSpark has more and more kids in China using it to learn to write software. We need to come up with a Chinese version, as well as Japanese, Korean.
One other area where we see huge potential is capturing and analyzing more and better mobile data, then using it for more efficient advertising. This could be as big a future market as “Pay-per-click” online advertising that earns so much money for Google and Baidu. I have a longer history in this area than most people. Overture, a company I started and sold to Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003, was an early successful pioneer of online advertising.
In the last 20 years, you’ve started 150 businesses, and had ideas for hundreds of others. Few people anywhere at any time have done that much business creation. What you have you learned about the reasons why start-ups succeed and fail?
I believe that the startup organization is one of the greatest forms to make the world a better place. If you take a group of people with the right equity incentives and organize them in a startup, you can unlock human potential in a way never before possible. You get them to achieve unbelievable things. But if the startup organization is so great, why do so many fail?
This matters to me as an investor and entrepreneur. I’ve started more failed companies than probably just about anyone else. They all looked promising at the beginning, had money and people in place, but ended up dying. Each time a company fails it’s heartbreaking for the entrepreneur. So, trying to get some usable analysis on this process may end up reducing the failure rate for me and I hope many others too.
I tried to look across what factors accounted the most for company success and failure. So I looked at the five key factors — the idea, the team, the execution, the business model and the timing. It accounted for 42 percent of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea, the differentiability of the idea, the uniqueness of the idea, actually came in third.
After 20 years at Idealab, and twenty years before that starting and running your own start-ups, aren’t you getting tired of this, the pressure, the risk, the uncertainty of starting new companies? There’s got to be an easier way to earn a living.
I think we are in a very exciting time where technology and innovation permeates everything we do, and every company. If the previous 20 years of my life were devoted to fostering entrepreneurship, I would love my next 20 to be about pushing new technological boundaries to make the world a better place. To happen, it’s going to need Asia and California to push together.