E048 How To Develop a Startup Educating the Global South in Quantum Computing
Jul 26th 2022
Dr Alessandro Crimi is an Italian-born researcher turned educator and entrepreneur. He holds a PhD in Medical Imaging from the University of Copenhagen and an MBA in International Healthcare Management from the University of Basel. He alternated formal research in neuroimaging with healthcare-related projects, mostly based in Ghana. Since 2012, he is a Visiting Lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Ghana. Among his achievements to date, he pulled off a prenatal care project which was using portable ultrasound machines in rural Ghana, and supervised talented PhD students as a part of the program “Women in science for the developing world.”
Currently, he is focused on building two startups:
1. Yawlab, which aims to empower the global South with tools and education about biotech (now registered in Ghana);
2. QC4All, which aims to prepare the global South for the next revolution in quantum computing (in the foundation phase).
Ultimately, the two projects should converge into quantum chemistry simulations.
Alessandro’s LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/alecrimi/
Alessandro’s Medium profile: https://alecrimi.medium.com/
Alessandro’s personal website: http://www.alessandrocrimi.com/
The Yawlab promo: https://youtube.com/watch?v=s2jJfSGAx… 🔥
The episode was recorded on April 17th, 2021. This material represents the speaker’s personal views and not the opinions of their current or former employer(s).
Natalia 00:10 Hello, everyone. This is yet another episode of career talks by Welcome Solutions. In these meetings, we talk with professionals who have fascinating career paths and were willing to share their life hacks with us. And today, I have the great pleasure to introduce Dr. Alessandro Crimi. Alessandro is an Italian-born researcher, turned educator, and entrepreneur. He holds a PhD in medical imaging from the University of Copenhagen, and an MBA in international healthcare management from the University of Basel.
He alternated formal research in neuroimaging with healthcare-related projects, mostly based in Ghana. Since 2012, he’s been a visiting lecturer at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Ghana. Currently, he’s focused on building two startups, the first company, Yawlab aims to empower the global south with tools and education about biotech. Other company QC for all aims to prepare the global south for the next revolution in quantum computing.
And it’s currently in the foundation phase. Thank you so much, Alessandra, for joining us today and for being here with us. I know you have a very interesting career path so far. I met you on multiple occasions before and mostly in a neuroscientific context. But now we are both company owners. I’m happy to hear how you’re progressing. I would like to first hear your story told from your own perspective.
Dr. Alessandro 01:50 As you mentioned, I’m originally from Italy, although as many people in academia jump from one country to another one, following the research path. I was in Denmark, then one year in France, then in Italy, then mostly in Switzerland. It’s very nice apart. I can move around and also go back to my own country very easily. I start from a technical point of view. I was a researcher. I’m still doing some stuff related to my past career because it takes a while. It’s like a mafia. You don’t get out of academia so easily. But now, I’m more like on the entrepreneur side. I jumped from one very challenging environment to maybe an even more challenging context.
And I mean, the reason was I felt that I wanted to do something that still gives me freedom and I can create something on my own and still make money. The other thing was still that you spent so much time in academia, you are not that like kind of conform to society. You’re open-minded. I don’t think it’s for everybody. But some people are like this that they want to still create and do their own things. The other thing I also tried, since 2012, some crazy woman invited me to give some lectures in Ghana and I fall in love with the country. It’s a funny place and good people with cool weather.
They’ve been always welcoming to me. It was been always a positive experience. Something that nobody would have expected that you go and you start doing in another country, like in Sub-Saharan Africa. Everybody thinks of humanity. I had a lot of fun. That’s why I’m also trying to do something that is related to that context. There are some challenges there but the way of seeing it is that is the accurate opportunities not so many people are taking for obvious reasons because it’s more complicated.
But at the same time, you will find more open-minded people because they are like, wow, you’re trying to do something here. Join us. In short, what happened that I’m still in this let’s call it entrepreneur, or social entrepreneur impact-focused that we are still kind of in the pandemia. It’s still kind of new technologies like quantum computing that can be useful for other things.
Natalia 05:45 Okay. I don’t know much about Ghana. I was not a pro in geography class as a high school student. What’s the language? Do you speak a local language or do you only communicate in English when you’re in Ghana?
Dr. Alessandro 06:04 The official language is English. Everybody speaks English even better than I do. The national language is English because of the former British English colony but I don’t know about 30 local languages. I think nine are recognized, but there is one that is more recognized. There is a Ghanaian language. It’s called a tree. I will say it’s easier than Swiss German. I managed to learn that tree but Swiss German is a challenge.
Natalia 06:51 In that case, I mean, if English is so popular, then that’s not a problem. I was curious. I’m learning so many different bits of information from these interviews.
Dr. Alessandro 07:25 People you meet from Ghana, are quite a few. I also learned that they gave a lot of value to education.
Natalia 07:35 Definitely. You’re a doctor.
Dr. Alessandro 07:37 I have a PhD. I’m a doctor in Italy.
Natalia 07:45 But it’s also like, in many parts of the world, you say your doctor and they are your doctor. And then you say, I’m a Doctor of Philosophy.
Dr. Alessandro 07:59 I mean, that kind of doctor with PhD.
Natalia 08:04 I never had a chance to work with the citizens of Ghana. I have a developer now who is Nigerian. And he’s excellent. He is a very nice person to work with and very smart and hard-working. I haven’t had much to do with the people of Ghana as a professional, but who knows, maybe in the future, I will because every person based in Africa I was working with was very good. I also have very positive feelings about it. Could you maybe tell us a little bit more about what your companies are actually doing?
Dr. Alessandro 09:01 I started from the name so maybe it’s boring. Go back to three languages. This is something that not so many people know, but they have kind of traditional names in Ghana that are given according to the day you’re born. And like, probably I don’t know if you remember the former president of the United Nation, Kofi Annan, he was born on Friday. And Yao means born on Thursday. It’s not master of the universe like you don’t go but it’s just simply born on Thursday for the male because there are male and female versions.
Then the thing was that the initial people that were involved in this project were all born on Thursday. I’m also born on Thursday. And we said, Okay, I’m Yao. We are all Yaos. In real-time, the people involved change. Now, the rule doesn’t apply anymore. I think I’m the only yao now.
Natalia 10:33 I mean, that’s clever. That’s a story. That’s a good memory also because the original founders are the seed of the company culture.
Dr. Alessandro 10:51 I don’t know long, if I will still be or if the Yawlab will continue to exist but does that mean we were all born on Thursday. All right, I mean, going to the technical aspects. The idea is that we wanted to create something to empower people for biology and it stopped that there is also a more serious story behind it. That was it. I think 2014 or 2015 I can’t remember exactly, I was not very serious about malaria. I started acting like a local guy. I got malaria. I stopped taking the pills. And I went to like one good clinic. I’ve seen how they were testing.
I mean, I don’t want to be like overly critical of these people. Because I can imagine they will watch me and thinks so. But what I noticed was that I was still already a postdoc in kind of medical things. I knew that they were advanced devices like PCR and other things that now everybody knows because of Corona. But they were already existing at that time. And I have seen that this guy was checking for malaria with a very old microscope and then I start talking to him and tell him about do you use this thing? And they’re like, no. I noticed that there was a huge gap between the available technology we had been, let’s say, in Europe, the US, or whatever, and what they were using.
And that starts sparking this idea because this PCR machine is very expensive or because this microscope is very expensive, or this other either kind of device sequencer is very expensive. It’s a series of problems that I start learning later on. It’s not just the expenses but you need education and all sorts of things. There was a need and an unmet need. Some countries in the Global South don’t have tools or they don’t have education, or there are other technical aspects related like finding reagents because it’s not just the machine you need but also stuff related and they might be complicated so the overall of this is was the story but if I have to say in short is the idea Yawlab was that we can empower people with simple solutions.
We designed a couple of tools and a couple of devices plus we complemented them with some video lectures and support. Not video lectures like basic biology, we’re not replacing but practical knowledge like are you will need these reagents that in your country, you can have it in this way. You have to get this practical knowledge. We were not focused on something specific general tool but when you talk to people, you have to tell them an example like we stopped looking we are still focused on malaria and we tried with COVID.
You know, COVID is a big topic, and what you need is also some kinda biosafety level that they don’t have. In the end, we also included some kind of education to know what the biosafety level is and what to do you have to do to get it in Ghana, like, what are the institutions? If I have to think short of the idea to empower people with devices, but with all the other things with education and practical information support.
Natalia 15:30 And it’s all about health-related information.
Dr. Alessandro 15:35 We had the challenge because there are a series of regulations. And actually, the good thing in Ghana is that they don’t have their local language. If you have FDA or CE, they’re accepted but we had to kind of sort it out. We haven’t sorted it out. If you want to, we can talk about that all the regulations. They were all mostly related to health and education.
Natalia 16:15 I get it. Alright. About your recent venture QC, what I understood is related to quantum computing which is a very hot topic today. First of all, I would like those episodes to also have some educational value, as well. I’d like to first ask you a little bit about quantum computing in general as a concept. Why is it such a hot topic today? And what are the potential implications of quantum computing? Why is it so useful? And why do so many companies and big corporations today try to pull off quantum computing infrastructure? How does it work? And what’s the aim?
Dr. Alessandro 17:19 It’s a very hot topic together with other machine learning Bitcoin. It’s a buzzword and the general idea is that you have kind of a computer that is able to carry out phenomena like superimposition, entanglement, and all these things. And the reason why it is able to do it is that it’s not based on a traditional circuit that we use in our machines like with transistors, all these things, but it’s more like an optics device. There are also different quantum computers. Some are made with lasers. Some are superconductors or other things. The main thing is that representation is given by something called qubits.
I cannot explain all these things in 10 minutes but the general idea is they don’t have a logic gate between one and zero but they can be defined between zero and one. They have kind of this superimposition and the reason why all these things are coming so popular right now is because of several reasons. One is that there is a certain phenomenon that can be simulated with the quantum starting from this optic device. This is the part I’m interested in like even simulating chemical reactions or all these things plus indeed given the fact that they are like this nature of optic and super entanglement and all these things.
You can break out some algorithms that are very hard for computation, traditional computers like integer factorizations or RSA which is the basic core encryption. Finally, we are having powerful optic computers that some companies are even allowing us to use it remotely. The reason why is hot is that in the past was something real for a niche only if you were a researcher now with the fact that so many companies are all are relating each other to cloud solutions and everybody can access it.
Then this is the level of accessibility together with the possibility what you can do is turn and many people are excited because we are very far from doing very solid critical solutions. People are doing simulations of proteins but I’ve seen mostly molecules. In the things, I’m more focused. I see that is not going to happen today. But tomorrow, people are overexcited because some aspects can also be related to machine learning. Two things, machine learning, and quantum computing support each other.
Natalia 21:03 I understand it as I have to say that I was also a master’s student in physics. I had some courses in quantum mechanics. But I was not the very brightest student there. I would like to greet professor Dopachevsky and Professor Tripanba, who were desperately trying to teach me quantum mechanics but I was quite resistant to this knowledge. But from like, the way I understand it, a qubit is a way of conveying information that has more portion of information than just binary, number one, or zero. And the way information is encoded today is just a series of numbers, ones, and zeros. And that’s how all computers or devices store information. It can be boiled down to two long series of ones and zeros.
It’s all binary pieces of information. And qubits are not discrete but rather, it’s like a continuous dimension between zero and one, then it has almost infinitely more amount of information because you can be any number between zero and one. If you have a series of qubits, it contains much more information than just the piece of information that is encoded the current way, the traditional way. But on the other hand, it’s technically hard to build in a reliable way.
Because it’s technically hard to build. It’s kind of funny also because, on one hand, we have like large technological progress in a few domains today and on the one hand, have quantum computing that is going to increase the computational power very quickly. On the other hand, we have blockchains, and actually developing at the same time, but when quantum computing develops, it starts developing really fast. It allows for fast computation and also allows hackers to decode passwords.
Dr. Alessandro 24:03 They are not yet there.
Natalia 24:06 Yes, they are not there yet. It’s funny because conceptually it’s like going against each other. The better quantum computing becomes, the more dangerous it becomes for blockchains. It’s kind of two technologies that are both meant for improving humanity but they kind of clash with each other. That’s how I see it. Maybe I’m wrong but I’m kind of interesting because in the long run, if they both are developed really well, they can actually interfere with each other. That’s the interesting thing that can happen.
Dr. Alessandro 24:52 It’s theoretical because this is the radical that they are more power-efficient. They should use less energy. If you imagine these things we were saying of zero and one as part of replacing these traditional machine learning probabilities, that is becoming also a problem for all the many things you’re classifying. Although this is theoretical in practice. I don’t know if you have ever seen it even on some videos, this quantum computer, the main thing is not the computer. It’s that you need to isolate and keeps the temperature to like a minus 273. It’s not efficient as we claim.
Natalia 25:43 It’s a very early stage. I think it’s still at the level of a concept that might be potentially world-changing in the future, groundbreaking in the future but it’s still more in the conceptual phase. But it’s still a hot topic. And I know of companies, as you mentioned that are now using quantum computing, trying to come up with potential algorithms to design new proteins. I know about this branch of quantum computing. And it sounds interesting, although, as you just mentioned, this is such early-stage technology.
Dr. Alessandro 26:29 My dream was that we were still starting from Ghana. While I was involved in this Ghana environment, I started meeting other crazy people. I met someone that was not really interested in this thing but was very active in new technology and already connected to networks of venture capitalists, all these things, and was like, okay, let’s do it. Let’s do something else. Also, because some of you are in the people team phase for Yawlab, so many things that I start, I thought they will have been done in a certain way and I realized we are not productive. Unless this Yawlab will die, we have to change it. At the same time that I’m changing this, we are focusing on quantum computing things that seem completely a different world.
But we are focused on education. It’s still in the concept of empowering people and teaching them stuff and not waiting because we are in machine learning a few years ago that many people in other countries or in other countries have no idea and then they explode. We would like to start from now directly so we can empower people and all these things. Plus, I’m focused. We are also trying to find solutions related to quantum simulation. I go back to these things that I also don’t have a background in physics. Like I’m not a PhD in physics.
I also had initially some basics but one thing that I did for myself was the realization of what you need to know. You will need the classical course physics, one, physics, two, quantum mechanics, and quantum field is probably the worse and then you start doing quantum computing. You have all these subjects that are very heavy. There are people who are doing PhD also in this thing, so it’s not just the subject. It’s a field and then you start doing something maybe practical. My observation was that currently thank you for this. The idea of these companies, of course, they are doing it for money, because at some point they will charge you, or some already charging you now you can have the final tools already in your hand.
What I did was I started from the end and saw the knowledge that I need to use these things. It’s like a bottom-up and then you have to go back and also it’s like what we are thinking and we were trying to do so like even teaching people, obviously, you cannot compensate if you take one class of continuity, you cannot compensate people who are doing a PhD. But we think if you want to empower people, you can already give these final tools. And in the meanwhile explain in simple words, what is one qubit? And how to use it? Let’s make a classifier.
Natalia 30:32 I fully agree with that. As you’re saying, today, to learn about quantum computing, you would have to go through really hard studies and there is not enough done in terms of simple explanation to all those who are curious and who would like to start but they don’t know how. And that’s great that you’re working. Are you working on the course in that respect or education?
Dr. Alessandro 31:06 It’s not ready but we are planning it. What we were dreaming of is also to include even girls that finished high school and have the basic knowledge. Other people in Ghana are already doing this kind of stuff, like teaching girls how to make a website. It’s a low-level of teaching, someone was just in high school, and he’s like, spending our day selling stuff in the market. But it’s already like huge empowerment and it’s practical. We were considering, as a shift of more people who might be more interested in starting, as I say, they start from the end. If they want, they start to master so it’s also in the context of promoting stem and also the disruption of this figure of the only male guys in tech.
Natalia 32:30 That’s another big topic. It’s like we can talk about it for hours, but Okay, so do you also build some products within your companies? Or is it mostly now focused on education?
Dr. Alessandro 32:50 For Yawlab, we don’t have it here. No, I cannot show. I don’t think that I can send you one picture or picture you take from the website. It was an actual product. It started with products and most actually kits. We had the thermocycler where you can put in probes like samples from saliva or blood and the thermocycler was based on lamp loop isothermal amplification, which now everybody probably knows because Corona is the fastest, not the antigen test the fastest. We were given this simple device plus one pipette plus basic reagents. We started as a product. What we noticed is that new is not enough to just give the product but it is good if you provide also some online lectures on learning tools.
Now instead of the other story about related content, we are planning some educational course that is not yet developed. Lastly, we are building middleware and we are also still looking at patenting and all these things. I cannot mention it’s still undefined. But the idea is to have some middleware software for chemistry and other kinds of simulations. There is a company that we are looking at this kind of reference that’s very advanced in a course called Zapata computing. I don’t know. No, it doesn’t ring a bell. We are trying to do both education and product and in the case of Yawlab, this diagnostic device. The other quantum venture is middleware software.
Natalia 35:07 What is your general strategy? When you know, you’re also a first business developer, what is your general strategy for building a business? How do you come up with the idea? How do you find the right people? How do you develop a roadmap? We have some personal strategy for it or some philosophy.
Dr. Alessandro 35:36 We can talk a month about each singular of this thing. The need, as I said, was more than that. The idea started from an unmet need that I spotted. You never know if something you spoke about doesn’t meet the need will be overly successful, maybe the idea is successful, but then you fail or you don’t achieve great results for other reasons. No, like related to distribution or market or somebody else is faster than somebody that is stronger than has more power than you. But the initial idea is that you find an unmet need, even your knowledge. There is a lot about bragging about these things like adding value and promoting value is not well.
It’s one of the components I will say not the only component is about I strongly believe that everything that is done should offer some value to people. It seems obvious but as I was saying like people wake up and Okay, Blockchain is out, let’s do something in blockchain or quantum computer result, let’s do something quantum computing while more centered focused on the customer, or it should be the first thing but how they really actually going to use it. It’s something going to be really useful to them. It’s going to make a difference. And I will not say it’s just an entrepreneur thing is more on a personnel mindset, like that you wake up and you think that you have a purpose, and you’re doing something.
It seems a very obvious thing, but you can see if you introspectively of what do you do every day, every choice you make in your life, you can see if they are really driven by this. I’m posting a lot of pictures on Facebook or Instagram, why are you doing it is because you have this need and you need the approval from people. What is the order you are communicating something? This adding value can also be at this level. Psychology at this level is intertwined with entrepreneurship.
Natalia 38:36 If I can add something to it, I also think that I totally agree with you that a good idea for a startup should start with a problem. What problem you’re trying to solve, and not with just the bare needs to provide value. Because indeed, if there are already 200 other companies tackling the same problem, if there are 200 of such, you know, online stores, maybe there is a space for 200. And first, I can build my online business around it.
Dr. Alessandro 39:26 That’s not true.
Natalia 39:30 But I agree that it’s good to first think about the client and what is the problem that is not solved yet or not solved in an optimal way. And where is my niche where I can actually contribute something new and something that might be just a better or different way of approaching a problem? I agree. And I also think that today we live in a culture where people want to make an impact like everyone wants to make an impact.
Dr. Alessandro 40:03 That’s the point if they are really making or it’s just a bubble world.
Natalia 40:10 The point is that I see that lots of people just want to do anything to make them feel like they are making an impact but they don’t have any technical skills. They don’t have any concepts for real innovation. They just won’t like to pull off something to feel influential. And that’s the, you know, only or main drive. That’s a bad way to go. Because what can you contribute? I’m sure that Elon Musk didn’t become Elon Musk because he wanted to stand on the scene and be influential. He was pissed off that there was no good payment system. He created the PayPal and then he was angry that there were not the electric cars as hot as they should be.
He made the new type of car that people actually want to have not just because it’s electric but because it’s also beautiful. And this was the first time when electric cars became hot. He wanted to solve problems. And that’s why today, he’s a billionaire and world-famous not because he wanted to be world-famous. That’s the wrong angle. And I think many people just start from the wrong angle. They want to be influential and have an impact on the world. But they don’t have any skills and any concept of what type of problem they want to solve.
Dr. Alessandro 41:45 They will die soon because in the end, the real judges the market. You’re just selling bubbling unless you’re very, very good. There are these kinds of people also but they are not, they must be very like YouTube gurus, maybe. They will fail because the end market is the judge. You see if you’re just bubbling and it’s really hard to sell and survive financially, even if you have a good product. But I think if you’re just selling smokes, it’s also a challenge when you start and when you don’t have super funding. One thing I can share is that securing funding is also one thing you should start doing even before you have prototypes before.
My first experience was to have a prototype and then start looking for funding and all these things. Now, I change it and we are doing the reverse. We are like having kind of ideas and trying already from the beginning to see what will be the venture capital that will be interested. Because many people say I spent many times where people were telling me, I build the minimal viable products. And see how customers react is also important. You have the minimum. You just give it and you see people don’t like it. It was a very bad experience that people, in the end, were not interested. This is the harsh truth, like waking up that you think you’re making something super cool but then there is nothing.
But also what I learned recently is that you should not just do the minimum viable product. You should also see at the beginning, the interest of venture capitalists without spending years developing. This is a mistake I did and now we are changing. With this one new thing, we are starting from the end, as I say. If it’s already not profitable, you notice at the beginning.
Natalia 44:25 If I can add to this, I also think that it really depends on what type of funding you’re searching for. Because if you’re just searching for seed funding from private investors, then it’s more about building personal relations. You could actually start by going to meet-ups and just talking about your concept with individuals who are happy and who happen to be wealthy or connected to wealthy individuals. Like in the Netherlands, there are over 50 million who have too much money that they don’t know what to do with that.
They actually are looking for ideas on what to invest in and they have to hire external agents to basically advise them on what to invest like, they have the opposite problem. You are searching for money but those people are searching for someone smart, young, and energetic to invest in. And the question is, how to find the right match and how to find these people. You could also start by just trying to find a few people in that category and try to build relations with them and figure out if you match also on a personal level because that really matters for a good investment, as well. And get them informed about what you’re doing from the early start, so they can feel involved.
They can see how the company progresses and then at the other right moment, they might make a decision to come in with their money. That’s also another way of getting investment. But it also depends on how much you need. If you’re building a company in quantum computing, you might need to go straight to the venture capitalists because it might be so cash-heavy stuff that alone investors are not enough. It really depends. But there are many different ways of securing investment. For me, it was, I chose to bootstrap because I also knew that the way I’m building my company is based on intellectual property as well.
But it’s not that much into machine learning. I use some machine learning but it’s mostly psychometrics and this just doesn’t sound hot to the granting agencies to its niche. And I think, for me, it perfectly suits the needs of the company. But I know that this is not on the list of these hot topics like quantum computing or AI, that granting agencies or most investors will be the most excited to invest in so I knew from the start that this is not my way.
But it’s also not cash heavy project to pull off. I knew that it was possible to bootstrap it. I chose a bit different way, consciously. But I was aware of what the sentiment is. And I was aware that for this kind of topic, it will be really hard to persuade potential investors to invest in it. I agree that as soon as you possibly can, you should start thinking about where to take investment from. Given the scope of what you do, haven’t you thought about crowdfunding?
Dr. Alessandro 48:46 We tried crowdfunding and it didn’t go very well. Not for the quantum but the other product was a part of that crowdfunding and it’s not easy at all. You are going to spend money and time. We didn’t manage to react. This is also what I’ve noticed that people crowdfunding is very strong. It depends on how much you want to raise. If you want to raise 2000, 3000, 5000, 100,000. It depends also, maybe we have been too optimistic. We were aiming at very big numbers and it didn’t work out. But also my personal experience is that apart from even assuming that you have a very good campaign, people tend to donate for this kind of stuff.
If it’s something like a gadget or something that can still be seen, it’s simple for them, like even another new headphone or a new electric bike. Something is already known. You already deviate a bit in starting and biotech in Ghana might be already complicated. And also people still have this view of humanitarian things. It really is not very exciting anymore. Like in the past, people were more like donating but now it’s a challenging time. It’s also a challenging time because of the pandemic.
Natalia 50:46 There’re also too many projects like this today because a few years back, maybe there were not as many international projects aiming at education or education in technology. And now it’s so common that there are so many more projects to invest in. In the pandemic or this year in the Netherlands, I don’t think people are less willing to donate than before.
I agree with you that perhaps it’s harder to find crowdfunding. Because it’s harder for thinking as a potential investor. It’s harder to also assess the results. If you’re investing in a new gadget, then you can see whether or not the prototype is built. And it’s manufactured and sold. And it’s basically easier for the potential investor to judge whether or not the project met its goals.
Dr. Alessandro 51:56 As the investor, you will be shown the revenue of the prototype of the product.
Natalia 52:06 I’m just trying to think as potential investors right now. I haven’t crowdfunded anything yet. But if I had to decide, I would also try to probably pick product projects where I can easily judge whether or not the targets are met. When you design an educational program, for instance, it’s really hard for the observer, for a bystander to also judge if this educational program has quality. There’s a difference between designing a course and designing a good course. It’s hard. There are levels to it.
Dr. Alessandro 52:51 We were not giving the course. Because maybe I’m making a mess. Crowdfunding is easy for single private people who are either donating or having something back. That is more related to their life, like headphones or for new investors actually, in health, there are tools to quantify the impact. We can quantify. There are key indicators like quali dali. I don’t know if you ever heard this thing. If you use this thing, you will have decreased of this disease which can be translated into money. Because if people had this disease, then they will go on the insurance and on the economic system on the board. You can make a cost-effective analysis.
If you’re talking with an NGO or a government, you can quantify these things. We can do it. For any investor, let’s be honest, it’s money. The impact is a good thing but you have to convince this person that if he’s giving you $50,000, he’s getting after some years 90,000$. Investors got money. I don’t know how much time we have to find people. I started with this yellow thing where people in my network like colleagues, researchers, or people I met at the university in Ghana, were really interested in my academia, colleagues, and environment. What I noticed is that I’ve been very nice to find new people that even though some of them weren’t joined the vendor project but at least were interested.
They were like, maybe I’m also interested. I don’t know if you’re familiar with these things. It’s something where I’ve seen it in some places where you invite a lot of people from startups and everybody is like telling what they’re doing or saying, by the way, I will need this person interested in doing this, or there are even people coming that. We are excited about this technology but they don’t know what to do. And then they hear that you are looking for this kind of person. I had a couple of these people meet during events. Now with Corona, I think it’s harder. I’ve been to one that was completely online. It’s still possible. Okay, I found it really nice to have feedback.
Natalia 56:21 That’s interesting because there are different many different ways in which you can find co-founders and quality for your startup and different philosophies behind it.
Dr. Alessandro 56:38 And the one I like I’m not saying.
Natalia 56:42 I was curious because, on the other hand, it feels like if you meet someone at the other meetup, then you also don’t know them or at least you meet them at their best. You meet them at a social gathering and they probably are in a good mood. They just do their best to present themselves well. You don’t know the strategy. They know how they react to problems. You don’t know how they react to stress, or how they go through hard times. It’s also I always felt that this is a bit of a gamble.
Dr. Alessandro 57:29 That’s just the start. I have these events. I met people. We noticed that there was not a good match. And we left but as a starting point, I like it.
Natalia 57:45 Okay. For me, that’s the material for another conversation. But I think there’s this healthy middle between setting up a company with somebody with whom you absolutely cannot split, like your spouse, and setting up a company with somebody who you barely know. You probably should be something in the middle of the spectrum. But I think there is no algorithm also.
Dr. Alessandro 58:19 One thing I noticed and want to criticize is some people give up. They have a certain level of resistance because of the hurdles they see. They are very excited at the beginning. Then they start seeing all the problems and all the things they have to do. They realize when they will get money because it’s not that you work three months and you make money, it can be two years. And then they quit.
Natalia 58:53 I fully agree with you. I think this deep is the worst period because it’s for the first six or twelve months. It’s easy. You know, you start a venture, you have plans, you have all this to-do list. You have everything to build from scratch. You have this initial enthusiasm and energy. But this adds to slowly running as you started running out of it after like six to 12 months. And then after the first year, you still don’t have any financial benefits from it and you already invested so much energy, then the frustration starts coming and I think this second year is actually worse than the first one because you have to slowly start rolling, start getting clients but they are nowhere to see.
Your energy starts running down. I’ve recently seen some statistics with respect to when during the development phase, most startups fail because there is this official statistic that 90% of startups fail. But funnily enough, only 20% of them fail in the first year. The vast majority of them fail later. It’s relatively easy. At least 80% of startups go through the first year. It’s relatively easy to survive this initial honeymoon phase when you’re like, yes, I have a company, it’s all going to be great. And then you have all this initial energy but it’s much harder to get through this 2, 3, 4, and 5-year mark than the one-year mark which is a bit counterintuitive, maybe. But I agree with you that most people drop out after two or three years not after one year.
Dr. Alessandro 1:00:54 Okay, but I see even after three months.
Natalia 1:00:58 That’s also cool. It’s also you know, we are PhD so I think PhD in this case, helps in a sense that you wait four years for the results of your project. You’re impregnated against this long development when you see no results. I think we are much more patient.
Dr. Alessandro 1:01:22 I used to delay gratification.
Natalia 1:01:25 That actually helps with a lot of pain.
Dr. Alessandro 1:01:31 I don’t call it quitting. You realize that the thing you thought that people aren’t quitting and you realize that the thing you taught is not productive as you thought. I don’t know, you were learning and making products and then you build the platform, and you sell the platform. No, it’s not quitting.
Natalia 1:02:09 I did that too many times. I just don’t talk about it openly. The plan was changed 20 times and it’s already in the process. I just don’t focus on what the next step is. That’s also a process of finding a product-market fit. It requires multiple trials. Nobody can find the product-market fit at the first go.
Dr. Alessandro 1:02:52 It looks good on the paper but then no one is taking it. You have to change it.
Natalia 1:03:01 If you’re prepared for that you need at least a few trials and adjustments and sometimes completely change the product, then you won’t be disappointed. I think everyone should take this into account when starting a company. When I was registering my company in July 2019, the situation was very different than the original model based on face-to-face teaching and courses are now like completely in the dustbin because after Corona, they will never come back to the same way as it was before Corona.
There are also external factors involved and you have to take them into account but I always try to look at the positives because with every downside and with every problem, there is another opportunity to it. On the one hand, I will no longer be able to do what I was planning to but on the other hand, if I go online and I build some business online, then I’m becoming geographically independent from the place I live and that gives me so much more options.
I just try to look at the positives even in hard situations but there are always some new opportunities out in every situation. Lastly, I would like to ask a few questions since I know that from your social media activity but also the artwork that I have seen at the conferences, I know that you’re also an artist.
Dr. Alessandro 1:04:53 This part has been a bit dead.
Natalia 1:04:58 I did that but I have to say that for people who don’t know, Alessandro, he has a very broad scope of interests. He grows mushrooms. He’s also creating audio, like audiovisual arts. I would say he’s one of the very multifaceted types of artists. Are you also into music by the way?
Dr. Alessandro 1:05:25 Yes, we only have 24 hours a day life.
Natalia 1:05:29 But I’ve seen you also growing very interesting rare types of plants and so on. Is it just a hobby for you? Or is it done in any way inspiring for your like business activities as you’ve got a creative mind and artistic nature? Is it in any way also related to your daily activity?
Dr. Alessandro 1:05:55 Growing mushrooms was started with the lockdown. At the beginning of the lockdown, I was at home. I didn’t know what to do. I started doing the thing but it was mostly for food.
Natalia 1:06:09 Okay.
Dr. Alessandro 1:06:13 We tried a few ideas. But of course, you cannot think to develop further 10 things at the same time. I had some ideas in the direction but they are not taken up because I’m too busy with the others. But Mycelium is another hot topic, I would say not as big as this machine learning but it’s also very trending. And many people are doing many things I know. People here are doing bio-fabrication of material and doing even a face mask made on mycelium.
I think they’re so here in this co-working space. Other people are doing this kind of stuff. I also was interested but the day is made up of 24 hours. I used to do painting but now I’m even busier than before.
Natalia 1:07:23 I enjoyed your artwork.
Dr. Alessandro 1:07:29 Because it’s copied from neuroscience.
Natalia 1:07:36 I think it was genuinely good artwork. I felt you had to develop some personal style that I think was interesting. When I paint, I cannot really let go. I have to draw every single detail. As you know, I was also drawing a lot as a kid and I was even expected to be an artist but I chose mathematics. I thought it was more like a rational choice to learn maths than arts. But I couldn’t let go and just start creating these impressionist arts.
But I like your style. I think you’re very brave. Lastly, is there any general piece of advice that you might be willing to give to young people who are now pondering options and wondering if they possibly might start a company in the future or if they just in general, don’t know what to do next.
Dr. Alessandro 1:09:00 First of all, think about it if you really want to do it because, from an economic point of view, it’s better for certain things but even more uncertain than academic research. It’s definitely more than a normal traditional nine-to-five job. Think if you want to do it and then I will reiterate with the things that say like thinking what is your purpose or also for yourself, not just for the customer.
For all the things we practice that we immediately focused on a minimum viable product. Don’t wait until you are certified or start having feedback. From the beginning, see the reaction of venture capitalists. If you’re there because you’re lacking something, don’t underestimate that.
It’s not people are fixed with certain things like you need to have a patent but there might be a very good reason when they start being fixated on something. And maybe that then the last thing, also what we say that a co-founder is important. And one good thing is that maybe you don’t need to kill yourself fun looking for venture capital. If you are supported, let’s say your supervisor is also introducing you to some kind of spin-off system, then it might be an easier way.
You are crowdfunding or looking for vendors that I know, people had this experience with the spinoff from supported by their supervisor that had a much easier life. It might be a good idea to consider this context. You cannot use your supervisor. You cannot convince your supervisor to support you.
Natalia 1:11:24 Most universities today also connect you potentially with investors or give loans that are sometimes zero-interest loans. In the Netherlands, you can even get a lot of loans, where if you can prove that you failed for external reasons, like that you couldn’t control, then it might even be waived. If there are circumstances out of your control, then you will not fall into that because they will just waive it for you.
Dr. Alessandro 1:12:04 What I was saying is the spin-off, sometimes they have their radio star with the venture supported by the university. Then it’s converted into their own salary. In the end, it’s like a fellowship. It can be already less mentally draining if you’re already in this situation, not in other things.
Natalia 1:12:33 There are so many different options. You can also go for a private accelerator not necessarily the public one. That’s also an option.
Dr. Alessandro 1:12:44 There are many things that I’m saying that people should not just start thinking that they can create everything from scratch, or that there are many solutions and some of them can be easier than others.
Natalia 1:12:58 It’s interesting because to serve the company, you have to have enough courage and you have to have enough belief in yourself. Many people who would be potentially very good entrepreneurs never decide to start because they just never have the guts to start. But at the same time, you cannot fall into the like self-love mode and this type of thinking about yourself that you can do anything just because you read it in the books that you can do anything. It’s like you have to be somewhere in this healthy middle that you have some belief because otherwise, you would never start. But you are realistic.
So and I think it’s really hard to find yourself in this. We are neither the pessimist nor the optimist, but the realist and that’s the hardest part. It’s good to have the right advisors around you not only your family and friends but critical people. And they will just give you honest feedback. If they believe that what you’re trying to do has no chance of working, they’ll just tell you how they feel.
Dr. Alessandro 1:14:23 There are advisors, so there is personnel. They don’t want to be bothered all the time.
Natalia 1:14:33 I changed in the last two years a lot like two years ago, I think I was positive about 99% of business ideas I was hearing and now I can easily see the bottlenecks. When friends come to me with business ideas, I just bombed them in two minutes. Now I’m the critical one. But it changed in the last two years after I failed with many different ideas. I just learned a lot. I think in the last two years, I changed my way of looking at things and now, I’m much more picky with picking projects and people than I used to be. Anyways, thank you so much.
Dr. Alessandro 1:15:43 Olivia with zoom to the Chinese cat.
Natalia 1:15:47 Is that a lucky item? Do I have to understand correctly? That’s your teammate.
Dr. Alessandro 1:16:01 It depends. We’re not noticing what we talked about today. We’re making the noise. Now, let’s go through many people around but I avoid that too.
Natalia 1:16:17 Nice to meet you. You will be on YouTube. Thank you.
Dr. Alessandro 1:16:28 The only one who didn’t know that. She would be on Youtube.
Natalia 1:16:36 Thank you so much, Alessandro, for sharing your insights with us today. And good luck on your way. I am curious about where I will see you in five to 10 years from now. By the way, I’ve one last question. Are there any points in time when you miss neuroscience and being a neuroscientist?
Dr. Alessandro 1:17:01 Yes. It was more about being tired of certain aspects of academia. I didn’t leave science. I leave academia. For the science parts, I still have some papers laying around hoping to be accepted yet. We will never know. Maybe I come back. I don’t know.
Natalia 1:17:43 I fully agree with what you said. I think most people come for science and leave because of academia.
Dr. Alessandro 1:17:52 I will say politics is not even academia.
Natalia 1:17:58 Politics is everywhere. Okay, perfect. Thank you so much once more. Thanks to anyone who came to the end of this episode. And if you guys would like to get more of this type of content, please subscribe to this channel. And of course, we would welcome your comments and questions, so please leave them underneath. And we’ll get to each one of them. If you have more questions for Alessandro, please find him on LinkedIn. We’ll also link his projects here under this episode. Check it out. Alessandra, thank you so much for joining us today. Thank you, everyone. Have a nice day.
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