If practice makes perfect, Bill Turpin ought to have his entrepreneurial skills honed to an impeccable edge.
The 58-year-old native Missourian rode out the technology wave in Silicon Valley, taking ideas and building businesses out of them. He didn’t invent the Internet, but his products helped pave the way for the ease with which we navigate the World Wide Web.
“I’ve been in the right place at the right time … and sometimes the wrong place at the wrong time,” Turpin says.
It was Turpin’s track record for right place/right time that piqued the interest of the Missouri Innovation Center Board when it set out to replace retiring president and CEO Jake Halliday.
“Mr. Turpin brings the experience of a serial technology innovator and entrepreneur, providing perspectives and leadership that will take Missouri Innovation Center and the business incubator at MU to the next level,” said Board President David Keller in announcing Turpin’s hire last summer. “In particular, we expect Bill to intensify MIC’s services and business mentoring for software entrepreneurs, bringing that support into balance with the strong program in place for life science ventures.”
Now, after 36 years in the cradle of the technology revolution, Turpin has returned to his home state and his alma mater as president and CEO of Missouri Innovation Center and leader of the MU Life Science Business Incubator. He hopes to stimulate the entrepreneurial community here and accelerate the startup success rate.
“Success feels pretty good,” he says. “Aside from the financial aspect, there is the satisfaction of creating something where there was nothing before — like art from a blank canvas.”
Turpin’s feel-good brush strokes are beginning to fill in the picture on the entrepreneurial canvas of Columbia.
BORN IN LOUISIANA, MO. — “because that’s where the hospital was in Pike County” — Turpin grew up in the northeast Missouri town of Bowling Green. His father, Circuit Court Judge Bill Turpin Sr., moved the family to St. Charles in 1970. After graduating from Francis Howell High School, Turpin arrived in Columbia in 1974 to attend the University of Missouri.
“MU was the only college I considered,” he says. “My grandfather, my parents and my sister had all gone here.”
He began his studies as a mechanical engineering major — “I enjoyed building things and tearing them down to see how they worked” — but soon fell in love with computer programming. He switched to electrical engineering, where MU housed its budding computer science department.
“Those were the days of punch cards and big mainframe computers,” he recalls. “We were just starting to get cabinet-size computers. I would walk down the hall and ask, ‘Who owns that computer?’ And then I’d get on the project so I could work with it. I was at the right place at the right time.”
Armed with his engineering degree, Turpin entertained two job offers in 1978, from IBM in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and Texas Instruments in Houston.
“At IBM, I would have been working on a mainframe, he says. “That didn’t really excite me. Then I visited Houston, where TI was building PCs. Now that was exciting.”
Turpin spent two years in Houston before moving to Austin, where TI sent him to get an MBA at the University of Texas. “This was the tech corridor,” he notes. Austin proved to be a love match as well, where he met and married his wife, Josephine, who worked at Advanced Micro Devices.
While working at TI, Turpin created artificial intelligence software products, including an expert system tool that Boeing used to design wing flaps.
THE ENTREPRENEUR BUG BIT in 1988. Turpin quit TI to head up his first startup, Point Technologies, which produced a software product that could take any business form and reproduce it.
“We were using Windows 2.0 to put in decision trees,” he says. “The computer could fill out the form and tie it to the database. It was the first graphical database front-end on Windows.”
In 1990, Microsoft released Windows 3.0 and Borland International bought Turpin’s Windows-based Point Technologies. “We had one of the few Windows programs on the market,” he says. “Right time, right place.” By summer, he was headed to California — the Silicon Rush was in full swing.
“They paid us enough to buy a house out there,” he recalls.
Borland renamed the program ObjectVision, one of the first popular applications written for Windows 3.0. The company shipped 300,000 copies and won industry awards from Byte magazine and Software Publishers Association.
In less than five years at Borland, Turpin rose to vice president of dBASE development, another popular Windows-based application that provided database functionality and server connectivity. By the end of 1994, though, the startup bug was biting again. Turpin and four friends quit Borland to start Commerce Tools in Santa Cruz.
“We said, ‘Let’s do this Internet thing,’ ” he recalls with a smile.
“It was going to be even bigger and better,” he says. “In those days, it was easy to get venture capital. We raised more than $10 million from Silicon Valley companies.”
Themestream was an early blogging venture, a forerunner of RSS feeds. “We had original articles — indexed, weighted and rated — that we sent out in digests,” he says. “It was specialty media and we were publishers.”
Themestream grew to 1 million subscribers and 40,000 contributors in a year. William Hearst sat on the company’s board of directors. But the ad-based revenue model ran amok. “The ad-supported websites became like no one wanted,” Turpin says. Themestream went out of business in 2001.
“I had such big expectations,” he says. “Before it tanked, I actually had visions of buying a jet plane. Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is bad. In two years, I hired 50 and laid off 50.”
Turpin stopped out for a few years. Instead of a plane, he bought a sailboat and took up racing. In 2003, things began looking up in the tech world so he edged his way back in as a consultant to Sun Microsystems and then took a position with Redpoint Ventures as an entrepreneur-in-residence, performing due diligence on emerging ventures such as MySpace and Keyhole (which became Google Maps).
The bug bit again in 2004. Turpin left Redpoint to start The Multiverse Network, a gaming network of interconnected 3-D virtual worlds and massively multiplayer games. He raised $8 million in seven years and built the company to more than 25 employees but Multiverse never turned a profit. Turpin shut it down in 2011.
“Again, bad place, bad time,” he says. Another sabbatical left him recharged in 2012 to start Scale Advisors, which created RoShamBo, a rock-paper-scissors game for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. After a few months, Turpin was off to OT Mobility for a short stint developing a mobile app for navigation.
And then, University of Missouri Engineering Dean Jim Thompson sent Turpin an email, asking for referrals of applicants to replace Jake Halliday at MIC and the incubator.
“I thought, ‘I could do this,’ and the more I thought about it, the more interested I was. I was attracted to the incubator. I’ve got all this experience in startups and all these stories. This is my chance to help — I enjoy helping people.”
Another case of the right place at the right time.
TURPIN CAME ONBOARD with a new mandate for the Missouri Innovation Center.
“The board wants to expand our ventures into technology and software applications,” he says. “So right now, we’re developing programs in journalism and education. We’re doing well with life sciences companies — we’re starting to look at radiopharmacology and cancer detection — and we will continue to expand, although we need to figure out how to get more space. The incubator is currently 100 percent leased out.”
Incubator expansion is predicated on building another wing to the building at Monsanto Place. And before the first shovelful of dirt is turned over, Turpin will have to raise the money to finance it.
“I’m spending a lot of time shaking the bushes and meeting people,” he says. “It’s a three- or four-year process.”
He also meets with fledgling entrepreneurs who bounce their startup ideas off him.
“I want to create a system of financial support and real mentoring,” he says.
The system has already taken root. For University of Missouri senior Maghan Morin, an encounter with Turpin last fall led her to Startup Weekend, where she pitched her idea for Posh’tique, an iOS app that serves as a platform for small-business boutiques to reach a consumer base outside of their community along with creating a community within the app of sharing and interacting with fellow users.
“My pitch was one of the ideas that got picked to work on throughout the weekend,” Morin says. “That was the start to my company and now I have been able to get in touch with other people that have helped me build my startup slowly. I was and still am so new to the entrepreneurship community, and if it wasn’t for Bill I would not be where I am today.”
Morin and her team are now working with Regional Economic Development Inc. in the downtown incubator to develop her company. She’s grateful for Turpin’s help.
“We are still in the very early stages of the startup but if it wasn’t for my meeting with Bill and his amazing advice, I don’t think I would have continued to pursue my startup idea post-Startup Weekend.”
Connor Hall already had his company up and running when Turpin reached out to him. The University of Missouri student founded HallExchange, a college classifieds service available only to students with valid email addresses from the college or university they attend.
“Although we didn’t work much on my own startup, we have worked together on offering guidance to student entrepreneurs at the university,” Hall says. “As I’m helping others in my MU Entrepreneurs group learn entrepreneurship, Bill has provided his own insight on what I’m currently doing in Columbia and has helped me grow into a business professional.”
Turpin enjoys the mentoring process.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in this town that could be turned into businesses,” he says.
An accelerator is also on his wish list. “I would like to create an accelerator to keep people here and bring others here to build their businesses,” he says. “It’s keeping the Midwest relevant. We are perfectly situated to grow the Midwest into a health and technology center. This whole biomedical thing is ours to lose.”
But Turpin doesn’t intend to lose. “We’re at the tipping point,” he says. “A lot of the hard stuff’s already been done. I’m here to make a difference. This role allows me to do that.”