1 September 2020
Tell us about your career as a successful entrepreneur? What key attributes enabled you to succeed?
I set up my first company at 26. I had the typical “high potential” graduate pedigree, with Navy officer experience and an MBA but job prospects in Italy were “challenging”. So, I created my own company; it was hard work, it was fun, it was lucrative, and London became my “land of opportunities”. From there on, I went through a few enriching experiences in Marketing and Sales with big technology Corporates like Oracle and Canon, doing business in four languages in the four corners of the world. But I always enjoyed the risk and the reward of being entrepreneurial, and today I use my expertise to help Deep Tech start-ups find customers and investors globally.
Perseverance is possibly my key attribute; I see myself a bit like an artisan who likes to test and try an idea until it either works or needs pivoting. I think a “healthy” degree of paranoia did help too (credit to Andy S. Grove), for complacency is a deadly sin in business. But fundamentally I never got stuck in a project or a venture I did not believe in, or I did not enjoy.
You run the Circular Economy Working Group for Tech London Advocates. Tell us more?
A classic example of a pro-bono, “side gig” that is almost turning into a second full-time job!
It all started from personal beliefs and life experience; for me, “Economy” and “Ecology” are twins who live together or die together. The fundamental tenets of the Circular Economy (finite resources, designing out waste and pollution from manufacturing etc.*) create a powerful synergy there, and Technology and Innovation are crucial enablers. I must credit Russ Shaw, the TLA Founder and Leader, for giving his blessing to create the Group so that I could engage with representatives from Industry, Start-Ups, Academia, Investors, Government and NGO’s who are willing and able to make Circular Economy a reality.
Notable members are Maggie Rodriguez-Piza, CEO of Funding London, and the Circular Economy Director at LWARB, James Close. The Group officially launched in June 2020, with a keynote from Prof. Steve Evans, from Cambridge University. The event will be followed by various activities, including some “hands-on” initiatives for the next spring, which I will unveil in a few weeks…so watch this space!
What are some of the most exciting innovations you have come across in the circular economy space?
I like to quote Olio, the company helping neighbours share food leftovers safely because it is an excellent example of helping consumer cut waste and set the right “circular” behaviours. I would also mention Compare Ethics, who verify the sustainable credentials of consumer brands or Yaizy, who help people track, reduce, and offset the carbon footprint of their purchases.
On the B2B end, I think of Qualis Flow, who use a data-driven approach to track and reduce the social and environmental impact of construction, Recycle Eye, who use AI to support the sorting of urban waste and Cervest, who are again using AI to create a global asset management system that minimises risks from Climate Change.
My latest discoveries are WASE, their decentralised wastewater solutions have a great potential for providing clean water and energy in the developing world and beyond, and the Tyre Collective, a very interesting example of engineering and design that reduces from microplastic pollution caused by tyre wear and tear.
I am looking forward to seeing many more from our great global talents in the UK.
What would be your predictions over the next five years for the circular economy?
I see an incremental trend of growing awareness and small innovations building up globally. Hopefully, that may lead to a “tipping point” where Circular Economy becomes “mainstream”. The principles of the Circular Economy can be applied to any product, service, and process; imagine re-engineering and re-designing all products and machinery to keep resources in use and minimise waste and pollution. That could unleash a massive wave of product and process innovation, climate-resilient infrastructure, investments, and job creation. The sky is the limit for clean and sustainable growth. However, as I look at this potential in the context of the fight against Climate Change, I also see monumental constraints and the inertias. Am I optimistic? Cautiously. In Europe, for example, I see some clear strategies emerging, backed by sizeable investments and a growing technology base. But we also need 7 billion people to do their bit, and the clock is ticking.
How are you supporting start-ups to survive the current crisis?
The greatest start-ups work best in times of challenge and natural-born entrepreneurs instinctively “know” the next right thing to do. I am merely offering them my experience in execution. To give you an example I am currently working with a brilliant BAME young entrepreneur, Moktar Alqaderi of Progressay. He runs his company in a very frugal way, working hard to develop the core solution. I support him with a relentless focus on product-market fit; we are setting up a collaboration with one market leader and various universities, and we are continually talking to users to fine-tune the product and UX. At the same time, our sales and marketing operations are quite simple and lean.
What is your advice for a founder looking to raise funds in a post COVID world?
Do the homework, be humble and talk to as many people as possible. I am quite surprised, I must say, by the lack of focus on market research in many start-ups. Market data in business plans are often incomplete and poorly documented. One founder last year kept saying that they had all in their mind but not in their files and folders. That is a risky way to run a business, and alas, it is not uncommon.
Most importantly, Investors do not look for brainy inventions. They look for innovations that solve a business problem, i.e. something with a measurable return at on a vast scale. Last but not least, be frugal and have skin in the game. Investors are impressed by those who put their savings in their project and do not look for big salaries. Overall, the screening is getting stricter, but the fittest will be rewarded, and even better than before.
You have a passion for sustainability. How does this direct your work with start-ups?
Although I try and stay “agnostic” in terms of sectors I cover, I naturally tend to focus on “Deep” tech or science projects that have a “circular” or broadly an environmental impact. In order to help them be successful, I am also trying to keep sight of “bigger innovation picture”, and I am testing new models of collaboration with Corporates, Universities and Investors to get them to the market more quickly and efficiently. On a more “day to day” level, I try to walk the talk and always remind my young clients and colleagues to recycle and minimise waste. Of course.
What are some of the biggest lessons you have learned which have impacted the way you work?
I think they can be boiled down to two. The first is a very personal one, and it has become crucial at the time of a pandemic. It is about getting the balance right between remote and on-site work. The former is very efficient; the second is very effective. When I had a spell at Inside Sales at Oracle, we were rewarded with a face to face client visit once the opportunity was fully qualified. A very precious lesson for today.
The second is a more general observation, and it is about the value of collaboration. Competition among different views is creative, but each stakeholder needs to see the merits of the “other side”, otherwise conflict and paralysis creep in, and everybody is worse off. The climate emergency is a perfect example.
To what do you attribute your success?
I think I have been trying to become “competent” in all my endeavours; learning from existing wisdom and make my journey of trial and error.
At the same time, I like to keep it simple. One of my favourite quotes at work is the famous “if you cannot explain your physics to a barmaid, it is probably not good physics”.
But simple does not mean easy, so it goes back to my perseverance, “healthy paranoia” and perfectionism.
However, I think that with age, I am becoming increasingly tolerant of my shortcomings and those of the others. It is an excellent place to be.