Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Renaissance Pete

Intrepid explorer Adjunct Professor Pete Kellock has been to many amazing places – Patagonia, Cuba, Guatemala, North Korea, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Svalbard (in the high arctic) and the highlands of New Guinea, to name a few. At the same time, he loves major cities like Rome, Manhattan and Sydney. He was once a freelance horn player who played in hundreds of live concerts, as well as founder and CEO of a successful company. Despite getting in front of audiences and classes countless times, and doing quite a few radio and TV interviews, Pete still gets nervous any time he has to stand up in public or face a mike and camera. He says that many professional musicians and performers confess the same and believes that the nerves aren’t all bad – they can help keep you on your toes and motivate you to prepare well. 

Pete (left), Terence Swee (middle) and Phil Morgan - the core of the team that built muvee - on their annual adventure. Here they were having loads of fun shooting video off the edge of the Grand Canyon using a camera-mounted, radio-controlled quadcopter.

Where did you grow up?
In the far north of Scotland. I spent my first 10 years in the Orkney Islands, off the north coast of the UK. Its climate is raw, wet and extremely windy, but it compensates with some impressive scenery: huge sea-cliffs with crashing waves and thousands of sea-birds. It also has perhaps the most amazing stone-age archaeology in Northern Europe. At an early age I had freedom that most kids can only dream of: by the age of about six I would sometimes wander off for hours, walking miles from home on my own or with friends.

What do you do now? 
At this point I have a few facets to my life. One is helping young entrepreneurs, through mentoring, giving talks and teaching. I do this part-time in NUS, SMU and ad-hoc engagements elsewhere. Another facet is writing weird electronic music. My PhD is in electronic music (I have undergrad degrees in physics/maths and in music) and writing music has been a passion in several periods of my life. Yet another facet is travel: I've always been passionate about seeing the world and I carve out chunks of time for trips to places I haven't visited before. 
I have the wonderful privilege that at this point in my life I don't need to do anything for the sake of money. I value the freedom that it gives me more than anything. It's not that I'm terribly rich - some of my friends have a lot more money - but I care far more about having "free" time, and control over my time, than I do about most of the stuff money buys or about having a high-status job. I never had much interest in the whole concept of career and have gone through my life pretty much following whatever I found interesting and fun at the time.
I'm also extremely lucky that my wife feels the same - neither of us cares much about stuff or status. She's a wonderful Singaporean woman I've been married to for 20 years.
Recently I've taken on a more intense mentorship role with a number of startups including some in SoC. That's fun because I get a chance to know the teams better and can give them more in-depth help.
I also recently completed 2 electronic music projects, one that I had been working on off and on for 4 years. I'm currently "clearing my feet" with various small personal projects and then plan to embark on another big electronic music project that will take me years. This one is going to involve coding, which I've done lots of in my life, but not much in the last decade. It'll be fun getting back into code!
As well as writing music, I see myself as a lifelong student of music. I sometimes get lost for half a day exploring some corner of music that I want to learn more about, often using a combination of Spotify and YouTube to find recordings, plus Wikipedia or other online sources to read up. Sometimes I download scores of music and pore over them or pick apart their harmonies at the piano. This week - in response to a comment made by a friend at a dinner party on Saturday - I spent a few hours exploring the music of the Renaissance composer, lutenist, nobleman and murderer(!), Carlos Gesualdo. But my tastes range across a very wide spectrum of music, from Rock to Indian Classical Music to Contemporary Experimental Music. Last week I was listening to and learning about an incredibly soulful wind instrument from Armenia called the duduk.  

Describe your SoC experience. 
It includes both mentoring and a bit of teaching. I enjoy both equally. I wouldn't like to be a full-time teacher (I did that for a few years of my life), but in small doses teaching is fun. The only thing that isn't much fun - I think most University staff anywhere in the world would agree - is marking assignments!
Mentoring is one of those things that involves a lot of chemistry between you and the mentees. There are ways in which all start-ups are very similar. But there are other ways in which every start-up is unique: different products, domains and technologies, different critical success factors, different types of people in the teams. Sometimes the fit is great and I can see I'm making a big difference to the team, other times I'm scratching my head wondering how best to help them (and sometimes how to get them to listen to me!)  When it's working well it's both valuable and great fun.
There are a few students I've met in the course of mentoring in SoC where, within the first couple of minutes of meeting them, I could see they have all the makings of a successful entrepreneur. And I'm seeing more and more young people like that in SoC, NUS and elsewhere in Singapore. It's quite a specific profile: great "EQ" (people skills), very smart in a down-to-earth practical way (not necessarily much of an academic achiever), confident and opinionated but not too cocky (i.e. willing to listen), unwilling to take "no" for an answer but charming and creative rather than aggressive in how they pursue the answer they want, and other such qualities. A specific example would be Krishanthan Surendran, the founder of one of our start-ups, Klinify which recently raised several hundred thousand dollars.
I think we still have some way to go to make the local student culture deeply entrepreneurial, akin to say Stanford in the US. I'd like to see that happen. But we're moving in that direction, and accelerating the progress: the SoC entrepreneurship team has grown a bit (it's now Juzar Motiwalla, Benjamin Lian, Francis Yeoh, Wong Weng Fai and myself), we're doing more in-depth hands-on work with our start-up incubatees, we’re offering more courses and funding schemes, etc... so we're getting there!

What is the craziest thing that has happened to you in your time at SoC? 
Last summer Prof Martin Henz and I rented a yacht in the Greek islands with an old school friend of mine as skipper and the three of us had some excellent adventures. 
The most acute one was when we had sudden engine failure in the middle of the harbor of the famous island Santorini. The whole point of a sailing yacht is to sail and we had a lot of amazing sailing, but normally you use the engine to navigate within harbors or when laying anchor. This engine failure happened in the worst possible place: lots of other boats around and strong unpredictable gusts of winds from all directions. Somehow we managed to avoid a collision or running into the rocks, but we realized we couldn't anchor or berth in Santorini, so we had to do a 3-hour sail back to another island where we could anchor. 
Thanks to the excellent skills of the two experienced yachtsmen - Martin and my other friend - we got the anchor down under sail in a significant swell just outside the area where it was breaking on the beach. Then, after another 3 hours or so crawling around the engine compartment we managed to replace a damaged impeller and carry on our trip. It’s slightly miraculous that we got through it unscathed. For example, if the anchor had drifted at the wrong moment we would have ended up in the crashing surf, perhaps writing off a yacht worth a half a million dollars or so. We just happened to have a spare impeller for the engine and I just happened to carry a little screwdriver when I travel which was essential to open the impeller casing: a whole series of lucky breaks.  
The culprit behind the whole adventure turned out to be a plastic bag that had got stuck in our cooling water intake causing the engine to overheat.
The only sad thing about this is that it means we didn't manage to land on Santorini, a place I've always wanted to visit. But we did spend time on another island called Amorgos which is perhaps just as gorgeous but gets far fewer visitors. Overall it was an amazing trip.

What do you count as your most significant achievement to date? 
My biggest claim to fame so far is that I founded muvee Technologies. muvee started at the end of 1999 as a research team in Kent Ridge Digital Labs (KRDL), the precursor of I2R. The founding team that spun off from KRDL consisted of 3 Singaporeans (Terence Swee, Lo Sheng & Mafrudy bin Rubani), 2 Indians (Sarat Venugopal & Sachin Jain), an Englishman (Phil Morgan) a Canadian (Gerry Beauregard) and a Scotsman (me). I led it as CEO for its first 6 years, taking it from start-up, through venture-capital funding to a profitable company generating over S$12m annual revenue. 
muvee has many "feathers in its cap": it pioneered automatic video editing which has become a whole new category of software, its software has been shipped globally in partnerships with Sony, HP, Nokia, Nikon, LG and other big players, it has generated close to $60 million in revenue for Singapore from overseas sources thus creating about 500 man-years of local employment... and many other fine things. I believe it may have shipped more copies than any other software developed in Singapore: literally hundreds of millions... which sounds like a wild claim until you realize that, for example, for a few years muvee's software engine was on the CD-ROM shipping with every Sony camcorder and many of their cameras worldwide. The deals with HP, Nokia, Nikon, LG were of similar scale. 
Creating a successful start-up is a 24x7 activity usually stretching over many years. The founding team put in plenty of 100-hour weeks; in our first couple of years if any of us left the office before about 7 or 8pm we'd say "Sorry guys - I'm having a half day". Like most start-up CEOs I was involved in numerous areas: business development, deal-making, marketing, fund-raising, hiring & inspiring, financial planning & control, corporate governance, general management, etc. And I was probably more involved than most CEOs in the product and technology, from product definition (settling feature sets, user experience, etc.) to core technology R&D and patenting. muvee has about 20 patents; I was involved at the invention stage in all of them and in many cases I led the work (with our patent attorney) of countering the objections of examiners until they were granted. It was an amazing adventure. Creating a revolutionary product and bringing it to market is one of life's toughest challenges, but also one of the most rewarding. You learn more about all sorts of things - including yourself - than from any other journey.
Unfortunately one thing muvee hasn't achieved so far is to make the founders or investors rich! It's now under the excellent leadership of my friend and co-founder Terence Swee, so with luck that might still happen. But even if it doesn't, I believe we have much to be proud of. In Steve Jobs's phrase, we made a ding in the Universe (albeit much smaller than the dings Steve made!). And I'm proud that most of the founding team have remained firm friends - rather unusual after the long, harsh, bumpy journey that is a start-up. A few of us including Terence and myself get together every year and climb a mountain or take a major trek together somewhere in the world: in Indonesia, Nepal and the US so far. 

Quick-fire! If you could eat only three food items for the rest of your life, what would they be?
Papadum, Crêpe Suzette and beer (it used to be considered a food in the UK). And we need protein so can I squeeze in fillet steak too?

Three things you can’t live without?
Music, wild deserted places, and my wonderful wife Pearl - not necessarily in that order. ;)

Three ultimate dinner party guests
Laurie Anderson (American singer, musician, story-teller, multi-media artist), Thucydides (ancient Greek writer, author of the History of the Peloponnesian War), and Douglas Adams (author of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy).

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email tien@nus.edu.sg

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Driving Mr. Lee

Adrian Lee Chee Full and Paul Tan Wen Jie are the founders of Drive.sg. These local boys graduated from SoC with degrees in Computer Engineering (Adrian) and Information Systems (Paul) about three and a half years ago. When asked about their worst experience with public transportation, they chose the feather-ruffle-less route of declining to respond. Because Paul was too busy, in this interview, we get to hear from the one half of the team who enjoys climbing and crawling around the top of buildings, and reading anything that the web throws at him.

Adrian (left) & Paul at their office in the SoC Incubation Centre

What do you do now? 
Paul is the Co-founder (Technical Development) and I am the Co-founder (Business Development). The nature of the start-up requires us to don multiple job hats so there are non-obvious responsibilities too. Paul is also our HR manager, CFO, Accountant, and De-bugger, and I am our PR, SysAdmin, Intern Herder and ‘Bugger’. 
What we found to be really useful for job segregation was to divide tasks into internal and external affairs. He would do the 'internal' and I would do the 'external'.

What inspired you to do this?
We wanted to start a car rental business ourselves. Once we sat down to do the numbers, we realised that we just don’t have enough capital to start one. Instead, we decided to put our tech skills to good use and help 'improve' the car rental industry in Singapore. Why? Back when we started, Google and Facebook were common online services that everyone used. Yet, for car rentals, consumers had to look up Yellow Pages and Newspapers. That is when we thought it would be a good idea to aggregate all these car rental businesses and put them online. 
Two years plus down the road, we have some kind of a solution to fix that (above), so we are dedicating our effort to look at improving land transport in the region. For example, we think it is ridiculous how transport is done in Singapore. If you needed to get from A to B, you would either take public transport or buy a car. Why don't more people consider car rental, car sharing or car leasing? Our goal is to improve that situation. 
A little part of us is still amazed how two guys can have a tiny impact on the lives of others and that pushes us work hard. The world is changing every moment. Housing, finance, jobs, are being redefined in ways we never thought possible. It is amazing how the last decade was all about having "information right at our fingertips" and now, the new era of democratized business is upon us. Today is the world where business is done at the “you-and-I” level instead of big giant faceless businesses. Think Kickstarter for small-business-world-customers, think AirBnB for short-term stay, think Kiva for micro-loans, think Task Rabbit for freelancing. 
While we are not comparing ourselves to the [aforementioned] greats, we believe we can help the land transport scene to really catch up to the information era and change how people think of land transport locally and regionally.

Describe your SoC experience.
Filled with happy memories of a lot of talking and laughing with friends (with the occasion swears at the computer screen). Without a doubt, we had the best time being part of the Computing Club. Paul was the EVP and I was the club President. The committee was made up of by some of the best individuals that we had ever worked with. The work was it owns reward. [However,] in my opinion, it was really tough to prove to the student body that the Computing Club cared for them and acted in their best interest. I guess over time, by reaching out to one student at a time, that opinion changed slightly for the better.
[The staff and faculty members that made the biggest impressions on me were] Ms. Toh [Mui Kiat] and Prof. Khoo (then Vice-Dean for Undergraduates). Add the number of work hours both Paul and I put into our start-up every month and we can't even match half of what they put in for the students in one week. That is genuine care for student and love of work, right there.
If only students think of NUS as less of a certification centre and more of a place for limitless opportunities. Love chess? There is a group for them. Love religion talk? There is a group for that. Love origami? I am sure there is a group for that. Want to represent NUS in some competition in Oslo? I am sure that is happening sometime this year.

What is something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
Being an introvert, I hate crowds and I must present with 101% confidence to large audiences all the time. Boo.

Quick-fire! Worst movie you’ve seen this year?
It is a toss-up between Non-Stop with star Liam Neeson or Robocop by the new guy Joel Kinnaman. The first movie is predictable and the genre is overdone. The second movie just killed Robocop for me because it is supposed to be R not PG13. The rating change meant removing the darker side of the show and that stinks.

Most interesting use of or development in technology this year?
I am inclined to say Bitcoin or Wearable Tech or IoT but that is so predictable. Instead, I will go with the increased reach of Internet with the commoditisation of cheap Android boxes. It is amazing that everyone can pick up some cheap tablet and start to access the Internet (+Apps). All ages, all income categories, all regions, all demographics can now have instant access to knowledge!

Best design?
I am going to say Singapore. Extremely well thought through but so very tiny...

Three ultimate dinner party guests?
Adrian: Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, Sim Wong Hoo (I would say it is a toss-up between Mr. Sim and Elon Musk for the third choice).

Tell us who we should we talk to next. Email tien@nus.edu.sg