A Silicon Valley Pioneer Molds the Next Wave of Innovators at Rice

Xconomy Texas — 

Jack Gill went to northern California more than 40 years ago, becoming part of Silicon Valley’s formation.

He landed there in the late ’60s and founded Autolab, which pioneered the use of microprocessor-based instruments and computers for chromatography laboratory applications and was later acquired by Spectra Physics. In 1981, Gill co-found Vanguard Ventures, one of the Valley’s oldest early-stage venture capital firms.

His twin disciplines—electrical engineering and organic chemistry—gave him an understanding of both how the world runs and the basis of life, he says.

He also wanted to understand the characteristics that define modern-day entrepreneurship. He quizzed the successful entrepreneurs he had met over the years, collecting modern versions of the rags-to-riches stories written by Horatio Alger Jr. in the Gilded Age of the late 1800s. (Gill himself is a winner of the Horatio Alger Award for Distinguished Americans.) “The major factor here is ‘hungry,’ ” Gill says.

Gill’s own insatiable appetite to learn about entrepreneurship led him to academia, where he developed courses that he taught at Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California at Davis, and other institutions. In 1999, he and his wife, Linda, formed the Gill Foundation, which focuses on educational projects, including those in entrepreneurship. Today, the native Texan has come home, and is the professor of the practice of entrepreneurship at Rice University.

I sat down with Gill last week to talk about Houston’s budding entrepreneurial ecosystem, who and what the “Goose Society” is, and how he put the just-in-time management philosophy to work in his wine cellars.

Here is an edited version of our conversation.

Xconomy: Why did you want to become part of the Rice academic community?

Jack Gill: By 2000, there was a new generation coming up, and I decided it was time to give back. I thought, What can I do with my Silicon Valley experience?

This course that I brought here, that I teach at Rice, is called the “Roles of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers in High-Tech Startups.” It originated at Harvard and MIT in 2000. These courses sort of jump-start the process.

In the seven years [since the class at Rice started], I’ve had two [teaching assistants] every year: one provided by Rice and one by the medical center. All of those TAs go on to successes, even at a young age. Ask them, What’d you learn in Jack’s class? What they’ll say is, Who else put me in front of 10 Billy Cohns? [Cohn is a serial entrepreneur and director of the Texas Heart Institute.]

It’s jump-starting the Houston entrepreneurial process by bringing in courses like this. I’m not the only one. [Rice’s director of technology ventures development] Tom Kraft has a great course for students at the undergraduate level.

[Rice] President David Leebron is starting his 9th year. Only in the last two or three has he begun to emphasize entrepreneurship. He has taken on a new mantra that entrepreneurship is one of our three major things: entrepreneurship, energy, and life sciences. He wasn’t saying that five years ago. Nobody was saying that 10 years ago. It’s a major new thing that Rice is stepping up to the bar.

X: What’s missing in Houston’s startup ecosystem?

G: This city is full if smart, well-educated, great entrepreneurs, virtually all focused on energy, finance, real estate, and traditional business. But Houston was not a pioneering city in high-tech entrepreneurship and life sciences entrepreneurship historically. What’s missing was enough companies who were successful in high-tech entrepreneurship to spawn others. What was missing was experienced people in a critical mass of high-tech entrepreneurship. Number two on what was missing most was angel investors who support startups.

Let’s suppose you were a hotshot professor and you had a major invention, and two or three patents, and you wanted a productize and create a company but you had no business experience. So you wrote what you thought looked like a business plan, and you go call on some venture capitalists. They would listen to you politely for an hour or so, and say, Yeah, I’m impressed. What you have is very interesting, but you need to go away and get your act together and come back to see me when you do. Which means you’re not ready for prime time. So Houston had too few angel investors who understood the startup process.

If you were that startup professor with an invention … you need business help as much as you need money. You need to find people who can help you get your act together. If you knew how to do that, you would have done that already. That’s part of the entrepreneurial process and angel investors know how to do that. We don’t have enough angel investors who help entrepreneurs.

Historically, the Texas Medical Center was highly competitive and not collaborative. If you’re an old faculty member who’s been at the Texas Med Center for two decades or more, you’re probably not favorably inclined to the collaborative. But the model today is collaboration across science, engineering, medicine, and entrepreneurial business like models we have at Stanford or MIT. There’s an important cadre of hotshot new med center faculty-entrepreneur types, who are changing the model and the mantra.

X: What’s the best piece of advice you give to budding entrepreneurs?

G: [Pointing to a list of entrepreneurial traits on the back of his business card.] Number one: “Effective interpersonal skills.” Then, take all the entrepreneur courses you can. Don’t reinvent the wheel. See what successful others have done. There is a new groundswell of resources to help you do these things.

X: How did Goose—the Grand Order of Successful Entrepreneurs—come together?

G: Steve Currall (the founder of the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship) said, Help me construct a strategy to make the Rice Business Plan competition number one in the world. When we were assessing [measures to judge different competitions], one of those was the prize. [The University of Texas at Austin’s] Moot Corp then had $100,000, but the prize had strings attached: You had to move your company to Austin to collect the prize. So I say, all we have to do is have a $100,000 or larger prize and no strings attached. He says, That may sound easy to you but I’m milking all my donors that I have already have for lots of programs. How do I just get $100,000 more?

I said, Why don’t we just find five more guys like me, and $100,000 divided by six of us is not a big number. We called Rod Canion, founder of Compaq Computers … and we put a group together of six originally—now up to 11 members. We’ve got to have a name for this group, so why don’t we call it the Goose Society, the Grand Order of Successful Entrepreneurs? We’re an organization of angel investors who want to practice, study, and celebrate entrepreneurship, while laughing all the way to the bank, right?

But we also have a do-good mission, which is support Rice biz plan competition. We started out with a $100,000 prize with six members. With 11 members, today the prize is $175,000 for the winning team.

Goose members are people who have achieved success in founding startups or venture capital firms. The aggregate wealth of 11 people is something over $10 billion; it’s a very resourceful group. We support entrepreneurship in lots of ways in lots of universities. You can’t spend glory at the Mercedes dealer. We’ve had our fair share so we come together because we all love entrepreneurship. That’s what made it for us.

X: Tell me about the wine courses. How did that begin?

G: As a young scientist, I knew nothing about wines, but then I moved to San Francisco. You can’t live in San Francisco and not learn something about wine. And anything I decide to be serious about, I’m going to go the distance. I’m going to read all the papers, all the books, until I’m an expert.

So fairly quickly, I started reading fundamental science papers about the science of wine-making and grape-growing and so I got to know all the great pioneers in the field, who were mostly at [the University of California,] Davis. As you get to know wine-makers and grape growers, you start to enjoy wine. So if I have San Francisco/Napa at my back door and I spend a lot of time in France and Italy, I get to know a lot of winemakers. I’d always kept lecture topics current. For European winemakers, I’d give a lecture on the wine industry in California, and for California, I’d give one on practices of winemaking in Bordeaux.

All of this leads to having a wine cellar. You get a little carried away when you’re a guy like me … I was shocked to find out I had about 2,000, 3,000 bottles. This is a lot of wine. I said, Hey, I need to manage the inventory but there’s nothing that you can buy to do that. But then, one day, I had a lesson in just-in-time manufacturing. A wine cellar’s the same thing—you want to buy wines such as the time they spend in your cellar is optimum, with the least cash flow. I wrote some sophisticated software on how you might do that. “Buy smart, drink well” means buy only the best vintages when you need them at the best price and hold them no longer than necessary. Entertain lavishly, be nice and generous to your friends, and drink like a king, all for the least cost.