Laura Smoliar PhD ’95 and Ted Hou PhD ’95, two Cal Chemistry PhDs, recently started Global Innovation Foundry, LLC to bridge technology, markets, and investments between the U.S. and Asia.
Q. What advice would you offer Berkeley students just beginning their careers in the startup world, either as founders or as early team members?
Laura: You cannot be an expert in everything. Seek out and find advisors who can help you navigate areas where you have no real-world experience. Entrepreneurs and startup attorneys as well as early stage investors who have operational experience can provide excellent guidance, especially if they have seen the full arc of companies from start to exit. They can also introduce you to important contacts as you build your own network and ecosystem for your startup.
Q. What have you carried from your Berkeley experience to your work in innovation/entrepreneurship?
Laura: The Berkeley experience taught me to be resourceful, prepared, and how to become expert in a field. It also taught me to be unafraid to blaze new trails. I spent my last year as a graduate student in Taiwan, at a time when it was highly unusual. The experience was life changing, and it influenced the rest of my career. My time in Taiwan was my first exposure to a highly entrepreneurial culture.
Q. Knowing what you know now, what would you have done differently at Cal, or what programs/activities/etc. would you have taken advantage of to prepare for your career in innovation?
Ted: I was very focused on my research program in the College of Chemistry. I sat in an accounting class offered by the business school – it turned out to be very useful for my career. I wish I had sat in on a financing class. I took my time doing the research program and spent a full six-year span. But, if I had to do it again, I’d try to do the same thing in four years.
Another thing I wish I had done better – staying in touch with people. There was a group of us that played soccer together frequently. After graduation, I did not keep up my contacts with them. I only heard about them 20 years later from the newspaper and on social media. Some of them are now very successful. Berkeley is a place producing successful people.
"The Berkeley experience taught me to be resourceful, prepared, and how to become expert in a field. It also taught me to be unafraid to blaze new trails."
Q. What do you value most about Berkeley?
Ted: We are all very proud of the great faculty, undergraduate, and graduate programs at Berkeley, but as I learned more along my career path, I started to appreciate the value of diversity and alumni resources Berkeley offers. I was in Shanghai in a summer evening in 2011 and found myself “randomly” running into five other Berkeley soccer pals, after not seeing each other for about 15 years. Among the group there were successful entrepreneurs and a CEO from a Fortune 300 company. We happily chatted away through the evening, and we concluded that it was actually pretty easy to network with Berkeley alumni in many cities around the world.
Q. What are you most proud of in your work with the startups you’ve led?
Laura: We blazed a new trail (UV lasers on a fiber-MOPA platform for semiconductor and microelectronics manufacturing) in spite of constantly being told by US investors that (1) it was impossible and (2) that no one would buy it. We were working on information directly from our market, which was almost entirely in Asia, from leading equipment manufacturers in Japan and end-users in Taiwan. Ultimately, the company was sold to a major public laser company, and the competition has scrambled to make “me-too” products. My experiences in Taiwan as a student enabled me to feel comfortable pursuing this unusual path. I had to trust my own instincts to stick with it.
"Ultimately, if what you are working on has utility or serves a need, and it truly works, then there is a home for it."
Q. Everyone says persistence in the face of rejection or skepticism is necessary for entrepreneurs. But at some point you might have to stop and pivot or shut something down entirely. How do you evaluate those situations?
Laura: Every entrepreneur has to find his or her own path. It may not be one you read about in the media. You may pivot many times as you find the path that is right for you, and there is nothing wrong with that. Ultimately, if what you are working on has utility or serves a need, and it truly works, then there is a home for it. It may not fit well in a startup, but the answer may be to sell it to a larger company. It may not fit well in the domestic market, but the answer may be to take it overseas. Just because something doesn’t fit into a US media-hyped stereotype, doesn’t mean it can’t be successful. (That goes for people, too.)
Q. When looking at startup job offers, how do you evaluate which path to take?
Ted: It’s great to get a job offer from a startup – by now I suppose you are familiar with the problem the company is trying to solve. One thing I would try hard to understand is if the company has the means to support its operation and growth. Does it generate income? Has it raised enough funding to sustain itself for a long time (2 years)? If not, what is the company doing to mitigate finance risk. Also, a startup company should be lean and mean. If 10 different departments interviewed you before the company sent you the offer, then you really need to understand the funding situation.
Q. Is it better to start your own company right out of school, or join an existing startup?
Ted: This varies from person to person. I spent a long time working in different companies to gain working experience and financial freedom before I started my own company. After I finished my education, I worked for two startup companies. One was very successful and one failed. In both cases, I learned a lot. I also worked for very big companies to learn how they operate, and this taught me how to scale small companies into big ones. Even with such experience, I still felt nervous when I started my own company – now I felt I was responsible for other people’s career and life. But if you think you are ready to run a company and can support yourself without an income for two years, give it a try.