Pillar’s Russ Wilcox Talks VC, Data Control, Moving Beyond Screens
Russ Wilcox is a jack-of-all-trades in the Boston startup community.
In the mid-1990s, Wilcox worked on speech recognition software at PureSpeech. He later co-founded and became CEO of E Ink, an e-reader display maker that took off after it was chosen as the screen for the Amazon Kindle. E Ink was sold in 2009 to a Taiwanese display electronics company for about $480 million, according to Wilcox’s LinkedIn profile.
Wilcox hasn’t shied away from complex technologies or sectors. After E Ink, he helped start Transatomic Power, a nuclear energy company spun out of MIT, and Piper Therapeutics, a drug developer focused on the immune system.
Now, Wilcox will try to propel innovative companies forward as the newest partner at Pillar, an early-stage venture fund based in Boston. The move means he is stepping back from running Piper—which is still at the pre-clinical research stage, he says—but he will remain on the biotech startup’s board. (He’s also on Transatomic’s board.)
Interestingly, joining Pillar reunites Wilcox with Jamie Goldstein, the venture firm’s founder and managing director. The pair worked together at PureSpeech, which Goldstein co-founded.
I sat down with Wilcox on Friday to find out what he has learned from working on companies in a range of industries, why he became an investor, and where he thinks technology is headed. He shared some interesting perspectives about the entrepreneur-investor relationship, the convergence of different technologies, and privacy concerns in an era of always-listening devices, and a tech oligarchy that is getting rich off a lot of our personal data.
Here are some of the highlights of our chat:
Xconomy: That was a big change for you to go into biotech. What lessons did you learn from that?
Russ Wilcox: First of all, I’ve spent a lot of my career working with scientists, whether it was E Ink or Transatomic or Piper, it’s all working with scientists [and] people who are innovators or technologists in general. I see [Piper] as a continuation of the practice of trying to understand someone’s technology, trying to understand what the market needs, and then trying to commercialize a business around that. [Piper licensed technology from Boston Children’s Hospital.—Eds.]
The word entrepreneur, it’s French. And “entre” means between, and “preneur” means to take, to carry. So literally, your job as an entrepreneur is to be the person who carries between a great idea and a business. And you’re the bridge. So being a bridge is what I’ve learned to do.
Life sciences is very different territory scientifically. There is some overlap in terms of good practice, good experimental design, but it is definitely a new field [for me]. I thought it was exciting and neat to spend a year and a half focused on that, learn a lot about biology, cells, cancer, immunology. So, it’s been terrific, and I hope it’s a great success scientifically, but also it’s been a wonderful experience for me.
[What] I see now is room for more companies in Boston to blend tech and biology. But you see this, there’s a little bit of a schism between the VCs that are good at health and the VCs that are good at tech. There’s a few that bridge it, like Flare [Capital Partners]—Michael Greeley at Flare has got a great portfolio doing digital health. But generally, there’s not that much action in the overlap between those two fields, and I don’t see why. I think tech could be applied quite well to health in lots of ways. I’d look for more ways that that could occur.
X: You have a really wide breadth of experience. Not many people have been in software, clean energy, and biotech. What lessons have you learned from working in all those different sectors? Has that been challenging?
RW: I think every business you’re in, there’s a deep base of specific knowledge you’ve got to master, whether it’s how to be a good writer or how to work on deadline or whatever it is. I think that’s common to every different job. I think probably there’s some people who are more efficient with their time than I have been, who focus deeply and maybe would say I could’ve gotten farther if I had picked one. But you don’t want to be pigeon-holed in your life, you want to explore. I love to scout things. I’m a curious person. I love to learn new things, and I see it as a big advantage personally when I have a chance to dig in on something completely new. That’s exciting for me.
If you look at where the field of innovation is these days, it’s rarely within one discipline. The great chemistry ideas strictly due to chemists, a lot of them happened since the ’40s or earlier. How to do electronics, the physics behind electronics was figured out also. But taking chemistry and electronics and [putting] them together to do display technology, that’s interdisciplinary. I think that being able to connect across different fields is an important frontier right now for how people are innovating. Part of what makes that accelerate is the Internet and the fact that people can find any fact they want now in seconds. It becomes less important that you know all the facts and more important that you learn the patterns and you learn the rhythms of how to marshal those facts to innovate.
I think it’s less and less important what you’ve studied in your textbook and more and more important about seeing opportunities and gathering the right people around them—helping them to collaborate, building teams, building cultures.
X: How did you know you were ready to cross over to the other side and do investing, be on the other side of the table?
RW: It’s funny, we made this announcement two or three days ago. And I think at least 10 people said to me, “Oh, you’re going to the dark side, the other side.” It is really interesting. It is pervasive right now that people conceive of the investor-entrepreneur relationship as having sides.
I would say part of what attracted me to Pillar is that it’s trying to narrow that gap and get everybody on the same side. I think not just Pillar, but a lot of VCs in Boston would like to get there. What it means is you have to be very aligned with the entrepreneur. So, one thing Pillar does is it comes in early. It’s going to get diluted alongside the founder. In some cases, Pillar will take common stock. We’re using simple term sheets. We’re trying to pay attention and listen to people. … It influences up and down everything that a venture capitalist does if the focus is alignment with the founder. So, part of how I knew is I found that Jamie and [Pillar partner] Sarah [Hodges] really had that mindset, and they were going to be on the side of the entrepreneur. That resonated with me.
Jamie co-founded the company with 16 of Boston’s superstar CEOs. Just think about a bunch of CEOs around a table saying, “What VC firm would we like to be part of?” They’d like to be part of one that is hyper-friendly to the entrepreneur. I think that that’s a really special thing about Pillar.
I think another thing for me is I had been an [entrepreneur in residence] at Harvard Business School at the [Arthur] Rock Center [for Entrepreneurship], which means I would go over to the [Harvard Innovation Lab] and once a month spend an afternoon chatting with students. I’ve done that for five years, so I’ve probably seen a couple hundred student groups. And I got great joy from trying to help them each take one more step forward to their dreams, whatever their dream is. … I loved that. I loved those people, I loved the energy. But sooner or later they need capital to get started. I didn’t love not being able to help them.
I think becoming an investor … is going to allow me to be more supportive of startups in Boston, and I’m going to really love that.
X: With E Ink, you were on the new frontier of displays, and the screen is still the dominant tech interface. But what’s going to be the next evolution in how we interact with technology?
RW: It’s a very correct question to ask because if you look at the economics of technology, a lot of it comes down to advertising and persuasion. So, the reason Facebook, Google, Amazon, all those guys have huge valuations is because they influence your spending. In the end, it’s the ads that are really driving those companies’ valuations. And the place that you put the ad is in the very last step [to reach] the eyeball of the user. So that’s why you see Google investing in its own mobile OS because that’s where they get to control what you see on the screen. The interface actually is the leading driver of control for the attention of the user. The battle for the next interface is very high stakes.
I think you’re seeing already [augmented reality], [virtual reality], and voice. So, Alexa, Siri, Google Assistant; Samsung has its own [voice assistant]. This is the next fight to see who’s going to control. It seems like it’s just an inch deep and a mile wide, and it is, but because it’s so wide, that’s a big battle. That’s probably I think the most important [emerging interface]—voice.
What worries me about it is you’re basically inviting a microphone into your home where you’re bugging yourself. It’s an interesting question where the limits are between the human and the cloud and how much privacy we want to give up to have a terrific interface.
X: What do you make of AR and VR?
RW: I’m certainly no expert in that area. My sense is that VR is going to be an important entertainment medium because it’s immersive—you’re transported. Whereas AR I think would be more of a productivity opportunity because you’re augmenting what you and I are seeing. We both wear glasses. Imagine we were also seeing a decibel meter. We could’ve walked to the quietest part of the room [to conduct this interview]. That’s kind of cool.
The world’s getting more competitive. Certain jobs are getting more and more valuable, but at the same time, there’s fewer of them. People are looking for edges. I think augmenting your reality with real-time information in your field of view and in your ear, I think that is an edge. What is the right form factor, I don’t know that. Google Glass was maybe not the right form factor, but it foretold what will happen.
There’s a bunch of people trying to do direct mind control of devices. Maybe that’s even further out.
X: How do you deal with the privacy question, the microphone in the home?
RW: I think we’re actually headed in the wrong direction. I very much like Tim Berners-Lee’s comments in this area. What he’s saying is, hey guys, we’re allowing corporations to own all our personal data. This is even beyond whether the government eavesdrops. But just holding aside the government, corporations are owning your data. And that seems to me to be a big problem. The centralization of the Web, it’s anti-privacy. And more importantly, it’s anti-innovation, is one of Tim’s points—that you can’t have a thousand different companies creating the next generation of [machine] intelligence if it requires data that’s controlled by five entities.
I do think that we need to see people owning their own information. … I suspect in the end we’re going to see a legislative response which protects people’s privacy. Europe seems to be leading in this area, where they’re demanding everybody have the right to force a deletion of their data. … You talk about interfaces getting more and more intimate. We’ve just got to make sure we have privacy controls going along with that; have an artificial conscience, maybe, in addition to the artificial intelligence.
X: What did you work on at PureSpeech?
RW: I was the product manager for a product called Juggler. It was an early example of Siri. It worked through your PC’s microphone. It was a productivity app. You could say,
“Read me my e-mails,” [and] it would read your e-mails to you. Or [it could] forward your voicemails or dial by name—“Call Jeff Engel”—it had voice dial.
All of that was really neat. It was way too far ahead of its time. For example, [it was] running on Windows 95, so Windows 95 would crash about once a day. It turned out to be a really lousy solution for basic software that was like your answering machine. … Nobody likes phone systems that crash. It was too early to run phone on Windows.
The other thing I learned about that was when people have a choice between keyboard and voice control, they will always pick the keyboard/mouse because it is absolutely predictable and reliable what the interface does. Whereas with speech, it’s slower and there’s always the percentage chance that it misunderstands you. So, nobody uses speech when there’s any other choice.
But if you’re in your living room sitting on your couch, or if you’re driving, or if you’re in an operating room—there’s many circumstances where you can’t have a keyboard. Then it’s interesting to have speech.