Sensor maker exec takes aim

Electronics interest spurred as preteen

Michael Horton’s track record puts him in an Olympic class.

At age 26 he invented some very sophisticated sensor technology, and he currently is president and CEO of Crossbow Technology Inc., a company that makes and sells a spectrum of products that incorporate it.

If you want to run your farm 24/7 with your tractor making perfect rows even in the dark; navigate your boat by pointing at a satellite; or monitor factory equipment; make your plane fly level even in a fog–see Mr. Horton.

Crossbow makes acceleration, tilt, magnetic and inertial sensors, and sensor-based analog and digital subsystems.

Besides on the farm, on the sea, in the factory and in the air, the company’s array of products is used in medical technology, petroleum exploration, smart munitions guidance and seismic monitoring.

Mr. Horton’s newest product, CrossNeta, eliminates the tedious, trouble-prone tasks of making, checking and changing sensor connections to data collection/analysis equipment manually.

“I was working on a different technology at UC-Berkeley under Richard Newton, now dean of engineering there,” Mr. Horton recalled. That, he said, is when he came up with his idea for the basic Crossbow sensor product.

He graduated in August 1995 and started Crossbow Technology Inc.

“We didn’t actually get off the ground until January 1996,” Mr. Horton said. “Professor Newton and John Crawford, now our vice president of business development, helped with the startup. John took 18 months to grow the company from zero to $2 million in sales.”

Said Mr. Crawford: “We were manufacturing and shipping right from the beginning. I ran to Federal Express’ office about every other day, getting there with five minutes to spare.

“Those early days were filled with supply crises,” he continued. “I would go to Walmart and buy a whole rack of glue. Next day, same thing. You forget that pain and anxiety when the scrambling and craziness levels out.”

Mr. Crawford is old enough to be Mr. Horton’s father.

“When we were first traveling together, Mike was not yet 25. I had to rent the cars. It was odd to work for someone so much younger,” Mr. Crawford said.

Then Mr. Horton sought outside capitalization, and with two rounds of funding secured, his working capital moved to $9.2 million recently.

“Mike is learning fast,” said Jerry Fiddler, chairman of Wind River Inc. in Alameda and Crossbow board member and investor. “He’s a good leader and people like working for him. He has a strong sense of what is important.”

The company’s challenge is juggling the science with the customer base.

He found a new base when attending the big fly-in air and trade show in Oshkosh, Wis., at the end of July 2000.

“I was amazed at the number of aviation devotees,” Mr. Horton said. “People would tell me things like, ‘I have three airplanes. One is the kit I am building, another is a fixer-upper and then there is the one I use for transportation.”

Mr. Horton’s interest in things electronic goes back a ways.

“When Mike was in seventh or eighth grade, he turned part of our house into an electronics laboratory,” recalled older brother John. “He had a gajillion electronic components all over the place. It was massive. He had a deep passion for electronics even at age 13. Our father is a physics professor at the University of Texas at Austin, as was my grandfather. Our mother is a computer scientist who handles code for mainframes. Dad hired graduate students to tutor Mike in electrical engineering.”

His passion for electronics notwithstanding, Mr. Horton does have a life outside of Crossbow.

For example, he plays golf about once a week with college or work friends. His handicap, however, “is not available for publication.

“I gave, up tennis, squash, handball and, basketball to concentrate on golf,” he said. “When I master that, I might take flying lessons, but I don’t plan on building a plane. I will leave that expertise to companies like Cessna.”

Practicing yoga and reading biographies also occupy Mr. Horton’s spare time. Trips to Austin, Texas, for both business and family visits also are on the agenda. His parents and three out of four living grandparents are always glad to see him.

Mr. Horton’s married brother John lives in Santa Barbara analyzing hedge funds and raising his two children. Maybe Uncle Mike will teach thermodynamics to the little ones.

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