Author: Jun Hon Pang, Wai Ho Edited by: Senija Selimovic-Hamza
This article delivers two contrasting points-of-view of investors and young innovators. We have interviewed the investor Paul Dowling, and the innovator Maciej Mańka. Both of them are part of the panel of investors and innovators from SIU’s upcoming event on ‘Young innovators vs. investors: What it takes to get funding and success’ (20th March, London). We spoke to one representative from each team allowing them to tell us a bit about themselves in relation to their motivation and present situation.
Paul Dowling, CEO and Founder of Dreamstake Venture Capital and Technology Science Accelerator
Paul is the CEO and Founder of Dreamstake, a major funding platform for data-driven health startups in areas such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning and computer vision. Dreamstake's vision is to democratise the whole tech startup process. Their main plan of action involves harnessing the web to link entrepreneurs with the support and funding they need. Paul also co-founded HealthQuake, a network for data driven health and Mindstream_AI a consulting company in the same domain.
(1) What motivated you to found Dreamstake?
I wanted to get involved in entrepreneurialism. My original background was slightly unusual: I left school at 17. That defined a large part of my career (from sales to management consulting), as I had to find a way to succeed at an early age, and that lead me to become a salesman. I thought it was a great way to get my career off the ground, as in the end you need to be a salesperson in whatever you do (e.g. selling ideas, securing funding etc.). I have been in technology, for most of my career. For example, I sold the world’s first big LCD at Paddington station around 1984. After being involved in a joint venture in creating business with mobile data between Capgemini and Vodafone during the last dot-com boom around 2000, I got the ‘startup bug’. I also did an MBA and I wrote my dissertation on corporate innovation at that time. I was then hunting for startup ideas. I looked around and companies like Facebook were creating a lot of networks, so I developed the idea of a startup network – and managed to successfully create the first startup platform in Europe. This was the initial idea behind Dreamstake. It took me a long time, but when I got there I realised my passion was creating startups and helping other startups.
(2) What is your role in helping startups? Does your company provide funding by connecting investors to startups?
Yes, that’s about right. What I do is: I create ecosystems like Silicon Valley, and I try to replicate that in certain sectors. My main sector at the moment is ‘data-driven health’, which is a very large sector ranging from artificial intelligence to machine learning. We mainly join startups with investors, and link them to mentors and customers. I work with UCL, Imperial, Wellcome Trust, Deepmind and venture capitals. I run accelerators with other people, often in the selection committee. We often do the same amount of due diligence as venture capitalists to validate the startups that we look at.
(3) When looking into funding a startup, which of these is more important: The idea, the market, or the people/team?
Definitely the people. Investors tend to make almost 70% of their decision at early stage, based on the strength of the team. First of all, the team needs to cover all the functional gaps, and often at this early stage 2-3 people should be sufficient. People often say you need a hustler, a hacker and a hipster – by which they mean you need someone who can sell, someone to deliver and somebody to do the tech, or some combination of all of that. You also need a strong founder, one who believes in what he/she is doing, who is passionate and good at leading small teams. Also, as one thing that instantly puts investors off is a breakdown in trust, I usually put integrity on top of my list of founder qualities. Without integrity investors will not risk their capital.
The next consideration is: Is the team solving a big market opportunity, i.e. a big problem that many people have in common (ideally across the world)? These two factors are in a way more important than the idea, because if you are a strong team addressing a big market, you will find the idea. You may not get the idea right at first, and most people don’t anyway; so what happens is that you go through the cycle of prototyping, testing, feedback and redesigning. If you are a strong team and addressing a huge market, you can most likely go through the cycle a few times until you solve a problem. In other words, investors don’t really care about the idea, as there are so many ideas around the world, but what matters is the execution.
(4) If you were to start a tech startup now, which area would you go in to?
I’m biased because it would be the area that I’ve been looking at, and I believe it is the hottest area: Data-driven health, basically predictive/preventative health using AI or machine learning. I think London is incredibly strong in these areas, as we have possibly the strongest AI team in the world with (the presence of) Deepmind. Ironically, in this case the NHS is actually an advantage because of its unified system, as the most important element in this area is data to train algorithms. In the US the problem is that the system is fragmented, and China suffers from the lack of historical data. On top of all these, data-driven health solves real health problems in the aging population. It helps the world. That’s what I would do, definitely.
Maciej Mańka, Student at UCL, Innovator, 1st Prize National Final of European Union Contest for Young Scientists (EUCYS)
Maciej Mańka is an enthusiastic innovator, who is currently a 2nd year Neuroscience student in University College London (UCL). Maciej pursues his scientific dream since young age: He created an improved organ-on-a-chip device which led to his award of the Polish edition EUCYS prize. Presently, he continues his journey in innovation from Poland to the UK after he received the Sarmatian Bursary to study in UCL. He is running a project cooperating with the World Hearing Center (WHC) in Warsaw and UCL, aiming to develop a novel sound localization diagnostic system.
(1) Could you briefly describe your latest project?
I have done three projects in my life, two of them are completed, and the latest project has just started – it is a cooperation between the UCL and the WHC. It started when I was looking for scientific internships at UCL and I became really interested in Prof Anne Schilder’s and Dr Peter Keating’s research at UCL Ear Institute. They study sound localization skills (i.e. the ability of a person to identify the position of a sound). Basically, they place human subjects in a room with special equipment, and study how the brain localises sound. Now this is the interesting part: I lost hearing completely in my right ear at age of 10 due to a tumour removal surgery. When you lose hearing in one ear, something happens to your localization skill, which makes it harder to localize sound. But at the current stage, we still cannot understand one’s ability to localize sound with only one ear.
One major problem is that in localization skill studies, the actual number of the subjects is from 12-20, as it is very hard to recruit them. The second problem is, that sitting in the chamber and doing sound localisation tests in clinic myself, I realised the only standard test battery right now is an audiogram (which simply tests how well the patient can hear sounds at different frequencies), which only assesses the ears but not the brain. So my idea was to start cooperation between WHC and UCL Ear Institute – to develop and transfer a novel sound localisation diagnostic test from UCL to WHC. This test just takes 10 minutes, and it can detect the subject’s brain’s ability to localize sounds from the left to the right. This benefits both sides, as we would provide WHC with the diagnostic test for patients, while we could perform research that hasn’t been done before with the access to larger number of patients and produce better results.
(2) What drives you to innovate in the field?
I honestly can’t tell you. I get an idea in my mind, and I can’t get rid of it. That was my first project: a lung-on-a-chip device. I read about it in a scientific article by a group in Harvard when I was a 17-year-old kid, and my first drive was to find out if I could reproduce it in Poland. I got so inspired by this article that I started to look for labs in Poland with the equipment necessary to recreate this experiment. I showed them the article, ‘so this is what they did, and I think we can replicate these ideas and come up with a potentially cheaper and more accessible device’ You feel an innate drive to explore every possible way of making your vision a reality, you’re just not comfortable with not trying as hard as you can.
(3) What are your main challenges going through the processes and how did you overcome them?
The challenge (of getting ideas) is to find ways to implement them, and be able not to give up. That’s the only reason why this (UCL) project is going forward. When I first read a paper about their clinical trial, I wrote them emails introducing myself and asking something like, ‘Is there a way I could work with you and help you?’ That led me to a collaboration with Dr Keating – the test battery is his work and I suggest ways to make it more effective in a clinical environment. The important thing about innovation is that you need to have people from the top in your team, so show your interests and approach the experts from the field with ideas. I think it is important that to get people to trust you, you need to present reliable arguments – (i) what it is about; (ii) what are the weaknesses and (iii) how important it is. Also, be persistent and don’t underestimate your ideas. Always think about what you can do to bring it forward. It is possible!
Of course, there are lots of lucky points for this project too. It does not need a lot of funding, as there is no bench work involved. The strength of this project is that it combines the expertise of UCL scientist with (the patient population of) WHC. When I approached the founder from WHC with scientific data to support our ideas, he read the email and said it was a good idea, and referred me to the head of audiology department. The reason why this (collaboration) works is because people from the top are willing to hear from me, an undergraduate student. I think this is something important - to be able to listen to young scientists who come up with ideas, even when you are from the very top.