Pittsburgh's 'Godfather' Of Tech Startups On Working With The Region's Great Minds
Bill Newlin has had a hand in so many successful technology companies in Pittsburgh, that some people call him the "godfather" of tech startups. It’s a title he doesn't boast about himself, but his record of investing and supporting early-stage companies speaks loudly.
90.5 WESA’s Mark Nootbaar spoke with him about how he got into the venture capital game and why he has been so successful.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
MARK NOOTBAAR: There is not a venture capitalist major in college, so how did you get started?
BILL NEWLIN: I graduated from Princeton as a philosophy major, which turns into something else when you consider I’m a technology person, and I wanted originally to be a lawyer. So I went to law school at Pitt and that grew into managing partner at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. But while I was conducting my corporate finance, I got very interested in two different things—I got involved in large public companies where I served on the board, but I also got involved in the technology community. So along with some other people very early on, just a few of us, founded the Pittsburgh Technology Council. Saying not that it was a total solution, but it was one of the solutions to the crumbling steel company network around here. And then as that grew we felt there was a need to create a venture capital market. There was no homegrown venture capital at that point. We formed two small venture capital funds for the area and that began to recognize the Pittsburgh as a place where you wanted to invest money and maybe the technology companies had an opportunity.
NOOTBAAR: Why you?
NEWLIN: Well, we had the desire and the interest to help western Pennsylvania economically, but we were also fascinated by the great minds and the type of people who do turn out to be exciting entrepreneurs.
NOOTBAAR: Do you remember who you invested in first?
NEWLIN: It was a wide variety of companies. The challenge at that time was that you didn’t have second-time entrepreneurs, and the universities were not as accepting and used to licensing their technology out. It’s sort of [making investments] and learning from them over time and working with people who know more than you do.
NOOTBAAR: You don’t just put a few dollars in and walk away. How do you work with these companies?
NEWLIN: Our strategy is that we find either the person or the technology in the university that is dramatic, and work with them until they get a licenses for the technology. And then I, with others, work along with these companies through all the stages of trying to make them commercially successful.
NOOTBAAR: I’m told that you don’t just work with the companies in which you have invested?
NEWLIN: I work with other people because it is a community effort. I think they need to continue with the message for younger people to be willing to take the risk with their life, in Pittsburgh, and become and entrepreneur and be willing to fail. And I think we need to encourage more early-stage risk capital.
NOOTBAAR: What’s next for you?
NEWLIN: More exciting companies. I still see, on a selective basis, new university technology that can be commercialized and I have no intention of stopping that.
NOOTBAAR: Some call you the "godfather" of technology start ups in Pittsburgh. Are you comfortable with that term?
NEWLIN: Well I’m not sure I would label myself that way. I would have to leave that to others.