UCSB Philanthropist Makes Lifetime of Work Worthwhile
Stephen E. Cooper, Chairman and CEO, Skyler Technology, Inc
By the end of his first year of retirement – after stepping down as president of Etec Systems, Inc., the semiconductor manufacturing company he turned around, took public in 1995 and sold in 2000 for $2.5 billion – Steve Cooper had played 145 rounds of golf. He was ripe to share some of his time and expertise when asked to serve as a trustee of the foundation for his alma mater, the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB).
Thus began a journey that to date has led him to donate more than $500,000 to the UCSB Technology Management Program, chair the UCSB Foundation and its development committee and co-chair its Northern California Campaign Committee.
A native of San Jose, Calif., Cooper studied engineering because it seemed the most challenging route short of becoming a doctor. After graduating with a BSEE in 1968, he traveled extensively as a captain in the USAF in charge of worldwide air-ground communications.
Cooper began his career in the semiconductor industry at Intel in 1973 until recruited to help lead Silicon Systems, Inc., a manufacturer of analog/digital semiconductors he took public in 1981. After engineering a turnaround in the late 1980s at Bipolar Integrated Technology, which manufactures ECL integrated circuits, he landed at Etec in 1993.
Technology Management Program
As a USCB Foundation trustee known to be passionate about engineering and entrepreneurship, Cooper was asked in 2001 to judge a business plan competition sponsored by the Center for Entrepreneurship and Engineering Management, now known as the Technology Management Program (TMP). TMP, sponsored by the College of Engineering, trains students from all disciplines for careers in technology companies.
"This program answered a need that exists in the business community," says Cooper. "We get engineers coming out of colleges and universities so narrowly focused on engineering that they don’t understand how to read financial statements, what it means to have a business plan or work with a team."
So impressed was Cooper with two juniors and a senior at the 2001 competition who presented a business plan to develop and market a portable oxygen concentrator that he and fellow judge Kathy Odell – who was then consulting for venture capitalists – offered to help the students start Inogen. Cooper contributed $25,000 as an angel investor to hire an engineering consultant and build a prototype.
Just three years later, Ernst & Young recognized Inogen with its 2005 Emerging Growth Entrepreneur of the Year Award for the Greater Los Angeles region. Odell accepted the award at a black-tie event in June with its three young founders, Byron Myers, Alison Perry and Brenton Taylor.
With Cooper as chair and Odell as CEO, Inogen is selling the "Inogen One," a light-weight, all-purpose oxygen therapy device that frees patients from being tethered to antiquated, stationary machines.
Writes the mother of five-year old Mary Elizabeth:
We received our new Inogen One three weeks ago. What a difference it has made in our daughter's life already. I remember our last trip from our home in Spokane, Wash., to our hold home in Benicia, Calif., we took 26 bottles of oxygen in the back of our pickup. We pay for 02 every time we fly and leave her home often as it is just too difficult to drag around the tanks. Last week, I had to make a 12-hour round trip across the state to pick up an extra wheelchair for her. She was thrilled to be able to go with me. It brought tears to hear such a little girl say, "I like my new oxygen, Mommy. Now I can go with you!"
"This one accomplishment makes a lifetime of work worthwhile," says Cooper, who has enjoyed sharing the Inogen story and other entrepreneurial experiences as a guest speaker in TMP's lecture series, as well as providing advice as an informal mentor to students who call after they've heard him speak. As for the time speaking and mentoring takes, Cooper compares it to 1995 when he secured three rounds of financing in 18 months, including an IPO, a secondary offering 12 months later and another six months later. "The preparation time for the lecture series is minimal," he says.
Giving and Getting from UCSB
Cooper has served as chair of the TMP Advisory Board since 2003. He meets with Dr. Gary Hansen, associate dean for technology management programs, at least twice a month to offer advice on such matters as budget, staff, how to address the needs of the business community, and how to raise money for TMP, and he takes pride in playing an integral role in making TMP an increasingly visible and important part of the College of Engineering.
Dean Matthew Tirrell of the College of Engineering proclaimed the 2005 business plan competition as "unequivocally the most well-conceived, well-attended and well-executed day of its type" since he's been at UCSB. Hansen, in turn, thanked Tirrell for his willingness "to support the campus, not just his own college, and encourage students to excel at technology AND business."
Cooper's enthusiasm for UCSB and TMP has helped him become an effective fundraiser. "UCSB opened in the 1940s and is already becoming a world-class institution," he says. "We've had five Nobel laureates in the last six years. People really want to give to the university because of its success and what it’s doing to build outstanding graduates.
"Last year, we raised $80 million for UCSB and more than $250 million in the last four years. Our goal is to get to $500 million."
Cooper's involvement with UCSB, which led to TMP and Inogen, also led to his current venture as co-founder, chairman and CEO of Skyler Technology, Inc., a software and intellectual property company. Odell, now CEO of Inogen, introduced Cooper to a small group looking for help to get the company started.
"I was so intrigued by the technology – software engines that accelerate complex computational tasks – that I volunteered to help them raise some money and serve as their chair, and I've since stepped in as their CEO."
Cooper turns to UCSB to mine the talent he needs to grow Skyler, most recently recruiting his marketing/communications director, computer consultant and bioinfomatics expert through his contacts there.
UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang calls Cooper "an unpaid employee of the university," a role Cooper only hopes to expand when Skyler is well funded and profitable. In addition to giving more of his time, when the proceeds at Inogen become more liquid, Cooper has his sights set on endowing chairs in TMP or computer science.
Cooper believes the young engineers of today have the potential to become some of the country's most successful entrepreneurs of tomorrow. And – even if it means he has to play a little less golf – he wants to share in the fun of making that happen.
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.