Entrepreneurs are Everywhere Show No. 3: Frank Rimalovski and Frank Sculli

You have to teach entrepreneurs how to fish rather than serving dinner for them.  And wishing you had asked for help much earlier in a startup.

Giving help and getting help. Those were the messages from the two latest guests on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere, my radio show on Sirius XM Channel 111.

Frank Rimalovski

Frank Rimalovski

Frank Rimalovski, executive director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute joined me in the studio to discuss how the Entrepreneurial Institute is transforming the culture at NYU; and Frank Sculli, co-founder of BioDigital Inc shares what he wishes he’d known before he started his company.

Listen to the full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

Frank Sculli

Frank Sculli

Clips from their interviews are below, but first a word about the show:

Entrepreneurs are Everywhere airs Thursdays at 1 pm Pacific, 4 pm Eastern on Sirius XM Channel 111. It follows the entrepreneurial journeys of founders sharing their experiences of what it takes to build a startup – from restaurants to rocket scientists, to online gifts to online groceries to entrepreneurial education and more.

The program examines the DNA of entrepreneurs: what makes them tick, how they came up with their ideas; and explore the habits that make them successful, and the highs, lows and pivots that pushed them forward.

Teaching entrepreneurs how to fish
Frank Rimalovski is the executive director of the NYU Entrepreneurial Institute and managing director of the NYU Innovation Venture Fund. He teaches at the NYU School of Engineering, and for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps, and co-author with Giff Constable of Talking to Humans: Success Starts With Understanding Your Customers.

Frank has spent 20+ years in technology companies and venture capital, working at Lucent, Sun Microsystems, Apple and NeXT.

Entrepreneurship at NYU is more than just offering  classes. Frank’s goal is have students to leave NYU with skills they can use throughout their business careers. Frank describes how:

The (NYU Entrepreneurial) institute provides a host of resources, programs and the like to help our faculty and students learn how to (start a company). We don’t do it for them but … we teach them how to fish rather than serving up dinner for them.

(There) are proper for-credit entrepreneurship classes but the majority of it happens on an extracurricular, co-curricular basis. The thing that unifies all of them, whether it’s a class or some kind of program is … (that) we don’t just teach people the theory of entrepreneurship, we also teach them how to do it. You taught me the analogy of teaching someone how to be an entrepreneur is like teaching surgery. You can’t just expect someone to read a book and know how to perform surgery. You have to get out and practice it. …

Everything we do is highly experiential. We teach them about it and then we make them do it right away. The other thing that we try to make everything that we do in and of (New York).  We try to bring the entrepreneurs, the investors, the venture capitalists (the entire New York startup ecosystem) into everything we do. It’s done in a real-world context, not in some theoretical context.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

The goal of the entrepreneurship program is to change all of NYU’s culture, Frank explained. The NYU Innovation Venture Fund plays a critical role in the effort.

Frank: Somewhat serendipitously through a contact I made through IBM, I learned about this opportunity in NYU… to create a new venture fund to essentially do very similar work to what I’ve been doing inside Lucent and the venture partners … to work with researchers and invest capital to create new startups…. We invest exclusively in startups founded by NYU students, faculty and researchers.

Steve: You’re a venture capitalist essentially for a single school. Is this because you want to support the professors or because the university wants to have an additional source of funds? What’s the rationale?

Frank: …To change the culture within the university. … to be more externally oriented, more market oriented and to get our innovations and ideas to market. … MIT … Stanford … and Berkeley do things similar to this.

Steve: (Was the goal) … to turn NYU into an outward-facing university? Meaning, “Gee, we’re a great research university but we’ve been staring at our navel for 100 years.” Is that a fair way to say it?  “Perhaps we ought to be able to chew gum and walk at the same time?”

Frank: I might not say it that strongly but others could 🙂 Put another way, you know as well as anybody that the world has evolved in a lot of ways. Big companies don’t just come to universities and line up to (just) license technologies. Similarly, jobs for our students ain’t what they used to be. I view our mission as both to help advance those technologies into the marketplace to get the more informed customers in the market and to help our students create opportunities for themselves at the same time.

Steve: You’re a change agent with a bag of money inside the university, right?

Frank: You can describe it that way.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Frank Sculli co-founded of BioDigital, in 2003 to build a kind of flight simulator for doctors that would be used to train them in specific medical procedures. That original vision didn’t pan out. Frank explains why:

We learned a number of things, (first) that there really was a need there to transform the way people are educated around these concepts (the need for using medical simulators to practice surgical procedures.)

(Second,) we learned that 3D was very effective in doing so…, but why hasn’t it become mainstream yet? … (The reason was) because it wasn’t cost effective. It took too long to develop and … it really wasn’t ubiquitously accessible. You’d build that simulator, and it would sit on a desktop somewhere and you’d have to fly people to that training center to use it. Even if you created a video, the video was accessible but it required updates, those updates were expensive and the formats changed and so on. …

(Third) I think with the adoption of any new technology you need to mitigate risk as best as possible and because of the hefty price tag associated with it, it was hard to do it in volume and even when you did the margins on those projects weren’t spectacular.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Here’s what Frank Sculli wished he’d known when he was building BioDigital:

Frank Sculli: … I would have asked a lot more questions. I would have sought help. I think that I learned that too late…. People have done this before, not (this) specific technology, but they’ve scaled companies and I think it’s incredibly helpful to surround yourself with those people, those mentors and ask the right questions.

Steve:  Do you think it was the fact that you didn’t take venture money, that you didn’t have a board or did you not have the right advisors? … My problem was, I always thought I was the smartest person in the building and didn’t need any (advice). Did you have that problem, too?

Frank Sculli: There’s a little of that when you’re young and you don’t want to reveal that you’re may be incompetent in certain ways …

I think that (now) there is a much stronger supporting ecosystem in New York City and that’s been incredibly helpful. I don’t know if I would have leveraged that better back then. I mean the whole concept of startups just wasn’t really as high profile back then, at least in technology.

Steve:  Where do you get your advice now?

Frank: Investors …with other CEOs whether or not they are in a relevant industry, just becoming friendly with a lot of those people, just mentors. … When you do reach out people are very willing to help. They really do enjoy it.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

This was his a-ha moment:

We went from a services company to a company that has a product. (We’re addressing the) same problems but we wanted to solve the problem in a much more scalable way so we saw, around 2011 … the Internet was going to support 3D natively. … We saw the emergence was becoming a standard and … devices had become so powerful that even your phone could run 3D.

We looked back and one of the great things is a byproduct of all those service was just this massive library of 3D assets, 3D models of the human body… that we owned.

I will emphasize to pay attention to intellectual property issues as early on as you can. … When you’re bootstrapping things and you know you’re just, you’re constantly weighing where you should invest your money and highly recommend legal (advice). ..It’s not cheap but (the lack of) it can really come back to haunt you otherwise.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Early in our interview, Frank Rimalovski took us back to his early days in startups. Out of college, he briefly worked as an investment banker in New York, but before long heard the siren song from Silicon Valley.

Here’s what happened:
I started my career in Chase Manhattan Bank … then quickly made my way over to Bear Stearns because I really wanted to be an investment banker and do mergers and acquisitions. … I was 22, 23 at that time. … Bear Stearns was very much a sink-or-swim kind of place at the time which I loved and thrived in, and had a great time doing that. I worked with a lot of really smart people, but after a couple of years realized this is not what I want to spend the rest of my life doing. Like a lot of people at the time, went back to business school to try to figure out what I wanted to do. …  I picked up a book … a recommendation of a friend, called “West of Eden,” which told the story of the founding really of Silicon Valley and ultimately Apple. … I read about Xerox PARC and then ultimately Apple. I was like, “Oh, my God. That is where I want to be.”

… In ’92, the country was in a recession and none of the West Coast companies were coming to North Carolina that year, so I made a point of every free moment I had I’d go to the library and I would read rags like Info Week and PC World and learn about the industry through that. (I would) then spend every free moment I had writing old-fashioned letters to every name I could find in Silicon Valley. Then I would go out there and say, “By the way, I’m here. Can you spare 30 minutes?” I probably got, over the course of a few weeks, 20 or 30 interviews of people. That ultimately led to a bunch of different opportunities.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Working in Silicon Valley left a lasting impression. He told me about meeting one of the startup world’s icons:
The summer of ’92, I was able to con my way into an internship at … Steve Jobs’s Next when it was still an independent company. He’d … recently taken money from Ross Perot. … I was brought in to help them try to figure out a strategy for entering the healthcare market where they were seeing a lot of interest from primarily academic hospitals …

I got to interact with Steve a little bit on my first day. My then-manager Ken Rosen is walking me around the building giving me a tour and we bump into Steve on the stairs and I’m like, “Oh my God, there he is.” Ken introduces me: “Meet Frank, he’s an MBA intern at Duke, he’s going to help us figure out the healthcare markets this summer and he’s definitely qualified because his dad’s a doctor.” There’s this 3-second pregnant pause and I’m waiting for either him to rip Ken a new one or to throw me out of the building.

Then he slaps Ken on the back and there’s a big laugh and he says, “Welcome aboard.” Or something like that and walks off.

I had an opportunity to interact with him a few times over the summer, convince him to go speak at a healthcare-related conference and things like that. The thing that I really took away from that was the interplay and complexity of the industry between the developers and the channels and the integrators. That was something that was I think really hard to wrap your head around as an outsider reading case studies and books in business school.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Frank Rimalovski also shared lessons from Silicon Valley that have stuck with him.
When I went to Sun Microsystems in ’96, the development team that I was working with … was trying to figure out what the next version was going to do. My first instinct was, well let’s go talk to our customers who were developers at the time, and they were like, what do you mean?

I schlepped two of our most senior developers on an airplane. … I remember we went to visit Corel, which was a big developer at the time, and … and a bunch of others, and we actually sat down and spent a couple of hours with these customers, not pitching them, but actually asking them about what worked for them today, what were their problems, what were their issues, what were their challenges, what would they like … A little bit about what they would like to see. This is why when I first learned about customer development, I’m like I get this, this made a lot of sense to me. …

(The senior developers) were not happy that I was schlepping them across the country, but afterwards they thanked me, because they learned so much. … In the end I think they totally agreed that seeing what things really got a rise out of (customers), being able to probe, and have follow-ons and free-form discussion, breaking bread with people, it was a very different conversation than you have online.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Frank Rimalovski’s full interview here:

If you can’t hear the clip click here.

Frank Sculli explained how Biodigital came to be
Following grad school, it was the inception of the dot com boom. I had fielded a number of different options – everything from going to work in Manhattan in finance to big consulting firms to energy to device companies. … I ended up at at … a smaller niche consulting firm that was growing quickly as a result of the .com boom.

The boom ended quickly and abruptly and the business still survived because they had a lot of business outside of those Internet companies, but the enthusiasm was no longer there. It was at that time that I met my co-founder. He was also at the consulting company and we had strategized for a number of months over the premise of which became Biodigital Systems.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Like many founders I know, Frank Sculli isn’t only focused on the bottom line.
We’re not driven by the money, to be completely honest. It’s about building something big, working with great people. Our mission is to improve health literacy and I really think we’re on to something. … It’s a lot of fun. Every day in the office, we’re really de-mystifying things that were previously incomprehensible to most people. 

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Frank Sculli’s full interview here.

If you can’t hear the clip, click here.

Listen to Frank’s and Frank’s full interviews by downloading them from SoundCloud here and here(And download any of the past shows here.)

—–

Next on Entrepreneurs are Everywhere: Dave Lerner, director of Entrepreneurship at Columbia University and Gary Marcus, CEO and founder of Geometric Intelligence.

Tune in Thursday at 1 pm PT, 4 pm ET on Sirius XM Channel 111

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