Tech Trailblazers: The pioneers, past and present, of Utah’s vibrant tech community
The tech sector has grown in fits and starts in Utah. Early successes like WordPerfect and Novell gave way to a period of simmering, slow development. The state produced many innovative ideas and businesses—but those were quickly sold or merged with out-of-state companies. Now Utah’s self-styled Silicon Slopes has come into its own, garnering attention from Bay Area investors and tech talent from across the country. Here, we take a look at some of Utah’s early tech pioneers, as well as the current crop of entrepreneurs who are strengthening and deepening the Beehive State’s technology industry.
Mario Capecchi, Ph.D.
Co-Chair, Department of Human Genetics University of Utah
Utah’s natural beauty helped attract Mario Capecchi from Harvard University, but the state’s support for science and research has helped keep him here.
At the time he was recruited, Italian-born Capecchi had earned a Ph.D. from Harvard and was a professor of biochemistry at Harvard Medical School. The University of Utah was organizing a new department of biology that would emphasize excellence and collaboration, and tapped Capecchi to help build it. After several years of teaching, Capecchi shifted his focus to human genetics, drawn by its rich potential for research.
“I enjoyed teaching, and when I was doing biology, I was doing a lot of teaching at the expense of research,” he says. “It’s fun hearing about different areas [of biology], but it’s fun to apply the things you’ve discovered to human pathology.”
For the last 30 years, that research has predominantly focused on decoding the human genome—a puzzle for which there is no Rosetta Stone. But bit by bit, Capecchi and his namesake laboratory at the University of Utah are sorting out the genetic pieces. A massive breakthrough in the effort came with the development of “knockout mice,” rodents created with genetic engineering and in vitro fertilization, which have had one gene, essentially, turned off. Seeing the effect of that change to its code helps researchers identify what the gene does, which can help them identify what a malfunctioning gene might do and even how to repair or mitigate the damage.
The work earned him a Nobel Prize in 2007, but has also paved the way for breakthroughs in medicine for some of the toughest patients out there.
“We’ve applied it to a lot of different things. Right now we’re really interested in … modeling cancers in children, which are very aggressive but not getting very much attention, so this allows us in this niche, essentially, where everything we find is new, and it applies to a significant part of the population, which is children,” he says.
Cancer treatments in the next decade will likely look vastly different as more targeted approaches are developed, he says.
In addition, Capecchi is looking at another largely neglected sector of research, dealing with neuropsychiatric disorders and increasing medicine’s understanding of the structure and workings of the brain.
“Right now, we’re simply searching to see how to handle [these patients], because we don’t understand how the brain works,” he says. “Once we understand it, the cures will be much more rational and have much fewer side effects. Unfortunately, most of the drugs we use now are used to settle down the patient, but they don’t solve the problem.”
Research takes a lot of money, he says, especially when specialized laboratory equipment comes into play. Utah has done a great job of supporting science, both as a community and financially, says Capecchi, and he encourages people to let their politicians know they want that issue prioritized, as well. The future of science and medicine, he says, is dependent on democracy.
Peter D. Meldrum
Peter Meldrum co-founded Myriad Genetics in 1991 to develop a molecular diagnostic tool for the BRCA1 gene, which had been found to be linked to hereditary breast cancer. Myriad’s lab soon sequenced the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, and in 1996 launched the first full-length gene sequencing test for hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. Within a few short years, the company had developed tests for genes associated with colorectal and uterine cancers, as well as melanoma. Now Myriad Genetics has molecular diagnostic tests for an array of cancers and autoimmune diseases. As for its original BRCA test—well over a million patients have been tested for the genes. Meldrum retired from Myriad Genetics in 2015, after heading the company for 24 years.
Dave Elkington, CEO and co-founder of InsideSales.com, found inspiration to create his company from an unlikely source.
“InsideSales is the real-life representation of my philosophy thesis, based on Aristotle’s concepts of logic and how we categorize things. I was really interested in the way people learn and how people categorize data,” says Elkington. “The company was designed to bring to life complex theories of how we behave as humans and apply them to business processes. The big idea is to apply the way that people organize, consume and leverage data to business problems using software, big data and artificial intelligence.”
It was 2004 when Elkington made a company out of these ponderings, and while the original idea for InsideSales may have been abstract, its growth has been far more concrete. InsideSales has been listed among the fastest growing companies by Inc. magazine and Deloitte and as one of the top 100 private companies by AlwaysOn. InsideSales also ranks No. 5 in the nation for jobs created in the software industry, according to Inc.
InsideSales’ growth has mirrored that of Utah’s tech industry in general—growth has come with its own set of challenges, and Elkington is looking for creative ways to solve them. Early on with InsideSales, Elkington and his wife took on jobs as night cleaners in a doctor’s office to keep the company solvent and make payroll. Their hard work, transparency with their team and relationships with their vendors and customers brought them through the storm and back into smooth waters.
Now, Elkington is invested in finding ways to help the tech community in general and grow local tech talent. His company’s Do Good Foundation gives 1 percent of product, 1 percent of employees’ time and 1 percent of company revenue to impact the community. Employees volunteer each week to teach computer programming to young students, and every summer the company puts on a four-day Girls Code camp, where girls learn about code, HTML, Scratch and Blocky, as well as meet potential role models in women coders.
“We have several initiatives dedicated to teaching local youth about STEM and encouraging them to pursue careers in the field as they grow up,” says Elkington. “We believe that there is currently a lack of computer science courses available for young children, and we are trying to ignite a movement among tech companies to do something about it.”
David C. Evans and Ivan Sutherland
In the mid-1960s and into the ‘70s, the University of Utah computer science department was a hotbed of activity in 3D computer graphics technologies. Two professors there, David Evans and Ivan Sutherland, launched what’s considered the world’s first computer graphics company, Evans & Sutherland, and influenced an entire generation of computer graphics pioneers, including Edward Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and current president of Walt Disney, and John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe. Evans was a Utah native who studied electrical engineering at the University of Utah. After working in the field and then joining the faculty at University of California, Berkley, Evans was recruited back to the University of Utah to help it found its computer science department. When Sutherland joined the department in 1968, he had already invented a graphical user interface, Sketchpad, for which he earned Turing Award from the Association for Computing Machinery in 1988.
It’s not hard to argue that Josh James and Omniture put Utah’s tech industry on the map. After taking Omniture public, James was able to grow the company to the point it had 5,000 customers, including eBay, Wal-Mart, Microsoft, Sony, Oracle and HP. Then he sold Omniture to Adobe in a $1.8 billion transaction that brought the tech giant to the Beehive State.
At that moment, he could have rested on his laurels, enjoying the fruits of his labor while heading the Omniture division at Adobe. But James was far from done. So he left Adobe and founded Domo in 2010, again choosing Utah as the right place to launch the venture.
“Building my businesses in Utah has been one of the best decisions I could have made,” James says. “The mentality of Utah is different than many places across the country—it’s a culture of industriousness and tenacity. In addition, people really care about their work and they care about the success of our customers. Being able to build a team of people who espouse those qualities has been a major enabler of our success.”
With Omniture, James had sought to solve a specific challenge for marketers. For Domo, he set out to solve one of the problems that had vexed him most while running Omniture: a lack of a means of getting up-to-date information about his organization without having to go to a specific department head. He crafted Domo’s software-as-a-service offerings to allow everyone, from CEO to front-line worker, to have direct access to data in a useable format.
“We’re the only company that is bringing together data analytics with social and mobile technologies on top of an enterprise-strength cloud platform to transform the way enterprise businesses are managed,” he says.
James started his new company and dubbed it Shacho, and soon bought a Lindon-based startup, Corda, to help jumpstart his new venture, and rebranded to Domo.
In those early days, outside investors hadn’t yet taken note of Utah’s soon-to-boom tech industry, and venture capital funds and attention were scarce. But that challenge was familiar to James, who had sought venture capital funding at a time when SaaS was new and unfamiliar. Just like investors eventually warmed up to Saas, Utah has also become a hot prospect for investors.
“We now have top-tier VCs investing in the state because they see the successes we have here. It’s a very exciting time to be doing business in Utah and we look forward to being a part of the state’s continued momentum,” James says. “We’re just getting started. I want to build a huge, enduring company and I want to be running it when I am 70. So over the next few years, my focus will be on continuing to evolve our platform, scaling our customer base and continuing to deliver amazing career opportunities for people right here in Utah.”
Patrick M. Byrne
Seventeen years ago, Patrick Byrne saw an opportunity in online retail, offering closeout and overstocked products at a discount. With the benefit of hindsight, success seems like a foregone conclusion for Overstock.com; but at a time when traditional retailers struggled to make online retail profitable, Byrne’s gamble was not without significant risk. Now, Overstock.com is not only a household name, but it has been profitable for six of the last seven years—which can’t be said of Amazon—and recently reached a milestone $2 billion in annual revenue.
The key to Overstock’s victory was data-driven marketing, enabling the company to use location and click information to target ads to page visitors. Another area Byrne is pioneering is cryptocurrency. Overstock.com was the first major online retailer to accept bitcoin as payment. The company is currently working to build an alternative stock market based on the bitcoin model.
When Ryan Smith’s father, a marketing professor at BYU, was looking for a way to do sophisticated online research, Qualtrics, or the seedling from which Qualtrics would sprout, was planted. Fourteen years later, Smith says Qualtrics is still finding ways to innovate data collection and analysis.
“From the beginning, we thought we could change the way people worked and the way they collected data,” says Smith. “We help organizations move even beyond that today. Just because you have data coming in doesn’t mean it’s the right data. We wanted to create a way for people to move from data to insights so they knew exactly what actions they need to take to improve their business.”
When Smith and his co-founders began the company, Smith says the technology landscape in the state was quite different. Starting an online company in Utah after the dotcom bust was a challenge that few wanted to take on. The realities of finding funding or leaving work at an established company to work for a startup were unattractive to most, even after the first few “home runs” in Utah’s tech industry had taken place. But the lean times, says Smith, were what helped the company create its own success story.
“We were bootstrapping for the first 10 years. All of our competitors at the time were very well funded. Those early constraints forced us to innovate more than anyone, and that’s been key to our success,” he says. “Constraints breed creativity—and being innovative and creative is the only way to win.”
Today, Smith believes Utah’s tech ecosystem has changed. Working for startups has become a focus for many, and the entrepreneurial spirit in the state is strong. Still, Smith believes there are challenges yet to be addressed. More companies should focus on scaling and staying in Utah for the long haul, rather than selling as soon as they can. He hopes that Qualtrics’ success can serve as a model for others in the industry as a company that scaled successfully and was built to be a multi-generational company.
“We need to learn to be finishers. We need quite a few companies to go the distance. There seems to be a tendency to start a business with the intent to sell it in a few years,” says Smith. “That’s not going the distance and if we keep doing that, Utah will never become what it could be … But we are on to something and it’s been amazing to see how the tech scene has begun to grow and develop. It’s an exciting time.”
Alan Ashton and Bruce Bastian
Alan Ashton was a computer science professor at Brigham Young University and Bruce Bastian was his student when the pair developed a word-processing system that became known for its clean user interface, numerous features and availability for several operating systems. Ashton and Bastian co-founded WordPerfect in 1979, and by the mid-1980s the software had taken over the word-processing market. The company was sold to Novell in 1994, just as it began to face fierce competition from Microsoft Word.