Sequoia Capital’s Goetz on Carbon3D, a North Carolina-Born “Unicorn”

Sequoia Capital’s Jim Goetz invested in the North Carolina-born 3D printing startup that would go on to become the venture capital firm’s latest “unicorn” after seeing the technology in action—demonstrated by the high school student who helped build the prototype printer.

Carbon3D’s technology can 3D print in minutes what takes hours with currently available technology. The company calls its process “continuous liquid interface production,” or CLIP, and the technology holds potential for automotive manufacturing, Hollywood special effects, and medical applications. But two years ago, CLIP was just an idea at a startup in Chapel Hill, NC. Alex Ermoshkin, the company’s chief technology officer and co-founder, built the first CLIP printer with his son Nikita, then a 16-year-old Chapel Hill High student. The device piqued the attention of Sequoia, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm whose track record of investments in startups that topped valuations of $1 billion includes Stripe, Airbnb, and Dropbox. When Carbon3D got the opportunity to pitch to Sequoia, it was the younger Ermoshkin—one of the patent holders on the technology and a co-author on a published scientific article about the 3D printing process—who demoed the device to Sequoia partner Goetz.

Goetz invested in Carbon3D, which now operates from Redwood City, CA. In August, Google Ventures led a $100 million Series C round that pushed Carbon3D’s valuation into unicorn territory. On Wednesday, two years after the Sand Hill Road VC met the budding engineer from Chapel Hill High, Goetz was again face to face with Nikita Ermoshkin. This time it was on stage for a keynote at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s Tech Venture Conference in Raleigh, NC. There he spoke with visible admiration for the ingenuity of the younger Ermoshkin, whose handiwork introduced Sequoia to new possibilities in technology.

“We weren’t thinking about 3D printing until we met all of you,” he said.

Goetz addressed a packed ballroom at the Raleigh Convention Center in a wide-ranging discussion that covered education, entrepreneurship, diversity in technology, and North Carolina’s position as a tech hub. He conceded that despite the high visibility achieved by many Sequoia portfolio companies, the firm has historically been media shy. Even on stage before an audience of 1,000 registered conference attendees, Goetz preferred to turn the spotlight on entrepreneurs.

Sequoia was the first and only investor in mobile messaging service WhatsApp, which was acquired by Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) last year in a deal valued at up to $19 billion. But rather than talking about the investment and the sale (the single largest exit of a venture backed company in history) Goetz shifted the discussion to WhatsApp CEO and co-founder Jan Koum. An immigrant from the Ukraine, Koum had moved to Mountain View, CA, as a teenager with his mother and grandmother. His father remained in the Ukraine.

To Koum, WhatsApp was never about making money. It was a means for immigrants to stay in contact with their families, Goetz said. Koum distrusted venture capitalists. Later on, when Facebook bid for the startup, he was reluctant to accept. Goetz recalled driving with Koum around Mountain View and often passing by the same social security office. Koum revealed that it was the same office where he and his mother, who later died of cancer, had picked up food stamps. When Koum finally agreed to the Facebook offer, he signed the paperwork at that office where he had waited with his mother so many times. “He wanted her to be part of what he built,” Goetz said.

Goetz expressed support for immigration as a way to boost entrepreneurship. Immigrants, he said, are inherent risk takers—an important quality in entrepreneurs. He noted that as a teenager Koum had left his homeland and his father. Goetz believes that Koum’s work was driven in part by his immigrant experience. “I think it’s an important part of the engine that drives tech and I hope we never close our doors to immigrants,” Goetz said.

Beyond welcoming immigrants, Goetz said that tech companies need to do better in recruiting and hiring women, calling the current gender imbalance in the tech sector “a deep personal frustration.” Pointing to Sequoia portfolio company Stripe, he notes that the company’s aim for 50/50 gender balance helps recruit a better and broader pool of candidates. Goetz added that the aim for gender balance must extend to investment firms, because diverse perspectives inform investment decisions. Sequoia passed on investing in Pinterest because no one at the firm could identify with the concept of “pinning.” “I’m certain if we had a woman on the team, she would have driven a different outcome,” he said.

Sequoia is pleased with the Carbon3D investment, an unusual one for the firm, Goetz said, because the technology came straight from a team of academics. Carbon3D is led by co-founder and CEO Joe DeSimone, a chemistry professor now on a two-year leave from his joint appointments at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and NC State University. DeSimone’s research has spun out several companies, including Research Triangle Park, NC-based nanotechnology company Liquidia Technologies. The elder Ermoshkin left a UNC post to join Liquidia, where his work helped the company scale its nanoparticle manufacturing process. He now works for Carbon3D from the company’s Chapel Hill office. The company is the first in Sequoia’s portfolio to achieve unicorn status in less than two years. That’s a testament, Goetz said, to UNC’s “world class chemistry department.”

“You are on the forefront of tech that rivals what’s happening in California at Stanford and Berkeley,” he said.

Frank Vinluan is editor of Xconomy Raleigh-Durham, based in Research Triangle Park. You can reach him at fvinluan [at] xconomy.com Follow @frankvinluan

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