‘Humanity’s future is in the hands of engineers’ – entrepreneur Seán O’Sullivan
21 November 2017
Seán O'Sullivan speaking at the PreMoney 2016 Conference in San Francisco
Many of us will know Seán O’Sullivan from RTÉ’s Dragon’s Den and, at first glance, he seems the very epitome of an entrepreneur. He had a tough New York childhood, with his mother Joan single-handedly raising nine children after his father left when O’Sullivan was three (he holds Irish citizenship: Joan’s grandparents came from Cork and his father’s parents were from Kerry).
A self-taught computer programmer, O’Sullivan used his savings to purchase his first computer at age 14 to work as a programmer. He started his first company, MapInfo, in his early twenties, creating the technology to allow people to type a street address into a computer and see it on a map. He also founded JumpStart International, a NGO to aid the reconstruction of war-torn Iraq, in the early 2000s.
A flyer of helicopters (and crasher of helicopters, in one life-changing incident), founder of venture-capital firm SOSV (its RebelBio program is based in Cork), philanthropist, innovator, inventor, spotter of trends and investor…O’Sullivan is an all-round technophile. He even coined the term ‘cloud computing’.
But, according to the typical narrative, entrepreneurs of this sort often shun formal education, do they not? This is where O’Sullivan, who completed a degree in electrical engineering in 1985, departs from the stereotype.
Engineering’s ability to change the world
‘One of the things people fail to realise is how creative and rewarding it is to be an engineer,’ he said. ‘There are so many service industries that just don’t have the scale of engineering and the ability to change the world that engineering has. And yet people go into these service industries left and right, whether it’s being a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant.’
I expected O’Sullivan to be more bombastic but, in our all-too-brief telephone conversation, he came across as considered, patient and thoughtful.
‘Not to say that those aren’t great services that people need and society needs, I’m not denigrating those things, but people don’t realise that their lives can affect more lives, rather than just whoever your personal clients are as, say, a lawyer or a doctor. The chance to actually impact society as a whole, or the future of humanity, that’s left in the hands of the engineers and the scientists.’
‘And how do you attract more people into engineering?’ I asked. ‘Those other professions seem to get valued more by society…and even paid more.’
‘It does continue to be one of these things where the people who are paid the most are not necessarily the ones who are producing the most for society. I don’t think that pay is the primary motivation, whether it’s for me or for others. There’s a false attraction to money that, I think, we’re all guilty of at different times and that’s not what makes life rewarding in the end. I would say to engineers who aren’t making enough money, or feel like they aren’t making enough money, they should ask: what can I do to create more value in life?
‘I mean, if you look at some of the world’s wealthiest people, the Bill Gates’s of the world, you see that you can be an engineer and create companies and do extraordinarily well. So it’s not a question that engineers aren’t doing disproportionately well compared to other jobs at the high end. If you’re ambitious, I do think you can look to engineering as the place for that ambition.’
‘And what about the formal part of your education, your engineering degree?’ I asked. ‘What did you get from that?’
‘Well, in order to actually run a technology company, it helps massively to understand the technology. The core skillset is not figuring out how to attract investment; the core skillset is being able to solve deep technical problems that customers desperately want to have solved.
‘All of the innovation that we’re seeing in society is coming from the technologists. So if you want to start a technology business and you’re not coming from that background, you’re at a massive disadvantage. That’s at the root of my career path and whatever success I’ve achieved. It comes down to that engineering core and that engineering problem-solving approach.’
‘And is there anything that you would change about your education?’ I asked.
‘The way engineering is taught; sometimes it fails to focus on practical applications. One of the key benefits that I had was going to a university [Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York] that really focused on practical applications. It had a very good programme called the ‘co-op program’, which put me into work experience several times throughout my degree, in Florida and North Carolina and also Washington DC.
‘In fact, it was on one of those co-ops that I came up with the idea for MapInfo, which was my first company. [An IPO of the company in 1994 saw O’Sullivan’s wealth rise to $17 million.] I was working at IBM in North Carolina and I was reading some industry publications they had access to, about new hardware innovations coming out. I realised that if you combine a few of those hardware technologies with some software technologies, you’d have the ability to do maps on computers. None of the work I did in IBM had anything to do with that area, but it gave me access to publications and processes I wouldn’t have had access to previously, and working with different teams and seeing how the work progressed, it gave me a grounding in how to start a business.’
Maximising emerging technologies
I’m very interested in this ability innovators have to make connections between things where connections haven’t been made before, and I asked O’Sullivan about this.
‘Yeah, that’s one capability, idea synthesis, that I’ve been good at in my life…being able to see those patterns emerging. You can take three or more emerging technologies on a little Venn diagram and say, “OK, what applications are enabled by the combination of these things?” and you can pretty much see the future for five to ten years out. It’s not that it’s hard to do; it’s just that (laughs) what do you do when you know that? In my early career, I’d start a company that took advantage of that foresight, and then in my later years, I’m helping to back others.
‘But you have to come at it from a realistic point of view. I think there are actually loads of technologies that are oversold, that aren’t ready, and won’t be ready for another decade or so. There are people throwing themselves at those applications and they’re probably not going to succeed at the pace people think they are.’
‘Which technologies do you mean?’
‘I think machine learning is a phenomenal area and has a load of applications but I think the public’s visualisation of what artificial intelligence [AI] is, and sometimes what startups are trying to sell, is oversold. If we’re talking about having life forms coming out of computer programmes, there are gaps that haven’t been discovered and I think they’re a long way away. I haven’t seen anything that has convinced me otherwise.’
‘Why do you think there is such a fascination currently with AI?’
‘I think people have always been fascinated with robots, (laughs) since the 1930s when ‘Flash Gordon’ comic books were made. But there are times for technologies and when it does happen, it happens extremely fast. When the Apple iPhone came out: boom! It’s only been out ten years and it’s just astonishing that our whole world has been completely transformed, in a hundred different ways, just by one great recasting of a marketplace and technology, and positioning inside that.
‘That’s what I’m looking for: to back companies that can be part of that major breakthrough or at least take a strong position in a corner of that changing landscape.’
‘So,’ – I just had to ask – ‘at the risk of giving away your secrets, what do you think is really exciting at the moment?’
‘One ecosystem is in the life sciences. The original breakthrough was really in genetic sequencing back in 2003, or 2004, or whatever…the human genome could be sequenced at a cost of, I think, $330 billion…I can’t remember exactly how much. But that set in place a chain of development and advances so that in 2015/2016, you could get your human genome perfectly sequenced for $1,000. That’s a million-fold improvement in cost, which has never been seen in such a short period of time.
‘I mean, computing power also improved by a million-fold but it took even longer, so what’s happening now with life sciences is the same kind of breakthroughs that were set in place when the mainframe moved to the microcomputer.’
Investing in tomorrow
This brought us nicely to the topic of computers and a to question I had wanted to ask O’Sullivan all along. Having grown up with a ZX81 in our house (my brother’s, a precursor to the Sinclair Spectrum that most people remember), I was interested to find out what had been his first computer?
‘The first computer I programmed was a PDP 11, which was a mini-computer, and the HP 3000 and the IBM 370, and all those. But the first computer I purchased was the Apple Two Plus. I think it was 1979, something like that. I was just 14 at the time and I’d saved up money working for my county, programming mini-computers.’
‘And how much did it cost?’
‘It was, perhaps, $1,200 dollars?’
‘Yeah. It was a very stripped down unit, the most inexpensive one I could get. And it had a cassette drive; it didn’t have a disc drive. It had a TV monitor that you put the composite video out to. I can’t quite remember, but it was probably in that range.’
And then O’Sullivan had to go.
We had been speaking on a Saturday afternoon – morning in New York, where O’Sullivan was – over two pre-booked 15-minute timeslots, which is how he spends every Saturday, catching up with clients and offering advice. I was conscious that we had overrun our time, so I thanked him swiftly and let him get on with his never-ceasing work.
There was probably someone on the other line looking for vital investment to realise the greatest technological innovation known to humanity, and I didn’t want to stand in the way of that.
SOSV is a venture capital and investment management firm established by Seán O’Sullivan that provides seed, venture and growth-stage funding to startup companies in the technology sector. The company’s focus is on accelerating startups via their market-specific seed accelerator. This includes the RebelBio accelerator, which operates in both Cork and London. As of June 2017, SOSV had funded over 680 startups, and continues to fund over 150 startups per year. In 2017, it became the world’s third most active seed fund.
Barry Brophy is an engineer, lecturer in technical communications at UCD and writer. Email: Barry.firstname.lastname@example.org For more, please see the Tech Comm page on the UCD website. His new book, ‘Awful Presentations‘, looks at the unconscious biases that lead technical presenters to communicate very differently in presentations to how they would in conversations. It focuses on the use of powerful presentation tools such as images, infographics, videos, stories, examples, analogies and audience interaction.