ENTREPRENEUR TO INVESTOR THE HARD WAY
In the future people will have ten careers (not ten jobs) during their lives, say workforce prognosticators. David L. Durgin has nearly reached that number.
During a long engineering and bootstrapped business and investment career, Dave has worn the mantles of Cold Warrior, Sandian, Defense Contractor, Tech-Transfer Consultant, High-Tech Entrepreneur, Manufacturer, Angel Investor, Mentor, and Venture Capitalist. The role he probably relished the most was Mentor.
Dave’s professional journey parallels Albuquerque, New Mexico’s evolution from a government town to a birthplace of technology transfer to a modern city with a diversified economy that includes a vibrant technology sector. Through it all, Dave posted a number of firsts.
One enterprise at a time, he helped transform the city’s economy. Today Albuquerque has 21 companies that bear his fingerprints and his investments. He also worked in various initiatives and groups to improve the business climate in Albuquerque and New Mexico.
“He’s a guy who is internally driven to make things better,” said entrepreneur Lem Hunter. “Some people want to be a hero and dash in when there’s a fire. Some are just there when times are good. Dave just wants things to be better. He’s not in this just for the money.”
Dave wasn’t all business. Another role was husband and parent to seven children—three daughters (two adopted, one biological) of his own, two stepchildren of his wife Eilene, and two step granddaughters (Dave and Eilene are legal guardians). His family wasn’t sheltered from the whiplash of Dave’s business ups and downs, nor was it immune to the complexities of a blended family or the fallout of modern life. Dave cares deeply about his wife and family members, but out of respect for their privacy, has limited his discussion of their lives.
Dave could have followed his father and brother into the CIA—and did, briefly—but from his teens, electronics held his quick, if rebellious, mind, and he pursued the field through technician training to be recruited by Sandia Laboratory in 1961. The Cold War was accelerating, which created new demands on the lab, and Dave arrived as Sandia was modernizing its nuclear stockpile.
He got useful exposure to manufacturing, and he was involved in atmospheric nuclear testing in the South Pacific when the team discovered that a nuclear effect called Electromagnetic Pulse, or EMP, could harm electrical and electronic systems. It was both threat and opportunity. His work in EMP would later take him into some high-powered management positions with defense contractors.
In 1967, Dave became one of the first to leave Sandia and attempt technology transfer. A family man with two children, he said goodbye to a secure job and paycheck and started a business to commercialize technology. Business and lab vocabularies didn’t yet include the words “tech transfer” or “high-tech entrepreneur.” The business climate in Albuquerque and New Mexico, still heavily dependent on federal spending, was hardly welcoming. And nothing in Dave’s training prepared him to run a business. His Product Designs Inc. lasted just over a year, but he made significant progress toward his MBR, Master’s in Business Reality.
“Having a failure first is probably better in terms of managing humility,” Dave would say later.
After months of anxiety during PDI’s decline, Dave landed at BDM, an emerging Albuquerque defense contractor. The Cold War had saved Sandia by providing a new mission after World War II, and it was a boon to companies doing business with the government. From the early 1960s to the end of the Cold War, Albuquerque and the state would see a growing number of government contractors that added thousands of paychecks to the local economy. Dave rose through the ranks to join BDM’s management team. In the process he had an inside view of defense agency operations and contractors.
In 1979, recruited to start a nuclear practice, he joined the venerable consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. As a partner, he had autonomy and a bigger organizational and financial base to grow a company. He opened an Albuquerque office and eventually became a senior partner.
By the late 1980s, Dave and others privy to government intelligence were starting to ask, “What if we win?”
The federal government was spending upwards of $140 billion a year on research and development, but little of it was commercialized for public use. At the same time, Japan had become a threat to the United States’ competitive position. New Mexico was precariously dependent on declining defense spending. It was obvious to Dave and others that if peace broke out, New Mexico could be in real trouble.
The answer to many problems, it seemed, was technology transfer—the passage of technology developed in government and university labs into the public realm as new products. Dave, with his long background in electronics, Sandia and defense contracting, was uniquely qualified to participate and lead this new movement. With his old friend Jim Schwarz, who had a similar career path, and several others, Dave launched Quatro Corporation in 1989. It was the first company formed in New Mexico to commercialize technology.
The reality of tech transfer was quite different from the hype. It was a difficult, expensive, risky process. New Mexico had no technologies on the shelf ready for the magic of development and marketing. Dave and his partners became consultants as they continued the search but quickly realized they needed financing and manufacturing. The state had no venture capitalists and virtually no contract manufacturing, so Quatro added those capabilities to the company’s menu.
In 1989 Quatro began the long process of commercializing its first technology, which would result, several years and many dollars later, in Quasar Inc. Quatro became the poster child of tech transfer and the scene of many a political photo opportunity.
Even so, Dave could see that the business climate in Albuquerque and New Mexico wouldn’t support technology transfer and new technology startup companies. His own fund was the only venture-type entity to survive the economic slump of the late 1980s, and New Mexico was still not on the radar of the nation’s investors. There were no support organizations. He joined a handful of other visionaries trying to diversify New Mexico’s economy and drag the state into the 1990s. In that capacity he either led or participated in a host of initiatives, organizations and task forces.
“Dave is one of the most influential people in the community because so many wires go through him,” said his old friend and former business partner Jim Schwarz.
Quatro’s diverse activities catapulted it into new arenas and accelerated its growth while ballooning costs and debt, which strained the partnership. After an initially fractious split, Dave negotiated a more agreeable parting. He spun out segments of the business to three partners and took command of the two operations that mattered most to him—tech transfer-investment and manufacturing. Quatro survived.
His trials weren’t over. His manufacturing company entered a massive, costly deal with a corporate giant that reneged on its contract. In one of the most trying episodes of his business life, Dave navigated a lopsided, two-year court battle and bankruptcy. He emerged not exactly unscathed but with his investment operation intact and more credits toward his MBR. He learned again that failure, however brutal, isn’t fatal.
As his fortunes waned in manufacturing, they waxed as an investor. His first three investments in New Mexico technology companies performed well, setting the stage for Dave’s rise as an angel investor. His Quatro Ventures became the pioneer fund in commercializing technology in New Mexico. In the process he honed his model of money and mentoring—intense involvement with portfolio companies, which greatly improves their chances of success, and investments at critical periods.
“Dave invests not just his money but his time,” said entrepreneur Rich Hoke. “He invests Dave Durgin in them.”
As the deals evolved, so did Dave. He gained a more sophisticated understanding of people, business models, startup financing and the world of venture capitalists. When he became a special limited partner in an out-of-state venture fund, it was a cultural leap to be a venture capitalist. It was a natural trajectory, but he had always identified more with the entrepreneur.
In 2003, Dave took a bigger step with partners Ray Radosevich, former dean of the University of New Mexico business school and a fellow investor, and Tom Stephenson, an Albuquerque native who represented a Texas venture fund. They organized Verge Fund, the first New Mexico-based venture-capital fund with the goal of investing only in New Mexico companies. Verge specialized in early-stage technology companies and seed-capital investments because financing for the newest, smallest startups had always been the most difficult, as Dave and his partners well knew.
“Verge was needed a long time ago,” said entrepreneur Ron McPhee, a special limited partner.
Launching Verge required going against what “everybody” said was impossible. Everybody said it was impossible to raise money in New Mexico. Everybody said it was impossible to find worthwhile deals in New Mexico. Everybody said it was impossible to grow and sustain high-tech companies in New Mexico. Everybody was wrong.
In just four years, Verge had a portfolio of 15 successful companies and had been named one of the nation’s Top 100 Venture Capital Firms for Entrepreneurs by Entrepreneur Magazine. When the National Venture Capital Association heralded New Mexico as first in growth between 1997 and 2007, it was Dave whom Business Week wanted to interview.
“In Quatro Ventures, Dave was always trying to create the funds that could be invested in seed deals in New Mexico,” said entrepreneur Rich Hoke. “Dave’s lifelong dream culminated in Verge. It was something he’d been working toward ever since I met him. With Verge, he hit his stride.”