FAYETTEVILLE -- Calvin Goforth is a big-picture guy.
Long before he worked for NASA, he was a boy who liked science fiction and dreamed of space exploration. Months before taking an industry job instead of going to graduate school, Goforth told his professors that he would return two years later. He did. And only four years after his time at Stanford University, where he dreamed of starting his own business, Goforth launched a product that made a half million dollars in sales and easily found a buyer for his first business.
Today, as founder and chief executive officer of VIC Technology Venture Development, Goforth is using that foresight to spot promising new technologies, invest in them and help make a successful business from them.
"I could tell that he was very focused and driven, someone who had done very well with his own experience in building up companies," says Bernie Prusaczyk, managing director of the VIC office in Boston. "He had a very clear vision for what he was trying to accomplish. That impressed me from the get-go."
Since its start in 2002, VIC has invested in 15 science, technology and engineering companies and expanded from its headquarters in Fayetteville, opening offices in Massachusetts and Maryland and is getting ready to open a West Coast location.
Goforth spent most of his boyhood in Alberta, Canada, where his father moved the family to follow work with Syncrude Oil. He loved hockey and read avidly, though admittedly less than his three sisters, who would eventually become science and legal professionals.
As Goforth entered high school, his parents became homesick and returned to Arkansas to settle in West Fork, where Calvin experienced some serious culture shock.
Gone were the Canadian accents, hundreds of classmates and hockey games. In their place was the Southern drawl, fascination with pickup trucks and no ice rink in sight.
Coming from a family that valued education, there was no question that Goforth would attend college. It was just a matter of where.
"Dad was a scientist and Mom is a psychologist," says Sarah Goforth, Calvin's sister. "They encouraged us to ask questions, to be interested in the world around us and have our own hypotheses. Calvin had that innate curiosity and love of learning."
At the age of 17, he first chose the University of Southern California at Los Angeles. Intent on being financially self-sufficient, Goforth was alarmed when the scholarship and stipends were not enough to cover his cost of living. He got a day job with the library and worked nights at an inner-city Burger King.
Between learning new study habits, managing part-time jobs and rooming in apartments for upperclassmen, he found life in the big city stressful. Goforth transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, a place that more closely resembled home, but where he could still maintain his independence.
From campus, he regularly sent letters and magazines to his two younger sisters, which influenced their interests and take on the world.
"I remember the excitement of him coming home for a visit from college," says sister Robyn Goforth. "I was excited to get his letters in the mail, and he'd help me with my math homework on his visits."
"I'd study for his visits," Sarah Goforth says. "He'd send me New Republic magazine, I'd read it and think of intelligent things to ask him.
"It helped form my identity, who I am."
Always a good student, Calvin Goforth used his scholarships to study aerospace engineering and spent alternate semesters as an intern of NASA's Engineering Cooperative Education Program for the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston.
He explored why rocket valves were corroding, worked to improve flight trajectory analysis software and ran troubleshooting tests, which gave Goforth practical applications of his education. He was able to see why, painful as they might be, certain skills and knowledge of certain topics were necessary.
"It was a good program to get a feel for why some of this stuff we're doing in school is useful," he says. "Why you need to learn certain types of analyses and experimental design."
The collective five semesters also added quality connections to his life, surrounding him with people who had similar paths, humor and interests.
"At NASA, there were 50 or 60 interns any given semester, and a lot of social activities together. There was some overlap, some new folks, some from last time. We were away from school, a similar age and all engineering-type people, so it was your closest peers you could find, with a little money to spend and no homework [to do] at night."
The tasks gave him a taste for software development, which gave him a more clear path for graduate studies. But as a new college graduate, he knew he would need a break before beginning a master's track.
Though professors warned him that a couple of years in the industry would make it difficult to return to academia to complete a higher professional degree, Goforth was not swayed from his plan. He went back to California.
Arriving again in Los Angeles with more life experience and adjusted expectations, Goforth went to work for Rocketdyne, now Aerojet Rocketdyne, where he further honed his software writing skills with space shuttle main engine performance modeling and delighted in the opportunity to see the rocket engine tests.
"Software development I wound up liking," Goforth says. "It was a large part of the first company, a machine-controlled combination of software and hardware. But ultimately, that experience at NASA is what got me interested."
Exactly two years later, Goforth returned to college to seek a master's degree and doctorate in mechanical engineering, with a minor in electrical engineering, from Stanford University.
He was refreshed and ready to learn.
In the lab, Goforth wrote a dissertation based on magnetohydrodynamic channels, a power generation method based on conducting gas through a channel in the presence of a strong magnetic field, but not all of his research was about science and engineering.
He took additional classes that had nothing to do with his major and everything to do with his personal development and happiness, including a biology class that gave him training as a docent for local biological preserves and a wilderness class, where he went backpacking in the snow.
Goforth lived it up hiking, cycling and cross-country skiing through the Lost Coast, the redwood forests and the Sierra Nevada, activities that kept his mind open and ready to absorb more information when he returned.
While earning his degree, Goforth worked part time for Sierra Instruments (founded by a fellow Stanford alumnus), which designs and manufactures high-performance fluid flow measurement and control instruments.
The responsibilities he was handed there, paired with the strong entrepreneurial vibe of his other Stanford classmates, changed his mind about the world of research and development and opened his eyes to the realm of business.
"As part of the deal, I got to participate in all aspects of their growing business, not just the specific engineering tasks I was assigned," Goforth says. "I was recruited to join as their director of research and development upon completing my Ph.D., but I knew that I wanted to start my own company.
"I just didn't know what yet."
Goforth returned to Arkansas and accepted a position as an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Arkansas.
Those years as an educator had a learning curve. He knew that his greatest strength wasn't teaching, but he did his best to prepare students while enjoying the freedom to choose which research endeavors would align with his interests and purpose.
After four years, he had it figured out.
With no business experience or formal business education, Goforth developed a good product, a machine-controlled combination of hardware and software, and went from there.
"I didn't try to do it on the side," he says. "I just went all in."
He left his teaching position, the resulting sales of his product totaled more than half a million dollars and he found a buyer for the business, which built PC-based machine controllers.
"I don't know if [jumping in] was best, but it was best for me," he says. "Starting a technology company is a risky, difficult endeavor. It's not for everybody. For me, I knew that I wanted to do it.
[But] I didn't know everything I really needed to know to be successful."
Looking back on all the things he didn't realize he needed to know but learned in the process of building his company, Goforth knew there was an opportunity to help others be more successful with their startups.
Just a few miles from his office was a university full of researchers who had excellent ideas, funded research and a desire to see their new creations hit the market, but who didn't care for the risks.
"A lot of professors, unlike me, don't want to give up their secure tenure-track faculty position, their salary [and] they don't want to invest every penny they have and borrow into a risky startup," Goforth says. "They don't want to do that, but they do want to see their ideas or inventions come to commercial fruition."
A COMPANY OF Cs
In 2002, Goforth formed VIC Technology Venture Development, which included a team of executive-level talent that could set a sturdy foundation for a successful business, particularly technology companies -- Goforth's bread and butter. The staff brought to the table a wealth of technical training, practical business experience, knowledge of finance and coverage of the finer details, too.
"His model ... supplies all of the support to get a company started," says James Hendren, a member of the VIC board of directors. "It supplies all the C-level people, CEO, CFO from the VIC stable of experts and supplies them just the amount of help that they need.
"It lowers the overall cost but provides real expertise and knowledge and services that a startup needs."
The following year, VIC began operations and took on its first clients, SFC Fluidics, Vegrandis, NanoMech and BioDetection Instruments -- all Northwest Arkansas-based companies -- and acted primarily as consultant for already established startups that needed assistance.
The ship-steering approach generally worked out for the companies, but not as handsomely for VIC, whose staff was being paid primarily in equity.
Goforth realized that having more decision-making ability earlier in the game would work out better for both parties involved. He refocused the company to work with startups from day one as a sort of initial development team.
Their work allows professors and researchers to continue to be inventors, have a hand in product development and an equity partner to minimize risks. Robyn Goforth, Calvin's sister and chief scientific officer at BiologicsMD, was one of those.
"I had really fully intended to be a lifelong academic," she says. "I didn't have any plans to leave the university, I enjoyed grant writing, publishing ... [but] the technology for BiologicsMD falls into my domain. It was a great opportunity and the team was ready to go." Fayetteville-based BiologicsMD is a drug-development company focused on therapies for bone disorders and hair loss.
Although the first technology license VIC received was from the University of Arkansas, it has since worked amiably on technologies licensing with Johns Hopkins University, Washington University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, University of Nebraska, University of Texas and University of Colorado.
In more than 10 years of operations, Goforth has learned the sweet spot of product development, for taking on a new technology and making it commercially successful; gained a sense for which research-oriented companies were not translatable to the market; and enlisted help in spotting the right technology.
Most recently, he created the VIC Investor Network, which awards each of the VIC portfolio companies with $250,000 in startup capital to save roughly a year's time on the development process.
"I'm proud that we've created an innovative approach to technology venture development here in Arkansas, which is not known for technology company development," Goforth says. "We've built a lot of companies that are really taking off, exporting a model for technology venture development ... in a way that works in other locations as well."
NW Profiles on 09/07/2014