Engineer turned venture capitalist, Sean O’Sullivan is the founder and managing director of SOSV, an “accelerator VC”, running programmes globally to help fund and launch more than 100 start-ups annually. His first company, MapInfo, brought street-address mapping to personal computers and grew to be a public company with more than $200 million in sales. MapInfo created the technology that allowed people to type a street address into a computer and see it on a street map. By 2005 the company employed more than 1,000 people.
As part of his second technology start-up NetCentric, O’Sullivan is recognised for co-coining the term “cloud computing”. As an investor he provided early stage funding to Harmonix, creators of Guitar Hero and Rock Band.
SOSV now runs accelerator programmes in the areas of hardware and robotics, synthetic biology and biodesign, software and disruptive food in Ireland, the US and China. The company accelerates start-ups with mentoring and finance, investing about $50 million a year, running global accelerator programmes.
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business? I was working as an engineer at a design group at a large and wonderful multinational. But when I saw the management team of that company, five layers overhead, acquire another company and shut down a talented and hard-working engineering group that had been working for years on an innovative product, I decided I didn’t want to put myself at risk of being a cog in the wheel.
Describe your business model and what makes your business unique. We help start-ups discover their best product/market fit. We offer very deep expertise to our portfolio companies in areas such as consumer electronics, hardware manufacturing and synthetic biology. The team at SOSV dedicates about 20 per cent of their own time promoting and championing big ideas for positive global change, from organisations and movements that focus on Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] education to environmental causes such as global warming.
What moment/deal would you cite as the game changer or turning point for the company? When I met Cyril Ebersweiler in China and decided to join up with him in creating a new model for software accelerators in China. From there, the SOSV programmes have exploded into a wide range of vertical programmes globally.
Describe your growth-funding path. Over the past 19 years, SOSV has been funded based off high returns from initial operations, from internally generated profits. As we expand we’re looking to draw in some external capital and share the profits with external funders, like traditional VCs do. We’ll raise $100 million from external funders this year and add it to $100 million from our own partnership.
What would make you a better leader? I would love to do a better job in following up with everyone I work with, and in everyone I meet. I have about 12 direct reports. This is too many, even though most of my partners are fairly autonomous. It’s also made a bit more difficult because the team is spread across 16 time zones. I need to figure out how to manage my time better. The 200 non-spam emails I get every day are difficult to get through. I would also probably be a better leader if I got less involved with optional projects, like education initiatives, public policy initiatives, and nonprofit boards. That said, it’s some of the most amazing work we do, so even if there is no financial reason to do it, it’s immensely fulfilling.