I've spent the last couple of days attending the Andreessen Horowitz Academic Round Table. Andreessen Horowitz is a leading venture capital firm, founded by Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz. The goal of the meeting as it was described to me was to get a number of academics and entrepreneurs together, along with the VCs, and get to know each other in an non-pressured environment. Andreessen Horowitz seems very interested in promoting the technical CEO (as opposed to the "MBA CEO") as a viable option for startups, and seems interested in establishing long-term connections with universities. They're obviously very well connected at Stanford and Berkeley, but recognize that there is startup potential at other universities that is probably underutilized.
Most of the program was a series of short technical talks, mostly by academic types, including many academics with start-up experience. Some talks were also by people leading start-ups that Andreessen Horowitz has invested in. The talks were of a uniformly very high quality. It was like a super-interesting conference, perhaps made more interesting because of the breadth of computer science areas covered. The speaker list included Susan Athey, Ed Felten, Michael Franklin, Michael Kearns, Nick McKeown, Rob Miller, Andrew Ng, Tuomas Sandholm, and Stefan Savage, just to name some. On the company side, the speakers included Ben Milne of Dwolla, who explained a lot of the cruft that has been built up in the money system in terms of moving money around, and how he was getting rid of it. Vijay Balasubramaniyan of Pindrop Security described their fraud detection measures for phone-based fraud. Jonathan Downey of Airware discussed developing open architectures for the commercial drone market. (And more.)
Before I go on, the most entertaining talk bit: Rob Miller showed a demo of a crowdsourcing program for shortening your document -- to get you down to that 10-page limit when you're a 1/4 page over, and you're fed up hours before the conference deadline. (Looking online, I think this must be the Soylent project.) I hadn't seen it before. For me, as a CS professor, that's a great example of crowdsourcing.
Beyond the technical talks, there were some interesting discussions about the connections between research and entrepreneurship, about how we might teach our students so that they can be entrepreneurial both in technology and in business, about what VCs like Andreessen Horowitz are looking for in (faculty-based) startups, and about how many universities seem to get in the way rather than help their faculty (or graduate students, or even undergraduate students) start companies. (It seemed like the most controversial topic involved who had the worst, most unhelpful technology licensing office...) In many ways, these discussions felt more interesting than the talks, and I wish we had more time for them -- even though the talks were really good, this was stuff that was new to me, and where the people in the room were experts I wanted to hear from on these topics.
There was much too much fodder at this meeting for a single blog post, so I'll try to cover some of these themes a bit more in depth over the next few days. One thing that might come up in the future -- that I think would be great and recommend (to them and whoever might be able to attend) -- is that they might do another meeting like this but focus on inviting graduate students. After all, professors already have exciting jobs they enjoy and are attached to -- graduate students may be a bit more eager to take their ideas and take the leap to try build a company out of them.