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Alumnus, Harvard Business Professor Sees Innovation Economy as Offering Opportunities for Creativity

April 12, 2012

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"There's nothing like a recession to raise the entrepreneurial spirit in smart people," says Felda Hardymon, a venture capitalist, Harvard Business School professor, and 1969 Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology mathematics graduate. Hardymon spends a lot of time gauging entrepreneurial spirit and has concluded that there's a lot to like about today's business climate.

      Hardymon
  Dr. Felda Hardymon, Harvard Business Professor/RHIT Math Alumnus

Huh? Today's business climate?

"Open a newspaper and all you read is how terrible everything is," Hardymon acknowledges, noting tepid growth and stubbornly high long-term unemployment. "But there's another economy out there that's growing very fast and is short on people, and that's the innovation economy."

Hardymon is a partner at Bessemer Venture Partners, a global venture firm with $4 billion under management. The firm's money is in about 140 innovative companies right now, "and at least 120 are short on people and having trouble hiring."

Among the biggest developments fueling today's innovation economy is what Hardymon calls "big data"--the emerging technology required to effectively store the huge volumes of electronic data being produced these days. "Ten years ago there were a handful of commercial databases in the public sphere that were larger than 10 terabytes," he notes. Today, "Facebook collects more than 10 terabytes a week."

Small, entrepreneurial companies are discovering and commercializing solutions to these kinds of challenges, and they're creating lots of jobs in the process, Hardymon says. The ones that succeed "have people working at one problem 16 hours a day because they have to. It's not just their agility--they outwork the competition."

Hardymon has observed countless companies, from academic posts and the front lines in the business world. By the time he finished his Rose-Hulman studies, he knew he wanted an academic career, so he earned master's and doctoral degrees at Duke University.  

He returned to school to earn a Harvard MBA, then landed a job in 1979 with the venture capital arm of General Electric. The innovation economy was thriving. "There was so much innovation going on," he recalls, adding, "That's what's happening again now."

In 1981, he joined Bessemer. There, he invested in a wide range of young companies in software, communications, and retailing, from American Superconductor to Wavesmith. In 1998, he returned to teach at Harvard, beginning a dual academia and venture capital career. He has since developed venture capital curriculum and has his name on several academic books.

Hardymon now enjoys the best of both worlds. He can teach, write, and even take time off from Harvard to be a visiting professor in London. But he still gets to interact directly with the innovation economy, and for him, that's awe-inspiring. "Every day, I'm meeting people who are creating the future," he says. "No one knows exactly what's going to happen, but they have a hand in shaping it."