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Resisting the Boundaries

Mark Kriss, CLA alumnus and entrepreneur
December 12, 2014

Mark Kriss

Mark Kriss
Mark Kriss
The company:
Vision Prize Prediction
Systems
; technology start ups

The mission:
Using technology,
research and
communication to improve
service & information sharing

There’s nothing like a little nudge from Homer to encourage an entrepreneur. It also helps if you’re reading the Iliad in the library of the American Academy in Rome, where inspirational thinking is contagious. It helps even more if your imagination works like that of Mark Kriss. Reading the epic in that library two years ago, he reflected on how even Greek gods often got their predictions wrong. This in turn reinforced his enthusiasm for his new company, which aimed to generate data to help predict climate risk. What could be more timeless?

That company, Vision Prize Prediction Systems, is Kriss’s most recent entrepreneurial venture in a list that usually has not depended on the ancient Greeks for inspiration. It has, however, depended on Kriss’s zest for connecting ideas that at first glance don’t seem related.

“I think the most interesting thing you can do is combine unusual backgrounds and capabilities,” he says. “If you have some combination of experiences, you can do much more interesting things than if you have, say, only a business background. Liberal arts training is a real advantage in that way.”

Kriss arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1977 to do graduate work in art history, one of his major fields of study at Berkeley. As much as he loved art, he began to doubt that he could create a career with it. So he looked around for other ideas.

“I think the most interesting thing
you can do is combine unusual
backgrounds and capabilities,” he
says. “Liberal arts training is a real
advantage in that way.”

“I didn’t want to leave Minnesota,” Kriss says, “so I looked around for top-ranked programs. One department was early childhood development; another was journalism. I realized they were tied together because part of the work being done in journalism involved research on the effects of advertising on children. That whole paradigm was a framework.”

With University faculty mentors who supported his unconventional path, he combined courses like communications law, research methodology, and marketing, earning a custom-tailored master’s degree in communication research.

That combination of creative and business skills was well suited to the dawning digital world of the early 1980s. Companies were eager for advice on how to integrate new technology into their business plans and Kriss took a job—leaving Minnesota with regret, he says—to head the market research division of a Boston firm that was exploring how the home of the future might be wired.

The entrepreneurial bug that would define the rest of his career, however, developed three years later in California when he joined the Stanford Research Institute (SRI International). Working in an unstructured environment and immersed in Silicon Valley’s digital milieu, Kriss and a colleague decided to study how businesses could use technology for competitive advantage. Their unlikely focus: international currency trading.

“We ended up getting 10 banks around the world to sponsor this research project,” he says. “So in a year and a half, I interviewed 250 currency traders from all over the world, really just listening to how people do their work and what their tools are. We said we thought they could get an advantage from analytical software to make decisions about buying, selling, and trading.”

Kriss and his colleague eventually turned the daring and ambitious research project into a company they called FX Development Group, which was so successful that they sold it to Dow Jones in 1989. Three years later, Kriss couldn’t resist when the same business partner suggested prophetically that there would be “an opportunity in this whole Internet thing.” Indeed. Their contribution to the “Internet thing” became Cohesive Technology Solutions, Inc., ultimately one of the first Midwestern companies to provide Internet services, as well as a pioneer in developing security software. This, too, was eventually sold, the services to Exodus, the software to Cisco.

Now there is Vision Prize. Kriss says this company is “closest to my background in journalism school,” since its goal is both research and communication. Climate scientists report their own—and what they believe are their colleagues’—predictions about climate risk, to get a cumulative picture to share with the public, policymakers, and markets.

These are the ventures you’ll see on Mark Kriss’s resume. There are plenty of impressive things you won’t see, notably his work as a filmmaker. You’d learn a lot about him from the documentary film he produced about his accomplished mother and the enormous challenges she overcame. She believed fairy tales weren’t just stories; they were life lessons in how to maneuver in the world.

Her son might say the same about Greek epics.

What he says:

“An interdisciplinary path is really important; it’s the one I’ve always followed. Boundaries are usually not to your advantage. I have trouble when people try to classify me and ask, ‘Well, what do you do?’ I can’t answer that question because I prefer not to be categorized.”

“When you’re starting something, it’s really important and helpful to be able to do a lot of different things. That’s where this diverse background helps a lot. If you say, ‘I’ve got this great idea for a new product,’ but you don’t know how to read a balance sheet or develop a respectable Web page or evaluate other people who might be in this venture, you have to outsource that. That’s both risky and costly. It’s better if you can do a lot of that yourself.”