Tell us what drew you to technology and startups.
After completing my Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University, I joined Autodesk — one of the largest software companies in the world — in 1994 as a tech product manager. Within a couple of years, I was promoted to co-lead a new business unit focused on complimenting Autodesk’s desktop solutions with new and innovative internet-based products. We created one of the first ever SaaS products within that business unit — a project collaboration solution for the Architecture/Engineering/Construction (AEC) industry. That business unit was later spun out into a separate company. In 1998, I left to start my first startup — Pharos Technologies. Pharos developed e-commerce solutions focused on the B2B market. In 1999, Pharos merged with another e-commerce company called Neoforma, and we went IPO in early 2000, right before the market crash. Since then, I co-founded three other tech companies, a healthcare operations management company, an online education company, and a crowdfunding platform company — all based in San Francisco. In 2012, I switched career and geography and moved to Qatar to teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University Qatar. Later on, in 2016, I became the managing director of Qatar Science and Technology Park, where we launched numerous programs and funds aimed at creating an innovation ecosystem in Qatar.
What are you most passionate about in technology today? And for the future?
I believe that today’s tech global community is not only leading innovations that will significantly improve human lives across the globe, but it is also leading a revolution in entrepreneurship — one that is creating new economic dynamics which will lead to leveling the playing field across the world, and will contribute to a rise in the standards of living at a pace never seen before in history. Wherever I travel across the world, I encounter three:
- The abundance of capital looking for proper deployment,
- The abundance of talent looking for opportunities, and
- The abundance of regional and global problems/challenges looking to be solved.
The challenge always lies in the way capital and talent are deployed together efficiently to solve these problems. The rise of technology startups in places like China, Sweden, Singapore, Dubai, Istanbul, South Africa, among other places, is a direct result of the rapid adoption of the innovation processes and tools that were one day the exclusive domain of technology hubs in the U.S. such as the Silicon Valley. These regional innovation hubs, of which Istanbul is one, are quickly creating rapid economic opportunities by matching capital, talent, and opportunities. To me, this is the most exciting aspect of the “tech” revolution — it’s an entrepreneurship revolution at its core.
Exits. It’s every entrepreneur’s dream. Can you talk to us about your experience?
Yes, the company that was spun out of Autodesk in the late ’90s was later on req-acquired by Autodesk in the early 2000s. After its merger with Neforma, Pharos went public on Nasdaq under the Neoforma brand (I was the Chief Technology Officer of the merged entity when it went public). And in 2003, I sold my healthcare operations software company, Apexion, to Lawson software. At the time, Lawson was their largest ERP vendor after SAP and Oracle. Lawson had since been acquired by Infor, which is, in turn, today one of the largest enterprise software companies in the world.
You’ve worked in MENA for quite a while. Tell us how you see the startup ecosystem.
The tech startup ecosystem in Turkey, MENA, and Southeastern Europe Europe today is lightyears ahead of where it was just a few years ago. When I moved to the region six years ago, you could count on one hand the incubators, accelerators, VC’s. Not many people wanted to be startup founders. Today, it’s a completely different story. While many of these efforts are still not very mature, the fact that they exist at all is welcome news. I think the two major challenges facing our ecosystem are
- Proper regulations and laws that enable investors to create proper incentive structures to align the interests of founders and investors (things like vesting of founder stock, stock classes that have different voting rights, etc.), and
- Early-stage investors which global startup operating expertise which can assist and guide early-stage founding teams.
Finally, when you’re not all about technology, how do you spare to spend your time?
I love to read, and I mostly read books about history, economics, politics, psychology, and anthropology. I would love to have the opportunity to dive deeper into economics, especially the domain of behavioral economics.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My greatest career mentors are the ones who’ve always shown me that the best way to achieve success — and ultimately happiness — is to work with great people, do meaningful things, and treat everyone with respect. I wrote an article a few years ago about how these things will help you achieve what I call “economic dignity.” You can read more about it here.