10 innovators that start-up founders would most like to meet

17 May 2021

Image: © jchizhe/Stock.adobe.com

We asked entrepreneurs which hero of science, technology and innovation they would most like to spend five minutes with. Here’s what they said.

Through our Start-up of the Week series, we speak to founders on a regular basis. We find out all about their start-ups and ambitious plans. And we have also asked which hero of science, technology and innovation they would most like to spend five minutes with.

Whenever we ask this question, there are two names that pop up most frequently: Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

FloWaste CEO Rian Mc Donnell sees Jobs as “a genius of user-centred design”. He said that Jobs’ “ability to understand what the user really wanted and needed is unparalleled”.

Norbloc CEO Astyanax Kanakakis would like to pick Jobs’ brain about the business case for empathy. “I would like to have met Steve Jobs and ask him if he thinks he could have achieved what he had achieved by being a kinder and more empathetic person,” he said.

Musk’s fans include Terra NutriTech CEO Padraig Hennessy. “He looks at an industry, reimagines it and delivers on these promises. Insight into how he works would be fascinating,” Hennessy said. “Over the past number of years he has reimagined automotive, space exploration, transport etc. He has proven you can think bigger and solve global issues.”

Fellow South African Brett Riley, co-founder of UK start-up ITArmi, would hope a quick chat with Musk would be easy-going with some common ground to share. “We are almost the same age, grew up having the same challenges and then we both moved overseas to further our careers. He really inspires me.”

But there’s a much wider variety of innovative idols that entrepreneurs would like to meet. Here are just some of the answers we’ve received.

Patrick and John Collison

Mirr co-founder Alice Shaughnessy stuck closer to her Irish roots for her dream date with an entrepreneur – though she’d need an extra seat to fit in both Patrick and John Collison, the founders of $95bn fintech Stripe.

“They achieved so much at such a young age, it’s unbelievable,” said Shaughnessy, who herself has started early as a teenage entrepreneur.

Des Traynor

Daniel Kyne, another young entrepreneur, also found inspiration close to home. The OpinionX CEO and co-founder said “without a doubt” he would pick Intercom co-founder Des Traynor.

“Des has such a great ability to dive head-first into a completely new area of interest and become an expert in a fraction of the time you’d expect,” said Kyne. “Every couple of weeks, I listen back to my favourite podcasts that Des has appeared on and I always pick up something new for our strategy at OpinionX.”

Alice Zhang

Sakina Turab Ali, co-founder of high-tech Swedish drone company Skyqraft, chose entrepreneur Alice Zhang because she believes they both share the belief in building a company that has impact.

“She left a prestigious university to follow her dream. She withdrew from a PhD programme and is now building a company that uses machine learning to develop drugs for complex diseases,” explained Turab Ali.

“I believe that machine learning will solve many problems in the future,” she added. “The machine learning industry is usually a more male dominant industry and I am glad the female entrepreneurs like Alice Zhang are taking a lead on changing such industries.”

Emily Weiss

HouseOf co-founder Helen White has many heroes in the retail industry but one she would really love to sit down with is Glossier founder Emily Weiss. With her five minutes, White would like to benefit from their shared experience.

“Listening to other founder stories is what inspires us to keep going. We know that whatever pitfalls we are experiencing, somebody else has gone through it. It is also great to hear the success stories and have something to aspire to!” she said.

Sandy Lerner

White also requested an aspirational five-minute chat with serial founder Sandy Lerner.

Lerner has had quite an entrepreneurial journey across industries. She co-founded tech company Cisco in 1984 and then went on to buy a farm and co-found make-up brand Urban Decay.

Jennifer Doudna

Safecility CEO Cian O Flaherty said Nobel Prize-winning scientist and entrepreneur Jennifer Doudna would be a “fascinating” person with which to spend five minutes.

“Doudna … has done so much work on CRISPR gene editing, opening the door to enormous potential innovation. The potential for her discoveries is enormous but so are the potential ethical issues it presents. I would love to understand more about her process and views on the uses of her discoveries,” he said.

Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat

Kimeshan Naidoo, who co-founded Unibuddy with Diego Fanara, clearly believes that two heads are better than one, and he invited two sci-tech heroes to his five-minute get-together – Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat.

“That duo architected almost every important technology that has come out of Google, so I would love to have a chat with them.”

Dieter Rams

Finally, Getsafe CEO Christian Wiens admires investor Warren Buffett “for his simplicity”, but he’d also like to spend five minutes with fellow German Dieter Rams “for his genius in design”.

Rams is an industrial designer best known for his work with consumer products company Braun. He also developed a set of principles of good design, which have come to be known as the 10 commandments.

Alternative choices

Of course, not all entrepreneurs want to meet the rich, powerful and successful. Leeann Monk-Özgül, co-founder of ‘tech for good’ start-up Elemental, said she would rather spend time with “people who are in the heart of the communities doing the community work day in and day out on the ground”.

“I will get more amazing, innovative domain knowledge ideas from them than I will from a techie. But don’t worry, we can talk to the techie then and they can tell us what’s doable,” she joked.

Meanwhile, Dr Claire Gillan, founder of Neureka, warned against the dangers of “hero worship” in science, technology and innovation. “It helps perpetuate a culture where individuals and reputations become more important than the integrity of the science itself. The fact is that science is a team effort,” she said.

“Sure, there may be charismatic and effective leaders, but these people are often not the ones putting the hard work or even generating the big idea.”

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Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.