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Special Silicon Valley Issue | Entrepreneurs

Start. Succeed (or Not). Repeat.

Kamran Elahian Launched Companies in Serial Fashion, and One Failure Led Him to E-World Enlightenment

March 09, 2003|Jon Healey | Jon Healey covers the convergence of technology and entertainment for The Times' Business section.

Mid-sized and rounded by his successes, Kamran Elahian comes across as jolly, even cherubic. And Elahian has much to be happy about, despite the lingering high-tech doldrums that have complicated his life as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur. He has launched or co-founded 10 companies and a capital investment firm, and they've made him a multimillionaire. He owns two Ferraris--a splurge to mark the successful stock offerings of two of his companies--and he carries around a handful of flashy tech toys, such as the credit-card-sized digital camera he picked up in Japan last year.

Elahian seems a typically ambitious Silicon Valley player, with all the style and trappings of fast money. And, like most operators in this sector, he has certainly had his share of highs and lows: The first two companies he formed, in the '80s, quickly hit the jackpot for investors, but the third flopped so badly that Elahian was fired ignominiously by his own hand-picked board of directors. No matter. Elahian picked up and went on to his next venture. Such is the life for serial entrepreneurs, who live for the novelty of establishing a company and bringing a new service to market, not for the challenge of keeping a business growing year after year.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday March 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Photographer's name -- In a photo credit for the Special Silicon Valley issue of Sunday's Los Angeles Times Magazine, the name of photographer Caroline Schiff was misspelled as Carolyn.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 06, 2003 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Part I Page 4 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
In a photo credit for the Special Silicon Valley Issue (March 9), the name of Caroline Schiff was misspelled as Carolyn.

But along the way, Elahian, a 48-year-old Iranian immigrant, turned into a different kind of entrepreneur, one with a mission that blends profit with social progress. Schools Online, the foundation Elahian started in 1996, has helped provide computers and establish Internet connections in more than 6,500 schools in 35 countries, he says. And his Global Catalyst Foundation, begun in 2000, is building schools in Afghanistan, community Internet centers in Tanzanian refugee camps, and information-technology training programs in Guatemala, among other projects.

Sitting in a sparely furnished conference room at Actelis Networks, a Fremont telecommunications start-up whose board Elahian chairs, he talks with obvious excitement about another new Silicon Valley company that he chairs, UltraDots. The company is developing materials whose physical and chemical properties can be manipulated electronically, a few hundred molecules at a time. One potential use, he says, is a treated exterior paint that can turn a house into "one big solar panel."

"Many of the poorest countries in the world have the most sunshine," Elahian says. "If you want to bring them a digital equalizer, the first element is electricity. The second element is bandwidth. They have the brains."

Elahian found the inspiration for this kind of work in the wake of the meltdown of his third company. Spending almost a year licking his wounds and traveling the globe, he gained a new perspective. "It started to dawn on me that maybe, maybe that should be my mission in life," he recollects, "to find a way to get people to see each other as human beings and have compassion for each other and have tolerance or celebrate their diversity, rather than beating the hell out of each other. And that became kind of my religion."

Elahian was a 27-year-old computer programmer at Hewlett-Packard Co. in Palo Alto when the epiphany came that transformed him from code scribbler into company builder. After developing a program in 1981 to help electrical engineers design microchips, Elahian grew curious about the chips themselves. One day he heard about new courses at nearby Stanford University that supposedly could turn any software engineer into a chip maker.

For several weeks he split his time between HP and Stanford, working during the day and taking classes at night. Before long he'd designed a chip, sent it to a fabricating plant, and received the first model. It didn't work. Distressed, Elahian went back to his professor and said, "You told me any software or system engineer can become a chip engineer. How come my chip doesn't work?" And the professor replied, "I meant any good software or system engineer. You are a lousy engineer."

Maybe so, but Elahian was very good at recognizing an opportunity. And he'd learned an essential lesson: chip designers needed software that gave them feedback about their creations before they left the drawing board. That insight led him to leave HP, with four other engineers in tow, and start CAE Systems Inc. in Santa Clara.

That sort of leap into the unknown is commonplace in Silicon Valley, where innovative corporations and prestigious universities provide a fertile breeding ground for entrepreneurs. Since William R. Hewlett and David Packard raised $538 in 1939 to launch what is now the world's leading manufacturer of computers and printers, an elaborate support system for start-ups has emerged in Silicon Valley. There are lenders, venture-capital firms and individual "angel investors" who bankroll fledgling companies, as well as landlords and leasing companies that provide the space and equipment.

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