What Invention and Incubation Have in Common
How we’re building an incubation machine at Primary and how people can get involved.
“Thomas Edison was not… the first man to become rich by inventing something clever. Rather, he was the first man to build a factory for harnessing cleverness.”
― Graham Moore, The Last Days of Night
The legacy of Thomas Edison is top of mind at Primary. As a firm, we’ve had tremendous success incubating businesses. The spark was Ben Sun, one of our founding GPs, who was also a Board Member at my second startup and angel investor in my first. Ben had brilliant ideas and deep networks to make new startups a reality, but it was reliant on one person and moments of inspiration. Ben and I began discussing how to systematize incubation. We knew that startups are messy, filled with surprise turns, and reliant on indomitable drive. But yet there’s some science to the art. I joined Primary in 2021 with a mandate: Build repeatable and scalable processes to create new companies going after venture-scale opportunities.
How to harness cleverness, a la Thomas Edison? The more we analyzed the more we realized that inventions and startups share some fundamental similarities. They’re not widgets. An assembly line for startups doesn’t stand a chance to capture the idiosyncrasies and insights that accompany any worthwhile expedition into the unknown. Startups (and inventions) are journeys that require going into uncharted territory. By definition, there are no maps. But there is a formula.
That winning formula starts with talent. Nurtured in a culture of excellence, collaboration, intellectual curiosity, and some old-fashioned competition, ambitious problem solvers and builders are foundational. Early on I was joined by Tobias Citron, who himself spent time inside of incubators, as a consultant and an entrepreneur. We began hiring a team of Operators-in-Residence (see below for opportunities) and developing processes, taking inspiration from everything from the lean-startup-method to management consulting to human-centered design to GLG-style market research and more. Enter Primary Labs, our incubation machine.
In the first five years of Primary history, we incubated four businesses. In the past year, we incubated another four. And we’re just getting going. Our goal is scale in everything we do. We’re looking for big ideas, in big markets, with big leaders. Many times over.
Why incubate? The practice yields proprietary deal flow and increased ownership—gold in today’s market—which leads to outsized returns.
On the surface, this strategy seems to contradict certain assumptions about how great companies are born. At Primary Labs, there is no founder working in a garage driven by some irrational passion. We believe this dominant narrative is misleading. There’s a track record of fantastic successes born from incubation: Snowflake, Palo Alto Networks, Oscar, Pure Storage, Ro, Hims, Cloudera, Tinder, and many many more. As the venture industry becomes increasingly institutionalized, we believe incubation will become a core pillar of more firms’ strategies.
But it’s not easy. You need to create structures that attract and incentivize exceptional talent. As a two-time founder who raised capital independently, I know that many offerings to founders from incubators are not all that compelling. That is not the case with Primary’s approach. The opportunity we present to founders mirrors what the best entrepreneurs expect in today’s market: sufficient control and ownership, enough capital from the get-go, a prime position to raise from the best VCs, and help from the Primary Portfolio Impact team. And, above all, we’re flexible to various situations and understand that different founders, businesses, and markets have different capital requirements. Again, there is no map, and the formula is about harnessing cleverness.
If you’re interested in a systematic, rigorous, and (because this may not be clear from this post) fun🕺 journey creating companies with grand ambitions, we have opportunities for you.
- OIRs: To scale incubation at Primary, we started an Operator-in-Residence (OIR) program. OIRs spend months vetting and researching business ideas and markets. And then they help our team identify and recruit the best operators in the world to run incubated businesses. We are hiring for two OIR roles, one specialized in healthcare and one focused on technical opportunities.
- Executive Recruiter: We are hiring an executive recruiter to build out the talent function within incubations and identify world-class C-Suite executives to lead our incubated businesses. See JD here.
- Founders: Interested in being a founder but don’t have an idea? Our bar is high. We’re looking for repeat founders who have raised from VC firms, seasoned operators who have demonstrated success at scaling startups, and engineers with a passion for solving a problem while getting support in unlocking a business use case. If you’re interested, please drop us a line.
Our team is dedicated to the importance of innovation because we believe it drives positive change in the world. We embody the Primary Values in our daily work, especially our commitment to being builders, not just backers. We believe there’s a lot to build and we’d love to hear from you.