Nano-a-mano: Scrappy Coney Island baby builds himself a lap of Lux-ury; but will it be Dot-Com II?
If you ask 25-year-old venture capitalist Josh Wolfe what motivates him, he might pull two tattered photographs of sprawling oceanside McMansions out of his wallet. “By age 35, I’d like to be completely done in terms of my financial goal of 100 million bucks,” he might say. “But my goals constantly change and evolve.”
Those goals might not be farfetched: Investors and politicians have been fantasizing about another high-tech revolution, this time built around nanotechnology, the obscure universe of super-small particles that can come into play in the making of everything from pants to tennis rackets to military weapons. When President George W. Bush recently signed a $3.7 billion bill for research into nanotechnology, Mr. Wolfe was standing right there in the Oval Office with him. When it comes to positioning himself, Mr. Wolfe isn’t shy.
“Nano is a billionth of something-so we’re talking about a billionth of a meter, nanometer-scale technology,” Mr. Wolfe explained excitedly over lunch in Tribeca. Compact and handsome, he was wearing a dark suit, checked shirt and a pink tie printed with tiny blue elephants. “Below that scale, where you’re dealing with individual atoms and molecules, quantum physics kicks in. We can use these effects, take these phenomena and harness them.”
Four years ago Mr. Wolfe launched Lux Capital, which invests in nanotech start-ups, with baby-faced co-founders Peter Hébert and Robert Paull. They issued a 500-page Nanotech Report (a “seminal treatise on this fledgling industry”-Barron’s), which they sold for $4,750 a copy. According to Mr. Wolfe, “every top-tier institutional investor, hedge fund, venture firm, corporation and academic institution” bought one. Currently, he co-authors the Forbes/Wolfe Nanotech Report, taps out a Web log and sends out a 40,000-subscriber weekly e-mail.
It’s not all about the Benjamins: He does philanthropic work with the East Harlem School, the Robin Hood Foundation and amfAR.
He said he treats Lux Capital “like a baby.” One portfolio company, Nanosys, has raised over $55 million, amassing 120 patents as well as a cash infusion from the C.I.A.’s venture-capital arm, In-Q-Tel. “There were some 70 venture firms lined up to get into this deal,” Mr. Wolfe said. Lux, Venrock Associates (investment vehicle of the Rockefeller family) and Kodak were among the handful who did.
He was raised by his mom, a special-ed teacher, and his grandparents in a two-bedroom apartment in Coney Island. His favorite food is chicken rolls.
“There’s a certain mentality of Brooklynites: They haven’t been spoon-fed, they don’t necessarily come from the upper echelon,” Mr. Wolfe said. “Everybody has a hungry mentality, fiercely competitive. Machiavellian in a way.”
He lives in a two-bedroom Chelsea apartment with a friend from high school who’s in real estate; they asked the broker at one apartment they’d looked at if the kitchen could be removed. Mr. Wolfe is dating a Dominican woman; he said his grandmother always wanted him to settle down with a nice Jewish girl, but he isn’t attracted to nice Jewish girls.
While in high school, he wandered into an AIDS laboratory at SUNY Downstate in East Flatbush and applied for a research position. Dominic Auci, the head of the lab at the time, now a research director at a San Diego biotech, was swayed by his enthusiasm and offered him a position. Then he found out he was 15.
“I told him to have his mother come in,” said Mr. Auci, who was reluctant to have such a youngster on the front lines of the AIDS war. “It was really amazing. He was by far the youngest person there, and within months even the graduate students were coming to him and asking, ‘How do I do this?’ He was always politically astute. He knew instinctively which relationships were important, and how to stroke people.”
At Cornell, Mr. Wolfe was exposed for the first time “to the wealthy, to things that I wanted. I didn’t have nepotism in my favor. It was hustle or stick with the cards I was dealt.” He spent a year in investment banking at Salomon Smith Barney before deciding he could fare better on his own.
Not everyone has embraced nanomania. Investor’s Business Daily recently wondered if nanotechnology had been “overhyped.”
“There were a lot of people who were not believers,” said Mr. Wolfe. “It’s sweet vindication to prove them wrong.”