A Story About Youthful Enthusiasm Thwarted

Whenever I learn of a new government initiative to incubate innovative businesses, I roll my eyes. Back in the day, I had some first-hand experience with this kind of agency, as a recently-graduated electrical, electronics and computer engineer, with eight years of accumulated work experience as a trainee electrical engineer. I lived in a country that had the wealth to support modern digital businesses. It was a rich, first-world country, with many advantages. They called it “the lucky country” and in many ways, it was. Its one massive disadvantage – its remoteness from the rest of the world – could be compensated for, by doing something sufficiently innovative. In fact, there is some (small) advantage in being isolated, because you can work below the radar for longer. Indeed, I was soon to work at one of the nation’s most advanced and innovative companies, leading the world in what it did.

My mentors, during my traineeship, had been people that were at the pioneering forefront in industrial electronics and microprocessors, when these things were still new and the United States and Japan had not yet established dominant market positions in these fields. My mentors spoke with bitter regret at the lost opportunities, as corporate and government policy had been anything but supportive of their nascent industries. Subsequently, their initial leads had been squandered and lost. What could have been world-beating industries were, instead, faded memories and some dusty reports sitting on Dexion shelves. I read many of those old reports. The intellectual property that was in those reports was simply, profligately wasted. Nobody benefited from the knowledge and what knowledge it was! I was astonished, reading the old lab reports and imagining what could have been. My mentors would acknowledge my reactions ruefully. They knew it too. Their disappointment was palpable.

My education was a combination of gritty, hands-on application, under real-world commercial pressures, and abstract university learning, where blowing stuff up was shrugged off as just part of the undergraduate lab experience. It was tough, I didn’t get much sleep and I worked my tail off, but it was an excellent way to learn. Sometimes, you just had to figure it out, no matter what. You couldn’t take insane risks, but you could do things that were clever and made for better results. The university I trained at was a world leader in automatic control systems and there were some inspiring lecturers, who really knew their onions in this field. They gave us great insight into feedback and stability and the limitations of both digital and analogue techniques. I was very lucky to study under these people.

Even as a naive, green engineer, I knew that the key to the future was to create high skill, high wage jobs, building ground-breaking technology for the world and that the idea of continuing to be a nation wholly dependent on mining, farming and financial speculation would, ultimately, not end well for the place of my birth. My training, in heavy industry, had made that obvious. I had seen the workforce at the plant I worked at shrink from 13,000 to just a few thousand in a few short years. Ultimately, the whole plant closed. There’s nothing there now. It’s vacant, empty ground.

As a young, newly hatched engineer, I was brimming with ideas, I had the skills and training to go forward with them, but I had no connections, no finance and few clues about business. What I needed was help.

To me, the idea of being a technology entrepreneur appealed immensely. I felt it would be a way to live a purposeful life, where my contribution could cause some good. Even as a young graduate, I was aware that technology could have a dark side, so my interests were in making technology in the service of the arts. I wanted to make tools for people to make music and pictures. I was biased, because I had been a musician since I was nine years old. I dabbled with recording and music technology, such as it was. My best buddy at university was also mad keen on making things to make music. His room was a hive of self-directed design and development, where he made mixing desks, analogue synthesisers, effects pedals, amplifiers, electronic drum kits, you name it. He was inspiring to be around. What often started off as a bag of dubious electronic components would, in the end, make wonderful noises. In my career, I would end up creating tools for professional audio and video production, but not in the way I envisaged. I wouldn’t, ultimately, bring those jobs to my home town or even my home state. Indeed, later in my career, when I tried to bring those things back to Australia, my intentions fell on stony, infertile soil. But, I’m jumping ahead of myself in this story.

I knew I didn’t want to supervise electrical contractors installing heavy machinery for the rest of my life, no matter how impressive some of those projects were. As a trainee, I got involved in some very interesting projects, with awe-inspiring, powerful machines controlled by computers, but I could see the writing on the wall, for the Australian steel industry, even then. Nobody took quality seriously enough and the management of the company that employed me were complacently under-investing in process improvement, so it was only a matter of time before they were beaten on price. It didn’t seem like much of a future and my instincts were right about that. All of the really cool plant that we installed was eventually torn out and sold to Chinese companies, in the bitter end. It’s probably still running today, somewhere in the industrial heartlands of the China.

My side hustle, back then, was planning something I called a “Digital Music Processor”. My idea was that you could use a standard PC to make music. In my imagination, it would have recording and signal processing capabilities, as well as digital synthesis modules. The whole thing, which I called “Starbase”, was meant to facilitate digitally-created audio, or at the very least, to accomplish digital supervision of the audio production process. This idea occurred to me long before you could produce music “in the box” (something that has become a commonplace, these days). While sampling and sequencing was relatively new, digital signal processing was still in its very infancy. The idea that you could do it all in a general purpose computer was science fiction, back then.

Indeed, sceptics of my ideas, at the time, were correct. The PCs that then existed had no chance of doing the work and wouldn’t have the sheer processing power or storage for quite some time. As an idea, it was, in 1985, infeasible. However, I saw into the future. It was going to be possible, because of Moore’s Law and because even a little bit of computer control over existing audio production technology was transformative. This much was evident from seeing what computer control of heavy machinery in industry could readily accomplish. I’d already experienced that. Consequently, I knew that a viable product roadmap could exist. Driven by this certainty, I began to write down my ideas and build a business plan. I wanted to pitch it to somebody.

The jury was still out, in Australia, about its industrial policy. The Whitlam government of the early 1970s had advocated for a domestic electronics and computing industry, but had gained little traction, having been thwarted by a US-backed coup, which removed this government from office, under dubious circumstances. Under the subsequent Liberal (meaning conservative) government, much of the potential had been traded away in secret sweetheart deals with Japan, which the Japanese were able to buy very cheaply. Our corrupt politicians were easily intimidated into bad bargaining positions, by those with bribes to spend. They didn’t understand technology either. In response to that wanton waste, the New South Wales state government, dominated by Labour politicians under the leadership of Neville Wran, had set up something called The Innovation Centre, in Sydney. It’s stated purpose was to help young would-be entrepreneurs to start innovative, technology businesses. It seemed like an ideal fit. I arranged a meeting and drove the hundred miles to show them what I was thinking.

My first impression of their offices was that, while located in the heart of Sydney, they were very small and there weren’t many people there. I couldn’t detect any vibrant buzz. Maybe I expected dozens of your would-be entrepreneurs to be trying to get started. That wasn’t at all evident. For all I knew, that was just what government departments did. Perhaps they simply turned exciting things and stimulating times in sclerotic bureaucracies. That might have been par for the course. I was used to engineering offices which, while not buzzing with activity, were at least humming with it. This seemed more deserted and moribund than that.

Nevertheless, I was received warmly and encouragingly. It might have felt patronising at the time, but the truth was I knew little. What I hadn’t predicted was that the government department in charge of innovation didn’t know much more about it than I did. It seemed to be populated by civil servants, not people that had succeeded in entrepreneurial activities. It also seemed as much a mystery to them, how things like that get done, as it did to me. Within a few weeks, though, I got a phone call from the Innovation Centre, asking me to drop everything and get down to the Siebel Townhouse right now. If I did, Jean Michel Jarre would spend an hour with me, listening to my ideas. This felt like an unbelievable opportunity, so I dropped everything and high-tailed it to King’s Cross.

True to their word, the meeting did take place. I spent one of the most enjoyable hours of my life with the renowned electronic music pioneer, both listening to his philosophy of making music and pitching my ideas to him. It helped enormously that I knew his work intimately and the equipment he had used to create it. Unfortunately, things didn’t go any further. Follow up letters were not acknowledged. Clearly, there was no real commitment to helping me out, beyond sharing insights (which, in hindsight, were exceptionally valuable). In fact, it was only quite recently that Jean Michel Jarre finally fully embraced production in the box, where practically everything was created by software, in the computer. He turned out to be a late adopter of what I was proposing. Though he seemed to be at the avant-garde, it was with a different philosophy of music technology. It just goes to show that you can never tell.

Things went a bit quiet after that. I didn’t know if the Innovation Centre had concluded I wasn’t worth providing any further help to, given my inability to adequately impress Jean Michel, or if they were out of ideas about what to do with me. It was clear that there was no innovation incubation fund to speak of. Getting financial or any other help was going to be largely impossible. Subsequently, I applied for and was offered a job with Fairlight Instruments – a company I had regarded as a competitor, in my business plan, only one with what I saw as a flawed product proposition. While this company encouraged me greatly, making me their Innovations Engineer, I never fully agreed with the product philosophy and was always trying to push the company in other directions. That must have been unwelcome, irritating and annoying, coming from a clueless, just-graduated engineer. It was a great job, though and I met wonderful people through it.

A little later, the civil servant that had seen me at the Innovation Centre asked to come to my parent’s house, where I was still living. That was quite a strange request, but I accepted the meeting. During that meeting, he attempted to pitch me on helping him with something innovative, which he thought had genuine legs. It was a passive, convection-driven, rotating air vent, designed to remove hot air from the roof spaces of suburban dwellings. I thought it was a good idea and had real application, but that it was strange that he was trying to recruit me into this venture. It also felt odd that he seemed to have a personal interest in its commercial success. The biggest blow to me, though, was that it involved none of my electronic, electrical or computer engineering training at all. In fact, it seemed rather low-tech. I passed on the offer, disappointed and never had further contact with the NSW Innovation Centre ever again. It had left a very bad taste in my mouth and I had moved on.

My cynicism about seemingly worthy government initiatives was seeded by this encounter. It seems to be, looking back, that the Innovation Centre was largely symbolic, so that the politicians sponsoring it could point to it and say, “See, we’re doing something about industrial competitiveness.” The truth, to me, was that it was a paper tiger, with no real resources and little meaningful commitment. That felt like a terrible thing to do to young, potential entrepreneurs, willing to work hard and take risks, to make something good. It felt abusive. We were effectively sacrificial lambs, so that a bunch of politicians could look like they were doing something and in touch with the modern world, but without having to do the hard work of actually seeing it through.

Even then, as relatively clueless as I was, it wasn’t all about me. I had more noble aspirations. I could see that my city was suffering and that jobs were being lost. I truly thought that I could do something, even if very little, to replace those lost jobs with new jobs well worth having. I was concerned that the prosperous town I grew up in not decay into something less salubrious. To be sure, my town survived quite well without me and my help, but there are no cutting edge technology jobs there either.

About 15 years after this (maybe closer to 20), I again tried my luck with an innovation incubator, this time attached to the University of Surrey in the UK. Sadly, I found it equally threadbare and bereft of resources. I ended up working for Amazon instead. Prior to this UK experience, I had started a company of my own, around 2000, on the Surrey Research Park, but we had a single customer that soon hit hard times. As a result of their distress, we were brought down too. While we had turned over around a million pounds in our first year, we hadn’t built a strong enough order book, or a diverse range of clients. We just didn’t get the time to do it and couldn’t move fast enough. After the failure of Imaginative Engineering, I returned to Australia, briefly, with a view to moving back home. Again, I engaged with the local development agencies, in my home town and found the same thing. There was no understanding of the need for broadband, or data centres for hosting, to take on the rapidly changing on-line e-commerce world. They also had few resources and tried to introduce me to local business mentors that had way less experience than I had. It was utterly hopeless.

So, in three separate, good-faith encounters with government-sponsored agencies, each set up using public money with the express purpose of creating innovative, technological businesses, I’ve had nothing but hindrance, distraction and disappointment. Every business model you are required to prepare is straight-jacketed into a short-termist template. Unless you can get big, quick and allow investors to exit rich, there is no seed funding available at all. Nobody believes in doing the long, boring, painstaking, patient work required to succeed in the long term, though this is really the only sustainable advantage you can build. The only companies I’ve owned have been built by myself. Just about every other company I’ve worked at has been, in the end, a branch office of various US corporations. Even companies that started in the UK, from nothing, either failed or were bought and then failed. The one company that didn’t fit this pattern had an owner didn’t agree with my product direction. It hasn’t been a happy experience.

I started out my career with a self-defined mission to use my engineering skills and imagination in the service of making better art. I’m still trying, but my youthful enthusiasm has been thwarted multiple times. These days, I’m trying to be smarter and to think my way around the usual obstacles. It isn’t easy. If anybody tells you there is committed help and resources available to help realise this kind of goal, thereby providing wider benefits to the community, don’t believe them. They’re lying. There is no help of any substance available, beyond posturing and platitudes. It’s all smoke. That has been my unhappy realisation.

Before you say that these experiences turned out badly because of me, you might be right. However, I don’t think I was any better or worse than any other potential entrepreneur that darkens these agencies’ doorsteps. I was just an engineer with some ideas, abilities and insights, trying to get something done. If that makes me a bad person, then I can’t argue with you. Your insight and experience may be superior to mine.

So that’s my story so far, but I’m still batting at the crease. I haven’t lost the determination or the passion, but I am cynical and distrusting of innovation quangos I’ve been burnt by them. Their track records are not spectacular. For all the money they’ve spent, they haven’t accomplished very much. Maybe one day…

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: https://michaeltopic.wordpress.com/. There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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