The next mission Featured

5:30am EDT February 18, 2002
Jay Apt might be the ultimate career changer. At 52, he has played the role of student, scientist, academic, astronaut, photographer, publisher, major museum director and, finally, chief technologist with iNetworks LLC, a Pittsburgh venture capital firm.

He also is a licensed pilot, and enjoys camping, scuba diving, model rocketry and amateur radio. And he is animated and enthusiastic when talking about any of them. Indeed, he embraces the notion of changing careers as a way to retain enthusiasm for one's work, keep a sharp mind and extend life.

"For me personally, changing careers has always kept me energized," Apt says.

It takes only a few minutes with the affable and gregarious former director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to reveal that he is anything but a dilettante. Apt has the perseverance to gain admission to the astronaut ranks and the exceptional discipline to prepare and train for space flight. A book of photographs he took during his four space shuttle missions demonstrates not only his skill as a photographer, but also his appreciation for detail.

Apt's role at iNetworks thrills him because it allows him to exercise his science and business acumen when it comes to the finer points of technology start-ups.

"I love getting involved in the technical details," he says.

To the principal's office

Apt's family moved to Pittsburgh from Springfield, Ill.,when he was a child. Along the way, he developed a fascination with science, aviation and model rockets.

While a middle school student, he was sent to the principal's office for listening to Mercury astronaut Alan Shepard's space flight through an earphone on a transistor radio. Later, he led the rocket club at Shady Side Academy.

He also demonstrated an early penchant for business, selling greeting cards as an elementary school student to earn money to buy model airplanes. He started a mail-order business for hobby supplies, and while in college, worked as business manager for a 50,000-circulation monthly magazine for hobbyists.

When he earned a doctorate in physics in 1976, Apt still had an itch to get involved in space exploration and took a job with the Center for Earth & Planetary Physics at Harvard University. By 1980, he had moved to Houston to work at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, with the goal of becoming an astronaut.

It took him three attempts before finally being selected as an astronaut candidate, though he later discovered most of his classmates had been passed over at least once. That experience, he says, demonstrated the value of perseverance.

"That persistence is very important," says Apt, "and, of course, it's very, very important in business as well."

Apt flew on four missions, including one involving an emergency space walk to repair a $630 million satellite that would have ended up as "a lawn ornament in the Smithsonian" if the crew hadn't been successful. Handling tools through gloves while working in a zero-gravity environment on a one-of-a-kind piece of equipment reinforced his belief that persistence pays.

When to say when

Apt had the opportunity to fly on a fifth shuttle mission but turned it down. He says he had attracted job offers in San Francisco and Monterey, Calif., when Frank Tugwell, a friend who headed the Heinz Endowments, alerted him that there was an opening in Pittsburgh that might be of interest. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History, an institution that had an international reputation but whose attendance had slipped over the previous decade, was in need of a new director and a turnaround.

Apt took the job and plowed into the task with gusto. The trustees didn't want their next director to simply mind the store; they were looking for someone who could pump new life into the institution, and Apt was more than willing to stir things up for the sake of progress.

He quickly took up the task of benchmarking the best natural history museums around, guided by museum board member Tom Witmer, former CEO of Medrad Inc., a company which rode benchmarking to the top of its industry. Apt figured out what these institutions had done well and attempted to learn from their experiences. Then he led an effort to make the museum's exhibits more interactive.

Given his wide exposure to technology while at NASA, under his leadership the museum added video displays and high-tech gadgetry to the exhibits and introduced interactive exhibits, robotic tour guides and, in perhaps one of the most publicized and visible efforts, a life-sized model of a dinosaur on the museum grounds facing bustling Forbes Avenue in the heart of Oakland.

"We tried lots of different things before we found the right combinations of technology in the exhibits and content in the exhibits that brought the people in," Apt says.

He initially estimated it would take about five years to turn things around at the museum, but two-and-a-half years later, he felt he had finished the job. During that relatively brief period, Apt had shaken things up, and inevitably, there was grumbling in some quarters of the museum about the changes. He is philosophical about the discontent that might have surfaced.

"It's unknown territory when you're doing a turnaround, and there's lots of people telling you that you can't do it, other people telling you that you shouldn't do it, and there's a whole lot of people telling you to leave it the way it was," says Apt.

An entrepreneurial mission

In some sense, Apt's latest career move has brought him full circle back to the business world. Charley Schliebs and Tony Lacenere, cofounders and managing partners of iNetworks, saw a gap in the venture investment landscape in Pittsburgh in hands-on, early-stage and seed investment in technology companies.

The partners formed iNetworks in January 2000 with the intent to identify technology companies and provide early-stage financing and management expertise to shepherd companies to successive investment capital rounds. It has led investments in Pittsburgh-based Schwoo Inc., a provider of information security solutions for business-to-business e-commerce, and in Hayward, Calif.-based ITXS Inc., a provider of end-to-end solutions to buyers and sellers of pre-owned and new information technology equipment. (ITXS' East Coast sales office is in Pittsburgh.)

Lacenere, whose background is in venture investment, and Schliebs, a lawyer by training, needed a team member with the ability to evaluate diverse and sometimes esoteric technologies. Once companies were identified as investment opportunities, iNetworks' team would have to be available to provide the financial, legal, strategic and technical expertise necessary to develop the business.

The firm needed someone who could understand the technical side of a business and, just as important, evaluate its commercial potential.

During the dot-com frenzy and before finding a partner with technical expertise, Schliebs and Lacenere say they steered clear of some opportunities -- not because they were convinced they were bad investments, but because they simply didn't have adequate technical know-how to evaluate them.

"We avoided things that we didn't understand," says Schliebs.

The pair began a search for someone to fill the technology evaluation role, mounting a broad recruitment effort that included ads in national publications. As often happens, they got a referral from a local source. Kirby Campbell, CEO of the Armstrong Group of Cos., a Butler, Pa.-based telecommunications company, introduced Apt to Lacenere and Schliebs, who ultimately offered him the job.

Testing the technology

While having a former astronaut on the team offers obvious marketing advantages, Schliebs and Lacenere say that Apt's skill in evaluating a technology is far more significant than any celebrity value he might offer.

"When Jay was at NASA, he was really the key astronaut for reviewing all of the state-of-the-art technology for use in the space program," says Schliebs.

Not only does Apt have the technology IQ to grasp the finer points of an idea, he has the business experience to analyze its commercial potential and explain it to the less technically oriented in a way they can understand.

"You've got to be able to not only understand the technology," Lacenere says, "you've got to be able to explain it to others."

For iNetworks, which is not simply a venture investment firm but one that gets closely involved in virtually every aspect of a fledgling technology venture, that kind of skill is critical.

"Our model requires that we get deeply involved with the details of the companies," Apt says. "At every level, we get our fingernails dirty."

He draws a parallel between the way the diversity in the iNetworks team members' expertise complements a technology start-up and how a group of professionals with varied skills ensures success on a space shuttle mission.

"It's just like a space shuttle crew, where you don't select everyone out of exactly the same mold," says Apt. "Not everyone's a Navy pilot. We all look at things differently." How to reach: iNetworks LLC, www.iNetworksLLC.com; Jay Apt's orbit experience, www.orbitexperience.com; ITXS Inc., www.itxs.com; Schwoo Inc., www.schwoo.com

Ray Marano (rmarano@sbnnet.com) is senior editor of SBN Magazine.