WLI Entrepreneur Spotlight: Alexandra Wright-Gladstein

Alex Wright-Gladstein
Co-Founder, Board Member & Advisor, Ayar Labs

In this edition of the WLI Entrepreneurial Blog, we had the pleasure of talking to Alex Wright-Gladstein, Co-Founder, Board Member and Advisor of Ayar Labs, a company founded to drive the next phase of Moore’s Law through the use of its Optical I/0 technology.  I know you’ll be incredibly inspired after reading this interview and learning about her journey into the semiconductor industry as well as passion for climate change.

Q: Tell us about your background and why you joined the industry.

My passion for the environment started at age 12 when I was in 7th grade, which then matured into my interest in climate change in college.  I didn’t study anything related to semiconductors in college; I majored in Political Science and Economics. I was very interested in climate so if that had been offered as a major, I would have studied that. I realized late in my college career that I really liked technology and excelled in math so I probably should have majored in engineering or science.  When I started studying economics and took my quantitative economics class I was like, math! science! – this is so much easier than writing all the papers that go along with Political Science.

Around that time, I started to realize that technology had a really important role to play in climate change.  Especially, coming up with solutions that don’t require us to change our standards or quality of life, but allow us to live with a smaller impact on climate. So, even though I thought technology could be the answer to climate change, I realized I probably wasn’t going to be the person to invent the solution. So, I started thinking that perhaps if I could help inventors get their technologies out into the world, that would be a worthwhile thing to do.

My first job out of college was with a cleantech company called EnerNOC. Since I aspired to be the business person at a start-up, I figured I should learn a thing or two about business first. This was a valuable time as it gave me the business experience I was looking for.

After working at EnerNOC for five years, I went to MIT for my MBA.  Really, this was an excuse for me to meet people inventing things that could have an impact on climate. There are 300 labs at MIT that do energy-related research, and I got the opportunity to meet my Ayar Labs co-founders at one of those labs.  They had just invented the world’s first processor to communicate using light. At that time, I knew nothing about processors or light-based communication, but I was floored by the breakthrough that they had accomplished. The first person I met there, Rajeev Ram, really helped me understand how transformative this could be to the computing industry, cutting down on the amount of energy used in computing by enabling new architectures for data centers and supercomputers.

My co-founders Mark Wade, Chen Sun, and me when we won the MIT Clean Energy Prize in May of 2015. At the time, our company was named OptiBit, and we changed it to Ayar Labs shortly thereafter.

Moore’s Law has been very successful in growing exponentially the amount of computing power we can put on chips. What hasn’t kept up is how we move data between chips – the copper traces and wires we depend on have not grown exponentially in their capabilities. This has created a serious bottleneck in moving data between chips. When you use light, it’s possible to remove the bottleneck and move data faster and more efficiently. This was my first introduction to semiconductors. I had experience with big data during my time at EnerNOC doing big data analytics, so I had a little bit of understanding of the end-use cases that required this technology to support it, but really no familiarity with optical communications or semiconductors. Therefore, it became a very steep learning curve. Luckily, my cofounders were very generous in spending time to teach me about how this technology worked.

The way I got the introduction to my Ayar Labs co-founders was through a class at MIT called Energy Ventures, which pairs technologies with teams of students to work on a business plan. I got to be the TA over the summer before the class started, to find technologies to put in the class. I was given a list of more than 300 labs at MIT that do energy-related research and got to reach out to them and sit down with them to ultimately pick a dozen that were a fit for the class. Then, as a student in the class, I was able to pick my favorite out of all the ones I had surveyed. We formed a team of bad-ass students from MIT, including one student from Harvard, and we worked on a business plan over the course of the semester. During that time, we had to spend time working with the people in the lab to really understand the technology, which is where I started getting acquainted with the PhD and post doc students in the lab.

At the conclusion of the semester, I was the only student in the class that wanted to keep working on creating a business with this technology. I approached two of the PhD students working on the technology and told them about a business pitch competition called the MIT Clean Energy prize. I asked them if we should throw our name in the hat and see if we make it into the semifinals? They agreed, we applied and made it into the semifinals, which was made up of 21 teams. Each team was assigned three mentors from their industry. Having the guidance of those three mentors over the next couple of months, who had experience in the semiconductor and communication industries was so advantageous. That is when our group of three really started feeling like a team and when we really started thinking about what it would look like to license the technology from MIT and what the applications and product would be. We started having many conversations with industry experts and potential customers.

By the time the finals arrived, we competed and ended up winning! We won the $275,000 grand prize, which gave us the start-up capital we needed to get the company off the ground. We felt extremely lucky! Most importantly, competing against other amazing start-up ideas and winning the validation of the panelists gave us the confidence that there was something to our idea.

Q: Tell us about your vision for Ayar Labs.

Moore’s Law has been incredibly successful at exponentially scaling how much computing power we can fit on a chip. How to move data between chips has not kept up with that growth. That has resulted in a big bottleneck where chips idle waiting for data to come and go across electrical pins, traces, and wires. When they are idling, they are still using a lot of energy, which is wasted in these powerful chips. In removing that bottleneck and re-architecting the way we make machines; you can reduce the amount of idling time. With this, you get higher performance and waste much less energy by using light instead of electricity to move data between chips. Our vision is to increase the computing power of high-performance machines by 10x-100x, as well as to cut the amount of energy used in compute by half.

A group photo of the Ayar Labs team on the San Francisco Bay in August 2019

What excites you about being an entrepreneur?

The best part about entrepreneurship is that it’s never the same…you never have the same challenges from one day to the next and your job is always incredibly interesting and exciting. I realize that is not for everybody’s personality type. I used to think, “why doesn’t everyone want to be an entrepreneur?” I realize now, not everybody thrives with change and uncertainty… and there’s always a lot of ambiguity in entrepreneurship. You have to make decisions without having perfect information to move forward but I actually love that aspect.  There is no playbook for what you are doing, and no one has ever done it before, so you have to figure it out as you are going along. That being said, you can create real change in the world, which is a powerful tool for creating the change you want to see in the world and improving lives.

Q: What were/are the challenges of being a female entrepreneur?

There are both challenges and benefits. For example, it didn’t take long for me to become well-known in the optics industry because when I gave my first conference talk, I stood out because of my gender. Being the only woman in a room, recognition is a little easier because you stand out.

In terms of the challenges, we live in a time when issues of discrimination are becoming more widely acknowledged than they used to be. For things like fundraising or finding customers, I was not aware that there was discrimination in the majority of conversations. However, there were a few conversations where it was very clear that I was not being taken seriously even before I opened my mouth and even when I did, the person was biased and not going to pay attention to the words I was saying. That was frustrating for me early on and I didn’t know what to do about it. I am still not sure of the solution for this bias. What I did in the moment was not push the issue and let my male colleagues do most of the talking, because they were not frequently interrupted in the way I was. I found this bias was more common with VCs during my fundraising pitches than customers. It was frustrating that I felt certain venture capital investors were off the table and not an option for us for an irrational reason. With potential customers, once we got into the discussion about the technology and how we could partner, it was very rare that I experienced bias. I do think that implicit bias against women is changing as well. Perpetrators within VC firms are being exposed and it’s good that light is being shone in this area.

Q: What advice do you have for young women who would like to become entrepreneurs?

The most important advice I can offer is give yourself confidence by knowing that maybe you’ve never done this before, but neither has anyone else. You know best how to run your company because no one has ever run the company that you’re running before.  Do collect advice from people who have done similar things in the past and get as much data as you can, but when it comes down to it, just go DO.  I started a semiconductor company that now has 75 employees and has raised over $60 million with zero experience in the semiconductor industry.  When people shoot you down and tell you “this will never work”, which you will hear a million times when starting a company, don’t get discouraged. What helped me keep my excitement after hearing these things over and over, is having a north star and knowing fundamentally what is the problem that you can solve that no one else has solved yet. Keep in mind that you have that solution. Ask yourself – what is the truth that you know that no one else knows? You might come up with a business model and it turns out that business model is not the right one for your technology or the problem you are solving.   Pivot the business model, but as long as you have that north star of the change you want to see in the world, you can be flexible about the rest. Continuously remind yourself of why you wanted to do this in the first place. Stay true to yourself.

Q: What do you think we can do to make the semiconductor industry more attractive and retain women?

{Alex laughing} says, “So Much!”  We have a problem of signaling “over work” to each other in this industry. People feel like if they show they are working hard and working overtime in this industry, that means that they are better at what they do, which is honestly not true. There is “smart work” and it isn’t the same thing as working overtime. When you have that culture, it becomes really hard for women who want to have children to take leave. Whether men or women, many studies have come out stating parents should spend time with their babies and this bonding time has implications for the rest of the child’s life. If we as an industry don’t create a supportive environment, where it is expected that someone (mother or father) will take a few months off work to be with their new child, we won’t be able to support women in this industry. I feel the culture of taking leave is an important one to have. It translates not only to parental leave, but also to general vacation and mental health.

Flexibly and being able to work from home when you need to is also important. Since women tend to have primary caregiver responsibilities, whether for children or aging parents, if we are not flexible and supportive of that, we are going to have the repercussions that women will fall out of the workforce more often than men just because of this cultural phenomenon. There is a big role that leaders in the industry can play to model taking long parental leave. Also, finding childcare can be challenging. Companies can be supportive by providing childcare at the office. That would be so beneficial to support women staying in the workforce. It’s been sad to read about the impact that the pandemic has had on women in the workforce so I really hope it’s a wake-up call to the entire industry.

A recent photo with my husband

Q: How do you encourage men to become allies in gender equality?

I think the #1 thing is taking parental leave – long parental leave – the same time women take. This shows leadership so that women aren’t treated differently for having to take that time. There are also things people can do in the day-to-day, such as encouraging women to speak up in meetings, noticing if anyone in a meeting is getting spoken over, and creating an environment for women or others who might not be heard to get a word in to have the floor to speak. It is also important to create opportunities for women to present their work so others will be familiar with what they have done. It is oftentimes perceived negatively for women to stand up for themselves, whether it’s speaking up in meetings or even asking for a promotion or raise. I think of the example of a woman and man at the same level both asking for the same raise and the woman is perceived as “pushy” while the man is not. It is important to be aware of subconscious biases that we all have, to pay attention to them, and look for ways to promote women and give them a voice.  This will help us overcome those systemic subconscious biases that we all have.

Q: How do you imagine the world will change in the next 10-30 years?  Where do you think you’ll be then?

In the world of semiconductors, I think we are going through a seismic shift with the end of Moore’s Law because we’ve all grown accustomed to computers being twice as fast every couple of years and it fuels our entire society in ways we don’t even realize. This goes far beyond the semiconductor industry – there isn’t an industry that isn’t touched by Moore’s Law. We are used to electronics becoming cheaper and cheaper and now they won’t necessarily – what does that mean for supply chain and economics? This makes things very hard to predict and I think that will be very interesting to watch. One thing that I think we can predict with the end of Moore’s Law is that there will now be space for other types of innovations to have room to create impact and difference. This is creating an opportunity for entrepreneurship and start-ups in semiconductor because companies like Ayar Labs can come up with innovative ideas and being small actually helped us in being creative and coming up with a solution.

Outside of semiconductors, my wish for the world in 10-30 years is that we will have completely transformed the global economy to not be reliant on fossil fuels. We will have turned this ship around.  According to the carbon clock, we have six years and ten months right now emitting at current rates before we reach 1 ½ degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial temperatures. We have already heated the world by 1 degree so we have ½ degree to go and so we need to make a change. We are already seeing the implications here in California in dealing with wildfires.

So, on one hand it is terrifying and on the other hand, I have not felt the level of hope that I feel right now in a very long time. That is entirely due to youth movements, especially the Sunrise Movement, that have brought this conversation to a level we’ve never had before. These incredible young people are creating a game plan for how we can turn this around and they are now part of the Biden administration, crafting our nation’s climate policies. I think we have a real shot at transforming the global economy, which is what we need to do to get there. Young people today have made the conversation not just about climate, but about transforming the global economy the right way by being inclusive and making sure we are creating jobs, lifting up people of color and hearing all of the communities that need to be heard so no one group is disproportionately impacted by poor air quality or loss of jobs. It’s an incredible thing to witness right now and I’m very excited to see what happens in the next 10-30 years. I hope the vision that these young people have does come to fruition.

Alex with her little sister as kids

Q: What advice would you give your younger self?

When I first entered the workforce, I had no idea that any of the gender issues we’ve discussed existed. In my first job, there were very few women in my group, but I felt respected by all my colleagues and I felt like I could go anywhere and there was no difference being a woman vs. a man. Then, through various experiences I realized that subconscious bias exists. So, my advice to my younger self is that just because you haven’t realized or experienced it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It is amazing how far we’ve come – I’ve not had to face the challenges in my career that my mother faced in her career. I’ve had an infinitely easier time than her. Although we’ve come so far, that doesn’t mean it’s equal. Now the fight is in the realm of subconscious bias.

Q: The most important question of all… outside of your laptop and phone, what’s the most important thing you have with you?

I always need to have a pen and paper. I can’t brainstorm on my laptop or phone the way I can with a pen and paper. When I need to be creative or come up with new ideas and put structure around them, I shut all my electronics down, take out my pen and paper and just scribble. Even when I’m creating a new pitch deck, I can’t do it on PPT. I create my ideas on paper before transferring them to PPT. This goes for when I’m writing a talk that I’m going to give at a conference… anything with creativity I have to do first with pen and paper. It’s a technology – if a very old one at that!

Thank you, Alex, for taking the time to talk to us and offer great advice to women engineers and entrepreneurs. We enjoyed our lively conversation and are so inspired by how you entered the semiconductor industry and your passion for climate change. To learn more about GSA’s Women’s Leadership Initiative and get involved, please visit https://www.gsaglobal.org/womens-leadership/.

Alex is a co-founder of Ayar Labs and was its founding CEO. In this role, she raised its first $27M in venture funding and recruited Charlie Wuischpard as CEO. Prior to founding Ayar Labs, she was the Energy Entrepreneurship Practice Leader at MIT.