Innovator of the Year: Groups4 Labs Inc.
The Innovator of the Year Award is given to a business flourishing in an innovative industry or approaching business/entrepreneurship in a groundbreaking manner via their products and/or services.
Many people would call starting a business a risky proposition, but for Felix Ejeckam, co-founder of Group4Labs Inc., a Menlo Park, California-based company that builds energy-efficient diamond-based semiconductors for wireless products, becoming an entrepreneur was in his blood.
“You don’t have that sense of it being risky if your parents were already doing things like that,” Ejeckam explains. His father was a founder of Fidelity Bank PLC in Lagos, Nigeria, back in 1988, “and they’re now one of the largest banks in the region,” Ejeckam says.
After earning a master’s and doctorate in electrical engineering from Cornell University, Ejeckam, 38, worked for global consulting firm McKinsey & Company, “with the full knowledge that I would leave shortly to start a company,” he says.
He made good on that plan in 2003 when Group4Labs was born. Clients immediately bought into the idea, with funding coming from corporate and government clients such as the Department of Defense and the National Institutes of Health. The company also received grants ranging from $100,000 to $750,000 through the Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research Program, which rewards businesses with grants for innovative business ideas. In 2008, the 12-person firm had revenues of $1.25 million, and while Ejeckam dues not rule out raising money through venture capital in the future, he credits the company’s ability to grow organically as a testament to its strong business model. “The nature of our growth has been entirely about money made the old-fashioned way,” he says.
Why is Group4Labs the best company in its field?
We have amazingly talented people. Everyone in the company is the best in the world at what they do. We’re extremely selective about who we hire. As a result, our turnover is almost nil. That’s something I think that helps us.
Do you have any words of advice for people who are also thinking about starting businesses?
Know what your customers want. Make sure your revenues are higher than your costs and define your objectives as clearly and as early as possible and don’t waver from it.
What can Black Enterprise readers learn from you?
The importance of perseverance – sticking to it. You’ve got to hang in there. Don’t be drowned by other people’s dogma but be a very good listener.
What recent challenges have you faced and how did they tackle them?
We were trying to decide on which one of two product ideas to exclusively focus on in the company. Developing both technologies at the same time was too expensive, inefficient, and unsustainable for a very tiny startup of five. We elected to undertake the arduous process of a six-month long due diligence process. Essentially, we needed to step back and re-build the core elements of our business plan. Along the way, we found out that [one idea] lacked one key ingredient that the other did have: a sustainable cash-flow positive business model for a small company. We elected to leave that product idea for another larger company that might find a self-sustainable business model. Had we not invested in the strategic planning process early on, we would have learned some very expensive lessons rather late.
Type of Business: Semiconductor manufacturer
Co-Founder/CEO: Felix Ejeckam
Location: Menlo Park, CA