With a doctorate in material science from Cornell, Greg Galvin understood the intricacies of physics and electrical engineering but didn't want to spend his days in a lab. With a Cornell MBA , he also knew the principles of accounting and marketing but didn't want to leave the science behind.
So in 1993, he combined his complementary strengths
and launched his first startup, Kionix, licensing a
groundbreaking technology developed at Cornell. By
2009, Galvin had sold the company twice — for a total
of $533.5 million — and created 250 technical and
manufacturing jobs in Ithaca. He had also started his
second company, Rheonix, which produces molecular
diagnostic testing systems.
A soft-spoken and self-effacing man, Galvin built
a portfolio of successful high-tech startups in Ithaca
with a strong dose of perseverance, grueling days, and
dedication to his employees. Yet his unusual background
in both science and business allowed him to become that
rare type of entrepreneur who can not only envision the
technology that will thrive in the marketplace but who
can also develop the organization needed to produce it.
"Greg is probably the most talented person I've ever
known or worked for," says Jim Kirkwood, the former
chief operating officer of Kionix, now CEO of Endicott
Machine and Tool in Endicott, N.Y. "He understands
all the different aspects of owning your own business.
He understands the technology as well as the engineering.
He understands the sales and marketing so he can
go into a customer meeting and understand all the
players at the table. If he's in a room with engineers, he
can speak the technical talk. I always say, 'Greg is two or
three steps ahead of anyone else sitting in the room.'"
Galvin's first passion for science was a childhood
dream to become a doctor. But after discovering he
despised organic chemistry, he ended up graduating
from the California Institute of Technology with a
degree in electrical engineering and followed a professor
to Cornell to become one of his first graduate students. Galvin then spent four years conducting research on the solidification
dynamics of silicon under ultra-rapid heating.
By the time he earned his doctorate, Galvin had become more
interested in the business side of science, but the positions he was
offered didn't match his diverse skill set. "The companies had this
idea that if you're a PhD, you go in the lab and do science," he
recalls. "I found it very difficult to get anyone to consider me for
more of a product management position or something that merged
the business side of the organization along with the science."
Instead, Galvin took the less typical path for a newly minted
PhD: He became deputy director at the Cornell Nanofabrication
Facility, where he made connections with the scientists whose
research would eventually become the basis for Kionix. Developed
by Professor Noel MacDonald, the technology, known as MEMS
(micro-electro-mechanical systems), builds mechanical systems on a
After taking a position with Cornell's corporate research
relations, Galvin was asked to identify companies that wanted to
license the MEMS technology. Unable to find any, he decided to
develop the technology himself and invited an electrical engineering
doctoral student he had met on campus, Tim Davis, PhD '93, to
join the startup. He called it Kionix, taken from the Greek word
kíön, meaning "pillar," as he viewed the microstructures comprising
the MEMS device as tiny silicon pillars.
"For Kionix, Greg jokes that we did everything wrong," says Davis,
the company's chief technology officer. "We started a company
that needed a lot of money to develop the technology and create
both a product and a market. But even though we did everything
wrong, he made it work."
Galvin made it work primarily because of his doggedness seeking
venture capital for a startup in Ithaca, which has traditionally been
overlooked by the major investment firms on either coast. Upstate
New York, Galvin notes, ranked third from the bottom in the
amount of venture capital it received among all regions across the
country in the second quarter of 2015, according to a report by
PricewaterhouseCoopers. While upstate generated $22.2 million in
financing, the number one region — Silicon Valley — raised $9.1
billion, followed by the New York metro area, with $2.3 billion.
"There's a ton of federal research funding coming into this region,
but we rank nearly last for venture capital," Galvin says. "That to
me epitomizes the problem that we face in trying to generate this
entrepreneurial ecosystem and entrepreneurial activity in Central
Despite those odds, Galvin was able to raise $13 million to
launch Kionix by securing small amounts of money from a large
number of investors, including family members, friends, and Cornell
associates. One of those investors, Cayuga Venture Fund, based
in Ithaca, not only provided financing for Kionix but also funded
Galvin's succeeding business ventures.
"We felt that their technology was advantaged and was going
to create a marketplace for them, although they were competing
against huge companies," says Phil Proujansky, a managing partner
with Cayuga Venture Fund. "It took awhile to get there — it's
always hard for a startup to compete against huge companies — but
they got traction in the marketplace."
Kionix's first product was a set of micromirrors — each less than
a millimeter on its side — that could switch fiber-optic signals. This
niche product was in demand during the telecommunications boom
in the late 1990s, as companies were exploring how to transmit and
redirect fiber-optic signals in the Internet backbone.
As its products gained visibility in the market, Kionix attracted
the attention of Calient Networks, a California optical circuit switching company that bought the startup for $300 million in
2000. But in a move Davis, his co-founder, calls "brilliant," Galvin
spun off a separate technology that focused on inertial sensors,
creating the framework for a second incarnation of Kionix.
"The brilliance in it was structuring the deal so that he could sell
only part of the company and retain part of the intellectual property
to develop in new fields," Davis says. "By being able to manipulate
that situation so that you could retain enough and yet get enough
money in the sale to fund the new activity was, I think, the key
turning point not only for Kionix, but for Greg."
The next generation of products of what came to be known as
the "new Kionix" were devices that could be installed in laptop
computers to detect if they were falling — if they sensed free fall,
the devices would lock the heads on the disk drives before impact,
preventing any damage to stored data. Kionix reached a milestone
with the product when Apple purchased it to use in its MacBook,
catapulting the startup to the top of the consumer electronics
Kionix developed two more highly profitable applications for
its inertial sensors: enabling cell phones to switch from portrait
to landscape mode and making possible motion-based computer
gaming systems. When the technology was adopted by such major
manufacturers as Samsung, Microsoft, and Nintendo, employment
at Kionix grew to 250 people.
"The company ultimately went to a 24/7 operation," says Galvin,
who is known for wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and sneakers to work.
"We had four shifts staffing the production facilities as well as a
growing sales force and technical support worldwide."
As Kionix became a leading supplier of inertial sensors, another
buyer for the technology emerged: Rohm Co., Ltd., a Japanese
semiconductor company, which bought the startup for $233.5
million in 2009. A year before the sale, however, Galvin had already
spun off a different product line developed at Kionix — a platform for
the molecular diagnostics industry — that became the basis for
his second company, Rheonix — taken from the word rheology, the
study of fluid flows.
With 62 employees, Rheonix is now conducting clinical trials
on its first product, a completely automated molecular diagnostic
system that will identify sexually transmitted infections. Future
iterations of the platform will be designed to detect respiratory
viruses and cancer.
Delving into medical diagnostics is another example of Galvin's
winning strategy. While devices that detect infectious diseases are
already used by hospitals, Galvin believes Rheonix can improve the
technology by fully automating the process, guaranteeing test results
in hours rather than days, and reducing the cost of the test while
delivering more clinical information.
"Greg is a very strategic thinker," says Kenny Salky, vice president
for sales for Rheonix, who formerly worked for Kionix. "He
understands the market and understands where we should be and
how to get there, and he doesn't do it in a very complicated way."
Galvin's latest venture is Incodema3D, a company he founded
with three partners in Ithaca last January. The startup is applying
3D printing to manufacture parts for the aerospace industry that
weigh less and can have much more complex geometric shapes than
those fabricated through traditional machining.
3D printing is yet another disruptive technology Galvin is guiding
into what he predicts will become a rapidly expanding industry.
"I don't know that there's something magic about what I do versus
somebody else," he says. "I think I'm pretty good at organizing and
managing people, understanding the technology, understanding the
marketplace, and setting the vision for where it is we should be going
to be successful. But at the end of the day, it's about getting the
right set of people together who have the right talents and abilities to
actually execute it."