I have been involved in some form of technology, engineering and entrepreneurship throughout my career. After graduating with an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute I joined McDonnell Douglas working on fighter aircraft.
At McDonnell, I spent five or so years working on various technologies to help make it easier to design and build aircraft. The most notable of these technologies was High Speed Machining, which has since been used to save billions of dollars on the F/A-18 E/F, C17 and many other aircraft.
In 1995, I left McDonnell Douglas, got married, bought a house, and started my MBA at MIT Sloan business school. I went to business school with the idea of joining McKinsey as a consultant but quickly was attracted to the Boston start-up community. During my second year at Sloan, when you are finally allowed to really direct your academic program, I took what was then a new course, ELAB, taught by two world class entrepreneurs, Ken Morse and John Preston. During the class, you work with a local start-up on “The issue keeping the CEO awake at night”. I worked a firm named Sitara Networks.
In parallel, my wife Melissa was hard at work back in St. Louis growing Fielding Pharmaceutical, her family’s business. At the time, Fielding was a small specialty pharmaceutical poising for explosive growth under her and her brother’s leadership. So between MIT, Boston, and Fielding I was surrounded by entrepreneurs (quite a contrast to working at McDonnell Douglas).
When I graduated from Sloan, my wife’s business was growing hand over fist so it made more sense for us to stay in Missouri and for me to get a job that minimized travel – so consulting was out. The then merged Boeing (McDonnell Douglas, Boeing, and Rockwell merger) was integrating. A senior executive who knew of my involvement in High Speed Machining etc asked me what job I wanted to get me to come back. So, I took on the responsibility of merging the R&D portfolio and managing the investment decision for new technologies.
So, for about three years I managed the annual process of determining how Boeing invested R&D into its “Component Technology”. What that means is the things that go into the airplane including avionics, software, materials, communication systems, support systems, etc. This research is conducted for the most part in Boeing’s famed Phantom Works. These investments range from $50K/year to several million dollars. When I started the job we managed more than 1,500 distinct research projects and many more proposed projects. In addition to integrating the process of deciding on these investments, I was also involved in integrating all these technologies into 8-10 verticals. We reorganized the R&D group and put a manager over each vertical, aligned all the projects into “thrusts”, assured strategic connectivity with the needs of the business units, and made it easier to assure projects were on track for success. In this job I saw thousands of new technology opportunities each year for about three years. I also saw hundreds of different technologists that ranged from being dreamers who could never implement to entrepreneurs who could implement but had limited ability within the complexity of a large corporation.
If you have ever been in the R&D investment role you will know you can learn a lot in the job, but the role is so contentious that success means you are less hated than your predecessor. During my time overseeing these investments I noticed we had several good opportunities which just were not related to Boeing’s core business, so we typically shut such projects down. Surprisingly they would still pop up the next year, having found funding from some sympathetic manager or the government. In contrast we had critical technologies that it seemed we needed to drag along and overwhelm with resources. So we decided to create Boeing Ventures.