One of our earliest alumni, Lee graduated from Olin in 2007. After being involved in various startups, he has recently gone on to become a full time investor as Partner at Root Ventures, and co-founder of Parcel B, an investment group focused on Olin startups. We asked him how he uses his Olin education today, about his ‘continuous learning’ philosophy, and about navigating life after Olin.
What he did at Olin…
While at Olin, Lee was involved in FWOP (Franklin W. Olin Players, the student-run theatre club), Film Club, and was VP of campus life. Lee describes the classes he took as a “little bit of everything.” For example, he took Design for Manufacture, Astrophysics, Signals and Systems, and his favorite, Error Control Codes. Coming into Olin, he thought he would take the computer science route. However, he found that with systems engineering he could be multidisciplinary. Olin was still a brand new college then and all concentrations were open to student design. Lee considers his choice of systems engineering as well suited for technology investing. Since he knows a little bit about a lot of things, he can make advanced decisions about tech companies.
What he’s done since Olin…
Lee started his career at iRobot. While there, he was working in the Government Industrial Division. For Lee, one of the highlights of working at iRobot was the development of the iRobot Ava platform. Essentially, Ava is an autonomous mobile robot made for a wide variety of applications, from education to home care to factory inspection. Also while working at iRobot, Lee was involved in a side project researching robotic healthcare applications. It was here that he realized he appreciated working on something new and exciting with a small team.
Before long, Lee moved on to work at Pivotal Labs. He was working on a small team based in New York City when it was acquired by EMC (Pivotal later spun out of EMC and IPOed in 2018.). While working there, he developed important connections in the startup world, and also came to appreciate working on challenging software projects.
Next he focused his attention more on start-ups. He found a new company called SideTour which had just exited the TechStars accelerator program. SideTour had an interesting idea for creating value. They wanted to bring unique experiences to people in communities. For example, taking a graffiti tour of a town or watching a small town clothing maker go through their creation process.
At SideTour, Lee was the lead engineer working on an exciting new venture. Soon, it was acquired by Groupon. He and his team stayed on with Groupon. As a lead engineer working on bigger projects, his primary task was management. He worked in New York City but found himself missing the startup culture. He also knew he always wanted to try living in San Francisco. His opportunity came with a new company called Teespring.
Teespring is a company that creates custom apparel and products, simplifying the process of making custom t-shirts. It also sells pre-made designs. Lee moved to San Francisco and entered Teespring as Director of Engineering, and later led the team as VP of Engineering and CTO. During this time, Lee also started a side project of evaluating and investing in startups. He was backed by Bloomberg Beta’s Open Angels program to find promising entrepreneurship ventures. Lee realized that he could make an impact in the investment world by connecting Olin Alumni together. On their own, alumni can make small investments, but together they could bring a large presence to investment rounds. Recently, his side project has turned into a full time venture called Parcel B. This is named after the wooded area just off of Olin’s great lawn and sports fields. The idea is that like the undeveloped plot of land next to campus, the startups coming from Olin alumni represent a future with untold potential.
In Fall of 2018, Lee joined Root Ventures as a Partner. Root is a seed-stage venture capital firm with leading investments in “hard tech.” To Root, hard tech is about solving technical problems that are difficult - often hardware, software, or both. Their portfolio includes Particle, the internet connectivity microcontroller, Creator, the hamburger-making robot, and nTopology, the generative CAD software for advanced manufacturing. All of the partners at Root have engineering backgrounds, and have been operators or founders of technology startups. To date, there are no Olin-founded companies in the Root portfolio, but Lee is confident that there are enough high quality hard tech startups coming from of Olin alumni (Skydio, Right Hand Robotics, Common Networks, Osmo Systems, Dark, Indico Data) that one day there will be.
How the Olin Curriculum has helped him...
Besides teaching him about systems engineering, the Olin curriculum taught Lee how to “solve learning problems,” or “learning how to learn.” For example, he has become involved with an investment for a company called Osmo Systems that builds and interfaces aquaculture monitors. Lee says he knows little about the processes of aquaculture, but knows how to ask the questions and dive into gaining a decent enough understanding to have the conviction to invest.
For Lee, the idea of continuous learning was reinforced by the Olin curriculum. Currently, with his new venture, he is applying his techniques to become a more knowledgeable investor. By talking to other investors, reading multidisciplinary books, and teaching himself modern machine learning, he is embodying the belief that the learning you do in college can continue well past graduation.
Advice for Olin students?
“Don’t believe college is the best time of your life.” While we often think about traditional college as an ‘input to output machine’ for learning, think of your time at Olin as just a stage in your life. Use this time to start (or get better at!) being a lifelong learner.