David Rowan has been the founder of the UK edition of the prestigious Wired magazine. He is one of the great gurus of innovation and digital transformation. It has invested in more than 60 early-stage technology companies, including two that became ‘unicorns’ billions of dollars. Columnist on technology for The Times, GQ, Condé Nast Traveler and The Sunday Times, has given more than 600 keynotes in recent years. A mind capable of deconstructing technological trends in real time that we have interviewed, taking advantage of his visit to Madrid to participate in the ESIC ‘Hoy es Marketing’ event.
The coronavirus has accelerated transformations that probably would have happened anyway. They were digitized from your church to your doctor with an urgency that they would have previously rejected. There is nothing like a crisis to force creative thinking using emerging technologies. And one of the last opportunities to use technology in a transformative way is with the crisis surrounding the future of our planet. Covid has changed the rules of the game and has brought together entrepreneurs with the passion to make a difference. I suspect that in the next five to ten years, synthetic biology, bioinformatics or the manufacture of new materials will help transform the food system, the way we build, the way we move and the way we generate energy. Sometimes it takes a crisis to focus people’s minds and also to attract resources for investment.
There is a view that Europe is lagging behind in the innovation race compared to the US. Do you share that idea?
There is an amazing talent spread across Europe and Spain. I spent a lot of time in places like Barcelona, where there are entrepreneurs who are investing in the next generation of startups and creating a local ecosystem. But the US has an advantage related to investing in venture capital in upcoming startups. They also have generations with a “pay it later” spirit, which means doing favors for others without an expectation of short-term reward. I think we need more of that in Europe. We will only build world-class business ecosystems if we can bring together talent and help each other at the same time. One of my big projects has consisted of bringing together people who work in climate technology and also in health technology, from different countries. That is why we took 50 experts in this field to the Camino de Santiago in September. If people get to know each other, they will begin to share their experiences, which will help start a business together and finance each other’s.
What do you think of the state of Spanish technology?
Building an ecosystem involves everything from tax incentives to finding ways for universities to allow professors to start businesses without demanding a high percentage of intellectual property. I mentioned Barcelona before, and there is possibly the strongest European cluster of travel technology companies. In other parts of the country they should ask themselves how to establish similar clusters around future technologies such as machine learning, quantum computing …
What startups have the potential to become the next Google or Microsoft? What sectors will be the most thriving?
Black Rock boss Larry Fink said startups of $ 1 billion companies will be unicorns related to climate technology. I started by editing a magazine, but now I am making investments at an early stage. And always part of the presumption that nine out of ten companies are not going to achieve it. Creating a startup is very difficult. Reid Hoffman, the founder of Linkedin, once described building a startup as jumping out of a plane and designing the parachute as you fall. A very large market is the food sector, also the supply of energy, the creation of new materials that will replace concrete and the use of new processes to create molecules that allow us to say goodbye to plastics. There has never been a better time to launch a business with a purpose that addresses one of the great planetary challenges. Why waste time building a technology or working for a technology company whose main job is to commercialize our data?
What is the ideal innovation group that every company should have?
The transformation of the organization is not a matter of a single person, it must be an opportunity for all. Let me give an example, Telefónica was one of the most creative thinking big companies that I knew. They had a unit called Alpha which was the closest thing to Google. They wanted to transform health and do other experiments. There was some short-term pressure on the company’s share price, and that unit disappeared. The talent. which was an amazing asset, it was lost. When you stop investing in a high-risk but very ambitious future, then you may end up putting an expiration date on the core business.
I am also concerned with advertisements designed to attract the interest of shareholders or the media when what is needed in an organization is to build a protected culture that allows taking great risks.