Paul Freet, who recently joined Georgia Tech’s VentureLab as a commercialization catalyst, admits he’s overqualified for his job.
But that’s a good thing, says Freet, a successful entrepreneur with three startup companies to his credit — almost a requirement for a job that demands both broad business judgment and sustained entrepreneurial enthusiasm.
“I think that in general VentureLab tends to bring in people who are overqualified — people who have done this before, who have created multiple startup companies,” he said. “They’re here because they have some higher mission, a higher vision.”
VentureLab is a unit of the Enterprise Innovation Institute’s Commercialization Services, which evaluates and helps to commercialize Georgia Tech intellectual property. About 10 percent of the more than 300 inventions disclosed by Tech researchers each year are judged to have the right stuff for forming a VentureLab startup.
Working with other VentureLab commercialization catalysts, Freet is responsible for aiding and advising numerous fledgling technology ventures, most of which are still in a pre-incorporation, proof-of-concept phase. VentureLab catalysts help these aspiring companies sharpen their product concept, find office/lab space and also obtain seed funding, which generally comes from the Georgia Research Alliance.
“We’re delighted to have recruited an entrepreneur of Paul’s experience and stature,” said Stephen Fleming, director of Commercialization Services. “His combination of entrepreneurial experience, technical acumen and plain old business enthusiasm are ideal qualities in a commercialization catalyst.”
Freet graduated from Georgia Tech in 1986 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and a computer engineering certificate. He spent his initial career years with semiconductor giant Hitachi in both marketing and application engineering roles.
His entrepreneurial calling began in 1996, when as chief technology officer he helped found a San Diego startup called TruSOLUTIONS, a maker of Linux servers for Internet use. That company was sold to VA Linux Systems in 2000 for $200 million.
Freet then moved with his family back to Atlanta and founded Racemi, a venture-funded maker of modular blade-server computers. Racemi evolved into a software company that has pioneered a new approach to data-center recovery and migration tasks.
Freet first became familiar with Georgia Tech’s programs for startup companies in 2002 when Racemi became a member of the Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), a Georgia Tech unit that incubates young companies that have moved beyond the VentureLab stage. Racemi graduated from ATDC in 2007 and is now an independent company.
But Freet already knew Stephen Fleming. They met when Fleming was working for a venture capital fund, and they stayed in touch over the years.
“When Stephen announced he wanted to fill a VentureLab slot and was looking for suggestions, I started thinking about who I would refer him to,” Freet recalled. “Then it dawned on me that, my goodness, that would be a perfect role for me.”
As a VentureLab catalyst, Freet is already using his computer, software and electronics experience to shepherd a number of Georgia Tech researchers and their discoveries through a process that could lead to a viable startup company.
The biggest stumbling block for new companies isn’t material, he says; seed money and office space can usually be found for a promising technology.
Instead, the greatest challenges are intellectual. Distilling a technological idea into a commercial product is difficult, and often the researchers who made the discovery can’t make that leap because they lack business experience and are too close to the technology.
“If all you’ve got is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail,” Freet said.
To commercialize any technology, he explains, it’s critical to boil the concept down to something simple and come up with an instructive “story” that can be shared.
“That’s something I try to do very quickly with a young company — find the real germ of the idea and a way to explain it simply,” he said. “If you’re trying to raise money, you need to present an investment in a way that a venture capitalist can explain to his or her partners.”
Finding that story can also help identify a technology’s first commercial application. Freet recalls a recent example in which Georgia Tech researchers had devised a powerful technology to track computer and other expensive equipment. Further discussion indicated the technology was best viewed as a way to keep companies from losing things.
Freet believes that much of VentureLab’s capability hinges on its interdisciplinary nature and the broad experience of its staff.
“We can really bounce things off one another,” he said. “And while I might think that a discovery applies to the computer hardware business, we might find out that it’s actually a very good fit as, say, a biomedical application.”
Freet says the most attractive part of his VentureLab job consists of two benefits that are of great importance to him – giving back to his alma mater and home state, and improving his already strong connections to the state’s technology community.
“And then,” he added, “there’s the fun stuff – learning about all this great technology and getting to know some pretty amazing people here at Tech.”
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Writer: Rick Robinson