Monthly Archives: May 2017

The only thing he ever made fly was government money

On this day in 1906, the Wright Brothers were granted a patent for their “flying machine.” In honor of the anniversary, we reprint this – one of our most popular, most-read pieces.  

(Original publish date: April 17, 2013)

The process of productive capital allocation is a critical ingredient of innovation and job growth.   Entrepreneurs spending their own (and their partners’) money will create more jobs, more innovation, and a more vibrant economy than politicians picking winners and losers based on cronyism, campaign contributions, and constituent pork.

When government strays out from funding basic research into either applied research or the means of production, the results range from poor to scandalous.  Ideas are infinite, and in the absence of competent execution, they are worth nothing.  Even if the idea has merit, the true expertise is crowded out.  There are better ways policymakers can help encourage innovation.

The invention of the airplane provides an excellent example.  While we’re all aware it was the Wright Brothers, many interesting details about funding the innovation don’t make it into school textbooks.  In A Tale of ‘Government Investment’  Lee Habeeb & Mike Leven recount the race between the bicycle shop owner/operators and the government-backed head of the Smithsonian.

Who better to win the race [to powered flight] for us, thought our leaders, than the best and brightest minds the government could buy? They chose Samuel Langley. [The War Department gave Langley $50,000, an enormous sum at the time, which The Smithsonian augmented with taxpayer funds of its own.]  You don’t know him, but in his day, Langley was a big deal. He had a big brain and lots of credentials. A renowned scientist and a professor of astronomy, he wrote books about aviation and was the head of the Smithsonian.  It was the kind of decision that well-intentioned bureaucrats would make throughout the century — and still make today. Give taxpayer money to the smartest guys in the room, the ones with lots of degrees. They’ll innovate and do good for us.

For that Solyndra-type investment the country got the “Great Aerodrome,” which “fell like a ton of mortar’ into the Potomac River – twice.  Representative Gilbert Hitchcock of Nebraska remarked, “You tell Langley for me that the only thing he ever made fly was government money.”

Samuel Pierpont Langley’s Aerodrome  and launching apparatus.

Nine days after that second failed test flight, a “sturdy, well-designed craft, costing about $1000, struggled into the air in Kitty Hawk.”

How did two Ohio brothers accomplish what the combined efforts of the War Department, The Smithsonian, and other people’s money could not?  The authors cite James Tobin’s To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and The Great Race for Flight (2004) to provide a few answers:

  • Langley saw the problem as one of power:  how to go from zero to 60 in 70 feet, the stress of which was too great for the materials used.  The Wright Brothers, inspired by the practical skills and insights gained from tinkering in their bike shop, understood the problem was one of balance (on a bike, balance+practice = control).  They invented the three-axis control (pitch, yaw, roll) still standard on fixed-wing aircraft today.  Their entrepreneurial technical expertise was an advantage neither the government nor other private competitors (Alexander Graham Bell) could match.
  • Since they couldn’t afford repeated test flights the Wright Brothers were forced to develop a wind tunnel to test their aerodynamics.  This saved money and time, since they weren’t bogged down repairing the wrecks of a flawed design.
  • No government money also meant no government strings.  They were freer to experiment and innovate without worrying about non-essential requests and hidden agendas.  They also managed to do more with less since they couldn’t afford subsidy-induced waste.

Habeeb & Levin also offer this fascinating, if not unexpected, coda:

Though the Wrights beat Langley and the Smithsonian, the race didn’t end there. Powerful interests vied for the patent to this revolutionary invention and, more important, for the credit for it. With Smithsonian approval, a well-known aviation expert modified Langley’s Aerodrome and in 1914 made some short flights designed to bypass the Wright brothers’ patent application and to vindicate the Smithsonian and its fearless leader, Samuel Langley.

That’s right. The Smithsonian’s brain trust couldn’t beat the bicycle-shop owners fair and square, so they used their power to steal the credit. And then they used their bully pulpit to rewrite history. In 1914, America’s most esteemed historical museum cooked the books and displayed the Smithsonian-funded Langley Aerodrome in its museum as the first manned aircraft heavier than air and capable of flight.

Orville Wright, who outlived his brother Wilbur, accused the Smithsonian of falsifying the historical record. So upset was he that he sent the 1903 Kitty Hawk Flyer, the plane that made aviation history, to a science museum in . . . London.

But truth is a stubborn thing. And in 1942, after much embarrassment, the Smithsonian recanted its false claims about the Aerodrome. The British museum returned the Wright brothers’ historic Flyer to America, and the Smithsonian put it on display in their Arts and Industries Building on December 17, 1948, 45 years to the day after the aircraft’s only flights. A grand government deception was at last foiled by facts and fate.

As for Samuel Langley, he died in obscurity a broken and disappointed man. Friends often noted that he could have beaten the Wright brothers if only he’d had more time — and more government funding.

Some things never change.

The Wright brothers’ airplane business never took off (groan) due to a combination of poor business decisions and sloppy patent work.  Wilbur sadly died young (in 1912 at age 45, of illness that some suspect was contracted due to exhaustion from the patent battles) and Orville sold the company in 1915.  So the industry grew under the leadership of other companies and other men.  (Although the Curtiss-Wright Corporation remains in business today producing high-tech components for the aerospace industry.)   One can’t help but wonder what the original inventors might have done had they been the beneficiary of a strong partnership with a VC fund…

Iconixx Software Closes $4.2 Million Equity Financing

Posted May 2nd, 2017 by Business Wire

AUSTIN, Texas–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Iconixx software announces today it has closed $4.2M in new capital. This round of funding was led by existing investors Ballast Point Ventures, Harbert Growth Partners, S3 Ventures, and the Iconixx management team, resulting in $24 million in capital raised to date.

Iconixx, a global leader in enterprise class incentive compensation software, will use the funding to accelerate growth initiatives. The company has plans for product advancements and continued increase in market share by expanding its robust sales team.

“Our solid sales pipeline, proven customer success accomplishments, and product enhancements have propelled our rapid growth and award-winning customer support team. The hard work of our skilled team has driven our successes, and we expect to see these accelerated,” said Derrik Deyhimi, Chairman and CEO of Iconixx. “We are excited about our future growth and making the lives of each of our customers better.”

“We are proud of the accomplishments Iconixx software has achieved in product enrichments, customer acquisition and customer success. Our overwhelming confidence in the Iconixx compensation management solution leaves us excited for the continued partnership with the team,” says Matt Rice, Partner at Ballast Point Ventures.

About Iconixx

Iconixx software listens intently to every customer’s challenge – treating every interaction as an opportunity to understand the unique compensation needs of each customer. We carefully diagnose the problem and prescribe an automated path by configuring our software to remedy critical compensation issues. Your cure is our success! http://www.iconixx.com/

About S3 Ventures

S3 Ventures is an early, expansion and growth stage venture firm with $200 million under management. The firm is focused on information technology solutions that solve large business problems and in medical devices that improve the human condition. S3 invests across all stages of a company’s growth and partners with the team to help focus methodically on what it takes to build a successful company. www.s3vc.com

About Harbert Growth Partners Funds (the “HGP Funds”)

The Harbert Growth Partners Funds are emerging growth stage investors focused on rapidly growing technology and healthcare companies headquartered in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeastern United States. The HGP Funds are affiliates of Harbert Management Corporation (“HMC”), an alternative asset management company which manages approximately $4.4 billion in Regulatory Assets Under Management as of June 30, 2016, from offices in 11 locations across the United States and Europe. http://www.harbert.net/

About Ballast Point Ventures

Ballast Point Ventures is a later stage venture capital fund established to provide expansion capital for rapidly growing, privately owned companies in diverse industries, with a particular emphasis on companies located in the Southeast and Texas. The BPV partners have more than 70 years of combined experience investing in and building high-growth companies in a number of industries, including healthcare, business services, communications, technology, financial services and consumer. BPV has $360 million under management and seeks to make equity investments ranging in size from $4 million to $12 million. www.ballastpointventures.com.

Successful people invest in relationships

Good article in Entrepreneur about how true success is not possible unless you build great relationships.  The piece hits several themes that we believe are critical to a successful vc-entrepreneur marriage: maintaining long term relationships, communicating good news and bad, promoting honesty in business, how useful failures can prevent epic ones, and maximizing board effectiveness.

The chemistry between entrepreneur and venture partner in private companies is more cooperative, longer-term, and (mercifully) not subject to the quarterly reporting pressures of public companies.  Both will have real “skin in the game” and the same incentive to understand the nuances of the business and focus on long term value creation.

You will spend a great deal of time, effort, and money together with a new partner, so the chemistry ought to be productive and enjoyable. It should add conviviality in the good times and take the edge off the bad times.

Here are a few highlights from the article “How Successful People Build Exceptional Professional Relationships.”

They help without having to be asked.

People who build great relationships pay close attention so they can tell when others are struggling. Then they offer to help… but not in a general, “Is there something I can do to help you?” way. Instead they come up with specific ways they can help.

That way they can push past the reflexive, “No, I’m okay…” objections and then roll up their sleeves to make a difference in another person’s life.

And they do it not because they want to build a better relationship — although that is certainly the result — but simply because they care.

They take the undeserved hit.

She’s willing to accept the criticism or abuse because she knows she can handle it — and she knows that maybe, just maybe, the person who is really responsible cannot.

Few acts are more selfless than taking the undeserved hit. And few acts better cement a relationship.

They answer the question that was not asked.

Where relationships are concerned, face value is usually without value. Often people will ask a different question than the one they really want answered… Behind many simple questions is often a larger question that goes unasked. People who build great relationships listen carefully to discover what lies underneath so they can answer that question, too.

They step up when they have acted poorly.

Responsibility is a key building block of a great relationship. People who take the blame, who say they are sorry and explain why they are sorry, who don’t try to push any of the blame back on the other person… those are people everyone wants in their lives, because they instantly turn a mistake into a bump in the road rather than a permanent roadblock.

They know when to dial it back.

People who build great relationships know when to have fun and when to be serious, when to be over the top and when to be invisible, and when to take charge and when to follow.

Great relationships are multifaceted and therefore require multifaceted people willing to adapt to the situation — and to the people in that situation.

They value the message by always valuing the messenger.

Smart people strip away the framing that comes with the source — whether positive or negative — and consider the information, advice, or idea based solely on its merits.

People who build great relationships never automatically discount the message simply because they discount the messenger. They know good advice is good advice, regardless of where it comes from.

And they know good people are good people, regardless of their perceived “status.”

 

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