In the past few years, Russian investors have shaken up Silicon Valley, putting eye-popping amounts into companies like Facebook and making bold plans for a rival technology hub on the outskirts of Moscow.
Sasha Johnson is at the tip of the spear. The 20-year veteran of the valley is managing director of DFJ VTB Aurora, a venture partnership between Russia and Silicon Valley that raised its second $100 million fund last year. Johnson also is the local point person for the Skolkovo Foundation, the group responsible for the planned Russian tech hub.
Born in Vladivostok as Alexandra Denisova, she came to the Bay Area for business school -- becoming, she says, the first Russian to earn an MBA from the UC Berkeley. Though her father, a proud Communist, denounced her move, Johnson saw the potential for bridge-building between the Cold War rivals. An investment group founded by superglue magnate Robert Krieble to scout opportunities in Eastern Europe provided her start, and she's been consulting, matchmaking and placing multimillion-dollar bets ever since.
The Piedmont resident recently sat with this newspaper for an interview; here is an edited transcript.
Q Tell us more about your early career.
A What I do well is transcontinental, multilingual transactions. So when I realized Silicon Valley is really about startups, I thought, "How does one make oneself useful?" Well, startups need help with marketing, business plans, negotiations, fundraising.
During the dot-com bust, I found one in Oakland -- a telecom company called Libritas, which was doing VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol, a technology later made famous by Skype). The board eventually asked me to take over as CEO. We were way too early, and the company ended up being acquired by NextWeb. But I learned I could manage engineers, and I liked being a CEO. I started talking to some VCs, and they said, "Why don't you do something in Russia?"
This was 2002, and the country that I'd left in the early '90s didn't exist anymore. But I went back to see what was happening, and the first thing I saw was everybody was on a cellphone. Everybody was texting. And that wasn't happening here in the U.S. -- telecom was a collapsing industry. So I came home and said, "I think we can start a small fund." We called it Landbridge Capital (after the isthmus that once connected Russia to North America).
Q How did that go?
A: There were no law firms in Russia that understood what intellectual property was. The entrepreneurs were constantly lying. Just to give you an example, there was a green laser company that had been part of the Russian space industry. This guy's green lasers were as efficient as any mass-industry production lasers in the U.S. But as soon as the investment was made, it turned out he'd already sold the IP four times. Other companies were doing the same thing. So after three years, my partners said, "We're out."
Then I was at a Christmas party and I ran into (venture capitalist) Tim Draper, who said, "Let's do a Russian fund." Draper Fisher Jurvetson has this network of funds all over the world; they'd tried Russia a couple of times. I said, "Tim, it can't be done -- the country that sent up Sputnik for some reason can't do it any more." If you've ever met Tim, though, you know you can't tell him that he can't have something.
So I joined DFJ to build the Russian fund, together with VTB Capital, the second-biggest bank in Russia. It's been a challenge, but a lot of fun, and we're in our second fund now.
Q What kinds of companies have you invested in?
A The first fund invested in a whole range -- LEDs, enterprise software, a biodegradable detergent. The beauty of the Russian market is that they've created all these local versions of top technologies; Yandex is the Russian Google (GOOG), there's a Russian Zappos, a Russian Pinterest. But we didn't want to be part of the crowd.
The amount of capital that was put into scientific development during the Soviet Union was remarkable. They had remarkable breakthroughs in military and space technology, and we're betting you can take some of those developments and apply them to industry. We've invested in a company than uses nanolithography to make coatings for glass, including ones that prevent fog and icing. Another company is making rare earth semiconductors.
Why go where everyone else is? The next big thing won't be Facebook.
Q Let's talk about the Skolkovo Foundation, which is trying to build a Silicon Valley near Moscow. How did you get involved?
A In Russia, the innovation ecosystem is just being developed. Skolkovo is a platform where, theoretically, all the elements will get together: entrepreneurs and investors and corporations and law firms. Intel (INTC) is there, and IBM, and Cisco (CSCO), and Microsoft and Samsung.
But one weak element they had was attracting venture firms from Silicon Valley, so they approached me to help. I said, "As long as you've got a platform that welcomes everyone, and not just the fat cats, I'll work with you."
Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Current job: Managing director of DFJ VTB Aurora in Menlo Park; founder and president of the Global Technology Symposium, which takes place in March
Previous jobs: Founder and managing director of Landbridge Capital; CEO of Libritas
Education: MBA, UC Berkeley; Ph.D. in philology, University of St. Petersburg, Russia; master's degree, Far Eastern State University, Vladivostok, Russia.
Family: Divorced; two teenage sons.
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT sasha Johnson
1. Can cook anything from scratch -- from cabbage pies to beef bourguignon.
2. Likes deep-sea and lake fishing.
3. Enjoys music (especially classical) and plays piano.
4. Fan of HBO.
5. Other hobbies include watching basketball and playing pingpong.