Earning Curve

Off To College

To see just how fertile a university environment can be for raising capital and promoting success, consider the story of Michael Marvin, once an employee at RPI who ran the school's manufacturing center and now an entrepreneur with several successful ventures under his belt.

His tale dates back to December 1985, when four RPI students who were completing an entrepreneurship class wrote the course's required business plan. The quartet, who envisioned a company that would create and distribute in-car navigation systems, approached Marvin. Would he help them put the plan into action?

Marvin, who gravitated to the university because of its stable of new business opportunities, anted up $12,000. The funds were critical--they put the first breath into the company that was to become MapInfo Corp., a mapping software company in Troy.

Marvin, who joined MapInfo's board, says that the RPI "friends and family"--trustees, board members and affiliated angels--immediately invested another $70,000. Six months later, in June of 1987, investors within the university community kicked in another $500,000, and one year later, yet another $500,000. All told, as part of RPI's affiliate program that allows off-campus companies to participate in various university-sponsored programs, MapInfo raised nearly $1.1 million in its own backyard.

But Marvin, who joined the company full time in 1987, says the university's help didn't stop there. When MapInfo went outside RPI to raise institutional venture capital, the movers and shakers of the university who sat on the company's board added a lot of weight. "They met with the investors and gave the company a lot more credibility," says Marvin.

As a result, the company raised another $1 million in institutional venture capital. Four years later, the company went public, raising $26 million from a syndicate of underwriters led by the technology investment banking firms BancBoston Robertson Stephens and BT Alex. Brown Inc., with First Albany Corp. also present to provide regional support. Today, MapInfo boasts annual sales of more than $60 million.

While MapInfo was reaching critical mass, Marvin and RPI were also nurturing Interactive Learning International Corp. (ILINC), which was founded by RPI professor Jack Wilson and graduate students interested in advancing distance learning (learning via the Internet, videotapes, TV and other technologies). Research and development for ILINC, which is also in Troy, began in 1992. Marvin, who now had a seed fund called Exponential Business Development Co. LP, with many in the RPI community as limited partners, kicked in seed financing in 1995 and joined the company's board.

Executives from a technology company touring RPI in 1996 learned about ILINC and eventually became clients. This was followed by several rounds of institutional venture capital funding and an investment from Intel. In February, Marvin took the helm of ILINC to help manage the company's rapid expansion.

Looking back, Marvin says it's been a wild ride, but one made possible by the entrepreneurial momentum established by the RPI community. More important, he says, "It's a path other entrepreneurs can take to help themselves realize their vision."

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This article was originally published in the December 1998 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Earning Curve.

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