Monday, February 26, 2007
Interview with Gavin Christensen, vSpring Capital
Gavin Christensen recently took the helm heading up Salt Lake City, Utah-based vSpring's (www.vspring.com) venture capital office in New Mexico. We spoke with Gavin about vSpring's efforts in the state, and his view on developing an ecosystem in the region for encouraging entrepreneurship.
Techrockies: Congrats on your new position there at vSpring. Let's talk a little bit about New Mexico -- what does vSpring see as the opportunity there, and what are you hoping to do in the state?
Gavin Christensen: When I joined vSpring in January of 2003, vSpring had been around for a few years. I had just moved out from Boston, where I was working in management consulting, but felt like I really liked living in the west and what the west has to offer--the people, natural beauty, and more. I looked into it, and found that there were lots of others that felt the same way, lots of very talented people, both on the technical side and on the business side. There's a great natural resource here in terms of both people and atmosphere. However, there haven't always been platform companies to work for, and that's created an environment where lots of people want to be entrepreneurs. That's what vSpring first discovered in Utah, where the original partners were all ex-entrepreneurs and wanted to help people, and that ecosystem to develop. Instead of coming with the perspective of trying to find companies, they wanted to help create companies. That meant recruiting the managers, syndicating the deal, and doing a lot of the heavy lifting. That's something now that only some VCs do, and others do not. That's the unique thesis, which is an entrepreneurially friendly focus on regions that are not normally focused on. As you follow the west, you see we've had some success, and the model is validating itself.
In New Mexico, I was part of the exploratory committee looking at New Mexico, where we did deep due diligence on the technical talent and technology. There are certain areas where there is now where like it in the U.S. In some areas, it looks much like Utah befor we got involved, and where we saw lots of the same opportunities in Utah. So it made sense, and we opened up a Los Alamos office, and have done 4 deals and invested quite a bit of capital in the area. I actually left vSpring in 2005 in order to go to Chicago to go to business school at Kellogg. I spent the summer at Google, and considered doing my own thing as an entrepreneur, but vSpring told me that Mike -- who was heading up our New Mexico office - was going to be CEO of a company, and how would I like to replace him in New Mexico. It was an opportunity for me in an area my family would like, and would allow me to be both a VC and entrepreneur at the same time. It allows me to be really involved early, to put together teams, flush out the value proposition and business plan, and get the benefit of working with more than one company. The other part of the puzzle is the ecosystem piece. In Utah, we have been very involved with starting business plan competitions and mentoring entrepreneurs, and we think that will be very rewarding to do in New Mexico too. It's a very open community here, excited to be partnering with venture capitalists, and that made it a no brainer for me. I wanted to participate in creating the next Google in New Mexico and the west.
Techrockies: What kinds of companies are you looking for--are there any particular industries or profile?
Gavin Christensen: It's the typical vSpring profile -- early stage companies. Traditionally, vSpring has been focused on IT and Biotech, areas that Utah is strong in. In New Mexico, we're pretty open minded. New Mexico is strong in clean tech, particularly in solar, and we're also looking at nanotech deals.
Techrockies: What advice would you give to firms in new Mexico hoping to get some attention from a venture capitalist like yourself?
Gavin Christensen: I am looking for passionate entrepreneurs who have high expections and are aggressive. I'm not looking for singles and doubles. Entrepreneurs need to think big, and need passion. The best way to contact me is by email, initially, and I look forward to meeting people face to face. Entrepreneurs do need to realize that as a VC you end up turning down hundreds more deals than you end up investing in, but I'll still spent time to mentor, figure out other ways for funding, and to add value in other ways. Our strategy is to grow the pie and encourage lots of entrepreneurship -- it benefits us, and the whole community.
Techrockies: We often talk to business school students looking to get into venture capital, if you don't mind we'd love to hear your views on how to get into the industry.
Gavin Christensen: I spent a lot of time at Kellogg and elsewhere talking about that. Honestly, I was fortunate to get in before business school. The biggest predictor of getting into venture capital is if you've had some exposure prior to business school. If you don't have that kind of experience, there are a couple of tracks. One is to try to network your way into a fund--often, the way to develop that credibility with a fund is entrepreneurship--which means working with portfolio companies and projects in school to develop that relatinship. The other, long term way--which is hard--is to prove yourself in an operating role in a large company. Most venture capitalists have come from going all the way with a company, and been at companies who are now large but had early experience in senior roles. All those are hard to accomplish, but it's like anythign else--if you really want it bad enough you'll get it.