When Robert Downs tries to pry money out of a venture capitalist, he doesn't perform the usual song and dance. Instead, he wows them with the unusual fact that his work has been the subject of a Pulitzer prize-winning book.
Downs headed the software side of Data General Corp.'s MV8000 Eagle computer project, depicted in Tracy Kidder's The Soul of A New Machine, which was awarded the general nonfiction Pulitzer in 1982. That connection helped him raise $3.5 million to start EnMasse Computer Corp., in Acton, Mass., which is building a super-minicomputer to compete against the MV8000.
Down's recent experience, though, reads like a horror story by Stephen King. After the Eagle "saved Data General from oblivion," the company promoted him, he says, but it inserted a new level of management above him and refused to give him a bonus. He left in 1981. Here, the plot thickens.
Deciding that he lacked the experience to strike out on his own, Downs joined SOLVation Inc., of Westboro, Mass. The company, which makes turnkey systems for small businesses, was then only about three months old, but Downs was impressed by the resumes of its founders. Once inside, however, he soured on the company's plans, soon IBM entered the market, and the ground under SOLVation started to shake. Downs bailed out two years ago.
Downs soon found out that some venture capitalists like people who have been inside a troubled company -- and, apparently, those whose work is featured in a best-seller. It took him about a month to raise capital for development of a superminicomputer for multiple users.
By the time EnMasse introduces its computer, the Eagle tale could be appearing on the big screen, since the movie rights to The Soul of A New Machine have been purchased. But Downs expects some changes in the story. "Somehow," he muses, "they'll have to get sex, violence, and drugs into it."
There is, after all, more to life than RAMs and ROMs.