Welcome to the NVCA Blog series, Building Better, where we celebrate the dynamic relationship between our VC members and their innovative portfolio companies around the nation. For today’s Building Better, we spoke with Keith Muhart, Senior Director, Operations & Portfolio Development at Qualcomm Ventures, and with Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, Co-founder, Chairman & CEO of Brain Corp, a Qualcomm portfolio company. Learn about their partnership in the Q&A below!
Qualcomm Ventures: Keith Muhart, Senior Director, Operations & Portfolio Development
Give us some background on Qualcomm Ventures: How did the firm start, what is your mission and how does the firm strive to meet its goals?
Qualcomm Ventures is the investment arm of Qualcomm Incorporated, one of the largest semiconductor companies in the world that invents breakthrough technologies that transform how the world connects, computes and communicates and is a leader in 5G. We’ve been investing in innovative startups since 2000, have a global footprint with investment managers in 7 regions and over 150 active companies in our portfolio. We focus on investing in areas where Qualcomm has demonstrated expertise – such as AI, IoT, mobile, automotive, enterprise software and digital health. Our core mission is to accelerate the pace of mobile innovation by investing in the entrepreneurs that are bringing about game changing ideas and by connecting them to the resources, relationships and deep industry expertise they need to succeed. We have a dual focus of providing both strong financial returns as well as strategic value to Qualcomm as it continues to drive global innovation.
What does Qualcomm Ventures look for in a partner when choosing to invest in a portfolio company? What does Qualcomm Ventures value? What do you value in the Brain Corp team?
Qualcomm Ventures takes a thesis driven approach to investing in start-ups where we carefully survey the landscape of a given sector and try to find the team we think will lead or dominate a given industry. We are an evergreen fund and able to apply patience as our portfolio companies mature into strong, self-sustaining businesses. A good example of this is with our portfolio company Brain Corp. Qualcomm Ventures actually incubated Brain Corp as a stealth company on our main campus in San Diego for several years. We knew the team was exceptional and far ahead of the competition from a technology perspective but that it would take time for the market to develop. We worked closely with the Brain Corp team to help build a comprehensive strategy and also hosted a robotics and drone accelerator to help ignite the nascent ecosystem. Today, Brain Corp is the leading AI platform for the development, deployment, and management of intelligent machines and in July of 2017 they raised a record $114M from Softbank’s Vision Fund.
How does Qualcomm Ventures support its portfolio companies? How does it help entrepreneurs grow and advance the VC industry?
What we offer portfolio companies goes far beyond capital investments to include technology validation, domain expertise and a powerful global network. For example, one way we can add value is by connecting portfolio companies with an entire ecosystem of industry leaders — OEMs, developers and VC partners — that are part of Qualcomm’s global network. We also help entrepreneurs grow by providing technology guidance, mentorship and industry resources they may need throughout their company’s journey. We also provide exclusive access to Qualcomm’s business unit leaders and technology experts who have domain expertise and can offer invaluable support.
Brain Corp: Dr. Eugene Izhikevich, Co-founder, Chairman & CEO
What is the mission of your company and how did you start? How has your partnership with Qualcomm Ventures helped you fulfill your mission?
We envision a world where the lives of people are made safer, easier, more productive, and more fulfilling with the help of robots. But building robots is hard…and scaling them is even harder. Brain Corp’s mission is to address this by empowering the builders of autonomous machines through our transformative, core robotics technology.
With BrainOS, Brain Corp’s cloud-connected operating system for commercial autonomous robots, developers and original equipment manufacturers can quickly and successfully build, deploy, and support robot fleets. This idea of foundational technology that could serve as “brains for robots” was first conceived during my time as a senior fellow at the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA. With a research focus in brain modeling, I was fascinated by the concept of spiking neural networks and how they could apply to cutting edge applications in artificial intelligence. Neighboring tech company Qualcomm brought me in for a number of R&D projects, which soon turned into a connection to Qualcomm Ventures (QCV) and the launch of Brain Corp in 2009.
QCV is comprised of individuals who truly “speak tech”. They understand systems engineering and the deep-seated expertise that goes into developing enabling technologies (and the runway and funding that such innovations necessitate). QCV was the first, and for many years the only believer in Brain Corp and an incredible source of technical, financial, and business development support throughout our trajectory.
Where and how is your company looking to grow into the next 5 years?
Brain Corp’s beachhead market is in AI technology for robotic floor care. We have formal partnerships with four leading original equipment manufacturers in the space, a multi-hundred robot deal with Walmart, and will continue to scale and lead there. Over the next few years, we’ll be expanding BrainOS into other robotic form factors and industries, including material handling, retail, healthcare, and security. BrainOS-powered machines will number in the thousands by the end of 2019….our plan is to see that number grow exponentially over the next five years.
How has Qualcomm Ventures impacted your company’s future for the better?
An investment from QCV communicates a level of validation that’s been very helpful for Brain Corp, particularly during the company’s early days. Not all VC’s are willing to take a risk on new, complex technologies entering new markets. What’s more, QCV’s close synergies with Qualcomm have given us a front row seat to exciting developments in AI, IoT and 5G…all things that will ultimately support the success of robots powered by BrainOS.
Cassie Ann Hodges serves as Director of Communications at NVCA where she leads NVCA’s strategic communications, branding and content development, and media efforts to better support and empower the venture community, startups, and entrepreneurs. She also oversees the NVCA StratComm Peer Group network and programming.