Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.

There are times in life when you need help. How people react when you reach out is fundamental to their character. It tells you things about a person that you can learn in no other way and at no other time. If they help, they are a true friend; if they hide, dodge, or make excuses, they were never your friend.

Jamie Ireland was a true friend. When asked for help, he gave it. Not just to me but to people and institutions throughout the Cleveland business, cultural, philanthropic, and arts communities. He mentored pretty much everyone I know in Cleveland at one time or another. He did it quietly, in a humble self-effacing way, so I had to ask about it or, more often, tell others my story of being helped by him, to learn what he had done for others.

He served on or advised many boards of non-profit institutions that are fundamental to what Cleveland has become, including the Great Lakes Science Center, BioEnterprise, NorTech, the Cleveland Symphony (his true and abiding passion), University Circle Inc., Jumpstart, and others I probably don’t know about. He was selfless about this: When asked he always agreed to serve, though he didn’t always want to. The commitments took a personal toll on him and his family life but, as an inheritor of the Ireland family tradition, he felt obliged to say “Yes.” His passing leaves a hole in Cleveland and in the lives of many people that will be hard to fill.

I met Jamie when I had only been in Cleveland for a year and I needed help. The job that had brought me to Cleveland hadn’t worked out and I was trying to build a consulting practice to get known, show my skills, and build the next phase of my life. He had formed, with a few other people, the Generation Foundation, which was designed to help focus Cleveland’s foundation community on rejuvenating Cleveland’s economy. The Generation Foundation had funded a project, administered by the Edison Biotechnology Center, to conduct a study of how to turn Cleveland into an entrepreneurial economy. I was fortunate to be engaged for the project, and that was how I met Jamie, and also had the pleasure of working with Frank Samuel (who sadly, passed away recently). Jamie was fundamental to my being hired for this project, which launched me on the career in venture capital that I have pursued ever since.

Shortly into my work on the study, after researching other metropolitan areas that had successfully navigated the migration from declining industries to entrepreneurial economies, I concluded that you couldn’t have a successful entrepreneurial ecosystem without locally managed venture capital.

Understanding the value of this finding, Frank Samuel convened a group of Cleveland investors, including Bill Mulligan of Primus Capital, Tim Biro of the Ohio Innovation Fund, and Jamie Ireland and Jim Petras of Capital One Partners. Jamie and Jim were interested in the idea. They agreed to work with Frank and me on an application to the Technology Action Fund, a grant program of the Ohio governor’s office. They brought something extremely valuable to the project: actual investment experience. We were awarded seed funding to start an early stage venture capital fund in Cleveland, and that is how Early Stage Partners began.

Jamie spent the next two years educating Cleveland about the need for locally managed venture capital and fund-raising. Jim and I helped, but Jamie was the main fund-raiser. He knew the leaders of all the corporations, foundations, and non-profit organizations in the region from his service on the boards of many philanthropic organizations and the Cleveland Symphony. He did voluminous research. He gave numerous presentations. He took, as usual, a larger view, and promoted the concept of supporting an entrepreneurial ecosystem, rather than just the narrower goal of raising money for our fund.

On January 3, 2001, just as the bust was breaking, Early Stage Partners had a first closing. We ultimately reached $44 million in capital, largely due to Jamie, in a terrible year for venture capital fund-raising nationally. Several years later I met a professor of finance at Carnegie Mellon University and told him that we had raised a first-time fund to do early stage technology investing in Cleveland in the middle of the bust and he said, “that has got to be the fund-raising success story of 2001.”

We began investing and I began learning how little I actually knew about investing. During these early years, I always felt that Jamie was there, quietly pulling for me and, in the background, advocating for patience while I learned the venture capital business. He was always available for advice and always thoughtful in his responses to questions.

During the next several years, other activities were afoot in Cleveland. The Edison BioTechnology Center became BioEnteprise. JumpStart was formed. NorTech went through a mission assessment and retooling. The Cleveland Symphony went through several tough years, had to restructure, and added a Florida residency and tour of Europe to its activities. The Great Lakes Science Center raised money to purchase the Mather, an ore-carrying boat that is an important legacy of the region’s mining and steel manufacturing industries. (As a boy, Jamie had built from scratch a scale model of the Mather, which sits today in the offices of Early Stage Partners.) The Ohio Capital Fund was formed, to foster venture capital throughout Ohio.
Jamie was involved in and often central to all of these activities. They needed his talents, intelligence, and energy and, when asked, he always said “Yes.” He was a true friend to Cleveland.

The toll of these commitments began to wear on Jamie, though, and on his family life. The more he gave to the community, the less he had for those close to him, and for himself. He was always an introvert and, in times of uncertainty, he turned inward. He didn’t know how to ask for help from others and, when others offered it, he was so unused to receiving instead of giving, that he didn’t know what to do. That is the sadness of Jamie’s life. I was there and I saw it. A man who helped so many other people and organizations could not ask for or receive help himself when he needed it.

I remember years ago when Jamie had received yet another in a series of richly deserved awards: he was stuck on writing an acceptance speech. He sat at the conference room table day after day, staring at his computer screen, typing, and thinking. I talked with him, and he asked me what he should write about. I said “the many people you have helped and mentored in Cleveland over the years.” He said, “I don’t feel like I deserve this award.”

It is fashionable for philosophers, social scientists, and psychologists to remind us that we are, each, fundamentally alone. Jamie was not fashionable, though; he was a throwback to an earlier age. To the day of his death, he wore a suit and tie every day, all day. On those rare occasions when I saw him downgrade to a sports coat and slacks—still with a tie—he looked profoundly uncomfortable. For his epitaph, I prefer the words of a thinker from an earlier generation, John Donne:

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

Bizarro World Comes To The Solar Industry

Fans of DC Comics and Seinfeld will remember that “Bizarro World” has come to mean a situation or setting which is weirdly inverted or opposite of expectation. This is what immediately came to mind as I was reading an article about the Spanish solar industry in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

After heavily subsidizing the solar industry for years, the Spanish government has now completely reversed course and is charging citizens who have the temerity to produce their own energy a fee as punishment. They don’t call it a punishment, of course, but justify it as private individuals carrying their share of the load for maintaining the national power grid. The people who installed solar panels, being good citizens and supportive of government policy, are left a bit mystified by the whole experience–which is opposite of what they expected. One wag on the WSJ Web site has characterized this as “a tax on sunlight.”

Here, in brief, is the sequence of events:

  • Spanish politicians decided that it would be “good” to artificially promote the use of uneconomic solar energy;
  • The Spanish government massively subsidized the installation of solar panels at taxpayer expense;
  • People, being people, responded to the incentives by installing solar panels;
  • The Spanish economy went into a recession which both reduced demand for power and made government subsidies of solar energy impossible to continue;
  • To balance engorged budgets the Spanish government cast around for “new revenues” and decided to tax people who were producing their own energy with solar panels.

Dutiful citizens who responded to the noble goal of reducing dependence on carbon now find themselves scratching their heads in dismay at the capriciousness of politicians. Here is how one citizen responded. “After calculating the fee’s impact, Inaki Alonso opted to give away the three solar panels he had installed on his roof early this year.” (emphasis added).

The broader lesson here is that government policy is an inconstant basis for making investment decisions, whether at the personal or corporate level. People change; policies change; circumstances change; fads come and go—but company employees still expect to receive regular paychecks and investors still expect returns, irrespective of the shifting sands of public policy. Something that has to be subsidized may never be a good investment, and the subsidy may go away.

For these reasons, I never invested in cleantech or wanted to. My partners did, but were judicious in selecting investments that were not dependent on government policy. Richard Stuebi was particularly emphatic on this point.

At the microeconomic level, it is better to pursue customers who value a company’s products and services, and will pay for them, than to pursue government subsidies as a business model. At the macroeconomic level, voters should understand the limitations of a politically driven economy. That lesson is as germane at home as it is in Spain.