Whether they cashed out or burned out, many technology executives spent the bulk of 2002 in hibernation. The lucky ones took their money and are waiting and watching for the next opportunity. Those battered by scandal or bummed out by market gloom burrowed underground.
As in previous years, I've taken an informal poll of local technologists and financiers asking them to look ahead: Who are the people, what are the companies and which are the trends to watch in the coming year?
The answers this time around were more sobering than last year's, not so much for predictions of carnage (though there is some of that) but for fear that 2003 may be yet another year to sit out.
No one is predicting a rip-roaring recovery, but there are signs that those who have survived may have interesting new deals or technologies to reveal, and that some of those yearning for the next opportunity may try again.
* Stephen Hoffman. Hoffman, who has 25 years of tech business experience, took over as president and chief operating officer of Blackboard Inc. in 2001. Founders Matthew Pittinsky and Michael Chasen are still the top executives of this D.C.-based education software company, but Hoffman's is the name that came up. For years, people have been saying that Blackboard was soon to go public, soon to be bought by minority investor Microsoft, or soon to be the next big hit for the region. This may, finally, be Blackboard's year, with the help of Hoffman.
* Art Marks. At a time when venture capital investment is slowing and few established funds are looking in investors' wallets, Marks and his team are trying to raise a first fund for Valhalla Partners. They're not novices: Marks is a New Enterprise Associates veteran, and his partners include Gene Riechers and Hooks Johnston, formerly of FBR Technology Venture Partners. But as investors are increasingly skittish about making such high-risk bets, will Valhalla be able to raise the money it wants? And if it does, how will a new, post-bust firm act differently than those created in the boom? Some in the region think Valhalla actually has a better shot at success because it doesn't have the albatross of so many dying portfolio companies. Expect Valhalla "to be quite active and a leading force in the region," predicts Edward J. Mathias of the Carlyle Group.
* Lori Mody. She doesn't get as much attention as her ex-husband and co-founder, Roger Mody, but she did own half of Signal Corp. when it was recently sold to Veridian for $227 million. What will Mody do with that money? "She is poised to launch both a new company and a major charitable initiative in computer-aided learning in schools," says April Young of Comerica Bank.
* Mary MacPherson. Now that uber-networking group Netpreneur is gone, where will those who ran the program, especially MacPherson, end up? People are also wondering what Proxicom founder Raul Fernandez, OTG founder Rick Kay and Yurie founder Jeong Kim will do in 2003. All three have a smattering of projects and investments but no full-time job. Will they be content as sports moguls (the three are partners with Ted Leonsis as part owners of the Washington Capitals) or jump into business again?
* John Sidgmore, Michael Saylor and Steve Case. It may not be up to them, but the former WorldCom CEO, current MicroStrategy CEO and AOL Time Warner chairman are probably praying for a very, very quiet 2003. Watch for all three to work on trying to recover their reputations and legacies in the coming year. That's quite a challenge ahead.
* Ecutel. Several local technology heavy hitters, including Jack McDonnell, chief executive of Transaction Network Services, Jonathan Silver of Core Capital, Steve Walker of Walker Ventures and John Burton of Updata Capital, have bet their money on this Alexandria-based wireless company. Intel is also an investor. Ecutel sets up virtual private networks for mobile workers and has landed some significant customers, including the Swedish parliament and Siemens Business Services. McDonnell says TNS is now replacing a Cisco network with Ecutel's Viatores product. "I will not have my road warriors using public 'hot spots' without Viatores," he says.
* InPhonic. Few are optimistic that 2003 will hold a grand reopening of the IPO market, but wireless firm InPhonic of Washington has taken the first step in filing for an initial public offering of stock. If it gets out, will others follow? And if it doesn't, what does that mean for the industry?
* Inphomatch. This wireless-text-messaging company in Chantilly kept coming up as one to watch among those asked, including Mike Selfridge of Silicon Valley Bank, who guesses Inphomatch will probably have an "exit event" -- meaning an IPO or merger -- in 2003. AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and T-Mobile are all using Inphomatch's technology.
* Multispectral Solutions and Xtreme Spectrum. Multispectral of Germantown and Xtreme, based in Vienna, are two of the nationwide leaders in ultra-wideband technology, an invention from the 1950s that just now is reaching commercial potential. It could be a complete bust; opponents of the systems say its transmissions can interfere with other vital communications. But UWB radar has far-reaching possibilities that some find groundbreaking and others frightening. One project Multispectral is working on now is to create bracelets for prisoners out on bail that would let police track them wherever they go.
* Venture capital triage is not over. More venture-backed companies will go out of business, and turnarounds will be tough. As a result, there will be more pressure on venture funds from their own investors (pension funds, corporations and others) to be more forthcoming with information and to prove success.
* Wireless. I was expecting more people to say, as they have for the past year, that biotech will be what to watch. But this particular pool of sources, at least, is much, much more excited about the possibilities of wireless and the location of companies like the ones mentioned above in the Washington region.
* Security clearances. As government jobs become more attractive, there will be more of a demand for high-security clearances and a need for a more streamlined way to get them. Ardell Fleeson of the Tower Club in Tysons Corner says it's what all the club's members are talking about. She predicts more companies will negotiate sponsorship of clearances as part of the hiring process and that the federal government may look into an official way to process more applicants.
* New motivations in starting businesses. Just what type of person will start a company in 2003? Not anyone expecting to make a quick buck. Look for true entrepreneurs to emerge, whether they start technology companies or low-tech firms. More people will be forced to start companies, too, mainly banding together to do consulting, as the job market continues to stall.
* Creating and investing in technology not for technology's sake, but to help a company do its current business better. The hottest technologies of 2003 may not be of the gee-whiz variety, but the kind that quietly improve customer service, communications, or other seemingly mundane tasks. Local companies with such goals include Core Communications of Dulles, which installs high-speed Internet service in hotels; Arlington-based Brickstream, which creates software for the retail industry; and Object Video in Reston, which does high-tech surveillance at airports and government offices.
"As people lower their expectations for the future, they will work harder and continue to produce increases in productivity to help businesses improve their bottom lines," says John D. Sanders, chairman of the DC Technology Council. "I believe this will set the stage for longer-term improvements in the overall economy, but may not necessarily show up in 2003."
Shannon Henry's e-mail address is email@example.com.