RAISED IN A FAMILY OF SCIENTISTS, it wasn’t a surprise to anyone but Fred that he would end up working on a biotech company. He was completely burned out on science after growing up with two parents whose nightly dinner table chat was more of a scientific dissertation, than the typical “How was your day?”
Fred didn’t want to find himself ever working in the world of science, but there he was in his early 20’s working on a biotech company with his parents and two other scientists. As the business progressed, they were generating patents, but not generating the revenues they need to sustain the company. Looking back, he thinks it might have been better to stick with his gut and stay out of the laboratory.
“If there was a mistake to be made in early entrepreneurship we made it; we just didn’t know better. Everyone was coming from various scientific backgrounds and I was still green on the whole entrepreneur side. Hiring the wrong people, not getting funding in the right place, putting the wrong contracts in place, not focusing on customers, not managing partnerships very well, etc… We made those mistakes, however my father did some amazing scientific work that went well and that we got patents on.”
“We were running out of money to keep things going. So we end up making a classic mistake by hiring somebody to raise money for us. Well, he doesn’t raise any money. We then put more of our savings into the company, and then he wants to be paid based on us putting money into our company as if we raised the money from somebody else! We ended up selling part of the company and then closing the rest down. It wasn’t always fun, but it was a great learning experience.”
That failure helped shape the rest of Fred’s business life. Before the biotech company, he thought he had learned quite a bit from college and his experience working with a large national trade association. Few things train you quicker for being an entrepreneur than failing quickly and often.
“You learn your lessons from them. You aren’t going to learn from people telling you not to make mistakes. You have to make mistakes to learn. The goal is that you don’t make the same mistake again.”
ANYTHING BUT SCIENCE, was the mantra which Fred wanted to live his life. Growing up outside of San Diego in La Jolla, he was completely entrenched in science both inside and outside the home. At the time La Jolla was a hotbed of bio-technology companies and research universities.
During his youth both of his parents worked at Scripps Research Institute and between them would go on to found or being an early advisor to ten different companies while remaining academics. Fred looked at his life and saw that he was in a bubble his whole youth. Something needed to change.
“I got so burned out of as a kid because it was two scientist parents talking science all day and by the time I get to college I was like, ‘Screw this, I’m not doing anything science. I’m doing something else.’ I was a Southern California kid and I was born and raised on the beach in Southern California and went school at UCLA which is barely any different. At UCLA I ended up living three miles from beach. So, I sort of looked at myself and said, ‘I have two choices here: Do I put my feet in the sand and stay since that’s all I’ll know or do I get out and do something different?’ So, I made the choice to get out and look for something different.”
After UCLA Fred would venture out on a post-college exploration. It may sound cliché, but it was a classic “finding himself” type of trip that would take him to 40 countries and span nearly two years.
“I lived in hostels, had a small apartment in Spain for a while, and lived in Paris for a few months. I traveled to South America with my father for a month. I was very lucky. We had a lot of family friends who lived all around the world. So, I would pick a city where we had friends and come in and stay with a family friend, which made it cheap to travel.”
“There’s no question that those two years dramatically changed who I was as a person, my perspective on the United States and the world, and my life as a professional. I knew it was finally done when I applied to grad school and got accepted. So, then I went to Washington DC where I got my graduate degree and Master’s in international affairs and international business.”
MASTERS DEGREE IN HAND, it was time to figure out where his true passion was. Ironically, after roaming the world and obtaining his masters, Fred couldn’t deny it anymore. There was a part of him, very deeply seeded, that was in love with technology and science. He may have tried to avoid it his whole life, but he finally caved in and accepted it. He was a science geek.
“I was sure I was going to be a lawyer. But after I got my graduate degree, even though I’ve run away from tech my entire life, it really is where my heart is. It took that experience of getting out Southern California and getting out of my old life and moving on to get to the point where I realized tech was what I wanted to do.”
“After I got out of grad school it was the early days of internet back in ‘95 and ’96. I looked to find a full-time job in internet tech, so I went to work for a trade association in Washington DC called the Software and Information Industry Association (SIIA). My job began as international work and then evolved into flying around the country and talking to CEOs of companies and tell them about business models in the software industry and just talk about how we were going to grow the software industry as a community.”
“But, I had the same sort of mindset as my parents about entrepreneurship. I knew it wasn’t in my personality to want a classic job. I’ve had jobs and I’ve worked for other people and I’m much happier when those constraints are not there. So at the same time I started another company called WarrantyRewards, which did okay but I didn’t know the business that well, and then started working on the biotech company with my family which was an ungodly mistake but a tremendous learning experience.”
At the SIIA, Fred would learn the foundation of what a solid technology business looks like. Through his four years at the association he got to have an intimate look at the inner workings of technology startups and successes all across the country.
“A lot of my expertise came from helping hundreds of companies follow the evolution of the software industry from a package or enterprise product to a service offering and how that was going to affect every aspect of their business. I was fortunate to meet people that looked at it from the standpoint of sustainability from a business perspective. They were asking the right questions like: ‘How are we going to make money on it? How are we actually going to do it?’”
EVENTUALLY ARRIVING IN CHICAGO, Fred got to work building a new life for himself in Chicago’s tech community. It would so happen that in 2005 an amazing opportunity would come along in the form of being invited to head up an exciting new organization called the ITA. However, what it was then, resembles nothing like what it is today.
“I was not part of the board of directors that created the ITA. There was about a six-month period where there was sort of limited happens and the ITA board hired me to come in and build the ITA from the previous organization it was. When we started ITA in 2005, it was squatting in space that was a single room data center squatting in the back room of an office downtown with literally nothing. We had a little in the bank account and about 130 legacy members from the previous organization. We started to build out things, started to build programs, and started to grow the association.”
“Eventually we moved to another space on Jefferson St. There was a smelly conference room where we used to have our desks, but it was clear by the end of the first year that we needed to have something bigger. So with the leadership of ITA’s Chairman, Terry Howerton we rented our current space, but not the whole floor though, just part of it. And then we slowly added the whole floor because people were coming in and saying, ‘Can I rent that room?’ It took the whole of five or six months to fill the entire floor.”
Eventually Terry and Fred would go onto start TechNexus which is a co-working and incubator space residing on the same floor as the ITA. The ITA and TechNexus have had their critics through the years, but have outlasted and proven so many of them wrong.
“There have been many people who believe TechNexus will fail. Many people believe we were crazy to start it in 2007 and still do. It wasn’t clear at all in early days, but it worked out well.
THE FUTURE IN CHICAGO, though it should not come as a surprise to anyone that the President of the Illinois Technology Association loves Chicago’s tech scene, Fred really does have the data and countless examples to back up his “pie-in-the-sky” ideas of where Chicago is headed.
“Chicago is such a fun town, there are really good people doing amazing things, and especially good industry domain expertise. Personally, I can’t think of doing technology anywhere else in the country.”
“I think what makes Chicago different than other communities like the ‘Valley’, is there is a tremendous amount of people that we want to help you and that have ideas, but don’t know where to turn to do it. Every day, there are one or two people that come to the ITA and say, ‘Help to start. Tell me what I can do to help or whatever.’”
“They are just looking for a mechanism. So, the ITA hopes it can help be one such mechanism. What’s great is it’s people of all streams, ages, and genders; it’s not just generation Y or huge companies. We are working to be a tremendous community.”