Published October 21, 2008
Volume 16, Number 10

Sub-One Technology CEO Andy Tudhope is a Serial Entrepreneur

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Before Andy Tudhope was a serial entrepreneur, he was a serial employee, working on leading-edge projects at some of Silicon Valley’s most legendary names—Xerox, Intel, VLSI. The self-confessed workaholic is on his third start-up, the scope and impact of the founding intellectual property expanding with each successive venture.

For the past four years, Tudhope has been CEO of Sub-One Technology, 4464 Willow Road, which develops high-performance protective coatings for industrial applications. Tudhope describes its specialized market as “big oil meets clean energy meets semiconductors.” It’s a winning combination, in the right place at the right time.  “We have great investors and partnerships, and we are growing rapidly around the world,” he asserts.

The Sub-One name derives from the scientific description of surface smoothness. The flash of genius that brought the company into existence was the result of Tudhope’s exposure, in the semiconductor industry, to the practice of coating internal surfaces with thin films to improve anti-corrosion and other properties of less expensive base materials. His later experience in manufacturing underscored the contribution coatings could make in reducing material costs. “We had the idea to apply an inner coating so the product—anything from half-inch precision components to long, large-diameter industrial piping—could be made from cheaper materials,” he explains. “This is the big win for us.”

One challenge was figuring out where and how to sell the innovation. “We started with semiconductor people supplying capital equipment. We built a web site and did some marketing, but when the phones started ringing the calls came from people in oil and gas exploration, like Chevron and Schlumberger,” Tudhope relates. “We had not really targeted them, but our technology is especially well suited to their industry, so we learned quickly and rapidly changed our model.”

This past February, Sub-One closed $24 million in Series-C funding, after a $7 million Series-B round in October 2006. Investors include Nomura International, GE Energy Financial Services, Chevron Technology Ventures, and Advanced Technology Ventures (ATV). ATV general partner Wes Raffel and semiconductor industry veteran  David Lam sit on the company’s board.

“It’s an interesting blend to have all the semiconductor and energy guys and corporate and venture capital people all at same table,” Tudhope observes.

A Logical Landing Point
Sub-One was a logical landing point given Tudhope’s career trajectory.  After high school he spent a year and a half on active duty in the marines, working on airplanes at the Alameda naval base. While in the reserves he went to college, ultimately earning a degree in electrical engineering.

The next step was working on laser systems at Xerox, toward the end of the 1980s. “I thought that was ‘it,’” he recalls. “I had a career, I was happy. But it didn’t last.” The reason why is easy to understand: an opportunity to work at the Intel-owned Fab 3 in Livermore, at the time the home of the first 386 microprocessor, came along that was too good to turn down. “The semiconductor industry was a new challenge, plus it was a significant jump financially.”  The risk of job-hopping was a little unsettling, he admits, but he still had the comfort of being an employee with a regular paycheck.

Tudhope stayed in Intel’s equipment engineering group for a few years and then, with organizational changes brewing, he joined VSLI Technologies in San Jose, working on the miniature pilot line for the next generation of integrated circuits.

Taking the Leap
The bigger risk came in 1994, when he left VSLI, and, with a core group of colleagues who remain with him today, started his own company, Semiconductor Equipment Technology (SET) in Pleasanton. “We were a manufacturing and technical service provider to semiconductor companies worldwide.”  Tudhope confesses to having a few jitters—“I had $5,000 in my pocket, minimal business experience, and slim odds of success”— but he felt fortunate in not having a family to support. “People with families take an even bigger risk joining a start-up,” he observes, adding, “It’s true that I have a family now, but I am also used to the pressure.”

A ready-made customer base consisting of VLSI, Intel, Hitchi, and other integrated circuit manufacturers upped the comfort level when Tudhope took the leap to found SET. After four years of hard work, Tosoh, a Japanese conglomerate with a chemical/materials group interested in semiconductor technology, purchased a piece of the company, and then bought the remainder in 2000. They are still operating today as Tosoh SET. 

Moving on, Tudhope then leveraged his knowledge of contract manufacturing to set up a new shop, partially funded by Tosoh, opening plants in Livermore and in Hermosilla, Mexico. He describes the business as “a high-tech fabricator, like a machine shop.” He moved himself and his family—wife Jean, daughter Shelby, then a toddler, and two dogs—to Hermosilla, “We still had an office in Livermore, so I was back and forth every two weeks.” After a few years, Tosah sold the firm. Tudhope came back home and in mid- 2004 launched Sub-One. 

At age 43, he figures he has “at least two more start-ups” in him.  He admits to not knowing what they are, but he is confident they will materialize. “We’re spoiled, living here in the Bay Area, where there is so much talent and opportunity. There will always be money to fund a promising new company and great people to do it.” This kind of fertility and the “try, try, and try again” mentality cannot be found anywhere in the world. “In this area, no matter what the capital markets are doing, people still want to make money funding a winner,” he insists.

“Innovation is so ingrained here,” he continues. “My people love the start-up environment, the excitement and the troubles. Every day is different. You are not planning your retirement, you may not even be here next year, but a lot of people here like living on that edge. There is no shortage of people who want to build, to be involved. You start small, grow big, and make enough money to pay bills.”

Tudhope himself grew up in a small agricultural town near Lodi, part of a family with its own business manufacturing tomato harvesters. The notion of entrepreneurship planted itself at a young age. “I had early exposure to self-reliant people who people built their own businesses, and I combined that with my technology education and experience to start my own ventures,” he says.

Asked about his passions, he replies, “I squeeze in some golf and wine- tasting, but my passion is working. I’m kind of a workaholic. I love growing start-ups, the creation of a new business. When it gets big and predictable I move on.” When will Sub-One reach that point? “That’s at least a couple of years away. Today we have 54 employees, and we are more than doubling every year.” But, he adds, “If I’m still here in the next 10 years, there is something terribly wrong.”


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