Paul Wythes, Pioneering Venture Capitalist, Dies at 79

Paul Wythes, Early Silicon Valley Venture Capitalist, Dies at 79
Paul M. Wythes, one of Silicon Valley’s earliest venture capitalists as co-founder of Sutter Hill Ventures, has died at 79. Source: Sutter Hill Ventures

Paul M. Wythes, one of Silicon Valley’s earliest venture capitalists as co-founder of Sutter Hill Ventures, has died. He was 79.

He died on Oct. 30 at Stanford Hospital & Clinics in Palo Alto, California, according to the firm. The cause was complications from an infection. He had been treated for cancer for several years.

Sutter Hill Ventures, based in Palo Alto, began in 1964 as an offshoot of a real-estate firm and was licensed as a Small Business Investment Company (SBIC), a designation created by Congress in 1958 to encourage investment in small enterprises.

“To put that in perspective, in 1964 there were really only two other venture firms on the West Coast doing venture capital,” Wythes recalled in Udayan Gupta’s 2000 book, “Done Deals.”

“George Quist was running the Bank of America’s SBIC in San Francisco, and Tommy Davis and Art Rock were at Davis & Rock,” Wythes said. “There were no Kleiner Perkinses, Mayfield Funds or IVPs,” a reference to Institutional Venture Partners. “So Sutter Hill had roughly a 10-year head start on most of the firms that we all know today.”

With capital from Canada’s Genstar Corp., a building-materials and financial-services company that was its only limited partner until 1986, Sutter Hill was an early investor in companies including Qume Corp., a maker of disk drives and printers acquired in 1978 by International Telephone & Telegraph Co., and Diablo Systems Inc., a pioneer of daisy-wheel printers bought by Xerox Corp. in 1972.

Technology Investments

In the 1980s, the firm provided seed money for LSI Logic Corp., a semiconductor maker, and Banyan Systems Inc., a software developer.

During more than 40 years at Sutter Hill, Wythes joined about 27 corporate boards and led the firm’s investments in Tellabs Inc., Xidex Corp., Linear Technology Corp., AmeriGroup Corp. and other companies, according to the firm’s website.

In 2010 there were 462 active U.S. venture-capital firms, which invested about $22 billion in 2,749 companies, according to the Arlington, Virginia-based National Venture Capital Association, in which Wythes was a founding director.

In oral-history interviews with the association in 2006, Wythes described the early days of his industry in the San Francisco Bay area.

“What I’d do is get in the car and drive down to Mountain View or Sunnyvale -- not so much the East Bay in those days -- and look for signs,” he said. “The sign of the company would say, ‘Technology,’ and I stopped the car, go in and say to the lady in the lobby, ‘I’m so-and-so from Sutter Hill, here’s my card, and I’d like to meet the CEO.’”

Smartest Executives

The best chief executives “always spent the time with you,” he said, “because they were smart to realize that someday they may need venture capital.”

Investing in new businesses evolved during his career from a little-known corner of finance to a much-watched one, a change he didn’t fully welcome.

“Venture capitalists don’t create successful companies, entrepreneurs do,” he said, according to Gupta’s book. “Some venture capitalists and some venture-capital firms today think it’s exactly the reverse, but they are the ones that have it reversed. I think if you can be supportive of a company as a venture capitalist, and be in the background, not up front making it look to the world like the venture capital firm made this company successful, it’s much better.”

Princeton, Stanford

Paul Morrison Wythes was born on June 23, 1933, in Camden, New Jersey, and raised in nearby Haddonfield, the youngest of three boys of Marion and William Wythes.

He graduated from Princeton University in 1955 with a degree in mechanical engineering and spent two years in the U.S. Navy. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Stanford University in 1959, marking the first time he set foot west of the Mississippi River, he said. He settled in California and never left.

He sold scientific instruments for what today is Honeywell International Inc., then worked as a market researcher for Beckman Instruments Inc., before joining what was then called Sutter Hill Capital Co.

His partner in starting the venture-capital firm was William Draper III, now a general partner at Draper Richards LP in Menlo Park, California.

“He was a perfect fit for me: easygoing as the day is long, but at the same time, extremely careful when it came to handling money,” Draper wrote of Wythes in his 2011 book, “The Startup Game.” “His engineering degree helped me better understand some of the products we were backing.”

A trustee at Princeton, Wythes was chairman of a committee that recommended in 2000 that the Ivy League university expand the number of undergraduates by 10 percent, to 5,100 students, over four years. He spent 12 years on the oversight board of the Hoover Institution at Stanford and two decades as a board member at T. Rowe Price Group Inc., the Baltimore-based asset manager.

Wythes was a minority owner of the San Francisco Giants, who won the 2012 World Series.

He had three children, Jennifer, Linda and Paul Jr., with his wife, the former Marcia Reed.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE