Finding Your Unfair Advantage
If you thought that Alex’s application to Entrepreneur First was a breeze, it wasn’t. His first application to Entrepreneur First, when he was a third-year econometrics undergraduate at London School of Economics, was unsuccessful.
His determination to join was sparked by a talk with Entrepreneur First’s co-founder Matt Clifford, whose words had resonated deeply with Alex.
“He said: ‘never before in time has it been possible for someone to build a product by themselves, in their bedroom, that could serve millions of people. But with the advent of the programmable computer and the internet, that is now possible’.
That’s what I’d always wanted to do. There’s an intense sense of freedom and adventure that comes with being a founder. EF seemed like the right opportunity.
However after my interview they told me: you can hustle, but you don’t know anything about technology.
That rejection changed my life.”
EF asks founders joining the platform to identify their ‘edge’ – their unfair advantage in solving a problem compared to others. Most who take part have a ‘technical’ edge, meaning that they have deep expertise in a particular technology field.
Alex became obsessed with creating this edge for himself. Therefore, he went to Imperial College London to take a conversion Master’s course in Computer Science.
It was there that he encountered the technology that would become the foundation for Tractable.
“Now, everyone working in tech knows about deep learning – but back then only a handful of labs were working on it. That’s how I got a head start.”
Deep learning is a form of AI that replicates the functions of the human brain to process data and make decisions. It can be used for a variety of tasks, including detecting speech, translation, and recognising objects in images.
The team now deploys this technology to inspect damaged vehicles – however at Imperial, Alex applied it elsewhere.
“I was working with a company that inspects plastic pipe welds to make sure they’re done properly, and discovered that you could generate a lot of value, such as preventing bad welds, by automating the visual inspection. The domain was not exactly cool, but it was a real world use case for the technology I’d become obsessed with.”
This idea gave Alex the vision to use image classification to build something that ultimately resulted in Tractable.
When the time came to interview for EF again, Alex also had a PhD offer from Imperial College to pursue his research in deep learning. He’d given himself the technical edge he needed, and proven his grit to build something game-changing. He was accepted and began EF in 2014.
Alex’s advice to other aspiring entrepreneurs looking for their competitive edge is to turn to academia, and give yourself a headstart.
“Don’t follow the news for ideas. If it’s in the news it’s too late. Follow the academic fields; read academic journals; speak to academics. Find out where, across all areas of science and engineering, the breakthroughs are happening.
You need to follow academia for breakthroughs, get very technical to understand them intimately, and be the first one to work out which industrial use cases are going to be enabled by this academic breakthrough.”