California Dreaming

Materials Science grad joins software development startup

Mark McCormick took a calculated risk in April. He packed up his belongings and three years as a business development manager with Motorola in Chicago and headed into the unknown—life as the business manager for a software development startup in Santa Cruz, California. Like any fine pioneer, he was ready for the challenge.

McCormick (PhD 2002) had a clear education and employment plan from the moment he chose materials engineering, drawn by a fascination with the ability of engineers to influence the properties of materials and create structures not found in nature. As a doctoral student at Purdue, he focused on materials used in the microelectronics and semiconductor industries and targeted the leader in that industry—Intel—as his career goal. For nearly two years after graduation he worked as a process engineer for Intel in Portland, Oregon. But his life plan needed tending. He left the Northwest and enrolled in the MBA program at the University of Chicago.

“As an engineer you have a chance to do research and development, but you don’t have the opportunity to influence a company’s bottom line and make decisions on strategy. The people who do that have both technical and business backgrounds so they can make business decisions that are fundamentally sound,” McCormick says.

The engineer’s introduction to real-world business development came through an internship during business school at Motorola, where he married his training in materials engineering with the management side of the telecommunications and wireless industry. He stayed on at Motorola after his MBA, analyzing emerging technology potential and developing business case analyses for emerging device and wireless-related technology applications.

Then an opportunity came along. FullPower Technologies, a startup in mobile sensing technology founded in 2003 by Phillipe Kahn, father of the camera phone, needed a business development specialist. The company develops software applications for mobile devices, including motion-based applications that are just beginning to make an impact in the consumer device industry. A simple example of how motion is used to create interesting applications can be demonstrated with the iPhone, which uses an accelerometer to rotate picture orientation when the phone rotates. McCormick predicts that sensor-based applications will increase exponentially over the next few years as more and more sensors are built into mobile devices and accompanying software becomes more sophisticated. The calculated risk-taker saw the chance to get on board as the industry takes off.

“I have the tools necessary to understand the technology at the hardware and software level, and I have the business skills that will allow me to do business case development,” he says. He also has enthusiasm, which is an essential ingredient in his own recipe for entrepreneurial success.

“You have to be outgoing and like to work with people with lots of different backgrounds and think globally. The one single factor that sets entrepreneurs apart from others is that you really have to enjoy what you’re doing. If you like it, you will work all the time and wake up excited. If you are doing something you don’t really enjoy, it’s not going to be successful,” he says.

McCormick also has a fallback. For the last four years he has worked in Chicago’s Lincoln Park as a bartender on Saturday nights for fun and a bit of extra cash. “If I get wealthy enough,” he jokes, “I’ll probably open a bar.” If not, he can always tend one.

- Linda Thomas Terhune