Written by: 
Erin Cristales
Photography by: 
Ranjani Groth
E

ach morning, when Dave Copps ('91) steps into his closet to get ready for the coming day, he stares at his brain.

It's hard to miss, hanging there on the wall. And like all brains, there's an inherent complexity to its function.

Some might view it as a stark reminder, others an oddball adornment. The literal types will just see an MRI scan.

But that black-and-white picture of Copps' brain -- taken before doctors asked him to sign papers detailing the percentage likelihood of his death, before they separated his front and left lobes to remove the tumor that caused his seizures, before he flatlined for 18 seconds -- is more than all of those things. It's a promise.

"I remember looking in the mirror one day after the surgery and making the decision to use my second change to live my life as the possibility for greatness in all people," says Copps, the founder of DFW-based startup Brainspace, acquired by Cyxtera in 2017 as part of a $2.8 billion deal. "If we all live that philosophy, if we can all focus on recognizing and encouraging greatness in each other, we can create better companies, better societies and a better world."

When Copps returned to UNT after the surgery, the aspiring entrepreneur and anthropology major explored how to create inspiring work environments through corporate culture classes taught by now Professor Emerita Ann Jordan.

"Sometimes you don't realize how the pieces are going to fit together until later," says Copps, who served as the first president of the UNT Entrepreneurs Club under the tutelage of business professor Louis Ponthieu. "As I build my companies, I focus intently on the culture we are creating togehter. I have a Swahili word I use, 'ubuntu,' that I use to describe our cultures. Loosely translated, it means, 'I am who I am because of who we are together.' In short, if you life everyone up around you, you will lift up."

As a trailblazer in artificial intelligence, Copps' recent companies have used positive startup cultures to build unique machine-learning technology that he informally refers to as "AI-powered brains." In 1998, he founded Engenium Corp., which produced a semantic search engine that could pore through, and make intelligent connections among, millions of documents simultaneously.

At the time, Engenium's work in maching learning was groundbreaking -- before, stored search filters were built and maintained manually, meaning once they were no longer up-to-date, they had to be completely reconstructed by hand. But in 2007, Copps sold Engenium and launched PureDiscovery -- renamed Brainspace in 2013 -- and developed machine-learning technology that could read and learn from hundreds of millions of documents simultaneously. Brainspace's eDiscovery software is so powerful, it's currently in use by hundreds of clients around the world, including Fortune Global 1000 companies and intelligence agencies for internal investigations and counterterrorism efforts.

After stepping down as CEO in late March, Copps is no longer a daily presence in the Brainspace headquarters. But his influence on the company's vision, culture and connectedness, which includes a 94-foot worktable his COO commissioned specifically for his staff, remains.

The table -- a physical manifestation of Copps' people-first philosophy -- is where they've come together to conceptualize and iterate. It's where bonds have developed and boundaries have been broken.

"I think not everyone realizes what's possible in their life," says Copps, who is currently contemplating his next gig. "Your situation is not your fate. It's how you choose to deal with your situations every day that determines your fate. All there is in life is what happens and what you choose to do next."

Q&A

Music Man:

I love guitar. I had a band up at UNT. We called ourselves The Fish Boys. We were going to put out an album called Just for the Halibut or Get Hooked. We didn’t gig out too much. If we were only as good as we thought we were.

Don’t believe the hype:

Everyone is talking about AI like Elon Musk, about how AIs are going to take over the world. My favorite AI movie is Her, because it just seems like the movie got it right: If AIs were to really become a superintelligence, the more plausible ending is they would just leave because we’re boring.

No such thing as failure:

I recast failure as iteration. If something doesn’t work, look at it, and ask what needs to change, make the change and reapproach it. So the phrase I use around here is, ‘There is no failure — just iterate, iterate, iterate until you reach awesome.’ I think some companies glorify failure. The first thing someone asks if something doesn’t work is, ‘Whose fault was it?’ I don’t care about that. Matter of fact, I might ask, ‘That was a really cool try — whose idea was it?’

Q&A: Dave Copps discusses the future of artificial intelligence.

Read Copps' take on entrepreneurship during his opening session at this year's TechStars Startup Week.

View an interactive timeline of DFW-based tech entrepreneurs, including Copps.

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