Thursday, 26 February 2009

The Silence before dawn

It is 5am. I am sitting in the kitchen in that calm silence before dawn. Birds still deep in slumber. Roads outside are quiet. No planes overhead descending on the flightpath to Heathrow. The house is silent. No-one's up except me. The silence before dawn. It's a quiet, restful time. The chance to prepare for a big day ahead.

I got up because I woke at about 3am and couldn't get back to sleep. I am alert, awake and very, very focused. Today I go into a series of meetings to sort out the next round of venture funding for Garlik and by the end of the day I will know what the future holds.

Being an early stage entrepreneur means that you are constantly raising money. Find some "seed" capital to get started (a few tens of thousands typically). Raise a "Series A" round from your first set of VCs (half a £million, a million perhaps?). When you've got momentum, pull in the "Series B" money (now you're in to the £millions). Then on to Series C.

Each time you go through the same lengthy process, uncertain what the result is going to be. There are so many variables. How is the business doing? Has it got "traction" (the dreaded T word) ? Did it meet its last milestones? Have the VCs actually got any money to invest? What's the overall market doing? What's the right company valuation?

A lot of entrepreneurial effort goes in to this continuous cycle of fund raising for your early stage company. For example, over the past nine months this effort has dominated my mind and focus. I have probably spoken to about 30 investors across three continents, had well over a hundred meetings and calls, been close to a deal several times, seen it vanish, then reappear and now it all comes down to a couple of hours of meetings today that will decide it.

I was sitting next to a high profile start up guy at a dinner last week in London. Very nice networking dinner at a private house for about 14 entrepreneurs and investors, a range of fine wines, none less than £100 a bottle and beautiful food. Wasted on me of course (I took the precaution of consuming a McD fillet o' fish with large fries beforehand just in case the food was too posh). When I arrived a chap in a suit opened the door. I beamed and shook his hand warmly. He looked a bit embarrased "Errr, I'm the house Butler, Sir, may I take your coat". Whoops! Anyway I was sitting next to this high profile start up guy and we were swapping stories on the sheer effort that goes into fund raising and the games people play, at crucial times for your company. Imagine if I had had 100 meetings and conversations with partners and customers over the past few months! Somethings not quite right in the current venture model, if you look at it from the entrepreneurs perspective.

So, today, we sit down, negotiate and get to where we get to. Check back here and I'll tell you how it went.

The silence before dawn. It's a quiet, restful time. The chance to prepare for a big day ahead.

Sunday, 22 February 2009

Human Augmentation

As I arrived at church this morning, the priest was having a chat with an elderly lady and her adult daughter and son-in-law. "I'm so sorry to hear about your husband" said our priest. "Why? What's happened to him?" replied the elderly lady, smiling but looking slightly puzzled.

The daughter looked sad and pained. "We have told her that he died last week, Father, but she just can't hold on to it".

When the priest announced at the start of Mass that it was dedicated to her husband who passed away recently, I saw the look of upset and surprise on her face, with just a twinge of "this is something I know already, I think" buried in there somewhere.

How incredibly sad.

A few weeks ago in Davos, I attended a session on Human Augmentation. It was probably the most interesting session I attended, looking at how technologies can directly augment human ability, physically and mentally. I am also aware of research projects into areas such as "memories for life" that augment memory by capturing and storing everything you do. I find this a fascinating area of research and it really makes you think.

For example at the Human augmentation session, one of the speakers had two false legs, below the knee, which he revealed halfway through his talk after striding confidently around the stage. He joked (I think) how he was sorrry for the other folk on the panel who only had normal human limbs because as time passes and technology advances his legs keep getting better and better whereas theirs just get weaker and weaker.

Another chap spoke about mapping the human brain and eventually being able to manipulate the neurons and pathways to augment intelligence. You want an IQ of 168? No problem, Sir!

(oh, by the way, it appears that lots of the funding in the USA for this type of research is coming from Military and Defence pockets. Watch out for technologically enhanced, super intelligent GI's coming to a battlefield near you!).

Memory is an interesting aspect of this type of augmentation. It is interesting what all this digital storage is doing to our memories. Capturing, storing and making instantly accessible things that would have faded into the deep recesess of our memories in days gone by. Imagine if every time you blinked a snapshot of that moment in time was stored for later retrieval. Is that good, bad, scary, exciting? I don't know yet but I sense that we are moving in that direction.

Just think of those of you that Twitter away constantly. I know folk who tweet 10-15 times a day, every single day. What they have just done, what they have seen, eaten, felt, thought. Imagine if they keep that up and have that available to explore in ten years time. Wow!

I am trying right now to recall my earliest memory. When you reach back that far, it's difficult to tell what's a memory and what's a story that you have been told and are just replaying. However I feel as if I remember being a baby, sitting on a sofa (or at least high up) watching a group of other babies and children playing. I also feel as if I remember being pleased or even happy. I am told that I was a few months old when that all took place. Do I remember or not? I can't tell.

What makes it feel like a memory though is the element of "feeling" that I attach to this situation or event. And as I reflect on other events tucked away in my memory banks, it is the feelings that make a memory special. The feelings of joy, of pain, of fear, of laughing so much that I truely understood the phrase "split his sides laughing". Those are my real memories. The "facts" are secondary.

Over the next decade and more we will see huge leaps forwards in our ability to record everything we do, every place we visit, every word we utter, every image we see. But will we capture the emotions that went with the moment?

Thursday, 19 February 2009

A tale of two schools

Today I got the excellent news that my son has been accepted into the secondary school that we had hoped for. He will be starting this September and by coincidence it is exactly 30 years this year since I finished secondary school (well 5th form anyway). Gosh. 1979. That's a long time ago.

Actually I went to two secondary schools, not one. The first half of my secondary school career was here in London. The latter years were spent in Nigeria. It is fascinating, as I am very involved in secondary education now though various charities, to compare what my old schools were like verses todays high tech temples of learning. But it's even more interesting to compare my two old schools to each other.

My first school in London was a State run, comprehensive, all-boys day school. The second in Nigeria was a private, all-boys boarding school (although I and a few others attended daily so were known scathingly as "Day Goats"). The schools had just two things in common. Both were all-boys. Both had a brilliant, inspirational maths teacher. Apart from that they couldn't have been more different, and in some unexpected ways!

Perhaps I was just drawn towards maths teachers as it was a subject I found I could consistently get A's in without trying too hard. Whereas french, for example, was a mystery to me and all I learnt how to say was "The boy sat on the bench" which when translated into bad schoolboy french had the capacity to almost kill silly little 1970's London 11 year old boys with laughter (if you know why, please comment for others benefit. I can't type it out without giggling and risking the French teacher rolling her eyes and saying "Oh for goodness sake, Ilube, grow up").

I wish I could remember the names of my maths teachers. The London lady spotted me really early and got me doing all sorts of interesting stuff when I could easily have spent my time disrupting the rest of the class. Most of my friends' reports said "XXX would do better if he didn't sit next to Tom Ilube". They say there is always one teacher who really inspired you and you remember. She is mine. I must find out her name.

The Nigerian maths teacher was pretty special too. In the morning all the teachers parked their cars under the high trees in the shade because the sun was hot, but he parked away from everyone else. By early afternoon when the sun was fiercest, the shade from the tree had moved across the carpark, nicely covering his car and leaving all the rest baking hot. It was the same every day. We smiled to each other about this.

I noticed the difference in attitude towards academic achievement very quickly. At my London Comp it was generally best to act a bit dumb. No one wanted to be some sort of brainbox, teachers pet. So act tough. Mess about. Head for the back of the class. Don't answer questions. But do enough work to get decent reports and to make sure you didn't get chucked out of the top stream (we were streamed by ability in those days).

I went to Nigeria and was immediately surprised to find that if you were smart you were supposed to act smart and even you school mates respected you for it. One day the maths teacher set a test in our Additional Maths class. we did our best but a lot of the kids complained because he had included some questions that he hadn't taught, although he claimed they were in the book. After much moaning he agreed to give everyone an extra 10 percentage points to be fair. This meant, however, that I ended up with 104%.

The next day when I arrived and was walking past the three story classroom block, boys from all year groups came out on to the balcony and started waving their arms and chanting "Addiko, Addiko" (a sort of nickname for someone who had mastered additional maths). Practically the whole school came out because word had got around about the 104% and for ages afterwards I was often referrred to as "Addiko", until I was assigned a new nickname when I went to University (hopefully not know to any readers of this blog!).

In my experience this respect and excitement about brainpower or as they say - people who"know book" is very strong in Nigeria and other parts of Africa and still very weak in our schools here. That's a problem. I could have scored 200% at my London Comp and all that would have happened is that someone would have kicked me and said "smartarse".

Discipline was another matter though. My London Comp was no soft touch. We had some tough boys (think Chelsea supporters, 1970's style) and the teachers knew how to handle them. Our sports master wielded a mean gym shoe back in the days when caning was still allowed. Our Deputy Head used to be a Borstal (Prison) Warden and when he barked it stopped you in your tracks.

But the Nigerian school took things to a completely different level. My first direct experience was for the offence of talking in class. The teacher called out "Ilube, come here and kneel down at the front of the class". My jaw dropped and I look incredulous. "Naaah" I said in my London drawl "I ain't kneeling down for no-one".

"What!!!" she screamed "Kneel down, kneel down". Suddenly the whole class joined in "Ilube, kneel down, what's the matter with you, don't disrespect the teacher, kneel down". Finally in tears I went to the front and knelt to a cacophony of laughter and jeers from the whole class. Then for my disobedience, the teacher commanded the whole class to form a line in front of me and one by one they walked past and gave me a hard knock on my head. Some of my friends delighted in giving me the hardest whacks! That's standard classroom discipline, Nigerian style!

Once, a year or so later, I was sent to see the Head for some misdemeanour. I went in to his office and as I looked to my left I saw one of my friends clinging to the top of a cupboard, where he had been left to hang after a caning and ordered not to drop down. He nodded at me sadly and I nodded back. By then the surreal scene didn't seem like much of a big deal. Can you imagine if that happened in London today!

The one thing I completely didn't expect though was that I would change colour when I moved from London Comp to Nigerian Private. I'm mixed and in London that means black. No one had warned me that in Nigeria that basically meant white!

So on a bad day at my London Comp in the Seventies, there was a little song the lads would gather around and sing to me. It went something like this

"Golly, Ilube. Wogs the matter? Feeling a bit browned off? Didn't have your coon flakes? Nigger mind. Go black to bed. You'll feel all white in the morning". This was followed by much laughter and goading to try to get me to pick a fight with someone.

And on a bad day at my Nigerian Private, there was a little song the lads would sing. It went something like this

"Oyibo pepe. If e eat-e pepe, you go yellow more more" (roughly translated "white man, pepper, if you eat pepper, you'll turn yellow"). This was followed by much laughter and goading to try to get me to pick a fight with someone.

Bearing in mind that I was a boy in my mid-teens going through my adolescent years, seeking to understand who I really was and I think you will understand why I am the poor messed up soul that stands before you today :)

(oh, by the way, I was a rough little rugby playing lad and quite able to stick up for myself so generally the other lads had to be pretty careful before they decided to start singing - just in case you were getting the wrong impression that I was bullied or anything. I refer you back to my University nickname!).

Secondary schools are fascinating places. That's why I love being involved with them today. I am a Governor/Trustee of two UK secondary schools and am busy leading a project to build another high tech secondary school in London, and I am working on my project to build a really interesting Academy for Gifted and Talented young people in Africa. I actually loved my time at both my secondary schools, with all their failings and I hope that my lad has as brilliant a time as I did.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Venture Capitalists say the funniest things

It's not often I pick up the Financial Times, read a headline and burst out laughing. But thanks to my venture capital friends I had a good belly-laugh this morning.

Get this. Apparently UK venture capitalists are lobbying the government to throw them a lifeline by bailing them out with £1 Billion!!


No, seriously. Their pitch is that if the Government doesn't give the venture capitalists £1 Billion to play with, then hundreds of technology start ups will go to the wall. They are doing it for us. Not for themselves. For me! The VCs are lobbying the Government for £1 Billion for ME!


Oh, darn it. I've gone and cracked a rib, laughing.