Where’s the Next Bill Gates?*

Bill Gates (lower left) is shown with the full Microsoft corporate staff in 1978

It’s interesting to note that one of the most influential technology companies of the 20th century—Microsoft—came about when two young Harvard undergrads in 1975 dropped out of school and promoted software they hadn’t even written yet(!). Bill Gates, with his boyhood friend Paul Allen, convinced Albuquerque’s Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems (MITS), a manufacturer of a home kit microcomputer, to partner with them and distribute a primary computer language they had just adapted to run on their product (Bill was modifying the software on the flight to Albuquerque, his “beta” version–sound familiar?).  Selling their first commercially developed software for $3,000 and royalties, they set up shop in Albuquerque as “Micro-soft” (for “microcomputer” and “software”), later dropping the hyphen and their partner.  As with many new startups, they struggled to grow, operating out of what was essentially a garage and quickly running into problems with overhead and other expenses.  While they received royalties for their software, pirated copies were readily available in the local computer community, creating problems between Bill Gates and many of the young computer enthusiasts in the region.  His 1976 “Open Letter to Hobbyists” arguing against copying software without payment, no doubt rankled many in this small community of software developers.

It is not clear what motivated Bill Gates to leave Albuquerque in January 1979 and head for his home state of Washington.  No doubt being near family and friends with additional resources for a struggling new company was part of the reason.  Evolution of technology and the exploration of new entrepreneurial and business models on the west coast must also have attracted him. Albuquerque can only wonder at what might have been had its vibrant entrepreneurial culture and Venture Capital /Angel funding, now readily available in that community today, been in place in the late 70’s.  For example, Albuquerque had only one VC company even in the early 90’s; today it has over twenty-eight.  Technology Venture Corporation (TVC), designed in 1993 to help commercialize Sandia National Laboratory’s technology, has spurred more than $1 billion in VC investments for over 100 technology-based businesses in the region.

Today, El Paso and many other border communities are exploring ways to develop and promote a stronger entrepreneurial and innovation culture in their regions.  As already described in previous posts the Hub of Human Innovation and UTEP’s Center for Research Entrepreneurship & Innovative Enterprise (CREIE), have worked closely with the Bi-National Sustainability Lab (BNSL) and a number of other organizations in our region pushing the entrepreneurial envelope and looking to stimulate vibrant economic growth by identifying and supporting new technology-based enterprises.  We are all working to identify, stimulate, and help grow new technology-based entrepreneurs and their companies in our region.  This is accomplished by providing a host of services to entrepreneurs; these services include but are not limited to: business incubation and acceleration, product/technology development, maturation and commercialization, business plan review  and market analysis services, business “mentoring”, and access to strategic partners and financing vehicles.   We all are in essence looking to support the next “Bill Gates.”

Happily, the Paso del Norte region has its share of budding entrepreneurs.  Our organizations are working with a number of client companies focusing on such diverse areas and industries as aeronautics, automotive, advanced services and manufacturing, MEMS devices, consumer electronics, and alternative energy services and products. These companies often work collaboratively on both sides of the border as creativity and innovation do not recognize the political boundaries of our region.

As with all analogies our high-growth entrepreneurs don’t duplicate the real Bill Gates in all details, but the overall similarities are very striking.  These “new Bill Gates” are:

  • Knowledgeable, with a high value-added technology product or service;
  • Creative, stepping “outside the box” to establish their companies;
  • Willing to take risks, putting their careers and fortunes, literally on the line;
  • Determined, going forward despite setbacks or challenges;
  • Passionate in fulfilling their dreams;

Where’s the next Bill Gates?  He (or she) may be in the garage or apartment just next door!–Paul Maxwell

*Parts of this article were originally included in material published by the author in October 2009


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