Member Profile: Charles Sellman

Charles “Chuck” Sellman, joined the CANOPY community in mid-2022, several months after he became President of kineo finance, a Switzerland-based, globally active financing firm for innovative technologies and equipment. Leveraging his nonlinear career path and experience working as a biologist, a US Naval Flight Officer and a variety of roles in finance, Chuck is responsible for expanding kineo’s team and reach in the U.S., offering venture leasing solutions to young companies that are placing their novel equipment with customers on a “hardware-as-a-service” basis or other pay-per-use, renting or subscription models. 

Most days, Chuck works out of his private office at CANOPY’s Jackson Square–if you’ve visited this location, there’s a good chance you’ve chatted with Chuck over coffee. Here, he shares his perspective on personal and professional growth, and his plans to grow kineo to have a substantial U.S. presence in the coming years.

Tell us a little about kineo, and how venture leasing is different than venture capital

Venture leasing means different things to different people and it’s not as commonly a used term, like venture capital. kineo was established six years ago in Basel, Switzerland and has grown significantly during the last four years, providing financing for venture-backed companies that are entering their commercialization stage and have a hardware component: they’re not exclusively software, or cloud-based, but have an equipment element – something tangible that somebody can touch.

kineo’s founders saw a need for this type of solution in the med tech space and after this model worked really well in Europe, they decided to break into the United States about two years ago and that was when Chuck came on board.

You have a two-desk private office. Do you have another colleague who regularly works with you at CANOPY?

There are four of us in the United States. So besides myself and my colleague Andrew Brigham working out of Jackson, WY, I work with kineo’s most recent hires, Sean Saunders and Lee Hsieh, both of whom live here in the Bay Area, and we use CANOPY as our nexus. I’m here almost every day; Sean and Lee two to three days here and work otherwise from home.

CANOPY has worked out really well for us because it is beautifully designed and turnkey. We started just with the floor membership and loved it, and then we upgraded to a single-seat office before we moved to this nice, larger spot. I love these large windows that let the light stream in and we’re close to the kitchen, so it’s very social, but you can close the door when you want to focus.

What does a typical day look like for you, given that kineo is based in Switzerland?

Since we are a US subsidiary of a Swiss-based company, we often start our days very early. We’ll get started at 7 a.m. sometimes–I’ll usually take calls from home and then I’ll come here–and because every other board meeting is virtual, twice a year, I get up at 1.30 in the morning, have a coffee and dial in. CANOPY’s setup is working out perfectly for the changing world of work: I’ve told my team that there’s no reason or requirement to be in-office, five days a week, starting at nine o’clock. We have all the tools and technologies we need to stay connected, and also have a physical space where we can work together, hold meetings and reap the irreplaceable benefits of face to face contact.

CANOPY has multiple conference rooms and a large boardroom available, so it’s perfect when we need to have our own space or are hosting clients. Now that CANOPY has opened a new space in Menlo Park, a 15 minute walk from Lee’s house, we’ll expand our membership so he has the opportunity to work from there as well.

You mentioned your  colleagues work in a more hybrid way, splitting time between their home office and CANOPY, whereas you’re here every day. Do you prefer keeping home and work life separate?

If you go back really far, when I started in finance at Bank of America, it was very corporate- beige cubicles, that whole world, which is now probably very rare. My longest stint was at a fund called Cypress Financial Corp based here in San Francisco, which was more flexible, but there was no real work from home.

My preferred working style today is a combination of time at home and here. I either run or ride a bike or scooter to work, so the commute and spending time outside is an integral part of my day. I like being around other people, both from a professional point of view and socially, and CANOPY offers both: I’ve made some really interesting contacts professionally, and really great friends here, so it’s win-win.

Do you have any essential office items across your SF and soon-to-be Menlo Park workspaces?

CANOPY provides all of the essentials necessary to get our work done. However, we have constructed a little speakeasy of sorts. It’s a nice amenity which has evolved from my previous work environments and provides the perfect location and collection of “ingredients” to celebrate the closing of a deal, to bring colleagues together after a day of work or further leverage the already social environment at CANOPY. There has been more than one day when a group of us at the Jackson Square location have migrated out to the balcony to enjoy a glass of wine on a beautiful San Francisco evening. 

Can you tell me about any big wins for kineo recently?

We didn’t have precise goals for the year–we deliberately set more general goals–but we’ve achieved some great milestones. We’ve built a really cohesive team, which took a while to accomplish. We were looking for people with the right combination of qualities, the requisite financial background and experience, an exposure to or time spent in tech or science, and a curious and problem-solving personality.

On the business side, we’ve closed four really interesting deals with another one slated for the New Year, exceeding our expectations in terms of both the number of companies and the amount of capital we’re putting to work, and we’re very excited about that.

Congratulations! Do you have any long term plans or vision for kineo?

I’ll share a little anecdote. I’m 57 and, as we discussed earlier, I’ve had a rather nonlinear career path which has ranged from biology to hunting submarines to telecom startups. For the last 20 plus years I’ve been in equipment finance, and my role at kineo has presented a great opportunity to bring that track record to bear and combine it with both my experience in leading teams and with my nature of being a builder and a tinker. I love understanding how things work and I get really excited by new ideas that are pushing boundaries, trying to make the world a better place, doing things better–and I find interfacing with young companies and innovative builders, engineers and programmers immensely rewarding on a personal level. 

I am very eager  to help grow kineo in the US and realize the full potential of its platform and strategy. I have no plans to retire. It’s not a word I like to use as I’ll always see myself pursuing something, whether you call it work or not. I’ll always stay curious.

What qualities or approaches do you think shore a person, role or business up to be sustainable in the long term? How does your perspective fit with kineo’s operations today?

The majority of my financial experience has been in large industrial and transportation equipment: commercial shipping, aircraft, rail, power generation and other similar assets. By today’s standards, a lot of that is not sustainable. At kineo, it’s important to us as a company and as individuals to be tackling the problems that are facing humanity, and not aiding or prolonging the things that are problematic or dangerous or destructive.

On a personal level, I find that really exciting: recently we’ve connected with some fascinating projects in the electrification, agricultural tech and medtech spaces, where one company we’re working with has created a device which allows paraplegic or other similarly disabled persons to move themselves without the assistance of another person.

Favorite podcast?  

Skeptoid by Brian Dunning. He takes a scientific, rationally skeptical approach to a lot of things we either take for granted, are urban legend, or that have simply bubbled up in mainstream media or our general awareness. He follows the data, adheres to the scientific method and strives to sift the truth from all of the noise, cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias and other distractions with which we humans are plagued. I like that a lot.

A destination you’ve traveled to and you never get tired of?

Ojai in Southern California has become my favorite for a couple of reasons. My sister purchased property in the hills there five or six years ago, and it’s become a family hub with lots of projects that need attention (as you already know, I love building and fixing things). I’ve also developed a close group of friends in that area who are from a variety of different backgrounds and have pursued careers and passions very dissimilar from mine.  I find that amazingly refreshing and inspiring. Also, in the midst of San Francisco’s cool and foggy summers, it’s where I go and it’s great to go there in the summertime when I’m looking for heat. And an added bonus is that I can take the train there. The Coast Starlight passes through Emeryville (across the bay from San Francisco) every morning and arrives in Southern California 11 hours later. But it’s 11 hours of hassle-free travel and uninterrupted time to think, read and contemplate.

How do people react when you tell them you take that train?

They ask if I’m nuts. What got me started is watching the Ken Burns documentary on Ernest Hemingway–who I hadn’t read since I was probably in high school–and I checked out and reread a copy of The Sun Also Rises. In one scene, The protagonist describes taking the train from Paris to Cherbourg followed by boarding an ocean liner to New York to see his publisher. Another portion of the novel involves travel by train and foot from France to Spain to go trout fishing and see bullfights.

Hemingway would write about what happened during these lengthy journeys, how it was slow and how people thought and viewed the world around them and met new people. I’m a total convert. I can get work done. I can watch beautiful and rarely seen parts of California go by outside of the window. I have the luxury of uninterrupted time.

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

When I was in the military, I was in aviation. A key piece of advice in aviation is to always stay ahead of the aircraft, so that you’re not solely acting  in the here and now–you’re thinking 15, 30, 45 seconds ahead. This concept has served me well not just in military aviation but in all areas of my life. During the pandemic  I began riding a friend’s Vespa instead of driving a car to get around the city. This led me to purchase my first motorcycle, and my motorcycle training instructors talked about the same thing: staying ahead of the bike, not focusing only on what’s around you, but what’s coming down the road, what might happen next. This has the effect of making things slow down and allows you to deal with situations better as they arise.  

A skill everyone should master?

Empathy, especially in this day and age. You can couple that with actively listening, putting yourself in other people’s shoes, and really making an effort to acknowledge that you may not have all the answers and your perceptions may not be correct. My grandfather used to say “always listen to the other guy, because he just might be right”. In a sense, that’s a type of empathy.

Your favorite thing to do in San Francisco?

My favorite thing in (or really about) the city is the ability to be outside and moving under your own power pretty much year round. I have a bunch of walking and running routes in and around the Presidio, close to where I live, and then I have several bicycle routes coming into work, none of which are direct but do avoid traffic or are beautiful or have a good hillclimb. Sometimes all three! If someone is new to the city, I recommend they rent a bike and ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. It’s a little touristy, but you can enjoy lunch or dinner over there, put your bike on the ferry and come back across San Francisco Bay and see Alcatraz and Angel Island.