An Entrepreneur’s Entrepreneur

By Ed Patisso

Owen Davis
Photo by Nicky Prince.

Owen Davis, 45, conceptualized and built three innovative technology companies that were later sold for profit, surviving, even thriving, through the most challenging environment for Internet startups, while most others failed.

Now he’s trying to help other technology entrepreneurs succeed.

As managing director of NYCSeed, a private-public initiative, Davis wants to fund and nurture technology entrepreneurs in New York City and move them from an idea to a marketable product.

“This is my only focus, getting innovative companies off the ground,” Davis says. “This is it, it was something I really wanted to do.”

As he sits in an armchair in the quietest area of the large, bright, open space at 160 Varick St., in SoHo, 20-somethings scurry about. The space, home to an incubator run by the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, has sizable windows, striking views and all the tools and support needed to launch a new venture.

NYCSeed is a private-public partnership of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, the Industrial and Technology Assistance Corporation, the New York City Economic Development Corporation, the New York City Investment Fund and the New York State Foundation for Science Technology and Innovation.

Davis’s first foray into business was very different. After graduating from Brown University, he and a college roommate bootstrapped their way in an attempt to unify food delivery in New York City, so consumers could order all their food using the same phone number. “We just felt like there was no unified delivery in New York,” says Davis. “It didn’t go anywhere; it was a disaster.”

The next company was a success. Built in 1995, as the Internet was quickly becoming popular and Web sites were being built, the company was aimed at online advertising. Davis and a partner launched Thinking Media, a patented a system to measure user-side tracking, as opposed to server side. It was essentially a more accurate way to track users online. Davis’s system tracked a user to a particular Web browser, while earlier tracking systems could not account for lost connections, or other reasons why the user never made it to a particular Web browser.

Thinking Media became one of the early metrics for advertising companies and is still used today. It was sold five years later to a subsidiary of Nielsen, the ratings company, in a private deal whose price was never disclosed. “I think that portfolio and that patent has held up very nicely over the years,” says Davis.

A lot of what he was doing for Thinking Media, he wanted to transfer to mobile. This quickly led to Sonata, a mobile infrastructure company for ad serving and ad tracking. But Sonata was caught up in the bust. “It was a soft landing,” Davis says. “We did some asset sales.”

Then, in 2002, he launched Petal Computing, an early cloud computing effort – in which programs live on the Web, not on a desktop. The idea, he says, was to “take PCs, bring them together and make a cheap infrastructure so that you don’t have to call up Sun Microsystems and spend $500,000 on a server.”

He adds: “Entrepreneurs are creative, you need to be,” says Davis. I mean you could be a painter, which is no more creative than somebody who’s developing a software product.”

When the Polytechnic Institute came up with the idea of creating a startup fund, it called Davis. “Obviously part of the thing we liked was that Owen had his own track record,” says Bruce Niswander, who runs the incubator that houses NYCSeed. “Owen’s forte was that he had actually done it, successfully, a number of times vs. somebody who came out of a b school, worked for a VC then wanted to do this,” referring to venture capital.

A startup fund is an entirely different deal from a venture fund, says Niswander. The values are not only much smaller, but the early stages of development carry their own challenges. “Owen has got those skills and he’s got the desire to play in that marketplace, and that’s the strong suit we observed when we talked with him,” Niswander says.

Davis, who is from Brooklyn, put together an investment program that funded five companies with a small amount and took them through a boot camp for small business commercialization. “Owen wasn’t getting paid for it,” Niswander says. “He’s really done a great job pulling his weight with the university and the marketplace over and above just being an investment guy.”

Yoni Argaman, a corporate lawyer working on his M.B.A, is interning with Davis at NYCSeed. Argaman has had mentors and bosses in the past, but says Davis stands out. “Owen is exceptional in the way he makes sure to involve you in the process and maximizes your learning experience,” Argaman says.

Among the 13 companies it has invested in, NYCSeed has a couple of high flyers that can be found in the portfolio section of its Web site, Davis is eager to hear from more entrepreneurs and ready for more startups.

“I’m frustrated that there are not more startups coming out of universities,” Davis says. “I would really like to hear from entrepreneurs within universities that have done some real work on a company.”