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Texas A&M was cohosting its first Technology Commercialization and Investment Forum in Houston's InterContinental Hotel. Press releases touted how "companies commercializing cutting-edge technologies" developed by Aggie researchers would be exposed to hundreds of hotshot investors from around the world.
Covering costs for this event would be Houston venture capital firm Millennium Energy Ventures, run by a guy named Steve Hill. Millennium ranked seventh in the Houston Business Journal's 2003 list of Houston venture capital firms. The company claimed to have prominent associates, including former Texas Secretary of State Jack Rains and former Reliant Energy Chairman Don Jordan. Hill claimed the company had $500 million invested in "emerging technologies" and "life-science" companies.
Hill also claimed a pretty sweet personal history, according to the articles on the Web site of his side company, S.R. Hill and Associates. One article, identified as being from a weekly Norwegian paper called Upstream, states that "many might attribute Steve Hill's resourcefulness to an earlier job in the U.S. Air Force working with systems procurement for top secret satellite intelligence or to a subsequent tour of duty in Vietnam."
He also claimed to be a consultant for various oil and gas companies in places such as Nigeria, where the locals called him "Papa Oyibo -- the Big White Father."
So with that kind of background, it seemed that Millennium would be a good fit for the technology conference. But because Millennium was going to have to shell out about $250,000 to pay for the conference, Hill sent letters to companies like Ernst & Young and Deloitte & Touche, to see if they wanted to chip in.
In internal documents provided to the Houston Press, Hill offered a $40,000 "gold sponsorship" that included "a private dinner in River Oaks" with Gov. Rick Perry and Texas A&M President Robert Gates. (A spokesman for Perry stated the governor did not attend the dinner and was scheduled to be in Dallas that evening.)
As for the companies that would be showcasing their technologies at the conference, Hill sought a finder's fee for Millennium, should any investors whip out their checkbooks. In the case of one company, Hill drew up a contract waiving the finder's fee, since the company "does not anticipate consummating any investment proposal." Therefore, Millennium "is hereby willing to allow [the company] to participate in the event with no specific restrictions."
Suddenly, all the companies slated to present at the conference appeared on Millennium's Web site as "clients." Already, the Web site had claimed "alliances" with other venture capitalists who had no idea who Hill was or why their companies' logos were on his site. When the Press tried to find out more about Millennium and Hill, no Millennium associates wanted to talk. They all referred the Press to Hill, who was reportedly in Nigeria. When finally the Big White Father returned, he promised to clarify everything about his company. He wound up confusing things even more.
Reading Millennium's Web site, www.mevco.com, is like cracking a code.
The company claims to have two offices. But one of them is a space leased from a service called Executive Suites; the other is Hill's condo. There are no actual office employees.
A photo, recently removed from the Web site, of Hill shaking Yao Ming's hand ran under a banner stating that Millennium was a proud supporter of the Houston Rockets. However, Rockets Spokeswoman Susan Newquest denied any affiliation with Hill. (A former Millennium associate says the picture was taken at the Houston Ballet's Nutcracker Market, an annual fund-raiser, where donors could have their pictures taken with Yao. Newquest confirmed that.)
On the Web site's "alliances" sections were the logos of two Austin venture capital firms.
"We've asked him to remove the affiliation in the Web site," said Kim Paschall, spokeswoman for one of the firms, Austin Ventures. Paschall said she was unaware of any relationship between Austin and Millennium.
When first told that his company's logo was on the site, G-51 President Rudy Garza said he had no idea who Hill was. He stated later, "We did send them a letter to cease and desist on the logo...We fully expect that he will comply with that."
Since Millennium also claims an alliance with KPMG, an international consulting and accounting firm, we called spokesman Tom Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald turned out to be a sport, even though he made it clear he had better things to do than track down what appeared to be an obscure connection. When ultimately told that Hill said Millennium contracted with KPMG for due diligence services, Fitzgerald asked if that really constituted an "alliance."
"So if I have a subscription to the Houston Press...does that make you an ally of me? Or make me an ally of you? Or that you have an alliance?" he asked.
Similarly, very few representatives of the companies listed on the site's client page believed they were clients.
"I think it's a stretch to call us a client," StarVision president Michael Jacobs said. "We were asked by Texas A&M to participate in a one-day event that [Millennium] cosponsored. And they asked us to basically just agree that if anything came out of that one-day event that we would work with them. But nothing did, and so I wouldn't consider myself a client."