October 2011: Peter O. Crisp '50
Peter O. Crisp '50 is a pioneer of the venture capital industry and a dedicated philanthropist. He is retired as a founder and managing general partner of Venrock Associates, a limited partnership funded by members of the Rockefeller family. Of equal import is his philanthropic work, including 42 years of service on the boards of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Memorial Hospital for Cancer and Allied Diseases, and Sloan-Kettering Institute for Cancer.
Crisp was graduated from Yale University in 1955 before serving three years as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Air Force. After serving his country, Crisp decided to pursue his M.B.A. at Harvard. He spent the summer between his first and second year of business school working for Swissair in Zurich, ranking prospective capital investments. With no particular plan for his career path, Crisp explains, “I saw an article in the international edition of Time magazine about Laurance Rockefeller, venture capital, and aviation. It sounded interesting to me, and I thought I might combine all my interests. I wrote a letter to Laurance, and he shared my letter with his colleagues and decided I might make a good addition to the group.”
The Rockefeller family was among the first to establish a venture capital program. Laurance Rockefeller invested equity capital in very early-stage companies. Crisp notes, “He made two highly profitable investments in 1938. First, he provided funds to Eddie Rickenbacker to buy Colonial Airlines (which became Eastern Air Lines) from General Motors, and second, he invested the seed capital that permitted J. S. McDonnell, an aeronautical engineer in St. Louis, to design and build a single-engine jet fighter plane. The venture capital industry was in its embryonic stages, and Laurance, in my opinion, was the true ‘godfather’ of venture capital. I thought, ‘here’s a guy who hopes to make money – to give it away doing wonderful things by advancing science while bringing technology to commercialization.’” It was a perfect fit for Crisp and the beginning of his 45-year association with the Rockefeller family.
In 1969, Crisp became a founding partner of Venrock Associates, a venture capital partnership funded by the Rockefellers. “We felt we needed to act more quickly,” says Crisp. “We could no longer run around collecting checks from family members. So we formed Venrock, with seven investments that were contributed by the family.” One of Venrock’s first investments was in a company called Intel, along with other technology-based start ups. Venrock expanded greatly in the 1980s and 1990s, and its record of 124 IPOs and 126 M&A transaction exits has resulted in great value to its limited partners and entrepreneurs. Crisp served as president of Venrock from 1980 to 1995 and as board chair from 1995-1997.
Throughout his years with the Rockefellers, Crisp served on the boards of numerous companies, including Apple Computer, Thermo Electron, Evans & Sutherland Computer Corporation, New England Nuclear Corporation, and American Superconductor. He notes, “My rewards have come from having Venrock spawn some meaningful, successful companies.” Upon his retirement from Venrock in 1997, he spent the next six years as vice chairman of Rockefeller Financial Services, Inc., the family’s private holding company. In 2004, Crisp received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Venture Capital Association.
In addition to his business activities, Crisp has dedicated much of his life to philanthropic endeavors. “I knew of Rockefeller’s association with Memorial Sloan-Kettering as a board member. Somewhere along the line, I told him that my older brother had died at the age of 13 of leukemia at Memorial. Laurance remembered that and asked me to take a look at some financial material he’d received from Memorial. I began reviewing the data and writing him a memorandum before each board meeting and providing comments and issues that deserved further review. A few years later, he suggested me as a board member. I joined the board when I was only 35 years old.”
For 42 years on the various Memorial boards, Crisp’s focus was finance. But he served on nearly every committee, including the executive committee, and the audit, finance and funding, investment, and compensation committees. He earned the respect of his colleagues and associates at Memorial. “I’ve been very conscious of managing my relations as a board member with the Center staff. One of the things I’ve gotten personal satisfaction from is that I’ve been able to have a successful relationship with the ‘troops,’ so to speak. I don’t think staff members have ever felt I violated their confidences or played politics while attempting to convey important messages to top management. I have served during the tenure of four board chairmen (including Hotchkiss parent and grandparent Benno Schmidt) and each has had his own very distinctive style. And they have all been extraordinarily effective.”
But the Memorial Sloan-Kettering centers are not the only non-profits to benefit from Crisp’s expertise and guidance. He served as chairman of the Community Hospital at Glen Cove (NY), which has since merged with the North Shore Long Island Jewish Health System in Manhasset, NY, (where he is a lifetime trustee and current board member), and is the current chairman of the Jupiter Medical Center Foundation in Florida, where he is leading a $50 million capital campaign. Other organizations that have benefited from Crisp’s leadership include the Green Vale School, the North Shore Wildlife Sanctuary, Inc., the Quebec-Labrador Foundation, Inc., and the Yale Development Board. Crisp has been active in supporting Fishers Island causes, including the effort to maintain the island’s infrastructure. He has also served Hotchkiss as a Trustee. Between 1971 and 1982, Crisp was a member of the executive and investment committees, chairman of the finance committee, and treasurer of the board (1974-1982). Crisp married the former Emily “Missy” Starr Ridgway in 1963. They have three daughters. Missy is no stranger to philanthropic service and as such has served as a trustee and as chairman of the board of Miss Porter’s School.
In retrospect, Crisp says, “I feel that my life has been divided into three different phases – ‘learn, earn, and return.’ I am presently in the return phase, active with several causes that are important to our family and others.”