Q&A | Jens Horstmann, Co-Founder
At Salt Flats, our purpose is to make businesses smarter and faster, while helping turn new ideas into business innovations. Our members are the forward-thinking leaders who understand that the best way to prepare for the future is to create the future.
We’re excited to introduce you to our Salt Flats team! We come from diverse backgrounds, are experienced in disruption, and have the expertise to collaborate with you to build your company. This week, we’ll hear from our co-founder, Jens Horstmann, pioneer in semiconductors, computer aided design tools, computer systems, early B2B online and mobile commerce, location-based services and automated retail, with over 30+ years of experience in the executive, technology and engineering roles.
Q: What’s your background?
I have been an entrepreneur since high school when I founded my first company in Germany doing analog systems and sensors over 35 years ago. My training in electrical engineering and computer science allowed me to apply problem solving technics to technology innovation. I’ve enjoyed working with students and young startups as much as seasoned executives in Fortune 100 enterprises. Roles include being a board member, investor, founder, inventor, engineer, CEO and CTO. I have a passion for aviation and often compare the complexity of risk taking and venturing to dealing with the uncertainty and need for real-time decision making while piloting.
Q: Tell us about some career highlights.
I’m extremely lucky to have been part of an exciting journey through innovation, technology and disruption over 30 years in Silicon Valley. I’ve always strived to be a driver behind disrupting entire industries, and my first opportunity was LSI Logic, the creator and leader of Application Specific Integrated Circuits that enabled a new breed of computers. The design of system-on-a-chip solutions and later the design tools that needed to be invented to harness this new won ability spawned entire markets allowing scientists, engineers, military applications, early building automation and yes, even Hollywood movie makers, to leverage microchips. My role as an applications engineer gave me deep insights into how people were using our technology to disrupt their industries.
Perhaps the young company that leveraged these advances more than anyone else was Sun Microsystems. It allowed them to practically displace billion dollar companies like Digital Equipment Company (DEC), Silicon Graphics, IBM mainframes, and Cray Computers. By putting what people considered “impossible” in the form factor of a pizza box, we shrunk clunky computers and by reducing the price 10-fold, made them accessible to a wide audience of engineers. A multi-billion dollar company was born in just a few years. Once again, I was lucky to work with one of Sun’s founders as microchip designer, systems engineer, architect and senior manager. We not only forced disruption by introducing faster networking, storage, etc. but through a highly methodical design approach were able to crank out a new computer generation every year, something that previously took 3 – 4 times as long.
The arrival of the publicly accessible internet in 1993 with the advent of a new breed of data-centers (now called Cloud) triggered new disruption that required different networking, graphics chips and tools. Even Sun, in our mind, wasn’t inventing fast enough. A flurry of startups and now multi-billion dollar companies like Nvidia and Google were the result. I directed one of them, X1 Corporation, applying Machine Learning to Wall Street to assess risk and make certain predictions for the likes of Paul Tudor Jones and Swiss Bank. We were about 20 years too early but managed to repurpose our assets, now called pivot, into the travel industry.
A decade after leaving Sun I found myself taking on yet another market ready for disruption: the movie distribution business dominated by. For several years people had talked about video-on-demand, yet the leading startup Netflix was almost bankrupt in 2002. It occurred to us that the market was ready for retail automation and self-service. A red kiosk, later named Redbox in partnership with McDonalds, was created by a small startup called DVDPlay that was housed in Netflix’s old headquarter. My meeting with Jim Keyes, the CEO of Blockbuster at the time, to discuss RedBox and reading his subsequent quote just months before his bankruptcy that “Neither Redbox (by now a billion dollar business) nor Netflix are even on the radar screen in terms of competition” was a key realization that most large enterprises don’t see the future even if it’s staring them in the face and that innovation may come from startups or unsuspected places.
Since the sale of DVDPlay and Redbox I’ve co-founded Crestlight Ventures, a venture capital firm helping startups to navigate the benefits (branding and distribution) and challenges of partnering with large corporations. The need to “produce” a startup or venture with heavy handed and agile project management, flexible funding and good IP management that both startups and enterprises can benefit from became key ingredients to Crestlight’s model.
The idea of a place where corporate, universities, startups and venture capital collaborate to explore, experiment, test and then turn some ideas into successful new business models was born – the Innovation House.