An inside view of start-up factory Dell Technologies Capital
An inside view of start-up factory Dell Technologies Capital

An inside view of start-up factory Dell Technologies Capital

This week in New York, Dell Technologies announced $1 billion of investment in IoT R&D over the next three years, much of which will flow through Dell Technologies Capital. 

Some of that hefty funding will go into developing Dell’s own new products and services, but a substantial amount will go through Dell Technologies Capital, the company’s investment arm. Its leader, Scott Darling, suggests he has “the best job in the world”. 

Before the main event of Dell’s IQT Day on October 11th, journalists were given an inside look at Dell Capital, the wing of Dell technologies responsible for selecting and managing investments in start-ups around the world, while helping to shape the company’s IoT eco-system moving forwards.

Scott Darling took the time to introduce five of the start-ups currently backed by his multi-million dollar fund. These included FogHorn Systems and Zingbox.

Afterwards, Internet of Business sat down with Foghorn Systems CEO David King, Zingbox CTO May Wang, Jason Shepherd, Dell’s director of IoT strategy and partnerships, and Scott Darling.

Read more: Dell expands Internet of Things partner solutions program

Selection criteria?

Moving forward, Dell Capital will partner closely with the company’s new IoT division. This link will ensure that it’s got the industry insight required and that investments support Dell’s wider strategic agenda.

The aim of Dell Technologies Capital is to maintain a link to the external innovation ecosystem, accelerating the development and deployment of new IoT, artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies.

Darling pointed out three major aspects taken into account when backing start-ups. The first he refers to as “domain expertise”: limiting investments to companies that could become valuable members of Dell’s already substantial IoT ecosystem.

“When we diligence these things [potential investments], we have our internal partnerships and business units there to tell us crazy investors whether we’re smoking some illegal substance…” Darling joked.

“Most of the time, they’re not crazy,” Shepherd was quick to point out.

Darling continued, “We go outside, we have relationships with people who’ve been active in this space for a long long time. So we try and stay focused through that circle of people who have that knowledge.”

This idea of domain expertise links closely to the second element: focus. “The other thing we do is try to not get spread too thin. So we want to work with companies like Foghorn and Zingbox, where we can see ourselves partnering and working together to build a joint business.”

The third consideration we discussed is the importance of the individuals concerned, which highlighted how Dell Technologies Capital invests in teams as much as it does in technologies and profitability.

When asked how much of an investment decision is based on those leading the start-up in question, Darling responded: “A very significant amount.”

“The first part is integrity and trust. Life is short, if that one isn’t there, it’s going to be a painful journey. I like to tell people who don’t do investment for a living: It’s like getting married. You’re going to live with these companies. So if you’re dealing with people who don’t behave ethically, it’s like being married to someone you don’t trust. It’s not going to work,” he said.

“Professional competence and capability… that and market opportunity are the things we weigh most carefully.”

Read more: Dell Technologies unveils new IoT strategy in New York

Working with Dell Technologies Capital

Aside from the obvious, an investment from Dell Technologies Capital comes with several less quantifiable benefits. One of those is Dell’s ability to open doors to sales channels through its ecosystem of partners and customers.

“One of the biggest challenges for start-ups is that when you start building channels it’s horrifically expensive,” said Darling. “You can see it in the enterprise space at the moment… Some of the big start-ups that have broken through are approaching billion-dollar run rates and they’re not profitable because the cost of running a channel is so big.”

“If you’re going after industrial companies or large companies or banks, enterprise sales people that have those relationships can cost multiple hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These are dollars that start-ups can’t spend on R&D. If you can partner with people who have that, why be inefficient and duplicate it over and over again?”

So one of the other things, which is a win for the companies we invest in and for us, is we partner with our business units [and grant access to these channels]. It’s good for the company, it’s good for us and it’s cost-effective.”

May Wang and David King, CTO and CEO of IoT startups Zingbox and Foghorn Systems respectively, discussed some of the other bonuses an investment from Dell Technologies Capital brings.

IIoT start-up Foghorn Systems was originally backed by Darling when he was in charge of EMC’s investment arm. King suggests that the relationship hasn’t changed much since Dell’s $60 billion merger with EMC last year. “We were really struck by how simple the process was,” he said. It was a very quick decision. Often corporates are not that sudden in investing.”

The speed at which Dell Technologies Capital comes to a decision and delivers upon investment was also noted by May Wang. Zingbox is an IoT security start-up and the credibility of a working relationship with Dell has helped the company begin working with public sector organizations such as hospitals.

“We had other choices but we decided to go with Dell. It was amazingly fast and efficient,” she said. “At the same time we were also getting funding from a small VC firm and it took them a lot longer than Dell to get things done. We closed a $22 million round within three weeks and thought that was super-fast but they said it was the slowest they’ve ever done!”

Acting fast to support start-ups is part of Darling’s role. “I view my job as making sure these folks (he says pointing to Wang and King across the table) are in power. I make their lives easy when they interface with Dell’s other businesses and partners. We [the Dell Technologies Capital team] are the clutch between the transmission and the engine. It’s really important in big companies to have that given how hard it is to do start-ups. You’re working non-stop with the stress of knowing how important each deal is.”

Both May and King pointed to something else that you can’t put a price on: belief.

“Dell is a dream investor for a CEO. They say what they mean and they mean what they say. The first question is ‘How can I help?’. Dell pre-wires a lot of things to make sure you’re talking to the right people, they show up, follow up and help you with all of the parts of the process,” said King.

“From the start, we felt that this was a long-term partnership with somebody who understands us,” said Wang. “They are always there to support us and they believe in the same vision. We’re only three years old, we didn’t have flashy numbers to show but we believe that we’re going to change the world and they are sharing in that vision instead of questioning it. Even during the funding process they started introducing us to Vmware, RSA and all of these great partners. We have already integrated with Vmware’s Pulse product.”