Business

Rony Abovitz of Magic Leap: Set out to change the world and have fun doing it

Rony Abovitz, CEO of the mysterious Magic Leap startup, returned to his alma mater, the University of Miami, to share some secrets of his entrepreneurial success – and just a very few snippets about the company he is currently building.

"There's a whole mystery to what Magic Leap does and I hope half the room isn't here to find that out because I am not really going to unveil it," he told the group of about 250 gathered at the UM Newman Alumni Center for the College of Engineering's Entrepreneurship Forum, part of its Engineering Week events. Instead he talked about pivotal moments in his career of starting companies, including a couple that will no doubt become part of Magic Leap lore, and what he has learned about being a leader.

Magic Leap, founded in 2011 and based in Dania Beach, is developing "Cinematic Reality" backed with an eye-popping $542 million from Google and venture capitalists. "I still go holy crap, I still can't really believe it," he said of the round, the third largest in the U.S. last year. The company is now valued at about $2 billion. 

One of the first articles that have begun to explain the technology was published this month in the MIT Technology Review. Said the writer, Rachel Metz, who tried an early prototype of the technology: "Magic Leap has a tiny projector that shines light onto a transparent lens, which deflects the light onto the retina. That pattern of light blends in so well with the light you’re receiving from the real world that to your visual cortex, artificial objects are nearly indistinguishable from actual objects." Metz said the company is aiming to fit its technology into a "glasses-like wearable device" and that, according to Abovitz, the technology "is not far away."

Abovitz also hosted an open Q&A on Reddit on Tuesday afternoon and answered dozens of questions from developers, although he talked only generally about the technology’s features and did not share specifics on its timeline to market.

The fast-growing Magic Leap is approaching "a few hundred" employees spread between Dania and Mountain View, Calif., as well as New Zealand and London, Abovitz said in a short interview before the UM talk. He said he would like to base 80 percent of the company in South Florida.

He also said in the interview he wants to help South Florida grow a technology community and would like to see UM become a Stanford of the South. Abovitz earned his engineering bachelor's and master's degrees at UM in the mid-’90s and was in one of the university's first biomedical engineering programs, which he credits with stirring his interest in developing technology for the human body. Before starting Magic Leap, Abovitz was co-founder of Mako Surgical, the South Florida medical robotics company that sold for $1.65 billion to Stryker in 2013.

Abovitz believes in the next five years augmented reality technology will become widely adopted. But what sets Magic Leap apart from its competitors is how it works with the body rather than against it, he said before the talk. "No one else is doing that.... Put the body first and engineer around it... All computing will be biomedical going forward."

In the talk at UM, Abovitz shared some career defining moments. For instance, one day after receiving good news about securing funding for the robotics company, Sept. 11, 2001 happened. Another one: Going public in 2008.

During both times, the world was ending but the team kept going, he said. In 2001, after his investors pulled out, that meant taking a van around the country, prototype robot in the back, and not coming back until the company secured funding. In 2008, Mako was known as that crazy team trying to go public during the Great Recession. These are the times you learn what you are made of, he said.

There was also the first time a Mako robot was used in a surgery on a human. "That was one of the greatest moments of my life," he said of the successful surgery in a Fort Lauderdale hospital in 2006.

There have already been a few pivotal moments in the Magic Leap story, too. Abovitz said a trip with music industry mogul Chris Blackwell to Blackwell’s GoldenEye resort in Jamaica in 2011 helped to ferment Abovitz’s idea for Magic Leap. He loved being out in the environment, not staring into the phone, and realized computing had to be more natural. “That’s where the world becomes your new desktop. … We shouldn’t bend to technology, technology should bend to us.”

Four days after Magic Leap closed its half-billion-dollar fund-raising round with Google and other investors, Google executive Alan Eustace parachuted a record-setting 135,000+ feet from a balloon near the top of the stratosphere. Eustace had spent time in Magic Leap in May, and was one of the key engineers who pushed for the funding. That was a message too: "For cool things to happen, you have to get out of your comfort zone," said Abovitz, who took up his own challenge of becoming a javelin thrower on the UM team during his college years.

"When you are doing something neat and you’re doing it with neat people and there is that convergence, something amazing will happen," he said. "If you really want to change the world, you have to have that attitude."

On leadership, Abovitz told the engineering students and alumni, you have to be bold. "It's little like jumping off a cliff with your backpack, a bag of parts and you are building the plane wings and engine on your way down.... You also have to be insanely tough, you'll get pummeled over and over again and you have to keep getting back up. ... And you have to attract a team that is freaking smart."

Creativity and finding a counter-balance play a big role too – it's why he was a cartoonist for the school newspaper during his UM years and now plays in a band, Sparkydog & Friends. But he told the students the most important thing to learn is teamwork. "Starting a company is like doing 100 IRONMANs [competitions] in a row," he said. And while world-changing entrepreneurship requires endurance and mental toughness, have fun. "Don't do it if it is not rocking, if it's not awesome."

And don't take yourself too seriously, added Abovitz, who once gave a TED talk dressed as an astronaut.

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg

  Comments