This is the next blog in the continuing series of interviews with top-echelon and renowned professionals. In this blog, I interview Rick Cooper: Top Ranking Internationally Known Entrepreneur, Innovator, Executive, Investor.
Rick Cooper has proven expertise in general management, business development, sales, marketing, R&D, and manufacturing, in four Cleantech and other hi-tech start-ups. Mr. Cooper's successes are attributable to his innate effectiveness (getting the right things done), an inherent emphasis on customer focus, building sustainable competitive advantages and resourcefulness.
Mr. Cooper began his career in 1983 as a chemist doing research on rechargeable lithium batteries for Ballard Power Systems in Canada. In the early 1990s, he started up two branch offices: first with Ransco which developed multi-million dollar automotive test facilities, and then with L&F Industries which designed and built the largest optical telescope in the Southern Hemisphere. From 1996 to 2001 Mr. Cooper provided executive leadership at Ballard and Xcellsis. He started up Ballard's US operations and advanced the state of the art in automotive fuel cell technology which supported the creation of Xcellsis, a joint venture with Daimler AG and the Ford Motor Company. He was promoted to CEO of the US division of Xcellsis which he grew into a world-class company with 175 employees. Mr. Cooper raised over $60M for Xcellsis and the enterprise was acquired for over $400M.
From 2002 to 2009 Mr. Cooper served as VP Business Development at PolyFuel which developed fuel cell products to address the battery runtime problem in consumer electronic devices such as cell phones and notebooks. Under Mr. Cooper's direction, PolyFuel achieved design-wins with 45% of the world's leading developers of portable fuel cells. His strong relationships with multinational consumer electronic OEMs and battery companies contributed deal-making validation for investors' due diligence in venture capital financings and PolyFuel's IPO.
At PolyFuel, Ballard and Xcellsis, Mr. Cooper was involved with 13 proposals for government funding. Twelve of those were awarded grants totalling $26M. Mr. Cooper was instrumental in the formation of the California Fuel Cell Partnership (CAFCP), a collaboration between the world's leading automotive OEMs, energy companies, government agencies and fuel cell technology suppliers. Mr. Cooper was a member of the CAFCP steering committee. Technology developed by CAFCP members provided the foundation for President Bush's $1.8B program for a hydrogen and fuel cell economy featured in his 2003 State of the Union address.
Mr. Cooper has two degrees with honours: Bachelor of Science, Mechanical Engineering, Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, CA, 1991 (2nd in Class), and a Diploma of Technology, Chemistry, BC Institute of Technology, Vancouver, BC, 1983 (1st in Class). He is a registered professional engineer in California and has completed numerous executive education courses on management, marketing and finance at the Stanford Business School and the Hass Business School at UC Berkeley.
Today Mr. Cooper is an active member of the Tech Coast Angels where he invests in early stage start-ups and advises entrepreneurs. He is a Board Observer at IntraStage, a leading test data software company and his first angel investment. He is passionate about technologies and products that address today's environmental issues and looks forward to adding value in an executive role at a Cleantech start-up.
To listen to the interview, click on this MP3 file link
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Rick, due to your recognized international standing as the leading executive, entrepreneur, investment expert with a deep knowledge of innovation, you were invited to a series of international summits hosted in China. It was a real pleasure to talk with you while you were in China. Congratulations on your remarkable contributions internationally.
"....It's fairly well-known around the world that the pace of change there is quite remarkable and the growth rates in various industries are amazing. It's always fun to be there first hand and experience it...."
What are your top lessons that you can share from being part of this special VIP Delegation to China hosted by the government and coordinated by the Great-Idea Business Resources Co. Ltd.?
"....The organizers did a remarkable job....We met with numerous executives and government officials in several different cities and those stakeholders were all talking about growth rates in this space....Even though China has an enormous population, the executives and government officials all had the same number one challenge that some of these fields are growing so fast they have a hard time finding people....The extent of support the government agencies provide for these start-up companies....Another lesson was just how modern and well-equipped their facilities are....From a more personal interest perspective, travelling around by bus with this delegation gave us a great chance to see how things are developing in the countryside...."
What triggered your initial interest in science and technology and then what forces shaped your interests?
"....As a small boy I remember being very curious about how things worked. Rather than playing with puzzles or games I was busy taking things apart and trying to learn how they worked....I guess I was naturally curious and was fortunate to have grown up in a very supportive and thoughtful environment...."
Rick provides his past career highlights and valuable leadership and career lessons for success which he shares with the audience.
"....The most important lesson is to always follow a customer-focus philosophy....Related to customer-focus is very clear and effective communications...."
What specific attributes contributed to your success?
"....The most important one is what I call 'effectiveness' – that is getting the right things done rather than getting things done right....Customer focus....People often think that selling is about talking and persuasion – in my opinion the other half of communication is listening...."
Can you profile your current roles/projects and then what you want to accomplish and the value you deliver to your stakeholders?
"....I'm happy to be involved with an organization called CONNECT, a San Diego based organization that has been established to help new entrepreneurs as they start up their businesses....I'm also an active member of Tech Coast Angels, a Southern California based angel investment organization that funds early stage ventures...."
Can you talk more about Tech Coast Angels (TCA)?
"....TCA is the largest angel investment group in North America....We have hundreds of members; more than half of them are seasoned entrepreneurs themselves...."
What are the major challenges in being an angel investor and how can they be resolved?
"....These are very early stage companies and they typically don't have validation from customers (so that you can measure their progress through revenues) and as a result they are very risky....Another challenge is a kind of funding gap that has come up in the venture space...."
In terms of being an angel investor what percentage would you advise potential angel investors to put at risk?
"....That's very much an individual choice....Just thinking off the top I would say ten to twenty percent at the most of a person's net worth could be deployed in this high risk space. I'm a little bit conservative so I'd be at the lower end of that scale...."
What mistakes are made by startups and entrepreneurs?
"....In my opinion the biggest mistake new entrepreneurs in particular make is not seeking advice and maybe even worse is not listening once they have solicited the advice....Second is lack of focus....The other common mistake we see is when founders sell shares in their early stage companies to friends and family – they come with a valuation for the business that is sometimes unrealistic or too optimistic...."
Let's say there are people who have been the technology industry for some time and have an innovative idea they've been working on and they got some kind of a product perhaps already in a beta stage and want to do a start-up or become an entrepreneur. Where do they go to get help in terms of investment?
"....Southern California entrepreneurs are very lucky because there is a great infrastructure set up here, the CONNECT organization. They have a very robust program in place that helps early stage investors called Springboard....I imagine that there are those types of help and mentoring organizations in other regions. If that kind of service is available I advise people to jump in with both feet as quickly as possible and look for that type of support in the very early stages...."
What are the biggest opportunities in investment and how can they be actioned?
"....I've spent most of my career in Cleantech so I'm pretty biased. I happen to believe that represents one of the biggest opportunities...."
Can you provide your global perspective on innovation and investment trends?
"....I don't want to sound like a broken record here but it's pretty clear that Cleantech is a global trend. Another area is Healthcare. I see a lot of exciting things coming to TCA in this field that can increase the effectiveness and reduce the cost in the healthcare space...."
Can you provide your global perspective on innovation and investment trends?
"....Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong is a MD, surgeon, researcher and a really accomplished entrepreneur. He's working on prevention and payment for health rather than payment for services that are sometimes just wastefully rendered. One of the vehicles that he has is a program called All About Advanced Health Project....Another interesting trend is that China should be able to continue to outpace the growth of the rest of the world....I remain optimistic as well that Cleantech will continue to make an impact on climate change....Another interesting area is the field of mindfulness-based stress reduction...."
How about this new idea of US Venture Financing and American ingenuity – do you have any thoughts on that?
"....I've been fortunate to have done business in various parts of the world, in Europe and Asia in particular. The one thing that I think differentiates the American culture is resilience....Risk is another area that really differentiates the US culture. Many entrepreneurs here fail in their ventures, they dust themselves off, they get up again, apply lessons learned from that experience and in many cases go on to achieve great success. On the flip-side, in many other cultures, failure is a 'one strike and you're out' kind of situation...."
Where do you want to see yourself in five years or ten years or in a hundred years from now – what do you want said about you and your life and what you contributed?
"....Over the last couple of years I have been able to take a step back from the day-to-day hands-on heavy-lifting in the entrepreneurial sector and to focus more on the angel investment and volunteer activities....I've concluded that I'm so much more happy being in involved intimately in the entrepreneurial activity. I still remain very passionate about Cleantech...."
Which are your top recommended resources and why?
"....Book by David Berkus called Berkonomics....Blog: Greentech media...."
Rick shares some interesting stories from his many experiences and work.
"....To have lived the dream here and to have been a pioneer in a field working on some technologies which can help improve society and make a difference, and then have that technology be featured in a President's State of the Union address, I have to say that is one thing that sticks with me....Another one that comes to mind is how I've been personally affected by and transformed when it comes to China...."
China has this phenomenal growth in many areas including economics, education, and so forth. What does this mean to America and the rest of the world?
"....I think the world has to get recalibrated. I came away from the last trip in particular having a chance to see the infrastructure around the country, (and not just the big cities which I had only seen before), with the feeling that you can't really call China a developing country anymore....I think the US will be a force to reckon with for quite some time but there's no doubt that China is on a trajectory to become the economic powerhouse in the world in this century...."
If you could sum up your life experiences with career tips for the ICT professional, what would be your tips and the reasons behind them?
"....Ask the customer what they really want before you start your work. Avoid assumptions wherever possible....It's really important to take your job seriously and of course you have to work really hard to be successful....Always be mindful of that work-life-enjoyment balance...."
What are your thoughts on computing as a recognized profession like medicine and law, with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, and globally recognized credentials and more? [see www.ipthree.org for more details]
"....It could be very easy to have all kinds of disruptions in the world if some of these products were not developed in the most ethical way. I think it's a great idea and I hope it does catch on and it has capabilities on a global basis...."
If you were doing this interview, are there areas that you would have covered that I’ve missed?
"....A couple of things that I'd want people to consider when they want to do business internationally....Be patient. There are cultural differences and obviously there are communication challenges.....Second is this concept of agility or flexibility; it's very important to respect the differences. If they go into it with a really strong 'this is the way we do it therefore this is the way it has to be done in this deal' kind of mentality I wouldn’t say it's not impossible to have success but it is far more difficult than if you are open-minded and flexible...."