Meet a Member: Vinit Nijhawan
Tell me about your background and your path as an entrepreneur.
I went into engineering not because it was my dream or passion, but because my dad was an engineer and my grandfather was a physicist. I started university when I was only 17, which was a challenge as the academics were quite difficult, especially in combination with living away from home. I went to the University of Waterloo, which had a co-op system. My first co-op was in northern Manitoba, the second in Toronto and the next few were in Ottawa. During my time as a student I started a company designing products and because of that I had the royalties. When I graduated, I joined a small 40 person aerospace company in Ottawa. I always had a love of space exploration because of Apollo 11 moon landing and was happy to work in the space program for the first part of my career in Canada. The startup I worked at scaled from 40 people to 400 people… and soon I found myself transitioning from engineering to running sales and marketing. I knew I wanted to be a CEO and business focus provided exposure to the C-suite.
I moved to Boston in 1987, just as a recession was beginning. Not to mention, joining an aerospace company as a Canadian citizen was near impossible. I really had no choice but to co-found a company called Payload Systems, a company focused on creating instruments tailored for space shuttles. The other co-founders were MIT PhDs one of whom was an astronaut and had flown on the space shuttle several times. We successfully launched two programs: one where we rented the Zero-G aircraft NASA operates that goes in a parabola, “the vomit comet”, we would fill it full of researchers. Because the space shuttle was not flying, we used the airplane to simulate zero gravity and do the testing. We did that for several years and gaining clientele from all over the world. I’ve actually flown in it myself and been in Zero-G. The other thing we did is we went to the Soviet embassy in Washington DC… long story short, we cut a deal with them to do protein crystal growth, drug discovery experiments, on their MIR space station. Payload Systems was acquired, but we realized after a couple of years that they were not very risk oriented, so we took the company back from them and made one of the young people we hired from MIT the CEO. He took the company a long way and now is part of Boeing.
We were the first people to start putting computers on the space shuttle using off the shelf electronics, so I began to explore putting these rugged computers in ground vehicles. I realized the train industry didn’t innovate much so I switched to trucks and launched a company called Kinetic Computer. We were the first people to start putting these computers in trucks. Our first customer was Waste Management, our second Pepsi Food Service, and our biggest customer was American Freightways which is now FedEx Ground. We grew that company and sold it in two pieces, one to Motorola and one to Qualcomm. Shortly after I started teaching at Boston University and joined venture capital firm, Key Ventures, which didn’t quite make it through 2008 financial downturn because KeyBank pulled back from private equity. The teaching led to running the Tech Transfer Office at BU where we launched 8 venture backed companies that raised over $350,000,000 to date. From there, I took over the Massachusetts Technology Transfer Center and merged it with MassVentures.
How did you get involved with TiE Boston?
When TiE Boston was starting up I was too busy with Kinetic to get involved. After transitioning from Kinetic, I joined on as a charter member in 2000. When Desh and Gautam asked if I would be interested in being the president I agreed. After I accepted Gautam and I organized a trip for a bunch of venture capitalists to India in 2005 which was incredible. Guatam did this amazing job of professionalizing the organization. In my three years as President we launched the TYE program, the first SIGs, and the Startup Leadership Program which has since spun away from TiE but was quite successful. I was elected and served on the TiE Global Trustee Board for a couple terms. We also took TiECON, which had been building up as a significant annual track event here in Boston, from the suburbs to the Hynes Convention Center.
How have you seen the innovation and tech economy change from when you were president of TiE to to current day?
The startup journey is still as difficult as it’s always been, the difference of course is that the infrastructure and support that’s available today is unparalleled. The second difference is that entrepreneurship is increasing dramatically in the younger populations, as witnessed by the TYE program for high school students.
What advice do you have for overcoming adversity?
I think the best entrepreneurs are this perfect combination of determination and flexibility. It sounds like an oxymoron but you have to have a single minded determination to get to an end goal while being open minded enough to adjust the path to achieve that end goal. For example we were focused on putting wireless computers on vehicles for mobile computing. As we were building our customer base, and learning how to manufacture at volume, GE came to us asking us to modify our product for use on factory floors. We declined, when they came back with a seven-figure offer, it was hard to turn that down but it almost killed the company because it was a different focus. The upside was we were having a lot of trouble starting to manufacture at volume in Kendall square in the early 90s. The Senior Vice President running this GE unit came up in the corporate jet and spent 2 weeks with us. He rolled up his sleeves to show us how to manufacture at a high volume.
The other important takeaway is that generosity should be your core ideal. Be generous with your employees, which in turn can be generous with your customers to deliver what you promised, keep the generosity flowing to your community.
How has TiE helped you in your career or develop you as an entrepreneur?
When I joined on as a Charter Member the ethos was very clear… I thought TiE was really a platform giving to other entrepreneurs, that I would give more than I would get. Which does still exist today but I’ve gained so many other benefits from TiE. Primarily social, it’s just great to be in the company of other entrepreneurs. It doesn’t matter what level of success, or for what field… the startup journey can be a lonely one and being with your peers is very satisfying. You learn things that maybe are not earth shattering but it allows you to express thoughts, glean help, have a soundboard, which often turns out to be quite valuable. Frankly, I’ve formed many great friendships that endured beyond just professional.
Probably the most important thing is pride in the fact that we were a piece of the success of this TiE Chapter. I’m so glad to hear folks can and will continue to connect through TiE Boston, that the next generation of entrepreneurs seeking network and advice.
What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?
There are many paths to entrepreneurship. Places like TiE can provide guidance but in the end your only option is to walk the path yourself. In the Buddhist sense of walking your own path, entrepreneurship is the same. The hardest thing is taking the first step.
What’s the benefit of joining organizations like TiE?
There’s value in the fact that you can literally pick up the phone and call any charter member, anytime and they will respond. People shouldn’t feel any fear in seeking advice. Sometimes advice is all you need but this network can also provide customers, investors, advisors, mentors or Board members. Networks are very critical.
Given the year that we’ve had, everybody’s mind is on the future, what’s next for you? What are you excited about?
When I was an engineering student somewhere in my second year I said, look I’ve really got to figure out what direction I’m going in. So I went to the library, and read and read, finally landing on microprocessors, or computers… there was no such thing as software. As it turned out, I had a great 40 year run in the computing industry. When I came into the academic world, I did my research at the onset the same way I did so many years ago. I really believe the future is going to be about the intersection of biology and computing. It felt strongly to me that these new developments are going to come from our academic research labs. This is where the rebirth of our US economy is going to come from. Frankly this region has already benefited from that new section of computer biology. The pandemic has shown how important Massachusetts is to the world.