Dr. Michael S. McCorquodale is the founder and Chief Technical Officer of Mobius Microsystems, an analog semiconductor device company based in Silicon Valley and with a Design Center in Ann Arbor.
Mobius was founded based on Michael’s pioneering research at the University of Michigan in precision analog integrated circuits for frequency generation. On that work, Michael has published over 20 technical articles, presented at over 25 academic and industry conferences and holds inventorship on over 25 issued and pending U.S. patents. Governor Jennifer Granholm awarded Mobius for the Largest High-Tech Job Creation in the State of Michigan in 2005. In 2006, the Small Business Association of Michigan and Governor Granholm awarded Michael and Mobius for developing the Innovation of the Year in Michigan.
Michael earned the B.S.E. degree with honors from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the M.S.E and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Michigan, all in Electrical Engineering. While at the University of Michigan, Michael received the Distinguished Electrical Engineer Award and the Harry B. Benford Entrepreneurial Leadership Award, which was presented by U-M's former Head Football Coach, Lloyd Carr.
Michael recently served as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science where he instructed a graduate course in solid-state technology. He has been invited regularly to lecture on entrepreneurship, economic development and technology at the University of Michigan and the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C.
In his spare time, and when he’s not in the Valley, Michael enjoys spending time with his wife Ruba at their condo in downtown Ann Arbor. Together, they enjoy all Metro Detroit has to offer, especially the symphony, opera and theatre. Michael also has a long history of contributing to those institutions as well as volunteering his time and services in inner city and poor communities, particularly those in Detroit where he, in fact, was an elected Citizen's District Councilman in Southeast Detroit in 2001.
Michael will be writing on high-tech entrepreneurship, commercializing university research, economic development and the dichotomy of a life split between Michigan and California.
By now, it should be clear that the title of each blog entry has been a pun on a book title. Also by now, those readers who know me well are likely wondering when I will share more of my infamous colorful commentary. Well, not to disappoint, this is that entry.
I was a very passionate young man when I started Mobius. I was convinced that my colleagues and I could contribute to a change in the economic landscape in Michigan. Imagine, a semiconductor company in Detroit! What a crazy vision. In fact, I want to share that vision. Below is a figure you can find in an IEEE journal showing a micrograph of one of Mobius’ first prototype chips and which was designed while the offices were still in Detroit. We were so proud of developing semiconductor technology in the rust belt that we paid homage to Detroit with an impression of the city’s skyline etched into our silicon.
I also envisioned being one of several who were blazing a trail for others aspiring to spin research out of the University. These ideas were motivated by both the tremendous opportunities I saw in Michigan and the desire to give back to the state based on my terribly positive experiences at the University.
It is important for an entrepreneur to be so idealistic and passionate. However, as I matured, I realized that some of those ideas didn't amount to much more than "tree-hugging."
Just like I was then, I meet many residents in Michigan who are tremendously passionate about economic development in the region. Yet the shear desire "to make things better" is not the reason why a region prospers. That became clear to me as I built Mobius. Milton Friedman, a Nobel Laureate in economics, famously quipped that the sole purpose of a business is to increase shareholder wealth. That is the reality of business. Friedman also accurately described how pursuing that objective would realize prosperity far above that which can be achieved by trying to "make things better." That is the reality of capitalism.
Entrepreneurs need both idealism and business savvy. Idealism attracts and motivates people. It gives a company a sense of purpose. But that purpose is wasted if the business plan is not executed. Like most things in life, a mixture is required for success – not too much of one or the other.
On my entrepreneurial experiences in Michigan
Last year I spoke on a panel entitled "Tapping Michigan Resources" at the Annual Collaboration for Entrepreneurship. I was asked to share my experiences launching Mobius in Michigan and I suspect that the organizers got more than they were expecting. One of the primary points I shared was that the challenges in Michigan really set Mobius back. There simply weren't the resources to tap in the state to support the business I was trying to build. In particular, there was insufficient capital and a lack of management with relevant expertise.
The audience immediately lashed out and a gentleman in the back of the room yelled out to ignore my advice. He exclaimed that Michigan has everything it needs! John Bonaccorso, CEO of 9thXchange, was also on the panel with me. He jumped in and made it clear that these are the resources required to build technology businesses and those resources are simply scarce in Michigan. John and I continued to drive the conversation to that point – that is, understanding what is broken so it can be fixed. In fact, this is the very reason I am writing this blog as I stated from the beginning. It's time to stop hugging trees and start understanding emerging business in Michigan. It's time to accept the reality of what exactly is broken and work toward fixing it.
Nevertheless, I see this cycle perpetuate in Michigan. I often argue that there are ten times as many "enablers" as there are "doers." That is backward. Doers know what they need and go get it. They don't need enablers, but they do need the proper resources including capital and management. When I had a vision to launch Mobius, I didn't look around for people to "enable" me. I moved forward confidently with what I believed I needed to do and I course-corrected when I was wrong. I raised money from the few places I could because of the lack of capital in Michigan. I worked with the resources I had in the state including the University and local veteran entrepreneurs from different backgrounds. And I moved to California when I was out of money. I even changed our business model between the seed and later rounds.
The point is this: I did what I needed to do to succeed in business. And if I didn't, I wouldn’t be writing this blog.
Yet I still overhear tree-huggers and enablers often. The only thing I can say about those people is that they have never "done this" so it should be clear how much I value their advice. Further, some of those who are actually trying to "do this" often tell me that unlike me (the sell-out) they're "keeping it real" by staying in Michigan.
There's only one word for these people: idiots.
A business leader should "keep it real" by making decisions to succeed in business, whatever those decisions may be. Michigan won’t develop a great start-up ecosystem until it learns how to build great businesses from the ground up. Great businesses are built with the requisite resources. Just loving Michigan simply isn't enough. We need to recognize these challenges, fix them and move forward. There's something we can all be passionate about. In fact, for better or worse, it is something I'm personally passionate about.
Would I do it again? And other parting advice…
Launching Mobius has been one of the most challenging experiences of my entire life. I have never known lower lows or higher highs. And even now, we still don't know how it will all end up. Nevertheless, I wouldn't take a moment of it back. At times I felt mired in regret and frustration with mistakes I made, but those emotions were wasted. Entrepreneurship is a process of failing and succeeding. There are rejections and challenges around every single corner. The real determinate of success is how one responds to them.
So my parting advice is this: Do it.
Be a "risk-taker" and a "doer." Use the resources you have wisely, but know their limitations. Understand your business, but maintain your passion. Don't become jaded - become savvy. Ignore detractors. And take every failure on as if it were a brand new challenge to overcome.
After all, you have the rest of your life to regret all of the other things that you didn’t do. Don't make this one of them.
In my last post, I discussed how the primary challenge in Michigan is the need for a successful "stochastic" investment model for emerging high-tech businesses. I described how there is a dearth of capital (the egg), but also insufficient "doers," or entrepreneurs and experienced management (the chickens). Unfortunately, we cannot develop one without the other in this Catch-22 so Michigan needs to find solutions to realize both the chicken and the egg, simultaneously.
First, consider the current resources and initiatives in Michigan. There are several competing incubators in Southeast Michigan including the Spark in Ann Arbor, Automation Alley in Oakland County and Techtown in Detroit. Spark has invested $6M in 28 companies. For the sake of argument, assume a uniform distribution of the net investment; that leaves less than $215k per company.Though it's a start, it's simply not nearly enough money so high-tech companies that accept such funding will inevitably need to relocate to properly capitalize their businesses.
Beyond the incubators, several government initiatives exist including the $135M 21st Century Jobs Fund and the nonprofit $95M Venture Michigan Fund, the latter of which is backed by $200M in state tax vouchers from the Michigan Early Stage Venture Investment Act of 2003 - which, by the way, is decent legislation. Nevertheless, these funds barely approach the appropriate size to distribute more reasonable amounts of capital, but awards are tied to funding cycles and specific investment objectives, which is unlike independent venture funds that can invest at any time and in any space. These latter issues are particularly critical in diverse emerging markets where months can mean the difference between the companies that win or lose. The universities have developed resources as well, including offices of technology transfer for licensing academic intellectual property. Additionally, the University of Michigan established the Zell-Lurie Entrepreneurial Institute in 1999 with an endowment from Sam Zell and Ann Lurie.
To put these resources in perspective, consider my first blog entry and the experiences I described in launching a high-tech business based on University research. Mobius touched every single resource within the University; it touched none outside of it, less the High-Tech MEGA tax credit program.
Sufficient, privately-managed, for-profit, risk capital needs to be injected into Michigan’s investment community. Mobius‘ investors in California each manage multi-billion dollar funds while typical fund sizes in Michigan are $100M or less. That's how far off we are quantitatively. What's more, Michigan needs that capital to be managed by professional investors for-profit, not the government or government-like agencies. It should be "free" in the sense that it is not tied to funding cycles or government initiatives. Investment is a business in and of itself. It needs to operate freely to maximize returns to its limited partners and justify further investments in the future.
Risk capital can be increased with incentives. For example, and similar to the Michigan Early Stage Venture Investment Act of 2003, qualified investors could receive tax breaks for taking limited partnership positions in venture capital firms. Additionally, large out-of-state investors could receive incentives to invest in Michigan start-ups. Consistent with that idea, capital is beginning to decentralize in America.
For example, one of Mobius' investors from California holds investments in companies with technologies from seven different universities, only two of which are in California. Similarly, the fastest growing regions for investment last year were New Mexico and Pittsburg according to the National Venture Capital Association. This trend is largely due to the fact that America's corporate research laboratories have scaled back significantly and now universities and national laboratories are the main sources of innovation - thus, justifying the deployment of capital. I personally believe that the concept of an industry-specific high-tech cluster, like Silicon Valley, may well be ending. If investment congregates around centers of innovation, including universities and national laboratories, then a variety of companies with a myriad of technologies will be funded. Consequently, I challenge Michigan's focus on developing clusters specific to life sciences, clean technology, advanced manufacturing and homeland security. After all, where did those initiatives leave Mobius? Answer: With headquarters in California.
Lastly, legislators need to make Michigan the easiest and cheapest place to start a company. That can be accomplished in a variety of ways including developing corporate law similar to Delaware and reducing the tax burden for emerging businesses. Related to that, Michigan needs to make the most of the capital it deploys. I am a strong opponent of so-called "grant mills," or companies that survive based on winning grants and not product revenue. Those companies should be denied money and forced to fend for themselves. Even in my time on Capital Hill, I have overheard very similar talk regarding doing away with the SBIR and STTR programs altogether. In the end, I advocate a balance codified as a "strike-out" law. If your company can't convert a grant to product revenue after a few attempts - you’re out.
If we accept that Michigan requires more start-up management worthy of investment, we simply need to recruit those managers. However, it is very difficult to convince professionals to relocate to Michigan because of the economic climate and the lack of alternative opportunities. (And no, it’s not the weather; professionals make decisions based on opportunities, not climate.)
Consider Mobius again. If we had recruited a CEO who had relocated to Michigan and Mobius failed, what other semiconductor company would he or she join? Further, from what talent pool would that CEO recruit the remainder of the executive team? Clearly funding is required to de-risk such a move and a stopgap solution is required now.
Simple initiatives to consider include developing funding to relocate professional managers to serve in start-ups or "parachute" grants for relocation out of Michigan if the venture fails. Further, consider a model similar to California - maintaining the indigenous entrepreneurial population. One of our investors, Tony Grover of RPM Ventures, once shared this profound and simple concept with me: fund entrepreneurs, let them fail, and fund them again. What better way to develop the resident talent that Michigan needs? But to do so, Michigan will need to embrace its "risk takers" as heroes and not failures when success is not achieved at first pass. That's exactly how California does it.
Next, accept that Michigan does not have the resources to maintain most high-tech business – at least not yet. That is OK and those who say it isn't are dead wrong. Google is an example where a Michigan native leaves the region to pursue education and high-tech entrepreneurship. Then those successes come back to Michigan, at least in some form. There has also emerged a relatively new investment model out of the University of Michigan. Start-ups from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, including Mobius, Discera and Arbor Networks, all maintain offices in Ann Arbor and headquarters elsewhere. Such models need to be embraced in Michigan until the requisite resources are established in the state.
Michigan's universities also play a critical role. If you have ever met a faculty member or student from Stanford, then he or she will inevitably tell you about his or her plan to start the next Google. Michigan universities have historically had the opposite culture where commercializing research carried a negative connotation with it. That is changing on several fronts. At the University of Michigan, the Center for Entrepreneurship has been created recently and students can earn a certificate in entrepreneurship. Additionally, the leadership of the University has championed more funding for Michigan’s GAP program, which aims to fund the "gap" between results from basic research and a technology worthy of productization and commercialization.
Michigan needs to invest in both the chicken and the egg to develop a sustainable entrepreneurial culture. A chicken and an egg together can create a much-needed entrepreneurial ecosystem, or nest. It is my hope that with the proper nests in place, Michigan will turn into a veritable chicken coop with the occasional chicken laying a golden egg.
If you drive down Evelyn Avenue in the heart of Silicon Valley at night, you will often be able to see through the office windows where I'm sitting with my CEO, Ashok, as we discuss my concerns, frustrations and disappointments with the entire process of starting a company. One such evening he said something that I recall vividly as I looked out onto the street and absorbed his thoughts. He said, "What you did wasn’t rational so you're making yourself crazy trying to rationalize it."
That’s when I realized what was really required to actually do this: irrational people. In fact, you really have to be almost crazy to start something like this and those around you need to be irrational and crazy to invest in it. California has that in spades. Michigan has nearly none of that type of thinking.
Being a scientist and engineer, I understand what is irrational very well. In science, it is called a stochastic process – a collection of randomness, often as a function of time. In practice, it is noise. In reality, it can all be modeled and understood, just as in science. I often hear people discussing the "idiot" venture capitalists (VCs) in California or the "West Coast mentality" and I have come to realize that those in Michigan who say such things have no idea what they are talking about because they don't understand the model. In fact, the California VCs have developed a very successful "stochastic" model for all of the irrational processes that go into starting a high-tech company.
First they recognize that this process is irrational. They are not looking for guarantees or sure things. Rather, they are looking for well-differentiated technologies, which lead to products with a clear value proposition and that play in huge markets – that is, billion dollar markets.
Further, it is better to be intersecting with emerging markets than existing markets. Large existing markets are commoditized, just like oil and sugar, so the average selling price and gross margin are low. These are indicators that innovation has saturated. Ultimately, that means that net income and return on investment are low as well.
So why is this the model? Inevitably your business plan and your product are going to change. That's the noise in it all. The world is always changing and if a company actually executed exactly to plan, then that plan would be executed by one of the Big Three and not some small start-up.
However, if you possess a well-differentiated technology in a big market, then there is a good chance that you will find your way no matter what the market conditions because you have so many customers and applications to serve. Additionally, if you intersect that technology with a large and high-growth emerging market, you have a good shot at defining some of the products of the future based on your technology. If that can be achieved, the success will be unparalleled. Believe it or not, nearly every success in the Valley has gone down this zigzag trajectory while remaining contained within this model.
That model is further refined in the due diligence process – that is, the process of vetting investment in a new start-up. I often hear entrepreneurs complain that VCs speak out of both sides of their mouths or that they want results that seem diametrically opposed. That is incorrect thinking. The California VC is going through a process of filtering. There is risk in purely emerging markets. What if the market doesn't arrive? (By the way, that happens all of the time.) And there is distaste for commoditized markets because these markets are not where returns are realized; yet the risk is reduced because such markets can be "served" now.
Ultimately an investor seeks both. That is the filter. It seems like double-speak, but clearly the best start-ups fit down the middle and not outside the filter. Then the capital is injected and this "irrational" plan is executed – often to success.
Beyond all of this, there are some unfortunate outcomes to this model. Sometimes, very low-value businesses realize huge returns on pure hype and without a single product. This is often the case in emerging markets and that was clearly the case in the late 1990's. These economic "bubbles" can be very frustrating, as they have nothing to do with building great businesses. My only advice is to not let that bother you and to ignore advice from those who exited in bubbles as they don't know what it takes to build a great business, particularly in an economic climate like today. Learn for yourself how to build a great business and success will come under nearly any economic condition.
So where does that leave Michigan?
Michigan doesn't have a model.
What I'm really saying is that Michigan has most of the ingredients and yet they have not been synthesized into an executable model. First, Michigan has well-differentiated technology. My work, among that of many other world-class researchers, at the University of Michigan and all of the Michigan institutions is proof positive that we do.
Second, Michigan has the passion. Of all of the places I have lived, nowhere in my life have I known people more passionate than those in Metro Detroit.
Third, Michigan has the capital, but it is not making its way into the irrational investments. Put simply, there is a terrible lack of risk capital. From Q1/02 to Q4/07, all of which is post-bubble, California invested $49.5B in companies while Michigan invested a measly $363M. In less time, Mobius has raised over $20M as a single company.
This is where it gets complicated.
There is also a lack of deal-flow. Related to my previous blog entry, there is a lack of "doers" in Michigan. Yet, it is not that simple. There is also a lack of experienced management. Start-ups are a cottage industry in the Valley where thousands of executives have had experience in one. They are an anomaly in the industrial Midwest so it is terribly difficult to build an experienced management team worthy of investment.
Further, our leadership in Michigan focuses on maintaining the status quo and has failed to diversify the economy with a focus on emerging business. Thus, there is little justification for the capital; yet, when someone like me shows up, I'm demanding capital and forced to relocate to California without it. Meanwhile, Michigan is sixth in the nation for new patents issued; yet most of those revolutionary innovations sit in laboratories, never to see the light of day.
So where do we go from here? Michigan is stuck between the chicken and the egg in developing its model.
In my next entry, I will share my passion to hand Michigan both a chicken and an egg.
In President Obama’s inaugural speech last week, he said, "it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated, but more often men and women obscure in their labor – who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom."
I could not think of a better passage with which to open this blog.
In fact, the most interesting part of this quote to me is the use of the phrase, "the risk-takers, the doers." These are words that we use at the company that I founded, Mobius Microsystems, to immediately assess a person's contribution to our business, both internally and externally, or to life in general. They are words that capture the essence of entrepreneurship. In my time in both Michigan and California, I have come to realize many differences between the two states, but none more so than the lack of "risk-takers" and "doers" in Michigan.
Now before I receive an inbox full of nasty messages, I realize that there are many reasons why that is the case and there are certainly many institutions that require improvement to support the "risk-takers" and "doers" in Michigan. In fact, those concepts capture the spirit and objective of this blog. I intend to share my thoughts based on the personal experience of "taking risk" and "doing" high-tech entrepreneurship, as I personally know the reality of where the rubber meets the road.
Ultimately, I hope to simulate conversation surrounding the real requirements for success in Michigan and help the state diversify its economy with a focus on emerging high-tech business, just like California. So in this entry, I'll begin with the story of my entrepreneurial career, which has left me with a life split between two great states.
In 1997 I was in the aerospace industry in Los Angeles and decided that I was interested in pursuing a doctorate degree in electrical engineering. I considered several institutions and, for a variety of reasons, I came to the University of Michigan in 1998. For six years I conducted research on silicon oscillators. This was a popular research topic at Michigan, and around the world, because the state-of-the-art frequency reference for oscillators is very low-tech and essentially a vibrating rock about the size of a small jellybean. Little did you know that when you purchase a computer with an incredibly complex multi-gigahertz microprocessor, that the gigahertz frequency is ultimately derived from a jellybean, not microscopic silicon technology. Consequently, my faculty advisor, Rich Brown, and I always felt that there was tremendous commercial potential for our work, particularly considering that the total available market was approximately $4B in 2002 and almost $5B currently.
Thus, I started working with Michigan's Office of Technology Transfer to develop a patent portfolio and with the Zell-Lurie Entrepreneurial Institute to develop a business plan with MBA students. I was terribly fortunate to have access to these excellent resources. In 2004, I defended my dissertation with prototypes of our technology in hand and left the University to launch Mobius Microsystems.
Mobius is a fabless semiconductor company, meaning that we outsource manufacturing (i.e. do not hold captive fabrication facilities), which is commonplace in the semiconductor industry today as manufacturing has consolidated in Taiwan, China and Singapore. Of course, raising capital for such a company in the Midwest is nearly impossible. Quickly it was clear that the semiconductor space was deemed to be too technical or out-of-scope for most Midwest institutional investors. Further, the risk and capital requirements were considered to be too high. In fact, I pitched the business to no avail to nearly every single venture capitalist (VC) in the entire Midwest region – that is, less one.
Waypoint Ventures (now RPM Ventures) had recently raised a fund to focus on spin-out companies from university research. We worked together to build an investment syndicate, led by Waypoint, including several regional angel investors and the University’s own Wolverine Venture Fund. After numerous pitches in cities ranging from Chicago, Columbus and Detroit to New York City, we raised a nearly unprecedented $2M seed round to launch the company and go to market.
With the capital in hand, we started in a small office in downtown Ann Arbor, but ultimately built out new space and a laboratory in downtown Detroit on Grand Circus Park and with an MEDC tax incentive. After several trips to Asia and the West Coast, we secured one design win for a Universal Serial Bus (USB) application and one prototype project with a large microprocessor company.
For the next year we built a word-class design team, mostly with my colleagues from the University of Michigan and Illinois. We executed on those projects, delivered and succeeded. Mobius was the first company to replace that jellybean in USB devices with a tiny spec of silicon the size of the period at the end of this sentence – and we did it in Detroit. For those efforts, Governor Granholm awarded Mobius for the Innovation of the Year and the Largest Potential High-Tech Job Creation in MI. We felt as if we were on top of the world, but just as the institutional investors in the Midwest knew a priori, we were quickly running out of capital due to the high expenses associated with operating a semiconductor company and the long development runway to realizing revenue.
After many desperate meetings with investors in the Midwest, I packed my bags and moved to Northern California. There I pitched Mobius to several investors on Sand Hill Road and ultimately secured several term sheets, which led to an $8M equity investment by the end of 2005. Naturally, and rightfully so, the new investors pushed for Mobius to relocate to California, particularly considering that we were a team of inexperienced and young scientists and engineers, including me. After much debate, we decided to maintain the office in Michigan, which ultimately moved back to Ann Arbor, and create the Headquarters in Silicon Valley where the appropriate talent and resources are consolidated.
The decision to maintain the office in Michigan was determined based on the quality of the design team and the resident knowledge it held on the core technology. It was believed that this would enable the company to execute more efficiently while leveraging the resources of the Valley. Little did we know how it would really play out.
Mobius is what is known as an "integration play." That is to say that we took the jellybean and "integrated" it into silicon. Consider the analogy of a digital wristwatch, which is the integration of digital functionality into a wristwatch. Interestingly, when two things become one, the skill sets required to develop the new product are not always clear. Does one need a Swiss watchmaker or a digital system designer? Or both? Or something entirely different?
Similarly, after the funding round led by the VCs in the Valley, we built an experienced management team who understood the silicon technology that connected to the jellybean and what we later determined was that we really needed competency more like the jellybean makers. After all, that was what we "integrated!"
Needless to say, Mobius took a terrible turn for the worse and the efficiency advantages that we believed we possessed vaporized as two teams with two different mindsets were separated by over two thousand miles. In fact, illustrating just how difficult it was, I needed some distance from the company to maintain my sanity so I began teaching part-time as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Michigan.
Fortunately, Mobius’ Board of Directors was able to recruit a very well-known and successful CEO, Ashok Dhawan. Under Ashok’s leadership, we rebuilt the management team with the correct skill sets for our technology. With that, we were able to complete development of our new products and we raised another $11M in 2007. Now Mobius is back on track and currently sampling its products to a myriad of customers around the world. Yet all the while, over $120M was invested in competing technologies for the same market. To make matters worse, in 2008 a public semiconductor company released a product based on a technology very similar to ours. Just this year, a Chinese company announced that it was developing products with technology similar to ours as well. Clearly, there is a race now being run at breakneck speed and the winner is likely to be declared within a few years. We plan to be that winner.
Presently I spend nearly all of my time in California and the rest of it in Michigan, when I’m not traveling on business. I live in San Francisco, despite the fact that my wife, Ruba, and I own a condo in downtown Ann Arbor and she is a management consultant in Detroit. What we lose in time together, we make up in airline miles, but I doubt that either of us had intended to make that trade-off. So it is against the backdrop of this personal and sometimes poignant story of entrepreneurship, split between two states, that I will discuss the ingredients for entrepreneurial success, the challenges in Michigan and recommendations for the future.
Ultimately, I hope that what you read here will lead you to answer President Obama’s call to be "risk-takers" and "doers." Michigan and America need you now more than ever.