Larry Ciscon only sent out his resume once. “It was for a summer internship,” said the Rice University Computer Science alumnus (B.A. ’88). “The rest of the time, I just set up my own companies.”
Before he began launching companies, Ciscon studied how software could be used to solve real-world problems as well as how computers worked to execute that software. His fascination with the combination prompted him to stay at Rice for graduate school, where he earned his master’s and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical Engineering working on Robotics.
He said, “I’ve always been interested in both sides of the problem. Having a background in both hardware and software means I can get both sides to work better. Even with little things, understanding the mechanics influences how I write my code to better optimize it.”
“That’s one of the challenges software engineers are now facing. By narrowing their focus – say, on web software – they may view ‘outside the cloud’ as a black box. Without understanding how servers inside or outside the cloud work, it is easy to write code that is not going to run efficiently.”
Ciscon’s first startup, Modulus Technologies, tapped his knowledge of hardware and software to develop middle-ware messaging technology for devices to communicate with each other. His work led to significant advances in what would be called the IoT (Internet of Things) a decade later.
“Coming out of Rice, I was working on a distributed robotics idea in Houston, but it quickly evolved with the reaction of the market. As we learned more about the needs of our customers, we realized our solution would require a lot of different processors. I focused on how to effectively communicate between all these computers to solve a big problems in a distributed fashion and wrote a messaging layer to make it easier to share out the work between the machines,” said Ciscon.
“Data messaging is a fundamental element of the current cloud computing environment. Sending a text message by phone is actually a transmission of a data message to a server which then distributes it to the intended recipients. Data messaging is the foundation that makes texting and other communication channels possible.”
After Modulus was acquired, Ciscon stayed on to help transition their messaging technology into advanced network control systems for a high-speed optical network. Then he felt the entrepreneurial itch and looked for his next project. Ciscon jokes that he might have tried to find a problem that would allow him to start a new company.
“I’m one of those people who just want a reason to move forward with their own ideas,” he said. “But the lesson I learned is ‘Think through your ideas extensively before you start going down that path.’ And be ready to adapt. Most of time when you are in the process of creating something new, the product changes.”
Ciscon’s interests and his startups jumped across radically different industries, like data messaging, building construction, and 3D printing. But he said he finds value and satisfaction in starting from scratch.
“My strength is my poor memory. I can’t remember the way I solved a problem before, so I have to re-invent the solution over and over. That also means I’m not afraid to switch industries. I’ve always been interested in building architecture. After Modulus I looked at the construction industry to see what it needed, and I noticed an information gap. The engineers and project managers didn’t have adequate tools to solve their problems. I gave them more intelligent tools. We developed tools in that industry for over a decade.”
During that time the software industry evolved. Ciscon said stand-alone software itself became commoditized. His first startup evolved in an age when an application for a PC could easily sell for $5K. Today, phone apps cost $5 or less, and many are free. The consumer market influences employees, who expect their work tools and systems to perform – and cost – like the apps on their personal devices.
That spurred his switch back into making physical devices. And that evolved into getting involved in makerspaces and taking a number of classes there. Ciscon said makerspaces are an excellent tool for learning and stimulating ideas at any age. His own classes spanned computer numerical control (CNC) machining, laser fabrication, welding, 3D printing, and casing among other things.
During all this time he also continued his weekly lunches with Dr. Wise, a retired Rice EE researcher Ciscon had met during his graduate studies. Ciscon recounts,“While I was taking classes in the makerspace, cheap 3D printers started coming out. When I mentioned the new industry over one of our lunches, we kept talking about 3D printers and 3D printer design until we founded Northworks Automation together.”
The 3D printing industry is particularly appealing to Wise and Ciscon because it encompasses multiple engineering fields: computer, mechanical, material science, and electrical among others. And because the industry is still young and growing, the co-founders realized they could still carve out a niche and create a profitable business. The first iterations of their industrial 3D printer were built in Ciscon’s garage.
“The cheap 3D printers were not reliable for industrial use and the high-end commercial ones were too expensive to use for manufacturing. We began developing better ones at a moderate price point for small and medium-sized batches of products. We built one, tested it, and built another and then another. You learn to iterate quickly until you have something to show investors. Then you get a little money, built a few more iterations, and start testing them out with friendly customers. The quicker and cheaper you can iterate, the more likely you are to succeed,” he said.
He’s never considered launching a company outside of Houston and said the city has several benefits that other entrepreneurs are beginning to recognize. A century of supporting the oil and gas industry led to a wealth of machine shops. There are more small machine shops per capita than any other city in the U.S.
Ciscon said, “These days, companies are finding it more effective to get their fabrication done closer to the source. So Houston’s machine shops are evolving. They have started making parts for the medical industry, but they can also produce parts for prototyping and small batches of products in any field.
“Access to prototypes and small batch manufacturing opens the market for more inventors to develop their ideas locally. That means Houston is actually a very good place to build new things. And the same medical community that began tapping local machine shops is also impacting the evolution of our tech ecosystem. Software spans a much broader market because there is now a software layer to everything we build.
“The final element that makes Houston ideal for startups are the new facilities coming online, like the Rice Ion run by Station Houston and TXRX Labs. Both facilities have Northworks 3D printers on-site. A strong entrepreneurial community requires centralized meeting locations. TXRX Labs and the Ion are already spurring new innovations both on the hardware and software side, so we are well-positioned going forward to becoming an innovation hub.”
Ciscon believes Houston is a prime location for technology startups. He said, “Access to machining for prototypes and small batches, a growing tech ecosystem, extensive software developer pool, and facilities like the Ion and TXRX Labs are developing in an area already known for its low cost of living and volume of work space. Houston is in a unique position to lead the next technology wave.”