Former Guitar Hero executive talks tech investment with local entrepreneurs

Former Guitar Hero executive Michael Dornbrook watches as Ethan Kees plays the most recent game in the series. (Craig Johnson/DD)
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A former executive of Harmonix, the company behind the wildly popular Guitar Hero video game, spoke to over 50 investors and entrepreneurs about investing in tech Tuesday night.

Michael Dornbrook, the former chief operating officer of Harmonix, spoke about his journey investing in startups for the “From Guitar Hero God to Tech Investor” event held by the MIT Enterprise Forum, a group dedicated to supporting technology entrepreneurs.

Dornbrook is currently an angel investor, or an affluent person who invests in early stage startups for a stake in ownership. He has invested in 104 companies to date, the majority of which are software, hardware or game development companies.

At the event, students from the University of Advancing Technology played Guitar Hero on a big screen and demonstrated virtual reality technology while high profile investors and entrepreneurs mingled.

The MIT Enterprise Forum’s founding chair Armando Viteri opened the discussion on the eighth floor of the Maricopa County Security Center Building.

“Technology entrepreneurism has taken hold in Arizona in a fundamental and meaningful way that I believe personally is going to fundamentally change what the state is,” Viteri said.

Despite Viteri’s bright outlook on the future of tech entrepreneurship in Phoenix, the difficulties of finding investors for local startup companies in Phoenix was the center of the discussion during the Q&A session.

Dornbrook said Phoenix needs to use its advantages, such as its size and its wealth, and channel those into startup investment.

Viteri said lack of opportunities for early stage startup funding and green management are two reasons Phoenix is currently behind tech hubs like San Francisco for startup investment.

Local investment group Arizona Technology Investors is the “most aggressive in terms of investment” locally, according to Viteri, but he said the group still focuses mostly on later stage companies and not new startups.

“For the first time ever in Phoenix history, we are getting a national incubator,” said Viteri, referencing Galvanize, a Denver-based technology education company that will open a collaborative workspace campus in Phoenix’s Warehouse District in late 2016.

One tech entrepreneur in attendance was Ron Robertson of Picmonic, a Tempe-based startup that created a visual learning platform to help medical students memorize large amounts of information with cartoons instead of words.

Robertson said he believes that people have the potential to learn anything with the right tools.

“Today, so much of learning is antiquated. It’s old-school; it’s still black and white textbooks, but the modern day student is surrounded by multimedia,” Robertson said.

Robertson was joined at the event by other Phoenix entrepreneurs such as Sean Kauppinen, the CEO of Scottsdale-based video game development consulting company IDEA.

Kauppinen said that Dornbrook’s extensive angel investing “really shows a level of commitment to making sure that future generations have better things.”

That night, Dornbrook also sat down with Ben Reichert, founder of Phoenix-based game incubator Game CoLab, to discuss the history of Guitar Hero and his role as an angel investor.

Dornbrook discussed his experience with game development at length, beginning with Zork, an early interactive computer game he developed in collaboration with a friend. He later developed a support service for players of the game, eventually making enough money to purchase two houses during his second year in business school at the University of Chicago.

During his 13-year tenure at Harmonix, Dornbrook helped realize the Guitar Hero franchise.

“We did not think of Guitar Hero as a party game at all,” Dornbrook said, talking about how the game’s success was largely due to its multiplayer feature, something that was nearly excluded from the game.

In 2010, Dornbrook left Harmonix and became an angel investor with investment firm Converge Venture Partners.

As an investor, Dornbrook said losing money is inevitable, but the few companies that do succeed will create the return on your investment. Dornbrook’s most successful investment to date is, ironically, a wine company and not a tech startup.

Correction: October 21, 2016

An earlier version of this story misquoted Armando Viteri, saying “greed in management” was one of the reasons Phoenix lags behind other tech hubs for startup investment. It has been corrected to reflect Viteri’s actual comments about “green management.”

Contact the reporter at craig.r.johnson@asu.edu.

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