By Alexander Soule
From Synapse and Priceline in the 1990s right through Walker Innovation and Foodtweeks today, Jay Walker has built a career as perhaps the most celebrated serial entrepreneur in Connecticut by building companies in Fairfield County.
As for Walker’s next big thing? It will be built in the Beltway.
With the startup Upside Travel, Priceline founders Walker and Scott Case say they are onto “the next big thing,” in their words, in the travel industry — how to incentivize road warriors to seek savings when planning trips on the company dime. This week, Walker told investment analysts it is a problem he has long seen as vexing businesses, but one that he had yet to address until now.
The bad news for Connecticut is that the upside of Walker’s new venture will take place at an address in Washington, D.C., rather than in Stamford. That’s where Walker has developed myriad ideas for new companies in his post-Priceline career, including Walker Innovations, which sought to create a clearinghouse of sorts for businesses to hook up with patent holders to push technical advances into the marketplace.
Efforts to reach Walker last week were not successful; on Wednesday, he discussed his new venture with Case during a Walker Innovation conference call with investment analysts. “While our work at Priceline focused on leisure travel, we always view the problems with business travel as unfinished business,” Walker said during the call with analysts. “We are convinced that the high cost and mediocre rewards of the current system make the time ripe for a brand-new approach to buying business travel.”
Connecticut patent awards
Source: U.S. Patent & Trademark Office
Upside Travel hits the road even as the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office reported record patent awards for Connecticut in 2014, with the state cracking the 2,500-patent mark for a gain of about 125, or about 5 percent. And growth was even more impressive if limiting patent awards to those in which both the patent assignee and at least one listed inventor are both in Connecticut, with a 13 percent growth rate by that measure to about 1,340 in all.
Patents and other intellectual property are an imperfect measure of a region’s economic vitality, with large employers tending to dominate the numbers in seeking protection for small design elements that update existing products, or in walling off ideas that end up languishing on the shelf. But those filings can help a company sustain some staying power as an employer, with the occasional startup cropping up to provide exponential growth in the way Priceline achieved.
Walker and Case have been among the foremost proponents of leveraging innovation — the former through his Walker Innovations in Stamford that attempted to build a database to match corporations seeking new endeavors with patent holders, and Case through his Startup America effort that has supported local efforts like Stamford Startup Weekend at the Stamford Innovation Center. That event kicked off Friday and runs through Sunday, challenging would-be entrepreneurs to develop a viable business plan from scratch.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last fall intensified its efforts to help startups better leverage and protect the innovations they develop, said USPTO Director Michelle Lee, while speaking last week at the South by Southwest technology conference in Austin, Texas.
“At times it is easy to forget how important intellectual property is to business, whether you are a two-person startup or a Fortune 500,” Lee said. “A newly published study by the Harvard Business School and New York University found … the approval of a startup’s first patent application increases its employment growth over the next five years by an average of 36 percent (and) boosts it sales growth by 51 percent.”
Even as grassroots efforts like the Stamford Innovation Center have taken root in Fairfield County, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s administration has attempted to seed the growth of a startup culture by freeing up funding to support such incubators, while making a major bet in luring Jackson Labs to build a major genomics center in Farmington.
If the state support is welcome, bootstrapped efforts like Priceline still boast the best returns in terms of growth, with the new poster child being Datto, the data backup and security company in Norwalk started by CEO Austin McChord shortly after graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
In CB Insights’ annual assessment of technology companies valued at $1 billion or more thought to be readying for an initial public offering of stock, Datto was the lone Connecticut company to hit the list of 40 nationally. In a January interview with Hearst, McChord said Datto can “chart its own destiny” on that front and that it is in no hurry with a major new round of funding, while emphasizing anew the reasons why he chose to build the company in Fairfield County, where he grew up.
“I’m very happy with the team right now,“ McChord said. “We’ll be completely full up by early 2017 — there will be no more space for us (here). We‘ll need to expand again, which is crazy. … We don’t want to move.“
Since stepping back from his role at Priceline, Walker has appended his name to a trio of firms run out of a small office in North Stamford, with Walker Gaming Technologies focused on casino technology; Walker Labs seeking “moonshot” ideas in the health sector; and Walker Innovations, which last year attempted to create a middleman platform to help companies find patents to leverage.
A Walker Labs startup in Stamford called Foodtweeks attempted an app to help people control their weight by winnowing out extra calories — think “hold the mayo” — but the company yanked its app in December while promising a reboot later this year.
And while Walker Innovations enrolled more than 20 companies last year in its patent middleman service, in mid-March Walker indicated he was shifting his attention to reuniting with Case at Upside Travel.
“As a lifelong inventor and entrepreneur, I know full well that when the field conditions change it is time to change the play and find new ways to win,” Walker said Wednesday. “Walker Innovation is in the process of doing just that.”