I’m in a Silicon Valley café with a stack of interview notes when I tune in to the conversation at the next table. ”We just got funded or, well, we had a million, but we got a few more ” The day before, I overheard two men and a woman review résumés for a start-up developing Web-based software for a pen computer. I almost expect the barista to throw in a second round of funding with my latte.
It’s a far cry from the sackcloth-and-ashes ambience of just four years ago, when out-of-work engineers camped out in coffee shops because they no longer had real offices. The energy, the ideas, and the money have all come back to Silicon Valley, and the only problem for a tech reporter is to find a representative sample. I chose five new-generation entrepreneurs—with electrical engineering or computer science degrees, or both—from four nascent companies.
You probably haven’t heard of any of them, in part because their start-ups are just coming out of ”stealth” mode, a time before product release when the company says little. All five technologists began putting their ideas together after the dot-bomb, and they recently got funding from venture capitalists.
But they traveled different paths to Silicon Valley, with different ideas, different technology, and different markets. Each firm had to be special, because venture capitalists no longer fund cookie-cutter businesses planning to make money in some undefined way off the Internet.
Aleks Göllü , cofounder of Pinc Solutions, started his journey in Istanbul. He arrived in the United States in 1983 and earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He moved to California in 1987 to work on his master’s degree and eventually his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley, specializing in modeling of large-scale systems, particularly automated highways. Along the way, he worked at Oracle Corp. and Teknekron Communication Systems which, among other things, builds network management systems for telecommunications carriers. And from 1995 to 1997, he served on Berkeley’s research faculty.
By then, he says, he had figured out that he wanted to work at a start-up. Oracle, with 2000 employees when he left in 2000, felt too big. Teknekron, at 160 employees, had been a better size.
”I belong at a company where innovation is at its inception,” Göllü says.
In 1998, Göllü and two partners started a company, OtelNet, to develop a way of enabling telecommunications companies to offer their customers one-number service, that is, one phone number would reach their home, business, or cellphones, depending on the customer’s availability. The company ended up developing text-messaging applications that connected cellphones to the Internet. OtelNet raised US $3 million in its first round of financing and more than $10 million in its second round.
Göllü says that running an infrastructure company in the dot-com era was like riding out a storm. During the boom, he found it hard to hire people. Then, after the bust, the dream of a billion-dollar initial public stock offering blew away. Telecommunications Systems bought the company. Göllü stayed on for about a year and a half, then started Pinc in 2004 with a small investment from the Siemens Technology to Business Center, in Berkeley, Calif.
Pinc’s mission is to move the automated tracking of products beyond warehouse walls and into large distribution yards. Doing so involves mastering a higher degree of complexity than can be managed with today’s radio-frequency identification systems, the tags that identify everything from socks at Wal-Mart to lost pets. The reason: in big distribution yards, huge warehouses serve a variety of retailers, and hundreds of trucks come and go daily, dropping off shipments that are then sorted and shipped out to stores. Even today, such facilities still depend on a guy with a clipboard who walks around the parking lot, tracking goods.
Here’s how Pinc does the job: A distribution yard employee puts an RFID tag on each trailer when it enters the yard. Inside the yard, the trucks that hitch up to the trailers and tow them around are equipped with a tracking unit containing an RFID reader, a GPS device, and other off-the-shelf hardware that senses when a truck moves and in which direction. As the trucks go about their business, the tracking unit determines which tags are within range and transmits that information via 802.11g to a nearby Internet access point, which sends it on to Pinc’s server. Software on the server maps the position and movement of the trucks and trailers in the yard in real time. The manager of the distribution center can view the map and look at related data using a Web browser.
Pinc got an undisclosed infusion of capital in March from Sutter Hill Ventures. The company now has a dozen employees and has started service to its first few customers.