One full circle: Professor and CEO
I am an entrepreneur again, writes CSI's advisory board member Irene Ng.
Back track. 2003. The year I came to British shores to start a new career in academia. I was finishing my PhD (at the National University of Singapore) when I was offered the job of Lecturer of Marketing at University of Exeter Business School. So started my academic life in this country at a golden age of 40. Yet before then, I had an entire past life in Malaysia and a back story of being an entrepreneur running a travel company, cruise ships and a casino in the high seas before I went on to do my PhD. But, hey… not many people knew that. It still tickles me that till today, all my friends in Asia saw me as an entrepreneur and all my friends in Britain saw me as an academic. That was the fork created in 2003 when I came to Britain.
In the 15 years that followed, I went native, did all the academic things, served on committees, applied for grants, published papers, published books, wrote more papers, applied for more grants, delivered on grants, got noticed for my work, wrote more papers. I went from University of Exeter to University of Cambridge (where I was a visiting researcher for 3 years after I got a fellowship grant) and then on to University of Warwick. From lecturer, to senior lecturer, to associate professor and to Professor in 2009 and then from business school to an engineering school in Warwick in 2011, my journey as an academic was as eventful as my previous journey as an entrepreneur (but that’s a separate story).
Even with the platform built and ready to scale, HAT is a unique artefact. The aim to change the Internet is hugely ambitious, and I have now come to realise that we would need the might of both the private sector as well as the academic and public sector to make it happen. As an infrastructure, it is one of the first in the world to give individuals a software device, a piece of technology to own and control their own data and benefit from private AI. The HAT has a fully implemented permission model, legal model, economic model, ratings and ecosystem fully set up as an infrastructure to enable companies to have direct relationships with their customers, with their own customers as data controllers and data processors. Yet, all the pilots, proof of concepts, MVPs and services on the platform are still risky because it is new and disruptive and a startup is too narrow an environment for all of the risks. Yet, when the pilots and MVPs do move into the live environment to scale up, the startup should be the one to scale it commercially and take on all the scale up risks, with private sector funding. In other words, to make HAT work economically and really have a chance at changing the Internet, I would need an environment for experimentation/MVP/pilot innovation risks and an environment for scale up risks. And the interactions between the 2 risks that exist concurrently means they require different types of funding, and different types of institutions.
That is why I am forming HATLAB which starts operation on the 1 September. HATLAB, as part of my research group at WMG, University of Warwick, will have the full non-exclusive license to use all HAT Data Exchange commercial assets in a sandbox environment where it can build, design and create new pilots, MVPs and projects with industrial partners, government, NGOs as well as advance HAT research. This sits well with the DROPS project, one of my research projects that begins on the 1 Sep as well. HAT-related research projects is already exceeding £4m and pilots with large and small organisations are already in progress so consolidating and formalising HATLAB is almost a natural progression. As HATLAB director, my task is also to pull together, as a community, everyone who is working on a HAT related project to support them and maximise impact of HATs globally as well as catalyse more collaborations with governments, universities, industry and startups.
We have an incredible community working on HATs and in recognition of that, I have insisted that HATLAB website focuses on the wonderfully talented, creative and amazing people working in the HAT ecosystem. The website is starting with just the first 16 people (only because it’s summer hols) but we will soon be featuring them all. The professors who are leading the charge in their field and using HATs, the engineers, the designers and researchers who contribute to the visual design, economics, business, technology, engineering knowledge; the professionals that keep everything together and move us forward; WE are HATLAB. Just as HATs champion the individual, HATLAB champions human capital — each and everyone’s ability to design, create and transform the environment around us, inspired by the arts, the science, the cutting edge research and innovative practices.
It isn’t enough just to be the director of HATLAB though. To mobilise both private, public and the third sector to change the Internet with HATs, I need to be steering both the HAT innovation environment and the commercial environment and show the clear routes to market. I am proud to announce that both WMG at Warwick and the board and shareholders of HATDeX have agreed that starting 1 Sep, I will be 50% Director of HATLAB and 50% Chief Executive of HAT Data Exchange.
HATDeX, as the operator of the live ecosystem, will maintain and keep live HATs and applications ticking along in that environment so when any of the apps, tools or plugs created in the HATLAB environment is ready to go live, the party that built it would have to register and have a commercial agreement with HATDeX which is when the application/tool/plug is listed and live on HATStore. Under this structure, HATDeX no longer has to take on all the experimentation and other slow action risks, can reduce its overhead, and focus on scaling and growing actual business whenever applications go live. HATDeX is closing its round end of August to start a brand new chapter with me at the helm. It’s offices will be in Cambridge and London.
My task as director of HATLAB is to maximise the impact of HATs, grow the open innovation space and catalyse more collaborations on HAT. With my recent appointment as a Turing Fellow, I look forward to working with ATI and partners on this; my task as CEO of HATDeX is to grow shareholder value and scale the live ecosystem whenever applications/tools or plugs go from the innovation space into the live environment. Both roles would reinforce each other through the TEBBI Sandbox, a special sandbox for technology, economics, business and behavioural innovation on HATs.
For my part, I am now both the director of a lab, and the CEO of a company. My REF2021 publication profile is reasonable good (potentially 4–4–3–3), and HAT is a great impact case study. But I am nervous about being an entrepreneur again. It was not an easy decision to make. After 15 years an academic, you tend to feel more like an academic than an entrepreneur (even though friends say I’m probably more entrepreneurial than academic). I thought I could pass this on to someone else, e.g. Andrius, who built the HAT with me but the founders have come to the conclusion that I should be the one to take it on and take HAT to the next stage. Both my present and my past have now merged.
Social identity is a weird thing and I am already struggling with this world that likes boxing people up into well defined categories. As a 55-year old woman, I don’t fit the mould of normal CEO of tech startups, much less a ‘mature female’ CEO of a rather bleeding-edge tech startup. Professor or CEO? How about both.
It’s odd the things you do when you’re trying to change the Internet. HATLAB officially launches on the 1 Oct. Come join the party!
(your claps will encourage me on those nights when i look at my wonderfully retired husband and ask myself… “Irene. what the *&^%$£ are you doing…”)