Research Engineer and Marketing Expert Helps Inventors Transfer Technology
W. Herbert White, Jr., Advisor
"People I've done business with claim I'm clairvoyant," says Herbert White. "I don't think I'm clairvoyant. But I do think I'm really good at understanding where things are going."
It's an understanding that's taken White from the research floor of Motorola, where he invented many of the electronic automotive systems we now take for granted such as cruise and interior temperature control, to a major role today giving back to entrepreneurship as an advisor to industry, government and universities on the commercialization of technology.
This spring, White expects to begin working with the Office of Technology Management at the University of Illinois to help evaluate the commercialization potential of a variety of technological innovations being developed in campus research centers.
"You can’t beat experience," says White, when asked why it's important for entrepreneurs, in particular, to give back to entrepreneurship. "Theory is good for setting general milestones. But sometimes the dynamics of the marketplace change so fast that it’s impossible for teaching curriculum to keep up."
"I'm passionate about technology transfer because I've always felt most technology is consistently undervalued or at least not made visible to the right people."
"It was invented in the 1930s," he says. "The inventor who held the patent could have sold it for $2,500 but instead kept with it. Finally the company became Xerox and he was worth over $100 million."
From Shelf to Market
White is doing his best to make sure good ideas like xerography don't sit on the shelf. Not so he can get richer, although that would certainly be helpful for a man who, with his wife, has fostered more than 100 children. Rather, White gives back to entrepreneurship because he fundamentally believes people are here to help each other.
"For me, that includes helping fledgling companies," he says. "Almost any company can be successful, but sometimes they can't quite see it. I've had such rich experience, it's just fun for me to help entrepreneurs."
According to Keith Brumbaugh, director of commercialization for the NASA Illinois Commercialization Center, White could be getting paid anywhere from $250 to $300 an hour for the kind of assistance he's provided at no charge for dozens of NASA clients.
"The Commercialization Center's clients are bright technologists," says Brumbaugh. "Their hurdle is taking that technology and creating revenue, jobs and business. Herb's common sense guidance is extremely valuable in determining what will work and what won't.
"He worked with a client, for example, who is developing very advanced non-destructive testing equipment for the aerospace industry. He helped him create marketing and business plans to get that technology out of the lab and create a strategy for generating revenue."
Focus on Assets
One principle White learned at Motorola, which was reinforced by an MBA in marketing earned in 1972 from the University of Chicago, is that the key to success in business is recognizing your assets and understanding the market.
After selling White Systems in 1983, the company he founded to implement software solutions to increase manufacturing efficiency, White applied this principle to various companies he was asked to evaluate.
Siemens, for example, thought White wrought a miracle when his business plan for its sluggish U.S. automation business produced a 150 percent increase in sales. White did it, he says, by analyzing why customers already bought Siemens' products (reliability) and promoting that feature.
"The biggest problem I see in companies that aren't successful," says White, "is lack of gratitude for what they already have. Instead of taking advantage of the power of the assets they already possess, they focus on what they could do if only they could buy that company over there or get another $10 million in financing."
By the mid-1980s, White's success in identifying companies poised to succeed and aiding others on the brink of failure began to generate calls for his help. One of the first companies he advised "just for fun" was a speech recognition company in California. White showed two young women entrepreneurs how to protect their intellectual property and arranged for Motorola to send staff to look at their product. White recalls one of the visitors wondering what they could do with it. He told them, "Wouldn't it be nice if you could just talk on your phone and have it dial a number for you?"
In Albany, New York, in the late 1990s to head up a graphics software company, White recognized the area’s potential as a Mecca for software developers. He and others joined forces to start the Software Alliance, a nonprofit organization focused on increasing the number of software companies in the area. Toward the same end, he became active in the local Chamber of Commerce and served on the board of the First Bank of Albany where he helped assess technology companies seeking funds from the bank.
Today, White spends about half his time evaluating new businesses and products, about 10 deals a month. Referrals come from venture capital firms, consulting groups, and government and quasi-government agencies with an interest in commercializing technology. While he occasionally invests in companies brought to his attention, most of the work is pro bono.
"You can't place a value on what Herb provides," says Michael Ellis, president of Spectrum Learning Systems of Keller, Texas, who is developing a hardware/software combination to help students learn early reading skills. "He helped in my writing of a pro forma and prospectus – the necessary documents to approach investors – and also gave me ideas on how to market my product."
White also participates in an investment group called Kieretsu (Japanese for "cooperation in investments") whose members evaluate up-and-coming businesses in the Chicago area and invest as angels if they so choose.
At age 68, White is grateful for having followed a career path with no natural retirement point and many opportunities for giving back to what made him successful.
He's also enthusiastic about the next generation of entrepreneurs because entrepreneurship fits so well with the American spirit: open minded, free thinking, uninhibited.
"Many societies frown on these characteristics," he says. "We encourage them."
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.