Investor Profile: Jean Hammond of LearnLaunch
With the NEVYs just around the corner, we’re nearing the end of our NEVY Award Nominee featured profiles. This week I sat down with Jean Hammond, co-founder and Partner at LearnLaunch, an EdTech accelerator dedicated to connecting, supporting, and educating the ecosystem. A Massachusetts native, Hammond attended both Boston University and MIT and has the deep appreciation for Boston sports teams, the Red Sox in particular, to show for it.
An accomplished angel investor, Hammond has spent decades building up the Boston EdTech community and supporting female entrepreneurs and investors by building programs and platforms for them to succeed.
Nina Stepanov: Tell me about your background - where did you grow up?
Jean Hammond: I was born in Los Alamos, New Mexico. When I was 13 my family moved to Oak Ridge, Tennessee. My simple way of telling the story is, I passed Western Tomboy but I flunked Southern Belle, so they had to export me to Massachusetts. These were both really great towns and amazing school systems.
Then, between high school and college, I took a year off and worked for my hometown newspaper and then hitchhiked around Europe for about 5 months. Seeing how other people live is part of learning to think outside of the box.
NS: Why did you go to Boston University? Why Biology?
JH: I thought that I might want to be a doctor or a vet. But then I ended up doing research after graduating and was really interested in that. When I went into college I didn’t know exactly what I wanted.
NS: If you could go back and do it again?
JH: To be honest, if I could go back, I would have pursued one of the other technical sciences. After I finished business school, I actually taught myself the rest of Electrical Engineering out of a textbook. I’m good at the other technical sciences and I couldn’t imagine myself spending that many years in medical school.
NS: What did you do after your undergrad? What lead you to MIT?
JH: After college I ran a food warehouse. I actually became a really big Boston sports fan during that time because I drove a truck onto the Boston food market at 5 AM every day and needed something to talk about with the guys. So, I had to become a sports fan. I fell in love with all the Boston sports, but most of all the Red Sox. I’m a crazed Red Sox fan, I don’t know how to describe it to you. My season tickets are in the bleachers. I’m a bleachers kind of person.
A bunch of my friends had been to undergrad at MIT and by then grad school but I was just looking for a good, academically challenging business school and MIT seemed like a good fit.
I focused on marketing and strategy, which I continue to love. When I found myself as a technical product manager type, I knew that I had come home. Overall, it was just really fun, we worked hard and played hard.
NS: How is MIT different now as a Trustee (member of the Corporation) as opposed to when you were there as a student?
JH: First of all, no classes in entrepreneurship. I took one class in strategic partnering. They didn’t even have a class in entrepreneurship then and yet, less than six years out of school, I had co-founded a startup and sold it four years later for a huge return. Today, MIT has a great, complex mix of entrepreneurship. Scientific discovery without understanding how to commercialize and bring those innovations to market maybe interesting, but it doesn’t change the world. I love the energy at MIT around new science and discovery and problem solving to change the world for the better. MIT is a huge complex machine but it’s really fun to be a part of making it work.
NS: You’re known as a serial entrepreneur. Can you share more background on the companies you’ve founded and what you were trying to solve?
JH: After business school my husband’s career took us to Edinburgh. I joined Spyder Systems, as employee number 35. When we left 3 years later, the company was at 350 people. It was the fastest growing company in the UK. It was with a few people from that company that we started AXON Networks.
We built remote monitoring of computer networks. We had ways of integrating our monitoring technology into lots of other people’s network equipment and gear in a way where we could report back and help troubleshoot their issues. We were a little ahead of the market, but when we got to the end we were right on time.
I was in the computer networking industry for about a decade and then some. It turned out to be an industry that was growing amazingly fast and changing frequently. There were many startups that got acquired by the larger distribution oriented companies. My company, AXON Networks, was the 13th acquisition by 3COM and during my time there I helped with 3 more acquisitions. Cisco Systems acquired about 10 companies in that same time period. It was a busy period of new technologies and increasing speed, accuracy, wirelessness of the networking environment were all happening very quickly.
Another company was Quarry Technologies, which was way ahead of the market.The market didn’t emerge as quickly we had envisioned. The features we built were important but not necessarily required exactly. Although, they became needed later.
NS: When did you realize you wanted to be in Venture? Tell me more about starting JPH Associates.
JH: Right around when I was exiting AXON and starting Quarry, I made my first angel investment. A business school classmate reached out and asked if I’d invest in her company. The next morning I said yes and that made me the first investor in ZipCar. I then co-led a very large round that helped the company reconfigure and get growing. It was then that I realized how much I liked being on the investment side of startups.
For a really long time I’ve mostly been a very very active Angel investor. I’m a member of 3 different groups, I co-founded Golden Seeds in Boston and was the coordinator for the first few years. I saw a set of statistics once that said 4% of members in Angel groups were women and about 4% of funding went to women-led firms and about 10-15 years later, it was more like 25% of the members were women and significantly more are going to women-led firms. I feel that to some extent I helped make that happen and I’m very happy about that.
JH: Each is different. I do some direct investing on my own but find that angel groups are a good way to enable new people to learn early stage investing. Golden Seeds brings the diversity of women senior managers in the team and often draws in women as investors. Hub Angels is microfund, which causes some forced diversification in your portfolio. Things that you might not choose to invest in yourself, the group does. For example, one of the Hub funds is an investor in DraftKings and though I probably wouldn’t have invested myself, the group said go and I thought, ok I’ll go for it. Sometimes you end up doing something that keeps you in the things that you think you understand better but that often isn’t the right place to be.
Launchpad is really large now but extremely well run and incredibly dedicated. Amongst the things that angels bring to the table, aside from their financial capital, is their human capital to apply to the problems that startups face. I love that philosophy, it’s right on top of mine.
NS: How do you find the time for everything?
JH: I don’t have the time for everything! I’m always wishful that somebody will come up with cloning technology. If there were two of me then I’d do all of the things that I do now more completely. I love what I’m doing.
NS: What are you most excited about that you’re working on now?
JH: I’m most excited by LearnLaunch. We’re working on something that Massachusetts is really good at, which is growing educational products. We’re getting better and applying the technology that we’re supporting in schools, colleges, and workplaces that all need better training and education.
NS: How did LearnLaunch come to exist? What is the mission of the firm and what do you see happening to the firm in the next 5 years?
JH: I had been investing in a few EdTech companies but when I showed them to other people that I co-invested with on other ventures, they thought “education is hard”.
I felt like it can’t be that hard. At the same time I had a bunch of entrepreneurs meeting and sharing ideas about how they could solve problems around EdTech and products for kids, parents and teachers. Then Marissa Lowman started these EdTech meetups in town and we decided to put them together.
I had thought back to the problems I’d been having with my co-investors at the angel groups around EdTech startups and realized that we needed to not only do what we now call LearnLaunch Institute, which are events, conferences, and services, but we also needed to do the accelerator and bring that curated experience together.
By then I was not only a mentor in MITs Trust Center but also at Techstars and MassChallenge. I realized that the accelerator experience would help investors be able to understand which ones were going to show a good growth profile and be able to choose confidently. Then I was able to show the startups that had come through the accelerator coupled with their accomplishments from being part of the program.
Now, we’ve divided the accelerator into two forms. We have LearnLaunch Boost, which is a 3 month program for companies who are at market entry and LearnLaunch Breakthrough for companies who already have some market traction, 250 - 500k of revenue. They come in and spend less time with us but work more intensely on distribution strategy, partnerships, and so on.
NS: You’ve been nominated for “Angel of the Year” at this year’s NEVY Awards, what would it mean for you to win it?
JH: Well, I’ve already been named Angel of the Year by the National Angel Capital Association. For that award, I think they thought that some of the things I’d done not only to grow the ecosystem here in Boston but to help it thrive were notable. Things like running cross-angel group training sessions to teach people to become new Angels and working to foster growth for women in the ecosystem and expand the female representation at groups like Launchpad VP and Hub Angels.
I’ve been diligent at supporting pieces of the Boston and New England innovation ecosystem and now, in particular, the education innovation ecosystem. I’m about growing ecosystems in which investment can happen and I do a lot of it. I’ll leave it at that.
Now let’s talk about LearnLaunch
NS: What stage of investments do you primarily target?
JH: The people coming into LearnLaunch Boost are in a stage where their product is pretty far along, at least late prototype and in most cases, market ready. Amongst the things we work with them on are product completeness and understanding the different ways of selling into the education market, which is often difficult. We focus on the issues that arise when entering the market such as pricing and levels of customer support.
We have a separate program for those who are further along called LearnLaunch Breakthrough. In Breakthrough, they need to have some real revenue. We focus on helping them understand what milestones will make their company grow, but also make a difference for them to be noticed and interesting to the next stage of investor. We spend quite a bit of time focusing on those types of issues and trying to figure out how to make all of that happen.
NS: What are the top traits you look for in terms of investing into a company or founder?
JH: I like the company story because all investing is about team. You do want a great leader in your founder but you also want a great team leader. One thing that we do in our application process is we have people introduce their other team members. I might be the CEO and I might introduce you as the best marketer in town and you might introduce Joe who’s the best developer in town and he’ll introduce Mary who’s the best finance and people ops person. By going around the room, we get to see how the team introduces each other and thus feels about each other and how well they can solve problems together.
They have to address a great market and understand it. Sometimes the hardest things are those really early questions like “how to enter the market” and “what are the exact details they’re going to use to get into the market.”
NS: What sectors of technology, industries, or trends are of interest to you?
JH: I’m interested in almost everything. Angels who are clever are cautious about things that take a really time to mature, including drug discovery and other complex biology. Some of the trends that I think are important in EdTech and beyond include machine learning and other types of AI as well as different types of software systems.
NS: What is the current fund that you are investing from?
JH: In LearnLaunch we invest from a microfund that is the LearnLaunch accelerator fund. We do invest in others and have set aside milestone investments.
For those in LearnLaunch Boost, it’s a $25,000 to start and up to $50,000 additional based on hitting milestones. Whereas Breakthrough is $50,000 to start and up to $70,000 additional based on hitting milestones.
NS: What excites you about the current market in Boston?
JH: Boston is a really healthy place to be, there are lots of great things going on. In particular, The Engine where Katie Rae is going to help focus in on harder to solve problems than just really simple software. Boston is also getting an interesting new set of venture players and that’s good and healthy.
NS: Who do you admire or who has been the greatest mentor for you?
JH: I can’t pick a person, there are just so many people I love working with. I’ll say that what I love about Boston is how collaborative it is. I learn from, and occasionally teach, a small number of people a lot of the time, be it at MIT or through the angel groups and LearnLaunch.
NS: Outside of your day-to-day work, what are your personal interests or activities?
JH: We’ve already talked about my love of sports and particularly baseball. I like gardening and have a big garden at home. Earlier in my life I loved being a car mechanic. I have a lot of great car stories too like driving a Ford Model A across the country.
NS: What was the first album you ever bought?
JH: I definitely bought an early Simon & Garfunkel album.
NS: Are you involved in any charitable organizations?
JH: LearnLaunch has a non-profit and MIT is technically a non-profit. For 10 years, I was a super activist board member for Thompson Island Outward Bound. It’s a wonderful organization that brings over 10,000 students from Boston inner city public school out onto the harbor island to learn educational and self-challenge activities, like digging in the salt marsh and climbing the alpine tower. They do wonderful work and the organization is a really great place for teams to go have a great party. partnership and leadership. The profits go all back into the mission. I’m also on the board of TCN which is non-profit.
Photos courtesy of Jean Hammond and LearnLaunch.