Interview with Muriel Medard05.20.2022
A conversation with Muriel Medard, Cofounder of CodeOn and the Cecil H. Green Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.
Please tell us your background story on how you ended up starting CodeOn.
Muriel: I earned all my degrees at MIT — electrical engineering, Russian literature, and math. I was unlike other grad students who were aspiring to be in academia; I didn’t have it in my mind. I had a minor from the Sloan business school and wanted to go into industry. I wasn’t concerned with career development, so I looked for a job near home while my then husband was getting his MBA – we already had a child. So, I took a fun job in optical networking that didn’t have to do with my doctorate. I wanted to reconnect and become a better engineer, so I really got into it and was able to do risky projects that no one else wanted which really took off, particularly in optical security.
After a couple years working in optical networking, I went into academia. To my surprise, I enjoyed working with students. I started at the University of Illinois and moved to MIT in 2000. As part of that, my theoretical information theory background and more practical networking background started coming together through network coding which really merged the two. I was fortunate to start very early on and contribute to shaping the field and adding what academia values in terms of citations, invited talks, students, and awards. Those sorts of external markers of success help with an academic career.
I would sometimes help a company, but I didn’t feel a burning need for entrepreneurship. I was aware of many friends who did it, and it was a cruel, unsuccessful slog, usually seldom successful. My own entrepreneurship journey started around network coding; I realized it could deeply change the way networking operates. If I didn’t get involved, it wouldn’t have happened. I realized this with terror, not joy, as entrepreneurship is not an easy undertaking.
Entrepreneurship never feels useless or boring; it’s compelling. It is hard to convince people to do things differently; you need to give people good reasons to do so. The translation from theory to practice is tricky; practice makes it necessary to revisit theory. I have the ability to interface with engineers, and being a part of the exciting developments in practice is a privilege and reward.
If you have a good idea, know how it will get implemented and that you need patents. I work in a field where patent infringers are commonplace; it happens all the time. Given the costs, the risk doesn’t make sense financially or reputably, and you are better off licensing the patents than paying fines or litigation. Patents are a huge protection but require care and feeding with maintenance costs and careful prosecution. Patents are very important in entrepreneurship which is not something taught in engineering or business school. As an educator, I try to teach students basic knowledge about the patent process, at least for those who may likely pursue them in the future. It’s a huge component to entrepreneurship.
Was there a point in your career where you felt like it was the right time to start a company?
Muriel: I can’t imagine there is a right time to start a company. There are other things to readily occupy yourself with. I’m a mother of four kids and not sitting around wondering what to do with my time. I was teaching, shepherding patents, managing students, staff, and post docs. I was essentially already running a small nonprofit. I know how to write presentations, sell ideas, explain what’s innovative, show comparative studies, and manage risk. You have to learn to scale and engage the risk correctly so you can be sufficiently innovating while garnering support and credibility. That way you are confident when asking people to back you on it.
Do you have entrepreneurial mentors or sponsors? How did the relationship start, and what has it brought to you?
Muriel: I have very good general mentors, not just entrepreneurial. I have encountered people through the entrepreneurial experience from whom I have learned a huge amount. I am also a devoted mentor to my students.
I have received piecemeal mentoring from different people, but not all advice from any one person. What I was doing is a little different from what a traditional company is doing in developing one product geared towards one market. It’s a software suite relying on some core IP and it applies to different markets.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women entrepreneurs and executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Muriel: There are just not many women in the communications field. The interactions with typical VCs are odd. If I’m talking tech with other engineers, we get along well, understand and respect each other. There are social aspects of fundraising I don’t do as I have four kids and don’t have “work hard/play hard” hobbies. For entrepreneurs in Scandinavian countries, there is not the expectation of having a personal repertoire or relatability on a personal level with a VC. It is based on professional matters first and foremost, the technology rather than the person.
What was your experience in fundraising? Do you consider it any different than that of your male colleagues?
Muriel: I fundraised in the US only from angel investors. Our VCs are outside the US in the Scandinavian countries. The business model we have is different from the typical US VC fund and doesn’t fall within their criteria.
Fundraising has been a good experience. I like working with people putting in their own money; they ask the right questions. It makes for very good rapports and makes me feel responsible, as it should. We have a greater alignment of interests. Large portfolio companies encourage risk, their portfolio is many companies, but for the entrepreneur, it is one company. Their risk assessment is different from your risk assessment.
What do you think deters women from pursuing entrepreneurship? How do you encourage?
Muriel: Part of it is women tend to be better at realizing when something is risky, but too conservatively so. It is not unreasonable not to pursue entrepreneurship, and I don’t encourage people. I wanted something to happen personally and professionally, so I had to pursue it. If the technology could have been transferred without my involvement, I would have been thrilled. But I needed to do it. If you are compelled because of what you are doing, then you shouldn’t stand back or wimp out – you should do it. With eyes wide open, and realize the tough slog it is. People recount successes, not failures. I have seen countless friends’ heartbreaks. If you believe in it, you have to do it.
What was the best advice that you received? And to counter that, did you receive any advice that you would not pass along to another aspiring female academic entrepreneur?
Muriel: Gauge carefully when you partner with someone. You may have blinders on or lack perspective for a wonderful friend who may not be a good business partner. There are wonderful academics who may not display the level of responsiveness needed in business. Embedded in advice is showing up, perseverance, and endurance. These are very important. I know this as an educator and see it in my own students. I admire people I have worked with and may have found uninspiring at the start, but they had honest tenacity I learned to appreciate.
What haven’t we asked you about that you think is important for women academics to know when delving into being involved in a startup company?
Muriel: Part of the risk is climate – do women entrepreneurs have it worse? Maybe not on a case-by-case basis, but on average, yes, based on my observations. Starting a company is not a rational choice; it is a very irrational choice. Worry, but do it if it is relevant. Be lucid and cognizant.