When I talk with CEOs and IT executives, their priorities involve driving agility and innovation and the resulting efficiencies gained. At the second IFIP World CIO Forum where I am a vice-chair, one of the sessions will be using entrepreneurial and start-up experiences within businesses to provide enterprise success. The largest fortune companies are now using start-up techniques such as customer development from Steve Blank and Lean Start-up from Eric Ries when running their operations. As a notable pioneer, Helge provides hard-earned useful lessons in this area and interesting stories about survival, persistence and ultimate success. I encourage you to listen to the full audio interview.
Helge Seetzen is a successful multi-media technology entrepreneur with deep experience in the university tech transfer space. As the CEO of TandemLaunch Technologies, he provides university inventors with the funding, staff resources, infrastructure and industry connections necessary to bring their ideas to market.
Prior to TandemLaunch, he co-founded Sunnybrook Technologies and later BrightSide Technologies to commercialize display technologies developed at the University of British Columbia. BrightSide was successfully sold to Dolby Laboratories for US$28M at high return to shareholders after having grown to over 30 developers and receiving accolades such as the Best Buzz Award at the 2006 Consumer Electronics Show and a "Top 100 Technologies in 2006" rank by Popular Science Magazine. At Dolby he led all cross-functional development activities for Dolby's first two consumer video products. In this capacity he built research and engineering departments in Canada and the US, and was closely involved in licensing negotiations with many major consumer electronics manufacturers.
Helge's leadership in the technology transfer, innovation and entrepreneurial space has been widely recognized through awards such as Business in Vancouver's 40 Under Forty award for business accomplishment, the NSERC Innovation Challenge Award for university technology transfer, and a Special Recognition Award from the Society for Information Display for the pioneering of LED TV technology. He serves as the General Chair for DisplayWeek, the largest technical conference on displays, and Publication Chair of the Society for Information Display.
He has published over 20 articles and holds 30 patents with an additional 30 pending US applications. Helge received a B.Sc. in physics and a Ph.D. in interdisciplinary imaging technology (Physics & Computer Science) from the University of British Columbia.
To listen to the full interview, click on this MP3 file link
Partial extracts from the discussion:
Interview Time Index (MM:SS) and Topic
Can you share some useful lessons from BrightSide Technologies?
"….When you take these early risks, when you build these startups, you need people who understand there is a lot of ambiguity and there is a lot of uncertainty in startups, so a lot of times when things go wrong you need people who have the intellectual ability to make it right, but also the moral fortitude to stick by the process and get something across the line even when things are a little bit shaky…."
You did some really interesting things at BrightSide Technologies. Do you want to share any of that?
"….With lessons learned from Sunnybrook we spun out BrightSide which became an aggregator (a collector of interesting technologies in the multimedia space from quite a few universities)….We brought together all these brilliant people and developed an end-to-end solution to go from the capture of images to the display of images and everything in between (processing, post production and support, distribution), to enable a new kind of image experience which we called High Dynamic Range (HDR)….Over the course of a decade it was phenomenal to see something that went from a small idea (the first prototype that we built), to an environment where dozens and later hundreds of people worked on this technology and ultimately mass manufacturing where tens of thousands of people are building these things for tens of millions of customers…."
Can you talk about your work with Dolby Laboratories and some lessons you can share?
"….If you think about the LED TV technology in the early days at UBC — that was really the research stage….BrightSide is what I think of as the innovation stage where our job became not so much inventing things, but taking these early discoveries into demonstrators like ones you saw to make it real for people….When Dolby acquired BrightSide it really heralded this next phase of broad adoption….That was interesting for me to see the last stage of the pipeline and lead a team of engineers and design people to actually bring it to mass market…."
What are your tips for licensing negotiations?
"…..Intellectual properties are abstract, intangible, and that creates an interesting conundrum because basically you have two things to give. You have the intellectual part to give (the knowledge, the know-how, the information), and then you have the actual property part which is the patents — the things that legally give you ownership of that intellectual creation….So in licensing negotiations, my biggest tip would be to learn how to sell without showing. That's a much hotter skill set in my experience than doing a straightforward transaction, because you have to find a way to paint a picture, to paint a vision and convince people that you have something magical for their future in your hands, but they have to pay you first and then they will get it — so you have to be a bit of a magician in the process…."
From the negotiations that you've done (but in a broader sense), can you give us a sense of the range of deals that are made from a percentage standpoint on things like licensing?
"….Those vary a little bit from industry to industry, but let's say the consumer electronics and the software industries (the space that I'm familiar with), usually most devices have anywhere between five and fifteen, maybe up to 20 percent of intangible royalties and other consideration baked into their bill of material…."
Can you talk about your work as General Chair for DisplayWeek?
"….. It is arranged by an entity called The Society for Information Display, the largest association of Display technologists and experts in the world. It's an international body and I sit on the Executive Board of the Society and I've just completed a mandate of General Chair for the conference. Arranging that was an interesting opportunity and when you talk about tips and lessons and recommendations for aspiring technology entrepreneurs this is one kind of freebie I would recommend, that people get involved with industry associations in their domain. It's a great opportunity not only to learn and get all the normal benefits you get from going to conferences, but you really interact and build relationships with key executives from all the big players that are usually not accessible…."
With 30 patents with an additional 30 pending US applications, from that kind of experience as a global innovator, what do you see as some of the disruptive innovations for 2015 or 2020?
"….We are going to move into the world of Internet of Things and we really have two classes of computing devices that currently don't exist which are just emerging. One is wearable devices, things that are attached to your body somehow….The second is where those kinds of smart technologies will enter the home (not necessarily attached to you, but are attached to your principal living environment)….I see paradigm shifts in traditional understanding of devices. I think a third major wave that we're going to see will have impact on just about everything (in terms of cameras, displays, multimedia architectures, sound), all those systems that still use physical components. Wherever you could use computational solutions to solve those physical barriers you will get big, paradigm shifting breakthroughs…."
Helge talks about software solutions.
"….If you think about it Web 1.0 in the 90s was about using software and the internet to effectively replace brick and mortar stores….Web 2.0 in the last few years was about using software and the internet to replace or augment human-to-human interaction….Whether or not you call that the Internet of Things, this notion that we've replaced brick and mortar retail, we have augmented or replaced human-to-human communication, the next layer is going to be human-computer interaction through smart devices, through physics-breaking solutions…."
Do you see some convergence happening perhaps in 15 years where there is a semi-sentient device or operating system like in that movie, Her?
"….I think that might be the fourth wave, but right now there is still too much physics in the world for purely computational artificial intelligence systems to really do more than knowledge processing….I believe a few years from now the home will go: 'Okay the kids came home from school and they had sports today and it's Tuesday therefore they have to take a bath. I'm going to heat up the water and the pipes efficiently and turn on the fan, the heating system and do all the things that intelligent human beings would normally do to prepare the bath for the kid'….and just do it. That to me is where general intelligence enters because that meets a whole bunch of judgments and that meets those general interactions that you just talked about and does things other than by rote…."
What are your views on the idea of singularity?
"….There's no reason to believe that we wouldn't be heading that way. I don't know if it's going to take years or decades, but so far aside from issues of faith we haven't really come across scientific reasons why computational devices shouldn't be able to mimic the human brain. That said we greatly underestimate the complexity of the human brain, we still don't fully understand it, so I am very optimistic that we're going to get a lot of artificial intelligence solutions like the one I just described…."
What would you consider to be your three top career successes and the lessons learned?
"….I am extremely proud that at Sunnybrook we built some incredible technology that really got us into the game with some of the largest companies on the planet. I'm very proud that BrightSide and the team that we built there was able to take this early idea of LED TVs all the way to a BrightSide and Dolby era. Most of the BrightSide team went to Dolby and worked there to bring it from an idea that you saw to hundreds and millions of devices. And these days at TandemLaunch I'm really proud that we build an innovation infrastructure that allows us to create a whole bunch of companies that are now becoming BrightSides in their own right…."
You are a serial entrepreneur, established and well-known for all the successes that you've had. Do you have additional entrepreneurial tips for the audience?
"….We already talked about surrounding yourself with smart people, surrounding yourself with good people, being persistent and listening to guidance….In order to have the personality to be the entrepreneur leads to this flaw of a mix of arrogance and not listening to guidance. The biggest success factor in my career was working every day, week, month to suppress that instinctive sense that I know what I'm doing and instead listen to all the smart people that are around me. That's difficult because that comes unnatural to entrepreneurs who by their nature have to be a bit cocky…"
Describe your goals as CEO of TandemLaunch Technologies?
"….We quite literally architect companies, full teams, fully funded complete companies that we incubate essentially from zero to release into the wild world. In that sense my immediate goal is to build as many companies as possible that hit some of the key trends….Goal number one is build lots of those companies, goal number two is having shown over the last three years those models can work, that we can effectively build high value companies through this process synthetically we're now in the process of expanding this model both location-wise as well as domain-wise…."
It sounds like an interesting model. Are you reaching out into the foreign markets like China?
"….We already recruit globally, we already start these projects globally and certainly some of the emerging markets are very attractive for us….Each project has to have the balance between deep technology, entrepreneurial people and interesting markets…."
Do you tap into the expertise of Startup Genome? And not really related to that the Canadian Government has a Visa program for bring entrepreneurs into the country, are you part of that?
"….The first part of the question, absolutely, we have a recipe book that we've learned over the years of how to assemble strong teams….Very regrettably Quebec is not yet part of the Visa program. That said we've had a fairly easy time importing people…."
It sounds like you are doing some of the seed round yourself. Do you work with angels, angel syndicates and from there the transition people between angels, angel syndicates and VC; in other words what are the typical raises that you are doing?
"….We actually are a dedicated fund. We have this incubator program where we build the companies, but we also have TandemLaunch ventures which are a full scale seed fund, so we invest up to about a million dollars during the seed and incubation stage…..We are quite flexible…."
When you are tracking progress because you have a cash budget and you're looking at their cash flow, are you using something like a business model canvas or a traditional business plan or strategic plan model?
"….There are really two separate parts to this. There is the strategy of the company and for that we use some of the Lean Startup tools and some home brewed stuff….On the operational side again TandemLaunch is a little bit different from traditional accelerators in the sense that we don't just provide the money and the early incubation effort, we actually have a full service operation that provides our entrepreneurial teams with everything they need….Ironically that makes the first part of your question much easier in the sense that tracking budgets, etc. — they are basically integrated in our own financial operation at that time so they don't have to worry about that stuff…."
What do you wish to accomplish in the next three years?
"….The immediate goal for us is that broadening of the system so I think of my life in three year chunks. Sunnybrook was three years, Brightside was three years, Dolby was three years, TandemLaunch 1.0 we just finished our third year. The goal of the first version of TandemLaunch was to demonstrate to the world that the synthetic creation of companies is possible….Our goal for the next three years is to expand this to the point where we can broaden into other domains both technical and geographical…."
What are the gaps of where you are today and where you want to be and how will you close these gaps?
"….Adding good people. The challenges we have right now at TandemLaunch are basically all people-centric in the sense that we now have enough projects under the hood that we are now seriously starting to hit the limitations of certainly the local entrepreneurial community…..We have a recipe now in funding and capital to build companies, we have technological ideas, and the human supply chain of talent is something we are addressing right now…."
What surprises you?
"….The surprise always to me is if you do what you say you are going to do and you do it well it's surprising how many rules of thumb get thrown out the window when people see a good thing and want to jump on board…."
You talked about your work being in three year cycles. (Brightside – 3 years, Dolby, TandemLaunch phase 1.0 – 3 years, TandemLaunch phase 2- 3 years). What will you do next?
"….. In many ways the genesis of TandemLaunch is basically how do we get the same result (the same economic and startup creation benefit of Brightside), but do so in multiple entities. That's why we are now structured as a fund that basically has large ownership stakes in a whole bunch of companies that can then drive individually. The net result of this is that TandemLaunch doesn't have a time limit to it the way Brightside did. The portfolio companies might come and go, so I do see myself for quite a few more three year cycles growing TandemLaunch through its own evolution of single part incubator, multi-domain incubator and then global incubator… "
How can the world's leading scientific, education, innovation associations like the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) play a role in the kind of work that you do?
"….I guess there are two elements to this. There's industry associations like the ACM and I think what they should do is in general open their doors more to entrepreneurs. Obviously they can join as members, but to join at the governance level, at the executive level to be part of the organization is a little difficult for entrepreneurs because most of these organizations require time scales of engagement that are measured in 5 to 10 years….The second part of the answer are the educational organizations, universities — basically where there is a massive shift needed….They haven't really made the leap yet to either train entrepreneurs or even build structures to encourage entrepreneurship. Psychologically and emotionally have people understand that they can take actions that have global impact. Universities don't teach you that, universities teach you a very linear kind of understanding of the world where the stuff you do doesn't really matter…."
Helge talks about the success rate at Canadian universities of technology transfer as one of the measures of output.
"….The problem is that all those measures, whether it's tech transfer success or entrepreneurial education are against a very low standard. Being one of the top ten public universities in tech transfer just means that you suck less than all other ones…."
What are the top areas of controversy in the areas that you work and your proposed solutions?
"….As a society we have to come to grips with this world where people don't have to work that much anymore. In the same way that the Industrial Revolution people had to come to grips with the fact that 40 hours a week was enough, 80 wasn't needed anymore, we are facing this similar reduction. One of the social shifts that the universities and other educational institutions and government have to deal with is that (a) less work time doesn't make you less valuable, so both at the economic level salaries have to be increased to compensate for that but also the social level so you aren't an outcast because you work 20 hours a week, and (b) they have to restructure our educational system to prepare people for that universe…."
What are your views on this rapid growth in free content?
"….It's inevitable. One of the consequences of what I just said a minute ago is that people have more leisure time….The human mind is quite curious and boredom is the bane of all human beings whether they are the next great scientist or just a normal person who doesn't have to work as hard anymore. That curiosity needs fuel and that's content. We need to be able to provide them that fuel; we need to provide them free content, we need to provide them with open access…."
What are your views on this rapid growth in crowd funding?
"….I'm an active angel investor aside from TandemLaunch so between TandemLaunch and my angel investments I meet people who pitch me for money all the time. Because I am in that environment, I have a whole bunch of expertise and processes and feedback mechanisms, tests and due diligence mechanics to basically find out if it's a good investment or not. It doesn't mean that I always bet on winners, but it means that I have some protected provisions to ensure that I invest diligently and don't risk all my money on one bet. Most regular people don't have those mechanisms so they can fall victims of scams very easily….I think that is the big risk of crowdfunding so I think in the long term what we are going to see is a stable system where there is a crowdfunding ecosystem and it will have similar legislative and logistics regulations as the public markets effectively because they will be public markets. They will effectively be pre-junior stock exchanges…."
Helge shares his views on Bitcoin and digital currencies.
"….Right now Bitcoin is a digital collector's item, it's like having baseball cards. They have a price, they fluctuate back and forth but it's not a currency I could actually use for exchange. The one thing something needs to go from a collectible to a tradeable good to a currency is regulation….eventually I can guarantee there are going to be regulatory controls that make it a viable currency….Think about it, what is a 100% digital currency today that works perfectly, is regulated and that has a small fee attached? It's called credit cards. There's a whole eco-system that has sprung up over the years to provide essentially digital exchanges…."
What improvements in policy should happen and what would you like to see internationally?
"….It's a long list of things I'd like to see changed….Provide government and regulatory support for C-stage financing, change educational policies to focus more on that small percentage of people who can actually create companies and create wealth and so forth, create policies in the labour market that deal with the fact that most people won't have a job anymore and that it's acceptable to only work 20 to 30 hours a week and then change the core economics to provide ways for startups to grow….Everything I just said is a very long list of very difficult things and it's a big social change, but it's no different of a social change than we've gone through in the Industrial Revolution with the creation of the middle class …."
From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share some stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).
"….May I give you one story of the ups and one story of the downs of startups to give people the sense of perseverance….The first acquisition attempt was carefully planned and orchestrated and failed miserably not because of it, but by random luck. The second one we tried to avoid the issue because we thought he was trying to go after us and it turns out to be the big success of the company. So the moral of the story is perseverance is key, recovery from tactical failure is key and sometimes luck is just around the corner as long as you just talk to people and listen…."
If you were conducting this interview, what questions would you ask and then what would be your answers?
"….How does somebody start at TandemLaunch?….What's the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?…."
Helge, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep experiences with our audience.