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This article was published on October 21, 2012

20 of technology’s most underrated founders

20 of technology’s most underrated founders
Mez Breeze
Story by

Mez Breeze

Mez Breeze is the Creative Director of "Mez Breeze Design" (@MezBreezeDesign), a Digital Design Agency And Consulting Group that focuses exc Mez Breeze is the Creative Director of "Mez Breeze Design" (@MezBreezeDesign), a Digital Design Agency And Consulting Group that focuses exclusively on bespoke digital product (including illustration, logo creation, design fiction, journalism, blogging, copywriting, transmedia, multimedia, graphic design, game scripting/writing and applied social media). Mez is also an internationally-renowned digital artist and electronic literature creator who is also mildly (read: madly) obsessed with all things tech. Contact:

When it comes to technology go-getters, there’s always going to be those select few that aren’t funnelled into the media mainstream and lack recognition for their efforts. Some don’t have obvious reportable charisma, others aren’t linked directly to multi-million dollar companies, and some are simply true outliers. Let’s have a quick look at some of the less-known tech founders and why they are so mistakenly underrated.

David Friedberg

David Friedberg [Image credit: FirstRound Capital]

South-African born Friedberg moved with his family to the USA when he was 6. He decided to follow in his entrepreneurial footsteps of his parents by founding a company called WeatherBill in 2006, which nowadays goes by the more media-friendly name of The Climate Corporation. Before becoming a tech founder, Friedberg studied Astrophysics at UC Berkeley and worked as a maths programmer at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He has also worked for Corporate Development at Google managing products such as AdWords, as well as working as an investment banker and in private equity.

The business of Weather Insurance is far from sexy – and although Friedberg can’t do the impossible – he’s making inroads into developing a “watertight” (I’d be groaning at that pun as well) innovative insurance company that has positive impacts in a sector that’s becoming increasing important in terms of sustainability, but has low “wow” factor in terms of marketability (which explains why Friedberg may somewhat currently overlooked).

Pamela “PJ” Jones

Jones, who previously worked as a paralegal, founded Groklaw in 2003. Groklaw was set up by Jones to track (and combat) legal issues involving matters concerning open-source software. The site operated as a resource for programmers and technology advocates, who could learn about pertinent legalities and debates regarding patents and licensing. Jones, who operated as the frontwoman for the site, famously preferred to be known by her initials only in order to keep the project’s focus centred around Groklaw’s content and issues arising from it. Her humble attitude might make her less well-known, but it’s precisely this quality that we need more of in such a heavily ego-drenched tech arena.

Justin Ashton

Justin Ashton [Image Credit: Justin Ashton, LinkedIn]

Ashton co-founded and is now vice president of business development at XL Hybrids, a company dedicated to producing hybrid electric powered vehicles primarily focused on commercial use. Ashton has completed a Master of Business from MIT Sloan as well as a obtaining bachelor degrees in Electrical Engineering and Latin American Studies while in San Diego at The University of California.

Ashton is no stranger to the tech founding business: he previously founded a startup – called NanoPur – which specialised in the development of disruptive membrane technology used in the water desalination industry. Nanopur competed as a finalist in the MIT Clean Energy Prize, which highlights Ashton’s dedication to clean energy tech (as does XL Hybrid tech taking out the 2012 Boston Business Journal’s Best Green Practices Award in the Invention Category). Ashton, like many other fledging founders, is underrated only due to timing – give his company a few more months and he may just have XL Hybrids moving to the forefront of tech pioneering circles.

Gigi B. Sohn 

Sohn has a highly praise-worthy career history, including serving as a Communications Attorney, Senior Fellow at Melbourne University’s Faculty of Law, a Project Director at the Ford Foundation, a Senior Adjunct Professor, and Executive Director of the Media Access Project (among many other positions).

Although obviously prolific, she made the time to co-found the non-profit organisation Public Knowledge back in 2001. As the Public Knowledge website says: “Public Knowledge preserves the openness of the Internet and the public’s access to knowledge; promotes creativity through balanced copyright; and upholds and protects the rights of consumers to use innovative technology lawfully.”  Thank Gods there’s a woman this smart heading up such an organization – she deserves more kudos.

Deborah Sterling

Debbie Sterling [Image credit: Debbie Sterling, Kickstarter]

Sterling completed an Engineering degree at Stanford University in 2005, specialising in Product Design. She has served as a Marketing Director and Brand Strategy Consultant for organizations such as Microsoft, Organic Valley and T-Mobile and says in her bio that her true passion is: “…inspiring the next generation of female engineers”.

Sterling founded GoldieBlox in 2012 in order to help counteract the heavily male-centric bias in the engineering and mechanics/construction industries. Sterling has attempted to tackle the problem from the ground up by targeting girls who have a healthy interest in engineering but a lack of educational resources. Sterling recently Kickstarted her project, hoping to lock in financial backing and some much needed acknowledgment: luckily, the campaign was a success, helping to push Sterling and her gender-friendly educational project towards more recognisable territory.

Ehud Shabtai

Ever heard of the driving app Waze? Probably, though you may not have heard of Ehud Shabtai (how’s that for an excellent name). As startup-urban-myth would have it, Shabtai co-founded the Israeli based Waze due to the fact he kept getting lost – that’s one of the most practical reasons out there for starting a navigation company.

Shabtai is a techie at heart, and we know techies rarely like the spotlight: in attempting to deal with his own geographically-challenged nature, he and his team elicited Waze users themselves to supply the maps and traffic information that makes up the app. Clever, huh?

Cliff Kushler

Cliff Kushler [Image Credit: Cliff Kushler, Facebook]

Kushler currently heads up Nuance Communications as Vice President of Technology Innovation. He holds a PhD in Engineering from the University of Tokyo and has has also studied Computer Science from Michigan State University. Kushler is co-founder Swype and Tegic, and has helped revolutionise the way millions of mobile users enter data.

In 1995, Tegic invented T9, a predictive text tool that acted to streamline phone keypad data entry and which Kushler asserts has been licensed on over 5 billion phones. Swype (produced in 2002) simplifies text entry via touchscreens through modifications to gestures used for letter entry.

Given his status as a relatively unfamiliar tech founder, Kushler’s substantial contribution via such indelible additions (allowing users to greatly simplify data input) seems all the more remarkable.

Cathy Edwards

Edwards co-founded Chomp, search software (complete with an “intelligent” algorithm) designed specifically to best match a user’s needs with an individual app. Chomp was acquired by Apple in February 2012, a deal rumoured to be worth $50 million to Edwards and her Chomp associates. With an extensive background in Product Management, Edwards qualifies as an entrepreneurial-savvy gal with the intellect and motivation to back it up. Keep an eye on her.

Tamar-Melissa Huggins

Tamar-Melissa Huggins [Image Credit: Tamar-Melissa Huggins, LinkedIn]Huggins is an Advertising and Communications Specialist who attained an Advanced Diploma in Creative Advertising in 2007 (Centennial College) and a Diploma of Public Relations from Humber College in 2010. Huggins has just founded her first Startup Accelerator called Driven. The Startup focuses exclusively on assisting minority founders in launching their projects. How much more worthy does a tech founder have to be than actually creating a platform via which marginalised minority groups are both prominently featured and financially supported?

Kimberly Bryant

Formerly a Projected Manager at Genentech, Bryant founded her Startup Black Girls Code after observing her daughter playing computer games. Bryant started thinking that instead of simply playing the games, it would be better if her daughter (and others like her) could actually create them.

Black Girls Code is based in San Francisco, with its primary focus falling on: “…the number of women of color in the digital space by empowering girls of color ages 7 to 17 to become innovators in STEM fields, leaders in their communities, and builders of their own futures through exposure to computer science and technology.” ‘Nuff said.

César Salazar

César Salazar [Image Credit: César Salazar,]Mexican born Salazar began his founding career at the tender age 17, starting his first company before he’d even hit his twenties. After finishing an Engineering degree, he went on to co-found Hackspedition and StartupDojo, and assisted in the initial development of SuperHappyDevHouse. What makes him eligible for inclusion in the underrated list is his latest venture,

Although Salazar and the rest of the crew resist describing their project as an incubator, they do say they: “…fund scalable Internet startups with the potential to grow quickly and sustainably. Our primary focus is on companies that are currently targeting the Mexican market with a real opportunity to expand to all of LATAM and globally. We are looking for the brightest technical founders and most devoted entrepreneurs with an itch for solid execution”.

Anyone who is dedicated to promoting quick-growing and well-managed startups deserves to be taken off the underrated list and propelled into the limelight.

Heiko Behrens

Ever wanted to continue working on a project you have broiling away on your mobile device, but need to quickly transfer it to your laptop or desktop comp? Well, Behrens is your man: his startup BeamApp does just that, though it’s still in beta phase only (sign up for access here). Behrens is a programmer with over a decade of software development behind his belt, and if can deliver a seamless way of transferring digital content like BeamApp is hyped to do, then he won’t go unrecognized for too much longer.

Phil Morle

Phil Morle [Image Credit: Phil Morle, LinkedIn] Morle, once a theatre director, web designer and Kazaa CTO (though we won’t hold that against him) is now the founder of an Australian incubator called Pollenizer. The team at Pollenizer: “…transforms ideas into global web businesses. We invest team, process and capital.” Morle co-founded the company in 2008 with Mick Liubinskas, and now operates as its co-CEO, spearheading teams across Sydney and Singapore.

Morle is a strong advocate of “startup science”, where the idea for a startup gets pushed beyond mere ideas/theory and converted into product. Morle has worked with over 200 startups and has founded approximately 20, utilizing the success and failures in each to ascertain just what makes a startup shine. It’s this dedication to distilling the essence of successful startups, rather than parading around in the media spotlight, that should push Morle straight out of any underrated category.

Eileen Gittins

In 2004 Gittins founded Blurb, a platform devoted to publishing runs of user-produced and professionally executed books through a one-book designing process. She studied English, Photography and Journalism at UC Berkely before going on to work for Kodak in an executive role and as VP at Wall Data, as well as previously running tech Startups Personify and Salsa. Gittins should be one of the world’s most recognisable tech founders, given her successful integration of old school publishing models with new school digital methods. Unfortunately, the glass ceiling again applies here: hopefully in the future Gittins will rise up through it and shrug off any underrated founder tags.

Chiaki Hayashi

Chiaki Hayashi [Image Credit: by chiaki0808, under a CC Attribution licence]Hayashi has worked as a reporter for Kyodo news, is a member of the advisory board at Creative Commons Japan, and is a certified Project Management Professional. She completed a Master of Science (Business Journalism) at Boston University. Hayashi founded Loftwork 12 years ago, in an attempt to create a ”… global open platform for creative talents”. This platform showcases a huge array of artistic talent – from illustrators to designers – and encourages creatives to locate and collaborate with each other. Hayashi’s dedication to providing a long-term niche that promotes shared creative endeavours makes her a stand-out founder.

Sandy Jen

Jen has previously worked as a Software Development at the tech firm Xilinx after attaining a Computer Science degree from Stanford University. Jen went on to co-found Meebo, a distinctive social media platform mixing socially shared material with content generation and instant messaging.

Meebo was bought up by Google in June of this year with the expectation that it would be assimilated into Google+. At Meebo’s peak, the founders state that it had excess of 250 million visitors, and Jen was instrumental in attracting this volume of traffic to the site. Combine this fact with the fact Jen was the recipient of the 2009 Tech Fellow Award, and this rates Jen as a considerable, if somewhat unobtrusive, founder of note.

Melissa Tyree

Melissa Tyree [Image credit: Melissa Tyree, LinkedIn]Tyree holds degrees in Civil Engineering and Community and Regional Planning and has an employment background in Management Consulting and Park Planning. Tyree is also the co-founder, Business Developer and Product Manager of a new startup called Itography, which she describes as a virtual collection game.

When players use Itography, they collect virtual items (such as clothing) at real-world sites via their phones, which they can then transfer to a different location and win prizes for doing so from whatever branding company  is attached to the item. A reward system is integral to the game, with leaderboards and visualisations of an item’s “journey” contributing to an overall immersive experience.

Like many everyday tasks that are becoming subject to gamification, Tyree has made a smart move by capitalising on the trend, and it is this future-forward thinking that makes her, and her startup, more than just notable.

Sara Holoubek

Holoubek studied at the University of Iowa and at HEC Paris, France. Before founding Luminary Labs, Holoubek held the position of Chief Strategy Officer at iCrossing, and as the President of SEMPO from 2009 to 2010. She’s also lucky enough to serve on the Step Up Women’s Network Board of Directors in New York, an organization which seeks to assist in: “…igniting women & girls to fulfil their potential”.  Considering only 25% of those working in computer-related industries are women, Holoubek’s contribution to righting the gender gap in tech employment seems admirable (if not crucial): however, it probably doesn’t act to push up her mainstream media exposure levels.

Rob Malda

Rob Malda [Image Credit: Rob Malda, Google+]Malda, or “CmdrTaco” – as he’s better known to Slashdot readers – is a tech founder who’s been happy to fly (and thrive) under the acknowledgment radar, to the point of operating primarily under his avatar/username for well over a decade. He co-founded Slashdot all the way back in 1997 and only recently left the company in 2011 to pursue what he terms as “real journalism” at the Washington Post.

Malda has made a considerable mark on the tech scene by starting an aggregated news site like Slashdot before it became de rigueur (think: Digg, Reddit or Hacker News), and earns a spot as a top-notch technology founder for promoting quality news items and new sources without the need for any obvious ego-stroking.

Stepan Pachikov

Pachikov founded the digital capture and storage software Evernote (based on a freemium model) in 2005, as well as co-founding companies like ParaGraph and Parascript. Many of the companies that Pachikov has been associated with – including handwriting recognition software for the Apple Newton – involve handwriting recognition and VRML tech.

In the late 90s he also established a Pen&Internet section of Silicon Graphics. Pachikov deserves more recognition due to his ambitious (not to mention intellectual) nature, which includes exploring the possibility of flawless universal translation software.

Top image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images

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