Coming out of darkness, I’m reaching for my shades. Those first morning rays are blinding. Walking towards the railing, I’m hearing two distinct rhythms. Hoofbeats. There’s the easy cantor coming from the training area, that’s gradually getting drowned out by a full gallop. Thundering. Louder, and louder as I get closer to the track. Hoofbeats. My heartbeat. What a rush. Dawn. The track. The daily unexpected.
I witnessed it, heard and absorbed each note. A brutal symphony. An execution. Was actually more of a choreography as Flight Valkyrie wasn’t pouring over this audience. Yet it was silence searing my brain. Time stopped. Space frozen. Sensationless. No undoing this decision. Senseless.
It was draining. Sad really. The shot still ringing, now barely audible. It was like all I could see that moment was a bluish plumage slowing wafting from the barrel. Instantly no heartbeat. Legs rubberized. Strength and grace, power and beauty is hitting the ground like a pallet of bricks falling from a truck. Half his face covered in mud. Eye’s nostrils and mouth coated with that damp clay like muck clinging to the last moisture of life. Life seemingly drains in slo-motion. Peckinpah like.
Before the bullet crushes through his skull forever short circuiting the future, those eyes, they give me a long lasting look. Deep dark Guinness like, eyes of depth seemingly as big as LP’s glare right through me. He had no idea. Because behind his wish of pastures and playfulness would be nothingness. You’d think with a city full self driving cars, a grid powered by the sun, and diabetes being cured, we’d have come further. A bullet between the eyes. Still fucking savages.
So much potential. But breaking that bone, breaking it like that, no collision no contact no race, one hoof out of rhythm, off the pace… snap! That sickening snap. In a split second it was reverberating in my ears. Watching through my binoculars from the other side of the track. It was like seeing the whole scene unfold in super slo-motion. Seeing him careen out of control, crashing into the turf, and sending poor Alejandro from the saddle to another area code… it was all I could do to keep from puking.
That snap, that fucking snap tears through me. Just like tearing through the sound barrier, that snap moves like a missile. It’s a missile that blows up a racing career never before it gets to the gate. In a nano-blink it’s done. His last training run. His last lap before his first race.
Thoroughbreds die everyday. At least that’s what I tell myself. Our small team just matter-of-factly put the end to his life. Cold and efficient in execution. It’s the only way the run a business. But I still catch myself thinking that we’ll never get that rush of winning by a nose. A boiling stinking nondescript vat, not the winner’s circle waits for him. Hell, even taking up the rear he’d still get a bucket of oats and bath.
Youth wasted. But I catch myself at that ledge of self-pity. Luck is a continuum, not a one time stroke. Look at his papers, look at his blood-line, look at his breeder, look at the amazing price we bought him for. Each hoof beat dripped of luck. Somehow the best before date was missing. Shit. Shit. Shit!
Fuck it. Sucks, but there’s always another horse, another business, and other flesh to bet on. I don’t want to see a 1000 pounds of investment and potential hauled away anytime soon. Who am I kidding? There’s another tow truck just around the corner. I just don’t know which corner.
Just like the track, investing in tech startups finds me watching carcasses get hauled away too. Time to head off to my other office, and my other life. No Angel label. It’s not me, just how some choose to see me. While getting the ring kissed seems good for the ego, I’m still kind of just pissing my money away. Worse, I can’t even shoot them when they break down. Fucking shame at times. Especially when you start seeing their real qualities (actually lack of) once they cash that cheque.
Still, my job is better than so many other options. Who’ll shoot me when I break a leg climbing the corporate ladder. Actually some weasel would probably shoot me, and then break it while climbing over my corpse, while on his path to the corner office and underground parking spot.
He’s late. My coffee’s empty. Two strikes. How not to win over your potential lead check. I like the kid, but he’s always got an excuse. If he pulls out “the dog ate my USB with today’s deck”, I’ll be pulling out. Simple. Besides, after the morning track debacle, youthful potential doesn’t have me all that excited.
His last gaze still sears through my minds-eye. He was doing what he loved, going flat out doing what he knew best. Full tilt. Fatal misstep, but no excuses. Of course he never signed up for a shot at the crown. Sure as shit didn’t sign up to get shot. Period. For him, unrealized potential was the trainer being short an apple or two after a good morning cantor.
No point in getting sentimental, the horse is gone. This morning is gone. No point in waiting for another wantapreneur. Talk, talk, talk, pitch, pitch, pitch. Look the part. It’s like being something rather than actually doing something. I’m packing up my stuff , and letting out this big sigh of exasperation.
Guess it wasn’t as under my breath as I’d thought.
“Excuse me. Hope my timing isn’t completely off, is it okay asking if you’re…” Another occasional downside of being known, it’s being known and managing these random encounters. It’s not like I was rushed, I was just pissy and cut the person off. “Yes, I’m that guy. What do you want?”
I stepped back. Had to collect myself. Who’s this? She’s a little more mature than most people who choose to spend time working here. Even with a little more grey hair than me. Not trying to cover that earned wisdom? I’m sure I’ve seen her quietly grinding away here before. Never loud, never holding court, never slinging bull shit. When I did notice her in a meeting, while jovial she’s reserved, mannered and on-point. Seemed like someone hell bent on getting shit done.
“I’m sorry, but it’s like someone pissed in my Cornflakes this morning. Let’s start over. Cool cane by the way.” Shaking her hand, she firmly introduces herself as Joan, and says she’s curious to learn more about a couple of my portfolio companies. More so, she’s curious how a material sciences guy finds working with reality twisting tech toys aligns with solving big real world problems. She points out the obvious disconnect in my life.
Interesting gal. No fear. Asks tough fucking questions too. Ones I’ve been asking myself. It’s not like we’ve got a talent pool in this town that’s at the tip of the tech spear. Sometimes you hope they’ve got the runway and the savvy to shift course quickly and insightfully.
Not every exit has to be massive. Getting behind the few people who’ve done it two or three times over the last 15-16 years is preferable. People with the money lined up after them. The right people, doing the right tech, at the right time are hard to find. Still, you listen to so many pitches at times it’s mind numbing. It’s like Charlie Brown’s teacher droning on… “wawawawawa”, and hearing that it’s a robotic AI for this or encryption program for that.
The overnight success myth still permeates. In fact, as I look up from the new cup of coffee Joan puts in front of me it’s Mr. No Show now turning into Mr. Stupid Late. I look at my cuff, no text, no email, no missed call. Just a few specks of horse blood, Damn! Gross how’d I miss that.
Rolling up my sleeve I hear from across the room, “sorry dude, I couldn’t get a sitter for my girls dog. She’s expensive and has serious anxiety issues.” Which one I think, the girl or the dog? With this guy, has to be both.
Before he can barge in, back pack, foamy and massively tall beverage, doggy kennel, and one of those obnoxious, yappy, well groomed and bejewelled toy dogs, I hold up my hand, and say nothing. The look I fire his way should be enough for him to get the message. Stop, do not pass go, you’re not getting a check. In fact, just fuck off.
Not this guy. Sees persistence as one of his strong qualities. He’s yapping. The dog’s yapping. If I hear “sorry dude” one more time. So irritating. So obnoxious. This is what it feels like to have an aneurism.
Deep, deep breath. I lift my ass off the chair, look down with my eyes burning right through him. He had to feel it, the way he started squirming. He and the dog both shut up. In that moment of peace, I simply said “we’re not meeting now; we’re not meeting tomorrow; in fact we’re not meeting… ever. We’re done. Why would I get behind a Tinder for dogs app, when you’re here with that mutt? If it doesn’t work for you in spite of all those KPI’s you brag about, it sure as shit doesn’t work for me.”
No big scene, just a really long face. The dog took care of the tail between the legs moment. Off he skulked. What was I thinking? Him. An app. I don’t even like fucking dogs. Am I slipping? Not even lunch. I’m 0 for 2, with a headache and indigestion. I pause, imagining the voice bubble popping up; “So Joan, what do you think of me now?”
“I’m so sorry Joan. Still some time to chat?”
I’d gotten this far, she’d grabbed my attention. Might as well see where the conversation goes.
“May I grab you a fresh one? and could you please excuse me for a couple of minutes.”
Relieved, I went for relief. The bathroom refuge. Empty bladder. Cold water on the face. Clear head. Composed, and ready for Joan’s story. A bit of adult conversation would be good. It’s been lacking lately.
Her iSkin lay flat on the table. Left hand caressing the coffee cup, and looking over what seemingly looked like complex chemistry formulas, Joan looked up. I locked into the depth of her dark eyes, while she was slowly cracking one of those grins that said, “I get it.” This day just exponentially improved.
Rolling up her device, she wrapped it around her wrist, noted the time and gestured it into sleep mode. Leaning back with the steaming cup approaching her lips, she asked my thoughts on what’s next for multiferroic nano-composite films. She catches me by surprise again. Questions I’m not use to getting, and answers I’m not used to coming with lately.
Anyhow, at least I could suggest that type of nano-composite film had done a great job of helping displace smart phones, watches, and eyewear. It’s been liberating, and I suggested that I liked the way she wears her new device. Saying I usually like mine on the cuff too.
“What’s your story Joan? All this time hanging out in the same space but this is the first we talk.”
“The timing is right. Idle chatter. Small talk. Wasting time doesn’t work for me. So why put that crap on someone else.”
Now she’s got my attention. Leaning in. Focused. “I get the sense you’re not pitching me a VR porn game or AR version of some popular casino game. You do know that you’re in a material sciences wasteland.”
Silence. As I’m reaching for my coffee she says two reasons. She’s a healthcare tourist. Not only has it been a 16 months wait to see one the the worlds best orthopaedic surgeons, but he’s also willing to let her be the first test subject.
This is where reason number two comes in, and where the conversation moves from social and curious to business.
“I want you to be my lead investor.”
Joan’s so calm, cool and unwavering.
“This place might be the back water of material sciences, but you’re here. And you’re no fucking amateur. You’re biggest win might be fifteen years behind you, but you’ll want to drop all that pithy shit clogging up your portfolio. How about financing the way our bones and bodies will heal themselves tomorrow?”
“I’ve been chin deep in generative design, nanoparticles and synthetic biology for the last 20 years. I know you’ll get what I’m doing, because you were in early. You figured out a killer use case and delivered a commercially viable product. What you did yesterday, still matter todays.”
Interesting that she noted how sometimes the lifestyle we choose dictates some of the business we can do. I live here for the place, scenery, activities, pace and climate, not world class R&D labs and talent. But it also means that I’m not at the top of my game. Maybe too many hobbies?
“I’ve been around too many researchers, too many academics, too many people who couldn’t get something to market even if it meant saving us from a zombie apocalypse. Peer reviewed journal citations matter more than creating a meaningful product and a valuable business.” Joan’s racing away from that world view.
She asked how it was for me coming back from knee replacement surgery? I caught my jaw going slack. Slack for just a moment. The way she asked the question with that genuine sense of care and empathy hit a chord. What really resonated was the fact she knew I’d had it done. She’d done some digging. Talk about making the fucking massive first impression.
I didn’t even know what she’s selling me, but I feel a very faint itch coming from my check book.
The story started connecting as Joan went on, “having my left hip replaced five years ago, I really didn’t take it seriously. While I paid for my lack of discipline with a horrible recovery, it actually was the catalyst the pushed me out of the Ivory Tower lab and into developing Nanosteozine.”
Simple idea, but a bitch to deliver. Joan goes on. The body often isn’t fond of new materials; big-Pharma and the medical device industry isn’t fond is new materials that aren’t theirs; doctors often aren’t fond of new materials; regulators often just don’t like anything new period. Fast paced this space isn’t. Many shit piles to step in, lot’s of big feet ready to step on you. Squish the living shit out of you.
She’s not telling me anything new. All really big reasons I’m out of that game. It’s exhausting. Yes all startups are hard. But what’s in front of her is really fucking hard. At least she’s not totally delusional. Good that’s she’s coming at the problem having lived it. Living with pain is a hidden motivator very few can tap into. Fighting through pain. Differentiator.
Most of us know fear. But real, excruciating physical pain, chronic agony. That’s the real test of character. No excuses. Get into it. Being in the game everyday. It will wear you out.
I’d lost track of time. I’m still listening, but my stomach reminds me it’s time to eat. Wonder if Joan wants to join me?
After agreeing there’s time for lunch, we also agree to move the conversation from superficial to something substantive. Her hip, my knee we know the pre-op to post-op trajectory is long (up to 18 months) arduous, painful, and needs more self-discipline than ever imagined. She was honest saying she failed at getting herself in optimum shape the first time around, No core strength, no stamina (both physical and mental), there was no strengthening of the muscles around the hip. Pre-op pain made for an easy excuse. It got easier to do less and less especially when the actual surgically date got closer and closer.
Connecting with Joan’s motivation was easy after she said, “my physiotherapist got to the point of telling me it was a waste of her time and mine if I wasn’t going to at least do the basic stretching exercises. I can’t help you if you can’t help yourself. You’ll regret it after surgery. At the door she said, don’t bother coming back. Ever.”
It’s a few weeks of hell after surgery. I’ll never forget just how much time and space were twisted. It was a cocktail of drugs. There’s drugs for pain, nausea, constipation, and sleep. There’s an array of bags hanging from the IV. It’s like a spindly Christmas tree hooked up to my left arm. Lit up by the patient controlled drug dispenser delivering a hit of joy every 8-10 minutes when you hit that button. The magic button always at hand. Reality of the moment was whatever I conjured up. Whatever I dreamed to be true. It was.
Every few hours someone comes around with a mini dixie-cup full of pills. For two days visitors were nice, but they we a lot like alien encounters too. Too much probing, and not enough quiet observing. For two days I was floating around a very, very disconnected place. Out of touch with the gravity of what they’ve done you. Out of touch with gravity itself.
Pain meds only masked feeling bad or having bad feelings. You go from joint pain to feeling no pain in that joint, but it then turns into massive fucking pain all around the joint. Everything that made sense, seemed normal and straightforward flies out the window the minute the anesthesia starts wearing off.
Everything’s straight fucked up the moment you thaw out. Breathing, thinking, hearing, seeing, feeling, pissing, shitting, walking. It’s all fucked up. Some for hours, some for days, and some for a few weeks. Fucked up. It’s like describing running your startup to someone who’s never done it. They’ll never get it.
The plan is to be taking the healing process to warp speed. Joan wasn’t wasting her time on trying to come to market with a 10x solution. Healing bones at a speed of downloading 100 hi-def movies in under a second. Ridiculous rehab results. I’d get behind that. Still, I needed way more.
She’d done an amazing job prototyping the product. With the state of 3D printing biologicals, tissues, and materials she walked through the IP, the process and being able to trial Nanosteozine on “real” human tissue instead of real humans. Talk about blowing up the arthritic pace of clinical testing.
“So what next?”
She glances at her wrist, and says “my next appointment. Meet at your office tomorrow at 9:00am? You’ll have a term sheet ready?” Shakes my hand.
Holy shit. Self-assured. Understatement of the day. Pausing to check my calendar, I notice out of the corner of my eye she’s collapsing her cane and tucking it away in her bag.
“Sure. 9:00am works. I’ll share a term sheet with you before end of business today.”
She’s out of the chair, and heading to the doors. The bright light’s pouring in and obscures her into only an outline, one of striking elegance. What the fuck, no limp! All I could notice was a swagger. She had this swagger like a Kentucky Derby winner.
I piped up after her, “by the way, great job and when’s your surgery?”
She turned, her head glancing over her shoulder just enough that I could just make out her grin and just make out her lips slowly form the word, “yesterday”. That word, it’s sound ripped through the air, and through my skull like this mornings bullet. I shuttered. The William Tell Overture strained in the background. Imagined the horse. That senseless moment. Eyes swelled. The tears ran.