In business, there is no such thing as a level playing field. For Nicholas Brathwaite—founding partner of Riverwood Capital and chairman of Aptina Imaging Corporation—there’s no sense in complaining about it. Time spent wishing it were different is time spent away from the game, and when you’re a natural competitor like Brathwaite, who thrives on the thrill of the game (whatever game it is), the key for winning is getting out on the field and putting your shoulder into it.
“As a person who came from a small island and as a minority in the US, I know that people who spend all their time complaining about whether the playing field is level or not are just wasting time,” he says. “You need to go out there, you need to perform, and you need to do what it takes.”
Brathwaite is originally from Grenada, the son of a former Grenadian prime minister, and speaks with a smooth, commanding Caribbean accent. Because of his upbringing, he’s no stranger to traveling and experiencing the sights and sounds from various corners of the world. He has an undergraduate degree in applied chemistry from McMaster University in Ontario, a master’s in polymer science and engineering from the University of Waterloo, and a natural penchant for business strategy, leadership, and diplomacy—which has afforded him seniority within the tech industry space, first for six years at Intel Corporation and then for 13 years at Flextronics International, where he served as the firm’s CTO from 2000 to 2007, when he left to pursue his present work at both Riverwood and Aptina.
In the midst of this progression, Brathwaite has followed a common theme: vision. And not just vision as its spun as corporate lingo, but literal vision in the technology space. Flextronics was early to forecast what would be the success and dominance of cell phone camera technology, and it was while he was at Flextronics that Brathwaite saw the development of the company as a cell phone ODM, designing camera modules and power-supply units. Brathwaite joined Flextronics when it acquired his own company, nChip, where he was putting his engineering and chemical background to use developing wafer fabrication and assembly. And now, as the chairman and former CEO (twice over) at Aptina—a company Brathwaite helped transition from a business unit of Micron Technology, Inc. into a standalone company—Brathwaite remains in the “vision” space, as Aptina is one of the industry leaders for CMOS imaging and semiconductor technologies, which are used in phones, computers, cameras, medical equipment, scanners, gaming products, and everything in between.
How Brathwaite came to Aptina details a more complex narrative, as Brathwaite was not only the CEO and chairman of Aptina, but also a partner at Riverwood, the investment firm that helped make Aptina a stand-alone company. “At the beginning, this was a difficult balance, because Aptina was still part of Micron when I started, and we were planning on buying it,” Brathwaite says. “But in general, people want leadership, and if you provide the right kind of leadership, people will rally around you.”
Aptina was originally a division of Micron Technology, and the seeds of it came into being when Micron acquired Photobit, a CMOS image-sensor supplier, in 2001. Later, in 2006, Micron also acquired the image-sensor business of Avago Technologies, affording Micron the title of being the world’s leading CMOS image-sensor supplier. By 2008, however, the division lost some significant market share, and split the CMOS imaging business into Aptina Imaging that same year. And by 2009, Aptina Imaging was fully purchased (and consequently, privately held) by Riverwood and TPG Capital. Brathwaite stepped into his first stead as Aptina CEO at this time, watching the company, in 2010, hit nearly $620 million in revenue and rank third in worldwide CMOS image-sensor sales.
And now, with sensors getting lighter, more compact, and more affordable, Aptina is oriented to continue its upward growth, as Brathwaite considers imaging—in a technology context—to be one of the fastest growing sectors in the market.
Getting to Know
What’s your favorite part of the workday?
I don’t think I have a favorite part, as you would typically describe it. Rather, I really enjoy being part of a team that either defines or executes a vision. I enjoy this more than anything else. I enjoy everything that goes into solving a problem or building a business.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
My mother always emphasized—not just to me, but to my entire family—that I have the ability to do anything I want to do, and all I need to do is work hard and approach opportunities with confidence, and this is something she really built and protected in me. This is the foundation of my success.
What motivates you most in life?
The desire to make a difference is what actually motivates me. I don’t just want to be a statistic that came on this earth and went to school, got a job, made some money, and so forth. I truly want to be able to make a difference.
What three words define you?
Competitive—I do whatever it takes to win. But I’m also very compassionate, which I try to reflect both in the workplace and in my private life. And, finally, I’m grateful—for everything.
“Since starting Riverwood in 2008, we’ve actually expanded our involvement in the imaging space, because we like it.” Brathwaite says. “People are now using cameras and taking pictures for everything. All of this is driven by people’s desire for visual communication, but it’s also enabled by technology, like low-cost, miniaturized image sensors.”
Much of Brathwaite’s excitement about this imaging activity is motivated by activity at Riverwood, where he is one of six founding partners. He left Flextronics in 2007 to form the firm, and describes the company as “a very different investment firm. We’re a middle-market technology and technology-related investment firm, and we started Riverwood primarily because we believed that the industry needed a different type of private-equity investor—someone more focused on building great businesses and not necessarily on engineering financial outcomes.”
It is with this ethic in mind—not only serving to invest financial capital, but intellectual capital as well—that Brathwaite contextualizes his relationship between Riverwood and Aptina. Additionally, this focus on mid-market technology firms, in many ways, invites a larger intellectual capital investment than a mere financial investment, as Brathwaite has found that businesses in this space are less often wanting for money than they are for stratagem. “Some of the firms we’ve invested in have come to us primarily for the intellectual capital that we bring,” Brathwaite says. “This is turning out to be fantastic, and it is what Riverwood was created for.”
In addition to Aptina, Riverwood’s current portfolio of companies include GoPro, LightingScience, Ambarella, Accellion, Synapsis, and many others. And the common theme here, of course, is vision. It’s why Brathwaite’s work between Aptina and Riverwood is complementary, rather than a distraction. In his current capacity as chairman for Aptina, this translates to a forward-thinking view.
“I love figuring out problems and encountering new challenges,” he says. “In today’s technology space, one of the most credible links between today’s performance and future performance has to do with technology road maps, product portfolio, and market strategy. Many of the challenges that Aptina faced nine months ago still exist, and there’s always work to be done, but we’re all excited about what’s next.”