There’s a revolution underway. Deep within the Auckland Viaduct lurks the beginnings of our own tiny Silicon Valley. At GridAKL, more than 50 startups, in industries as diverse as medicine, robotics and augmented reality, are running the entrepreneurial gauntlet looking to build a high-growth business – or at least a get a second funding round.
In On the Grid, a sponsored series with Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (ATEED), we tell their stories. In this, the second instalment, brain-reading software developers Thought Wired.
It’s easy to forget among the fears of big data and the death of attention that technology is actually an incredibly powerful force for good. From prosthetic limbs to anesthesia, technology has always made life easier for those who suffer. Now, with the help of New Zealand entrepreneurs, it’s giving a voice to those without their own.
Thought Wired, an Auckland-based startup, design software with which to bridge the gap between brain activity and communication. Harvesting the patterns of thought, their software Nous interprets brain data collected via a simple headset and provides tactile visual or audible feedback, allowing complex interactions with existing platforms like Facebook and onwards out into the world
Founder and CEO Dmitri Selitskiy is one of those most rare of capitalists – he genuinely wants to help people, starting with the ones nearest to him. We spoke at the GridAKL tech cafe one Tuesday afternoon last month.
The Spinoff: How did you identify an opening in the market for a product that’s almost like something out of science-fiction?
Dmitri Selitskiy: It wasn’t so much about looking and thinking ‘well what doesn’t exist?’, it was more out of necessity and directly seeing the need. I have a younger cousin who is paralysed and, because of his condition, none of the existing solutions really worked for him. None of the technology that requires physical interaction worked for him, even stuff that’s specialised. Six years ago I saw a demo online of a device that allowed you to translate brain activity into actions on a screen, moving a box and so on, so I just connected the two things together and started looking into it. I saw that there were these devices that you could buy, but you needed to build software to make them actually useful and to actually do these things. Still to this day there is no solution that’s commercially available that does what we’re trying to do.
Obviously there are commercial advantages to being first in the area, but what about challenges?
There are two equally significant challenges. On one hand, technology, actually making the thing work, because no one has figured it out. It’s not like creating a new app that does something slightly differently, it’s a completely new way of interacting with things. Everything from what happens in the person’s brain to how you present things on the screen or through audio, and then ten steps in between, it all needed to be figured out. It’s a massive technical and scientific challenge.
And then on the other hand commercially, especially when we were just starting out, especially here in New Zealand nobody had even heard of technology like this. Most people were like ‘no, it sounds crazy, it’s impossible and if it is possible it’s going to take 100’s of people and millions of dollars’. When it came to figuring out the commercial aspects of it, people would just say ‘no, too hard, too complicated, don’t wanna touch it.’
But all the while we’d get heaps of encouragement because of what we were trying to do, so you end up in the middle between these two disconnected paths of what you’re hearing. One is like lots of people going ‘what you’re doing is awesome, it’s going to help so many people’, but on the other hand ‘that sounds way too hard, impossible even.’
What gave you the confidence to think it even would be possible?
In the very beginning? Because it was something I didn’t have any experience in. I didn’t have experience in any of this, I just fell into it because I saw the tech and how it could be applied, but I didn’t know much about it. Not knowing and being overly confident and ambitious was helpful. It was like ‘yea, how hard could it be?’
Once we came together we very early on figured out that we were all passionate about not just building tech but actually specifically working in this space and creating accessibility tools. Trying to make a difference to people with disabilities. That was the big driver and as we went along we could see that it was possible, and that we were making progress. Even when we had to do some of the biggest challenges technologically, just spending a couple of hours with someone who is a potential user , seeing what problems they have, and the potential for what we’re building was like, ‘wow, it’s still worth it.’
Most of your team are alumni of the University of Auckland. Are there advantages to being from the same institution and programs?
Either initially or at some point. When we were starting out I was still studying as was my father. We were both at the business school doing different degrees. Then when we got a little bit more serious and took on an engineer, he was doing his PhD in the engineering school. Our fourth co founder was originally from Massey, but when we started she actually enrolled in a psychology PhD at Auckland, working on some of the aspects of what we were building.
Over time as we were doing things we realised that we wanted to do it differently compared to how academia in general does things. It reinforced that trying to do it independently and as a company was the best way forward. Motivation for doing things is different in academia, and time scales are different, especially for things getting out from the lab to the real world applications. And so I guess in that sense being in academia, in different phases of academia, kind of helped us to see that.
Obviously you have this shared motivation of wanting to help people with disabilities, but were you all on the same footing in terms of ethical concerns around profiting off the disabled and so on? Did you share values and direction?
Yea, and actually all of those sort of motivations, all the team dynamics stuff, we figured out quite early on. We did what used to be called the Spark entrepreneurial challenge, now Velocity, at Auckland University, it’s a business planning competition. We came second in that year’s competition and off the back of it spent some time at the Icehouse. The very first thing they did with us there was to figure out this team dynamic and the motivations of all the people in the founding team. We kind of unpacked it and figured out what was important: were we after making millions and billions of dollars, or was it because of the purpose of what we were trying to build?
We also understood that doing this as a for-profit company is probably the best way, and that we can prove that over time. Later on we went through a social enterprise accelerator, and through that we learned that there is actually a way of combining social impact with having a sustainable and profitable enterprise, and how the two can work together. That was really helpful to put frameworks around that, and drive that forward.
How did those discussions take place? Did you just sit around with a coffee and hash it out?
Pretty much, and at the time it was very unusual and weird. We were all just 25 or something, with the exception of my dad, and after working with each other for just a month or two, it was really strange. But looking back it was probably one of the most important things that we did, figuring out what’s important to each of us, questions around ‘what would success mean to you in five years,’ and things like that. So yea, it was kind of about talking through that stuff, writing some of it down, and really it wasn’t even so much coming up with answers but the process of talking through that was the helpful bit.
Those aren’t exactly natural conversations. They’re big questions.
They’re foundational things, even as fundamental as ‘ok, what are we trying to build?’ and ‘how are we going to make money?’ and ‘ok, why are we doing it?’, ‘how are you going to split the shares in this company?’ and even ‘why are we doing this?’
It’s about talking through those sorts of questions, and doing it early enough that you can have these open and honest conversations. Because we were guided through that process it seemed almost natural, and we don’t even think about doing it differently now. But then there are others who haven’t done that and ran into all kinds of problems later on.
Some of those questions and motivations are particularly important when you have people with disabilities involved, right? You’ve gotta take their rights into consideration. It’s much more sensitive than if you were just building an app for fast food curation.
Yes, but because we had that shared understanding of what we were doing and why, it was pretty much already part of all of those conversations. If not explicitly, then it was at least in the back of our minds. Once we figured out that we were all on the same page, it’s been a guiding principle, of course, in what we do. How we build stuff, what we do commercially, how we raise capital and from whom – all that sort of stuff. It’s just about keeping that in the front of our minds as the team is growing and, as we bring people on board, communicating those principles and making sure that anyone who joins us, in any capacity, shares that.
It seems to me that the big dream in the start-up world is to be the next Zuck, super famous, with a trillion dollars, motivated purely by capitalistic reasons. What does it change when you bring on this social responsibility?
It goes back to the same thing. For us it’s never been about building this up quickly and then selling it, making lots of money or whatever. It’s really…every time we’ve hit major roadblocks and we’ve looked at why we’re doing it, how can we change things, the decision has always come back to asking ‘if we change our approach, will it still line up to why we’re doing this?’
Along that path we tried slightly different things, trying to stay afloat and whatnot, and we’ve always just circled back later on and said ‘actually, it doesn’t necessarily line up with why we came together and started working on this, so let’s reevaluate and get back to what’s important’.
We’ve never had any massive arguments or disagreements around it, because everyone on the team came on with that shared understanding, and then we made sure that it was shared through those early conversations.
Are there advantages in terms of motivation? You have the knowledge that you’re helping people, directly changing their lives, and you can see the results of that even when you’re testing and the product has yet to hit the market.
Yea, there is. Every time we interact with people from the community who we’re testing the product with and getting input from that’s always a massive motivational boost, because yea, we just see why it’s important. And it’s almost like a natural filter for attracting the right kind of people to work with as well. We’ve seen that happen a number of times with people who join us along the way, either as advisors or mentors or contributors or contractors. Certain types of people gravitate to the purpose that we have, and then why we’re doing things.
At the same time it filters out people who have different kinds of motivations. Sometimes we have to be very explicit. People have approached us and said, ‘why don’t you, instead of doing this, go into gaming and entertainment and create a gaming product that could earn lots of money, and then you can come back and do what you’re trying to do?’, or a similar sort of discussion in an investment context, and it just comes back to that original motivation.
We actually believe in this, and we have proof that we can do it the way that we’re doing it.
As the CEO, how does an initiative like GRIDAkl make your job easier?
Many different ways. Probably the biggest is that it’s the hub of many different networks, and so making introductions whether it’s along the funding route or just telling the world we exist and what we’re doing, connecting us into different communities. And then more specifically around some of the initiatives that they’re involved in. We took part in one of the pitching competitions here. They highlighted several opportunities like that for us. Extending this network and doing introductions to people and organisations, that’s been massive for us.
More personally as a founder and CEO I found that having that network of other founders that you can share your experiences with, both positive and negative, which is often a lot harder and a lot of people don’t really talk about it, but it’s one of the big things that helped me and our team through the process. We’ve had some huge challenges technically and looking back, we’ve talked about it, if we weren’t going through that project with the support of mentors, advisors and other ventures going through the same process, we’re not even sure if we’d have survived that as a company at that particular time. So definitely doing it together with other people, even though they might be working on something different, just having that wider community of startups is huge. And it’s not even about the practical things like introductions or whatever, but really just even sitting down and talking about how crap your day or week or month has been, and knowing that ‘hey, it’s not just us, other people go through super hard stuff as well.’
When you read stuff in blogs or press or whatever, essentially you see the highlight reel of everyone else while living your own blooper reel, and you forget about that. But when you’re in this tightly-knit network, you get to see that it’s not just all big wins and successes, it’s actually…everyone else goes through hard stuff as well, it’s just super helpful to have that and see that, and even better when you share it with others.
But it’s exciting, and it’s worth it, because on the very long timescale we really see a potential for our technology to become a platform for the way everyone and anyone interacts and communicates through natural interfaces like the brain, as well as other ways that we have only read and seen in science fiction so far.
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