Wednesday, December 8, 2010
Interview with Rob Balgley, Mersive
Last month, Denver-based Mersive Technologies (www.mersive.com) announced it had raised a round of funding for the firm's technology for managing multiple projection displays and turning them into one, seamless image. We spoke with Rob Balgley, the firm's CEO and the former CEO of SkyeTek, to learn more about what Mersive is all about, and how he got involved with the company.
Rob, thanks for the time today. Where did the technology come from, and how did the company start?
Rob Balgley: The company was started by Dr. Chris Jaynes. Chris did his Ph.D. in the area of computer vision, and started the company as part of his academic research program. Chris got his Ph.D. at UMass Amherst. He then became a tenured professor at the University of Kentucky Lexington, where he built a lab and research group there. The company started as part of an academic research project in 2000. The project was the recipient of a significant amount of federal grant awards, from the Department of Defense, from DARPA, from Homeland Security, and even today continues to get significant grant support from the National Science Foundation. The company, to date, has about $9.5 million in combined federal grants as well as venture capital money. The venture capital came around 2006, and there was just a modest amount prior to when I joined. We are just now in the process of going out for a Series C round, and just received some additional funding from our existing investors to set us up to do that.
The company's legacy is really as a research project. It's been 10 years now, and that nearly $10M has gone into incubating much of the technology. The technology was designed to solve some very, very complex mathematical and physics problems, and was originally developed at some highly specialized and complex problems of the military around intelligence gathering and visualization. Those users were in military simulation, such as flight simulation, driving simulations, and training, and the company's background really is in academic research.
When did the company decide to commercialize that technology?
Rob Balgley: The company did a fantastic job of developing some very sophisticated technology, so in the late 2000 timeframe -- in 2006, 2007, and 2008, the company decided to commercialize that technology. Mersive was formed out of the research lab, and the venture capital was raised. Unfortunately, as with lots of startups with great technology, sometimes commercialization has its fits and starts. The company went through a few business teams, and never really found its footing commercially. In 2010, they decided they needed to try again and bring in a different business team, and make another effort to commercialize the technology.
They wanted to do this in part, because they'd gotten some critical success with some very high profile customers. They had happy customers, and great industry peers and potential partners, so I was brought in at the beginning of the year to take a shot and commercializing the technology. The market hypothesis is straightforward and simple. The pace of developing in the high performance cluster computing market has advanced very rapidly, especially in the last five or 10 years. There's been a pickup in the pace of development in graphics, and particularly in graphical processing units (GPUs) and software, in particular for software, 3D modeling, and CAD. But, as a result, you've got a bottleneck which has formed, in the ability to put those pixels on a affordable display. Mersive is really directed at closing the gap between computing and graphics display technology. Displays just haven't scaled, and still require a very complex system, made up of optical and electronic hardware, and mechanical systems. Typically, when you're talking about visualization, that's a half a million to a million dollars for a display. The reason is that the foundational systems don't scale very well. Mersive is taking what would normally happen in an expensive, complex projector or light engine, and doing that in software.
What drove you to get involved with Mersive?
Rob Balgley: Mersive was a great opportunity with my background. I've been able to come in where there is no revenue, or small revenues, but some critical success but not commercial success, and where they need an executive management team to create sales and marketing. Mersive represents a great opportunity, with enormous amounts of IP and technology, which has just not been productized correctly. It's been an interesting but sleepy company. However, with the right sales and marketing talent--not just myself, but a whole team--there's a big upside opportunity here. Beyond that, this is a very, very large market. Visualization is a huge market in both software and hardware today. There's a bottleneck and gap between the graphics and display solutions, and Mersive is positioned to close that gap and benefit as a result.
Another thing for me, is this is a really great group of people. There really does need to be a connection between the CEO and the founding team. These guys are scientists, from the academic world, but they have built a really good engineering team. And, there really is a big market here. I've seen this play before--you and I have both seen it--where software allows use of commodity hardware, because of parallelism, which allows that group of commodity products to provide a much higher performance product on a much smaller capital investment, and with a much lower cost of ownership.
So is the opportunity here new customers, or just better execution?
Rob Balgley: It's better execution on sales and marketing. There has really not been any substantial sustaining effort on sales and marketing. As with many other startups, regardless if they were started by engineers or scientists, they were very opportunistic approaching the market, and never moved out of that stage. It's the difference between being technology driven versus market driven, choosing your customers or having your customer choose you--it's hard to scale when you do that.
What have you learned as a serial entrepreneur, and how do you hope to apply it here?
Rob Balgley: The most important thing I've learned as being a CEO, is to hire the right team. We're in the process right now of building out our sales and marketing team. For me, I've learned that it all starts with the right people. From there, it's important to get alignment between the product and market needs, pricing, and the sales channel. I've learned a lot of lessons in that area over the past 20 years of leading and building venture backed companies. It all starts with getting good market data. As sales and marketing collects data from the market, that will drive revenue, and that will drive deals quickly. One thing I've preached here, is the one thing that will allow you to turn from a company driven by engineering and scientists to one driven by marketing, is being responsive to needs and getting good data from your customers Customer and market data is critical to getting the right alignment between your product, the market, and the customer. If you can get those things right, and you can mix in a health blend of realism you can quickly build a business. Another thing I've learned, which is applicable to mersive, is rather than rushing to add more functionality or change your architecture, sometimes it's more important to focus on great productization and increased usability. Rather than rushing to clear the decks when you don't completely understand the market, and rush off in another direction, sometimes staying the course is important in getting data and understanding your market. We're now looking at picking verticals--oil and gas, financial services, etc.--and figure out how to build on that market and build success in that market. Lots of CEOs know that, but in my experience one of the things I've learned is that technology often doesn't win the day. It's the productization of that technology, and the ability to create a product which, although complex, has a high level of usability. It's amazing, whether I've been in the RFID or visualization software, or wireless data industry, I've found that we've been able to be successful because the usability is much better than the competition.
Thanks, and good luck!