Intel Ignite: Markus Bohl On Startups Shaping the Future of Computing*

“It’s my passion to help founders avoid at least some of the mistakes I’ve made or seen already,” says Markus Bohl, after being an entrepreneur for 20 years. In 2022, he joined Intel to lead the Europe chapter of their global startup program, Intel Ignite, and help other entrepreneurs with his experience.

Launched in 2019, Intel Ignite is a 12-week program for deep tech startups after their first round of institutional funding that helps them reach product-market-fit faster with world-class mentorship—by founders for founders. The program doesn’t take equity. Instead, it’s part of Intel’s effort to build a global ecosystem around open deep tech innovation by helping shape industry-defining technology companies. 

This article starts our collaboration with Intel Ignite, featuring thought leaders and their insights on the future of computing—stay tuned! This time, I had the pleasure of speaking with Markus about what motivated him to join Intel Ignite, the computing trends he finds most exciting, and what advice he would give to founders. 

Why Did You Join Intel to Build Intel Ignite?

At first, when Intel approached me to lead their startup program, Intel Ignite, in Europe, I said no. As a serial founder, I’ve seen many corporate innovation programs before, most of them being a mix of marketing and recruiting “fig leaves,” and at worst, some of them more of an innovation theater but not value-adding. Yet, when we started to explore together in greater depth the design of the program, its founder-friendly foundations and the underlying mission and vision of Intel, I really got excited. 

First, the world needs “deep tech”—all the big challenges, like the climate crisis, renewable energy supply, or addressing labor shortage, require novel technologies to solve them. And most of these much-needed technologies have not been invented yet. Behavioral changes, as much as they are needed and as much as I support and encourage them, are good for raising awareness of these issues, but ultimately, they won’t move the needle fast enough— too little, too late. I strongly believe we need innovation and technology to make a real difference and that this will require a lot, and I mean, really a lot, of additional computing power and novel forms of computing.

Second, Intel is undergoing a massive transformation, probably the largest transformation of any tech company out there in history. So, it’s exciting to join at this inflection point and help write the next chapter of such a legendary technology giant from such a privileged position. 

Third, I have been a builder basically all my life and have seen and experienced many situations similar to those faced by our portfolio founders. Even before Intel Ignite, I was helping other founders on their boards or through mentoring. It’s my passion to help founders, and I made it my mission to help them avoid at least some of the mistakes most first-time founders will inevitably make.

Last but not least, I believe Intel Ignite is very different from other corporate startup programs and designed “the right way,” completely with my own founder DNA and soul. It’s very founder-friendly, doesn’t charge a fee or take equity, and the north star of our program is the success of “our” startups. In short, we thrive when they thrive. As a proxy, we measure this, especially by looking at the fundraising success of our portfolio companies. How much funding did they have coming into the program, and how much funding were they able to raise in the 12, 18, 24 months afterwards? 

What Excites You About the Future of Computing?

Generally, we have just scratched the surface of how and where computing can be used and what we can eventually achieve with computing. As computing power increases in leaps or better step functions, progress is much faster and greater than in other areas. New infrastructure typically takes decades to build, while computing can have an impact much faster, for instance, through optimizing how we use existing infrastructure. 

When talking about exciting computing trends, of course, AI and large language models, in particular, are super hot at the moment. However, the application layer building on top of these will soon get crowded, as we saw with smartphone apps during the mobile revolution. I think very domain-specific applications will prove to become much more relevant and much more successful very soon. Take, for example, Turin Tech from our program who help optimize and QA code so highly-skilled, scarce developers can do more, as this can increase their productivity by orders of magnitude. Also, the middleware and hardware infrastructure layers are very interesting to us and will become critical. Overall, this will fuel a virtuous cycle, where more computing and AI will foster breakthroughs in other domains, which in turn drive advances in computing and AI.

One of the biggest challenges in this context will be solving the questions around data privacy and security. The success of machine learning showed how important data is, but also how much this opens up individuals and companies to being exposed from a privacy and data governance perspective. However, currently, there is no secure way to collaborate on sensitive data, for instance, in healthcare, pharma, or finance. Enabling trust at scale could unlock immense value from data that could not previously be mined. Companies like Roseman Labs from our recent cohort, for example, use multi-party computation to bridge data silos, enabling clinics, pharma companies, insurance companies and others to use and collaborate on highly-sensitive, complementary data in a fully encrypted and data-privacy-guaranteeing way. Fully homomorphic encryption, federated learning, or trusted execution environments are other complementary approaches to ensure that data stays with its owner. 

Also, now that the metaverse /web3 bubble has—somewhat predictably—burst a bit, we’ll see real value from blockchain infrastructure. After cloud computing, we’ll see what’s called “sky computing.” Essentially, cloud computing will become a utility much like electricity or water, where people don’t care where it comes from and simply expect it to work. In this heavily decentralized future, blockchain could unlock such scalability. It will still need a step change in efficiency, but then it can be super powerful, and we’ve recently included a web3-track in our program to understand this trend better. 

Finally, there are also the computing moonshots like quantum or optical computing, which, like nuclear fusion, were only ten years away from a breakthrough in the last 50 years. However, a lot of tangible progress has been made that shortens the window of bringing these into production, and the first meaningful applications for these are becoming increasingly clear. 

For instance, in analog quantum computing, Qilimanjaro develops use case-specific quantum chips to gain quantum advantages, which can be utilized for, for example, drug development. Similarly, the simulation startup Quanscient develops and applies quantum algorithms to multi-physics simulation and is today accumulating huge learnings and insights that will uniquely position it once quantum computing becomes ubiquitous. 

In photonics, we are beginning to reap the benefits of optical interconnects for data communications on ever-shorter distances. Akhetonics is also working on the first all-optical computer, starting with an ASIC for high-speed trading and then expanding to building a general-purpose computer. 

The biggest bottleneck in optical computing is still optical memory since it’s tricky to store light. I’d love to see a startup tackling this issue. If so, optical computing has enormous potential in the next few years. 

Who is the Intel Ignite Program for? 

Acceleration is about creating more value faster. The program helps teams reach product-market fit faster, build better teams to build better companies faster, win bigger, better clients faster, and ultimately, raise more funding at better valuations—you guessed it—faster.

We run the program twice a year for twelve weeks, targeting tech startups that have a first round of funding from institutional investors, first proof points for their product, and at least pilot projects with initial customers. Our sweet spot is between pre-seed and series A, with the ambition of bringing startups “over the hump” by raising a Series B after the program. Our focus is on real breakthrough innovations, which we look for in eight deep tech streams, mainly around the future of computing and teams developing groundbreaking stuff in software and hardware. Another important criterion for our program is coachability—no founder, no founding team, no matter how experienced, has seen it all and knows it all, and it is crucial to be open to feedback from world-class experts and other founders and to stay curious about better ways to do things. But I guess that should be true for all of us.

If this sounds too good to be true, you may wonder why Intel is doing this. On the one hand, at Intel, we believe strongly in open innovation and open ecosystems. Intel has been one of the biggest contributors to Linux and other open-source projects for a long time. It’s a fundamental belief of ours. 

On the other hand, nobody can do or know everything on their own. Being an open organization with a membrane to the outside world allows getting in new thoughts, new technologies, new angles, new approaches, new ideas, which will surely be as fruitful for Intel as for the startups. So far, we have supported more than 150 companies founded by a few hundred of the smartest people on this planet. We strongly believe that being close to them and having them close to our hearts will be highly beneficial. 

We don’t take equity since it’s more founder-friendly and leads to better deal flow. Also, that way, we’re neutral and can give unbiased advice. For example, when telling a founder some hard truths about their GTM strategy or their team setup or telling their shareholders that their cap table is broken. Finally, managing a global equity portfolio of hundreds of companies is hard, and not all of them will make it. So for Intel, it makes more sense to adopt a technology or invest at a later stage through its corporate venture capital fund, Intel Capital, which is a separate entity from Intel Ignite, or alternatively, acquire a startup via our M&A teams, which has already happened with portfolio companies.

What Advice Would You Give Deep Tech Founders?

Hire better than yourself. “A people” hiring more “A people” leads to an open and ambitious culture where people stay humble, coachable, and have a growth mindset. And building such a great team with a strong culture is the one thing that determines success. Even when you grow to several hundreds of employees, never start stopping, never stop starting. I’ve always told our employees: “It’s okay to make mistakes and be wrong. Failures are a key source of insights and learning, but please just don’t break the whole company.” 

Maybe I’d add one thing, especially for European founders: Be really ambitious. Compared to US or Tel Aviv founders, we often need to help and encourage them to “rewire” themselves to shoot for something big. If you aim high enough, you won’t hit the ground that easily—and if you do, take it as a learning experience! 

Last but not least, manage your cap table actively from day one. This is very important, and I often see startups struggling to raise growth funding rounds because their cap table is broken and needs fixing. Stay fundable. Reach out if you want to know how. 

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