photo: Kevin Kopanski

Michael Goldberg

When EarlySense Ltd.—an Israeli medical device startup—struggled during the 2008 economic downturn, investors fled. But not Michael Goldberg.

"In other companies, investors were clutching money to their chests," said CEO Avner Halperin. "But Michael didn't give up on us."

The Cleveland venture capitalist helped design a recovery plan that made EarlySense stronger than ever. And since 2010, the company has garnered $65 million in new investments, including $10 million from a unit of Samsung Corp. announced this year.

For Goldberg, EarlySense is more than a satisfying financial success. It provides one of many in-the-trenches lessons he teaches to MBA students at Case Western Reserve as an assistant professor of design and innovation at the Weatherhead School of Management.

"My experiences off campus feed my teaching," said Goldberg. "Bringing an idea to life, that's one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself and others."

Whether through education, entrepreneurship or even a well-timed introduction, Goldberg thrives on doing for others. A Northeast Ohio native, he regularly travels the globe to share his business know-how and Cleveland's entrepreneurship story. He revels in the intricacies of assessing opportunities, yet finds some of his greatest gratification in teaching. And, whenever possible, he shares his contacts from his network of thousands with students and colleagues—not to impress, but to help inspire their success.

"Michael is a collector of people," said his wife, Stacy. "He'll grill baby sitters on their career plans."

Learning by trekking and teaching

Goldberg, 45, is an unlikely advocate for his hometown. He left Cleveland for Princeton University in 1988, thinking the city lacked the kind of professional prospects that would draw him back.

It was a different story for his grandfather. Leo Goldberg immigrated to Cleveland from Poland in the late 1920s with little money or English skills. He worked his way into the banking industry during the city's boom, and eventually bought Ohio Savings Bank.

"My parents taught me that our family's good fortune gave us a chance—an obligation—to help other people," Goldberg said.

For him, the desire to give back took the form of international service. Teenage trips to Kenya and Israel for learning and leisure led him to spend college summers teaching English to Russian Jewish refugees in Italy and the former Czechoslovakia. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in public and international affairs, he taught English at a rural black school in South Africa in the midst of Apartheid.

"Connecting with students was energizing in a way nothing else had been before," he said. "I saw in Africa how you can help people directly, by teaching and creating connections and opportunities in business. So, ever since, I've done a version of both."

He taught for one year and then worked on voter education programs for two years during the run-up to South Africa's first national democratic election. He returned stateside to explore a different kind of connection: the Internet. After earning an MBA from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and a master's degree in international relations from Johns Hopkins University, he headed to Washington, D.C., and America Online (AOL), where he negotiated international partnerships during the company's late-1990s heyday.

Yet Goldberg still wanted to teach. During an AOL community outreach program, he met a middle school student named Dawit who had fled war-torn Ethiopia with his family two years earlier.

Goldberg tutored, advised and even took the young man to baseball games. When Dawit was a high school senior, Goldberg brought him a stack of college applications. He then waited while the teenager completed each one. The next fall, Dawit entered Columbia University—with a full-tuition scholarship.

"Michael is motivated by making sure other people are growing," said Dawit, who asked that his last name not be used.

Bringing it all home

There was no epiphany that led Goldberg back to Cleveland.

The dot-com bubble burst, and AOL Time Warner's slow embrace of broadband left Goldberg with few overseas deals to pursue. And, he had a family.

Goldberg had married Stacy Kaplan (now Goldberg)—a Southerner with an MBA from Emory University. Like her husband, she believed in the private sector's potential for helping people, no matter their backgrounds. The two had met on a beach, but didn't start their long-distance relationship until a decade later. Goldberg eventually swayed her to quit her job, "do some crazy travel adventure" (she went to Nepal with a friend), and then join him in Washington, D.C.

By 2003, they had two young daughters (a son would come later), and yearned to be around family and out of a crowded city.

It was Stacy—now a memoir ghostwriter—who suggested Cleveland. Goldberg looked at his hometown and sensed new opportunities. A family friend and future business partner saw a niche in connecting Cleveland's health-care sector with emerging Israeli medical startups that needed an outlet for their technologies.

The two raised $10 million from foundations, individuals and local corporations, and co-founded Bridge Investment Fund L.P., which invested in EarlySense as well as other companies that have conducted clinical trials and business in Northeast Ohio.

For EarlySense's Halperin, Goldberg's moral support and friendship have meant as much as his investments.

"Michael is the kind of guy industry people root for," Halperin said, "because he's not just looking to make another cent. His success is seeing others succeed."

Goldberg's venture capital pursuits led the Weatherhead School to invite him to guest lecture. After nearly 15 years away from the classroom, he jumped at the chance.

"I missed the energy of running a classroom," said Goldberg, who was hired as an adjunct faculty member in 2009, became full time in 2013, and continues to invest and consult overseas.

Goldberg teaches graduate and undergraduate students, sprinkling in lessons from his own investment hits and misses: Two of the five companies with Bridge investments have folded. Given that roughly 90 percent of startups fail in their first decade, it's a decent showing. Plus, the ones that didn't survive now illuminate errors for his students to avoid.

"I don't look to pour cold water on aspirations of entrepreneurs," he said. "I like to be provocative—challenging students to know what they're getting into, while opening doors for them.

"After all, we need people crazy enough to believe they are the ones who will succeed."

Goldberg offers more than his own experiences. He brings in executives weekly. He plays snippets of the ABC TV show Shark Tank and then asks students why a contestant took a deal or failed to attract investment. After they answer, Goldberg lets his students question contestants themselves via prearranged live Skype calls. As they learn about business, Goldberg learns about them—and identifies ways to help.

"He heard about a job that he thought would be a good fit for me," said Tory Mateo (MGT '15), now in product development at American Greetings Corp. in Cleveland. "And he knew who posted it. So, he ended up introducing me to my future boss."

Accessible academic, extracurricular connection

As she approached graduation, Lauren Wyeth, (CWR '13, GRS '14, engineering and management) had a corporate job offer. But after Goldberg's course on improving the way businesses are designed, she began to see entrepreneurship as a promising path. Goldberg urged her to try.

"'You don't have anything to lose,' he said. 'Now is the time,'" recalled Wyeth, who co-founded a company in Cleveland that produced mobile apps and an electronic content management system. "The fact I said yes speaks to the trust I have in him."

The company raised $50,000 with Wyeth leading business development and product design, and launched two apps soon after incorporating. It has since been taken over by another company.

When Wyeth left to seek other opportunities, Goldberg was there with advice and introductions.

His guidance helped her land at Cleveland Clinic, where she is part of a continuous improvement team focused on business operations and the patient experience.

She is glad she chose an entrepreneurial option. "It was a crash course I will carry with me in my next venture," she said.

Cleveland, translated

With two Fulbright fellowships in the last several years—one in Vietnam and the other in Namibia—and stints as a visiting professor in Turkey and Greece, Goldberg is a fixture on the international teaching scene.

This spring, he turned to emerging technology to spread his global reach, creating a massive open online course—better known as a MOOC—that has broken records for its reach.

Titled "Beyond Silicon Valley: Growing Entrepreneurship in Transitioning Economies," the class is free through online education provider Coursera. It traces Cleveland's shift from an entrepreneurial backwater into an ecosystem that nurtures new ideas and companies.

Since the class launched in April 2014, more than 55,000 students in 190 countries have signed up to learn how state and local leaders collaborated to develop a web of economic development support in Cleveland to increase available investment using both private and government dollars. The story is distinct from those in places like Silicon Valley that rely primarily on private investment.

While MOOCs usually are a series of taped lectures, funding from the Burton D. Morgan Foundation allowed Goldberg to hire a former 60 Minutes producer to create slick, fast-paced documentary-style videos (and small homework assignments) available in 14 languages—the most-ever for a Coursera course and the only one with subtitles in an African language.

Enrollment swelled by word of mouth and Goldberg's promotional posts on a Huffington Post blog he had started in 2012 to share his global teaching experiences. The MOOC has since spawned meet-ups, discussion groups and teach-ins around the world.

Fruits of the class will not be seen overnight, cautioned Goldberg, who recognizes that many of Cleveland's struggles also persist and its economic growth is eclipsed by other regions. But that part of the story is instructive as well.

"Success is not measured in two-year cycles," he said. "It's measured in decades."

Family and flexibility

As the connective tissue for students, investors and corporate executives, Goldberg and his phone are constantly buzzing. He walks to his Weatherhead School office in the Peter B. Lewis Building from his Cleveland Heights home—using the time to make calls and clean out his inbox.

These days Goldberg's international teaching also involves family. Both Michael and Stacy see travel as a way for their children to learn about the world's complexity and flavor, about patience and about how to find humor in inevitable confusion. All of them traveled with Goldberg to Vietnam and Turkey, and 9-year-old Matthew tagged along to Africa this year, blogging his experiences for his third-grade classmates at home.

When he's not traveling, Goldberg brings the world through his front door, hosting exchange students and sponsoring refugees—the most recent, a Congolese family who came to Cleveland. For Goldberg, it's a way to repay the hospitality his family receives on its own travels—and the opportunities Cleveland provided for his grandfather Leo two generations ago.

"People have done so much more for us than we could ever do for them," he said. But he keeps trying to even the scales by not only inviting people into his orbit, but also keeping them there.

This summer, Goldberg visited New York City and spent time with Dawit, the student from Ethiopia he met more than a decade ago. Today, Dawit is a public defender in the Bronx, practicing in an area heavily populated by immigrants. He cites Goldberg's commitment to him and selflessness as influencing his own path.

Michael was able to see something in me—and helped me envision it for myself," Dawit said. "I only hope someday I can do the same for someone else."