Interview with Mark Pleško, our CEO: “I try to give people what I wanted for myself when I was in their place”

“There is something Napoleonic in me, as I like to build ‘empires’. It inspires me to constantly search for opportunities for growth,” says scientist and entrepreneur Mark Pleško, CEO and co-owner of Cosylab. But he doesn’t stop there. In the same breath, he adds that ethics and honesty are equally important values to him. And despite the fact that he attributes his business success to luck, doubtless, the basis of his success story is the intertwinement of ethics and ambitiousness.

Below is the translated interview which was originally published in the Slovenian Innovation Hub.

For a start, can you give us an overview of Cosylab?

Cosylab, established in 2001, is a world-leading company specializing in control systems for particle accelerators, radio telescopes, and other physics facilities. We have been doing business worldwide from the very beginnings, with branches located in Silicon Valley, Switzerland, China, Japan, and Sweden.

Soon, we’re adding Poland, and maybe Russia to the list. The key to creating new market segments are our people. Ideas are not the problem. The challenge is in structuring the idea and realizing it — the most important part of innovation is turning ideas into something and that also brings in money.

When you received the Slovenian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (GZS) award for outstanding business and entrepreneurial achievements, you said that there are two types of people: those who are rational, who take society for what it is, and those who are irrational, who want to change everything at once. From this, we can deduce that people that really change the world aren’t understood. You consider yourself to be the latter. Why?

This year, Mark Pleško received the Slovenian Chamber of Commerce and Industry Award for outstanding business and entrepreneurial achievements.

Maybe I didn’t express myself well. I wanted to quote George Bernard Shaw, who said that “all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. He didn’t mention being misunderstood.

But in a way, you’re right: many visionaries aren’t understood by their surroundings. That’s why it’s up to them to change the world according to their vision and show people what they had in mind and that it can be done.

Why I consider myself to be the latter? Because I am “nuts” and stubborn enough that I keep wanting to change the world, or at least my surroundings, according to my vision (laughs).

You’re a physicist and an entrepreneur. Despite having a great insight into relations between matter and its movement in space and time, a businessman also needs to understand the “living” part of nature well, the human relations, trends. How do you combine these seemingly incompatible roles? Do you understand business differently or better as a natural scientist? Can it be a basis for a different perspective?

That’s very insightful. It’s true!

Entrepreneurship and business, in general, are based on human relations. Which is why we, the natural scientists, usually have trouble with clear and understandable communication with people from other fields. It seems I am lucky to have both talents.

But every good businessman also has to understand the domain in which they operate. A hairdresser also needs to be good at cutting hair; it’s not enough if they’re only good at talking with their clients (laughs). Well, as an entrepreneurial physicist it makes sense to specialize in high-tech because I am better at understanding it then say, financial services. On the other hand, I have less competition than I would if I were dealing with real estate.

People describe you as a warm, family man. What does family mean to you, how do you balance family and business?

I live only one, singular life, if I can say so, so I don’t have a separate time for family and business. I live everything at once and I am always intensively, 100% dealing with what’s in front of me. If there is some urgent business affair, I’ll do it during the weekend. But if the kids are at home during working hours, then we’ll spend some time together.

It’s important that I’m focusing on the moment that I am living right now. It works somehow, and I can say that even after 28 years of marriage and two children studying at university, we’re still getting along great.

Cosylab has become the global leading expert for control system development for particle accelerators, radio telescopes, and other physics facilities. What do you attribute the success to?

Mostly luck. It’s self-evident that the success came with a lot of hard work, sacrifice, but most of all brilliant co-workers. But I was also lucky to have found them. Anyway, my mantra is that a good businessman knows how to grab luck by the collar when it passes them.

What guides you in business? What inspires you, what excites you?

It seems there is something Napoleonic in myself, as I like to build “empires”. It inspires me to constantly search for opportunities for growth. Readers can judge for themselves if it’s ethical or not, but that’s me — that drives me.

Cosylab’s success is the proof that on the long run, you get further by being fair to others; in a sense “you’re ok, I am ok”, either to a co-worker, partner or a client.

At the same time, ethics and honesty are equally important to me. Both nature and nurture gave me this interesting combination, which luckily prevents me from harming others because of my ambitions, or walking on the thin line of legality. I always want to do everything in a way that is good for everyone. Not by dividing everything between everyone, but by creating something more, so that there is more of something for everyone. On the short term, I could probably achieve more by being egoistic and cunning. But, Cosylab’s success is the proof that on the long run, you get further by being fair to others; in a sense “you’re ok, I am ok”, “you” being either a co-worker, partner or a client.

One of Cosylab’s most prominent strategic projects is the Proton Therapy Centre for cancer treatment. The value of the project of building a regional center for the most advanced proton therapy is estimated at 130 million EUR. When will it be built and where?

It’s still too early for exact answers. First, we still have to find the 130 million EUR. We’ve already identified 3 possible locations; one is the Medical Valley promoted by Slovenian Innovation Hub.

Proton therapy is considered to be an advanced cancer treatment because it has fewer side effects for patients. What are the key advantages of the therapy and possible challenges? How many of the 14000 cancer patients that are diagnosed annually in Slovenia could be treated with Proton therapy?

If we compare the numbers to the countries that are already using proton therapy, we could treat about 1000 patients yearly. The number would double if we considered the more optimistic figures from other proton therapy centers, where the proton therapy is replacing radiotherapy more and more.

The proton therapy center connects medicine, science, and business partnership. What’s the role of Cosylab in this public-private partnership? Who are the other stakeholders or planners of the project?

That’s exactly the reason why we suggested the Proton Therapy Center — because the “stars really aligned” for Slovenia in this case. Co-incidentally, the Oncology Institute Ljubljana is the biggest of its kind in Europe, and we have one of the strongest international research groups for medical physics at Jožef Stefan Institute and the University of Ljubljana and finally, Cosylab is the leading provider of control system integration for particle therapy. It’s like with our golden basketball players, when once in many years such an amazing team springs from such a small piece of land.

Together we have the complete knowledge to develop, build and control the center for proton therapy, of course in collaboration with foreign suppliers. Cosylab is internationally very well connected and will help find the best suppliers as well as contribute to the development of the technologically most complex components.

Slovenia is often criticized for its fragmentation. What’s your take on the importance of associations like Slovenian Innovation Hub SIS EGIZ, whose main goal is to connect Slovenia to breakthrough technologies, academic excellence and creative forces?

The fragmentation is also the consequence of the small size. It’s sometimes simply easier to find a foreign partner, especially in the kind of niche market like the one Cosylab covers, where there’s no one covering this niche in Slovenia.

That’s why SIS EGIZ’s role is especially hard because it’s connecting especially versatile stakeholders, which have different ways of working: institutes, universities and the economy. As I see it, the role in which SIS EGIZ is especially good at is that it works as a moderator, a facilitator. They are able to assess which ideas and proposals are realistic in given circumstances and with available partners and then support those projects. But in the end the stakeholders have to achieve the critical mass: SIS EGIZ can’t force the companies and the academic sphere to cooperate if there is no real interest.

Slovenia is considered to be an innovation follower despite having relatively strong scientific grounds, cutting-edge companies, and innovation tradition. How do you understand this discrepancy?

The size is again an important factor. We do have some small and some medium-sized top-notch innovation companies, but the biggest companies that employ thousands don’t have access to the 1000 best people out of 300 million like they would if they were based in the USA, but only out of 2 million. But we are opening up in this respect and are attracting foreign talent to Slovenia. We still have to adapt to arrange the working permits faster, but we’re also working on this. With the Slovenian Chamber of Commerce and Industry GZS, for example, we successfully enforced the initiative for faster working permits for trustworthy companies, which has already been approved by the National Assembly.

How do you see the future of work? Once you said that technology and social progress mean that the typical, safe, nice jobs no longer exist. “If you want a safe job, the best thing to do is to create and defend it yourself. That means that you make your own company and build it. If you want a good job today, you have to create it yourself, because no one else will do it for you.”

Well, here you opened up a theme for a whole separate interview. Should we talk about how artificial intelligence (AI) and robots completely changed the working landscape and areas, where the human can still work? Or maybe that AI will come to rule humankind as many people warn?

In the future, the value of work will be in the creative approach that cannot be done by a machine.

If we focus on today and the next couple of years, when people will still need to work: for sure, the emphasis will be on creative work. But that doesn’t mean that manual activities will no longer exist — but they will need to be creative in places where automation plays no role. An example: it may be cheaper to replace the whole car for a small fault because it will be wholly made by a robot. But for old-timers, you will still need excellent car mechanics because the old-timers are unique. And because the value will be with the creative approach, the job seekers will be freer in choosing when and how they work. The Egyptians could whip the slaves to carry the stones for the pyramids faster or dig the irrigation ditches, but you can’t force a person to be creative.

What should we do to promote innovation as a nation and as a country?

We should raise our young to be more creative. In reality, we are progressing in this respect, despite many critics of the school system. If I compare how much we had to learn by heart in high school and how my children are learning, I can see quite some progress. But the school system can’t be changed overnight. First, you have to educate the teachers and prepare them for something new.

As an employer, how do you take care of your people? What do you offer, how do you keep the best?

To actually do as I say in this interview (laughs). I try to give people what I wanted for myself when I was in their place: a nice job, freedom of choice, and interesting work full of challenges and a mission to contribute to society’s progress and humanity: not necessarily in this order.

Other things, like decent pay, paid sports activities, fruits, coffee, flexible working hours, table football and other perks are a given in an IT firm.

How do you ensure fresh ideas in your team, how do you encourage innovation?

Ideas are not a problem (laughs). As famous Japec Jakopin once told me: “Out of 100 ideas I might realize 1 or 2 percent. I don’t need other people’s ideas.”

The challenge is structuring and realizing ideas — that is actually the real part of innovation: create and realize ideas that can also make money. There are only very few people who know how to do that. And when we’re creating new market segments, we’re limited by the number of such people. From my experience, I can say that maybe there is one in every 15 to 20 engineers. When we identify a person with such potential, we first educate them and make sure that they broaden their horizon.

What’s your vision of Cosylab’s progress?

First, Cosylab has to become completely independent of me. We’re already working on this intensively, because we’re building the leadership structure, educating and growing internal and hiring external management staff. Then Cosylab will be able to grow further. We want to become a completely global company. Right now, we already have branches in Silicon Valley, Switzerland, in China, Japan, and Sweden, and soon Poland, and maybe Russia will follow. But based on the size of these countries it would make sense that in the long run, the majority of employees would be employed there and not in Slovenia.

And lastly: who is your role model?

If fictional characters are allowed, then my biggest role model is Gandalf, the wise man from Lord of The Rings. I think that he represents my character quite well, including this quote: “don’t meddle in the affairs of wizards, because they are subtle and quick to anger”.

But if I stick to IT, then my role model is the rational and cold-blooded Bill Gates, rather than the impulsive and calculating Steve Jobs. Plus, I have such a child’s face, more like Gates (laughs).

What do you aspire to?

You wouldn’t believe it: in reality, I am really lazy and I aspire not to have to work anymore. That’s why I am constantly employing new people to take over parts of my responsibilities. But I am the type of lazy person that likes to do everything today so that I will be free tomorrow. But, there are always new challenges tomorrow (laughs).

The interview by Tonja Blatnik was originally published in the Slovenian Innovation Hub (SIS EGIZ) newsletter September edition.

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