Conor Madigan: From MIT to TV
VentureOut – Highlighting LGBT leaders in business.
Powered by StartOut. Written by David Duran. The following article was originally published in The Advocate.
The Organic Light Emitting Diode, called an OLED, is the thinner, lighter, and more efficientreplacement for LCD and plasma that could revolutionize your television set. OLED can be made in paper thin, flexible sheets. And because of its many advantages, all of the leading flat panel display manufacturers are working hard to exploit the new material and make it mainstream.
First, it needs to “scale up” with reduced costs and in larger sizes. OLED is used already in many high-end smart phones, bringing them huge improvements to image quality, but manufacturing challenges have kept the technology from breaking into the large ($100 billion per year) television market. This is where Kateeva comes in.
The company’s goal is to supply manufacturing equipment that enables OLED to be 30% lower cost than LCD and plasma — which could mean OLED rapidly replaces LCD and plasma, according the company’s out 34-year-old founder, Conor Madigan.
“I started the company with no previous business experience and had to figure out how to swim as the CEO quickly,” Madigan said.
Madigan started working on OLED manufacturing technology, and specifically on OLED printing, as a sophomore at Princeton University in 1998. He’s worked on the technology ever since, continuing his research at MIT, where he received his Ph.D.
“The decision to start Kateeva was made collectively by myself, two MIT Ph.D. student colleagues, and two MIT faculty,” he said. “We had all worked together on OLED research at MIT and decided in late 2007 that we could leverage the technologies we had developed to solve the most difficult OLED manufacturing challenges.”
Madigan concedes that none of his new partners had direct business experience. They were fortunate to have a sixth co-founder, Sass Somekh — a Ph.D with experience in business from the semiconductor equipment industry who now serves as Kateeva’s executive chairman.
Kateeva’s major challenge in the beginning was that it was highly capital intensive. “We estimated it would take $100 million and seven years to bring a successful flat panel display manufacturing product to market,” said Madigan. “It was not the ’cookie cutter‘ type of start-up in Silicon Valley, so it took some strategizing to figure out the right investors.” Kateeva now has 55 employees. And Madigan declined to report on the valuation of his company.
The company uses its proprietary OLED printing technologies to develop sophisticated, high-precision printers for use in OLED manufacturing lines.
“I would not have succeeded if I had not had a great mentor in our executive chairman, and had not had great advisors in our initial investors,” said Madigan, who emphasizes the need to work with the best people.
Madigan, who attended his first StartOut event two years after forming Kateeva, said that although the group for LGBT entrepreneurs doesn’t directly assist him with building the Kateeva business, it has been helpful in building a personal network to discuss ideas.
“The StartOut community is an amazing group of smart, dedicated, inspiring people,” he said, “and I frequently use their events as a great opportunity to bounce around business ideas and getting many different insightful perspectives quickly.”
Madigan, who serves on the board of governors for StartOut, said, “It is always worthwhile to engage a community that is already biased towards your success.” He recommends exploring other communities to which an entrepreneur belongs and looking for groups that support businesspeople.
On the topic of investors, Madigan recommends evaluating any potential investor and board member carefully on the basis of personality and reputation. “There are many firms with money,” he said, “but the most important differentiation for an entrepreneur is to have investors and board members that are smart, engaged, and easy to work with – it is easy to fall into an adversarial relationship with investors and board members and it is just as easy for that kind of relationship to kill a company.”
As Kateeva’s board grew, Madigan said, he benefited from each
member’s advice and guidance: “As a company, we have also focused on hiring highly experienced experts, both at the engineer and executive level, to ensure that at all levels, we are rarely encountering an obstacle that no one has seen before.”