Lead(H)er: Mira Wilczek, CEO at Cogo Labs
“I started my career as an ethical hacker for IBM. Basically, my job was to break into things before the bad guys got the chance,” Mira Wilczek smiled, thinking back to the beginning of her post grad years.
When it came time for Mira to go to college, she had a tough decision—did she want to be a biologist or a computer scientist?
Ultimately, the CEO of Cogo Labs decided to study computer science at MIT, where she participated in a number of undergraduate research programs. Shortly after graduating, Mira accepted her first full-time position at IBM.
“I would try to get into a system or program and steal data. It was my job to see if it could actually be done. It was fantastic technical training.”
After spending two years at IBM, Mira decided she wanted to go back to school to balance her deep technical skills with a broader business acumen.
“I gravitated towards the idea of being a technical entrepreneur, someone who could understand everything about the business. I decided to go back to MIT and get my MBA at Sloan School of Management in order to understand at a very basic level what every single person was doing, how they were doing it, and why they were doing it. This way I could make sure that I was contributing at every level.”
As an MIT alumni, Mira had strong connections at the engineering school. While she was back on campus, she got in touch with a group of people she used to work with and discovered they had started a new project. After she graduated, she joined their team at Lyric Semiconductor as Director of Business Development.
“We invented a fundamental circuit technology that was very efficient at performing calculations in the probability domain. We were very efficient, very low power and very low area. Letting us do those calculations with much lower battery requirements and lower manufacturing costs than any of our competitors.”
Mira signed up companies like Samsung, Analog Devices and Micron Technology to transition their technology from the research stage into a commercial product.
“It was a fantastic opportunity. I was definitely in the right place at the right time. We did pretty well for three years and at the end of it, Samsung made an offer to acquire us. Then Analog Devices caught wind of this and decided to make a counter offer. I got to manage that negotiation process all the way through, and Analog Devices ended up acquiring us. It was a great introduction to entrepreneurship, technological innovation, and guiding a startup to a successful exit.”
After the acquisition, Mira decided she wanted to stay in the startup world, so she started to look for other opportunities. While she was deciding where to go after Lyric, she started a consulting firm called Red Panda Security, where she worked on a number of defense contracts.
“I built a mobile security product for defense customers and piloted it with some commercial customers as well. It’s very easy for a mobile device to get lost or become temporarily under someone else’s control, so we worked on a product that could tell from how you were using the phone whether or not you were the phone’s owner. If it sensed you weren’t the proper owner, it would automatically lock all essential information,” Mira explained.
Around this time, one of Mira’s friends from business school told her about an incubator called Cogo Labs, and mentioned it might be a great fit because their model of entrepreneurship was very data-driven and technical.
“After going over to Cogo and talking to a bunch of people there, I discovered that everything that my friend told me was true. Basically every penny they made was based on data analysis and capitalizing on the understanding of that data. The more you brought to the table, the more you succeeded, and they were focused on making the ecosystem successful.”
Realizing Cogo Labs was a great fit, Mira joined them as an Entrepreneur in Residence. She originally planned to dig around in the data and come up with a spinout idea of her own, but she quickly discovered she was more drawn to how the incubator was run.
“Cogo is a unique and interesting incubator. Rather than reviewing cold pitches from entrepreneurs who already have an idea for a company, they tend to focus on bringing in people who they believe in - people with strong technical credentials, and often people they’d worked with before. Then the entrepreneurs work with Cogo, using Cogo’s tech and data to come up with an idea and prove it out while still in the incubator.”
“As I got more interested in the process Cogo had created, I told senior management I was having a hard time choosing one idea to pursue. What I found most fascinating was the platform itself--this combination of technology and big data that represented a completely different way of thinking about entrepreneurship. They asked me to become a partner and I eventually took over running the incubator and that’s where I am today.”
Currently, Cogo Labs supports five running spinout companies and they have three more inside the incubator. The companies inside the incubator usually stay for about a year to demonstrate their viability as self-sustaining businesses before they spin out and achieve their own destiny. Mira’s goal is to help companies become profitable and prove out the fundamentals of their business model by the time they leave Cogo. This way, they don’t need any additional funding until they’re ready to crank up right before an IPO.
Mira’s goal is for Cogo Labs to support 30 concurrent companies by 2020.
Rapid Fire Questions
How many cups of coffee do you drink a day?
Usually six or seven. Yeah… a lot. We have a coffee machine in the office which doesn’t help. We also have a cold brew keg which is even worse.
What time do you normally get to the office and what time do you normally leave?
I usually get in around nine and I usually head home around seven.
What do you like to do during your free time?
I have a dog who’s very adorable, so I like to hang out with her. I read a lot, I’m kind of a science fiction nerd. I’ve also picked up golf since I’ve been here. We’ve got all these new grads coming out of Dartmouth, Tufts and MIT and all of them play golf. So in order to keep up with them, I’ve had to learn too. I’m pretty bad but they’re pretty tolerant. I was really into mini-golf when I was growing up but real golf is a whole different ball game.
How do you manage stress?
I work through it. I guess I find the best way for me to handle stress is to try to find something, anything to make it at least a little bit better. I try to find something that’s constructive, even if it’s not going to solve the whole problem.
Who inspires you?
In general, the people who inspire me are the people who don’t have to work anymore and still do just because they’re really interested in what they’re doing.
Ten years ago, is this where you would have predicted you would have ended up?
No, definitely not. Ten years ago, I was working for IBM at State Street Bank trying to keep people from breaking into the bank. The idea that I’d be a VC and a startup person would have been completely foreign to what I was thinking about back then.
What one piece of advice would you give to a recent college graduate?
I would say learn to code. There’s nothing like being self-sufficient and being able to make things for yourself. Whether it’s learning to code, making something electronic on a bench, or learning to build something in a wood shop, having something that you know how to do from the very most fundamental level is really empowering as an entrepreneur. Whatever it is that you want to do, that you want to build a company around, learn how to do that yourself really early in your career.