Andy Miller on Apple, Leap Motion as the New Apple, & Sacramento Kings Deal

I’m on the phone with Andy Miller, and I don’t know where to begin.

Ask him about working with Steve Jobs at Apple? About how Leap Motion may or may not be the next Apple? Or what about how that $348 million deal to buy the Sacramento Kings went down?

Miller is driving in his car. It’s Friday, and the mayor of Sacramento, CA, is about to announce that the contentious deal to sell the Kings to a group of California tech investors—including Miller—has been signed. The sale, which the NBA is expected to approve officially this week, means the Kings aren’t moving to Seattle, where a competing bid was made by a group led by hedge fund manager Chris Hansen and Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. The battle has played out publicly since January.

Miller is known in the Boston area as the guy who co-founded and led Quattro Wireless, a mobile-ad startup bought by Apple for $275 million in early 2010. (He’s also a member of the “m-Qube mafia,” though that list needs updating.) Miller worked on Apple’s mobile advertising business for a couple years, reporting directly to Steve Jobs. Then he went off and joined Highland Capital Partners, a Quattro investor, before taking a job with San Francisco-based Leap Motion (another Highland company) as president and COO last year.

So how did he get involved in one of the biggest sports deals of the year?

“It’s been a long saga, and it’s pretty amazing,” Miller says.

Here’s the back-story. Miller loves sports and grew up wanting to play baseball. When he realized that wasn’t going to be his career, he says, “I set a goal that I wanted to buy a team and run a team.”

When Apple acquired Quattro, Miller moved from Boston to the San Francisco Bay Area and got involved with a professional sports team. He bought into the Modesto Nuts, a Class A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies baseball team, as a co-owner. He says he learned a lot about the business of sports teams and “wanted to get involved with a major league club.”

Meanwhile, like a lot of Boston sports fans who move West, Miller says he “wasn’t sure what team to root for.” The NBA’s Golden State Warriors were trendy, but he says, “I love the underdog.” That would be the Kings, who haven’t been good since their heyday of the early-to-mid 2000s. Plus their fandom was “kind of like Boston,” he says. “It’s gritty, it’s not front-running, it’s so passionate.”

When the Kings ownership situation broke early this year, Miller says he “started talking to people.” He went to Sacramento and talked to the mayor, Kevin Johnson—yes, that Kevin Johnson, the former NBA all-star point guard who played in Phoenix and Cleveland. Miller also talked to Mark Mastrov, the founder of 24 Hour Fitness, who was also interested in buying the Kings and keeping them in Sacramento.

Mastrov was close to Vivek Ranadivé, the founder and CEO of Tibco Software, who leads the new Kings ownership group. (You can read Q&As with Ranadivé by my colleague Wade Roush on pattern recognition and basketball, and real-time information and prediction.) “We were on standby as a little group,” Miller says. Once the Seattle bid went through, Mayor Johnson gave them a call to action.

“One thing led to another,” Miller says, and Ranadivé brought in the Jacobs brothers of Qualcomm fame, and others. All told, the new Kings ownership group includes about eight general partners (counting the Jacobs brothers as one) and more than 20 limited partners, including former Kings star Mitch Richmond.

Their deal is for a 65 percent controlling stake in the Kings, acquired from the Maloof family, with the team valued at $535 million (not counting a proposed new stadium downtown).

“It’s a huge deal for Sacramento,” Miller says. “It’s a one-team town. It’s part of their identity. We want to invest a lot of money in downtown, build out restaurants and hotels, and really rebuild downtown Sacramento.”

With owners from Tibco, Apple, Qualcomm, and Facebook, “we are a tech owner group,” Miller says. “Technology will be forefront in how we interact with fans.” That means everything from using cutting-edge Web and mobile platforms to enhance the fan experience (at home and in the stadium), to extending the Kings and NBA brands to the rest of the world—in particular, India, where Ranadivé originally hails from. (He’s speaking at Xconomy’s Napa Summit on June 3-4, on “Solving World Problems While Going to the Hoop.”)

For his part, Miller will serve as chair of the technology committee for the Kings. And he says, “I definitely want to get my hand in the basketball operation.” So, how much of his time will the Kings take? He laughs, saying his wife has the same question. “I have no idea,” he admits.

But his day job is keeping him plenty busy. Leap Motion is developing a new kind of motion-and-gesture-tracking interface that Miller says could be a “touchscreen killer.” Imagine controlling your desktop or mobile device with hand motions in the air, rather than clicking a mouse or swiping the screen. “The things you can do in 3D space are pretty cool,” he says. “You’ll see us in smartphones and tablets, in MRI machines, robotic surgery, and in deals in automotive” and defense industries.

(And what’s wrong with touchscreens? They’re expensive and they break, he says.)

Leap Motion is certainly a big technology bet. The 85-person company has raised about $44 million since its founding in 2010. (The Boston area’s Bill Warner, an Xconomist, was its first investor). Leap’s initial product is due out in July, with beta trials starting in June. Interestingly, the company thinks of itself as primarily a software company, though there’s hardware involved in its controller interface. Leap plans to roll out an app store called Airspace, which will include new kinds of software for activities like gaming, music, art, design, and education.

“Leap is like a baby Apple, from the hardware to the software to our app store,” Miller says. “From the look and feel of the product to its simplicity, message, and design.” On the app side, he says, “we’ll be more open than Apple and more curated than Android.”

The biggest lesson Miller brings from Apple and his time with Jobs? “The attention to detail. Sweating the last 2, 3, 4, 5 percent,” he says. “And you can’t underestimate Apple’s ability to simplify everything for consumers and employees.”

What’s more, he says, Leap Motion is trying to “focus on just a few things” and get them absolutely right. “That’s what Apple does. They’re the biggest company in world and they only have five or six product lines,” he says.

That’s all good, and we shall see about Leap Motion. But back to basketball for a second. What will happen to his sports allegiances when the Celtics play the Kings?

“I love the Celtics, but it’s the Kings all day,” he says. “Kings all day.”

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] Follow @gthuang

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  • Dongcopter Pilot

    I pre-ordered my Leap almost 2 years ago…it was originally supposed to ship in May. Article fails to mention the delay to pre-order shipments. Thanks, mini-crApple!