Kef Kasdin, partner in venture capital firm Battelle Ventures, has a photo of herself at age two, in the mid-1960s, posing with her father in front of a room-size mainframe computer. "My father was involved in computers and telecom very early on," says Kasdin, whose father is now in charge of telecommunications and IT at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
Technology is a thread that has run through her life as well. It is what brought her to her present career, one that few women share, a career that involves providing the funding and the know-how to bring novel technologies to the marketplace.
She was one of the very few 1970s high school students to prepare her papers on a computer. "I had access to the Stony Brook computers," she recalls. "I wrote my term papers on a mainframe terminal."
At Princeton University (Class of 1985), Kasdin was an engineering major with a specialty in operations research. "It’s solving big problems with the use of models and other technologies," she explains. The field combines mathematics, statistics, and engineering and is often applied to transportation and city planning issues. She added a certificate from the Woodrow Wilson School to this big-picture science degree.
She wrote her thesis on how universities would adopt computer technology to further educational processes. She laughs as she recalls just how quickly the evolution of the computer made her research obsolete. "When I wrote my thesis, in 1984-’85, computing was in its infancy," she says. The Mac came out in 1984. The first IBM PC came out in 1981. On campus there was a transition from mainframe to clusters of personal computers."
Involved in the transition, Kasdin’s work/study job was to help computer neophytes navigate the university’s computer center.
In her thesis, she wrote of how word processing would become integral to the university experience. "I was way off the mark," she admits cheerfully. "The adoption of computers happened faster than anyone predicted. Their usefulness is so much more than anyone expected. They are now such an integral part of every class."
After leaving Princeton, Kasdin took a job with management consulting firm Booz Allen in San Francisco. There she put together "big spreadsheets and simulation models" aimed at solving industry bottlenecks. The project that sticks in her mind involved helping an airline correct the thorny problem of matching the luggage in its planes’ bellies with the travelers who had checked said luggage.
She discovered that the main impediment to these happy reunions was disorganized baggage loading. The bags put on first, and therefore consigned to the very back of the plane’s cargo area, might well be bags that needed to be on a connecting flight leaving very shortly after the plane touched down. "There was no sorting system," says Kasdin. Her solution sounds simple, and absolutely intuitive. She advised the airline to pre-sort luggage according to where it needed to be on the next leg of its journey.
"The last bag on would be for the first flight leaving," she says. The system worked, and has since been adopted by other airlines.
After two years of projects such as these at Booz Allen, Kasdin enrolled in the MBA program at Stanford. Since her undergraduate days she had known that she wanted a career involving the business of technology. Consulting had given her an overview. The Stanford graduate business degree, she says, "was the next logical step."
Her husband, Jeremy Kasdin, whom she had met when they were students together at Princeton, was also a graduate student at Stanford, where he earned a Ph.D. in astrophysics. After earning her MBA, Kasdin returned to Booz Allen, hoping that the firm would have technology projects for her. When she found that the
consulting firm’s direction did not include Silicon Valley, she left and took a job with data networking company 3Com. She was hired as a product manager for the company’s network interface cards, a big business for 3Com, and thrived on the work in the heady tech halcyon days of the 1990s.
"I was involved in a product from the beginning to the end of its life," she says. Development, manufacturing, marketing, customer relations, and even phase out – it was all her responsibility. But, she adds, she had no real authority over any of the departments upon which her product’s success depended. "I was a mini-general manager," she says, "but with no authority." It was a challenging job, and she, one of the very few women in such a position, loved it.
After three months she was promoted to a job where she was in charge of a group of product managers. From there she became general manager in charge of marketing for the network interface card division, which pulled in $1 billion a year in revenue.
During the time that she was with 3Com, basically all of the 1990s, there was a huge growth in LANs (local area computer networks) and a concomitant need for the interface cards. The company boomed. "Everyone had to connect PCs," says Kasdin. She was in the thick of it. "There was a lot of excitement," she says. "Never a dull moment. It was very dynamic, stressful, competitive." This was the arena in which Kasdin chose to start her family. Quite early on in her 3Com career, she gave birth to twin daughters. And didn’t miss a beat. "I left as a product manager and came back as a line manager," she says.
While she had no plans to slow down her career momentum, she would move ahead on her own terms. "When I came back," she recounts, "I said ‘I’m here from X to X and then I’ll be working at home.’" In a typical pattern she saw that many of her colleagues, with no pressing need to get home, made the office a hang out. She took a different tack, putting her head down and focusing on the work at hand so that she would be able to get home to her family.
Her secret for combining career success with child rearing? "Organization," she says. "You have to be very, very organized." She thinks for a moment before adding, "and a supportive husband. You really need someone who is willing to do 50 percent, or more than 50 percent."
In 1999 Kasdin’s career shifted to the East Coast. Her husband was offered a teaching position in the astrophysics department at Princeton University, where he is now an assistant professor, and she became a trailing spouse. The move was welcome one. "Both of our families are on the East Coast," she says. "We had spent a lot of our vacation time on visits."
The family emigrated from Israel when Kasdin was five years old. She grew up in Long Island, the daughter of a stay-at-home mom and the techie dad. Her husband’s family lives in western New York State, where he grew up.
There was a period of many months between the time her husband accepted the teaching position and the beginning of the next term. She had time to think, and used the time to evaluate just what she enjoyed most about her work at 3Com.
"I realized that I enjoyed growing something," she says. "I liked the more strategic parts of the company. I was burned out from the operating role. I didn’t need to be at the center. I was better at advising and consulting a technology company that was growing." The personal inventory led her to venture capital as a good match for her skills, experience, and work preferences. Meanwhile, many of her peers at 3Com had migrated to venture capital firms, and they validated her decision to work in that field.
Meanwhile, however, Kasdin discovered that venture capital firms in her new hometown concentrated on health care for the most part. She knew that she wanted technology, and was absolutely unwilling to commute to New York City to find a place at one of the technology venture capital firms there.
With two young daughters at home, a daily commute was out of the question. This was especially true because her husband was just beginning a new job. "People have no idea of how demanding university teaching is," she says. There are long hours, demands to pull in grants, work with graduate students, and travel – lots and lots of travel. She decided that adding a commute into her own career demands would be just too much.
So she decided to consult instead, and immediately found a large pool of companies in need of her services. "In 1999 a lot of technology start-ups needed help," she says. "They wanted to know how to get a product to market."
In the course of consulting for tech start-ups, Kasdin kept running into Ronald Hahn and James Millar, partners in Early Stage Enterprises (ESE), a Princeton venture capital firm they had founded in 1996. In 2000, just a year after she had arrived in Princeton, Hahn and Millar approached her about becoming a partner in ESE. It was a perfect fit, and she accepted.
When she joined the firm, ESE was just about to start raising its second fund. Shortly thereafter, turmoil roiled the tech market, and, says Kasdin, "we delayed starting the fundraising." Conditions began to improve by late-2002, and the partners began to get serious about raising the second fund.
At that juncture, Mort Collins, the dean of the Princeton venture capital community, asked the ESE team to join him in founding Battelle Ventures, which has its headquarters at 103 Carnegie Center. Venture capital firms often specialize in a bundle of industries, or even in a single industry, and hunt for promising investments within in, while at the same time fielding numerous funding requests from companies within their areas of interest.
Battelle Ventures is a little different. Instead of being wide open to investment possibilities, it focuses almost entirely on technologies discovered in laboratories managed by Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute. A not-for-profit organization, it employs 16,000 scientists and engineers at about 1,000 companies and 800 government agencies, including such national laboratories as those at Brookhaven and Oak Ridge. The various operations conduct $2.7 billion in research and development in about 4,500 projects annually, and they produce 50 to 100 patents.
In an interview with U.S. 1 Newspaper (September 24, 2003), Collins said: "I have always been stunned by the amount of technology at Battelle and the national laboratories it manages, yet almost no commercial application has ever occurred."
It is the mission of Battelle Ventures to identify promising technology within the system of Battelle Memorial Institute labs and to help companies develop it and bring it to market. Only 20 percent of its investments, which will all go to early stage companies, are to be in companies not connected with the institute. Yet one of its early investments falls into this category.
The venture fund has invested in PowerZyme, a Sarnoff spin-off with headquarters in Princeton Corporate Plaza that is working on bio-replacement for the lithium battery.
Kasdin, who, following the investment, took a seat on the PowerZyme board of directors, explains why the company is attractive to her venture fund.
"We asked ‘Is this company solving a real problem?’" she says. The problem in this case is one with which every cellphone, laptop, and CD owner – as well as every GameBoy toting child – is well acquainted. "As we’re more mobile," says Kasdin, "we have to rely on battery power, and battery technology has not kept pace with the features and functions that technology designers want." In other words, if the portable phone is to have a color screen, store photos, and play
music, its battery is going to give out after a frustratingly short time. Add video and battery life is cut further.
The problem is obvious. But does PowerZyme have a solution? Kasdin, who is spending a good amount of her time working with the company, thinks so.
"PowerZyme has the potential to solve the problem with enzymes to generate energy in a device we’re calling a power source," she says. The company’s power source, its battery substitute, is based on the enzyme-driven "power plant" in each living cell. Its technology dynamically pumps protons across a cell membrane, and includes a self-regulating control based on the load. Light-weight and non-polluting, the power source would last longer than alternatives
now on the market.
While this Battelle Ventures investment started out to be one of the few outside of the Battelle Memorial Institute umbrella, PowerZyme is now collaborating with the institute’s scientists. Kasdin is deeply involved in the development of the company, which now has 10 employees. Her interaction is typical of the relationship between venture capitalists and the companies in which they invest. A good amount of advice often comes with funding. Kasdin says she has no idea of how many hours a week she spends working with PowerZyme, but that the time commitment is substantial.
Additional demands include evaluating further investment possibilities. It is a demanding job that includes a hefty amount of travel. She and her husband compare monthly schedules in an effort to ensure that at least one of them is home to shepherd their daughters to their activities. As she did at 3Com, Kasdin focuses her work time carefully so that she can achieve the maximum results and still be available to her family. Asked about any outside interests, hobbies, or sports that fill her spare time, Kasdin seems to be unacquainted with the concept. Spare time? She has none.
That, she says, is one reason that so few women are partners in venture capital firms. It is intense, time-consuming work with heavy travel requirements.
What’s more, she asks: "How many women are technology executives? How many women are financial executives?" During a decade in Silicon Valley during its heyday, she did not see many. And, she adds, there are few places where women would be more welcome. "It was a complete meritocracy," she says.
Deep expertise in technology and in finance often are bottom line requirements for entrance into the heady world of venture capital funding, and few women, says Kasdin, have the credentials.
Throughout her career Kasdin has had few female colleagues. Yet her example shows that success in venture capital, the juncture where technology and business meet, is a real option for women, even for women who insist on combining work with a fulfilling family life. Just don’t expect to include a lot of tennis or gardening.
Battelle Ventures LP, 103 Carnegie Center, Princeton 08540. 609-921-8896; fax, 609-921-8703. Home page: www.battelleventures.com
PowerZyme, 11 Deer Park, Princeton Corporate Plaza, Suite 202, Monmouth Junction 08852. Rose Ritts, chief operating officer. 732-438-9300; fax, 732-438-9350. Home page: www.powerzyme.com