- Tech & Gadgets
- BRW. lounge
Published 27 September 2012 04:52, Updated 01 October 2012 05:03
A trip to Silicon Valley is now par for the course for any aspiring entrepreneur but West Australian telecommunications whiz Robert Newman made the switch in the late 1980s.
Newman was midway though his PhD in computer networking in the early 1980s when he devised a critical piece of telecommunications technology that could pack more voice and data into telephone lines.
The technology gained serious interest from telco providers around the world, prompting Newman and his supervisor to take the product overseas but a lack of commercial nous brought the venture unstuck before it could reach its full potential.
There was a salient lesson in the experience. “It doesn’t matter how good your technology is, it is even more important to know how to get it to market,” he says.
Newman realised he needed sales and marketing experience in high-tech products. So in 1991 he went back to the US to earn his stripes, joining a small San Franscisco telco start-up, Synoptics.
“When I first arrived, no one understood a word I said,” Newman says.
But he made sure he stayed in touch with his peers back at university in WA. When he got wind that they had come up with a new technology that could enhance data transmission on broadband cable, he pitched himself as the one to take it to market. His plan worked. He took a team across to California where three rounds of venture capital raising saw Atmosphere Networks develop in 1997. He was co-founder and chief executive.
Newman sold the venture in 2000 for $150 million and decided to head back to WA for good. He needed some time out.
“I worked 70, 80 hours a week,” he says. “My kids didn’t know me.”
He vowed to spend the next decade at a slower pace. He attempted retirement for six months. It didn’t work out.
“I still ran at 150 miles an hour but I was completely directionless,” he says.
Slowly, he started helping other companies that were trying to make the leap into Silicon Valley. He toyed with the idea of becoming an angel investor before joining WA venture capital outfit Foundation Capital to head its tech fund in 2002.
The company split in 2007 and Newman ended up taking the fund with him to his latest venture, Stone Ridge Capital where he expanded the fund by raising another $25 million capital.
Newman’s time today is spent mentoring and investing in new businesses, including geolocation and data transmission service Taggle and advanced aerial mapping company NearMap. He is also an avid marathon runner and ironman triathlete.
For the time being at least, Newman says he’s content, but there are signs of the entrepreneurial gene stirring. “There’s a certain joy in taking something from the workbench and putting all the pieces together and then taking it to market,” he says.
As for his next project?
“I’m always mucking around with silly ideas,” he says. “I’ve started something for every decade in my life, so it’s probably about time I got started again.”