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Why You Can’t Build a Company with One Brain

By Ali Susskind, EF Associate London
16 March, 2018

Groundbreaking ideas don’t come about on their own. Here’s how to make sure you’re creating them.

Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ — the individual and lone genius, creator and inventor is an illusion. The individual’s light bulb moment, eureka effect and sole journey towards an invention are also illusions.

Ideas are not formed in a vacuum. They are the product of a series of incremental, complex influences available only within a given network or paradigm.

Contrary to popular belief, great ideas are not formed within the confines of an individual isolated mind — instead great ideas are formed between minds.

Talented individuals are everywhere. Imagine an assistant Professor in machine learning based in Copenhagen and a field expert in string theory and quantum physics based in London. Now imagine that they want to apply their expertise to start a company. They’ll run into problems — they don’t really know what to build, who to build it with or how to build it. Finally, imagine that somehow, these two individuals crossed paths and shared their ideas with one another and decide to collaborate to build a globally important company.

This sounds unlikely, doesn’t it?

That is, until you learn that the assistant Professor in Copenhagen is called Noor Shaker, and the field expert in London is called Vid Stojevic and that through EF, their paths crossed and they’re now building a company together. That company is GTN which combines advanced machine learning models with cutting edge quantum physics methods to allow for a fundamental development in drug discovery.

EF is where great people and great ideas meet. In Innovation in the collective brain, Muthukrishna and Henrich, Professors in psychological and cultural evolutionary processes at LSE and Harvard respectively, write that “new ideas are born at the social nexus where previously isolated ideas meet”.

There’s another name for this ‘social nexus’; we call it Entrepreneur First — where extraordinary people form extraordinary ideas.


Context is paramount in how new ideas come about. There is a popular narrative of the individual genius who, alone, discovers or invents something new and then passes their knowledge onto the masses. This is sometimes called a ‘He-paradigm’ understanding of innovation, as opposed to a ‘We-paradigm’ understanding that sees innovations as a result of a combination of the individual, converging ideas, social context and relationships.

This lone inventor narrative is not accurate. It’s a common misconception and here’s why.

Muthukrishna and Henrich, write about the ‘collective brain’ and how new ideas come about. The collective brain, they suggest, is a way of understanding how innovations gradually develop and evolve within societies or networks.

Within a given network, people collaborate, communicate, share ideas and arrive at ideas they would otherwise not have been able to.

Consider some of the world’s most revolutionary discoveries and inventions — the theory of evolution by natural selection, oxygen, calculus and the light bulb — there is debate surrounding the ‘inventor’ of all of these because they were all popularized by multiple people at similar times.

For example, evolutionary theory by both Darwin and Wallace, oxygen by Scheele, Priestley and Lavoisier, calculus by Newton and Liebniz, and, although Edison and Swan are popularly credited with inventing the lightbulb, there were at least 22 other inventors before their commercial success.

My personal favourite, and final, example of this is that the world’s leading tech giants, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee were all born in the same year — 1955.

Whilst this might seem coincidental and shocking, it actually isn’t.

It’s a result of what Muthukrishna and Henrich call the ‘cultural recombination’ and ‘incremental improvement’ of ideas.

People immersed in the same network are likely to arrive upon the same ideas, and, within the collective brain, these ideas will sooner converge and blossom in this environment.

Innovations often are either the result of different ideas being recombined in new ways to produce new things, or are improved versions of already existing things. Both of these rely on collaboration and sharing of ideas.

So, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee all enjoyed their individual interest in software engineering in a larger environment — in the great computer revolution — and with similar influences, experiences and triggers, this environment allowed their interests to accelerate and scale into the world’s most important companies and technologies.


Individual creativity thrives off exposure to other people’s thoughts and beliefs.

Einstein was exposed to a variety of different ideas working at a patent office and gradually developed a wide network of connections and ideas with the leading scientists of the time, such as Niels Bohr, before publishing his world-changing work.

In a similar way, before he developed the world wide web with his peers, Berners-Lee worked at CERN and credits his new ideas to the ‘connected diversity’ that CERN’s ‘microcosm’ offered.

Over the past six years, EF has nurtured a unique and diverse ecosystem of extraordinary individuals to achieve a similar ‘connected diversity’ and ‘microcosm’ effect. In doing so, there now exists a dynamic network of some of the smartest people, experienced investors and successful advisors.

This is why EF is unique.

Because, within this vibrant network of ambition and expertise, there are world changing ideas floating around and waiting to coalesce. EF gives individuals the capability to exploit their capacity.

Berners-Lee said that ‘things just came along at the right time’ when explaining how he considered it a lucky time to be interested in electronics and engineering because it was easy for children to get hold of basic equipment.

But why leave it to luck?

Why not ensure you’re in the right place at the right time to build a globally important company?

You can — because the right place is EF and the right time is now.

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