Andrew Fentem: Why I went to quango to fund pre-iPhone touch tech
And why I'm leaving hardware ...
MOST ideas are bad: Invest in good people...
Grayson Perry recently said that most art is bad. I think the same could be said of ideas, but it depends on your evaluation criteria – ideas can be commercially weak, but still interesting. I think you should invest in good people – they'll eventually turn up a winner. Look at Michael Acton Smith – he'd burned a huge amount of VC money before he came up with the idea for Moshi Monsters.
"Urgency" is what public bodies just can't do: Consider the UK government's recent £21.5m investment in graphene, seven years after its discovery in 2005. What would Steve Jobs or Bill Gates have done if the startling properties of graphene had been discovered in their labs? Who knows ... but I like to think that Steve Jobs would have given the researchers £21.5m in stock just to keep their mouths shut, and immediately invested $1bn in appropriate R&D. Instead, lest we forget, the last Labour government wanted to build "Super Casinos" as engines of economic regeneration. You just couldn't make it up.
"Urgency" is what public bodies just can't do: Consider the UK government's recent £21.5m investment in graphene, seven years after its discovery in 2005...
Q. In his 1973 book The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell described the emergence of a professional technocratic elite, a "priesthood" who wield the real power. The sociologist Joel Kotkin calls it a "clerisy”, an elite with a uniformity of views, that "derives not primarily through economic influence per se but through its growing power to inform opinion and regulate everything from how people live to what industries will be allowed to grow, or die."
These are the winners today. Do you recognise either of these descriptions? Is this what we’re seeing today?
Fentem: Yes, I do recognise this.
One of the reasons I am speaking out about this issue now is because it is important for people with first hand experience of the real world to prevent these political groupings from generating and propagating myths that serve their career and group objectives.
Apple have created a lot of myths around their invention prowess, however, they're good engineers, and history is generally written by the commercial victors, so you've got to say that's fair enough.
There are simply too many politicians and economists in the UK promoting stories and myths based on second, third or even fourth hand experience of the world, because they only ever talk to other members of this "elite".
It seems to me that every economist has a "product" that is evaluated in terms of not how it explains or predicts real events, but how it will shape their media profile...
Some of my engineering contemporaries from the '80s (usually the ones who weren't actually very good engineers) went on to work on the City. Some of them ended up designing, as it turns out, highly toxic financial derivative products. During after-work conversations with these "financial engineers" in the heady days of the mid-2000s bubble, it was clear that some of them understood the dangers in what they were doing – but no one ever asked them what was going on, because no one in the media-economics-political "elite" ever spoke to them.
Once the crash happened, members of the elite began propagating the myth that "no one saw it coming". [Many of them] ultimately had a "good recession". However, this "no one saw it coming" myth has served the UK poorly, because it has provided many of the real culprits in the banking sector with a route to escape justice.
Q.What are you going to do next?
Fentem: I think the hardware moment has passed for the time being. The smartphone revolution will rumble along: Apple was first to pick the low-hanging fruit and did it very well - but advances in microprocessors had made the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad inevitable - which is why people like me switched from software to hardware around the year 2000. I'm now switching back to software/network stuff because there's a much more obvious business model.
Hardware is my first love, and I've got a couple interesting new technologies up my sleeve, but the broken patent system, China's manufacturing prowess, and the lack of knowledgeable VCs in the UK all mean that making money out of hardware while being based in the UK is difficult. I'm 45 now – I've been doing unusual things with electronics and computers for more than 30 years – it would be good to find a way to share some of this experience. ®
*Nesta contended at the time that it had provided a "one-line description" of his project published in a bulletin without his approval, but denied that any intellectual property rights had been infringed by [the] disclosure.
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