Features

Entrepreneurial at Heart

Entrepreneurial at Heart

Ron Ranauro '83 / photo by Richard Howard

WPI entrepreneurs follow widely divergent paths in their businesses—from building boats to building companies, from strategic consulting to medical device manufacturing. But they have a lot in common. They tend to view failure as a positive—a sign that it is time to change direction or tactics, rather than a reason to give up. They see their WPI experiences as entrepreneurial at heart. And they each have a story to tell. Here are a few.

When Ron Ranauro ’83, ’88(MS), joined GenomeQuest in 2002 [becoming president and CEO in 2004] he began boosting the firm’s success by helping pharmaceutical clients see how bioinformatics can be used to fulfill their objectives to “fail early, fail often.”

“The worst thing that can happen in the pharmaceutical development process is to get to the clinical trial phase, and at that stage discover there’s a toxicity problem, or that your medication infringes on someone else’s gene patents,” says Ranauro. “GenomeQuest helps our customers avoid that kind of nightmare.”

 

It’s no surprise that Ranauro readily leveraged researchers’ “fail” concept. Having worked with two start-ups and founding his own company, he understands that intelligent risks tend to bring rewards, no matter what the outcome.

Ranauro made his first entrepreneurial move to venturefunded Viewlogic in 1986, after working for several years with Data General. In 1990, he became the first sales and marketing employee for Exemplar, a high-tech start-up with just five employees.

In 1996, he founded Blackstone Technology Group, which provided consulting services to the electronic design and grid computing markets. “We built a very profitable business with 15 employees,” he notes. The company won two rounds of VC investment to develop software to automate their services. But with the bust in 2001, “orders and venture capital dried up.”

Blackstone was sold to TurboWorx and Ranauro moved on, joining GenomeQuest. “Early in my career, I was interested in how each position would broaden my skill set,” he says. “Now that I lead a company, it’s helpful that I’ve worked in many of the positions held by the people I manage.”

Based in Westborough, Mass., GenomeQuest has created a search engine that harnesses supercomputing power to sift through mountains of gene sequence records and associated text. Delving into an automatically updating database containing over 137 million sequence records, the company aggregates and uncovers often hidden information, and places it on researchers’ desktops.

Customers such as Pfizer and Biogen Idec use GenomeQuest to prioritize a multitude of pharmacological research options. “There are many more candidate targets than any one company can possibly pursue,” explains Ranauro. “Our clients want to apply resources where they can really work for them, and discard those that are not likely to bear fruit.”

Some law firms, including Foley Hoag, that work on intellectual property (IP) issues use GenomeQuest to find out if a particular discovery is still available. “And if it isn’t, they can explore whether it would be possible for the client to work around the blocking intellectual property,” Ranauro says.

In addition to helping customers succeed by failing early, Ranauro also guided GenomeQuest as it developed a collaboration with the French pharmaceutical company Servier Labs. The collaboration uses the genome as a master index to link results from highthroughput DNA chip experiments with highly precise downstream measurement platforms. “This is exciting because now we’re bridging the multiple worlds of biology, IP, and business,” says Ranauro. With one system, a client can evaluate biological relevance, see the patent landscape, and seek potential collaborators or in-license partners.

As his experience deepens, Ranauro finds he enjoys sharing the lessons he’s learned. This year, he started teaching Entrepreneurial Communication and Influence at Clark University as an entrepreneurin- residence.

At WPI, he offers what he calls “from-the-field feedback” as a member of the Department of Management’s executive council. He also participates regularly in the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation “Dinner with Entrepreneurs,” and has been a guest on the WPI Venture Forum’s radio program. Ranauro sees his WPI involvement as a natural expression of his gratitude to the university. “Navigating the IQP and the MQP was an entrepreneurial enterprise for me,” he says. “When I graduated, I felt as though I could do anything. I felt a great sense of accomplishment.”

Susan Loconto Penta '86 / photo by Tony Rinaldo

Susan Loconto Penta '86 has been an entrepreneur nearly all her life. “From an early age, I understood that if I wanted something, I had better earn the money to buy it,” she says. As a high school student, Penta babysat for neighbors and tutored children in math. And while studying engineering at WPI, she cobbled together a 40-hour work week typing students’ papers, waiting tables at local restaurants, and helping out in the university’s athletic office. Over the summers, she worked two jobs to make ends meet.

“My parents taught me to be independent, to chart my own course,” says Penta, a founding partner with the successful Cambridge-based MIDIOR Consulting. “I like to be in control of my own destiny.”

As cartographer of her own life, Penta enjoys working for herself. In her first job out of London’s CASS Business School, she worked for product developer IDEA Associates, where she says, “I was allowed to be the CEO of a product. This was a big deal for me.”

At IDEA, Penta also met Michael Goldberger, who became her business partner when the two started MODA Systems in 1991. The wireless communication software company did well at first. “But we were too early to market,” she says. In 1995, they sold the source code licenses to customers and closed up shop.

A year later, following the birth of her second child, Penta knew she needed to get back to work. When a colleague asked if she would consult on a project, she called on Goldberger for help. Before she knew it, she was back in business for herself. “Once an entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur,” she says with a laugh. “It’s in your blood, it’s how you operate.”

Through MIDIOR, Penta helps others operate like entrepreneurs, even in large corporations. “Our approach is grounded in the entrepreneurial perspective,” she says of the business and technology consulting firm. “We use that perspective, combined with our engineering training, to unlock the power that products can have in the marketplace.”

MIDIOR’s long client list includes Gerber Scientific, Intel Corporation, and State Street Corporation. “We help these big companies find their entrepreneurs, and put them in the right roles,” says Penta, who was named one of Boston Business Journal’s “40 Under 40” in 2002.

Penta also assists nonprofit organizations as they refine their missions and goals. She serves as chair of Schools for Children, an East Coast nonprofit that owns three schools and one educational program. She is treasurer of the Center for Women and Enterprise and treasurer of the Belmont Day School. “I try to cultivate clarity of vision for the boards I work with,” Penta says. “It’s important to tie the vision to practical objectives. So I help them create plans and measure themselves against those plans.”

At WPI, Penta was instrumental in forming the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, and now serves on its advisory board. “I believe in WPI, and understand how valuable this cross-disciplinary program is for both the students and the school,” she says.

As an alumna with strong ties to WPI and as an executive who spends much of her time guiding organizations through competitive markets, Penta feels strongly that the university should continue to differentiate itself. “WPI’s egalitarian culture is excellent,” she says. “We should brag about it.”

Roger Heinen '73 / photo by Tony Rinaldo

Roger Heinen ’73 is no astrologist, but he knows that when the stars come into alignment, good things happen.

“For a start-up to be successful,” says the seasoned venture capitalist, “you need a unique idea, a strong team, and a ready market. When these stars align, there’s a powerful feeling.”

Heinen relies on that feeling, coupled with an acute business sense, to choose which high tech companies he will guide through start-up phase to initial public offering (IPO) and beyond. He serves on the boards of seven public and private high-tech companies, including Monotype Imaging in Woburn, Mass., which creates digital imaging technology and filed for its IPO in January; Bedford, Mass.-based Progress Software, provider of award-winning application infrastructure; and Pepper Computer in Lexington, Mass., which develops software and services for handheld and other computing devices, using the open-source Linux operating system.

He also directs start-ups as a general partner with Flagship Ventures, a Cambridge-based VC firm. At Black Duck Software, for example, Heinen serves as chairman of the board. The private Waltham-based company, which offers software compliance management solutions, is gearing up to go public. “Roger is especially artful in helping me navigate the sometimes frothy waters involving venture capitalists during financings,” says president and CEO Doug Levin.

Heinen entered the VC world after a distinguished career helping lead some of the nation’s most successful technology corporations. He started out in 1973 as a cub programmer at Digital Equipment Corporation, where he later became a corporate consulting engineer. He moved to Apple Computer in 1990, serving as senior vice president of the software division. From 1993 to 1996 he was senior vice president of Microsoft Corporation’s developer division.

“My motivation in going into the VC industry was to continue working with entrepreneurs in high technology,” he says. “It’s been very exciting because I feel like I’m still contributing.”

In addition to his technological involvements, Heinen joined the Maine Small Enterprise Growth Fund (SEGF) several years ago. SEGF was created by the state’s legislature in 1995 to stimulate and develop Maine’s economy with “patient” sources of venture capital.

The businesses supported by SEGF run the gamut from food companies, to guitar makers, to breweries. “I’ve found Maine’s investment environment particularly stimulating,” says Heinen, who makes his home there. “Unlike Massachusetts, Maine has very limited access to venture capitalists. So there is tremendous need for people like me to help develop a more diverse economy.”

Of course, Heinen would likely be the last person to say that he can predict the outcomes of his many investments of time, expertise, and capital. After all, the stars can move out of alignment even at the most carefully crafted companies, with the most singular ideas and stellar management teams. Indeed, says Heinen, “Things always go wrong. You can bank on that.”

That’s one reason he celebrates his WPI education. “At WPI, I learned how to set up a working environment that’s extremely flexible so you can recover, no matter what happens.”

As he mentors an undergraduate WPI student now, Heinen says he’s glad to see that the university “continues to teach the kinds of skills that are necessary in today’s quickly shifting business environment. I can see this student discovering, as she does her IQP and MQP, that no matter how organized and technically skilled you are, ideas always take longer to realize than you think they will. This student will enter the job market with that understanding. It’s one element that makes the WPI experience so rewarding.”

Greg Hopkins '69 / photo by Richard Howard

Greg Hopkins ’69 started and ran high-tech companies for 20 years before trading in his laptop for a pair of oars.

The entrepreneur launched two businesses during the 1980s, and a third in 1990. He founded UB Networks and ran its engineering operations—the networking equipment provider went public in 1984, was later bought by Tandem Computer, then by Compaq Computer, and finally became part of Hewlett-Packard. His Amber Wave Systems sold successfully to U.S. Robotics and was then purchased by 3Com. Windata, which Hopkins founded in 1990, built wireless local networks and participated in creating the IEEE 802.11 wireless standards.

“Those early days of local area networks, switching, and routing were heady times,” says Hopkins. “Our products became the plumbing for today’s wired and wireless networks.”

But don’t take his nostalgia for a longing to be back in the technological fray. “I’ve had enough of running start-ups and dealing with the venture capital community,” he says.

To capitalize on a long-standing love of boat building, Hopkins started Nextwave Boat Company in Portsmouth, N.H., in 2001. At first, he made one-offs for customers— kayaks, canoes, motorized runabouts, electric boats. “Basically, I was willing to build any boat a customer asked for,” he says.

Then he discovered the Piscataqua Wherry, a 16-foot rowboat specifically designed to navigate the tidal waters of Portsmouth. “It’s an amazing boat,” says Hopkins, whose research tells him it first appeared in the mid-1800s. “This rowboat used to be the taxicab for the Piscataqua [pronounced pis-CAT-a-kwa] River. It’s indigenous to this area. People get interested in it because of that.”

Soon Hopkins had set up his shop especially for building the Piscataqua Wherry—the set-up includes templates for every part of the boat and a set of permanent molds to plank the hull.

Now that his workshop stands ready, Hopkins enjoys customizing the Wherry for clients. “One customer brought wood from an apple tree that had been on his grandmother’s property,” he says. “I used it to make inlays in the fore and aft decks.”

Although he doesn’t miss the pressure of high-tech startups, Hopkins still does plenty of networking, enthusiastically spreading the lore associated with the Piscataqua Wherry. He has pored over trial records of the notorious Smuttynose murderer—named for the New Hampshire island on which the crime took place in 1873—and has concluded that thePiscataqua Wherry may well have been the craft stolen by the perpetrator on the fateful day. On his website, he invites the curious to stop in and hear the whole story.

To further promote Nextwave, Hopkins plans to borrow one of the original Piscataqua Wherries from the Kittery [Maine] Naval Museum. “I’d like to show an original next to one of mine at the first Portsmouth Boat Show,” he says.

As he rolls up his sleeves to build more rowboats, Hopkins finds the skills he gained in college just as useful as when he made routers. “WPI made me comfortable trying new things,” he says. Little wonder, then, that his latest venture is faring well—Nextwave has sold four of the rowboat reproductions in the last nine months.

Looking back over his varied career, Hopkins sees that his current course suits him. “When we were starting companies, we thought we were going to solve everybody’s problems, and act as the conduit for everyone getting onto the Internet. That kind of goal can take a long time to realize,” he says. “With boat building, I can see what I’ve accomplished at the end of every day. It’s very satisfying.”

Mitchell Sanders, left, with Eric Overström, WPI’s head of the Biology and Biotechnology Department.

Where Angels Dare to Invest

Mitchell Sanders ’88(MS), ’92(PhD), sees enormous entrepreneurial potential in his hometown of Worcester. And he ought to know about the odds of making it here. Sanders is executive vice president of Worcester-based ECI Biotech, a protein-sensor company he founded in 1998. He quickly secured $15 million for ECI in equity, corporate development funding, and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. Most recently, ECI received an $800,000 low-interest loan from MassDevelopment Finance Agency to open a manufacturing facility.

“Worcester is being revitalized,” says Sanders. “Our cultural, business, and educational infrastructure looks exciting. I’ve wanted to help build new businesses here through investing, but who has time to review business plans every day?” Sanders knew how he wanted to answer that question—starting an angel investment group. And he knew where he could find colleagues to assist him—WPI.

Sanders maintains close ties with the university: he serves as vice chair of the Venture Forum, holds dual assistant research professorships in WPI’s Bioengineering Institute and Biology and Biotechnology Department, and serves on the board of the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation (CEI).

The WPI Venture Forum Executive Board had also “identified the lack of gap funding, which angels typically provide, as an impediment to start-ups in central Massachusetts,” notes Mac Banks, head of the Department of Management, professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, and CEI director. After Sanders became a member of the board in 2005, he began organizing the Boynton Angels (BA) with over a dozen WPI alumni and faculty members, including Gina Betti, CEI associate director, Chick Kasouf, associate professor of marketing and entrepreneurship, Steve Rubin ’74, entrepreneur and member of the WPI Board, Amar Kapur ’65, past president of the Venture Forum, and Jerry Schaufeld, visiting professor of entrepreneurship.

BA launched in November 2006 and quickly attracted 17 members. Aside from its WPI makeup, says Sanders, members include alumni and faculty from Clark University and the University of Massachusetts Lowell, and executives from industries including energy, manufacturing, biotech, consumer products, telecommunications, and software.

“Many of our members live or do business in Worcester,” he notes. “Others simply enjoy investing and saw the opportunity for a whole new array of deals they may never have heard about otherwise.” According to Sanders, two-thirds of the BA members have invested as individual angels in over 25 start-ups. More than 80 percent have been founders, CEOs, or presidents of companies, and most have served on boards of directors.

“I tell potential members this is a great opportunity to invest with a strong group of sophisticated individuals,” Sanders says. “With the Boynton Angels, you’ll get better terms than if you go it alone, and the group is able to pursue vigorous due diligence, so you’re not just hoping for the best when you invest.”

With plans to focus investments in seed- and expansion-stage companies, the BA have ramped up quickly. Their screening committee sifted through 200 business plans and by January had chosen three entrepreneurs to present to the larger group. Among these hopefuls were software developers in the medical and real estate industries and a medical device maker. Two of these plans have been chosen for the due diligence stage. The BA will make their first investment this year.

“Unlike venture capital firms, the Boynton Angels can come in at earlier stages of investment,” Sanders says. “We can fill that gap between a start-up’s influx of funds from grants like those given through the SBIR, and the more formal VC.”

A flexible investment group like the BA can prevent the “analysis paralysis” that often happens in the investment industry. “When we see great opportunities with sound management teams, we can get them moving. That’s what I’m excited about,” Sanders says. “I think the Boynton Angels are going to be the ignition switch for investment in this town.”

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Last modified: October 10, 2007 15:46:28