Benedikt and David: Building unicorns all along innovation road
Global Innovation Path is Speechmatics’ co-founder – and now ex-CEO – Benedikt von Thuengen’s new project, set up with colleague David Caballero to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship in Asia, South America and Africa (for starters).
Both have illustrious-verging-on-stratospheric CVs. It’s been mere weeks since Benedikt left Speechmatics, the city-based speech technology firm which, since its 2006 start, has become a by-word for excellence in automatic speech recognition. David was, until last week, GSK’s head of external operations, oncology cell therapy.
Yet right now, Benedikt is in the middle of a solo drive from south to north Africa and David is in Israel with his partner, educator Luz Olid, soon to head east to Mongolia, Nepal and China (they have visas). The team, backed by a Microsoft grant and with more sponsorship in the pipeline, is checking out hubs, incubators and other areas of start-up excellence in developing countries.
In an email from Nkhata Bay at Lake Malawi – “I’m travelling to Tanzania tomorrow” – Benedikt explained how he got involved.
“Speechmatics was a great journey and the team is well set up to achieve the next phase of growth,” he wrote. “My strengths lie in starting businesses and getting them off the ground. As such it was the right time to hand over and move on.”
Was your trip planned a long time ago, or did it happen pretty spontaneously? “Spontaneous. I was initially only going to visit friends in South Africa.”
What sort of entrepreneurial/innovation opportunities have you uncovered travelling through Africa from Cape Town to date?
“Many! The continent is booming with innovation as digitisation is accelerating, young people are increasingly out of jobs and realising that governments are not solving their issues. Some examples include mobile payments including bill payment, cross-border money transfer including very small amounts, innovative cooking stoves to save wood, a music streaming website for hyper-local music tastes, a medical guidance database and an agriculture trading platform helping local farmers match with cooperative buyers.”
What’s Microsoft’s part in all this? “Microsoft for Start-ups are supporting a wide range of start-ups across the globe to become the next unicorn. Also, they provide a lot of mentorship and advice to organisations who are supporting start-ups.”
What are your plans for when you get back to Cambridge? “This depends in part on Brexit. I would love to come back to Cambridge and set up the next venture or help get an innovation off the ground, however, the conditions have to be favourable and if a bad Brexit happens, I will have to review the situation carefully. There are many other great places to start business and turn innovation into ground-breaking products.”
Any good contacts so far? “Some amazing incubators I have met including SW7 in South Africa – see the Global Innovation Path website for a first interview with their founder Keith Jones – who are using data science to drive growth decisions; BongoHive in Lusaka, Zambia and E-Hub in Mzuzu, Malawi, who are both battling complete odds to support their companies to get off the ground and become success stories.”
There’s more... “Ripple Africa, who are working toward completely replenishing fish stocks in Lake Malawi by working closely with fishing communities. Also, they have invented an innovative cooking stove that saves up to 70 per cent wood and as a results saves huge amounts of carbon. To date they have saved more than 70,000 tons of wood. Also, they are working in reforestation with local farmers and have planted more than eight million trees.
“There’s Tilime, an agricultural platform, matching rural farmers with buyers and assistant them to move from subsistence farming to commercial farming.
“Plus EMGuidance, a medical information database working with healthcare professionals in South Africa, who have more than 20,000 doctors using it.
“And the MAAK is a sustainable architectural bureau that designs and builds sustainable community projects such as libraries, hospitals and community centres.”
That’s a lot of potential. You have to say it’s impressive to have the vision and confidence to port an entrepreneurial model honed in Cambridge to the wider world.
David, meanwhile, has also found a rich vein of young companies and far-sighted individuals to encourage. His itinerary began in Jordan, then shifts to Israel and from there goes to Malaysia, Mongolia, China, Nepal and India. What’s more, he’s integrating his background in oncology into Global Innovation Path’s strategy, as he explained just before he set off on his travels.
“It was a long-overdue dream,” he said. “Initially I wanted to travel round the world, meeting different cultures, but I postponed and now travelling isn’t enough so I’m combining it with professional work. It’s going to be absolutely fascinating. As humans, we are free, and very few people take advantage of their freedom.”
He’d met Benedikt nearly four years ago while doing a MPhil in science enterprise in Cambridge.
“We were in the same class. We did some projects together. Global Innovation Path was a dream of mine and Benedikt loved it. He was at the same stage of his career, looking to do something different. We had a conversation last year and decided to do something together.”
At 28 years of age, David has already achieved a great deal, not least internationally. He worked in Belgium as part of his GSK activities.
“I have worked in the lab, and the last three or four years at university I was studying synthetic biology as part of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology team, using engineering principles with biological tools. For my masters I worked with a professor of genetics in Seville to synthesise DNA.”
More recently his duties for the global pharma company were split between Stevenage and Philadelphia. And his personal travels have seen him in Indonesia, Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and the Middle East.
“That was on holiday but I had this [company] in mind and I visited a couple of incubators in Guatemala,” he added. “Different incubators had different support programmes but they also value reaching out to the global innovation community as potential partners.
“As soon as you start talking about this you find the world is not so big after all, there’s connections all over, and even just checking online it’s possible to find the incubators in a country.”
It surely helps to have two founders who have achieved success on a global scale, both in a good place to support others. David won’t return to the UK for a year or more, but Benedikt will be back in Cambridge in the summer: it’ll be very interesting to keep track of what happens next.