Rick Bolander: Entrepreneurship is a team sport

Rick Bolander

Rick Bolander has devoted his career to fulfilling the entrepreneurial dreams of others as much as his own. Armed with undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from Michigan and a Harvard MBA, he embarked on a career that focused on growing new ventures and fostering new talent.

"I believe in the power of people," says Bolander. "To get things done, you need to be connected to people. People are all different, and that leads to the opportunity for new thinking. You have to find the common motivations. It’s the start of trading great ideas and solutions."

To get things done, you need to be connected to people. Rick Bolander

Bolander's views are built on his experience with more than 50 venture deals, leading over $100 million in early-stage financings in the areas of digital media infrastructure and applications, communications, information technology and the Internet. These have included AccessLine Communications (acquired by Telenetix), Chegg (IPO- NYSE: CHGG), Concord Communications (IPO - NASDAQ: CCRD), Exodus Communications (IPO – NASDAQ: EXDS), Neopath (acquired by Cisco), Persistent Systems (IPO - BSE India: PER EQ), Placeware (acquired by Microsoft) and Tut Systems (IPO – NASDAQ: TUTS). He was also an early investor in companies such as IPWireless (acquired by Nextwave) and Placeware (acquired by Microsoft).

He got his start at Chevron in the Systems, Planning and Development Department. From Chevron, he returned to Ann Arbor to teach computer architecture at Michigan, and then worked for AT&T in various operating areas, including marketing, sales and operations. While at AT&T, Bolander participated in the company's executive succession program and received the President's Award and the Quality Management of the Year Award.

Bolander launched Blue Sky Ventures, a Chicago residential real estate investment firm, in 1988 and grew revenues 100-fold. He turned to venture capital in his next role as General Partner of Chicago-based Apex Investment Partners.

In 1999, Bolander co-founded Gabriel Venture Partners, an early-stage venture capital firm to help build innovative, profitable and sustainable companies in the Internet, information technology, communications and cleantech sectors.

His newest and possibly most gratifying venture capital firm, eLab Ventures, gets to the grass-roots level of entrepreneurship. Founded in 2012, eLab Ventures is the only venture capital firm with two offices; one in Ann Arbor and the other in Silicon Valley, to capitalize on the best of each region to support startup companies.  Four of their startups are spin-outs of the University of Michigan.

"We try to bring together the experise and network of each location together so it’s synergistic," says Bolander.

ELab Ventures organizes and leads an annual retreat in Michigan for a targeted group of entrepreneurs, faculty, and business leaders to experience first-hand the value of different perspectives and networking.

"We give them a big audacious societal problem with a proposed company to solve the problem," said Bolander, "and it generates entrepreneurial passion."

We give them a big audacious societal problem to solve - and it generates entrepreneurial passion. Rick Bolander

In just four years, this approach has generated a rather astonishing six startup companies raising over $63 million.

"When you equip people with the skills and the network - then great things happen," says Bolander.

Networking is a strong key to success, according to Rick, and he lives his philosophy. He's known throughout the huge decentralized University of Michigan, from ECE to the Business School, the Center for Entrepreneurship (serving on their board), and possibly most intimately at the Athletic Campus (Michigan football references abound in his 2010 talk as the CoE Alumni Merit Award winner for Electrical and Computer Engineering - see below).

At the request of former department chair Khalil Najafi, Rick agreed to Chair the newly-formed ECE Advisory Council in 2014. One of the many fruits of his leadership was the ECE Innovator Program (ECEIP). The program was launched in 2018 to provide ECE entrepreneurs key connections, training, and potential funding to help commercialize their technology and launch a startup.

ECE Innovator ProgramWinners of the 2018 ECE Innovator Program with the carefully-selected team of experts who supported the program

"I like seeking out people's motivations and passions," said Rick, "and connecting them with others with similar passions. That’s what I like doing in life. That’s what the ECE Innovator Program is all about."

I like seeking out people's motivations and passions and connecting them with others. That’s what the ECE Innovator Program is all about. Rick Bolander

Rick gives generously of his time not only to ECE and the University of Michigan. He's served on the boards of Arula Systems (acquired by Raritan), Jacked (acquired by Roundbox) and NetScaler (acquired by Citrix Systems), as well as on the public boards of Concord Communications (acquired by Computer Associates) and Exodus Communications (IPO - NASDAQ: EXDS, then acquired by Savvis). He has also served as a board member of Chegg (IPO - NYSE: CHGG), and iForem. He currently serves on the boards of America’s Best Beverage, Mobileforce, Traxen, the ECE Advisory Board and is a charter member of The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TiE).

He has shared his wisdom and experience at different times as a guest lecturer on entrepreneurship and venture capital at Harvard Business School, University of Chicago, University of California – Berkeley, Northwestern University and University of Michigan.

Rick Bolander and George Haddad
Former Department Chair George I. Haddad and Rick Bolander at a Michigan football tailgate

Rick's support comes not only through ideas, time, and connections. He kickstarted the ECE Innovator Program with a financial gift matched by the department; he endowed the Professor George I. Haddad Innovators Scholarship in 2007, and he has given generously to numerous other causes important to him.

For example, Rick incubated, along with Pat Kratus (BGS 1998, University of Michigan) and Warde Manuel (Donald R. Shepherd Director of Athletics, University of Michigan), an accredited academic program on campus that takes students into the community to assist at-risk youth, and he is a frequent contributor to at-risk children and educational charities.

It's all about the team. Rick Bolander

A father of five teenagers all in high school, Rick already misses those years of coaching their baseball, basketball, and soccer teams. He fondly recalls the summers at Camp Michigania, which they all loved because they were able to be free  to explore, learn and just have fun leaving all cares behind. Now, attention has turned to helping them fulfill their budding dreams for the future.

Fulfilling dreams, connecting people, and bringing out the best in people are deep-seated passions for Rick - passions he's turned to the art of entrepreneurship.

"It's all about the team."


Value Creation: The Role for EECS - Rick Bolander gave this talk October 15, 2010 as the CoE Merit Award winner for Electrical and Computer Engineering.

November 2018