Angel Orrantia’s had what they call a peripatetic career. Armed with an electrical engineering degree from Stanford and a law degree from Notre Dame, he’s been an engineer at Intel, intellectual property lawyer at Fenwick & West and global product manager for Applied Materials. Now he heads business development at SKTA Innopartners, a Sunnyvale-based accelerator and seed fund for hardware startups. It’s backed by South Korea’s SK Telecom, one of Asia’s biggest mobile carriers.
Q: HOW’D YOU GET INTO THIS RACKET?
A: Luck — where luck is defined as the intersection of preparation and opportunity.
I have a diverse background in terms of both education and experience. It just so happens that this position requires me to wear multiple hats all day, every day. It’s really quite invigorating!
Q: WHAT DO YOU LIKE ABOUT VC?
A: I’m not quite sure I would categorize myself as a VC. Given that this investment model is so new and that I’m not as motivated by or measured by financial returns, but rather by the number of startups that successfully exit the Innovation Center, I believe it’s more appropriate to consider our organization a startup, one whose products are innovative startups. The ultimate mission of this organization is to reinvigorate the funding ecosystem for core technologies.
I love that I will have highly technical discussions for products that will not be seen for a decade in one meeting, then I transition to the next meeting and we’re discussing tactics on how to bring a product to market now. Distilling that down, the thing that’s the most fun for me is the diversity of people I get to interact with, the technologies I get exposed to and the functions I can serve within our organization.
Q: WHAT KINDS OF PITCHES ARE YOU LOOKING FOR NOW?
A: Simply stated, we are looking for core technologies in semiconductors, data centers, telecom and healthcare diagnostic devices. We don’t do apps, and we’re required to wear shoes to the office.
Q: WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISTAKE ENTREPRENEURS MAKE?
A: One issue within our areas of interest that repeats within startups is the grip exerted by the founders. It’s crucial that entrepreneurs understand where they bring value to the company, what the company needs and how to source the talent to fill unmet needs.
For example, it’s expected that founders would be highly technical. Maybe even the world’s foremost expert on a particular subject. However, that means nothing if there isn’t another team member that has a world-class understanding of the market segment, business model and go-to-market strategy for the product they develop.
Q: WHAT’S THE NEXT BIG THING GOING TO BE?
A: In the near future, I expect to see the continued migration of higher computing power in a smart phone transform the device to a full-blown computer.
When you get to work, you’ll dock your device to use your keyboard and monitor. When you get home, you’ll dock your computer to your TV and stream content. On holidays, you’ll have video conferences with your family in high resolution.
All this means that the amount of data and processing required in the cloud is at its infancy and will grow explosively as new enabling technologies come online.
Q: YOU’VE TALKED ABOUT “PUTTING THE SILICON BACK INTO SILICON VALLEY.” WHY AREN’T MORE VENTURE CAPITALISTS INVESTING IN SEMICONDUCTORS?
A: Quite simply, because the VC model for semiconductors is broken. VCs make their money on exits. The IPO market for semiconductors has been non-existent for about a decade. The consolidation in the semiconductor industry has led to only a handful of large companies that are capable of acquiring startups.
If IPOs and M&A are not occurring at a reasonable pace, VCs can’t invest in that domain. This is where we have a sweet spot in the funding ecosystem.
We’re looking for semiconductor and core technology startups so we can accelerate their development by matching them with industry leaders and providing them with up to $1 million in working capital, professional services and space. That’s almost completely the opposite model of most other VCs and incubators, who are currently only looking at software startups.
Q: YOUR FIRM’S A SUBSIDIARY OF A KOREAN MOBILE-PHONE HEAVYWEIGHT. WHAT MOBILE TECHNOLOGY TRENDS DO YOU SEE IN ASIA — AND WHAT WILL THEY MEAN FOR THE VALLEY?
A: Korea has already rolled out LTE everywhere. Similarly, more and more services are being offered by the carriers. We’re seeing a rise in personal health care devices (e.g. heart monitors, sleep disorder detection) that automatically send data to the patient’s doctor via a smart-phone connection. I suspect that in Asia, and elsewhere, this trend will continue, if not accelerate.
Additionally, video is going to play an increasing role in the growth of the computing and storage required in the cloud. Netflix and YouTube already account for 50% of Internet traffic. As mobile devices offload both their data and computations to the cloud, the infrastructure to support this transition will need to constantly be refreshed.
On one hand, if we’re able to put silicon back into Silicon Valley, then these changes will lead to a resurgence in semiconductors from both investors and entrepreneurs. On the other hand, if domestic investors and entrepreneurs fail to act, those opportunities will be seized overseas. In a very real sense, we Americans control our own destiny — and the destiny of the Silicon Valley.