Mizzou grad to serial entrepreneur
Bob Lozano has aptly been referred to as a serial entrepreneur for the string of start-up technology businesses he has been associated with since he graduated from the University of Missouri with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1979.
Lozano credits his passion for self-employable enterprises to his professors and fellow graduate students at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., where he earned his master’s degree in electrical engineering in 1980. “Whereas the best and brightest from Mizzou Engineering were leaning toward research or joining established, large companies, Stanford embraced the risk factor and the best students were going to go out and do start-ups. I left knowing that’s what I would do,” said Lozano.
While he worked his first job at Sandia Labs in New Mexico, he and two friends started, faltered, and failed, at a first endeavor. “I learned the importance of good sales and marketing,” said Lozano of the experience.
Remembering his last conversation with his father-a career engineer with Boeing in St. Louis-in which his father told him that if he could do something differently, he would have stayed closer to his family, Lozano loaded up his own growing family in 1982 and returned to the Midwest to work for Monsanto in St. Louis. But a start-up still tickled at the back of his mind.
“The Midwest looks different as an adult,” said Lozano, “I love being here, but the culture here is not as oriented to start-ups and it took a while to find like-minded people.”
He was eventually recruited by Southwestern Bell and also worked as an adjunct professor in the Computer Science Department at Washington University-where he said he was able to hone important public speaking skills.
“But I just wasn’t happy in the corporate world,” said Lozano. “One day I called my wife to tell her that a friend had a little development contract, and what did she think …?”
That project launched him and two friends into Lozano’s first full time start-up technology business.
“We had some bumps,” said Lozano. “It’s important that you are honest with yourself about how much you’re willing to risk. And you absolutely have to have your spouse’s support. When I got home at night, Carol and I were always on the same side.”
That first business, Tapestry Computing, worked to successfully integrate and resell systems, but Lozano’s partners had different ideas on how to move forward, and Lozano eventually traded in his partnership for the rights to a product that they had begun developing.
His next venture, called PaylinX, involved payment solutions software for electronic commerce applications. During the development stage, tight finances caused the family to depend on the kindness of others for day-to-day necessities. At the point that they were about to lose their house, he and his wife sat their eight kids down at the table and asked them, “What should we do?”
After 30 seconds of total quiet, his 14-year-old son said, “You should just keep trying until it works, because eventually it will.”
“That was the right answer,” laughs Lozano. “Within two years we had 150 employees and were making $1 million a month.”
Just as the company was getting ready to go public in 1999, the dot-com bubble burst. “We just missed,” said Lozano. “We sold the company and I took a year off.”
To feed his start-up fix, Lozano began hosting geek nights where anyone who came to share barbecue and wine also had to share an idea with the group.
“Anybody was invited, as long as he or she was someone you would want to be in business with. It was just to get our minds juiced,” explained Lozano, adding that presenters kept the rights to their ideas.
From that group of roughly ten or twelve people, Lozano and four others started a company called Tsunami Research to develop what was then known as hive computing, though over time has come to be termed application fabric software.
Tsunami’s product did not rely on a single expensive server to manage a company’s processes, but rather used software to enable a group of small inexpensive units to re-configure themselves if there are failures in any of the units. It is cheaper, more efficient, and much more reliable than systems depending on traditional servers and mainframes.
They launched the company on Sept. 10, 2001, and woke up the next morning to news of the World Trade Center attack. “Investment money dried up on the spot,” said Lozano, “but a friend gave me a check while the banks were still closed. Those funds and some additional investments funded the fledgling company’s first prototype.
The hive was still alive, but would soon get a new name.
The company changed its name to Appistry after a Dec. 26, 2004 earthquake off the coast of Sumatra spawned a disastrous tsunami. At roughly the same time the company’s product became an application fabric, a concept that was much easier to explain to people, and it worked well with the new company name.
Last year Appistry secured Federal Express as a client. “They went from thinking that we were the highest risk portion of their Number One information technology project to saying that they liked it that the only time they had to talk about us is when they said they never had to discuss us,” chuckled Lozano.
“People just want technology to work,” observed Lozano, now serving as the Appistry’s chief strategist. “The fabric stuff is very scalable and very reliable no matter how large the system needs to be.” He cites geospatial applications and credit card processing as examples of client applications, among many others.
“When we started, we were 4 or 5 years ahead of the market, but that is changing even now,” said Lozano. “If you’re a new web company, why not start with the fabric and have everything you need to scale from day one?”
“Appistry has a great opportunity to make other companies successful,” Lozano adds. “We’re really proud of that.”
Career Engineer profile
What is your fondest memory of your days as a student in Mizzou Engineering?
Probably my favorite engineering-related memory had to be the chance as a sophomore to start doing real system-level geek stuff in Dr. Dwyer’s Biomedical Image Analysis Lab. I was in way over my head, doing work that really needed to be done, and there simply wasn’t much that could get in the way, except maybe myself! It was awesome, and learning how to just figure stuff out no matter what really set me up well for graduate school and the startups to follow.
On a personal level, I met my wife-to-be in Physics and Calculus classes my freshman year and were engaged a few weeks later-better than studying for finals! Our wedding at the Newman Center on campus and the birth of our first daughter followed soon after, all while we were still undergrads. We recently celebrated our 30th anniversary and have been phenomenally blessed. With a whole bunch of kids, their spouses, grandkids and all that, it can be a real zoo, and we wouldn’t have it any other way!
What was your favorite class and why or who your favorite professor and why?
Dr. Walter Johnson, Econ 51. He was a tremendous teacher-energetic, deeply intellectual, and pretty funny-who could draw you deeply into what was simply a dry subject to many students. Once he had you engaged, it was all over. Economics quickly became one of my favorite subjects and eventually became my minor as well. I was really struck by the structural similarities to many engineering problems, especially when thinking at a systems level. But more importantly I was intrigued by the world view differences in how problems were framed and solutions reasoned. I think that he started a line of thinking that made me a much more effective engineer.
What do you consider the greatest achievement of your career so far?
The opportunity to help pull together a couple of technology companies in the Midwest that have made some real marks in their respective industries is my greatest achievement so far. There are some challenges unique to being physically located in an area where most people are not expecting serious innovation to originate, so our success has been very gratifying. I am particularly excited about our current effort-Appistry-and how we are right in the middle of a great shift in the nature of how most computing is actually done. Most of this story is yet to be told, there is competition on every side, and most of those competitors have budgets several orders of magnitude larger than ours- and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
What do you do for fun when you’re not working?
Lots of reading, blogging on both technical and personal topics, hanging out with friends and family, thinking about ways to make the late JP2’s call for the new evangelization real in an increasingly cynical world. I’m particularly intrigued by topics ranging from the early church fathers to the struggles of developing western civilization. I really like to road cycle when I’m physically able, and to round things out Carol and I are home schooling our youngest-we’re almost down to one at home! On the horizon I see a few writing projects.
As someone who has had a distinguished career in engineering, what is your best piece of advice for today’s engineering students?
First, don’t ever take yourself too seriously. The world is full of people who disregard this rule, and that’s singularly unfortunate.
Second, do whatever you can to hone your sense of curiosity, and follow it wherever you can go.
Third, please develop a serious moral framework and use it as a foundation for the engineering and business decisions that you will make during your career. Just because something is possible, doesn’t make it advisable. When-not if-you screw up, admit it, make any amends that are possible, and get moving again.
Finally, perseverance after worthy goals is of enormous value. The world will constantly try to get you to simply give up, settle for less, punch the clock and go home. Too bad for them, but don’t make their mistake your own. Rather, relentlessly pursue what in your heart is the right thing to do-some of the outcomes are pretty cool!
Lozano gave the Sterling Hou Lecture at
Mizzou Engineering on March 12, 2008:
“Commmodity, Computing, and the Quest for Scale”