By Sharon Fisher
When Boise-based Cradlepoint was acquired in November 2020 by multinational telecommunications giant Ericsson for $1.1 billion, it was the culmination of a plan Mark Solon started 25 years ago.
That was when Solon, with several partners, co-founded Highway 12, a venture capital company that made investments in something unheard of at the time: Startups based in Idaho. “When I got here in the late 1990s, there really wasn’t a ton of startup activity,” he said. “That’s why I got involved in working in startups in the first place. It’s very gratifying to see some momentum.”
Mulhern, CEO of Cradlepoint at the time of the Ericsson acquisition, was originally a Highway 12 partner.
“Highway 12 was the first investor in Cradlepoint,” Solon said, calling the sale exciting and gratifying. “Events like that give a startup community momentum,” he said. “We started with a very small team, and eventually people will leave Cradlepoint and start new companies. It’s a cycle that startup communities have.”
Ballihoo, another Boise-based company, which provided local paid search and display software, was also a Highway 12 recipient; the company was acquired by the Engine Group. “As far as successful investments in Idaho, that was it,” Solon said. “Most of the companies that made the bulk of our returns were outside of Idaho.”
Other Highway 12 partners have also largely retired, such as James Hawkins and Phil Reed. “Right after I started Highway 12, Phil Reed came on as first partner,” Solon said. “Jim Hawkins, the former director of commerce for Idaho, helped me get it started.” Other partners included Glenn Michael, who has taken on several CFO roles since then and is now managing director and CFO at The CapRock Group; Mike Mers, who has run Aspen Capital Management in Boise for a number of years since; and Archie Clemins, an admiral and former U.S. Pacific Fleet
Commander who was a venture partner for many years and passed away in May 2020.
Solon is proud of what the company accomplished. “Highway 12 was an incredibly gratifying experience for me,” he said. “We set up shop when VC really wasn’t a thing here in Idaho. We were lucky enough to be involved with some really fantastic founders. We had some nice big exits, took a company public, and made some acquisitions and nice returns for our investors. We learned a lot, made some mistakes, but at the end of the day we helped create and foster some companies that made a dent.”
After Highway 12, Solon moved on to Techstars, a Boulder, Colorado-based startup accelerator program. “When I joined, we had three accelerator programs,” he said. “Now we have over 50 around the world,” with more than 300 employees. “Our companies have market caps of billions and billions of dollars, and we just had our 20th unicorn.”
The company’s success is based on its focus on individual startup communities. “We’ve discovered a fairly repeatable business model,” Solon said. “Local communities engage around a program where the local community mentors the next generation of startups.” Those local communities can be vertical as well as geographic, he added.
Now, after a decade, Solon is winding down his involvement with Techstars as well. “I’ve stepped back from my role about two years ago,” he said. “For close to a decade, I ran our investment platform.” Now, at 56, he’s working just on the company’s legacy funds that it has raised to this point. “I’m in a glide path to not working any more.”
So what’s next? “Who knows where the winds will blow,” Solon said, who’s originally from New York City. “I can’t imagine not living in Idaho. I’ve lived here long than I’ve lived anywhere in my life. It feels more like home than anyplace has ever felt for me.”
Sharon Fisher is a digital nomad who writes about entrepreneurship.