A former GM at Harris Corp. — where he revolutionized commercial microprocessors — and an IBM engineer, the accomplished and always busy Bob Brill was also CEO of tech companies Algorex Corp. and Sipex Corp., all of which put his PhD in physics (Brown University) and undergraduate engineering degrees (Lehigh) to good use. Brill’s also a leading Long Island investor: The managing partner of Jericho investment firm Newlight Management and former general partner at VC fund PolyVentures has backed some of the Island’s hottest young tech firms, including Invision, eGifter and Globecomm Systems. His long career has convinced the Long Island Technology Hall of Fame inductee and multiple patent-holder that tech is LI’s best economic destiny – even if he doesn’t understand all of it. In his words:
LOVE THE VIEW: I’ve been CEO of multiple hi-tech companies and that certainly gives you insight. But venture investing over the years and investing in approximately 100 companies gives you quite a view of the innovation economy. I’d have to say my best view comes from investing in Long Island companies.
TREASURE ISLAND: I’ve been a member of the Long Island Angel Network and seen a lot of activity there. I’ve invested historically in many Long Island companies, some of which have been quite successful, such as FatWire, Globecomm and Invision. I’m currently invested in several Long Island companies, including eGifter and Thermolift.
ON PICKING WINNERS: One of the lessons we’ve learned is that sales and marketing and regulatory issues often dominate the technology. You can have a great technology, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a successful business. The investment world is littered with examples of that. So you have to look for an entrepreneurial team that’s been successful and is repeating it, and that’s happening more and more on Long Island.
HANDS ON: eGifter is a good example. Newlight was the largest investor in Invision, which was founded by the same management team that started eGifter, so when they started eGifter we were already talking and I gave them a lot of suggestions. I went on the eGifter board early and helped them raise rounds of money. It was a case where I already knew the team and had great respect for them.
KEEPING INTERESTS MOBILE: We’ve been investing in companies that are taking advantage of what’s happening in mobile communications. There have been many advances in semiconductors and other mobile IT. One of our investments, a company called AuthenTec, made the fingerprint ID system on every iPhone 6, and that company was actually bought by Apple (in 2012 for $356 million). We’re interested primarily in software that enables mobile and social communications – the kinds of things eGifter is doing.
YES, WE HAVE NO BIOTECH: I’m a technologist by training, but we only invest in things either [Managing Partner Robert Raucci] or myself understand, and we have no biotech expertise. It’s remarkable, the advances you’re seeing in biotech and health care – companies using clever algorithms to code genetic information, new predictions for health-care treatments, tremendous advances in pharmaceuticals. What’s happening is just phenomenal, but I don’t play in that space because I don’t understand it.
THAT BEING SAID: Long Island has some tremendous biotechnology happening. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory is one of the finest biotech institutions in the world. The Feinstein Institute and Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory all have tremendous biotech resources. Whether companies will be created on Long Island and stay on Long Island is another question, but there’s no doubt the technology is there.
THE GOOD NEWS: I’ve seen the Long Island technology landscape for many years. There’s certainly been a marked increase in entrepreneurial energy on Long Island, and you see it through things like Andrew Hazen’s LaunchPads and all the incubators, and through the things Yacov Shamash has done at Stony Brook. Peter Goldsmith has played a significant role in helping Long Island technology along, providing forums and other resources.
STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS: I have two fears for the Long Island innovation economy. The first is it’s very difficult to recruit people here, at least in the IT area. Ultimately, if you can’t get the people you don’t have a company. It’s always people that determine success. My other concern is this is just a difficult, expensive place to do business. It’s difficult in terms of taxes, cost of living, lack of housing, regulations … but it can be overcome. There are ways to solve it. The question is whether there’s political will, and I’m not the expert on that.
SILVER LINING: If they’re having trouble recruiting technology employees, that says there’s demand and there’s growth. It’s not good in the sense that if you can’t hire topnotch people you won’t succeed, but there certainly has been an upsurge in innovative technology on Long Island.
PROCEED WITH CAUTION: We see a lot of things going on here. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of companies trying to penetrate these areas. With most venture investments, the odds are they won’t be successful. So, as an investor, you have to be careful how you pick them.
Interview by Gregory Zeller