Drew Perkins is the co-founder and CEO of Mojo Vision which is a developer of products and platforms that re-imagine the intersection of ideas, information, and people. The company has raised $159 million from top tier investors such as NEA, Khosla Ventures, AME Cloud Ventures, 8VC, Motorola Solutions Venture Capital, Kakao Ventures, Dolby Family Ventures, and Gradient Ventures to name a few. Prior to this he cofounded Lightera (acquired by Ciena), OnFiber (acquired by Qwest), Infinera (IPO), and Gainspeed (acquired by Nokia).

In this episode you will learn:

  • Drew’s top advice for new entrepreneurs
  • Transitioning from startup to publicly-traded company
  • How to come up with big ideas
  • The key ingredients to building a billion-dollar business

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About Drew Perkins:

Drew Perkins is a Co-Founder and CEO at Mojo Vision. He has been at the forefront of Internet technology innovation for nearly three decades.

Prior to Gainspeed, Drew co-founded and served as CTO of Infinera Corporation, a publicly-traded optical networking company that developed the world’s first large-scale photonic integrated circuits. Before Infinera, Drew was co-founder and CTO of metropolitan telecommunications service provider OnFiber Communications, later acquired by Qwest. Previously, he co-founded Lightera Networks, a developer of optical switching systems for telecom networks that were acquired by Ciena Corporation for more than $500 million. Drew also served in various senior engineering and management roles at FORE Systems, an innovator in packet-switched Internet technology.

Drew has held various roles in industry standards bodies and research organizations including the IETF, IEEE, OIF, ATM Forum, and Internet2. He was the lead author of the Point-to-Point Protocol (PPP), a technology that provided for the use of the Internet via the circuit-switched telephone system and enabled the early growth of the Internet.

Drew holds a B.S. in Electrical Engineering, Computer Engineering, and Mathematics from Carnegie Mellon University.

Connect with Drew Perkins:

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FULL TRANSCRIPTION OF THE INTERVIEW:

Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. Today we have a very interesting founder. He’s done this multiple times, building, scaling, financing, exiting, you name it, and I think that today, we’re going to really enjoy having him on the show and learning from all the lessons learned that he’s gotten throughout his journey. So, without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today, Drew Perkins. Welcome to the show. 

Drew Perkins: Thank you, Alejandro. I’m very happy to be here. This is very exciting.

Alejandro: So originally born in New York City and then moved to Pennsylvania to Lancaster. How was life growing up?

Drew Perkins: I had a typical suburban kind of life growing up – middle-class. It was a great place to grow up.

Alejandro: Obviously, you were into engineering, mathematics, so what got you into that?

Drew Perkins: I’ve been interested in technology as early as I can remember, and even before high school, part junior high, I started getting into electronics and had 201 Experimenter Kit from Radio Shack that got me into that. Then, in high school, I had the good fortune of meeting another young man that was into computers. This was 1977. Owning your own computer at home before even the 2S80 or around that time. It was very exciting.

Alejandro: Very cool. Was anyone in your family also an entrepreneur because you’re quite a machine of ideas and businesses? So, I’m wondering where you got that influence from?

Drew Perkins: My mother’s family were all entrepreneurs. Although I didn’t know them, most of them had died, or all of them had died by the time I was born or grew up. I guess I had that in my genes.

Alejandro: Got it, and then Carnegie Mellon. You go there, and you went to do electrical engineering and mathematics, essentially computer science, and you were quite into the internet, even though it was only 1981.

Drew Perkins: Yes. I managed to be in the right place at the right time, and it was very synergistic with what I had been working on in high school and the earliest computers, and I got involved in the very earliest internet communications.

Alejandro: Tell us about the first business because your first business came out of this.

Drew Perkins: Somewhere around 1987, I had this crazy idea of building an ethernet switch. There are two port ethernet bridges in existence. I had been working with the earliest and first ones from digital equipment company and other corporation companies. I had the idea of turning it into a multi-port, large-scale switches. I think I hadn’t heard of that before, and I think I started the first company to do that.

Alejandro: What was the name of this company?

Drew Perkins: We called it Intellikey, but I never got it beyond two people because I knew more about the technology in the market than I did about how to start a business at that point in my life.

Alejandro: And what was the outcome here?

Drew Perkins: I got frustrated with trying to get the company going, and get some funding. I kind of threw in the towel on it.

Alejandro: So, what was your lesson here, Drew, because obviously the first business really comes with the biggest painful lessons. 

Drew Perkins: Well, I learned a bit about fortitude. I learned about having the right set of co-founders around me at the very get-go. It helps to connect with other brilliant people that bring the right mix of skill sets to get a company going right from the get-go.

Alejandro: Then, you happened to join a group of friends, and that was quite a rocket ship, so tell us about this.

Drew Perkins: Yeah, it was a group of my friends, Carnegie Mellon classmates and officemates and things that had started a company called FORE Systems. It was a complete rocket ship. It went on a couple of years before I joined them. They got some government funding to get the company going, but then I joined them, and one year later, we took the company public. I spent four years total, and it was an amazing experience being with a company that grew so fast into a multi-billion-dollar company. Seeing how that grew, I joined as employee #44 and led product management. There was no product management, but I led the software engineering and got involved in the running of engineering, ASEC engineering – all the elements of building a high-scale sophisticated ARG-based switching platform.

Alejandro: And here, obviously, you gain access to be experienced and see that it’s possible to do the full cycle. Out of this experience, what would you say you would highlight the most out of that lesson that you took away with you?

Drew Perkins: Under that lesson, under that journey, I learned how important it was to have a team with the right mix of skill sets. How to manage the company, going public, and then how to manage exiting. Then afterward, I learned a bit about how to sell over time and get a return on it.

Alejandro: Absolutely. Why California? Obviously, after this experience with FORE Systems, then you decide that it’s time to pack up the bags and move to California. So, why did you make that decision?

Drew Perkins: Frankly, I had wanted to go to college at Stanford in California. I had always wanted to go to California and move to California. California and Silicon Valley just seemed the right place. One of the other lessons I had at FORE Systems was actually quite difficult to recruit a large team of incredible people to places outside of Silicon Valley – in that case, Pittsburgh. I thought, “I’m going to do this next one in Silicon Valley, where it’s a whole lot easier to raise capital to find the right people, etc.”

Alejandro: You’ve talked about team and finding the right people and co-founders quite a bit, and I think here, it didn’t take you long until you found your co-founders. Is this right?

Drew Perkins: Yeah. I literally moved here and, within just a couple of days, had secured a co-founder and built a partnership that lasted through three companies in more than a decade. It has lasted for a couple of decades since then, actually.

Alejandro: Wow.

Drew Perkins: It’s very, very important to get the company going right from the get-go on the right foot, the right foundation.

Alejandro: This was Lightera Networks. Is that right?

Drew Perkins: That was that company. Co-founded that in ’98, and we exited in ’99 when we sold it for half-a-billion dollars to Ciena Corporation.

Alejandro: Wow. How do you do that in not even two years?

Drew Perkins: Well, it’s all about luck. Luck is where opportunity meets preparation. The preparation I had done in the years before I even started the company, and then getting the right company going at the right time. Then, the bubble happened, and the whole internet explosion happened in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. Just being in the right place at the right time with the right stuff. It’s all about luck.

Alejandro: I am right there with you. But as you’re looking back and perhaps now in your own journey, what would you say was that lesson that you said, “I’m definitely taking this with me for whatever I build in the future?

Drew Perkins: Throughout all my experiences, as I said from the get-go, either a negative experience over positive experiences, again, it’s all about the team that you build, starting with your co-founders and continuing on from there. You need to attract the most brilliant people in the world. If you do that, you can take on successfully and surmount and beat the toughest challenges and build the greatest companies and the biggest companies.

Alejandro: What happened after? What happened next because it was quite a good outcome in literally two years for $550 million. Not bad at all. So tell us about what happened next.

Drew Perkins: I had a one-year non-compete, so my co-founder and I decided to try something in a different space. We built a carrier, a fiber to the business carrier for ALON fiber. Again, we raised a lot of money. The bubble hadn’t burst yet. I was ’99, 2000. We were able to raise a whole lot of money to do that. Then, we were busy building fiber networks around the country, around the United States. Then, the bubble did burst. Then raising the billion-plus dollars, it’s tough to do that kind of thing. It became very difficult, so we ended up selling that venture to Qwest Communication a couple of years later, but instead, we ended up after our non-compete was up. A year later, we ended up co-founding Infinera and took a very, very deep tech journey into technology that required building our own fab and our own semiconductors and building photonic integrated circuits, a very advanced semiconductor technology. Then Infinera built that semiconductor technology, and then all the semiconductors around it, the hardware around that, the software around complete networks, and we ended up building a company that was the leader and is still the leader in the optical transport network, which is the business of putting massive amounts of data. Today it’s tens of terabits per second of data over fiber optic cables around the country, around cities, under the oceans, and things like that. By virtue of taking on an incredibly challenging problem, we were able to attract in a very large market. We were able to attract massive amounts of capital, and with those elements, a challenging problem in the capital to take it on, we were able to attract an incredible set of people and build an incredible team, build an incredible product, and bring that to market. When it came to market, we immediately started building multi-million-dollar revenue kind of business that allowed us to take that company public in 2007. Today, it remains a multi-billion-dollar public company.

Alejandro: Is it like a big difference from being used to that flexibility and being able to move so fast to then all of a sudden, you’re a publicly-traded company. You have to do all these types of quarterly earnings, reports, and things like that. Was it a big change, and was that painful?

Drew Perkins: Yeah, absolutely. Certainly, as you grow from the first few people to the first few tens to the first couple of hundreds of people, the company continues to change and evolve and get more process-oriented and may be a little bit slower as you get across that public boundary, things change again, and as you start building the company with thousands of people, you get very process-oriented. Companies evolve and change as they need to. You become more accountable. I probably prefer the early stages a little bit, but in order to build truly large, great companies, you need to go through all those different stages and evolution and maturation.

Read More: Rahul Dhanda On Raising $50 Million To Create The Ultimate Coronavirus Test

Alejandro: With Infinera, it took you almost 11 years. You took the company public, and then when touching almost 11 years, then you decide it’s time to leave. How did you come to that conclusion?

Drew Perkins: Several of our customers in the cable networking space or cable service providers, Time Warner Cable, in particular, Comcast, Charter, those kinds, they were seeking and asking us for a new architecture to replace their cable networking systems that they were buying predominantly from Cisco Systems who was charging a very large amount of money for what’s called DOCSIS technology, which is the technology used to deliver internet over cable and modern cable television services into people’s homes and businesses around the world, especially in the United States. They wanted a new architecture that was much cheaper that allowed them to scale much faster and get from delivering tens of megabits per second to hundreds of megabits per second to gigabits per second of data communication to people’s homes and businesses. They thought that we might be able to do that through our photonic integrated circuit technology. I took a very close look at that problem that they had and came up with a new solution to it, a new architecture. It was not synergistic enough with Infinera. I gave Infinera the opportunity, as I needed to – my fiduciary responsibility – to enter that business and build that product. But it wasn’t directly in line and synergistic enough. So, Infinera declined to do that, but I decided, “Hey, I’ve been doing this Infinera thing for a while. It’s time to go start a new company and do something and take on this new space.” So, that’s what I did. I went out and raised more VC funding, recruited some other incredible world-class entrepreneurs as co-founders and built a team, raised money, built a product, and that product is still sold around the world. Eventually, we sold that company to Nokia. Unfortunately, it didn’t succeed with the product. They had their own internal challenges for many reasons, and the product didn’t reach my aspirations. But as far as Gainspeed goes and for our investors and employers, it was a successful outcome.

Alejandro: Here, one thing that keeps repeating is that you’ve seen the building, financing, scaling, and exiting many times. I’m sure that you’ve learned a thing or two about making deals happen. Doing deals is not easy, especially when you’re doing an acquisition, so what have you learned about making deals happen?

Drew Perkins: Again, to make a deal happen, you need to bring, first, a very attractive idea – the bigger, the better. That idea has to have the promise of significant revenues and building a significant company. If you do that, that’s going to be attractive to investors. It’s also going to be attractive to employees. To get the first investment, you need to bring a great founding team to the party and to the story. With the big idea, with the skilled, experienced founding team, you’re going to get early-stage people excited. Once you get that first seed investment and larger investments in Series A investments, or whatever, you can start hiring incredible people. You end up with a virtuous cycle. I’ve been through it quite a few times now with my latest company, Mojo Visio, where you personally put in time; you put in personal dollars; you use those dollars to hire some people; you use that to build some good proof-of-concept technology. With that mix of technology attractive market people, you can raise more money. With more money, you can hire more people. With more people, you can build even better technology. With better technology, and work on what the market looks like and the investment pitch, etc. You can then get even more investors involved and dollars. You continue this virtuous cycle to build a large, great company.

Alejandro: After Gainspeed, you were alluding to it with your latest company, you took a year’s sabbatical, and then you took surgery for your eyes, and that was the segue to your latest baby, which is Mojo Vision. What are you guys doing at Mojo Vision, and how did this happen?

Drew Perkins: Mojo Vision began, for me – I got cataracts in my eyes and interactive lenses put in my eyes through cataract surgery, and it gave me bionic vision, but not the six-million-dollar man kind of bionic vision from the 1970s TV show, and I really wanted that. Mojo Vision sprang from that desire to truly help myself, but other people with vision issues and ocular health issues, and build a better, modern kind of bionic vision technology. Of course, I was also quite well-aware that since the ‘70s, the concept of augment reality has emerged in all computing, and the idea of wearable technology, and things like that. I realized that it would be possible to both help people with vision issues, with incredibly advanced technology, while at the same time, advancing the state of computing and the way technology is interfaced with the human body and man’s relationship with technology overall. The vision grew just from this bionic vision issue – vision, literally to a vision of truly augmenting human capabilities and a relationship with technology and use technology interface to the Cloud, and all these things, and have built to know anything and everything and exactly when you want it and be able to see the world through new eyes, where you can see information and truly interface us to computing to a new, intuitive, and much more powerful way than today’s mobile technology or desktop computing technology. So I began with that vision of Mojo. Along the way, I thought about it, of course, glasses, but what I really wanted to do was have an even tighter integration to that, and I realized that the best way to interface us with technology and provide an invisible computing and experience I wanted was through a contact lens platform. I was also well aware that all the big tech companies were trying to develop augmented reality in a glasses form, and there were many other startups trying to develop augmented reality glasses. One of them had raised [00:21:43] had raised 2.5 billion dollars already. I realized that even better than the next generation wants glasses, anyone got glasses. Other people would want contact lenses, and that was a much tighter integration even than glasses with the human body. I thought to myself, “Why wouldn’t it be possible to put augmented reality in contact lenses. I’ve always been a believer that anything that man can conceive, man can build unless it violates the laws of physics, and I didn’t see how that would violate the laws of physics. It was a matter of bringing the right set of people and skillset and resources to the problem. That was pretty much the vision I had for Mojo Vision, and that’s what Mojo Vision has become. We’ve turned science fiction into science reality, and we build true augmented reality contact lenses that can help people with low vision conditions and other conditions in the future see better, but also give us instant access information in a visible fashion that is going to be socially acceptable, unlike the augmented reality glasses that everyone from Microsoft to Google to Facebook to Samsung to Apple and everyone else is working on. We think we have a more powerful, more advanced solution that is, in the end, going to be more attractive to a large set of people than even the glasses-based solution that all the large tech companies that each are spending billions of dollars on.

Alejandro: How much capital have you guys raised to date, Drew?

Drew Perkins: We’ve gone around this virtuous cycle quite a few times now, and we’ve raised about 160 million dollars to date.

Alejandro: Why did you choose the investors that you chose for this venture?

Drew Perkins: From experience, I went to a couple of early-stage investors that I had worked with in the past first. One of my very first stops was at NEA to talk with Greg Papadopoulos. Greg was the CTO of Sun Microsystems, which was one of the leaders in computing technology from the ‘80s and ‘90s and 2000s. Greg was the CTO of that organization and had an incredible background and experience and history himself before that. He was very excited about what I was conceiving of. I didn’t fully expect that, but my first question to him was, “Do you know anyone else doing this?” Actually, he did. So, he was aware of a guy named Michael Dearing, who he said was one of his colleagues at Sun Microsystems. He had been the chief architect of 3D graphics at Sun Microsystems for 14 years, and effectively one of the co-inventors of the GPU and Java 3D and a number of other things at Sun. I said, “Greg, why don’t you get Michael over here, and let’s talk to him and see what he’s been up to.” When we did, we got together with him. We discovered that Michael had started working on this project in 2004. For me, this is 2015 at that point, so Michael had already been working on it for 11 years. Michael is an absolute genius, a genius working on this problem for 11 years already had many of the key insights and figured out key solutions to difficult problems on how to get this technology working. It was clear to me that I had the idea of doing this; I had the ability to raise capital and recruit a team. Michael had the technology underpinnings of how to solve the problem and build it. It was sort of a marriage made in Heaven. At that same time, I was also in discussions with and working on another project with an EIR, entrepreneur in residence, at NEA, Mike Weimer. I invited Mike Weimer to join the discussion, and Mike was very excited about the idea and the concept and the potential of this, so he joined us. Together the three of us, Michael, Mike, and I dug into the solution and the technology that Michael had come up with. Within a couple of months, Mike and I had validated what Michael was saying and claiming, and we decided that it was time to kick this effort into a higher gear and put a quarter-million dollars of my own money into it to get some working capital going. We built a real business plan, first-generation. With that, Greg was excited enough about having helped get us together, and the idea, and he brought NEA into the picture, and they threw three-quarters of a million dollars in. I put another half-million dollars in to match, and the company was up and going. From there, we raised another million and a half dollars in additional seed capital. We had three. We started to hire brilliant, world-class fellow engineers in a number of different skill sets, and an optometrist vision scientist to boot that knew a lot about contact lenses and this technology. The company was up and going.

Alejandro: Got it. Now, that all adds up, and it seems that the people that you were getting on board was definitely because they had something of value to add. So, essentially, being active in strategic people to provide value. One question, Drew, that I want to ask you that I typically ask the guests that come on the show is – taking a look back at your extensive entrepreneurial journey, if you had the opportunity to go back in time and perhaps be able to have that year of that younger Drew, that younger Drew that would be willing to listen, because, obviously, our younger selves don’t listen, but let’s say this younger Drew was actually willing to listen, that younger Drew in Carnegie Mellon. What would be that one piece of advice that you would give to that younger Drew before launching a business and why knowing what you know now?

Drew Perkins: As I said, my learnings from my first failure was that first, you need to bring the right founding team right from the get-go. You need to have the fortitude when things get tough to stick things out, and you need to go through the steps of building the right team, building the right plan, talking to the right investors. Of course, those investor relationships are also key. When I first started out, I didn’t have any of those. Today, I have thousands, probably. I know such an enormous set of investors around the world. It makes it a whole lot easier, and that’s not advice I could have given my younger person, but I guess I would have advised my younger self to go find a co-founder, perhaps that did have those relationships, someone with more experience that could bring that to bear. I know that’s easier said than done kind of thing for a young person starting out at the beginning of their entrepreneurial career. It’s certainly easier for someone who is further in their career if they take the entrepreneurial jump in a later stage of life.

Alejandro: Absolutely. Drew, for the folks that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?

Drew Perkins: Look me up on LinkedIn. Connect with me. Send me a message that way. They can also email me: drew.perkins@mojo.vision. That’s very easy. One or the other.

Alejandro: Amazing. Well, Drew, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.

Drew Perkins: Well, thank you, Alejandro. It’s been a pleasure. I’m looking forward to hearing the net result.

 

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