Author: Charles McNair

Published

Venture capitalist Ryan Gembala (BBA ’03) carefully mapped his passage from Athens to the San Francisco Bay. Now he is on safari for “transformational technologies” with the potential to be pathbreakers.​

Tally quietly cruises the supermarket, checking shelves.

The unassuming robot’s electronic eye scans soup cans, candies, cosmetics. Tally takes note of missing inventory, misplaced products and mistaken price tags. Electronic reports stream to store managers.

Thanks to Tally, store employees may soon be free to do more valuable work.

“What currently takes employees 30 hours to sporadically achieve with 65 percent accuracy, Tally completes in 30 minutes with 96 percent accuracy,” says Ryan Gembala, founder of San Francisco-based venture capital firm Pathbreaker Ventures.

Gembala’s firm made an early investment in Tally’s San Francisco startup, Simbe Robotics (short for “simulated being”). And Tally does much more than take stock of stock. The robot streams a gold mine of data, complex analytics that store managers can use to gauge how much customers love the new Colombian blend on aisle 7 … or how little they notice the ramen noodles on 9.

Gembala has carefully curated nine investments of $150,000 to $300,000 since launching Pathbreaker in August 2015, each seeding a startup like Simbe. (At maturity, Gembala’s Fund One will have 30 to 40 companies in its portfolio.) He’s playing a hunch that Tally becomes a familiar presence in retail stores, and Pathbreaker investors have put cold hard cash on a wild idea – that retail robotics will potentially transform business in the entire big-box retail landscape.

Ryan Gembala
Pathbreaker made an early investment in Simbe Robotics, who designed Tally, shown here. (from left) Co-founders Jeff Gee and Brad Bogolea consider Gembala to be not only an investor but also a trusted advisor.

As with Tally, Gembala selectively targets technologies like robotics that just might change the world. He’s invested in virtual reality; automated robotic greenhouses that grow sustainable produce; artificial intelligence; video infrastructure to serve a television industry rapidly moving online; people-routing technology to choreograph mobile workforces and self-driving fleets; and language-processing technology that may reinvent email.

“We’re in a unique time in the history of the world,” Gembala says. “In our lifetimes, we’ve seen a handful of technology platforms change things: The personal computer. The internet. The mobile phone, then the smartphone. All this innovation has created a foundation for at least a half-dozen new technologies that now have the potential to be equally transformative.

––––––––––

San Francisco started, famously, in a gold rush.

“Quite literally, pathbreakers from all over the globe came here to forge through the forests looking for gold,” Gembala says. “It’s still a place where that’s happening, but instead of picks and shovels, people bring modern tools.”

Computer code. Gadgets. Ideas. Capital. In 2015, San Francisco and Silicon Valley received $27 billion in venture capital investment, just under half of the $58 billion total for the entire United States. Much of that money poured into new companies with hot ideas, the Next Big Things. High-tech startups like those Gembala targets make up 80 percent of venture capital-backed acquisitions by larger companies since 2009. High-tech companies sit on $440 billion in spare cash to spend on the right idea, product or team.

The Silicon Rush started back in the 1950s in the garage of the founders of Hewlett-Packard and in the labs of William Shockley. The latter, co-inventor of the transistor and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956, set out to commercialize the silicon semiconductor. Today next-gen developers spin off thousands of startup firms like electrical sparks, and those sparks ignite fantastic opportunities for Pathbreaker and other VCs.

But just like the gold claims of 1849, ventures in Silicon Valley can go boom or bust. Cupertino and Palo Alto lie littered with failed startups. Garages and basements filled with robots that couldn’t read a bar code or virtual reality headsets that caused cluster headaches. 

Ryan Gembala
Ryan with Alyson and son Theodore.

Gembala works out of an upstairs office on Kearny Street smack in the motherboard of San Francisco’s financial district. Like most venture capitalists, he spends a lot of his time prowling Silicon Valley across the bay. Gembala and his beautiful wife, Alyson (AB ’08), and their bounding 2-year-old, Theodore, live in one of San Francisco’s nicest neighborhoods. They have a car. They know Napa and the cheese country up in Marin. Gembala’s living the dream.

This didn’t happen by chance.

As fastidiously as an engineer writing algorithms for Watson, Ryan Gembala set out in his late-20s to become a venture capitalist with his own firm. He planned his work; he worked his plan. He never wasted a step.

The Terry College of Business was a launching pad for his high-arcing, high-tech career.

––––––––––

Gembala was born into a middle-class family in Michigan City, Ind. He grew up in Florida sunshine from age 4 to 9, then Atlanta through St. Pius High School.

He loved baseball. At age 7, he ran the bases with a pet Sheltie named Shortstop. He studied piano 14 years, scaling Mt. Rachmaninoff. He fell in love with foreign languages, their value made real to him at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He learned Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He traveled abroad while still in high school, buying his first international airline ticket with First Communion and good-report-card money he’d scrimped and saved for years.

“That experience changed my life,” Gembala says. “It gave me such a great sense of accomplishment. I gave advice to friends. You gotta go see what’s over there.”

The European trip simply may have shown Gembala who he really was. As a youngster, he sat with his mom, who spun a globe and asked, Where do you want to go? Little Ryan’s finger landed on places that fired his imagination.

“My parents truly gave me the idea that anything is possible,” Gembala says. “They encouraged every interest I ever had.”

If anything was possible, that meant anything was interesting.

“Ryan was just into everything,” his dad, Mike, laughs. “He was super inquisitive, energetic, curious about the whole world, and he never met a stranger.”

At age 4, Ryan learned a crucial lesson from his dad. An opportunity came for Mr. Gembala to take a position selling air compressors and pumps for his company … in Tampa. With close local bonds to family, Mike had passed on previous offers in Chicago, Dallas and Charlotte.

The Tampa offer was different. Ryan’s dad made a command decision.

“It’s a big world out there, and our children are going to see it,” Mike said. “We can’t live on Buffalo Street forever.’’ 

The Gembalas moved south.

“Ryan saw that there are times in your life when you simply have to make important decisions for family and future,” Mike says. “If you let them pass, you might regret it the rest of your life.”

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

The lesson must have stuck. Ryan Gembala lives just this side of a full sprint. You see his sense of controlled urgency from the moment he runs Theodore to preschool – literally runs, pushing a stroller with a delighted tot inside – to the midnights he spends poring over term sheets and business plans.

Something happened internally during Gembala’s many international adventures, including one long stretch interning at a Spanish bank.

He found himself beginning to think outside the boxes – outside his own language, outside his own country and its history … outside, really, any doubts about himself, about designing and living exactly the life he wanted.

In 1999, he enrolled at Terry.

Just as foreign languages fired his mind in high school, classroom experiences gave him a thrilling first taste of entrepreneurial risk-taking. One professor, Melenie Lankau (now at Wake Forest), directed Gembala’s Honors management course. 

“Dr. Lankau taught the Expectancy Theory of Motivation,” he says. “That made a big impact on me. It helped inform how I would market the opportunity to build organizations.”

––––––––––

After graduating summa cum laude from Terry, Gembala surprised classmates (and his family) by announcing that he wouldn’t be heading off to Wall Street or settling into an executive-track job in Atlanta.

Instead, he and fellow Terry grad, Garrett Gravesen (BBA ’03), created a nonprofit, H.E.R.O. for Children, focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS support in Georgia. [Previously featured in Terry Magazine, Fall 2007.] H.E.R.O. for Children recently celebrated 13 years of support for thousands of infected and affected children in five southern states. Gembala remains on the board.

The H.E.R.O. experience made Gembala an entrepreneur. He drew up the business case for H.E.R.O., gave pitches and presentations, raised $2.5 million in five years, and mingled with big money, big ideas and big shots. He learned how it felt on the thin ice of a new venture, where invention is a necessity.

Ryan Gembala
Just out of college, Gembala co-founded H.E.R.O. for Children to provide unforgettable experiences and life skills for kids affected by HIV/AIDS.

Importantly, he learned how to create something from nothing, how to build a thing enduring and of great value. He learned how to change the world – at least a part of it with sick children.

From those UGA days, Gembala realized he could be good – he just might be very good – in the world of startups and ventures.

––––––––––

After H.E.R.O., Gembala knew he wanted to make his mark in venture capital. He’d run a successful startup. He’d rounded first. He now needed to touch all the other bases.

“I learned that investment was central to getting anything done,” he says. “I wanted to know that side of things.”

Gembala enrolled at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. On his way to his MBA, he led a team of students in the prestigious Global Venture Capital Investment Competition evaluating – guess what? – entrepreneurial business ventures. Gembala and his team proved the best of the best. He claimed another important credential.

In 2009, still in business school, he talked his way into an apprenticeship with Azure Capital Partners, an early-stage venture firm in San Francisco with $750 million under management. The company had never had an intern; Gembala effectively created his position.

Also while in business school, Gembala landed a lead associate position with the prestigious Hyde Park Angels, a top-five seed and early-stage angel network. He sourced and evaluated 75 deals in consumer, digital media, mobile, and e-commerce spaces.

In 2010, MBA in hand, the young man went west.

Azure Capital, where he interned a year earlier, hired Gembala full time to handle assignments for its portfolio of companies, including one at Telly, a social video network with 11 million users. Gembala managed corporate development, technology partnerships and content partnerships with celebrities and brands. He also assessed, operated, invested in or worked with several startups that were eventually acquired: TripIt (acquired by Concur for $120 million); Cooking.com (acquired by Target); and Get Satisfaction (bought by Sprinklr).

Gembala had now reached second base. He’d proven his skills as a startup entrepreneur. His deals got him the right kind of attention, plus a growing network of insightful contacts and trusted advisors. But Gembala felt that to round out his venture capitalist credentials, he needed real-world experience at a big corporation – one that eagerly acquired startups.

Again, he swung for the fences … and Facebook became his friend.

In March 2014, Gembala walked into new work at Facebook, one of only four people charged with sizing up potential companies for the $350 billion social media titan to acquire. In fact, Facebook brought Gembala in as deal lead on its corporate development team. He worked with product and engineering teams to “landscape technology ecosystems and execute acquisitions,” as he puts it. He focused on startups in security, language technologies, product and design … and virtual reality.

Three weeks into his new job, with Alyson very pregnant, Gembala got a call.

That big deal is a go. Plan to stay in the office until it’s done.

Four days and four nights, Gembala lived at Facebook headquarters. He cat-napped on sofas. He ate standing. He negotiated. He worked beside lawyers red-lining contracts. At the end of the day – well, four days – he’d helped hammer out the historic acquisition of a virtual reality company with transformational technology.

Facebook’s $2 billion Oculus VR purchase gobsmacked the high-tech world. Few beyond Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his M&A team ever saw it coming.

Suddenly virtual reality was no longer just a magical toy. The Oculus deal woke the world to an un-virtual reality. Facebook meant to create an entirely new platform for its future based on virtual reality.

Ryan Gembala
Gembala watches a demo of the new Oculus Rift VR headset at the Upload Collective, San Francisco’s virtual reality incubator. He helped Facebook acquire Oculus VR in 2014.

His role in the deal gave Gembala instant credibility. Every entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and anywhere else dreams of an Oculus moment.

“What I learned at Facebook,” he says, “completed the picture for me. You hope to one day build a company so uniquely valuable that you sell it or go public.”

Gembala’s carpe diem moment had come.

Just 15 months into his employment at Facebook, he contacted a few friends flush from their own acquisition moments … or just flush, period. Businesspeople back in Georgia. Booth buddies. Entrepreneurs with cashed-out companies. Liquid, lean and hungry.

Gembala outlined his vision for Pathbreaker. He shook a few hands. He got commitments of $12.9 million for Fund One.

He hung out his shingle.

He touched home plate.

––––––––––

Gembala keeps it simple, or as simple as things can be in a world where most every meeting comes around to talk of seed funds and runways-to-launch and Series A rounds.

He created five tenets for Fund One.

Take early ownership in transformational technologies. “The best deals can come to fruition at smaller investment amounts,” Gembala says.

Skeptical? Get out your calculator. Crunch the return on a $150,000 investment in Facebook in 2004.

You could travel... In your own airplane.    

Use top-tier sourcing in the early life of a startup. Networks. Networks. Networks. Gembala draws on the skills of more than 200 engineers and more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, executives and CEOs to assess the needs – and steer the courses – of promising startups. 

Make targeted selections. Gembala spends months analyzing talent, technology and traction at a startup before committing to it. He constantly attends events where a dozen entrepreneurs pitch their darlings. He only invests in “five or eight companies in a whole year.”

Capitalize on location. “There’s no place on earth like Silicon Valley and San Francisco for early access to startups and information,” Gembala says, stating the very obvious.

Find the right advisors. He cultivated his knowledge network of sources and advisors from Terry to today. Gembala tirelessly circulates among PhD types, entrepreneurs who hit the jackpot with their startups, computer scientists, top tech executives, other investors – anyone who might shed light on a new startup, its talent, its potential.

Hewing to this five-point “thesis” has made Gembala a trusted deal-maker. But colleagues talk, too, about his intangibles.

One Pathbreaker investor, Chad Greene, is director of technical security at Facebook. He worked with Gembala examining security firms Facebook might acquire. Ryan impressed him.

“He has experience in every portion of the deal life-cycle,” says Greene. “That gives him credibility. And he just has an incredible personal network of early and startup pioneers.”

David Lieb, product lead at Google Photos and another investor, knew Gembala from Booth MBA days. “Ryan stood out,” Lieb says. “He was always reaching out and trying to make connections in a really genuine way.

“He’s a guy with a whole lot of hustle. If Ryan sees a company that he’s really interested in, he’ll do a lot of research, connect to experts and become an expert too. He’s also a personable guy, and it allows him to connect with anybody he needs to do business with.”

Trust matters in Silicon Valley – trust in advisors, in sources, tips and expertise and confidences. Investors trust Gembala. So do the founders of companies where he puts Pathbreaker money, like Brad Bogolea, one of Tally’s inventors and founder of Simbe Robotics.

“Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, Ryan’s added more value than any of our other investors,” Bogolea says. “He really shows his commitment to our company.

“Personally, I view him as one of my primary trusted advisors. I can bring Ryan a question on anything in our company, whether it’s HR, feedback on investors, a person we might hire, questions about a contract. Ryan resonates so deeply with us because of his personality, his method of always providing thoughtful advice. I contrast that with the Monday-morning quarterbacks who more or less spend their whole lives being on their soapboxes and not really trying to understand our business.

“Ryan stays close to the business,” concludes Bogolea. “When I need a trusted advisor, he can speak our language.”

Ryan Gembala
Gembala pounds the pavement all over the Bay Area, seeking out those in the know who might shed light on a new startup, its talent and its potential.

Gembala is good with language. Still, he has some work to do to speak Tally’s. The retail robot just quietly hums right now.

If the Simbe Robotics investment lives up to its full potential, Tally will have quite a story to tell. Then who’s to say some other Pathbreaker investment – artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud technology, who knows? – won’t give the little robot voice?

Anything’s possible. Really.

Tally quietly cruises the supermarket, checking shelves.

The unassuming robot’s electronic eye scans soup cans, candies, cosmetics. Tally takes note of missing inventory, misplaced products and mistaken price tags. Electronic reports stream to store managers.

Thanks to Tally, store employees may soon be free to do more valuable work.

“What currently takes employees 30 hours to sporadically achieve with 65 percent accuracy, Tally completes in 30 minutes with 96 percent accuracy,” says Ryan Gembala (BBA ’03), founder of San Francisco-based venture capital firm Pathbreaker Ventures.

Gembala’s firm made an early investment in Tally’s San Francisco startup, Simbe Robotics (short for “simulated being”). And Tally does much more than take stock of stock. The robot streams a gold mine of data, complex analytics that store managers can use to gauge how much customers love the new Colombian blend on aisle 7 … or how little they notice the ramen noodles on 9.

Gembala has carefully curated nine investments of $150,000 to $300,000 since launching Pathbreaker in August 2015, each seeding a startup like Simbe. (At maturity, Gembala’s Fund One will have 30 to 40 companies in its portfolio.) He’s playing a hunch that Tally becomes a familiar presence in retail stores, and Pathbreaker investors have put cold hard cash on a wild idea – that retail robotics will potentially transform business in the entire big-box retail landscape.

Ryan Gembala
Pathbreaker made an early investment in Simbe Robotics, who designed Tally, shown here. (from left) Co-founders Jeff Gee and Brad Bogolea consider Gembala to be not only an investor but also a trusted advisor.

As with Tally, Gembala selectively targets technologies like robotics that just might change the world. He’s invested in virtual reality; automated robotic greenhouses that grow sustainable produce; artificial intelligence; video infrastructure to serve a television industry rapidly moving online; people-routing technology to choreograph mobile workforces and self-driving fleets; and language-processing technology that may reinvent email.

“We’re in a unique time in the history of the world,” Gembala says. “In our lifetimes, we’ve seen a handful of technology platforms change things: The personal computer. The internet. The mobile phone, then the smartphone. All this innovation has created a foundation for at least a half-dozen new technologies that now have the potential to be equally transformative.

––––––––––

San Francisco started, famously, in a gold rush.

“Quite literally, pathbreakers from all over the globe came here to forge through the forests looking for gold,” Gembala says. “It’s still a place where that’s happening, but instead of picks and shovels, people bring modern tools.”

Computer code. Gadgets. Ideas. Capital. In 2015, San Francisco and Silicon Valley received $27 billion in venture capital investment, just under half of the $58 billion total for the entire United States. Much of that money poured into new companies with hot ideas, the Next Big Things. High-tech startups like those Gembala targets make up 80 percent of venture capital-backed acquisitions by larger companies since 2009. High-tech companies sit on $440 billion in spare cash to spend on the right idea, product or team.

The Silicon Rush started back in the 1950s in the garage of the founders of Hewlett-Packard and in the labs of William Shockley. The latter, co-inventor of the transistor and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956, set out to commercialize the silicon semiconductor. Today next-gen developers spin off thousands of startup firms like electrical sparks, and those sparks ignite fantastic opportunities for Pathbreaker and other VCs.

But just like the gold claims of 1849, ventures in Silicon Valley can go boom or bust. Cupertino and Palo Alto lie littered with failed startups. Garages and basements filled with robots that couldn’t read a bar code or virtual reality headsets that caused cluster headaches. 

Ryan Gembala
Ryan with Alyson and son Theodore.

Gembala works out of an upstairs office on Kearny Street smack in the motherboard of San Francisco’s financial district. Like most venture capitalists, he spends a lot of his time prowling Silicon Valley across the bay. Gembala and his beautiful wife, Alyson (AB ’08), and their bounding 2-year-old, Theodore, live in one of San Francisco’s nicest neighborhoods. They have a car. They know Napa and the cheese country up in Marin. Gembala’s living the dream.

This didn’t happen by chance.

As fastidiously as an engineer writing algorithms for Watson, Ryan Gembala set out in his late-20s to become a venture capitalist with his own firm. He planned his work; he worked his plan. He never wasted a step.

The Terry College of Business was a launching pad for his high-arcing, high-tech career.

––––––––––

Gembala was born into a middle-class family in Michigan City, Ind. He grew up in Florida sunshine from age 4 to 9, then Atlanta through St. Pius High School.

He loved baseball. At age 7, he ran the bases with a pet Sheltie named Shortstop. He studied piano 14 years, scaling Mt. Rachmaninoff. He fell in love with foreign languages, their value made real to him at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He learned Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He traveled abroad while still in high school, buying his first international airline ticket with First Communion and good-report-card money he’d scrimped and saved for years.

“That experience changed my life,” Gembala says. “It gave me such a great sense of accomplishment. I gave advice to friends. You gotta go see what’s over there.”

The European trip simply may have shown Gembala who he really was. As a youngster, he sat with his mom, who spun a globe and asked, Where do you want to go? Little Ryan’s finger landed on places that fired his imagination.

“My parents truly gave me the idea that anything is possible,” Gembala says. “They encouraged every interest I ever had.”

If anything was possible, that meant anything was interesting.

“Ryan was just into everything,” his dad, Mike, laughs. “He was super inquisitive, energetic, curious about the whole world, and he never met a stranger.”

At age 4, Ryan learned a crucial lesson from his dad. An opportunity came for Mr. Gembala to take a position selling air compressors and pumps for his company … in Tampa. With close local bonds to family, Mike had passed on previous offers in Chicago, Dallas and Charlotte.

The Tampa offer was different. Ryan’s dad made a command decision.

“It’s a big world out there, and our children are going to see it,” Mike said. “We can’t live on Buffalo Street forever.’’ 

The Gembalas moved south.

“Ryan saw that there are times in your life when you simply have to make important decisions for family and future,” Mike says. “If you let them pass, you might regret it the rest of your life.”

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

The lesson must have stuck. Ryan Gembala lives just this side of a full sprint. You see his sense of controlled urgency from the moment he runs Theodore to preschool – literally runs, pushing a stroller with a delighted tot inside – to the midnights he spends poring over term sheets and business plans.

Something happened internally during Gembala’s many international adventures, including one long stretch interning at a Spanish bank.

He found himself beginning to think outside the boxes – outside his own language, outside his own country and its history … outside, really, any doubts about himself, about designing and living exactly the life he wanted.

In 1999, he enrolled at Terry.

Just as foreign languages fired his mind in high school, classroom experiences gave him a thrilling first taste of entrepreneurial risk-taking. One professor, Melenie Lankau (now at Wake Forest), directed Gembala’s Honors management course. 

“Dr. Lankau taught the Expectancy Theory of Motivation,” he says. “That made a big impact on me. It helped inform how I would market the opportunity to build organizations.”

––––––––––

After graduating summa cum laude from Terry, Gembala surprised classmates (and his family) by announcing that he wouldn’t be heading off to Wall Street or settling into an executive-track job in Atlanta.

Instead, he and fellow Terry grad, Garrett Gravesen (BBA ’03), created a nonprofit, H.E.R.O. for Children, focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS support in Georgia. [Previously featured in Terry Magazine, Fall 2007.] H.E.R.O. for Children recently celebrated 13 years of support for thousands of infected and affected children in five southern states. Gembala remains on the board.

The H.E.R.O. experience made Gembala an entrepreneur. He drew up the business case for H.E.R.O., gave pitches and presentations, raised $2.5 million in five years, and mingled with big money, big ideas and big shots. He learned how it felt on the thin ice of a new venture, where invention is a necessity.

Ryan Gembala
Just out of college, Gembala co-founded H.E.R.O. for Children to provide unforgettable experiences and life skills for kids affected by HIV/AIDS.

Importantly, he learned how to create something from nothing, how to build a thing enduring and of great value. He learned how to change the world – at least a part of it with sick children.

From those UGA days, Gembala realized he could be good – he just might be very good – in the world of startups and ventures.

––––––––––

After H.E.R.O., Gembala knew he wanted to make his mark in venture capital. He’d run a successful startup. He’d rounded first. He now needed to touch all the other bases.

“I learned that investment was central to getting anything done,” he says. “I wanted to know that side of things.”

Gembala enrolled at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. On his way to his MBA, he led a team of students in the prestigious Global Venture Capital Investment Competition evaluating – guess what? – entrepreneurial business ventures. Gembala and his team proved the best of the best. He claimed another important credential.

In 2009, still in business school, he talked his way into an apprenticeship with Azure Capital Partners, an early-stage venture firm in San Francisco with $750 million under management. The company had never had an intern; Gembala effectively created his position.

Also while in business school, Gembala landed a lead associate position with the prestigious Hyde Park Angels, a top-five seed and early-stage angel network. He sourced and evaluated 75 deals in consumer, digital media, mobile, and e-commerce spaces.

In 2010, MBA in hand, the young man went west.

Azure Capital, where he interned a year earlier, hired Gembala full time to handle assignments for its portfolio of companies, including one at Telly, a social video network with 11 million users. Gembala managed corporate development, technology partnerships and content partnerships with celebrities and brands. He also assessed, operated, invested in or worked with several startups that were eventually acquired: TripIt (acquired by Concur for $120 million); Cooking.com (acquired by Target); and Get Satisfaction (bought by Sprinklr).

Gembala had now reached second base. He’d proven his skills as a startup entrepreneur. His deals got him the right kind of attention, plus a growing network of insightful contacts and trusted advisors. But Gembala felt that to round out his venture capitalist credentials, he needed real-world experience at a big corporation – one that eagerly acquired startups.

Again, he swung for the fences … and Facebook became his friend.

In March 2014, Gembala walked into new work at Facebook, one of only four people charged with sizing up potential companies for the $350 billion social media titan to acquire. In fact, Facebook brought Gembala in as deal lead on its corporate development team. He worked with product and engineering teams to “landscape technology ecosystems and execute acquisitions,” as he puts it. He focused on startups in security, language technologies, product and design … and virtual reality.

Three weeks into his new job, with Alyson very pregnant, Gembala got a call.

That big deal is a go. Plan to stay in the office until it’s done.

Four days and four nights, Gembala lived at Facebook headquarters. He cat-napped on sofas. He ate standing. He negotiated. He worked beside lawyers red-lining contracts. At the end of the day – well, four days – he’d helped hammer out the historic acquisition of a virtual reality company with transformational technology.

Facebook’s $2 billion Oculus VR purchase gobsmacked the high-tech world. Few beyond Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his M&A team ever saw it coming.

Suddenly virtual reality was no longer just a magical toy. The Oculus deal woke the world to an un-virtual reality. Facebook meant to create an entirely new platform for its future based on virtual reality.

Ryan Gembala
Gembala watches a demo of the new Oculus Rift VR headset at the Upload Collective, San Francisco’s virtual reality incubator. He helped Facebook acquire Oculus VR in 2014.

His role in the deal gave Gembala instant credibility. Every entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and anywhere else dreams of an Oculus moment.

“What I learned at Facebook,” he says, “completed the picture for me. You hope to one day build a company so uniquely valuable that you sell it or go public.”

Gembala’s carpe diem moment had come.

Just 15 months into his employment at Facebook, he contacted a few friends flush from their own acquisition moments … or just flush, period. Businesspeople back in Georgia. Booth buddies. Entrepreneurs with cashed-out companies. Liquid, lean and hungry.

Gembala outlined his vision for Pathbreaker. He shook a few hands. He got commitments of $12.9 million for Fund One.

He hung out his shingle.

He touched home plate.

––––––––––

Gembala keeps it simple, or as simple as things can be in a world where most every meeting comes around to talk of seed funds and runways-to-launch and Series A rounds.

He created five tenets for Fund One.

Take early ownership in transformational technologies. “The best deals can come to fruition at smaller investment amounts,” Gembala says.

Skeptical? Get out your calculator. Crunch the return on a $150,000 investment in Facebook in 2004.

You could travel... In your own airplane.    

Use top-tier sourcing in the early life of a startup. Networks. Networks. Networks. Gembala draws on the skills of more than 200 engineers and more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, executives and CEOs to assess the needs – and steer the courses – of promising startups. 

Make targeted selections. Gembala spends months analyzing talent, technology and traction at a startup before committing to it. He constantly attends events where a dozen entrepreneurs pitch their darlings. He only invests in “five or eight companies in a whole year.”

Capitalize on location. “There’s no place on earth like Silicon Valley and San Francisco for early access to startups and information,” Gembala says, stating the very obvious.

Find the right advisors. He cultivated his knowledge network of sources and advisors from Terry to today. Gembala tirelessly circulates among PhD types, entrepreneurs who hit the jackpot with their startups, computer scientists, top tech executives, other investors – anyone who might shed light on a new startup, its talent, its potential.

Hewing to this five-point “thesis” has made Gembala a trusted deal-maker. But colleagues talk, too, about his intangibles.

One Pathbreaker investor, Chad Greene, is director of technical security at Facebook. He worked with Gembala examining security firms Facebook might acquire. Ryan impressed him.

“He has experience in every portion of the deal life-cycle,” says Greene. “That gives him credibility. And he just has an incredible personal network of early and startup pioneers.”

David Lieb, product lead at Google Photos and another investor, knew Gembala from Booth MBA days. “Ryan stood out,” Lieb says. “He was always reaching out and trying to make connections in a really genuine way.

“He’s a guy with a whole lot of hustle. If Ryan sees a company that he’s really interested in, he’ll do a lot of research, connect to experts and become an expert too. He’s also a personable guy, and it allows him to connect with anybody he needs to do business with.”

Trust matters in Silicon Valley – trust in advisors, in sources, tips and expertise and confidences. Investors trust Gembala. So do the founders of companies where he puts Pathbreaker money, like Brad Bogolea, one of Tally’s inventors and founder of Simbe Robotics.

“Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, Ryan’s added more value than any of our other investors,” Bogolea says. “He really shows his commitment to our company.

“Personally, I view him as one of my primary trusted advisors. I can bring Ryan a question on anything in our company, whether it’s HR, feedback on investors, a person we might hire, questions about a contract. Ryan resonates so deeply with us because of his personality, his method of always providing thoughtful advice. I contrast that with the Monday-morning quarterbacks who more or less spend their whole lives being on their soapboxes and not really trying to understand our business.

“Ryan stays close to the business,” concludes Bogolea. “When I need a trusted advisor, he can speak our language.”

Ryan Gembala
Gembala pounds the pavement all over the Bay Area, seeking out those in the know who might shed light on a new startup, its talent and its potential.

Gembala is good with language. Still, he has some work to do to speak Tally’s. The retail robot just quietly hums right now.

If the Simbe Robotics investment lives up to its full potential, Tally will have quite a story to tell. Then who’s to say some other Pathbreaker investment – artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud technology, who knows? – won’t give the little robot voice?

Anything’s possible. Really.

 

Tally quietly cruises the supermarket, checking shelves.

The unassuming robot’s electronic eye scans soup cans, candies, cosmetics. Tally takes note of missing inventory, misplaced products and mistaken price tags. Electronic reports stream to store managers.

Thanks to Tally, store employees may soon be free to do more valuable work.

“What currently takes employees 30 hours to sporadically achieve with 65 percent accuracy, Tally completes in 30 minutes with 96 percent accuracy,” says Ryan Gembala (BBA ’03), founder of San Francisco-based venture capital firm Pathbreaker Ventures.

Gembala’s firm made an early investment in Tally’s San Francisco startup, Simbe Robotics (short for “simulated being”). And Tally does much more than take stock of stock. The robot streams a gold mine of data, complex analytics that store managers can use to gauge how much customers love the new Colombian blend on aisle 7 … or how little they notice the ramen noodles on 9.

Gembala has carefully curated nine investments of $150,000 to $300,000 since launching Pathbreaker in August 2015, each seeding a startup like Simbe. (At maturity, Gembala’s Fund One will have 30 to 40 companies in its portfolio.) He’s playing a hunch that Tally becomes a familiar presence in retail stores, and Pathbreaker investors have put cold hard cash on a wild idea – that retail robotics will potentially transform business in the entire big-box retail landscape.

Ryan Gembala
Pathbreaker made an early investment in Simbe Robotics, who designed Tally, shown here. (from left) Co-founders Jeff Gee and Brad Bogolea consider Gembala to be not only an investor but also a trusted advisor.

As with Tally, Gembala selectively targets technologies like robotics that just might change the world. He’s invested in virtual reality; automated robotic greenhouses that grow sustainable produce; artificial intelligence; video infrastructure to serve a television industry rapidly moving online; people-routing technology to choreograph mobile workforces and self-driving fleets; and language-processing technology that may reinvent email.

“We’re in a unique time in the history of the world,” Gembala says. “In our lifetimes, we’ve seen a handful of technology platforms change things: The personal computer. The internet. The mobile phone, then the smartphone. All this innovation has created a foundation for at least a half-dozen new technologies that now have the potential to be equally transformative.

––––––––––

San Francisco started, famously, in a gold rush.

“Quite literally, pathbreakers from all over the globe came here to forge through the forests looking for gold,” Gembala says. “It’s still a place where that’s happening, but instead of picks and shovels, people bring modern tools.”

Computer code. Gadgets. Ideas. Capital. In 2015, San Francisco and Silicon Valley received $27 billion in venture capital investment, just under half of the $58 billion total for the entire United States. Much of that money poured into new companies with hot ideas, the Next Big Things. High-tech startups like those Gembala targets make up 80 percent of venture capital-backed acquisitions by larger companies since 2009. High-tech companies sit on $440 billion in spare cash to spend on the right idea, product or team.

The Silicon Rush started back in the 1950s in the garage of the founders of Hewlett-Packard and in the labs of William Shockley. The latter, co-inventor of the transistor and the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1956, set out to commercialize the silicon semiconductor. Today next-gen developers spin off thousands of startup firms like electrical sparks, and those sparks ignite fantastic opportunities for Pathbreaker and other VCs.

But just like the gold claims of 1849, ventures in Silicon Valley can go boom or bust. Cupertino and Palo Alto lie littered with failed startups. Garages and basements filled with robots that couldn’t read a bar code or virtual reality headsets that caused cluster headaches. 

Ryan Gembala
Ryan with Alyson and son Theodore.

Gembala works out of an upstairs office on Kearny Street smack in the motherboard of San Francisco’s financial district. Like most venture capitalists, he spends a lot of his time prowling Silicon Valley across the bay. Gembala and his beautiful wife, Alyson (AB ’08), and their bounding 2-year-old, Theodore, live in one of San Francisco’s nicest neighborhoods. They have a car. They know Napa and the cheese country up in Marin. Gembala’s living the dream.

This didn’t happen by chance.

As fastidiously as an engineer writing algorithms for Watson, Ryan Gembala set out in his late-20s to become a venture capitalist with his own firm. He planned his work; he worked his plan. He never wasted a step.

The Terry College of Business was a launching pad for his high-arcing, high-tech career.

––––––––––

Gembala was born into a middle-class family in Michigan City, Ind. He grew up in Florida sunshine from age 4 to 9, then Atlanta through St. Pius High School.

He loved baseball. At age 7, he ran the bases with a pet Sheltie named Shortstop. He studied piano 14 years, scaling Mt. Rachmaninoff. He fell in love with foreign languages, their value made real to him at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. He learned Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. He traveled abroad while still in high school, buying his first international airline ticket with First Communion and good-report-card money he’d scrimped and saved for years.

“That experience changed my life,” Gembala says. “It gave me such a great sense of accomplishment. I gave advice to friends. You gotta go see what’s over there.”

The European trip simply may have shown Gembala who he really was. As a youngster, he sat with his mom, who spun a globe and asked, Where do you want to go? Little Ryan’s finger landed on places that fired his imagination.

“My parents truly gave me the idea that anything is possible,” Gembala says. “They encouraged every interest I ever had.”

If anything was possible, that meant anything was interesting.

“Ryan was just into everything,” his dad, Mike, laughs. “He was super inquisitive, energetic, curious about the whole world, and he never met a stranger.”

At age 4, Ryan learned a crucial lesson from his dad. An opportunity came for Mr. Gembala to take a position selling air compressors and pumps for his company … in Tampa. With close local bonds to family, Mike had passed on previous offers in Chicago, Dallas and Charlotte.

The Tampa offer was different. Ryan’s dad made a command decision.

“It’s a big world out there, and our children are going to see it,” Mike said. “We can’t live on Buffalo Street forever.’’ 

The Gembalas moved south.

“Ryan saw that there are times in your life when you simply have to make important decisions for family and future,” Mike says. “If you let them pass, you might regret it the rest of your life.”

Carpe diem. Seize the day.

The lesson must have stuck. Ryan Gembala lives just this side of a full sprint. You see his sense of controlled urgency from the moment he runs Theodore to preschool – literally runs, pushing a stroller with a delighted tot inside – to the midnights he spends poring over term sheets and business plans.

Something happened internally during Gembala’s many international adventures, including one long stretch interning at a Spanish bank.

He found himself beginning to think outside the boxes – outside his own language, outside his own country and its history … outside, really, any doubts about himself, about designing and living exactly the life he wanted.

In 1999, he enrolled at Terry.

Just as foreign languages fired his mind in high school, classroom experiences gave him a thrilling first taste of entrepreneurial risk-taking. One professor, Melenie Lankau (now at Wake Forest), directed Gembala’s Honors management course. 

“Dr. Lankau taught the Expectancy Theory of Motivation,” he says. “That made a big impact on me. It helped inform how I would market the opportunity to build organizations.”

––––––––––

After graduating summa cum laude from Terry, Gembala surprised classmates (and his family) by announcing that he wouldn’t be heading off to Wall Street or settling into an executive-track job in Atlanta.

Instead, he and fellow Terry grad, Garrett Gravesen (BBA ’03), created a nonprofit, H.E.R.O. for Children, focused on pediatric HIV/AIDS support in Georgia. [Previously featured in Terry Magazine, Fall 2007.] H.E.R.O. for Children recently celebrated 13 years of support for thousands of infected and affected children in five southern states. Gembala remains on the board.

The H.E.R.O. experience made Gembala an entrepreneur. He drew up the business case for H.E.R.O., gave pitches and presentations, raised $2.5 million in five years, and mingled with big money, big ideas and big shots. He learned how it felt on the thin ice of a new venture, where invention is a necessity.

Ryan Gembala
Just out of college, Gembala co-founded H.E.R.O. for Children to provide unforgettable experiences and life skills for kids affected by HIV/AIDS.

Importantly, he learned how to create something from nothing, how to build a thing enduring and of great value. He learned how to change the world – at least a part of it with sick children.

From those UGA days, Gembala realized he could be good – he just might be very good – in the world of startups and ventures.

––––––––––

After H.E.R.O., Gembala knew he wanted to make his mark in venture capital. He’d run a successful startup. He’d rounded first. He now needed to touch all the other bases.

“I learned that investment was central to getting anything done,” he says. “I wanted to know that side of things.”

Gembala enrolled at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business. On his way to his MBA, he led a team of students in the prestigious Global Venture Capital Investment Competition evaluating – guess what? – entrepreneurial business ventures. Gembala and his team proved the best of the best. He claimed another important credential.

In 2009, still in business school, he talked his way into an apprenticeship with Azure Capital Partners, an early-stage venture firm in San Francisco with $750 million under management. The company had never had an intern; Gembala effectively created his position.

Also while in business school, Gembala landed a lead associate position with the prestigious Hyde Park Angels, a top-five seed and early-stage angel network. He sourced and evaluated 75 deals in consumer, digital media, mobile, and e-commerce spaces.

In 2010, MBA in hand, the young man went west.

Azure Capital, where he interned a year earlier, hired Gembala full time to handle assignments for its portfolio of companies, including one at Telly, a social video network with 11 million users. Gembala managed corporate development, technology partnerships and content partnerships with celebrities and brands. He also assessed, operated, invested in or worked with several startups that were eventually acquired: TripIt (acquired by Concur for $120 million); Cooking.com (acquired by Target); and Get Satisfaction (bought by Sprinklr).

Gembala had now reached second base. He’d proven his skills as a startup entrepreneur. His deals got him the right kind of attention, plus a growing network of insightful contacts and trusted advisors. But Gembala felt that to round out his venture capitalist credentials, he needed real-world experience at a big corporation – one that eagerly acquired startups.

Again, he swung for the fences … and Facebook became his friend.

In March 2014, Gembala walked into new work at Facebook, one of only four people charged with sizing up potential companies for the $350 billion social media titan to acquire. In fact, Facebook brought Gembala in as deal lead on its corporate development team. He worked with product and engineering teams to “landscape technology ecosystems and execute acquisitions,” as he puts it. He focused on startups in security, language technologies, product and design … and virtual reality.

Three weeks into his new job, with Alyson very pregnant, Gembala got a call.

That big deal is a go. Plan to stay in the office until it’s done.

Four days and four nights, Gembala lived at Facebook headquarters. He cat-napped on sofas. He ate standing. He negotiated. He worked beside lawyers red-lining contracts. At the end of the day – well, four days – he’d helped hammer out the historic acquisition of a virtual reality company with transformational technology.

Facebook’s $2 billion Oculus VR purchase gobsmacked the high-tech world. Few beyond Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his M&A team ever saw it coming.

Suddenly virtual reality was no longer just a magical toy. The Oculus deal woke the world to an un-virtual reality. Facebook meant to create an entirely new platform for its future based on virtual reality.

Ryan Gembala
Gembala watches a demo of the new Oculus Rift VR headset at the Upload Collective, San Francisco’s virtual reality incubator. He helped Facebook acquire Oculus VR in 2014.

His role in the deal gave Gembala instant credibility. Every entrepreneur in Silicon Valley and anywhere else dreams of an Oculus moment.

“What I learned at Facebook,” he says, “completed the picture for me. You hope to one day build a company so uniquely valuable that you sell it or go public.”

Gembala’s carpe diem moment had come.

Just 15 months into his employment at Facebook, he contacted a few friends flush from their own acquisition moments … or just flush, period. Businesspeople back in Georgia. Booth buddies. Entrepreneurs with cashed-out companies. Liquid, lean and hungry.

Gembala outlined his vision for Pathbreaker. He shook a few hands. He got commitments of $12.9 million for Fund One.

He hung out his shingle.

He touched home plate.

––––––––––

Gembala keeps it simple, or as simple as things can be in a world where most every meeting comes around to talk of seed funds and runways-to-launch and Series A rounds.

He created five tenets for Fund One.

Take early ownership in transformational technologies. “The best deals can come to fruition at smaller investment amounts,” Gembala says.

Skeptical? Get out your calculator. Crunch the return on a $150,000 investment in Facebook in 2004.

You could travel... In your own airplane.    

Use top-tier sourcing in the early life of a startup. Networks. Networks. Networks. Gembala draws on the skills of more than 200 engineers and more than 1,000 entrepreneurs, executives and CEOs to assess the needs – and steer the courses – of promising startups. 

Make targeted selections. Gembala spends months analyzing talent, technology and traction at a startup before committing to it. He constantly attends events where a dozen entrepreneurs pitch their darlings. He only invests in “five or eight companies in a whole year.”

Capitalize on location. “There’s no place on earth like Silicon Valley and San Francisco for early access to startups and information,” Gembala says, stating the very obvious.

Find the right advisors. He cultivated his knowledge network of sources and advisors from Terry to today. Gembala tirelessly circulates among PhD types, entrepreneurs who hit the jackpot with their startups, computer scientists, top tech executives, other investors – anyone who might shed light on a new startup, its talent, its potential.

Hewing to this five-point “thesis” has made Gembala a trusted deal-maker. But colleagues talk, too, about his intangibles.

One Pathbreaker investor, Chad Greene, is director of technical security at Facebook. He worked with Gembala examining security firms Facebook might acquire. Ryan impressed him.

“He has experience in every portion of the deal life-cycle,” says Greene. “That gives him credibility. And he just has an incredible personal network of early and startup pioneers.”

David Lieb, product lead at Google Photos and another investor, knew Gembala from Booth MBA days. “Ryan stood out,” Lieb says. “He was always reaching out and trying to make connections in a really genuine way.

“He’s a guy with a whole lot of hustle. If Ryan sees a company that he’s really interested in, he’ll do a lot of research, connect to experts and become an expert too. He’s also a personable guy, and it allows him to connect with anybody he needs to do business with.”

Trust matters in Silicon Valley – trust in advisors, in sources, tips and expertise and confidences. Investors trust Gembala. So do the founders of companies where he puts Pathbreaker money, like Brad Bogolea, one of Tally’s inventors and founder of Simbe Robotics.

“Pound for pound and dollar for dollar, Ryan’s added more value than any of our other investors,” Bogolea says. “He really shows his commitment to our company.

“Personally, I view him as one of my primary trusted advisors. I can bring Ryan a question on anything in our company, whether it’s HR, feedback on investors, a person we might hire, questions about a contract. Ryan resonates so deeply with us because of his personality, his method of always providing thoughtful advice. I contrast that with the Monday-morning quarterbacks who more or less spend their whole lives being on their soapboxes and not really trying to understand our business.

“Ryan stays close to the business,” concludes Bogolea. “When I need a trusted advisor, he can speak our language.”

Ryan Gembala
Gembala pounds the pavement all over the Bay Area, seeking out those in the know who might shed light on a new startup, its talent and its potential.

Gembala is good with language. Still, he has some work to do to speak Tally’s. The retail robot just quietly hums right now.

If the Simbe Robotics investment lives up to its full potential, Tally will have quite a story to tell. Then who’s to say some other Pathbreaker investment – artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud technology, who knows? – won’t give the little robot voice?

Anything’s possible. Really.

Tally quietly cruises the supermarket, checking shelves.

The unassuming robot’s electronic eye scans soup cans, candies, cosmetics. Tally takes note of missing inventory, misplaced products and mistaken price tags. Electronic reports stream to store managers.

Thanks to Tally, store employees may soon be free to do more valuable work.

“What currently takes employees 30 hours to sporadically achieve with 65 percent accuracy, Tally completes in 30 minutes with 96 percent accuracy,” says Ryan Gembala (BBA ’03), founder of San Francisco-based venture capital firm Pathbreaker Ventures.

Gembala’s firm made an early investment in Tally’s San Francisco startup, Simbe Robotics (short for “simulated being”). And Tally does much more than take stock of stock. The robot streams a gold mine of data, complex analytics that store managers can use to gauge how much customers love the new Colombian blend on aisle 7 … or how little they notice the ramen noodles on 9.

Gembala has carefully curated nine investments of $150,000 to $300,000 since launching Pathbreaker in August 2015, each seeding a startup like Simbe. (At maturity, Gembala’s Fund One will have 30 to 40 companies in its portfolio.) He’s playing a hunch that Tally becomes a familiar presence in retail stores, and Pathbreaker investors have put cold hard cash on a wild idea – that retail robotics will potentially transform business in the entire big-box retail landscape.

Ryan Gembala
Pathbreaker made an early investment in Simbe Robotics, who designed Tally, shown here. (from left) Co-founders Jeff Gee and Brad Bogolea consider Gembala to be not only an investor but also a trusted advisor.

As with Tally, Gembala selectively targets technologies like robotics that just might change the world. He’s invested in virtual reality; automated robotic greenhouses that grow sustainable produce; artificial intelligence; video infrastructure to serve a television industry rapidly moving online; people-routing technology to choreograph mobile workforces and self-driving fleets; and language-processing technology that may reinvent email.

“We’re in a unique time in the history of the world,” Gembala says. “In our lifetimes, we’ve seen a handful of technology platforms change things: The personal computer. The internet. The mobile phone, then the smartphone. All this innovation has created a foundation for at least a half-do