Category Archives: Venture Capital Industry

Ballast Point Ventures Announces Exit from MolecularMD

Tampa, FL – February 21, 2019

Ballast Point Ventures II, LP and Ballast Point Ventures I, LP (“BPV”) are pleased to announce that they have successfully exited their growth equity investments in MolecularMD, a molecular diagnostics company founded in West Palm Beach, FL. MolecularMD was acquired by ICON plc (NASDAQ: ILCR), a global provider of outsourced development services to the pharmaceutical, biotechnology and medical device industries.

Founded in 2006 by Dr. Brian Druker and Sheridan Snyder, MolecularMD developed a core competency in streamlining the development, regulatory approval, and clinical development deployment of precision oncology medicines for well-established, long-term biopharma clients. Drew Graham and Matt Rice, Partners with BPV, served on MolecularMD’s board of directors prior to the acquisition.

Dan Snyder, the Company’s CEO since 2014, remarked, “Our team has worked tirelessly to provide our clients with an exceptional, full-service diagnostics offering aimed at accelerating the approval of cancer drugs and therapies. Ballast Point Ventures has been a great partner and tremendous resource for us in driving growth in our business. We have relished the leadership, guidance, and expertise that Drew and Matt have provided, and we appreciate the support that the entire BPV team has provided MolecularMD throughout our multi-year partnership.” He continued, “ICON plc has a very complementary strategy to our focus at MolecularMD, and we are excited to become part of the ICON team.”

Drew Graham, a Partner with BPV who served as Chairman of MolecularMD, said, “We are proud of our partnership with MolecularMD and the Company’s growth from a small business in West Palm Beach to a highly regarded player in the molecular diagnostics industry with a blue chip client base around the world.  Dan Snyder and his talented team built a great company, and I have no doubt they will help ICON achieve even greater success.”

Please see here for full press release.

About Ballast Point Ventures

Ballast Point Ventures, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, is a later-stage venture capital and growth equity fund founded in 2002 to provide expansion capital for rapidly growing, privately owned companies, with a particular emphasis on companies located in Florida, the Southeast and Texas. The BPV partners have more than 80 years of combined experience investing in and building high-growth companies in several industries, including healthcare, software, technology-enabled business services and consumer. BPV has $360 million under management across three funds and seeks to make initial equity investments ranging in size from $4 million to $10 million. For more information, visit www.ballastpointventures.com.

Amped up: PowerChord delivers hit after hit for clients

Source:  Business Observer FL

By:  Brian Hartz

With its unique origin story and approach to e-commerce, the St. Petersburg tech company strikes a chord with multi-location brands and franchises. Can it manage rapid growth while maintaining its culture?__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

PowerChord Inc., a St. Petersburg digital marketing company, comes by its cool name honestly. Prior to having a go at entrepreneurship in 2001, founder Pat Schunk played guitar for classic rock icon Stevie Nicks and wrote music for Seven Witches, a New Jersey heavy metal band. He also contributed to the soundtrack of the 1991 “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie.

The firm’s coolness added a level of competence in 2015 with CEO Lanny Tucker, who came to PowerChord from Celebration-based Channel Intelligence, acquired in 2013 by Google. Tucker, 69, broke into the tech sector with Hewlett Packard and in 2005 moved to Florida from California.

PowerChord’s genesis, Tucker says, stems from Schunk’s frustration with buying music equipment online in the early days of e-commerce. “The websites were disjointed and the product descriptions weren’t there. He said, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

There was, and by finding it, PowerChord, with some recent success, has bumped into a noted business challenge: Managing rapid growth without diluting the service that led to the growth in the first place.

“Great ideas don’t always come from your top dozen executives. They come from people who are out there facing the customer, who understand the customer and deal with them every day.” Lanny Tucker, CEO of PowerChord Inc.

 

Schunk, in launching the firm, saw an opportunity to create dynamic, geo-targeted “digital storefronts” for multi-location brands and franchises. Think products such as Kohler bathroom fixtures and Stihl power tools primarily sold via dealership networks. Using location-based data and advanced search engine optimization tools, the PowerChord platform converts online browsers into in-store shoppers.

Take Stihl, which has 10,000 dealers nationwide, Tucker says, “many of whom are independent businesspeople.”

PowerChord provides a digital storefront for each Stihl dealer, and, says Tucker, the company has the unique ability to control storefronts on a customized basis.

“So imagine if you’ve got a hurricane blowing through Miami, you want to be talking about chainsaws, for example, or brush-clearing equipment,” Tucker says “But let’s say that same weekend you’ve got a snowstorm in Boston and New England, so you want to talk about snow removal. We have the ability to change all of that dynamically.”

PowerChord’s solutions have been the equivalent of a Top 40 hit — in Stevie Nicks parlance, a “Landslide.” Its platform powers about 15,000 digital storefronts in more than 30 countries, and it has also worked with household names including Spotify, Hulu, PayPal and Facebook. Its revenue has doubled during the past three years, reaching $25 million in 2018, and Tucker expects revenue growth to accelerate even more in the coming years.

Rapid growth can sometimes be too much of a good thing, though, because it presents staffing challenges. Tucker says PowerChord has about 70 employees, with a significant chunk hired in the past year as the company strives to keep up with rising sales. “We’re interviewing every day,” he says, “for a broad selection” of positions.

Tucker says hiring employees who want to stay and grow with the company is a priority. That’s one reason why PowerChord has been diligent about implementing a unique organizational culture that involves staff from all departments in high-level decisions.

“I want to hire people who are smarter than me,” Tucker says. “What I’ve found is that great ideas, whether related to products or strategy or anything else, don’t always come from your top dozen executives. They come from people who are out there facing the customer, who understand the customer and deal with them

Proving the theory, Tucker involved some 30 employees outside PowerChord’s C-suite in the firm’s 2019 strategic planning sessions. That means hundreds of ideas can be brought forward. Then, through a distillation process, the sessions will produce a few key companywide strategic initiatives, as well as department-level goals ripe for execution.

Tucker, in the process, balances pushing staff with realistic expectations. “We’ve got to challenge employees, but we’ve also got to guide them,” he says. “As employees grow and mature, and as the company grows, you can start taking on more things and still not have plates hit the floor.”

Employee empowerment is also a major part of PowerChord’s culture. Company policy allows for a generous amount of paid time off, for one, and managers are instructed to be tolerant of mistakes. “You have to be able to accept good news and bad news equally quick,” he says. “I’m a huge believer in that because if you’re not out there trying, you can say, ‘Well, I’ve never had a failure.’ But if you say that, you’ve never pushed yourself and you’ve never really tried.”

(This story has been updated to clarify that PowerChord does not offer unlimited paid time off to employees.) 

Ballast Point Ventures Announces Majority Recapitalization of YPrime

Tampa, FL – February 7, 2019

Ballast Point Ventures II, LP (“BPV”) is pleased to announce that Flexpoint Ford has led a majority recapitalization of BPV portfolio company YPrime, a global leader in cloud-based eClinical solutions. Ballast Point Ventures II has retained a substantial minority stake in the Company, and BPV Partner Matt Rice will continue to serve on the Board.  BPV II originally invested in YPrime in 2013 to help the Company grow its sales and marketing teams and further enhance its technology platform with additional product offerings.  BPV’s investment facilitated the Company becoming a premier provider of electronic Clinical Outcomes Assessments (eCOA), a large and rapidly growing segment within the eClinical landscape.

“When we decided to raise our first round of outside growth capital in 2013, we knew the Ballast Point Ventures team was aligned with our vision for YPrime and would be a great partner as we scaled the business,” said Shawn Blackburn, co-founder and CEO of YPrime.  “We are grateful for the leadership and guidance that Matt and the team at BPV have provided over the years, and we are excited to continue our partnership with BPV as YPrime expands.  The new investment from Flexpoint Ford will allow us to accelerate our growth of technology solutions across global clinical trial operations and will provide us with additional strategic resources and capabilities to support our continued rapid growth.”

Matt Rice, Partner at BPV, remarked, “At YPrime, we saw the opportunity to partner with a tenacious and innovative management team operating in a large, rapidly growing industry undergoing fundamental change.  Shawn and the YPrime team made the right investments in both people and technology and have positioned the Company as a leader in the eCOA market.  We are proud to support YPrime in this next chapter, and we look forward to the Company’s continued success during our partnership with Flexpoint Ford.”

About YPrime

Founded in 2006 by Shawn Blackburn and Jaime Cook, YPrime provides innovative software solutions and consulting services to pharmaceutical, biotechnology and life sciences sponsors, clinical research organizations, research sites and patient users to enable efficient and collaborative clinical trial data collection and information management. Data services tools eliminate data silos and help sponsors bring together fragmented clinical research data into contextual and actionable information. For more information, please visit www.yprime.com.

About Ballast Point Ventures

Ballast Point Ventures, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, is a later-stage venture capital and growth equity fund founded in 2002 to provide expansion capital for rapidly growing, privately owned companies, with a particular emphasis on companies located in Florida, the Southeast and Texas. The BPV partners have more than 80 years of combined experience investing in and building high-growth companies in several industries, including healthcare, software, technology-enabled business services and consumer. BPV has $360 million under management across three funds and seeks to make initial equity investments ranging in size from $4 million to $10 million. For more information, please visit www.ballastpointventures.com.

About Flexpoint Ford

Flexpoint Ford is a private equity investment firm that has raised more than $2.3 billion in capital and specializes in privately negotiated investments in the healthcare and financial services industries.  Since the firm’s formation in 2005, Flexpoint Ford has completed investments in more than 30 companies across a broad range of investment sizes, structures and asset classes.  Flexpoint Ford is headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. For more information about Flexpoint Ford, please visit www.flexpointford.com.

Jeff Vinik’s deep dive on stocks, startups and ‘Florida man’

Source:  St. Pete Catalyst

By:  Margie Manning

Drew Graham (left), managing partner, Ballast Point Ventures, interviewed Jeff Vinik at the Florida Venture Capital Conference. (Photo credit: Stuart Rudolph, ScaleUp Executives)
____________________________________________________________________________________________

Jeff Vinik opened up about getting back into money management, his investment philosophy and the infamous “Florida man” during a candid interview at the Florida Venture Forum’s Venture Capital Conference.

It was the first public interview Vinik has done since announcing earlier this month he would relaunch Vinik Asset Management, a fund he ran between 1996 and 2013.

Vinik, who owns the Tampa Bay Lightning and is partnering with Cascade Investment on the $3 billion Water Street Tampa development, became a well-known name in the investment community when he managed the Fidelity Magellan Fund in the mid-1990s. Vinik — who described himself as “relentless”—  said he still spends five or six hours a day reading Wall Street reports.

“I love it so much I can’t stop doing it,” Vinik told Drew Graham, managing partner of Ballast Point Ventures, during the interview. “I don’t put many trades in, but I follow companies. Today is the busiest day of earnings season. There will be 300 companies that will report earnings today and from my analysts I’ll get Wall Street research on every one of them. I’ll spend 10 seconds on some,  two minutes on others, looking for ideas.

“I’ve been doing that for the last two years and I thought, as long as I was doing all this work I might as well get paid for it.”

The market has shifted from active money management to passive management and computerized trading strategies. Vinik said he sees opportunity in active management.

“The story that I’m telling is that active has underperformed for so long and competition has decreased, that we are now finally at the time for active to outperform passive and I’m going to be taking advantage of that. I don’t really believe that,” he said. “I actually think passive will still outperform. I think the human emotions of greed and fear are every bit as strong as they were 20 or 30 years ago. I see hedge fund managers making the same mistakes, buying high and selling low … but reading so many hours a day like I do and having people feed me information, like a point guard in basketball, and being such a generalist, I think I can make it work for me, but I’ve got to prove it.”

He described his investment philosophy for public companies as simple — buy good companies with good earnings and good management. He’s industry agnostic  but singled out Software-as-a-Service as a hot sector right now.

Vinik also has been active in private company investing, including putting money into local startups such as digital health firm Peerfit and educational technology company Knack. He’s also backing Embarc Collective, a downtown Tampa hub that will bring together entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and other funders, and academic resources in one space.

“We want to make it as easy as possible for entrepreneurs to get to the next level. Many won’t but some will,” Vinik said.

Vinik – who has called on everyone in the area to be an evangelist for Tampa Bay — said he was speaking to a group of high school students a few years ago and was surprised by how many of them said they wanted to leave Tampa after graduation.

“That was like a light bulb going on. How do we keep talent here and attract talent, which I believe we can. It’s education, it’s getting this entrepreneurial movement. It will build on itself as we go along. It’s still early, but we do have momentum.”

Florida traditionally has been better known for tourism and for “Florida man,” a Twitter handle and a euphemism for weird news that comes out of the state.

“There’s an Arkansas man. There’s a Texas man. But it’s the Florida man that’s getting published every day … We’ve got to do a better job of getting the word out,” Vinik said. “I moved from Boston and it’s fantastic here … People don’t know what they’re missing.”

He predicted growth in Florida’s business community and the venture industry would outpace tourism over the next 20 years.

He touched on a couple of other topics in response to audience questions.

Sports. “If sports were a stock, it wouldn’t be the first stock I would buy.” That’s because young people spend less time playing and watching sports than they used to, as the internet has captured more of their interest. He has an investment in an e-sports company, Team Liquid, and said he’s bullish on that investment.

Attracting entrepreneurs to the area. It’s key to build critical mass, Vinik said, so that someone moving here from out of town knows there’s a fallback to go to if their venture fails. “The type of people we attract are early adopters,” Vinik said. “Tampa Bay is not Miami, which has blossomed and exploded. I’d like to think we have that ahead of us. People who are the early adopters come in and want to be part of that movement, as do I.”

Ballast Point Ventures Leads Series A Investment in SkuVault

November 21, 2018 – Ballast Point Ventures is pleased to announce a growth equity investment in SkuVault, based in Louisville, Kentucky. BPV led the $8 million Series A investment with participation from Poplar Ventures and Endeavor Catalyst. SkuVault will use the investment to amplify marketing efforts, add to the sales force, and further enhance its software product offering.

SkuVault provides a cloud-based inventory and warehouse management software platform designed primarily for businesses looking to scale with a competitive eCommerce and omni-channel distribution solution. The platform enables warehouse employees to fulfill customer orders more efficiently and allows purchasing managers to actively track inventory levels across disparate geographic footprints. Customers are able to scan products in and out of warehouses and retail stores via a simple barcoding system and sync real-time inventory data across multiple online marketplaces such as Amazon, Ebay and Jet.

“Billions of dollars are lost each year in the retail industry due to inefficient warehouse operations and substandard inventory processes. SkuVault’s real-time insight into inventory levels prevents overselling and out of stocks, and its barcoding and quality control features reduce picking and shipping errors, thereby increasing operational efficiency,” said SkuVault Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Andy Eastes. “SkuVault is excited to partner with Ballast Point Ventures and the Series A co-investors and for the possibilities this minority investment will provide. We are looking forward to expanding our profile within eCommerce and continuing to support our long-standing customers with world-class technology tools and customer service.”

“SkuVault’s success to this point without any outside funding is a testament to the vision and technology platform developed by a great team over the last several years”, said Ballast Point Ventures’ Sean Barkman, who will join the SkuVault Board of Directors. “We are very excited to partner with Andy and the SkuVault team and look forward to working with the Company to build a leading cloud-based inventory and warehouse management software platform.”

About SkuVault                                                                                                                                              SkuVault, headquartered in Louisville, Kentucky, provides a cloud-based inventory and warehouse management software platform designed primarily for businesses looking to scale with a competitive eCommerce and omni-channel distribution solution. Delivered via a Software-as-a-Service model, SkuVault’s product is directly integrated with channel management systems, eCommerce store platforms, shipping software, and many other operational technology platforms, creating a more seamless experience for its customers and allowing for more streamlined product fulfillment. SkuVault makes it easy for clients to connect their warehouses to the world while increasing fulfillment speed, accuracy, and profit. For additional information, visit www.skuvault.com.

About Ballast Point Ventures                                                                                                                              Ballast Point Ventures, headquartered in Tampa, Florida, is a later-stage venture capital and growth equity fund founded in 2002 to provide expansion capital for rapidly growing, privately owned companies, with a particular emphasis on companies located in Florida, the Southeast and Texas. The BPV partners have more than 80 years of combined experience investing in and building high-growth companies in several industries, including software, technology-enabled business services, healthcare, and consumer. Ballast Point Ventures has $360 million under management across three Funds and seeks to make initial equity investments ranging in size from $4 million to $10 million. For additional information, visit www.ballastpointventures.com.

AVOXI Raises $10 Million from Ballast Point Ventures

Source:  AtlantaInno                                                                                                                                              By: Madison Hogan

AVOXI, an Atlanta-based communications provider to global contact centers has raised $10 million from Tampa, Fla. VC firm Ballast Point Ventures.

David Wise, AVOXI founder and CEO, said the investment will be used to accelerate product development, sales and marketing at the company.

“We plan in a very large global marketplace to use the money kind of across the board to continue to accelerate the growth of the company,” he said. “There’s a huge, huge market for us. We’re not limited in terms of geography or even in industry.”

AVOXI will also grow its Atlanta team of 80 employees significantly, Wise said. The company will look to add employees to its marketing and software engineering team.

“We’re looking at the business and trying to evaluate what is the maximum levers we need to work to kind of optimize the opportunity,” he said.

The company provides toll free virtual numbers to more than 2,400 corporate contact centers around the world.

David Wise, CEO and Founder of AVOXI.
Image Credit: AVOXI

“We help customers connect to their clients globally,” Wise said. “So we sell global virtual phone numbers. Clients selling goods or services located in Atlanta, Georgia—they want to reach customers in Singapore, we can give them local phone numbers in those markets and those phone numbers can ring over the top of any premise-based communication system.”

AVOXI also offers a cloud-based contact center technology that allows clients to deliver calls on their platform and measure the productivity of agents making the phones calls, Wise said. Clients can then look for ways to improve their sales closing ratio and how to better serve their customers.

Wise said Ballast Point was a perfect fit for AVOXI as an investor, because the team understands the market.

“They understand and appreciate the reputation that we bring to the table and what it takes,” he said. “And for them, they’re really smart, savvy guys that have the ability to do more if we need it and they also have the right connections in the Southeast for us to use as we continue to scale and grow the business.”

“We are excited to partner with David and his team to drive continued contact center market leadership and technology innovation,” Paul Johan, partner at Ballast Point Ventures, who will join AVOXI’s board of directors, said in a statement. “BPV has a strong history of supporting high-growth cloud software and communications companies throughout the Southeast, and we believe AVOXI has done an impressive job building a global communications business to serve the ever-evolving needs of its customers.”

Venture capital gains ground around Tampa Bay

Source:  Tampa Bay Business Journal 

By:  Margie Manning

In the nearly one year since Ballast Point Ventures in Tampa invested $4 million in venture capital in Symphonic Distribution Inc., the digital music distribution company in Tampa has been able to make moves needed to scale the business.

Symphonic hired key employees with management experience that allows Jorge Brea, founder and CEO, to focus on growth, while also gaining a partner that provides business guidance.

Full Article:   Tampa Bay Business Journal 

 

Growing Capital In the Corridor

Source:  Florida High Tech Magazine

Home to more than 383,000 millionaire households and 34 people on Forbes’ list of the 400 richest people in America, Florida has ample funding available. While success stories from across The Corridor exhibit how startups like Orlando’s Fattmerchant, Tampa’s Morphogenesis and Gainesville’s Captozyme have tapped into such wealth, the reality is most entrepreneurs struggle in an increasingly competitive environment.

Fundraising has accelerated rapidly in recent years. While funds grow in dollar amounts, the number of funds has remained relatively the same. This dynamic causes investors to write fewer, larger checks, making it more difficult for smaller companies seeking less capital to benefit unless they boast a disruptive or scalable idea. Indeed, MoneyTree’s Q1 report this year ranked Florida among the top five states for largest deals by dollar amount, with $511 million in financing distributed amongst just 20 contracts.

“On one hand, The Corridor region is a much more credible geographic area to invest in than it was 15 years ago and investors from all over the country now consider investing here,” said Randy Scott, partner at Gainesville’s HealthQuest Capital and advisory board member for the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research. “On the other hand, the businesses starting here tend to be the ones raising smaller amounts of capital, which will make it tougher to raise capital in this era of bigger deals.”

Randy has been an executive, board member, entrepreneur and investor in health care and medical technology companies for more than 30 years. He recommends smaller companies in The Corridor seek funding from “less traditional sources like angel groups or family offices,” which offer assets from wealthy individuals or families with longer investment horizons.

Tampa’s Ballast Point Ventures, the most active venture investor in Florida over the past 10 years, is not an angel group or family office, yet it does assist companies in earlier stages generating around $3 million in revenue. According to Principal Sean Barkman, who works largely with software-as-a-service companies, this segment of the entrepreneurial ecosystem is underserved by larger funds.

“We are pleased that five of our first 10 investments in Ballast Point Ventures III (a $164-million fund raised in early 2015) are based in Florida and three of those companies are based in Central Florida,” said Sean.

Similarly, IDEA Fund Partners is one of the most active seed and early-stage venture investors throughout the Southeast with stakes in three Florida companies, including one in The Corridor. With offices in North Carolina and Orlando, its managers review over 1,000 business plans a year, but typically make only one investment a month. This scenario is not uncommon among firms, said Founding Partner Richard Fox.

All three investors would agree success stems from investing not only in funds, but also in entrepreneurs. For Florida and The Corridor to advance the entrepreneurial ecosystem, assisting early-stage companies in the competitive environment is key. As Randy explained, venture capital money “chases talent more than technology.”

“We need to turn Florida into a destination for high potential and already successful entrepreneurs to move to.  Then, everything will take care of itself in time.”

Several groups across the region, such as NEXUS and Seed Tampa Bay, are aware of the challenges facing early-stage companies and are working to help company founders more easily access funds. Before entrepreneurs utter one word of their business pitch, however, much preparation is required. Investors are more likely to work with founders who possess strong business acumen, leadership capability, industry awareness and a realistic company valuation. They must also be adaptable.

“In all the companies we invested in that were successful, every one of them had to pivot because of outside influences, surprise competitors and deeper opportunities in adjacent areas,” explained Richard. “It’s not all about the brilliant idea; it’s whether the company has thought through every scenario.”

It’s not unusual, added Sean, for investment firms and entrepreneurs to build relationships long before any capital is raised.

“The most rewarding part of our job is developing relationships with entrepreneurs and working alongside them to help grow their businesses,” he said. “The entrepreneurial spirit is truly unique, and we are thrilled to be part of the growing ecosystem here.”

In the world of venture capital, progress begets progress. As early investments in some of The Corridor’s leading technology entrepreneurs are coming to fruition, the region faces immense potential. Crucial to growth is reinvestment by successful entrepreneurs. We need them to serve as angel investors and advisors for the next wave of pioneers. This cycle proves efficacy, enticing even more investors and entrepreneurs to The Corridor, where a favorable business tax climate, modern infrastructure, talented workforce and lifestyle amenities provide refuge from the rising costs and bloated markets of other high tech hubs.

 

Dick Brandewie, co-founder of Ballast Point Ventures in Tampa, remembered for ‘intellectual curiosity’ and love of people

Source:  Tampa Bay Business Journal

By:  Ashley Gurbal Kritzer

Dick Brandewie hadn’t been active at Ballast Point Ventures since 2012, but his colleagues at the Tampa private equity firm still invoke his one-liners on a regular basis.

Brandewie, who co-founded the firm in 2001, died July 14 at the age of 63 after a long illness, according to an obituary published Friday.

Full Article:  Tampa Bay Business Journal

 

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…

© 2019 Ballast Point Ventures. All rights reserved.