Ex-Microsoft Execs Fund Wireless Startups

SAN FRANCISCO (06/12/2000) - Three months ago, a group of former top Microsoft Corp. executives started a venture capital firm to foster what they believed to be "the next big thing" -- wireless technology. Now, that firm, Ignition Corp., has put its money where its mouth is, by announcing Monday that it has taken a US$13 million stake in an e-mail management product for cell phone users.

The funds go to etrieve Inc., a Portland, Oregon-based startup which is releasing its flagship M3 (mobile message management) service that allows users of wireless phones to access, listen to and respond to their e-mail.

Taking a stake in etrieve is the first of as many as 20 investments Ignition plans to make over the next three years with the $140 million they have raised among themselves and through contributions from Softbank Corp. and Madrona Venture Group, Jonathan Roberts, Ignition marketing director and a former 13-year veteran of Microsoft, said Friday in a phone interview.

Ignition founders include Microsoft alumni who participated in some of the software giant's most successful initiatives. They include:

-- Brad Silverberg, Ignition chairman and chief executive officer, who was a Microsoft senior vice president and a member of the company's nine-member executive committee, its top decision-making body. Silverberg oversaw the company's Windows operating systems business from 1990 to 1995 and directed Microsoft's Internet business.

-- Rich Tong, an Ignition marketing and business planning director, led the marketing teams for Windows, Windows NT and BackOffice at Microsoft.

-- Cameron Myhrvold, director of strategic partnerships at Ignition, was vice president of Microsoft's Internet Customer Unit.

The group also includes former executives from Nextlink Communications Inc. and from Cellular One Inc.

"Ignition is like a Microsoft graduate fellowship program for alumni making new investments," Gerry Purdy, an analyst with Mobile Insights Inc., said in a phone interview Friday.

The investment firm will focus exclusively on wireless ventures, Ignition's Roberts said. "We've had the chance to change the world a couple of times with the PC. Products like Microsoft Word and Windows NT changed the way people lived," he added.

"We all felt the same way," Roberts explained. "We asked, 'What is the next big thing?' The trend is clear -- wireless is an emerging enabling technology like the Internet."

Etrieve's M3 service uses its Wireless Interchange Engine, a software set that manages database, message store and text-to-voice technology.

M3's ability to allow users to listen to their e-mail and to respond with a voice message from a mobile device is an interesting new development in mobile wireless communications functionality, analysts said.

"This is a very useful service, a way to tap into enterprise e-mail from your cell phone without having to read it on a tiny screen," Eddie Holt, an analyst with Current Analysis Inc., said in a phone interview Friday.

M3 is available for a free 30-day trial at http://www.etrieve.com/. The service works with any phone and is immediately available for users of Microsoft Exchange or Outlook e-mail or with POP (post office protocol) 3-accessible accounts such as Mindspring Enterprises Inc., Yahoo Inc., CompuServe Interactive Services Inc., and others. Prices range from $19.95 per month to $49.95 per month.

Ignition Corp., based in Bellevue, Washington, can be reached at +1-800-694-4460, or at http://www.ignitioncorp.com/. Etrieve Inc., in Portland, Oregon, is at http://www.etrieve.com/.

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