Julia Brown’s recent leadership of Bethesda, Maryland-based AI/AR and spatial computing software company MindX Corp. through its acquisition by brain science company Blackrock Neurotech marks the culmination of a five-year journey — one that started two years before she was named MindX’s CEO in 2019.
What follows is a brief, Q&A-style guide of the framework Brown used to reach the acquisition. This framework is built on the lessons she learned cofounding EpiWatch, a Johns Hopkins University (JHU)-developed seizure detection and data tracking platform that found use as an Apple Watch app. Brown also incorporated lessons from her time working at the JHU School of Medicine’s Technology Innovation Center, where she led development on 25 software applications and facilitated related startups’ launches.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Technical.ly Baltimore: Do you feel there are certain things you must do, or certain requirements you need to fulfill, to become a successful CEO?
Julia Brown: I would say being involved in a small-stage startup, I’d recommend [that] before you become CEO of a startup.
I think [it’s important to have] a realistic understanding of what it means to raise money from a VC. And then, what is expected of you as soon as you actually get that money is something that I think [I] didn’t have — even though I’d been in a community where that was talked about a lot. I had been meeting a lot of folks who ran various funds.
I didn’t really have a strong sense of [raising VC money and the expectations of it] until I really got into it.
There’s a real trajectory that you have to hit. You got to raise more money every 12 months. The growth treadmill never stops until you get acquired or until you IPO. So until that exit event, you have to have a clear path for how you’re going to create value, how you’re going to grow the company. And make sure that you have a team and community that can support you through that because it’s going to be challenging.
TB: How do you continue learning and growing in your role, especially with an experimental technology? How do you learn something that hasn’t been done yet?
JB: There’s no real syllabus for how to do that, to be honest. So definitely, it’s challenging, but the cool part is that you get to figure that out. You get to decide for yourself how you spend your time. You decide what is going to be most important.
Connect with others who have specialist expertise in related or sometimes unrelated fields, and have that feed back into your core thesis for who you want to be — both as a leader and as a technologist.
I think that’s something I didn’t understand: that there would be as much interest in just grabbing lunch, in writing a grant together, in supporting each other. I’ve found that there are a lot of principal investigators and academic staff at our local universities who can both help you understand whatever it is that they’re a specialist in and you’re interested in.
TB: Where do you think you are in your career? In the opening, middle or end game?
JB: I don’t know how much I like that question. I don’t know that I think about it that way at all.
I’ve always thought about it as: What is [the place] where can I best leverage my skills and expertise for the best outcomes?
I have a lot of interests. How do we make the things I’m interested in, like ethical AI and neuro-informed solutions for mental health? How do we fund these not just with venture capital-backed companies? How do we make other sources of funding for these efforts? How do we make training programs to get people involved?
So I think what I would like to see in the next stage of my career would be an opening up of the field a little bit more for others to get involved. Finding ways to build a framework for the future that will help these technologies grow in the right way.
TB: How do you gauge when you’re through one stage and on to the next? When you were in the startup phase, how did you know you were past that and en route to the growth phase?
JB: I think that’s flowed pretty naturally just from working on the things I’m most interested in. And being as pragmatic as possible about completing and creating specific outcomes within a 12- to 24-month timeframe.
I wanted to launch a company around the core router interface technology for my decks. Then I wanted to grow that business to a certain extent. I basically had objectives I laid out around the development and validation of that technology. Some of the products and business model components were really vetted out in raising venture capital, [in] similar concepts we built and in the products that we developed for partners and customers.
Then looking at the industry, observing the shifts in funding and the way others in the space are looking at the future, informs where you want to go next.
Do you want to go raise a lot of money to build a specific product? Or do you want to partner with others to have a bigger potential impact long-term? I think that’s just kind of a personal choice around what is most important to you and delivering on your promises to your stakeholders, effectively, over time.
For me, at least, it’s been a combination of having a lot of depth in an industry and creating a good strategy around that, then delivering on your responsibilities to your stakeholders and the people you work with.
There were points of the pandemic when I definitely was nervous about what the right path was to take for the company. Maybe other people would have made different decisions. But I think we made the right choices to make sure that all of our stakeholders’ needs were reflected well in the path we took at Mind X, and we’ll do the same for what we’re doing at Blackrock.
Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.