His finalist year: 1987
His finalist project: Figuring out a way to keep submarines quiet
What led to the project: Ian Patrick Sobieski grew up in Hampton Roads, Va., across the James River from the sprawling Norfolk Naval Base. His family lived on the water, and he used to love to watch the ships go by. Inspired by the Navy's gray armadas and by Tom Clancy's book The Hunt for Red October, Sobieski decided to look into how to make submarines quieter. After all, he figured, submarines "generate a fair bit of noise," and "just listening" is a key way that the enemy might scout out your position.
Sobieski hit on the idea of shrouding the submarine propeller system as a way of reducing noise. He developed a theoretical model of the problem and then tested cover variables such as size and material. He doesn't remember the exact specifications of the design he came up with, but it did partially silence submarines and, as a bonus, the cover made submarines a bit more efficient.
Unbeknownst to him, the U.S. Navy had actually been working on a similar project, and something similar to Sobieski's propeller cover is now part of the design of the Sea Wolf class of submarines. Sobieski entered the results of his engineering project in the 1987 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, and was named a finalist.
The effect on his career: Sobieski went to Virginia Tech as an undergraduate, then to Stanford University to study aeronautics as a graduate student (under the guidance of Ilan Kroo, a 1974 Westinghouse finalist). For his doctoral thesis, he looked at how to optimize aircraft projects—namely, how do you apply mathematical techniques to design problems that involve thousands of engineers, millions of variables and very time-intensive computations?
He found the problem fascinating. By the time he finished his PhD, however, it was the mid-1990s and, deep in the heart of Silicon Valley, entrepreneurship was thicker in the air than airplanes. "I had a beer with Jerry Yang before he started Yahoo!," Sobieski says. He was a friend of a classmate; Sobieski was hanging out at his friend's, "doing whatever poor grad students do, eating mac and cheese" when Yang put in a plug for his "list," which later became the storied Internet company. Sobieski also tried to set Google co-founder Larry Page up on a date. Page was hanging out alone at a bar when the two were introduced. One of Sobieski's friends thought Page was cute so he tried to facilitate an introduction. "Nothing came of it," he says, but "these little 'pre-celebrity' sightings are part of the valley.
Sobieski thought he could become part of the valley's entrepreneurial culture as well. He and Kroo had built a prototype for a hot-wire foam-cutter machine (heating the wire makes for a smoother cut), and Sobieski investigated starting a company to market it. "For a variety of reasons I now understand well, it did not appeal to the venture capital community," he says. But he was bitten by the business bug all the same and fell in with two young people who had just started the company that became Evite. "That was my introduction to the dot-com world," he says. After gaining experience with start-ups there, he got a job at NEA (New Enterprise Associates), a venture capital firm, in 1998.
What he's doing now: These days, Sobieski serves both as the managing director of the Band of Angels, a Silicon Valley group that provides seed capital to new ventures, and as head of his own early-stage investment fund. "We look for people who have ideas that can be commercialized, but who don't have enough of a track record to raise money from venture funds," he says. Since inception, his fund has made 220 investments and has a 53 percent internal rate of return, with nine funded companies having gone public and several others being acquired by other companies.
Being young isn't a hurdle for getting Sobieski to invest. "Maybe we would not go as young as the Westinghouse winners," he jokes, but he doesn't demand much more experience; he recently invested in an online photo-sharing company called Mixbook that was started by Andrew Laffoon, a 2005 graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, who served as a teaching assistant in a class Sobieski taught on entrepreneurship.
As an early stage investor, Sobieski likes to stay involved with the companies as they grow. Letty Swank is the CEO of iPrint Systems, Inc., a firm that resulted from the merger of one of Sobieski's portfolio companies, Made to Order, and iPrint in 2002. "For a Silicon Valley VC, he's extremely approachable and willing to help," she says. Early on in the merger, he came in and helped the accounting group develop a financial model for the business. "He was really hands-on," she says. "We actually use that model today."
Correction (posted December 1, 2008): When originally posted, this story identified where Sobieski had attended college incorrectly. Some typographical errors introduced during editing have also been fixed. Scientific American regrets these errors.