Ashok Rao, Board Director of GOOSE Capital and multi-time startup chairman, brings his financial and capital expertise to the show to talk about the “entrepreneurship virus” and his opinions on innovation. As someone who has been at the forefront of many interesting startups, Ashok lends some of his wisdom to topics like navigating today’s tumultuous market, mentoring the next generation of entrepreneurs, and getting involved in community projects to make Houston a better place for everyone.
[00:00] Podcast begins - Redefining Innovation for Today’s Entrepreneurs
[04:30] Catching the entrepreneurship virus
[11:01] Transforming university research into startup success
[14:38] Embracing the challenges of founder mentorship
[18:22] Discovering the true meaning of innovation
[20:23] Getting involved in giving back
Do you think that people have a natural inclination toward entrepreneurship?
In Ashok’s opinion, entrepreneurship is something that many people are naturally inclined to do— but not everyone has the risk-taking ability to become successful. Entrepreneurship, according to Ashok, is more like a virus. It’s a random event, inspired by a need to innovate and create. However, where you live is a major determining factor of if you can pursue your entrepreneurship dreams, and Houston needs to create an environment to make entrepreneurship thrive as well as it does in areas like Silicon Valley.
“I do believe that entrepreneurship is a virus, not genetic. It's not a gene. I believe it infects people randomly. It's agnostic to gender, to ethnicity, to region or demographics. It's just that some areas of the world encourage entrepreneurship, and some suppress it.”
Several of the startups you work with come from German universities. What are universities in Germany doing that should be happening here?
Working with startups like FibreCoat has shown Ashok the value in tech transfer from universities to startups. Ashok has been fortunate enough to work with startups and students from Germany throughout his career, and he says the biggest difference is in more government support and a lack of university barriers. Universities aren’t stopping these students from pursuing startup opportunities and the German government is providing startups with funds through EXIST grants.
“We do have two or three successful GOOSE portfolio companies that have been spun out from Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon. Both those universities are very good at that. We need to get there in Houston, at Houston’s universities.”
You mentor startups from across the world. What are the challenges in mentoring these startups?
Providing mentorship and giving back to the community is extremely important to Ashok, but mentorship doesn’t come without its fair share of struggle. The biggest struggles are, in Ashok’s opinion, getting the founders to take investment money in the first place and finding coachable individuals willing to listen to outside advice. Even though these founders are the experts in the product they’re creating, Ashok always makes sure that the students and startups he’s working with understand how to listen and learn from mistakes.
“But my approach is, I only want to gravitate to coachable young people. And you get the sense very early on if they’re coachable. Being coachable doesn't mean they always listen, but once they make the mistake, do they come back and listen? That's important.”
How do you define innovation?
Entrepreneurs have a desire to innovate, but not everything is innovative. Ashok explains that where a lot of people go wrong with innovation is thinking that innovation has to mean “new”. Instead, innovation requires seeing value in hindsight and understanding the impact of a creation. Not all innovations are new, some are merely changes or additions to a pre-existing product line, like the iPad, and not everything new is innovative, even if it claims to be.
“Most people think of innovation and connect the root of innovation to the Latin word innovatus, which means out of new. It isn't. Innovation is the light bulb by Thomas Edison, it's the iPod and iPhone by Steve Jobs, and it is the ability to see value in hindsight.”