Angel Investor Semyon Dukach Stirs Up Trouble with New Award

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If you’re a troublemaker in training, you could do worse than follow the lead of Semyon Dukach.

The former MIT blackjack team leader has made his name beating casinos, leading unconventional startups, and selling companies for tens of millions—all with a strong anti-establishment undercurrent.

Now Dukach is unveiling a new “Troublemaker award,” and its first winner: Zack Kopplin, a student activist who has gained notoriety for opposing the teaching of creationism in publicly funded U.S. schools.

The award comes with $10,000 in cash, supplied personally by Dukach (pictured above). The plan is to select a winner every year: a person or group of people under the age of 20, from anywhere in the world, who exemplifies “going against the legal or moral climate of a place,” Dukach says, for the greater good and betterment of society.

Of course, that’s very subjective. But the inaugural winner has a pretty good case. Kopplin, 19, is an undergrad at Rice University in Houston, but he grew up in Louisiana. While in high school, he led a campaign to oppose the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act (LSEA), a law that lets teachers bring their own materials into the classroom, particularly around politically charged subjects such as evolution or climate change.

Kopplin’s efforts have helped keep established science textbooks—under fire from the state’s science denialists—in use in schools. He has also helped introduce two bills to repeal the LSEA. Neither was passed, but he has plans to promote a third bill this spring, with the support of 78 Nobel Laureates, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New Orleans City Council, and some 74,000 signatures on a nationwide petition.

Zack Kopplin

Kopplin (pictured, left) is also targeting the use of government-funded vouchers to support U.S. schools that teach creationism and intelligent design.

“We need a student movement of troublemakers and truth-tellers who are willing to stand up and speak out,” Kopplin said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Dukach has been raising his own profile in the Boston tech scene over the past couple of years. He stepped down as CEO of e-mail software firm SMTP (he’s still chairman) to focus full-time on angel investing and mentoring entrepreneurs, which he has been doing on the side for 15 years.

In recent months, he has backed Boston-area startups such as Ovuline, CoachUp, Fashion Project, and Wanderu, and he sits on the boards of a handful of tech companies, including Terrafugia and Global Cycle Solutions.

The Troublemaker award dovetails pretty well with Dukach’s philosophy as an investor and mentor. A few things I find interesting about that:

—Like Bill Warner, the noted Boston tech angel, Dukach believes “you need to build a company around your inner passion and your dreams,” he says. “It’s a deliberate exercise. The greatest companies come out of that.” He thinks startups often get off track when they bring in more experienced management types who don’t have the same passion as the founders.

—Dukach says his main goal is not to maximize his return on any given investment, but to work with founders to help them develop their ideas and themselves. “The more they’re passionate, the more useful I am,” he says. “My goal is not great companies. It’s to help young people succeed.” For now, he says, his main reward is in being “valued, wanted, and useful.”

—As an angel investor, he says, he has the freedom to be loyal to individuals, not organizations. This strikes me as an important overarching theme in business. In the end, all relationships and deals boil down to personal connections (e.g., it’s the partner, not the firm). Those are the partnerships that last the longest and ultimately have the most meaning.

Dukach says he will probably create a nonprofit foundation around the Troublemaker award. It could be “the main cause in my life,” he says.

To that end, he might want to flesh out the details of the selection criteria, which are currently pretty vague. One interesting wrinkle is that all ongoing applications are made public on the Web, and can consist of any materials that demonstrate “troublemaking” activities.

Dukach stops short of encouraging anything that’s illegal—if nothing else, that would make it hard to get nonprofit status. “But it won’t disqualify you, let’s put it that way,” he says.