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Cornell Engineering

Entrepreneur of the Year

By Robert Emro

When he gets a chance to talk to students interested in starting their own company, Greg Galvin M.S. ’82, Ph.D. ’84 MSE, MBA ’93, advises them, “Don’t do it!

“Then I tell them, ‘Entrepreneurs don’t listen to anyone’s advice anyway,’” says Cornell’s 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year. “The major thing is this balance between absolute belief in what you are trying to do, which has to underlie an entrepreneur because you’re struggling against the odds, with the realism that it’s not easy.”

As the businesses he shepherded grew or were sold off, Galvin has had to relocate his office within the Cornell Business and Technology Park five times. He estimates his companies have created more than 300 jobs for the local economy. Today he actively manages three companies: Rheonix, developer of microfluidic-based molecular diagnostic systems with applications in research, health care, and public safety; Mesmeriz, an early stage micro-electro-mechanical systems company in the image recognition and projection markets; and Incodema3D, which does 3D prototyping and production of parts for aerospace and other industries. He is also an active board member in a fourth, BinOptics. “Though of late, it seems to be it’s the not-for-profit sector that’s occupying most of my time,” he says. 

Galvin is a member of the Cornell Board of Trustees, the Engineering College Council, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering Advisory Board, the Entrepreneurship@Cornell Advisory Council, the Boyce-Thompson Institute Board of Directors, the Ithaca Sciencecenter Board of Trustees, and the Tompkins County Area Development Board of Directors.

Galvin says he’s involved in so many nonprofits for the same reason he leads so many companies. “Failure to say no,” he says. “There are finite resources around here to lead organizations and I keep getting asked to do more.”

In 1982, the freshly minted materials science Ph.D. didn’t have any dreams of starting his own company, but he knew what he didn’t want to do. “I got the typical set of job offers at corporate research labs and I realized the idea of continuing to do research and publish papers was not that interesting to me,” he says. “I was more interested in the business side of science.”

Galvin fed that interest by hiring on as deputy director of what is now the Cornell NanoScale Science and Technology Facility. “That was my first business experience,” he says. “A lot of it was marketing the facility to industry.”

Five years later, Galvin became Cornell’s director of corporate research relations. When the university had trouble licensing a micro-electro-mechanical systems technology platform developed by Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Noel MacDonald, they turned to Galvin, who was familiar with the technology from his work at CNF, for advice. “Eventually, we said, ‘Maybe we should start a company around this technology.’”

Kionix was launched in 1993. “I recruited my friend Tim Davis who was just finishing up his Ph.D., so the management team had zero track record,” he says. “In classes when I guest lecture I say, “Here’s how not to start a business. We had no product, no customers, no market.”

But Kionix was in the right place at the right time. Motion awareness in mobile devices was just taking off and Kionix developed a smaller, better, less expensive sensor. “We succeeded by perseverance and overcoming long odds, and, of course, a lot of luck along the way,” says Galvin. “It was an emotional rollercoaster. There were many times we were looking at how to make payroll. It’s never ending.”
Galvin sold part of Kionix to Calient Networks in 2000, retaining its consumer electronics, automotive, and microfluidic technologies. In 2009, he sold the second incarnation of Kionix to Rohm Co. Ltd. “I had mixed emotions,” says Galvin. “It’s the outcome you’re striving for and it’s very satisfying, but you’re also giving up something you’ve spent years building.”

Recently, Galvin has been judging undergraduate business competitions and he said a lot has changed since he started his first company. “It’s phenomenal what the kids are doing,” he says. “Now is a perfect confluence with the state launching a number of initiatives to help promote job creation and entrepreneurial activity. Cornell has really jumped into promoting entrepreneurship. And then we have Tompkins County Area Development and their efforts. It’s a very exciting time.”