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Dropping in on Julia Austin, VP of innovation at VMware's Kendall Square office

Posted by Scott Kirsner  May 13, 2013 08:00 AM

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Four things I didn't know about VMware's Cambridge office before visiting it recently:

– It has been around since 2004, and is run by one of the early employees of Akamai.

– With 250 employees, it is one of VMware's largest R&D offices outside the Palo Alto headquarters.

– The last VMware founder who remains with the company, Scott Devine, works out of the Kendall Square office.

– The office oversees an internal VMware venture capital program to foster new ideas that may not neatly fit into an existing product line.

Vice president of innovation Julia Austin told me a bit about how that program works. Her job at the cloud and virtualization giant is to "incubate, fund, and occasionally kill new ideas" at VMware, as she puts it. She also oversees collaborations with East Coast academic institutions like MIT. (Earlier in her career, Austin was VP of engineering at Akamai.)

"We have a VC-like board of eight people, a mix of technical and business people," she says. "Anyone can pitch an idea, whether it's in an adjacent area to our products or not. These are things that shouldn't be in a business unit while they are being developed," because they might not be seen as ready for the market yet, or they might not appear to have high enough revenue potential. "We fund the best ones, and the people stay VMware employees. We give them a stake. The goal is to sell it back to the company. With their funding, we may give them hardware, a number of people, space, and support services. But it's not an endless bank."

A handful of ideas have gotten initial funding, Austin says, and "one project just got its B round funding. We expect them to have a business plan, and some idea of how to make money." She says that it's possible that VMware could spin some of the ideas out as independent companies, though that hasn't happened yet.

Austin says that the company has committed to invest "millions" in these internal startups, and if successful, there is significant upside to the entrepreneurs running them. But there's also risk: if an internal startup doesn't click, she says, "the risk to the individual is, you need to find a new role at the company, within a certain window of time."

Austin says that more than 60 ideas have been presented over the last year-and-a-half, in areas like R&D, customer service, and field sales. But she won't be specific about what any of the projects are focused on, aside from saying that one is getting close to public release.

"It's too early to tell you it's a resounding success," she says. But it is a very interesting way for a large tech company to foster innovation...

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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