Jen McCabe has a small quote on her forearm from Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” It says “Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way.”
It’s a fitting quote for McCabe, who has climbed many literal and figurative mountains in her lifetime. Her current mountain is at VegasTechFund, a Las Vegas investment fund where McCabe oversees seed and early stage investments in hardware like robots, drones and connected devices.
It’s both a boom time and a difficult time to be a hardware company, as a treacherous path awaits between idea generation and product delivery. But VegasTechFund, which has invested in companies like littleBits, Whill and Scanadu over the last six months, is confidently moving ahead with adding hardware companies to its portfolio.
“The time to get into these companies is now,” McCabe said in a recent interview. “Don’t want to wait on promising hardware companies. Let’s not focus on how weird drones are; let’s focus on what they can do for people.”
Farm to robots
The path that led McCabe to overseeing an investment portfolio was by no means linear, and until recently, it had nothing to do with hardware. She grew up on a soybean farm in rural Virginia. Fascinated by science, especially biology, she eventually began studying as a pre-med student. Then she got in a bad car accident and had to relearn how to walk. After reaching an organic chemistry class, she abandoned the major and switched to English at St. Mary’s College of Maryland.
She held a job constantly between the ages of 14 and 20, and recovering from the accident reminded her of the value of hard work. She felt herself take off at St. Mary’s, from which she graduated magna cum laude in 2004.
She then worked at an American Composite Manufacturers Association magazine for a year, fascinated by the shops and garages she visited. But then she found herself pulled back toward healthcare and joined Hanover Research Council in Washington D.C. She began noticing missed opportunities to use technology to deliver healthcare. It seemed bizarre: why there wasn’t there even a simple app to remind patients to follow through on their medicine and treatments?
She joined a health startup and eventually found herself on a plane to San Francisco with the vague idea of building a health-related company. She started going to hackathons and found her niche as a pitch person. She found images to use, used her self-taught coding skills to look over code and just did whatever else was needed.
“I kind of knew startups were for me at that point,” McCabe said. “I liked the messy early stages of solving a problem.”
McCabe went through the YCombinator startup accelerator program in summer 2010 and graduated as the CEO of Contagion Health, an app company that helped people take control of their health. She did that for two years.
And then she moved on to robots.
Easing into hardware
“I thought it was a temporary thing: I would help build a couple robots and it would be a fun thing to do before the next startup,” McCabe said.
She stayed at Romotive for about two years, splitting her time between the robot team’s headquarters in Las Vegas and its manufacturing center in Shenzhen, China. She was fascinated by the process of building a product that found its way into consumers’ hands. But when the Romotive team decided to move to San Francisco, she stayed behind in Las Vegas and joined VegasTechFund.
Today, she’s interested in making starting a hardware company as easy as a software company. McCabe tries to help startups in her portfolio tackle five key challenges: designing a product, building it, selling it, shipping it and delivering quality customer service.
She looks for startup founders who are deeply familiar with their market and hungry to provide a better option. Ideally, someone on the team should also be obsessed with details, from what their newsletter sign-up form looks like to the color of the product. But the fund also looks for qualities unrelated to a team’s specific product.
“We look at our founders and we ask ourselves, ‘Are they going to be collaborative? Are they going to help another founder build their skill set so they can get to a more advanced stage?'” McCabe said. “If not, we pass on the investment. You have to trust other people’s experiences and take that as a lesson.”
Further out, McCabe is fascinated by the middle volume production problem. Mass manufacturing is cheap when making tens of thousands to millions of an object, while 3D printing excels at printing up smaller batches of 100 units. But what do you do in that middle area? There’s not an obvious way to make producing 5,000 units worth the investment.
“Overall, the goal and trajectory of my career was to build things that make behavior change more accessible to people, whether it’s monitoring blood glucose or using a robot,” McCabe said. “How do we democratize tech, take amazing advancements coming out of labs and make them relevant to people?”