Welcoming Russ Wilcox to Pillar
We’re very happy to share the news that Russ Wilcox has joined Pillar as an Investing Partner. Russ brings a curiosity, kindness and breadth of experience to our team that we believe is a big win for our portfolio companies.
I first came to know Russ back in 1995. We were building PureSpeech, a speech recognition company using artificial neural networks (20 years before it was cool), and we needed a new team member to lead an important new product line. I asked our angel investor and legendary HBS professor Bill Sahlman for the names of the best students in the graduating class. He introduced me to Russ Wilcox, and we were lucky enough to have him join us.
In 1997, Russ left to help spin a new technology out of MIT, based on electronic ink — the idea that you could make paper-like displays for electronic newspapers and books. It was a novel idea at the time and something we take for granted today. Russ was the business founder of E Ink.
Like many science-based companies, E Ink had a challenging path. They had to choose initial markets, perfect the technology, convince customers to enter a brand new, zero-billion dollar market, then scale production. It was not a straight line. The company raised $50M from venture capitalists and $100M more from strategic investors across US, Europe and Asia. Russ led the company through rounds of layoffs, even recapitalizations.
Russ also lived through the recruitment of a “professional CEO”. This was the standard playbook for VCs in the late 90s / early 2000s [a very different playbook is run today, particularly by Pillar]. Russ did stints in running engineering, business development and product, while someone else ran the company. Five years later, he Russ returned to the CEO role, in a Steve-Jobsian full circle.
E Ink caught a break when Jeff Bezos picked their technology as the screen for the Kindle. Oprah announced in 2008, 9 years after E Ink was founded, that the Amazon Kindle (featuring the E Ink display) was her new favorite gadget. Amazon promoted the product heavily. Sales exploded and Russ oversaw the ramp from $9M to $160M in 36 months. E Ink was ultimately sold for $500M.
The E Ink journey is great example of a new science-based technology which created an entirely new category and shipped to tens of millions of devices. As MIT and Harvard faculty and students think about commercializing new technologies, Russ’ journey provides valuable lessons.
In case E Ink wasn’t challenging enough, Russ helped spin another company out of MIT — Transatomic Power — this time attacking the small problem of safe and affordable nuclear power. Over the last few years, Russ has also been an active angel investor across video games, advanced materials, robotics, sensors, biotechnology, and enterprise software.
He is one of the few people I’ve met in my career who has the aptitude and curiosity to enter brand new areas, to quickly become fluent and soon thereafter a thought leader. In a venture capital business, that is increasingly narrow and specialized, Russ brings a perspective and a breadth of understanding that entrepreneurs will come to love.
Russ has already hit the ground running and will be announcing his first investment soon — another MIT spinout with great potential. We couldn’t be more excited to have him onboard.
Excited about the news? Show Russ some ❤ below.