Making Something From Nothing: Beni Gradwohl Of Cognovi Labs On How To Go From Idea To Launch
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
Surround yourself with people you can trust to help guide you through the ups and downs of getting your company off the ground.
As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Beni Gradwohl.
Beni Gradwohl is Co-Founder and CEO of Cognovi Labs, Inc., an artificial intelligence (AI) company that focuses on measuring the emotional drivers behind human decision-making. Cognovi’s award-winning psychology-driven AI helps clients in the commercial, health and public sectors reveal how audiences are feeling in the moment, predict their action and intent, and then communicate with the emotions to maximize impact.
Beni has been on a journey to understand how people act and find a systematic way to measure our decision-making for more than 20 years. He is recognized as an executive who combines a deep understanding of new advances in machine learning, alternative data and commercial opportunities to create new businesses and grow existing revenue sources. Throughout his career, from investment management and institutional securities to consumer banking and fintech innovation, he has delivered outsized returns for his clients and institutions.
Beni previously held senior leadership positions at Citi, Morgan Stanley and various investment management firms. An astrophysicist by training, he spent the first decade of his professional career in academia and research, studying astrophysics, cosmology, particle physics, and magnetic resonance. He has held research and teaching assignments at multiple leading academic institutions, including University of California, Columbia Business School, Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, University of Chicago, Weizmann Institute of Science and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Featured in Inc., Forbes and the Financial Times, Beni is frequently invited to speak on topics at the intersection of AI and behavioral psychology, the role of emotions in human decision-making, and how to engage emotionally to drive a better outcome. Beni received his Ph.D. in Physics from The Hebrew University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
My road to entrepreneurship does not follow a straight path. From a young age, I was interested in the sciences. My career began in academia focusing on astrophysics and cosmology. As a researcher, I believed the world revolved around analytics and data. This perspective fueled my transition to finance. I worked at investment management firms before making my way to Morgan Stanley and Citi, where I held executive roles.
While each of these experiences shaped who I am today, it was a class at Harvard Business School on behavioral economics and behavioral finance that disrupted how I viewed the world. The class opened my eyes to the impact of human emotion on decision-making processes, challenging my beliefs about relying exclusively on hard data. I came to understand that the majority of people’s decisions are made by the subconscious mind and driven by emotions. For 20+ years, I’ve focused on answering the question “how can we quantify that decision-making process?” It’s this question that led me to Cognovi Labs. Today, we apply artificial intelligence (AI) and behavioral psychology to capture, measure and deliver actionable insights on how emotions drive decisions and future actions.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
There is an old Latin proverb that says “per aspera ad astra,” meaning “a stony path leads to the stars.” The proverb had such great meaning for me that it was the opening phrase of the thesis paper for my Ph.D. in physics.
There are very few things in life or in business that are easy. This old proverb reminds us that although the path to our goals may get rough, we can face the challenge head-on and keep moving forward. Reaching your aspirations — your stars — is rarely a smooth venture
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
As an avid reader, this is a difficult question to answer. There are so many books that have left a mark on me. I read books from many genres — from mathematics, psychology, neurology, and behavioral science to historical accounts and academic compilations.
Two authors who have influenced my thinking on human behavior are Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Their work sets forth the notion that human beings are not as rational as we think we are. In fact, we are full of cognitive biases. And emotions are intertwined with these biases. I am passionate about reading and learning.
Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?
The key to any business is problem-solving. Take the founding of Uber, for example — a couple of friends having a hard time getting a taxi. That experience inspired the founding of a company that took in $17.5B in revenue last year alone.
At Cognovi Labs, we are focused on solving a global problem. How can we better understand and quantify human behavior? Our technology and research can help save lives (for example, by encouraging patients to take their medication); allow government leaders to communicate their message more effectively to constituents (for example, why it’s important to take the Covid or flu vaccine); help marketers better connect with their consumers; and ultimately, change the way that human beings interact with one another.
Being successful in the startup world is not about who has the latest and greatest idea, it is about taking that problem or idea and problem-solving it. This doesn’t mean having all the answers up front. But you will need to break the problem down to its elementary level. These stepping stones will form the path needed for greater impact.
Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?
An original idea isn’t the measure of success. In fact, when founding a business or creating a technology, it is helpful to be the second because it means someone has already done the work of convincing the industry of the market’s need. Understanding and respecting the impact of your predecessors, and building from that point, is often as productive (or inventive) as being a trailblazer.
Having said that, if you have an original idea and are passionate about it, go for it. In my case with Cognovi, I developed and internalized the idea of better quantifying human behavior for many years, something which is still at the leading-edge of development.
For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.
The process always begins with the customer and identifying the problem that you are trying to solve. There are several key questions to ask yourself in the journey, including: What is the problem? Why are you solving it? How can you measure the success of it? At the end of the day, regardless of the idea, gaining traction is key, and that cannot be achieved while sitting on the sidelines and telling yourself that you have the best idea. Identifying the problem and then putting yourself in your potential customers’ shoes is essential.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?
- Find yourself a mentor early on.
Surround yourself with people you can trust to help guide you through the ups and downs of getting your company off the ground.
2. Success at a startup looks much different than in the corporate world.
Success in the startup world cannot be achieved in the same way as in the corporate world. Remember that, while some tools and competencies carry over, they are not all as relevant. You will need to develop different skills. Learning the differences and mastering this delta is key.
3. Being the CEO of a startup doesn’t have to be a lonely job.
Very early on in my first round of raising capital, a successful entrepreneur told me that being the CEO can be the loneliest job, but it doesn’t have to be. Surrounding yourself with a network, whether they be advisors, mentors, or VCs, can help create an incredible sounding board and will lead to greater success down the line. I am fortunate to have found some incredible partners and advisors.
4. Venture Capitalists can offer a great support system.
Every founder is faced with the same question when considering funding: angel investors or VCs? While both provide fantastic benefits, I’ve found VCs can offer an indispensable support system that includes hiring introductions, client engagements, business advice and more.
5. Don’t raise capital incrementally.
Many first-time founders may fall into the trap of raising capital incrementally. My suggestion is — don’t. Raising a bit of funding early on and proving a market need for your concept is crucial, then go back and raise a larger amount of funding after getting your business off the ground.
Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
The first step is to create a minimum viable product (MVP). Give it away to see if it gains traction. At Cognovi, we first started with political clients, helping to predict outcomes around politicians’ messaging and anticipate the impact on the opinion of their electorate. After we gave our product to a hedge fund for free and saw how useful it was in predicting Brexit, we knew the technology had potential. Since then, we’ve expanded to other industries and business applications.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
I personally did not work with an invention development consultant; however, it is important to focus on surrounding yourself with a supportive, knowledgeable and experienced network. If you are founding a business, you might find this support in diverse types of advisors.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It depends on the product that you are bringing to market and whether or not you have the money to bootstrap your business. If you can bootstrap until you find your product-market fit, this can be a solid approach, but that isn’t always possible. This decision has to do with your business, but it can be highly individual depending on where you are in life as a founder and your financial situation. Ask yourself: are you able to take time away from making money to build your product? Are you fresh out of college and able to live rent-free for some time?
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
At Cognovi, we are focused on using technology for good. One critical area is the healthcare sector. Let’s look at medication adherence as an example. Six out of ten patients with chronic illness do not take the medicines prescribed by their doctors. Tragically, more than 125,000 Americans lose their lives each year as a result. With Cognovi’s tools, we can help pharmaceutical companies understand patients’ emotional barriers to filling (and adhering to!) prescriptions, and shape company communications and marketing to emotionally connect with patients and facilitate a different outcome.
This work is, quite literally, saving lives.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
The world needs more emotional intelligence and empathy. Not everyone possesses great emotional intelligence, but we can all work towards it. This would change the way businesses interact in contracts, or the very terms of those contracts. It would change the relationships between businesses and consumers and human beings in everyday life.
Working to bring technology to the world that can help augment human emotions and give guidance to us as humans can be crucial for improved interactions. I believe that higher emotional intelligence can truly alter society for the better. This drives the work that we are doing at Cognovi to help quantify and measure emotions to understand and support human connection.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
There are so many people I would love to have lunch with! But I have to go with Albert Einstein. It would be a dream to learn firsthand what made him an incredible scientist and human being.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.