Thursday, January 31, 2008

Will Yahoo buy Maven?

(This is in danger of turning into the all-General-Catalyst-all-the-time blog...)

But the buzz yesterday was that Yahoo was on the verge of a deal to buy Cambridge's Maven Networks for about $150 million.

Wonder how that deal will be affected by Microsoft's unsolicited offer to buy Yahoo for $44 billion?

I suspect if the ink isn't yet dry on the Maven acquisition, CEO Hilmi Ozguc and his investors (which include GC, Prism VentureWorks, and Accel) may be biting their nails for a little while...

(A few months back, I wrote about the rivalry between Maven and Brightcove, Cambridge's two video delivery start-ups.)

Labels: , , , , , ,

Just one more video investment for General Catalyst

I was pretty sure I heard, at a recent panel I moderated, Larry Bohn of General Catalyst Partners say that the firm was done making investments in online video.

Well, maybe just one more... they've now put money into, a Santa Monica based instructional video site. (Videos explain how to tie a Windsor knot, and also how to tie flies.)

Here's the NY Times story announcing the site's launch; it says that Cambridge-based GC is the primary backer, but doesn't disclose how much the firm put in. General Catalyst doesn't yet list WonderHowTo on its portfolio page.

Labels: , , , ,

Monday, January 21, 2008

When demos go awry (Sunday Globe column on Nuance Communications)

Yesterday's column looks at Nuance Communications, one of Massachusetts' biggest software companies, and the dominant player in speech recognition.

From the story:

    When it comes to controlling a mobile phone, car stereo, desktop PC, or GPS device by voice alone, software from Nuance Communications Inc. is fast becoming the equivalent of Intel Inside. In terms of the breadth of its products, and the number of employees it has dedicated to speech recognition, Nuance looms over its bigger rivals, IBM Corp. and Microsoft Corp. But on the local and national tech scenes, Nuance is far from well-known.

    "They've taken a fragmented industry and rolled it up into one company," says Daniel Ives, an analyst at Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co., alluding to CEO Paul Ricci's passion for picking up smaller speech recognition companies. (Friedman, Billings makes a market in Nuance's stock, but hasn't done any investment banking for the company.) "Speech recognition is still a green field opportunity, and I view them as the 800-pound gorilla in the space."

There are two videos this week -- one of the demo that Nuance exec Peter Mahoney gave me last week, and another video that Mahoney recorded in response to my column and video, which explains why things didn't go smoothly when he was showing me a TomTom speech-guided GPS.

Here's my video of the original demo:

And here's Mahoney's reply, posted to YouTube:

Labels: , , , ,

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Skyhook links in with the iPhone

Steve Jobs announced yesterday that the iPhone will now know exactly where it is at any time, making the use of Google Maps a lot simpler. Boston's Skyhook Wireless is providing a big chunk of the technology; Skyhook has a giant map of WiFi access points, which it tags with location information, so that when a device like the iPhone can "see" a few nearby WiFi networks (even if the signal is too weak to log on), it knows where it is.

More on the arrangement here.

Labels: , , ,

Monday, January 14, 2008

Focusing on the 21-year olds

This quote has been driving me batty all day, from a Globe story Rob Weisman wrote about MIT’s MBA field trips out to Silicon Valley:

    “Yes, I wish we could have more anchor companies," said Joyce Plotkin, president of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council, a trade group for software and other tech businesses. "I think our culture does not value entrepreneurs the way the West Coast does. Historically, most of our companies are in the business-to-business market, and that's a tougher sell. To someone who's 21 years old, it looks more exciting to work at consumer- oriented companies."

I don’t think that Plotkin really believes that the culture here somehow values entrepreneurs less than the West Coast does. Yes, you do get a higher voltage of entrepreneurial energy on the West Coast, and successful entrepreneurs are deified out there… but I believe entrepreneurs are valued here.

Rather, the part of the quote that is bugging me is about the hypothetical 21-year old.

We do have a lot of 21-year olds graduating from college every June, and we don’t do a good enough job of plugging them into the regional innovation economy.

It’s not because we don’t have consumer-oriented companies (many of them start-ups) to work for. What about Harmonix, creator of “Guitar Hero,” or Bose, or iRobot, or Conduit Labs, or Nuance, one of the leaders of the speech recognition industry?

The problem is that we – and I include Plotkin’s group, the Mass. Technology Leadership Council, in this – don’t offer enough opportunities for:

    1. Colleges students to schmooze with local entrepreneurs and VCs, and visit tech and biotech company’s local HQs.

    2. Smaller tech companies to engage in on-campus recruiting.

In the same way that Valley companies like VMWare and Google welcome visiting MIT MBA students, are our hometown biggies, from EMC to Genzyme to Akamai, opening the doors to grad students and undergrads from local universities?

I've been saying it a lot at events - and I'll say it here for the record - "culture," another term Plotkin uses, is nothing but the way a group of individuals acts. If we want to change the culture here, and make it totally clear to recent grads that there are some pretty interesting opportunities in town for them, that's easy to do...

Labels: , ,

Boomeranging founders: Sunday's Globe column

Sunday's Globe column looks at companies locally (and nationally) that have put a founder back in the CEOs office after a "professional" manager doesn't work out.

From the piece:

    Boston venture capitalist Jeffrey Bussgang, a former entrepreneur, says firing the chief executive is the "only tool in the toolbox" for investors when a company hits a rough patch. Asked whether he's kidding, he says he's half-serious. "Ultimately, the real core of the board's job is oversight, and that includes hiring, evaluating, compensating, and, if necessary, firing the CEO."

    Of the latest crop of initial public offerings of Massachusetts tech and biotech companies, the majority had founders or cofounders as CEOs. Could it be that hired guns are quicker to sell a company, rather than continue to grow it?

The video is from a chat I had with Akamai Technologies co-founder Jonathan Seelig at last week's panel at the Vilna Shul.

Labels: , , , ,

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Catching up: Sunday's column, Tuesday's panel, Tonight's talk

- Last Sunday, I wrote about Cinital, a start-up that moved from Cambridge to Hollywood to try to improve the way TV shows and movies use "green screen" technology. From that piece:

    Ordinarily, it's hard to tell what live actors will look like once these digital backgrounds are laid in; that work, called "compositing," is usually done afterward by visual effects specialists. But the concept behind Mack's company is to mix the actors and the backgrounds in real time, so the director can see what the final shot will look like by glancing at a high-definition monitor - and reduce or eliminate the costs of all that laborious, after-the-fact compositing.

    Mack's Cinital system could be used on as many as 20 TV productions and a handful of feature films this year, says Sam Nicholson, chief executive of Stargate Digital, a South Pasadena, Calif., visual-effects firm that bought the first system. One of the first projects to which Cinital contributed is NBC's new made-for-TV movie "Knight Rider," which airs next month.

Here's the video:

- Tuesday we had a discussion about venture capital in 2007 and 2008 at the Vilna Shul on Beacon Hill, organized by Doug Levin (who writes about it on his blog.) While no one was optimistic about where the economy is going this year, all three felt confident that going long -- investing in start-ups over five or six or seven years -- is still a good strategy. Larry Bohn said that his firm has placed some big bets in video, and doesn't see General Catalyst doing much more in that space, but he did predict the end of Microsoft's domination of the software world (Bill Gates retires, and everything goes to hell.) Jonathan Seelig from Globespan seemed very interested in how all of the "data utility" services we get at home, like voice, Internet, and TV, will be bundled and managed and marketed going forward. I think one of our audience members recorded the event, and I'll link to it once it's up. (Update: Chris Herot has some notes.)

- Tonight I'm giving a talk about the past, present, and future of the innovation economy here in New England -- and some of the challenges we should all be working on. While it's sponsored by the HBS Association of Boston, you don't have to be an HBS alum to go. (Just register as "Other Alum Guest.")

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Monday, January 7, 2008

Can the Collaboration Space Continue?

Bill Warner tells me he is planning to leave the Cambridge Collaboration Space that he started back in 2002.

His goal was to create a work environment where small start-ups and solo entrepreneurs could rent space and enjoy turn-key infrastructure. Warner, the founder of Avid Technology, served as the benevolent landlord, and his tenants have included serial entrepreneur Yonald Chery, Eric Peters (one of the early employees at Avid), Eliot Mack of Cinital, Michael Wissner, Paul English (a co-founder of Kayak), and John Lert of CasePick Systems.

Warner says he never was able to make the space a profit-generating venture, but he reckons that there's about a 50 percent chance that a group of tenants, led by architect Philip Dowds, will take over the lease and keep the space going.

Labels: , , ,

The Bostonians behind BigThink, and a possible CNet takeover

The NY Times has two pieces of interest this morning...

- Former Harvard president Larry Summers and Nantucket Nectars co-founder Tom Scott are two of the investors backing BigThink, a new site that offers videos from well-known thinkers on topics like faith, truth and justice, and policy and politics. From the Times story:

    “I’ve had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age looking for more intellectual content,” said Mr. Summers, who resigned as Harvard president in 2006 after making controversial comments about the lack of women in science and engineering. “I saw it as president of Harvard when I saw C.E.O.’s come up to my wife and want to discuss Hawthorne.” (His wife, Elisa New, is a professor of English at Harvard).

    ...“I tend to follow my own curiosities, and I know millions of people are like me,” said Mr. Scott. “I’m into this kind of thing. I do think there is a market for this.”

- And Boston VC firm Spark Capital is involved in an effort to take over San Francisco-based CNet Networks. From that piece:

    The proxy fight is expected to shake up CNet, whose shares have underperformed the market and its competitors, leaving investors with a 19 percent loss over the last three years while other Internet-related companies grew. Over the same three-year period, the Interactive Week Internet Index rose 32 percent.

    Wall Street analysts have not looked favorably upon CNet, either: only two of the 18 analysts that follow the company have buy ratings on its shares, according to Bloomberg.

The article says that Spark partner Santo Politi will likely be nominated to join the board of CNet.

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, January 4, 2008

Next-Gen Display Technology Demo Night, on Feb 13th

I'm really excited about a panel coming up on February 13th, focusing on innovation in display technology. We're going to have representatives from *six* local companies talking about how their products could change the way we interact with text, audio, and video -- and what business opportunities that could create.

Here's who will be there, and what they're up to:

- Ambient Devices (, integrating "glanceable" information into objects like umbrellas
- DiamondTouch, from MERL (, turning a table into a touch-sensitive display
- E Ink (, whose paper-like display is built into the new Amazon Kindle
- Emo Labs, which layers an invisible audio speaker onto an LCD screen
- Myvu (, which makes wearable displays that can plug into your iPod
- QD Vision, using quantum dots to make power efficient, next-generation displays

Everyone will have a product/prototype there to demo -- so you'll be able to see stuff first-hand.

Since the space at Cambridge Innovation Center is limited, we're forced to filter the crowd a bit, this time focusing on entrepreneurs and investors. So e-mail me if that sounds like you (kirsner at pobox dot com), and I'll send you the top-secret code required to register.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, January 3, 2008

n2N Commerce no more

TechCrunch reports on the first start-up death of 2008 (or the last of 2007, perhaps), involving Cambridge-based n2N Commerce.

The company officially launched last January with a $30 million round of funding from Limited Brands and General Catalyst. Joel Cutler and Larry Bohn were the GC board members. Ruben Pinchanski, one of Boston's pioneers of Web development and e-commerce, was the CEO.

One entrepreneur who heard news of the company's troubles tells me that n2N laid off about 70 people before Christmas.

Update: I'm told that the decision to shut-down n2N wasn't made by the full board, but by Limited Brands, which unfortunately was the company's lead investor and primary customer. I suspect we'll see some legal action, since it doesn't sound like GC is too happy about putting money into a start-up that was given just one year to prove its model. GC had two board seats, as did Limited Brands. Pinchanski was the fifth board member.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

A New New England in 2008

Here’s my list of eight things we could do in 2008 to really juice up New England’s innovation economy. By that, I mean make it more vibrant, more fun to be part of, more attractive to people from outside the region, more valuable to society, and more profitable for everyone who’s a part of it.

    1. Let’s focus on pulling as many talented graduates of New England universities into our region’s innovation economy. Coming here to get a degree should feel like being sucked into a black hole, rather than passing through a turnstile.

    2. Let’s remind our VC pals that brilliant start-ups can be created by people who haven’t done it before, or celebrated their 40th birthday yet. If we know such entrepreneurs, let’s introduce them to our VC pals.

    3. Let’s get rid of non-compete agreements, which make states less competitive in a global economy. Companies can stop asking employees to sign them as a start, and advertise this fact (thus making themselves more appealing to employees), but legislative changes would provide a better solution. (Connecticut is the only New England state where enforcement of non-competes is significantly less strict than the other five.)

    4. Let’s get involved with projects that get kids excited about learning science and technology.

    5. Let’s encourage people who’ve been involved in building big, “pillar” companies here in New England to share their experiences – by mentoring younger entrepreneurs, by serving on boards, and by speaking and writing.

    6. Let’s agree that producing energy in cleaner, more efficient ways, and with more diverse fuel sources, will be one of the defining challenges of the 21st century. We’ve got research centers, start-ups, and bigger companies working on this challenge in our region – all of which deserve more attention and support.

    7. Let’s change the dynamic of selling companies upon receipt of the first halfway decent offer. Why not think big, and hang on for the ride?

    8. Culture is created by the beliefs and actions of individuals. Can we stop repeating the old trope that the culture here is somehow closed, or unfriendly to new ideas and people, and act in ways that make it feel more open and welcoming?