PUBLISHED:March 01, 2010

Duke entrepreneurs

March 1, 2010 — The poster depicting a series of boxes in the entry of the offices of 8 Rivers Capital, located in one of downtown Durham’s newly renovated tobacco plants, pretty well sums up what the company is all about: thinking “outside the box.”

“When people ask us what we do, I tell them ‘We solve problems,’” says Ryan Purcell ’09. “It’s, ‘Here is an enormous problem. Solve it. Be creative. Be innovative. And just solve the problem.’”

One truly enormous problem that Purcell and 2009 classmates Bob Walker and Monique McNellie are tackling is emissions related to energy production. Their company’s solution? Create electricity from the combustion of any material, be it coal, natural gas, algae, even municipal waste, at 20 percent to 40 percent less cost than with existing technology, and in the process capture 100 percent of the carbon dioxide emissions. On a day-to-day basis, their work includes researching the full range of potential uses for fuel and other products derived from algae and other combustible fuels, undertaking “prior art” and “obviousness” searches and crafting patent applications, writing grants, and developing business plans, such as cost models for the construction of a zero-emission power plant.

“The cost model that we were working on this morning offers a perfect example of how we operate,” adds Purcell who, with Walker, spent a large part of the morning on a conference call, brainstorming options with an engineer in England. “We’ve seen a hundred different ways to do it, and we’re going to do it a different way. It’s about finding the right answer to the problem.” To prepare, Purcell immersed himself in the nuances of combustion technology — literally taking an online MIT course in thermodynamics — and power plant management. “In the realm of solving problems, you just adapt to the situation you’re in,” he says.

Opportunity knocks
When the recession led many law firms to announce deferrals for incoming associates last spring, Purcell, Walker, and McNellie all followed up on an offer to interview to work for Duke Law Professor of the Practice Bill Brown ’80, in one of his entrepreneurial endeavors. After a long career on Wall Street, most recently as global co-head of listed derivatives at Morgan Stanley, Brown launched 8 Rivers Capital and Palmer Labs along with innovator and aerospace engineer, Miles Palmer, a friend from his undergraduate years at MIT. The private-equity firm works to commercialize Palmer Labs’ technologies, which primarily focus on clean energy, transportation, biomedical devices, and telecommunications.

Brown, who teaches courses relating to business law and planning and corporate finance, saw in the changed legal economy opportunities to benefit both his graduating students and his companies in which the young lawyers are now earning equity interests. For him, the key was identifying individuals who could walk in the office door with significant skills and work relatively independently. “Instead of filling a slot, we looked for people around whom we could build important parts of our business,” he says. “Everyone has something inside of them they can do well — really well — and both sides benefit when those talents and the business objectives are properly aligned.”

Brown says he found what he was looking for in McNellie, who came to Duke Law with work experience in human resources, undergraduate studies in information management, communications, and marketing, and an MBA in organizational behavior and entrepreneurial studies; Purcell, a double-Duke grad with a master’s degree in economics and a particular facility for the science- and finance-based aspects of the operations; and Walker, whose management skills honed during four years at the Republican National Committee and another as the Homeland Security secretary’s liaison to governors have allowed him to fulfill the duties of a chief operating officer.

“Each one has really made him- or herself essential to the company, and I know the work has been empowering to them at a very early stage of their careers,” says Brown, who also has made his business an incubator for talented interns from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and will soon welcome a cadre of undergraduate Robertson Scholars from both Duke and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. “While some might think that recent grads are too ‘wet behind the ears’ to make a meaningful, independent contribution to a real business, this team emphatically proves otherwise.”

“We all were interested in entrepreneurship to begin with, so that was enough for us to want to get in on something at the ground level and to be a part of building it up,” says McNellie, who volunteered to defer her start at Weil Gotschal in New York until January 2011. Her general focus now is on public and governmental affairs as they relate to the algae research, which recently secured a portion of a $44 million Department of Energy grant. Walker, who was scheduled to start at a firm in Atlanta in January, has extended his deferral, as has Purcell, who is bound for Gunderson Dettmer in New York.

The three also are quite clearly having fun. “Every day is different,” says Walker. “Bill and Miles have so many things going. We find something that needs to be done and just take care of it.”

Working as entrepreneurs, learning to be better lawyers
While not all of their work is legal in its focus, the three agree that they constantly call on the skills they learned in law school.

“It’s a cliché that you learn to think in law school, but that’s the number one thing we use here,” says Purcell. “Our work involves critical thinking and taking a skeptical eye to assumptions or statements people make. You think you know how to evaluate things before you go to law school, but the way you evaluate them changes.” He is quick to add that his training in tax and corporate and securities law informs much of his work, but he also draws on the advice of 8 Rivers’ outside counsel as needed. And being the client, he says, has taught him to be a better lawyer.

“You learn the frustrations that clients can have with their lawyers. I’ve learned that as the client, time is of the essence on everything. When a client calls you, it’s not because they need something in the next week or so. I call because I need it now!”

Walker agrees. “Being the client really makes you understand the role that lawyers need to have in interacting with their clients and in truly being partners with their clients. As Bill is fond of saying — and I ran into this in politics — there are two kinds of lawyers: the ones who tell you what you can’t do and the ones who tell you how you can do what you want to do. From the business side of things, it’s really important to be or work with the latter.”

Purcell is certain the experience of building up a business is essential to being a good entrepreneurial lawyer; many of the attorneys at Gunderson Dettmer, which specializes in venture capital and advising startups, have worked in-house in Silicon Valley, he notes.

“It’s not just about getting me a filing in Delaware that gets me a tax identification number,” he says. “It’s telling me who I need to meet with, when I need to meet with them, and how best to present my idea to them. The entrepreneurial lawyer really has to be a conduit to the venture capital community — to investors.” Networking, he’s learned, is critical.

A unique opportunity
Walker directly credits Duke Law School’s close-knit culture with making this opportunity possible. “I was debating between several different schools, and had I gone to any other, I wouldn’t have been able to get to know a professor [so well] — and then go on to help him start a company. It’s a unique experience we wouldn’t have had at another law school.”

“We all anticipated that we would be going to law firms when we graduated, but the world changed, and we didn’t have any control over it,” McNellie observes. “But if somebody said, ‘Go out and start your own company — do whatever you want to do,’ I couldn’t think of anything I’d want to start more than a company that identifies world problems, creates new technology to solve them, and makes money while doing so. That’s what I’d want to be doing.”