Research, entrepreneurship, and the art of strenuous things
I have been part of Entrepreneur First (EF) for three months already. EF brings together people who are experts in both technological fields and market domains. The aim is to simplify the “find-your-perfect-co-founder” process, while providing the ideal support framework to start and launch a deep tech company.
I used to think of myself as the textbook academic — shy, a little awkward, an avid reader and passionate learner. I also used to think that a life supported by scholastic curiosity is the only life worth living. I joined EF when I realised that going beyond academia may be a necessary step to actualise the value that knowledge potentiates. It is liberating to accept that curiosity is a most powerful tool, which does not need to be limited to academic research.
A doubt remains though. In these months I have been surrounded by people of great talents (impostor syndrome anyone?), and I have often been wondering, why are we here, and why do we do this? Why are we going through the great pain of starting a company, when there are easier avenues to a good, decent life? The same question was bugging me during my life as a researcher, so let me start by going back to that.
It was 2010, when most of my friends in Italy tried to dissuade me from embarking upon the journey of doing my Ph.D. in Australia. They said “it is far from home, it has too many deadly, exotic animals, you will lose your connections here, you will feel like a stranger in a different land”.
My motivations were strong, though: I was curious about the country itself, as well as my field of research (quantum information). Although the country and the people I met there sometimes challenged me as much as the science, I am glad to have made the journey both as a man and as a scientist.
I know of myself that I was moved by a desire to know, just like those who have come before me, and those who will follow. In this regard, I have often been wondering: What does that really mean? What does it say about us, the ones who leave a great deal behind to undertake arduous paths? Be it research or entrepreneurship, why are we doing this?
There have been many days when I thought it would be easier if I could simply be content with achieving material satisfaction as expediently and conveniently as possible. All of you who are in a similar position, whether you know it or not, have all had the option of making that choice.
And yet, we have chosen differently.
So, what actually made us persist along the thorny path towards the light we thought we would reach? What made us think that light was there in the first place?
A clue might be hidden in the words of the great men of the past. In the 26th Canto of his Divine Comedy, Dante meets the Greek hero Ulysses, who is condemned to burn inside a flame in the pit of fraudulence. The Italian poet asks him about his last voyage, which was an episode of great literary speculation at the time. Ulysses — after a brief account of the tales described in the Odyssey — reveals to Dante a surprising truth. To him, the urge to seek knowledge was even stronger than the desire for his beloved Penelope, who had awaited his embrace in Ithaca for more than ten years, following the sack of Troy.
Ulysses continues to reveal how, driven by such strong desire, he left home and his family to start sailing again with his old companions. They sailed through the Mediterranean sea, toward the end of the known world: The Pillars of Hercules, better known today as the Strait of Gibraltar.
Once in front of the aperture to the immense vastness of the unknown, his crew was reluctant to proceed because no man nor God had dared to attempt the crossing before. At the apex of their meeting Ulysses, who was a cunning and passionate adventurer, shares with Dante the words he used to convince his fellows to continue with the endeavour:
“Considerate la vostra semenza,
fatti non foste a vivere come bruti,
ma per seguire virtute e canoscenza.”
Although the poetic beauty of the Italian version might be lost, these immortal words can be translated as:
“Consider thy seed, from whence ye sprang forth:
Ye were not made to live like brutes,
But to pursue virtue and knowledge.”
Inspired by Ulysses’ impassioned words, they went through and navigated the strait. Beyond it, they ultimately met with damnation.
This dramatic tale conveys two messages.
First, it is clear that there is no journey without companions, be they friends, relatives, teachers or lovers. I have personally been fortunate to share my path with great people: Passionate souls that helped me shape my present, and my future, as I wished. Research, like any arduous endeavour, or like life itself, cannot and should not be a solitary struggle.
More intimately, however, the fate of Ulysses is telling us something about human nature.
We are all imbued with a thirst for knowledge, for unveiling the unknown, for building something that — at first — only exists in our imagination. If you are cursed to walk this earth with open eyes and a curious mind, remember that there may be much darkness between the momentary starry flickers of what may or may not be true knowledge, if indeed such a thing exists. Yet, praise the curse when it is a luminary blessing! For the blind beast may not know the darkness, but only because it has never seen the light.
So sweet is the fruit of knowledge that every individual who can savour it will forego pleasure and convenience, accepting sufferance and risking sanity to grasp at the tantalizing reflection of an underlying reality of substance and meaning.
Facing the unknown — just like Ulysses and his crew, is the greatest pleasure of all
Some of the lines above were included in the Graduation Speech I gave in May 2014, at Macquarie University*. While on stage, I felt the compelling urge to remind my fellow graduates that the passion of curiosity had brought our individual paths together at a shared milestone, Graduation. And, no matter the path they chose, my wish for them was to continue to feed their curiosity so that they could stay hungry for knowledge:
“Keep the light of learning alive in your life, and perhaps we will be able to correct the many imbalances that we, as humans, have created for ourselves and each other through different forms of pride and egotism. Sustain the light so that we may gradually push back the darkness.”
Thirst for knowledge, for discovery, for learning. All these elements combine to support the spirit of the researcher. Three months into my new adventure, I dare to say that very similar feelings sustain me while working to build and launch Entropica Labs. The main difference? Now I moved beyond curiosity, to use the knowledge gained during my university years for some demonstrable utility and achievement.
A company is a materialisation of dreams. You take your passions, ideas, and expertise and shape them together to become a functional structure, which ideally contributes to yours and society’s wealth. The whole process is a process of discovery and learning, very much similar to a research project. Sure, the outcomes might be very different in nature, but the motivations behind all strenuous things are similar. It is part of what we are, as humans, to challenge the unknown for the sake of knowing, and accomplishing, just a little more.
In the next three months, together with my fantastic fellow co-founder Ewan Munro, we will be diving head-first into a deep sea of challenges, which will eventually take us to the EFSG3 Demo Day, a great showcase organised by EF to connect the programme entrepreneurs with investors. We do not know what lies ahead. And yet, facing the unknown — just like Ulysses and his crew, is the greatest pleasure of all.
*I wish to acknowledge and dearly thank Trond Linjordet for helping me write the Graduation speech.