Category Archives: Innovation

Optimism and Disillusionment in Silicon Valley. Part 3 : Goomics, the end of Googleyness?

First, it’s important to remember that Aaron Swartz died 10 years ago. He was, maybe, the first casualty of the end of the Internet as we dreamed it, a free or at least easy access to the world information.

What is Googleyness? Laszlo Bock’s Definition of Googleyness is #1 Enjoying Fun, #2 Intellectual Humility, #3 Conscientiousness, #4 Comfort with ambiguity, #5 Evidence that you’ve taken some courageous or interesting paths in your life. In page 134 of Goomics, Manu Cornet mentions “Data-Driven and Transparent, Selfless and Humble, Proactive, with a Sense of Humour & Silghtly Irreverent, Respectful and Fair”.

So what happened between the Volume I of Goomics, (that I had 3 posts about here, there and there) and this second volume, with subtitle Disillusionment? Let us quote the author through a few of his drawings. First of all, Google is an innovative company, as Manu Cornet reminds us through the following and funny quiz, the answers to which you will find at the end of the article.

However, the author has lived his last years at Google with some difficulty. Here are some examples:

His feelings that Google is becoming a normal company with its bad habits of bureaucracy, lack of transparency and even worse bad treatment of harrassment are rather scary.

Let’s end on a refreshing note though, written by a true nerd!

Post-scriptum (before the anwsers to the quiz):

A post-scriptum to close the loop of these 3 articles about disillusionment in innovation. A recent scientific article seems to support some of Michael Gibson’s arguments in Paper Belt on Fire. France Culture in Les publications scientifiques deviennent de moins en moins “innovantes” (see the end of the page) quotes a publication by researchers from the University of Minnesota, Papers and patents are becoming less disruptive over time. An interesting read for those intrigued by the subject.

Answers to the quiz

Optimism and Disillusionment in Silicon Valley. Part 2 : Steve Jobs in Playboy

It is the third time I can relate Playboy magazine to technology startups. Strange.

In 1971, Intel went public the same day as Playboy and its co-founder, Gordon Moore, funnily recounts in Something Ventured: And a few years later one of the analysts: “The market has spoken. It’s chips over chicks, 10-to-1.” He did not exactly say that but something similar. I will let you search if you wish…

In 2004, the playboy interview of the Google founders, The Google Guys, America’s newest billionaires, was very controversial. Not because of the publisher, but of the timing. You can read
Google says Playboy article could be costly.

Finally I recently discovered that in 1984 was published a lengthy 13-page interview of Silicon Valley’s newest star: Steven Jobs, a candid conversation about making computers, making mistakes and making millions with the young entrepreneur who sparked a business revolution. Here are some extracts.

About computers

We’re living in the wake of the petrochemical evolution of 100 years ago. The petrochemical revolution gave us free energy – free mechanical energy, in this case. It changed the textures of society in most ways. This revolution, the information revolution, is a revolution of free energy as well, but another kind: free intellectual energy. It’s very crude today, yet our Mackintosh computer takes less power than a 100-watt light bulb to run and it can save you hours a day. What will it be able to do ten or 20 years form now, or 50 years from now? This revolution will dwarf the petrochemical revolution. We’re on the forefront.

Computers will be essential in most homes. The most compelling reason to buy a computer for the home will be to link it into a nationwide communications network. We’re just in the beginning stages of what will be a truly remarkable breakthrough for most people – a remarkable as the telephone.

It’s often the same with any new revolutionary thing. People get stuck as they get older. Our minds are sort of electrochemical computers. Your thoughts construct patterns like scaffolding in your mind. You are really etching chemical patterns. In most cases, people get stuck un those patterns, just like grooves in a record, and they never out of them. It’s a rare person who etches grooves that are other than a specific way of looking at things, a specific way of questioning things. It’s rare that you see an artist in his 30s or 40s to really contribute something amazing. Of course, there are some people who are innately curious, forever little kids in their awe of life, but they’re rare.

About innovation

What happens in most companies is that you don’t keep great people under working environments where individual accomplishment is discouraged rather than encouraged. The great people leave and you end up with mediocrity. I know, because that’s how Apple was built. Apple is an Ellis island company. Apple is built on refugees from other companies. These are the extremely bright individual contributors who were troublemakers at other companies.

Polaroid did that for some years, but eventually Dr Land, one of these brilliant troublemakers, was asked to leave his own company – which is one f the dumbest things I’ve ever heard of.

About growing

Anyway, one of our biggest challenges and the one I think John Sculley and I should be judged on in five to ten years is making Apple an incredibly great ten- or 20-billion-dollar company. Will it still have the spirit it does today? We’re charting new territory. There are no models we can look to for our high growth, for some of the new management concepts we have. So we’ve to find our own way.

The way it’s going to work is that in our business, in order to continue to be one of the major contributors, we’re going to have to a ten-billion-dollar company. That growth is required for us to keep up with the competition. Our concern is how to become that, rather than the dollar goal, which is meaningless to us.

There may be some imitators left in the $100,000,000-to-$200-000-000 range, but being a -$200-000-000 company is going to mean you are struggling for your life, and that’s not a really a position from which to innovate. Not only do I think IBM will do away with its imitators by providing software they can’t provide, I think eventually it will come up with a new standard that won’t even be compatible with what it’s making now – because it is too limiting.

[Jobs was visionary but could be always right. Look at Dell, Compaq, Lenovo, HP and Intel/Microsoft…]

I used to think about selling 1,000,000 computers a year, but it was just a thought. When it actually happens, it’s a totally different thing. So it was. “Holy shit, it’s actually coming true!” But what’s hard to explain is that this does not feel like overnight. Next year will be my tenth year. I had never done anything longer than a year in my life. Six months for me, was a long time when we started Apple. So that has been my life since I’ve been sort of a free-willed adult. Each year has been so robust with problems and successes and learning experiences and human experiences that a year is a lifetime at Apple. So this has been ten lifetimes.

There’s an old Hindi saying that comes into my mind occasionally: “For the first 30 years of your life, you make your habits. For the last 30 years of your life, your habits make you.” As I’m going to be 30 in February, the thought has crossed my mind. And I’m not sure. I’ll always stay connected with Apple. I hope that throughout my life, I’ll sort of have the thread of my life and the thread of Apple weave in and out of each other, like a tapestry. There may be a few years when I am not there, but I’ll always come back.

About artificial intelligence

The original video games captured the principles of gravity. And what computer programming can do is to capture the underlying principles, the underlying essence, and then facilitate thousands of experiences based on that perception of the underlying principles. Now if we could capture Aristotle’s world view – the underlying principles of his world view? Then you could ask Aristotle a question. Ok you might say it would not be exactly what Aristotle was. It could all be wrong. But maybe not.

Part of the challenge, I think, is to get these tools to millions and tens of millions of people and to start to refine these tools so that someday we can crudely, and then in a more refined sense, capture an Aristotle or an Einstein or a Land while he’s alive.

That’s for someone else. It’s for the next generation. I think an interesting challenge in this area of intellectual inquiry is to grow obsolete gracefully, in the sense that things are changing so fast that certainly by the end of the Eighties, we really want to turn over the reins to the next generation, so that they can go on, stand on our shoulders and go much further. It’s a very interesting challenge, isn’t it? How to grow obsolete with grace.

Post-Scriptum: It is difficult to add anything to this beautiful conclusion and yet I wish to create a (quite artificial) link between these first two parts. I just discovered it while finishing this article and the coincidence is quite beautiful. I didn’t know about this Steve Jobs interview. Much better known, even famous, is the speech he gave in 2005 at Stanford University, for the graduation of students (the “commencement speech” – my first article in this blog)

Coincidentally, Michael Gibson ends his book, Paper Belt of Fire, by analyzing another commencement speech given in 2005 and considered by some to be one of the most beautiful with that of Jobs. This is “This is water” by David Foster Wallace, the entirety of which you will find in This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life.

Here is its conclusion:

The capital-T Truth is about life BEFORE death.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over:

“This is water.”

“This is water.”

It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out. Which means yet another grand cliché turns out to be true: your education really IS the job of a lifetime. And it commences: now.

Optimism and Disillusionment in Silicon Valley. Part 1 : Paper Belt on Fire

So I asked Gates: “What do you think of the idea that we’re not seeing as much innovation and scientific progress as we should? That the rate of progress has stalled?”
“Oh you guys are full of shit. Total shit…”

This is how Bill Gates reacts on page XI of Paper Belt on Fire, How Renegade Investors Sparked a Revolt against the University to author Michael Gibson’s ideas that he describes in detail in his recent book.

The book is both exciting and frustrating, convincing sometimes and unnerving at others. But let me mention what was questioning [to me].

The central thesis of the book has four parts. The first is that science, know-how, and wisdom are the source of almost all that is good: higher living standards; longer, healthier lives; thriving communities; dazzling cities; blue skies; profound philosophies; the flourishing of the arts; and all the rest of it.
The second is that the rate of progress in science, know-how, and wisdom, has flattened for far too long. We have not been making scientific, technological, or philosophical progress at anything close to the rate we’ve needed to since about 1971. (Computers and smart phones notwithstanding.)
The third claim is that the complete and utter failure of our education, from K-12 up through Harvard, is a case in point of this stagnation. We are not very good at educating people, and we have not improved student learning all that much in more than a generation, despite spending three to four times as much per student at any grade. Our lack of progress in knowing how to improve student outcomes has greatly contributed to the decline in creativity in just about every field.
The last, chief point is that the fate of our civilization depends upon replacing or reforming our unreliable and corrupted institutions, which include both the local public school and the entire Ivy League. My colleagues and I are trying to trailblaze one path in the field of education. We might be misguided in our methods, but our diagnosis is correct.
[Pages XIX-XX]

What are the traits of great founders? [Pages 89-96]

Edge control, crawl-walk-run, hyperfluency, emotional depth & resilience, a sustaining motivation, the alpha-gamma tensive brilliance, egoless ambition, and Friday-night-Dyson-sphere.

Edge control: a willingness day after day, to defy the boundary between the known and the unknown, order and disorder, vision and hubris.

Crawl-walk-run: a founding team needs to have the smarts to build what they are going to build. […] The best way to screen for these traits is to see them at play in the wild. It takes some time to see their evolution.

Hyperfluency: the best founders have the charm of a huckster and the rigor of a physicist. […] They speak with fluent competence.

Emotional depth & resilience: the founders of a company have to have the social and emotional intelligence to make hires, work with customers, raise money from investors, and gel with co-founders. The complexity of this total effort is incredibly demanding and emotionally exhausting.

Tensive brilliance: what we’ve noticed is that creative people tend to have a unity born of variety. That unity may have a strong tension to it, as it tries to reconcile opposites. Insider yet outsider, familiar yet foreign, strange, but not a stranger, young in age but older in mind, a member of an institution but a social outcast – all kind of polarities lend themselves to dynamism. This is in part, I believe, why immigrants and first-generation citizens show a strong productivity for entrepreneurship. They are the same, but different.

Egoless ambition: on the one side there is an intense commitment to do great things. But on the other side is an element of detachment, a footloose, untroubled attitude that treats triumph and disaster just the same.

Friday-night-Dyson-sphere: the physicist Freeman Dyson once imagined a sphere of light-absorbing material surrounding our entire solar system on its periphery. One of the most electrifying moments for us is when a team convinces us, through a series of plausible steps backed by evidence, that they are capable of growing a lemonade stand into a company that builds Dyson Spheres. What’s more, it’s clear this is the thing they’d rather be tinkering on during a Friday night when all the cool kids are out partying.

The 1517 fund [1]

“We’re named after the year Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to a church door in a tiny German town. That began a revolution, the Protestant Reformation. But it all started because he was protesting against the sale of a piece of paper called an indulgence. In 1517, the church was saying this expensive piece of paper could save your soul. In 2015, universities are selling another expensive piece of paper, the diploma, saying it’s the only way to save your soul. Well, it was bullshit then. And it’s bullshit now.” [Page 144]

For one thing, most venture capital funds fail. Blind folded monkeys throwing darts to pick stocks would perform better than the investor who picked the average venture capital fund. The median VC returns about 1.6 percent less than if someone just put their money in an index-tracking mutual fund. [Page 147]

To accelerate progress, we need young people working at the frontiers of knowledge sooner than they have in the past. They also need greater freedom. What that means is institutions that trust them to take risks and demonstrate some edge control with their research. We must hold it as a fairly predictable law of creativity that the unknown must always pass through the stranger before we can understand it.
Universities have served this research function in the past and will continue to do so. But they are plagued by four realities. The first is the slow speed of a formal, credential-based education. It takes four years to earn a bachelor’s degree and then another seven or eight to earn a PhD. Second, universities have become hives of groupthink. Third, grant-giving is driven by prestige, credibility, and a cover-your-ass mentality. Fourth, the incentives of academic institutions reward shrewd political calculation, incrementalism, short-term horizons, and a status hierarchy in which demonstrating loyalty earns more reward than advancing knowledge.
[Page 261-2]

About education

The good news is that two cheap, relatively easy to use methods stand out as the most effective at boosting student performance: practice testing and distributed practice. Distributed practice is when students establish and stick to a consistent schedule of practice over time. (Its antithesis is cramming.) Practice is not mere repetition, but a deliberate effort to improve performance in the Goldilocks zone where success is neither too easily gained, nor the challenge too hard. Self-resting as a technique should not be confused with high stakes standardized testing but instead as a way of frequently probing the edge of knowledge in a field. […] Consistent self-testing and distributed practice are the most effective learning techniques, but they are also the most painful, as both of these strategies require discipline, energy, and individual effort.
Then there are the more intangible questions that require our attention. How can we encourage students to pursue the truth, independent of other people’s approval? How do we teach civil disobedience, training our young to fight for what’s right? Or how to practice delayed gratification for worthy long-term goals? Are these even possible to teach? No one has bothered to ask.
[Pages 301-302]

If you are not unnerved and still intrigued, then you may read his final chapter around James Stockdale and David Foster Wallace.

Now what I found unnerving is the huge difference between exceptions, anecdotes in a system and a social statistical problem. I will only quote a great and rather unknown novel: Les Thibault by Roger Martin du Gard: « Je vous avoue que je ne sais plus très bien ce que je lui ai conseillé. J’ai dû – naturellement – l’engager à ne pas abandonner l’école. Pour des êtres de sa trempe, notre enseignement est, somme toute, inoffensif : ils savent choisir, d’instinct ; ils ont – comment dirais-je – une désinvolture de bonne race, qui ne se laisse pas mettre en lisière. L’Ecole n’est fatale qu’aux timides et aux scrupuleux. Au reste, il m’a paru qu’il venait me consulter pour la forme et que sa résolution était prise. C’est justement l’indice d’une vocation, qu’elle soit impérieuse. C’est bon signe qu’un adolescent soit en révolte, par nature, contre tout. Ceux de mes élèves, qui sont arrivés à quelque chose étaient tous de ces indociles. » [Page 754 of volume 1, collection folio and this gives in English “I confess to you that I no longer really know what I advised him. I had to – naturally – urge him not to drop out of the School. For beings of his caliber, our teaching is, after all, harmless: they know how to choose, instinctively; they have – how shall I put it – a good-natured casualness, which does not allow itself to be put on the edge. The School is fatal only to the timid and the scrupulous. Besides, it seemed to me that he came to consult me for the form and that his resolution was taken. It is precisely the sign of a vocation, that it be imperious. It is a good sign that a teenager is in revolt, by nature, against everything. Those of my students who achieved something were all of these rebellious ones.”]

[1] I did not mention until now and will in this footnote that Gibson, in a way, belongs to the PayPal mafia of anarcho-libertarians that include Peter Thiel and Elon Musk. Gibson co-managed the Thiel Fellowship and now the 1517 fund. There are notable Fellows as shown on Wikipedia. Now quoting Peter Thiel did the recipients did better than what he dreamed of: “We wanted flying cars, we got 140 characters instead” or did they really answer his famous question “What’s something you believe to be true that the rest of the world thinks is false?” [Page 60]

Technology Transfer according to EPFL and Rules for Startups

Technology transfer has best practices but it is not so easy to read about them. The Technology Transfer Office (TTO) at Ecole Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) had the great idea to publish how it manages the specific situation of startup creation. In March 2022, it published its New Guidelines for start-ups at EPFL. It is a very interesting document and I advise people curious about the topic to read it. “I wish I had it when I launched my start-up!” claims one of the EPFL entrepreneur. At the same time, the head of EPFL’S TTO was interviewed by Nature Communication and the document is worth reading too. Here is the link : A conversation on technology transfer. I will quote it at the end of the post.

Here are some data:

– For exclusive licenses, EPFL obtains either a number of shares equivalent to 10% of the start-up capital stock at incorporation, or a lower share of the capital stock that is undiluted until the start-up has received a certain amount of equity investment, e.g. 5% of capital share undiluted until the total accumulated investment reaches the amount of 5 MCHF, regardless of the value of the company.

Royalties are applicable on sales and depend on the industry
Pharma 2–5%
Medtech 2–4%
Sensors, optics and robotics 1.5–3%
Environmental sciences & energy 1–3%
Computer and communication 1.5–3%
Semiconductors 1–3%
Software 1-25%
(this last % may be surprising and I assume it applies to licenses of fully usable software as a product)

– Exit : At the time of exit, EPFL will diligently consider any request of a start-up to transfer the licensed patents to an acquiring company that is committed and that has the capacity to further develop and commercialize the technology. The companies shall furnish the necessary business information to allow EPFL to understand the needs of such a transfer, and in the case of a royalty buyout to make a valuation of the licensed patents in terms of potential sales.

As promised some interesting elements from the interview. The words in bold are my choice.

“Contrary to what might be expected, the main factor is not necessarily the idea or technology itself, but people’s involvement. The actual and future commitment of the individuals involved in the commercialization of the technology is paramount, both on the academic and industrial sides. The commercialization of technologies is a long journey, from development, through de-risking, including prototyping and preliminary clinical validations, market analysis and industrialization, to the first sale. As no technology will find the path to commercialization by itself, long-term commitment is key.”

Entrepreneurship is an effective way to increase the odds, by having a single actor transitioning and playing both roles. While this strategy requires a double commitment in terms of time and risk taking, it may lead to a higher potential reward for the researcher.”

“It’s certainly a positive development that PhD students and postdocs now have a third option to consider besides staying in academia or taking a job in industry — that of becoming an entrepreneur — and an increasing number of great examples of entrepreneurs and start-up role models exist.”

“If personal motivation and commitment to entrepreneurship are present, the start-up route is the way to go. It’s important to understand that many TTOs do not create start-ups. Researchers, as “founders”, do it.”

A big thank you to my dear former colleagues in Switzerland for mentioning this very much needed information.

Bill Campbell, the Trillion Dollar Coach (Part III)

I very seldom read books twice, and had never done it with business books. This is the exception. I had blogged about this book here back in 2019. I remembered strong elements of good coaching but had not mentioned them. Here they finally come! Campbell does not talk much, does not give advice but asks questions… And he gives courage.

PRACTICE FREE-FORM LISTENING

In a coaching session with Bill, you could expect that he would listen intently. No checking his phone for texts or email, no glancing at his watch or out the window while his mind wandered. He was always right there. Today it is popu­lar to talk about “being present” or “in the moment.” We’re pretty sure those words never passed the coach’s lips, yet he was one of their great practitioners. Al Gore says he learned from Bill how “important it is to pay careful attention to the person you are dealing with… give them your full, undi­vided attention, really listening carefully. Only then do you go into the issue. There’s an order to it.”

Alan Eustace called Bill’s approach “free-form listening”­ – academics might call it “active listening,” a term first coined in 1957 – and in practicing it Bill was following the advice of the great UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who felt that poor listening was a trait shared by many leaders: “We’d all be a lot wiser if we listened more,” Wooden said, “not just hearing the words, but listening and not thinking about what we’re going to say.”

Bill’s listening was usually accompanied by a lot of ques­tions, a Socratic approach. A 2016 Harvard Business Review article notes that this approach of asking questions is essen­tial to being a great listener: “People perceive the best listen­ers to be those who periodically ask questions that promote discovery and insight.”

“Bill would never tell me what to do,” says Ben Horowitz. “lnstead he’d ask more and more questions, to get to what the real issue was.” Ben found an important lesson in Bill’s technique that he applies today when working with his fund’s CEOs. Often, when people ask for advice, all they are really asking for is approval. “CEOs always feel like they need to know the answer,” Ben says. “So when they ask me for ad­vice, l’m always getting a prepared question. I never answer those.” Instead, like Bill, he asks more questions, trying to understand the multiple facets of a situation. This helps him get past the prepared question (and answer) and discover the heart of an issue.

[…]

When you listen to people, they feel valued. A 2003 study from Lund University in Sweden finds that “mundane, almost trivial” things like listening and chatting with employees are important aspects of successful leadership, because “people feel more respected, visible and less anonymous, and included in teamwork.” And a 2016 paper finds that this form of “re­spectful inquiry,” where the leader asks open questions and lis­tens attentively to the response, is effective because it heightens the “follower’s” feelings of competence (feeling challenged and experiencing mastery), relatedness (feeling of belonging), and autonomy (feeling in control and having options). Those three factors are sort of the holy trinity of the self-determination the­ory of human motivation, originally developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan.

As Salar Kamangar, an early Google executive, puts it, “Bill was uplifting. No matter what we discussed, I felt heard, understood, and supported.” [Pages 89-91]

DON’T STICK IT IN THEIR EAR

And when he was finished asking questions and listening, and busting your butt, he usually would not tell you what to do. He believed that managers should not walk in with an idea and “stick it in their ear.” Don’t tell people what to do, tell them stories about why they are doing it. “I used to describe success and prescribe to everyone how we were going to do it,” says Dan Rosensweig. “Bill coached me to tell stories. When people understand the story they can connect to it and figure out what to do. You need to get people to buy in. It’s like a running back in football. You don’t tell him exactly what route to run. You tell him where the hole is and what’s the blocking scheme and let him figure it out.”

Jonathan often experienced this as a sort of test: Bill would tell a story and let Jonathan go off and think about it until their next session to see if Jonathan could process and under­stand the lesson it contained and its implications. Chad Hur­ley, YouTube cofounder, had the same experience. “It was like sitting with a friend at the Old Pro [the Palo Alto sports bar],” Chad says. “He would talk about things that had hap­pened to him. He wasn’t trying to preach, just be present.”
Fortunately, Bill expected similar candor in return. Alan Gleicher, who worked with Bill as the head of sales and oper­ations at Intuit, had a simple way of summing up how to be successful with him. “Don’t dance. If Bill asks a question and you don’t know the answer, don’t dance around it. Tell him you don’t know!” For Bill, honesty and integrity weren’t just about keeping your word and telling the truth; they were also about being forthright. This is critical for effective coach­ing; a good coach doesn’t hide the stuff that’s hard to talk about – in fact, a good coach will draw this out. He or she gets at the hard stuff.

Scholars would describe Bill’s approach – listening, pro­viding honest feedback, demanding candor – as “relational transparency,” which is a core characteristic of “authentic leadership.” Wharton professor Adam Grant has another term for it: “disagreeable givers.” He notes in an email to us that “we often feel torn between supporting and challenging others. Social scientists reach the same conclusion for leader­ship as they do for parenting: it’s a false dichotomy. You want to be supportive and demanding, holding high standards and expectations but giving the encouragement necessary to reach them. Basically, it’s tough love. Disagreeable givers are gruff and tough on the surface, but underneath they have others’ best interests at heart. They give the critical feedback no one wants to hear but everyone needs to hear.”

Research on organizations shows what Bill seemed to know instinctively: that these leadership traits lead to bet­ter team performance. One study of a chain of retail stores found that when employees saw their managers as authentic (for example, agreeing that the manager “says exactly what he or she means”), the employees trusted the leaders more, and the stores had higher sales. [Pages 97-99]

BE THE EVANGELIST FOR COURAGE

Bill’s perspective was that it’s a manager’s job to push the team to be more courageous. Courage is hard. People are nat­urally afraid of taking risks for fear of failure. lt’s the man­ager’s job to push them past their reticence. Shona Brown, a longtime Google executive, calls it being an “evangelist for courage.” As a coach, Bill was a never-ending evangelist for courage. As Bill Gurley notes, he “blew confidence into people.” He believed you could do things, even when you yourself weren’t so sure, always pushing you to go beyond your self-imposed limits. Danny Shader, founder and CEO of PayNearMe, who worked with Bill at GO: “The thing I got the most out of meetings with Bill is courage. I always came away thinking, I can do this. He believed you could do stuff that you didn’t believe you could do.”

[…]

Conveying boldness was not blind cheerleading on Bill’s part. He had the mind-set that most people have value, and he had the experience and a good enough eye for talent that he generally knew what he was talking about. He had such credibility that if he said that you could do something, you believed him, not because he was a cheerleader but because he was a coach and experienced executive. He built his mes­sage on your capabilities and progress. This is a key aspect of delivering encouragement as a coach: it needs to be cred­ible.

And if you believed him, you started to believe in your­ self, which of course helped you achieve whatever daunting task lay before you. “He gave me permission to go forth,” Alphabet CFO Ruth Porat says. “To have confidence in my judgment.” [Pages 100-102]

These are the elements that formed the foundation of Bill’s success as an executive coach – and that those who benefited from his coaching took with them when they became coaches to their own colleagues and direct reports, too. He started by building trust, which only deepened over time. He was highly selective in choosing his coachees; he would only coach the coachable, the humble, hungry lifelong learners. He listened intently, without distraction. He usually didn’t tell you what to do; rather, he shared stories and let you draw conclusions. He gave, and demanded, complete candor. And he was an evangelist for courage, by showing inordinate confidence and setting aspirations high. [Page 105]

Exclusive license vs. ownership of Intellectual Property

Intellectual Property (IP) is a sensitive and often cleaving topic. I have already addressed the topic here, check the hashstag #intellectual-preperty (or also #licensing). But even once the general value of IP is addressed, there are tons of secondary issues.

One is the specific question of how ownership of IP by a startup vs. an exclusive license granted by an academic institution is considered, in particular by investors. On January 27, 2022, I send an short email to 300+ investors and I got about a 10% response rate. In parallel, I mentioned the topic on my LinkedIn account and I got additional comments. Although, there is a rich argumentation about pros and cons of both situations, so that the reader may want to have a careful look at the full answers, here is my synthetic understanding:

There is no fundamental difference between license and transfer from the point of view of the startup’s strategy, except what happens in the event of bankruptcy or liquidation. The license is not an asset and therefore the intellectual property is no longer usable. With this nuance, admittedly significant, there are two additional points:
– Some investors think that the owner pays for the maintenance of the IP and suits the possible “infringers” to defend this property. I don’t think that’s the case because in my experience it’s the licensee who does that.
– In case of a trade sale, it is important that the license can be transmitted and this is a major item, that is to be guaranteed. There maybe political or strategic issues though.
Finally, a price for the transfer may be added when or if possible.
There is no doubt that the reputation of the institution and the stability of these acts are essential. (There would be more to add like equity vs. (capped or not) royalties in the license terms, milestones and many details… I tried to be as short as possible).

You can download here pdf file Survey on license vs ownership of IP.

Survey on license vs ownership of IP – Lebret – 1Feb2022

A MIT entrepreneurial history – Part 2 : Ecosystems & Culture

I continued reading the excellent From the Basement to the Dome by Jean-Jacques Degroof and found more inspiring elements about ecosystems, culture and also technology transfer from academic institutions after my first post. Here they are:

6 ingredients of the MIT ecosystem

Degroof gives us the cultural elements of the ecosystem: But what is it about this culture that has been supportive of entrepreneurship? The argument of this book is that entrepreneurship is particularly congruent with at least six elements of MIT’s culture: a well-ingrained, bottom-up organizational dynamic; excellence in all things that one studies or attempts to do, as well as a belief in hard work and fortitude; an interest in problem-solving and having a positive impact on the world; a belief in experimenting and a tolerance of failure; the pride of being viewed as rebels, sometimes eccentric and even a bit geeky, pursuing unconventional solutions; and the tradition of a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. [Page 90]

Why startups?

Here is an interesting comment about academic technology transfer: “Established firms are seldom interested in licensing emerging technologies from academia for several reasons. They don’t understand the potential of the technology; the time frame to develop the tech into a viable product exceeds the time horizon that most firms are comfortable with, or else they fear that they could cannibalize their existing business. As a result, in 1987, the TLO’s new director, John Preston, took the initiative to license technology to new ventures in exchange for equity, first as an experiment because there was a great concern at MIT about potential conflicts of interest. During the first year of this policy, six companies were formed based on such licenses, including ImmuLogic and American Superconductor. Sixteen more companies were formed during the second year. [Page 34]

Degroof then describes the multitude of ecosystem tools, all in a bottom-up logic, with serendipity (chapter 6) as a fairly common mechanism. The beginning of chapter 8 on technology transfer with the example of Amberwave is another must-read:

Often the initial performance of the new technology is either lower than that of existing solutions or not high enough to justify the switching cost for potential clients. As a result, established companies often don’t see the potential of new academic technologies. Moreover, in the few cases when the technology’s advantage is obvious or clearly promising, established companies are often concerned lest they cannibalize market share from their existing technology—a technology in which they have invested time and money, and around which they have built whole supply chains and other infrastructure.
It is estimated that an investment equal to 10 to 100 times the cost of the academic research is needed to bring an academic technology to market. This process also requires patience and perseverance. It can take at least two to three years for a patent to get issued once it is filed. When a company finally licenses a technology, it might take an additional five to ten years before it generates revenue. All in all, the uncertain performance of developing academic inventions, the associated costs, and the time lag between invention and revenue generation make investing in embryonic academic inventions extremely unattractive.
This does not mean that large firms never license patents from universities, but more often, inventors are the only ones to understand and to believe in the commercial potential of their technology. They are, therefore, frequently the only candidates interested in founding (and sometimes funding) a company to commercialize their technology. This process involves obtaining a license for the patent or patents based on their invention from their university, since, following the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, the university owns the intellectual property of government-funded research. The edge that inventors have is the extensive and unique knowledge that they have accumulated through their research efforts and exposure to industry over the years.
[Page 156]

Managing technology transfer

And more interesting information here about avoiding conflicts of interests at MIT: Policies do not allow faculty members to use students for research and development (R&D) related to a start-up in which that professor has equity, nor may students be employed by such a start-up. A start-up in which a professor has an interest is not allowed to fund research in that professor’s lab. Similarly, a professor is not allowed to conduct federally funded research in collaboration with such a start-up, with the exception of SBIR and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) funding. A start-up venture may not be located in a lab. Employees of a professor’s start-up may not be involved in the research activities of the professor’s lab. Research in the lab may not be influenced by a professor’s other professional activities. A faculty member’s full-time employment at MIT prohibits significant managerial responsibilities in a start-up. [Pages 161-62]

Or about making money with Technology Transfer: Many universities expect their technology transfer activities to be profitable and bring in revenue. Although MIT is one of the most successful and experienced universities in terms of technology transfer, its experience shows that this kind of financial gain is a misleading expectation. “Any university that counts on its tech transfer to make a significant change in its finances is statistically going to be in trouble,” said Nelsen. To that end, her motto during her tenure as head of the TLO was, “Impact, not income.” [Page 162]

Many startup stories

Degroof adds anecdotic descriptions of individual companies, rich with lessons: these are BBN (1948), Teradyne (1960), Analog Devices (1965), Prime Computer (1972), Apollo Computer (1980), Thinking Machines (1983), Harmonix Music Systems (1995), Amberwave (1998) ThingMagic (2000), Momenta Pharmaceuticals (2001), SmartCells (2003), Ambri (2010), Firefly Bioworks (2010), Sanergy (2011), Wecyclers (2012), Nima Sensor (2013), Bounce Imaging (2013), ReviveMed (2016), Biobot Analytics (2017), not forgetting Robert Langer’s 40+ spinoffs from 1987 to today!

Internal venture capital – The Engine

My experience with academic venture capital funds is mitigated to say the least. So this is an interesting experiment: Faced with this perceived market failure, MIT’s leadership pointed to the need for patient capital to bring ventures that are trying to commercialize tough science and need more time than do digital businesses to reach a stage where they are ready for venture capital. […] In October 2016, President Reif announced the creation of The Engine, https://www.engine.xyz , a for-profit but public benefit corporation, separate from MIT, that would act as an accelerator for start-ups trying to commercialize “tough techs” by providing advice and physical facilities, as well as an investment fund of patient capital. […] In addition to going against MIT’s policy of not funding entrepreneurial projects, The Engine also broke with Institute tradition by incubating the entrepreneurial projects of its members, which certainly raised substantial objections within the MIT community. [Page 64]

The Engine has a double bottom line: it seeks financial returns and it seeks impact. The Engine raised $200 million for its first fund, with MIT contributing $25 million. […] The fund invests from $250,000 to $2 million per venture, and its investments are not exclusive to MIT-related firms. The investment is made with a time horizon of eighteen years, rather than the typical five to eight years given in the case of venture capital funds. […] Second, The Engine gives start-ups access to infrastructure, such as expensive, specialized equipment, including some from MIT, that otherwise might represent a barrier to entry to firm foundations. The Engine’s facility was initially located in 26,000 square feet of space in Cambridge, with the ambition of expanding to 200,000 square feet through a network of offices, labs, and prototyping and makerspaces a few blocks from Kendall Square. […] Third, the new initiative comes with a network of professionals and mentors in the so-called hard-tech space. [Page 173]

In 2020, The Engine raised a second $250M with $35M from MIT and Harvard University joined as a new LP. Is this different than VC? Will it succeed? Time will tell…

Why you should never look for a cofounder

This recurring question of looking for a cofounder has been bothering me for years. Similarly I do not like the idea of giving titles in the early days of a startup (project) as you may read here : Titles in Start-ups.

My argument is that you don’t look for cofounders. You have them already, you found them by talking about your project to friends or colleagues. It’s a bit like falling in love, you do not look to marry, you meet people. Point.

Of course, this does not help much, because there remains the loneliness of the entrepreneur. But do we get married just to fill the loneliness? As it turned out, thinking about it, I came across an excellent article in which I totally recognized myself: Everything You Need to Know About Startup Founders and Co-Founders.

Here are some key points:
– A founder is a person who comes up with an idea and then transforms it into a business or startup. If a founder sets up a company with other people, they are both a founder and a co-founder.
– “Founder” and “CEO” are two […] startup titles that people can carry simultaneously. One is a permanent title, while the other is not. “You will always be a Founder or Co-Founder.” Be sure to be careful however how you dole out the Founder/Co-Founder titles. That should be a lifetime title so be sure it goes to the right people who played a major role in the starting of the company and who will continue to play a role in the years to come.
– A founding member can often feel similar to a founder or co-founder because they come on so early in the process that they’re also putting in crazy hours and maybe even taking a pay cut in order to be a part of something important. But a founding team member is an early employee, not a founder. One important difference? The types of stock the two groups receive. Founder’s equity is different from Employee Stock Grants.
– “I’m totally unconvinced that two people can find a person they haven’t known previously, and become effective co-founder,” […] “I think you’re better off finding the money to hire someone than actually find a co-founder.
– If someone has come along a little later in the game, but still early — as in, pre-first employee — then you treat the same any other co-founder! If you’re choosing to add a “co-founder” after you already have employees, though, things can get a little tricky.

One thing is forgotten in the article, it is the investor (friends & family, BA, VC) or institution entering at the creation and from my point of view they are not founders because they do not (generally) contribute to the business…

Finally, the term founder does not seem to me to have a legal existence. It is only awarded by the group of people who recognize themselves as such. There is, however, an interesting example, namely how one of the founders of Tesla filed a complaint against Elon Musk, in particular because he considered that he was not a founder. The complaint is readable here (see page 28).

If you wish to dig a little more, here are two older posts:
The Founder’s Dilemmas – The Answer is “It depends!”
Founder without experience, lonely founder.

Doris Lessing again – about great men

I wrote in Testament or Testimony ? Lessing, Reich, Grothendieck, Jobs, Arles how much I loved reading The golden notebook.

I just read another strange page which stroke me. And even more strangely, I discovered that the French translation (that I first discovered) was quite different from the original version. Have a look here at the French post if you read French or at my translation below. Here is the original text (but please read until the end of this post for some surprise):

You and I, Ella, we are the failures. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly more stupid than ourselves to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have known for thousands of years that to lock a sick person into solitary confinement makes him worse. They have known for thousands of years that a poor man who is frightened of his landlord and of the police is a slave. They have known it. We know it. But do the great enlightened mass of the British people know it? No. It is our task, Ella, yours and mine, to tell them. Because the great men are too great to be bothered. They are already discovering how to colonise Venus and to irrigate the moon. That is what is important for our time. You and I are the boulder-pushers. All our lives, you and I, we’ll put all our energies, all our talents, into pushing a great boulder up a mountain. The boulder is the truth that the great men know by instinct, and the mountain is the stupidity of mankind. We push the boulder. I sometimes wish I had died before I got this job I wanted so much – I thought of it as something creative.

Now here is my translation of the French translation, and it is quite different from the original version!

But, my dear Anna, we are not the failures we think we are. We spend our lives struggling to get people hardly less stupid than ourselves to accept the truths that great men have always known. They have always known, for ten thousand years, that by locking a human being in total isolation we can make him or her an animal or a beast. They have always known that a man who is poor or terrorized by the police or by his owner is a slave. They have always known that a terrorized man is cruel. They have always known that violence leads to violence. And we know it. But do the great masses in the world know this? No. Our job is to tell them. Because great men cannot waste their time on it. Their imaginations are already busy inventing ways to colonize Venus; they are already creating in their minds a vision of a society made up of free and noble human beings. Meanwhile, human beings are ten thousand years behind them, and are locked in fear. Great men cannot waste their time on it. And they are right. Because they know we are here, the rock pushers. They know that we will continue to push rocks on the first foothills of a huge mountain, while they are already free at the top. They are counting on us, and they are right. And that’s why we are ultimately not useless.

I am not sure which version I prefer, but I was quite amazed by what Doris Lessing had written more than 50 years ago, all the more it reminds me again the quote by Wilhelm Reich in the post I mentioned above.

Now shame on me! I had second thoughts and could not believe the translator was so creative so I looked again, and I found this new piece:

‘But my dear Anna, we are not the failures we think we are. We spend our lives fighting to get people very slightly less stupid than we are to accept truths that the great men have always known. They have always known, they have known for ten thousand years, that to lock a human being into solitary confinement can make a madman of him or an animal. They have always known that a poor man frightened of the police and his landlord is a slave. They have always known that frightened people are cruel. They have always known that violence breeds violence. And we know it. But do the great masses of the world know it? No. It is our job to tell them. Because the great men can’t be bothered. Their imaginations are already occupied with how to colonise Venus; they are already creating in their minds visions of a society full of free and noble human beings. Meanwhile, human beings are ten thousand years behind them, imprisoned in fear. The great men can’t be bothered. And they are right. Because they know we are here, the boulder-pushers. They know we will go on pushing the boulder up the lower slopes of an immensely high mountain, while they stand on the top of the mountain, already free. All our lives, you and I, we will use all our energies, all our talents, into pushing that boulder another inch up the mountain. And they rely on us and they are right; and that is why we are not useless after all.’

Why was there Anna and Ella, I should have thought about it immediately. The Ella piece is on page 107 and the Anna one on page 311 of my version. My mistake at least is an indication of the strange richness of Lessing’s novel.

Testament or Testimony ? Lessing, Reich, Grothendieck, Jobs, Arles

August is a good time to look back at things. It’s when I was thinking of this, that I wondered if there was a common etymology to Testament & Testimony. Apparently, there is not. Whatever… 1370 posts since July 2007 (in fact close to 700 as the blog is bilingual French-English, that’s about one per week), about 600 comments (ah ah!) and a lot of lessons.

August was also special on different sides, particularly cultural… I’ve been reading The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing, a remarkable novel. Here is an extract: The Communist Party, like any other institution, continues to exist by a process of absorbing its critics into itself. It either absorbs them or destroys them. I think: I’ve always seen society, societies, organized like this: a ruling section or government with other sections in opposition; the stronger section either ultimately being changed by the opposing section or being supplanted by it. But it’s not like that at all: suddenly I see it differently. No, there’s a group of hardened, fossilized men opposed by fresh young revolutionaries as John Butte once was, forming between them a whole, a balance. And then a group of fossilized hardened men like John Butte, opposed by a group of fresh and lively-minded and critical people. But the core of deadness, of dry thought, could not exist without lively shoots of fresh life, to be turned so fast, in their turn, into dead sapless wood. In other words, I, ‘Comrade Anna’ — and the ironical tone of Comrade Butte’s voice now frightens me when I remember it — keep Comrade Butte in existence, feed him, and in due course will become him. And as I think this, that there is no right, no wrong, simply a process, a wheel turning, I become frightened, because everything in me cries out against such a view of life

This reminded me another post dated May 2009 about innovation and revolution which I found a little similar. “Entrepreneurs are the revolutionaries of our time.” And he had added: “Democracy works best when there is this kind of turbulence in the society, when those not well-off have a chance to climb the economic ladder by using brains, energy and skills to create new markets or serve existing markets better then their old competitors” You’ll find it here, Entrepreneurs and Revolution. And also a quote from the autobiography of Malcolm Little , which I had copied in my book. “When he was still at school, he wrote, his teacher asked him what he would like to become as an adult. A lawyer, he answered. Uncomfortable with his answer, she told him he’d rather think about becoming a carpenter thanks to his manual skills, but also because of his status. From that day on, he decided not to listen to such advice”.

August was also the opportunity to see some of the Rencontre photographiques in Arles.

A few exhibitions, from left to right and top to bottom: Masculinities, Pieter Hugo, Jazz Power!, Sabine Weiss, The New Black Vanguard, Thawra! ثورة Revolution!, Desideration (Anamanda Sîn)

Street artists have also been active in August. Just have a look at Banksy or Invader. Artists show the world as it is, the crises, more and more of its diversity, its uncertainties too. Transmission, accepting to disappear have been recurrent topics here, a rather darwinian view of the world. And that’s why I would just like to mention again a few other important quotes to me:

Reich_Listen_little_man

“I want to tell you something, Little Man; you lost the meaning of what is best inside yourself. You strangled it. You kill it wherever you find it inside others, inside your children, inside your wife, inside your husband, inside your father and inside your mother. You are little and you want to remain little.” The Little Man, it’s you, it’s me. The Little Man is afraid, he only dreams of normality; it is inside all of us. We hide under the umbrella of authority and do not see our freedom anymore. Nothing comes without effort, without risk, without failure sometimes. “You look for happiness, but you prefer security, even at the cost of your spinal cord, even at the cost of your life”. Wilhelm Reich already posted in March 2010.

sjobs

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true. Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary. Steve Jobs already posted in July 2007.

Finally, not a quote but an extract from a text about how Alexandre Grothendieck also discovered this painful passage from youth to future disappearance: In May 1968, the machine goes wrong. Shourik, as his relatives call him, goes to Orsay to dialogue with the “protesters”. The anar is scolded by the “enraged”. The outcast discovers he is a Mandarin. “After that, he was not the same” […] “It was a terrible slap, it was incredibly violent”. I spoke about this math genius in March 2016 and August 2020.

I finish this post which may look a little gloomy with a link to a very good article about trusting science: How to make the future more rational. It is optimitic, enthusiastic and shows that we can be realistic about the world, and our limits and still be positive and happy. Just a testimony or small, fragile testament.