An inside look at innovation hot spots and how to get your idea noticed

how to get your idea noticed

The tech start-up world is Jim Lussier’s playground … and it is one cool place.

When Michael Dell led a successful effort to take Dell private in the fall of 2013, one of his first steps was to create a $300 million investment fund, and overnight the company became an important venture capitalist. Industry veteran Jim Lussier was tapped to lead this ambitious effort.

Jim is a wise and passionate leader with more than a decade of experience in Silicon Valley. Jim was also a partner at Accenture where he consulted and led the high tech strategy practice for North America.

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to meet up with him and discuss some of the vital issues in the world of venture capital and start-ups. What are the hot ideas? Where is the most innovation taking place in the world? How do you get noticed? Let’s find out.

Mark: So do you have the coolest job or what? Spending Michael Dell’s money on the best new ideas in the business!

Jim: (laughing) Yes, this is a pretty exciting position to be in. What excited me about this opportunity was when Michael came back as CEO seven years ago, he set in motion this dramatic evolution in the company, transforming from a pure hardware company, primarily a PC company, to being an end-to-end solutions company.

In order to do that, he knew there were a number of things that had to happen — primarily accessing innovation, accessing new technology, getting into new businesses, getting involved with new people, new ideas, and new companies.

Companies have a lot of different tools that they can use in order to access that innovation. Of course, one is your own engineers. But a) you never have enough of them and b) there’s probably more smart people outside your company, no matter how big you are. You’ve got to go outside to access that innovation.

That was the motivation for me personally, the idea of getting involved with going from being one of 16 partners to the person responsible for setting up the strategy for our venture group and executing that inside this $60 billion company with 100,000 people and $11 billion in cash. That is pretty exciting.

MarkWhen you look at investment opportunities, are you personally also involved in the things that are bubbling up inside? Or, are you 100 percent outside?

Jim: We’re more involved outside than inside, although we have to keep our finger on the pulse of what we’re doing organically.

Mark: How is it different being an investor for a company instead of a venture capital group?

Jim: After my experience as a purely financial VC, I looked at some of the leaders and corporate ventures that have gone before us. Companies like Intel Capital, or Comcast Ventures or SAP Ventures and others, and I set about tailoring what I learned from that to the Dell environment.

jim lussier

Jim Lussier

One of the fundamental choices you need to make is, are you going to be a strategic investor, a financial investor, or something in between.

Financial investors are focused on return regardless of whether it helps the business. Strategic investors are interested in helping a business regardless of return. We settled somewhere in between.

We will only invest in things that are strategically relevant to Dell but we also have to be interested in financial returns, right? Our model is that our investments have to be approved by a business unit president in order to assure alignment. It has to be something that is clearly important to them.

We like to invest in companies anywhere from less than $2 million to more than $15 million per round. We’ve done less, we’ve done more. But our average is about $3 million – $5 million. We invest in early stage companies, but companies that have an idea, products, and a team. It has some customers and it has some venture capital funding so that we can complement and bring the unique value that we bring.

Mark: So what is that value-add? How does a big company like Dell fit into this VC eco-system? What is that value?

Jim: One way we can really create value is by helping these young companies build skills.

We look for VC-funded companies that are early-to-grow stage. When we invest, we will join the board as observers and bring the value of our brand (which confers credibility on startups), our 10 million business customers, our 20,000 sales people, our product management capability. We have experts in every product area, people who spend all their time thinking about where technology is going. We also have expertise in manufacturing, logistics and infrastructure. We can help with design, building, shipping and selling.

So a unique thing that we can bring to the table is Dell’s entrepreneurial capabilities, where we plug startups into the Dell network, provide valuable marketing opportunities for them and even advantageous financing terms, so they can grow their business better and faster.

Mark: What are the hot investment areas for you right now?

Jim: We are investing in six areas. We started in storage, with a $60 million dollar fund and now we have expanded to a $300 million fund that will include investments in data centers, security, big data, mobile, and cloud.

We actively look for those opportunities where investment is the right tool for the job. We have teams composed of cross functional leaders who meet almost every week to guide us and help us find those opportunities.

We identify technology themes within those main areas and we proactively go out and reach out to the startup community. If you’ve been in a startup, you probably know how hard it is to get attention, get customers or to generate interest in your idea.

Entrepreneurs love it when we reach out and say, “We’ve been doing some research on the area of vertical analytical apps, for example. It’s very interesting to us and you’ve come across our radar screen. Would you mind meeting us?”

They’re like, “Oh my goodness this is fantastic.” (laughing)

We put together events for them, innovation days where we fly them in to talk about how we can collaborate. So we are actually coming up with new investment ideas together.

Mark: It sounds like aggressive research is a big part of your team’s function. It’s like you are exposing ideas before they get on the general radar.

Jim: Yes, definitely. In our space, research is conversations. It’s networking. Sometimes it starts with “Hey, someone out in the field saw this company,” or it’s an idea we read about in a blog like yours. We take our executive teams on road trips to Sand Hill Road (CA), Boston, Italy, or Israel, wherever the great ideas seem to be happening.

I think that’s one of the values this function can bring to Dell. It’s not just making investments, it’s about creating a point of view around where innovation is happening. How can you be doing your job in the tech field without knowing what’s going on in Silicon Valley or these other places? It enriches the whole activity.

MarkAnd how many investments have you made since this team was created?

Jim: Fifteen in three years. I’ll give you an example of things that we announced in the past year or so. One I really like is Invincea. It’s the perfect example of how all of the different pieces can work together.

As you know, if you have a PC or a laptop there are always-changing advanced security threats. You may open an email, you didn’t click on anything, and you’re infected. You click on a link and you’re infected or whatever. There’s watering hole, and spear phishing kind of attacks, and there are some great security companies out there but they don’t do anything against these advanced threats.

About 95 percent of these attacks occur on the six most common apps that you run. It’s your email, Outlook, browser, Adobe, for example. If you use Word or any of those Office applications, that’s where the infections occur. Invincea monitors those apps, and looks for malevolent behavior. It doesn’t have to know that there’s particular virus that’s been loaded, or find out it has a signature. It detects behavior that looks funny and shuts that application down, quarantines it, prevents the rest of your computer and the rest of the network from being infected. Interesting technology.

We’ve got an initiative called, “Our most secure PC strategy.” So we now pre-load the Invincea software on to our products. We’re shipping this out on 10 million machines. This is a win, win, win. It’s a win for Dell customers, because they get a more secure PC. It’s a win for the investors and the employees of Invincea, because this company if they were going to go from 0 to 50 million without us and zero to 100 million with us we would have doubled the value of the company. And of course it’s a win for Dell.

Mark: I travel around a lot and every town in Iowa or in Kansas is saying, “We’re going to be the Digital Prairie,” and in the back of my mind, I’m thinking … you have to be in Silicon Valley. That’s where the energy is. That’s where the networking is. That’s where the money is.

Is it really possible for someone in Kansas or Iowa to get on your radar screen or is it inefficient for you to spread your net too wide?

Jim: I have a strong perspective on that. If you were to look at where venture capital is invested globally, what percentage of it would you say is in the United States versus somewhere else in the world?

Mark: 70 percent?

Jim: Yeah, you’re right — about 75 percent. Within the 75 percent that’s in the United States, how much of that is invested in California?

Mark: 50?

Jim: You know these numbers.

Mark: No, I’m a good guesser.

Jim: Most people don’t realize that half of all venture capital in the United States is invested in California. Boston’s about 8 percent. Austin’s about 3 percent.

If you look at all of Europe, about 11 percent is invested there. But then you divide Europe into UK, France, Germany and maybe it’s three points each.

Innovation is happening everywhere in the world, but fundamentally, we have to be efficient with our time so we’re looking at Silicon Valley, Boston, Israel and a few other places.

Good ideas can come from anywhere and we look, as much as we can, anywhere and everywhere, but we’ve got to be efficient. There is something like 60,000 seed investments every year. How many venture investments do you think there are in IT every year, roughly?

Mark:No idea.

Jim: A couple of thousand. So that is a pretty big haystack to look through. Certain disruptive companies will rise out of that and actually get venture funding. But about 90 percent of all funding is concentrated in the top 30 VCs, so the industry is highly-concentrated.

Every city is trying to re-create the ingredients of Silicon Valley. We can’t do that. What made Silicon Valley is the unique set of circumstances that occurred there. If you want to be a new center of innovation, you need to figure out what you have that’s unique.

We are going to see these conversations continue and certainly there’s great progress in many, many places.

Mark: What is providing the fuel for the best ideas? Do you see a lot of it coming out of universities, spinoffs from other companies, or people who have an idea, they get tired of what they are doing and then quit their jobs to pursue a dream? 

Jim: It’s sort of all the above. Google was started by some Stanford computer science professors. Facebook was a company where you had a Harvard dropout, Mark Zuckerberg. A lot of it is spinoffs. There’s Hewlett-Packard and EMC, and Oracle. Lots of big companies and people spin out of those places and start things.

Once you are an entrepreneur, you probably become a serial entrepreneur and it builds on itself. The ideas are coming from so many places. It’s quite an amazing time.

This post was written as part of the Dell Insight Partners program, which provides news and analysis about the evolving world of tech. For more on these topics, visit Dell’s thought leadership site PowerMoreDell sponsored this article, but the opinions are my own and don’t necessarily represent Dell’s positions or strategies.

Illustration courtesy Flicker CC and Adam Meek

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