Solos & Small Firms

Blended to Perfection: Mixing Legal Skills with a Penchant for Startups


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Photo of J. Eric Davis by Wayne Slezak

Entrepreneurial expertise and legal skills are a rare mix. They’ve proven to be a successful combination for J. Eric Davis, a corporate lawyer and venture capitalist who has carved a niche helping university technologies morph into commercial ventures.

“I’m a hybrid because I don’t really fit inside a big [law] firm and I don’t fit inside a venture capital firm,” says Davis, 42, who invests in emerging companies and helps oversee their legal and management issues. “I see myself as connecting all the essential pieces.”

Earlier this year, Davis formed JED Venture Partners, a Lafayette, Ind.-based business accelerator providing executive support to early-stage tech ventures. Davis also continues to provide legal support to clients as an outsourced general counsel. To avoid any conflicts, he has an of-counsel relationship with the Indianapolis firm Alerding Castor Hewitt.

Davis developed an eye for startups early on when, as a lawyer for Purdue University, he helped license a variety of technologies created at the school and pursued business development as well. “I had to figure out and understand the technologies I was trying to license,” Davis says. “I dug a lot deeper.”

Eventually, the entrepreneurial bug bit, says Davis, and he left Purdue to start a software company that developed systems to allow supermarkets and other large retailers to track customers’ purchasing history and promote customized offers.

NCR Corp. purchased Davis’ company in 2003. And while he won’t disclose his take, he says the proceeds were enough to fuel his ambitions as a serial entrepreneur.

Davis uses his experience at Purdue to invest in other university-developed technologies and counsel academics through the business and legal hurdles that are foreign to most in the academy. “They don’t know how to do business development,” Davis says. “The ideas just don’t go anywhere.”

NAVIGATING BUREAUCRACY

Purdue engineering professor Mikhail Atallah, co-founder of Bethesda, Md.-based Arxan Technologies—a company whose product protects software from piracy threats—says Davis was instrumental in navigating university bureaucracy, a process that can sometimes derail otherwise promising ideas.

“He has excellent judgment,” says Atallah, stressing Davis’ understanding of potential conflicts of interest faced by professors balancing academic responsibilities against entrepreneurship. “We didn’t have the resources for pursuing too many things. He was really good at putting his chips in the most profitable and promising.”

Davis’ involvement in new ventures is hands-on. Besides investing, he often takes a leadership role on the management team, running point on everything from compliance to hiring, strategic planning and finance.

For Chad Barden, founder of Sorian, a wind-energy technology startup based in South Bend, Ind., Davis has been an investor and legal counsel.

“What he’s trying to do is make sure that the risks I take are sensible business risks,” Barden says. “Balancing what is correct from the point of view of the law or a traditional attorney with the need to get the deal done is an art. He’s lived it.”

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