After graduating from the University of Maryland with a B.S. in Computer Science in 2001, Rob Kniaz went on to work at Intel as a Market Development Manager. He then moved on to Google as a Product Manager before eventually moving to Europe to help the company with New Business Development across the region, wehre he focused on OpenSocial and Google Docs Visualizations. After his time with Google, he went on to Fidelity Ventures, a European venture capital firm. After spending some time at Fidelity Ventures, Kniaz went on to found Hoxton Ventures , an early stage technology venture captial firm. Kniaz currently lives in London, and agreed to an interview as a part of his being our alum of the week.
Do you remember what it was that drew you to computer science in the first place? Can you recall a favorite professor or class?
I was always planning on doing engineering and entered UMD in the Computer Engineering program. However, I realized fairly early on I loved the discrete math and programming portion [of courses] more than the signals and design of EE so I moved into just the CS program after a couple years. One of my earliest memories was Nelson Padua-Perez who at the time was a lecturer. He was teaching CMSC 106 and you could see his excitement to teach the material and make the subject accessible to everyone.
What was the catalyst that moved you to Technical Sales at Intel (according to Crunch Base), to product management to becoming a venture capitalist?
I had planned on doing technical consulting in DC, but thanks to a friend I had met through the QUEST Program
, I got an interview in California with Intel so I decided to try my luck on the West Coast and figured if I didn't like it I could come home. Turned out I did like it and eventually joined Google back when it was still fairly small and private. After a good run there, I had done some acquisitions for Google and liked the transaction side of things so I joined Fidelity's VC arm. [I] [t]hen eventually started my own firm, Hoxton, about 5 years ago with another American colleague here in London.
Now you're in London and a founding partner at Hoxton Ventures (which by the way, sounds very exciting). How did you end up in there deciding to focus on the UK/European technical market? What is exciting about the world of venture? If you're able to share, what are some of the exciting things that are going on that you're interested in?
I saw the opportunity happening in London around 2008 where the technology industry was expanding rapidly; and really for the first time, you could plausibly and regularly build $1b+ companies anywhere in the world [that] you could find a large pool of qualified engineering talent. I was impressed with the level of engineers in Europe and saw there was a shortage of capital funding for them.
Like DC, there's a very strong security market with London having lots of lucrative government and corporate headquarters just down the road. We're investors in several impressive cybersecurity companies and expect to see lots more. I'm excited that Maryland has such a commitment to this sector as well.
We also are bullish on London since it really feels like the capital of the world. So much global trade happens in London that it's uniquely able to facilitate global expansion with so many sources of global talent. Our portfolio company, Deliveroo, for example, is based in London but offers services in nearly 14 countries and over 50 cities globally. That's hard to do from the US, where investors tend to prefer companies stay close to home and attack the local market before expanding overseas.
Can you characterize the difference between the UK/European tech community and the ones in US--whether Silicon Valley, Seattle Area, Chicago, Austin, or DC (and others)? Is this something worth thinking about?
Of course finding great computer science talent is one of the most critical factors. DC, Seattle, Austin and other emerging tech hubs in the US all have great pools of local talent, as does London, Berlin, and Stockhom, to name a few in Europe. That's the most crucial factor for startups since without computer scientists, there's not much there but dreamers with ideas.
Then, capital availability is the next biggest constraint. This is where Silicon Valley and Boston have had historical advantages, although this is changing now over time. Beginning in the late 70s, you saw companies such as National Semiconductor making millionaires out of early engineers, which led to some of them becoming very savvy investors, which starts the virtuous cycle of smart investors backing smart engineers. Other cities haven't had the benefit of that money recycling as much, so fewer funds have formed and fewer smart investors have been present to help form these next generation companies. But nowadays, with companies becoming cheaper than ever to launch, there's a nice convergence between new money entering the sector and companies being able to do more with less. Then over time, the winners will beget future winners down the line.
I think this is the case for both top European cities and top US cities. This pattern is already emerging in London but is maybe a few years behind the same trajectory as New York. As the cost of living has increased so much in Silicon Valley as well we are seeing less brain-drain to California and more computer scientists willing to stay closer to home to start their businesses or join startups.
As an alum of the University of Maryland, what are some of the projects that you like that are going on, or that you'd like to see happen here? What are things that you didn't have access to as an undergraduate that you'd like to see students have access to?
I'm really excited about all the progress that's happening at Maryland these days. Route 1 looks like a different world from when I graduated in 2001. The Cybersecurity Center is a brilliant way of attracting talent and gaining deeper relationships with the Federal government community, which I always thought was a huge advantage that College Park has over other computer science programs elsewhere.
The Center for Women in Computing is also a wonderful project to increase the representation of women in the CS program. I don't recall us having as much of a support network when I was a CS major.
The Iribe Center should be amazing once it's built. Before I graduated the facilities were a bit more run down and even the dorms (Cumberland) weren't nearly as nice as they are now. The school has really turned a corner into feeling like a top tier institution.