The Next Big Thing

By Kristi Evans

Stefanski

Some of the qualities that made Bob Stefanski ’84 BS an NMU Sports Hall of Fame inductee and Academic All-American have contributed to his professional success. Just as wide receivers have great peripheral vision to survey the field and find an opening, entrepreneurial advisers and investors continually scan the high-tech landscape for a void on the verge of being filled by the next big idea. Receivers use speed and agility to create separation from opposing players, much like innovators rely on quick, decisive action and adept financial backing to position themselves ahead of the competition. And achieving optimal performance—whether as a football player or an attorney specializing in intellectual property—requires the intangibles of a strong work ethic, laser-like focus, intelligence and discipline.

Stefanski is located in the hub of high-tech innovation and development: California’s Silicon Valley. Some of the biggest players in the business—Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay and others—have headquarters there. He lives in Palo Alto, just a few houses away from where the late Steve Jobs lived. 

“There’s a magic that happens in Silicon Valley,” Stefanski said. “It’s driven by entrepreneurs, not bankers or politicians. There’s a very loyal adherence to that culture. Even though it’s competitive, there’s also a casual vibe and a genuine spirit of collaboration. There’s a good chance all the people you would need for a great startup—entrepreneurs, product developers, venture capitalists [VCs]—are sitting right there in the coffee shop with you. And if they’re not, the person next to you will be able to quickly connect you to someone with the right expertise. It’s an amazing assembly of people who are driven by the desire to solve problems and make life better.

“It takes money to bring ideas to market and over 50 percent of all venture capital dollars are invested in Silicon Valley and San Francisco. Most of today’s successful VCs were entrepreneurs themselves who started companies and have scars on their backs. In the early days, most investors worked at banks or on Wall Street.
Another difference is that, while no one likes failing, failure is tolerated here because people realize it is an inevitable byproduct of creating truly innovative companies. VCs know they’re taking moon shots. For every 10 you invest in, five are going to fail completely, three might be pretty good and maybe one or two will be awesome.”

Stefanski is leveraging Silicon Valley’s capital and expertise for the benefit of entrepreneurs in his home state of Michigan. The Grand Blanc native is a general partner in eLab Ventures, an early-stage technology venture capital fund created by a team of entrepreneurs and investors. It is based in both Palo Alto and Ann Arbor, where Stefanski completed his master’s in computer information and control engineering and his law degree at the University of Michigan. 

The sharing economy has changed my kids’ lives,” he said. “I love it because it addresses overcapacity and waste. It’s an efficient use of our resources, so there’s an environmental benefit. There are many cool things that will happen, but what should happen is creating a sustainable world. We have the technology to pull that off and there are lots of bright people working on the issue, but not the political will. It’s unfortunate that won’t be the next big thing in five years.”

To focus on eLab Ventures, Stefanski recently left his global venture capital and emerging growth company practice with the Palo Alto office of the global law firm Reed Smith. His legal career began years earlier on the East Coast. In 1989, Stefanski joined Weil, Gotshal & Manges in New York. His technology-based practice represented leading software, media and entertainment companies in such areas as intellectual property (IP) and antitrust regulation. 

Stefanski served briefly as corporate counsel and IP chief for Reuters America as the Internet was taking off and news organizations worked to develop technologies to protect copyrighted news feeds. While there, he met visionary tech entrepreneur Vivek Ranadivé, whose Teknekron Software Systems was the first company to integrate all data feeds used by Wall Street traders. 

“Reuters was the only other big player in the business and they were getting beat, so they acquired Teknekron before I got there,” Stefanski said. “I met with Vivek in my first week on the job and that resulted in spinning out a new startup to license and build on the original Teknekron technology to expand into markets beyond Wall Street, such as high-tech manufacturing and telecommunications. I was working with him and Reuters to complete the deal for the new company and Vivek asked me to join his team. He was a brilliant guy and made an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I moved to Silicon Valley.”

Stefanski helped to elevate that venture, TIBCO, from startup to a leading software infrastructure company that helps businesses quickly process and aggregate massive amounts of data. With Intel as its first major customer, TIBCO grew fast. The company went public as the dot-com bubble was expanding and was profitable enough by that point to weather the bust that followed, despite the hit to its stock price. He said it remains one of the leading enterprise software companies in the world.

After leaving his general counsel position at TIBCO in 2003, Stefanski continued to work in various roles at the company until 2008. He also served as director of Silicon Valley startups such as mobile software company Zi Corp. before joining the Reed Smith law firm. 

“Years ago, I almost started a company that was going to be the biggest knowledge-sharing platform in the world. When it comes to knowledge transfer, the best way to learn is to talk to someone in the world who knows the subject better than anyone else, so you’re not overwhelmed by a Google search. There is a massive asset of people with specific knowledge and there’s always someone looking for particular expertise. This would have intersected the two by connecting people with a button on a smart phone. I didn’t follow through, but someone will eventually get to that point.”

With all of his experience advising entrepreneurs, investing in their technologies and representing their legal interests, did Stefanski have any desire to pursue his own big idea? Quote: 'There's a magic that happens in Silicon Valley. It's driven by entrepreneurs, not bankers or politicians. There's a very loyal adherence to the culture.'

The former Wildcat receiver who once disrupted defensive schemes is now immersed in “disruptive innovation” that has the potential to create new markets and transform lives. But Stefanski remains connected to his former teammates.

“They were a very important part of my life and we’re still best friends. The guys I roomed with are all successful in their own right. Football was a huge plus for me because it made me a more disciplined student. I also had very good computer science and mathematics professors who took an interest in me. NMU had a big impact on me. I don’t think I knew any Yoopers before I went there, but I’m forever fond of them. Even though I didn’t grow up in the U.P., I’ll always consider myself an honorary Yooper. They are genuine and original.” Just like the best innovations.

After leaving his general counsel position at TIBCO in 2003, Stefanski continued to work in various roles at the company until 2008. He also served as director of Silicon Valley startups such as mobile software company Zi Corp. before joining the Reed Smith law firm. 

With all of his experience advising entrepreneurs, investing in their technologies and representing their legal interests, did Stefanski have any desire to pursue his own big idea? 

“Years ago, I almost started a company that was going to be the biggest knowledge-sharing platform in the world. When it comes to knowledge transfer, the best way to learn is to talk to someone in the world who knows the subject better than anyone else, so you’re not overwhelmed by a Google search. There is a massive asset of people with specific knowledge and there’s always someone looking for particular expertise. This would have intersected the two by connecting people with a button on a smart phone. I didn’t follow through, but someone will eventually get to that point.”

The former Wildcat receiver who once disrupted defensive schemes is now immersed in “disruptive innovation” that has the potential to create new markets and transform lives. But Stefanski remains connected to his former teammates.

“They were a very important part of my life and we’re still best friends. The guys I roomed with are all successful in their own right. Football was a huge plus for me because it made me a more disciplined student. I also had very good computer science and mathematics professors who took an interest in me. NMU had a big impact on me. I don’t think I knew any Yoopers before I went there, but I’m forever fond of them. Even though I didn’t grow up in the U.P., I’ll always consider myself an honorary Yooper. They are genuine and original.” Just like the best innovations.

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