EVCA Spotlight
May 3, 2023

Meet Calvin Chin, Managing Partner at E14 Fund

Samantha Huang
Principal at BMW i Ventures

Calvin Chin is Managing Partner at E14 Fund, an early-stage fund affiliated with MIT. Calvin took the non-traditional path to VC. After graduating from Yale University, he taught mathematics in New York for a year before transitioning to a role in finance in the capital markets. The next arc in his career trajectory was working at two enterprise SaaS startups--first in New York and later in Silicon Valley. After getting married, seeking to embark on a new adventure with his wife, Calvin moved to Shanghai to work in corporate development and strategic ventures at the semiconductor foundry, SMIC. After seeing SMIC through its IPO, Calvin transitioned to lead as CEO an early-stage peer-to-peer financing company for student loans in China. After a few years, amid a backdrop of a global financial crisis, he made the hard decision to wind down the company. Undaunted, Calvin leveraged his experiences on the operating side to make the transition into early-stage investing. He first worked at the family office that he had met through his previous startup venture, helping them with a range of tasks including managing their venture portfolio, setting up a product studio in Shanghai, and orchestrating a joint venture fund onshore in China. After a few years, Calvin returned to the U.S. with his family. He began volunteering at MIT, supporting the university’s efforts across research and commercialization. In 2017, along with his good friend Habib Haddad, Calvin established the E14 Fund under auspices of MIT’s support. He continues to operate E14 Fund as Managing Partner today. 

Calvin grew up in Detroit, Michigan. He hails from a big family, the fourth child in a lineup of six kids. His parents distilled in him the importance of working hard. Calvin still recalls working as a kid at his family’s Chinese restaurant--first as a dishwasher in the back and then in roles like busboy and waiter as he graduated with age. In college, never one to follow orthodox paths, he got his first taste of the entrepreneur’s hustle in the form of playing as a drummer for an indie rock band. He recalled the artist’s life of playing shows, trying to sell records, and hitting the road for the next gig. Nowadays, with two kids and a job as a venture capitalist, Calvin shows no signs of slowing down. In the moments of reprieve, when he’s not darting from one meeting to the next, you might find him out for a run or in a state of flow at his drums, which he recently took up again after a moratorium of several years. For all of his achievements, Calvin is not one who puts the spotlight on himself. He exudes a type of silent confidence, a warmth and thoughtfulness that founders seek in a long-term partner. When asked where he saw himself in the future, Calvin showed no sign of hesitation: he wants to be exactly where he is today, investing in trail-blazing founders and ushering in the next wave of tech innovation.

Sam: What is your career origins story? What was your path into venture capital?

Calvin: I pursued my undergraduate degree at Yale, majoring in liberal arts. After graduation, I taught mathematics in New York for a year and then transitioned to working in finance within capital markets. However, my heart always belonged to entrepreneurship, largely due to my family's business back in Michigan where I grew up.

In my early career, I worked at a couple different startups in enterprise software--first in New York and then in Silicon Valley. After getting married, my wife and I decided to embark on a new adventure. Although both of us are Chinese-American, we had never lived full-time in China, nor had friends or family there. Regardless, we took the leap and moved to China to work and live.

The last two startups in my entrepreneurial journey were based in Shanghai. I first joined a semiconductor foundry called SMIC, working in corporate development and what we called strategic ventures. After participating in the company's IPO and helping deploy $3.6 billion in private equity, I transitioned to an online lending startup focused on peer-to-peer financing for student loans in China. This was my first experience leading an early-stage company as CEO.

Unfortunately, after a few years, with the global financial crisis and some operational mistakes, we ultimately had to wind down the online lending company. This marked the beginning of my career as an early-stage investor. I initially worked with a single-family office interested in my previous startup, helping them set up a product studio in Shanghai and manage an early-stage venture portfolio. I did that for several years, eventually setting up a joint venture fund onshore in China, with a great partner in the Shell Foundation. Our focus was cleantech. 

Eventually, I returned to the US and began volunteering with a good friend, Habib Haddad, who later became my partner. Together, we transformed our volunteer work at MIT, supporting research and commercial opportunities, into an institutional fund. In 2017, we established the E14 Fund, which we continue to manage today.

Sam: If you had to look back at your career and extract the few lessons that you've learned over the years and impart to the next generation of venture capitalists, what would those lessons be?

Calvin: I believe there are a few important lessons to share. First, always put yourself in situations where you feel underqualified, as these are the ones where you will learn and grow the most. Embrace opportunities that stretch your abilities and help you discover your inner capacity to meet new challenges.

Second, focus on building relationships and networks, particularly with mentors and peers. I've learned so much from other investors who have generously shared their time, experiences, and insights. These connections can be incredibly rewarding.

Lastly, it's essential to understand that you don't need to be all things for all people. Stick to your unique investment style and the model that works best for you. Focus on finding founders and LPs who are a good fit for your approach, rather than trying to please everyone. Embracing your strengths and staying true to yourself will ultimately lead to greater success in the venture capital world.

Sam: How has your past experience as an operator influenced your investment approach?

Calvin: My past experience as an operator has played a crucial role in shaping my investment approach. As an operator, I developed certain patterns that I now use to evaluate opportunities and teams. As an investors, we focus on finding persistent, resilient, and even stubborn individuals who form smart teams. At E14, our attention is on technical founders with strong scientific or engineering backgrounds, who have the potential to become exceptional business leaders and builders. This approach has undoubtedly been informed by my own experience as an entrepreneur.

Sam: What’s your favorite thing about venture capital?

Calvin: My absolute favorite thing about venture capital is the amazing people we get to work with, particularly the founders. We're fortunate to be a part of an incredible community filled with some of the world's smartest, most humble, and hardworking individuals. Watching these exceptional people build great businesses, impact their customers and employees, and seeing their growth trajectory is truly rewarding. My second favorite aspect is the opportunity to learn from these individuals and experience intellectual stimulation through context-switching and exploring new domains.

Sam: What's the hard part of being a VC?

Calvin: The hardest part of being a VC is the solitary and lonely nature of the role. Despite talking to people all the time, our connections tend to be fleeting and often one-offs. As an entrepreneur, you're with your dedicated team, building things continuously, while as a VC, I find myself in individual meetings with different people all day. This can feel solitary and lonely. The second hardest thing is the competitiveness of the industry. We have to constantly seek our next investment and strive for better performance, which is challenging but also enjoyable. In this industry, we need to have short memories and always push for the next great opportunity.

Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade from now?

Calvin: I love my job and can't see myself slowing down. I hope to continue working with the E14 fund. As MIT constantly reinvents itself and stays at the forefront of innovation, I'm excited to witness and be a part of the next wave of innovation in the coming years. I look forward to engaging with more innovative, creative, and hardworking people from the MIT community.