From Research to Startup – Three Times

Yuanyuan Zhou, professor of mobile computing at the Jacobs School of Engineering, discusses her research, the inspiration for her latest startup, and memorable advice.

What inspires your research?
I started as an entrepreneur. After my PhD, I was 100 percent committed to building my company. That company sold, and my adviser kept talking with me, wanting me to go to a university. That experience affected my academic career. In my first startup, we spent too much time trying to make the product robust. When I joined the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, I switched from working on computer storage to reliability. I wanted to build tools to help diagnose and detect problems. In many ways, I was trying to build something for myself, still an entrepreneur’s approach.

Is there a story behind your third startup, Whova?
In my second startup, we saw that information could be very useful for sales. If I could find a way to relate our product to your background, I could build rapport. So we started as people search. Whova had hundreds of downloads per day, but we didn’t know how to make money. I happened to go to an EvoNexus event and looked at the RSVP list to see who was going. I realized there was no way I could search the whole list. The idea came to automate it, and the Whova team agreed to do an app. An event organizer can upload an attendee list, and we can build networking profiles that pull in information. Attendees can edit any aspect or choose to be invisible. Organizers can let attendees build their own profiles. As an attendee, I can download the app and browse or filter to see who’s an investor, who’s a marketing person.

How does creating a company compare with faculty life?
It’s quite different. As faculty, you’re a teacher. If you have a PhD student, you’re a mentor. You care about what’s best for the individual. Maybe what’s best for a student is to go for an MBA, or to switch projects. But in a company, you cannot put an individual as the number one goal. The company is the number one goal. People join because they believe in the company. They chose to gamble on the company. There are also investors who bet on the company. Sometimes what’s best for the company is that, for the short term, an engineer who is not that interested in a project needs to work on the project. For research, it can be much more flexible.

Is the relationship between academia and industry changing?
In computer science in particular, it’s changing. Many companies are doing really cutting edge stuff. In our field, more than 50% of papers are collaborative with industry. If you work on data centered research, you need infrastructure, you need workload, users. We don’t have a data center at the university. By collaborating with industry, you’re able to get data – you can even try out your algorithm or solution.

You moved from Princeton to Illinois to Silicon Valley. Is San Diego different?
I’ve been at UC San Diego for seven years. My kids really like San Diego, and colleagues here are doing really new things. It’s exciting.

If you look at Silicon Valley, a cool startup pops up every day. People are talking about it, moving from one company to another. But the good thing here is that people stay put. There is a local community of entrepreneurs and resources like EvoNexus. There are tons of IT-related startups, especially downtown, but I do wish there were more later-stage companies to share experience. In Silicon Valley there are many companies from startup, ground zero, to 200 people that go public. Here the ecosystem is younger.

Recruiting is harder. It used to be that we’d do a job posting and say, “We’re a high-tech startup,” because in Silicon Valley, that sounds cool, people are going to come. Now we say, “We’re a high-growth company.” In Silicon Valley, people have seen their friends join a startup and after four years become rich. Here startup equals small company, not high risk, high reward, high return.

Have you gotten any memorable advice?
My advisor at Princeton, who built a multibillion dollar company, told me to treat sacrifice as a type of investment. Focus is the key, and you need to learn where to sacrifice. He taught me to let things go, even if they could be useful. Yes, maybe you lose something, but you invest more energy into what’s important.


Yuanyuan (YY) Zhou
Qualcomm Endowed Chair in Mobile Computing
Co-founder of Whova (2012), Pattern Insight (2007), and Emphora (2000).

Whova, Inc.