Professor Antonio Hyder is an expert technology-marketing researcher expert in solving problems using science-based evidence. He received an honorary professorship, which was achieved with an interdisciplinary career of science, engineering, business, and knowledge transfer, holding an international Ph.D. in research marketing with a background in computer science, digital engineering, business, and education (EU, UK, US). He is the Scientific Director at Hackers and Founders: California-based Applied Science and Tech Research Centre. Professor Hyder, with substantial global exposure and living most of the time in Spain, is featuring the Exposition Magazine to share his vast knowledge and experience with us.
Q: How do you look at the way you do your research?
A: I am a technology marketing researcher, with research training in marketing science, and a background in computer and electronics engineering. All my research is conducted with a combination of marketing and technology, to impact not only other researchers but also professional marketers and technologists.
It is a tricky balance in academia, as there is pressure when we publish and especially in high-impact journals. Yet, the specific reason why I got into marketing in the first place is that technology should be useful in the market. When studying for an MBA, we were repeatedly taught and asked: “What is the value of this?”. I think this is the overall fundamental point for products, services, and research: “What is it about?”, “Why would anybody want to adopt it?” or “What problem does this solve?”. Although the disconnection between science and practice is enduring, technology is changing rapidly. Since the beginning of my research career, I have been observing that the demand for “research with an impact” for gaining competitive advantage is increasing.
Economies move with the trades and solutions to problems that benefit society. Before my Ph.D., I visited MIT, where I identified all these facts. After my Ph.D., I went to Stanford University and observed the same. Everyone had start-ups there. Therefore, instead of spending too much time on teaching and marking exams, this led me to step towards the start-up world with a problem-solving mindset and do less lecturing but with a higher impact. Now, I am all about solving problems with science-based evidence.
When I do a lecture, I always discuss the real projects I am dealing with first-hand, combining the latest science to train students on how to make the best possible decisions based on the existing evidence. It opens students’ eyes and keeps them motivated. If we are dealing with science-based innovations, they should produce a strong impact. In education research, the time between publishing and referencing a finding, ranges between 2.5 and 6.5 years! How on earth are you going to find a job in today’s world if the information you absorb is already outdated? That is why I teach with real examples.
Hackers and Founders (H/F) in Silicon Valley gives me the opportunity to accomplish my vision. Here we have dealt with well over 300,000 start-ups in 62 countries. At H/F, as the Director of Scientific Research, I leverage the knowledge amassed in the H/F community worldwide and develop research that is then used by start-ups, ecosystems, and policymakers.
Q: What is ‘Hackers and Founders Research’?
A: Hackers and Founders (H/F) is the world’s largest community of technology entrepreneurs. It was started as a meetup in a Silicon bar by Jonathan Nelson, who is the Founder and CEO. The objective has always been to improve the life of founders giving them access to resources like money, connections, education, and research.
I joined H/F in 2010. On a visit to the office of Gavin Newsom Mayor of San Francisco, officials motivated me to attend H/F meetups. Inspired by the culture at Stanford, I saw H/F as the bridging process between technology and the market. At H/F, research data was being moved around in an unnoticed and uncollected manner. I immediately saw the opportunity for creating a research center at H/F based on what I had seen at MIT and Stanford. However, Obama sent a team member to visit Jonathan Nelson because the White House needed information. That was a boost and made clear that H/F Research was needed which could have a sustainable future.
Q: Can you share your experience as the Director of Scientific Research at H/F?
A: I split my time between Palo Alto and Europe, mostly Spain. Since we are a large distributed network, after a while, it does not matter where we are physically located, as long as we get the job done. We have been working distributed and virtually for 11 years now with a combination of technologies that we do not hesitate to rapidly change or combine based on the task at hand at that moment. Working virtually is not about using Zoom. It is about combining the right technologies and maybe even changing them a few times in a day if that is what necessary to make things happen.
At H/F research, I talk with our local and regional members and collect data from the coolest things happening, in order to test my research hypotheses. The results make it one way or another to journals, conferences, books, visual media like TV or online videos, policymakers, events, start-ups, technology companies, and investors.
Q: Can you elaborate on the most challenging project you have worked on?
A: Probably my Ph.D. thesis was the most challenging project due to the conditions under which it was conducted; working full time at an early internet marketing company, teaching during the weekends, funding the Ph.D. process myself, and doing something interdisciplinary, innovative, and applied.
My research was about defining engagement on websites and measuring it with a combination of psychological variables (e.g. what you think or how focused you are), clickstream data (your mechanical behaviour when you navigate on a site), and remote eye tracking. It is based on my professional job at that time. I saw the need for this research every day. To find the solution to this problem, I started attending business and technology events that combined industry, research, and governance. However, there I saw the disconnection between research and industry and thought it would take ages to sort this out. Therefore, I dived into the research conference world and attended many of them.
Another professor told me that it is about working hard with passion and sweat, and that is what I did; work hard. I held onto my vision and kept the faith that if my research was focused on solving a growing problem, eventually I would make it. Furthermore, it was a research project that combined marketing and technology which started in the economics department, which did not seem the natural place at the time.At the first conference, I was suggested by a famous researcher to network with others and that is what I did; learn how to build and sustain international research connections.
However, I always had a clear vision of what I wanted to do because I experienced my research problem every day in my job liaising with more than 3000 web companies. There was not any solution in business magazines or scientific journals, so I decided to do it by myself. I kept moving forward and eventually fell into the capable hands of my amazing supervisor at the University of Valencia in Spain, who helped me shape the project into fruition. Still, as of today, my research is the first in the field in many ways. During my Ph.D., I also spent some time at the University of Nottingham in the UK. People were very encouraging there; this motivated me to go to the next level and ended up at Stanford, hosted by the pioneer of internet marketing himself. There I met way too many researchers who experienced a similar trajectory to mine. That was a huge motivational boost because companies like Google or Facebook were born or grew with Stanford research talent, and that is what you find there.
Q: Based on your research on engagement, how do visuals influence engagement, but not clickstream or eye movement metrics?
A: In my research, I wanted to learn how to measure the engagement with websites and clickstream behaviour; that is how people click on websites and keep them on the site for a sustained period.
Every morning I checked the prices of flights to London. After spending time every day clicking on the airline site, I was self-training myself into adapting to that site due to my continued use. Then I understood that each website is unique with a different design and therefore, requires an adoption period; so that would effectively block out competition. Then I thought that the users of my job’s website were probably experiencing the same thing. That is how my Ph.D. research took off. I approached it from an interdisciplinary perspective and not being side-tracked by the opinions of many marketing executives that I was dealing with on a daily basis. I used proven research to keep me focused. I was starting to adapt to science-based evidence.
The result of the analysis is that quality pictures engage consumers on websites. Engagement is the sort of phenomenon you experience when you lose track of time while your dinner gets cold because you are still at it. If you look at today’s sites, they are highly visual. The current problem we find now is how to engage users when there are too many websites available.
Q: How do you collect scientific research data for scaling science-based/ tech start-ups and ecosystems?
A: The core idea is to collect novel data from start-ups that have been founded currently and have not hit the market yet or have not scaled up. We collect data from the H/F community in 62 countries. That puts us in a privileged situation as our data sets are novel and unique. I saw this at Stanford University; pioneering researchers were writing good research because they network with the best researchers before it was even made public in its entirety. It all falls into place, and the same happens with the data sets. People are collecting data sets for modeling, which then becomes public, but much later. It is very time-consuming to grab the data as founders are busy founding! They need their time for themselves. That is why they are setting up a start-up in the first place. H/F is established for people who want to do something with their life and are willing to put in the hard work with passion and sweat, and love technology and solving problems. That tends to be the psycho-demographic profile of the H/F members.
Q: What would be the further developments that you are expecting, as a global organization?
A: We have first-hand global information which is extremely useful for policymakers. That is why the White House sent us a member of Obama’s staff who toured around the Silicon Valley with our CEO, Jonathan Nelson for two days. Obama has a JD and was the editor of the Harvard Law Review. He is a hands-on person, who wants to understand things and looks for evidence so that he can make the right decisions. At the time he was looking for knowledge on how to improve immigration policy. One of our start-ups was then invited to the White House for a demonstration. All these achievements gave us further confidence.
Q: What is your definition for “commercialisation of research”?
A: There are many types of research, but they can be categorised into two main groups; fundamental research and applied research. The commercialisation of research is any means through which the results of scientific research make it to the market, whether as processes, products, or services. Typically, research is put into practice through mechanisms such as technology transfer, research spin-offs, or intellectual property which can also be licensed.
My advice is, if you think your research has market potential, just launch it to the market and try to make some money from it. Try to get some adopters and see what happens. For me, it does not make too much sense to spend money you do not have for protecting something before even knowing there is real market potential.
Many researchers might think that their invention is great. Still, there might not be a market for it, or at least right now. Nineteen out of twenty inventions tend to fail. Do not spend money and do not get investors into your start-up until you need to quickly scale up a proven concept; for instance, when your technology already has a million users and if you ever bring investors, bring on people who are skillful in growing your invention and have a fitting and vast network of experienced professionals who are dealing with that product category or market. Their experience must come first, and only if necessary their monetary investment later.
What we have learned at Hackers and Founders is that none of the research-based start-ups we deal with or have seen ever got it right. They might achieve something close to their original mission, but we have not seen anyone getting it spot on. That is because the market has its forces. People might not be interested in what you have to offer in the way you have shaped it, and there is competition.
Most of the time, when entrepreneurs want to sell a science-based product, service, or a concept, they are based on published papers which are exactly that, “published”; this means, they are public and can be quoted, because anyone can take the research and embed it into an invention like a start-up.
The easiest start-ups that might come to your mind might be in tech, perhaps apps. Yet, there are way too many apps, millions. Much of the next generation of businesses will be in energy, climate, mobility, and food. I also like the combination of artificial intelligence (AI) and healthcare.
Q: How do you think universities can contribute to the commercialization of research?
A: Set up an office with a staff dedicated to selling research and see what happens. With no bureaucracy, no forms to be signed by supervisors, no approvals to be made, no nothing. Just sell it. Zero bureaucracy. No signatures are required. You already signed somewhere when you joined the university. They should already trust you, so do not need to sign again or wait for a signature which means a delay. If they see it could work, then you could talk about patenting it or protecting it, afterward.
An economic portfolio model I like for junior researchers or projects is for 20 of them to form a pool where everyone has a 5% stake in everyone else’s start-ups. Instead of having 100% of your project, you only have 5% but 95% of the others’ projects. Suddenly we have created an ecosystem, where everyone is looking at each other and learning from each other, and feeling part of something. Since success rates are around 5%, maybe 1 of the 20 will achieve something. Hence, you get money from a project which was not yours, but you had invested in it.
Q: What would be your suggestions for a developing country like Sri Lanka, to enhance the commercialisation of researches based on your prior experiences?
A: Develop research that is based on things that have been in Sri Lanka for decades, right in front of your eyes. You might even overlook them because you take them for granted. Then follow what I just mentioned earlier.
Q: Would you recommend shifting the entrepreneurial focus regarding the expected global recession?
A: In my perspective, European Union (EU) start-ups will be hit from investments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and start-ups represent a substantial part of the EU economy, job growth, and future welfare due to their forceful nature. I know for a fact that EU resources are allocated to specifically tackling this crucial issue. My contribution is to make accelerated use of research, remove bottlenecks resulting due to the growing research overload, and deploy AI for accelerated knowledge transfer to start-ups. Nowadays, I am working on this matter.
Q: Can you share some of your other recent experiences?
A: Due to the pandemic, I was involved with #EUvsVirus with the European Commission (EC) as the leader in the research of health and life, trying to support with my research dissemination skills to save lives. #EUvsVirus is about finding solutions to the pandemic with a speedy impact, i.e. less than six months. Most of the solutions we have seen on the media range between 18 to 24 months, and we could not wait such a long time. We needed to act immediately and we did. Thirty thousand of us forcefully got together to support the EC. That is what I was up to for more than 2 months. We also beat 4 world records in the process of trying to eradicate the impact of the virus and saved as many lives as possible. That was the only record we wanted to achieve.
I am also an organizer of Start-up Europe Week (SEW) with the EC. It is a super huge event across 500 European cities, wherein one week we demonstrated start-ups and how the EC can help them. It is clear for some years now that out of the 6-competitiveness metrics of artificial intelligence, the US leads in 4 metrics, China in 2 and Europe leads in none. Start-ups are a leading force in job creation and welfare and the EC supports them during their whole growth cycle. That is my current vision and that is what I do at SEW; trying to give the right vision to EU entrepreneurs so they can compete globally.
Q: How did you maintain a high spirit during the sudden lockdown period?
A: I was disseminating predictive knowledge and was helping the EC and the police force while informing citizens who were in need. Apart from that, I was into doing exercise, drinking fruit juice, and cooking home-made food. My body has not felt that there was confinement. I have just been too busy with a huge responsibility.
Q: In which ways do you think government authorities can contribute towards the improvement of collaboration between industry and university when promoting ‘Academic Entrepreneurship’?
A: In my case, governments have been more useful when they support what I was already doing at the time, but without having to rely on them. Furthermore, instead of you going to a government office and knocking on their door, they should send an envoy to your place to ask for an appointment with you, sit in front of you and ask “How can I help you?”. I think this should be the attitude. Good Vice-Chancellors (VCs) do this. They have scouts out there who mingle with inventors and after talking with them for a while you do not even realize they are VCs, but curious people. Do not wait for governments. We are talking about innovation here. Even Phillips Open Innovation Centre in Eindhoven had to build their roads instead of waiting for the government to build them. Just get the job done. It is better not to wait.
Q: What would be your recommendations to encourage university students towards ‘Academic Entrepreneurship’?
A: Look around you for a problem to be solved and put the technology together. Please do not fall into the trap of doing things based on your “passion”. Look for something useful. I always see many people claim that “If I could make a living out of my passion, it would be like not going to work anymore. I would have the joy of making a living from something I have a passion for”. Well, passion is a feeling, and feelings change. Instead, I am more inclined to do things for a “purpose”. It is the bigger picture. Find your purpose in life and solve problems based on your purpose.
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