INTERVIEW by GARY GOLDMAN |PHOTOGRAPHY by ERTAN DOGRULTAN
It would be a grave understatement to say that the Silicon Valley scene has been over-glamorized the past few years. Pale copies of Groupon are emerging every day, and the word “entrepreneur” is now a label for your six-year-old neighbor selling lemonade, as well as for any Kardashian. We tend to forget that a handful of individuals are actually responsible for some of the technologies, ventures, and concepts that will drastically alter the ways in which we interact and face today’s global issues. 26-year-old Bjoern Lasse Herrmann has been devoted to improving and revolutionizing the field of education since high school, and has since then undertaken a variety of projects that would democratize access to learning. His latest venture, Startup Genome, provides startups with the first virtual mentor in the cloud for now more that 12,000 companies around the world. Together with his team, researchers from Stanford, Berkley & Oxford and thought leaders such as Steve Blank, he has created predictive models that use hundreds of datapoints to create personal benchmarks and actionable recommendations for startups.
Your “leitmotif” is unleashing human potential. When did the realization that you wanted to spend your career fostering emerging talent come about?
At some point, I looked back and tried to find a constant in the work I’d been doing, and this is what I have been striving for intuitively all my life.
Something very common in your early twenties!
[laughs] Since high school, I have been working on educational projects and simulations that would teach people business and entrepreneurship. For a bit, I was part of an education consultancy nonprofit for universities and implemented new innovative methodologies for learning. After that, I was off to Bangladesh to develop startups and really small micro-businesses by connecting them to the global market. About three years ago I started to work on Supercool School.
That’s right! The project reminds me of a more enhanced and all-inclusive Khan Academy. Can you give us some background?
Supercool School was an online learning platform enabling everyone to be a student. The curriculum was based on a supply-demand model, and everybody shared their expertise. We got a first prototype, built another one for Google and other Fortune 500 companies, and then launched our first public version. The idea was to recreate this community of learning — a giant interactive forum.
Where everyone could contribute and learn from each other.
Right! We were smart in counting on the interactive aspect of an educational platform. To this day, forums generate more traffic than Facebook does. I still believe that this concept of a community forum in a more structured version — a profile space to teach and learn, and to record actual content — was a good one. Lots of schools use Supercool School today and it is fairly successful. I discontinued the project, but would like to get back to it at some point.
Your focus is on making a fundamental change in education. Before we dive into your more recent projects, what is your personal utopia in regards to the world of learning?
I think education is the very basis that has the ability to provide everyone with the same opportunities and chances in life: the same starting point to fully unleash potential. If we strive toward the mastery of oneself and of different skills, everyone will be closer to achieving their full potential and we will have the most prosperous future possible.
Are academic institutions way off in terms of how well they foster entrepreneurial spirit and encourage innovative learning from students?
I think educational institutions are not made for unleashing potential at this point. There are a number of exceptional schools out there living up to this ideal of a challenge-based learning system, where things aren’t just right and wrong. I believe we’re getting close to a critical amount of change. The next generation’s education should not be based on repetition, but on actual work. Most students get graded on how well they are able to regurgitate the given content, instead of using that material to move forward. The switch will be to move away from repeating and instead create original work.
Which is a perfect segue into your latest venture, a “virtual mentor for startups” called the Startup Genome Compass.
With the Startup Genome , we are studying the concept of innovation to crack its code. Can we trace it? Replicate it? How do start-ups really work? Is it possible to create a framework, a map of the undiscovered world of entrepreneurship? We’d like to help burgeoning entrepreneurs by providing them with Compass, a software that provides a feedback group around your decisions and measures progress. The Startup Genome Compass is also a great tool to get all your stakeholders on the same page.
You created and live in a sort of tech-geek-nirvana called the Glint, in San Francisco. Tell us about the general idea behind this living space and what the atmosphere is like there?
Just imagine a big family of entrepreneurs, with sixteen to eighteen people at all times. It’s an interesting mix with a culture defined by innovation. We’re constantly stimulated and cultivate an empowering ecosystem where everyone is working. (to see some pictures of the house, head over to our blog)
Who are some of your current residents?
We have a Greek philosopher working on an IP startup, we have a fashion technologist who teaches at Parsons, three of the Peter Thiel fellows…
Really? We featured five of the Thiel fellows (twenty brilliant individuals under twenty who were given $100,000 each to drop out of college and spend two years developing their entrepreneurial ventures) a few weeks back!
Yeah, Tom, Alex, and Jeff live with us. No doubt that they are going to be very successful.
[note: According to the Thiel website, 19 year-old Tom Currier is working on an "invention that enables low cost dual-axis photovoltaic module tracking," which basically means that he's working on making solar energy cheaper and more accessible]
I have to ask. As someone who interacts with brilliant young entrepreneurs on a daily basis, what do you think is the next big “thing” that will take over Silicon Valley?
I think there are two main areas of technology entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley today. The first one is internet entrepreneurship, which broke into the mainstream and will be a driving force for the next fifteen to twenty years. At that point, 50% of what today’s service industry is will be replaced by software. The second is a more transformative form of entrepreneurship, something very different, which is mostly driven by people here sitting in their garages and working on new technologies. This is what will be a driving force in the next twenty to thirty years. For example, Bio-tech currently in development here is the same as what happened with computers in the seventies: it will fundamentally change the way we live.
That sounds drastic. Do you think those advancements have the potential to solve some of the largest global issues humanity is/will be facing?
Oh, absolutely. I’m especially thinking about the distribution of food, energy, and water, as well as malnutrition. Those are solvable problems.
You talked about supply and demand in regards to education, and sharing information people want and need. This is a more philosophical question, but do people actually want to learn and improve?
Yes, there is a general desire of people to learn and to advance themselves. However, with this desire can arise factors that suppress it — factors that take away the ability and opportunity of people to educate themselves and grow as human beings.
I think I see where you’re going, but can you be more explicit?
Most of them are social conditions. An ecosystem that takes away a lot of your curiosity and satisfies it with something fake. If you take television away from children, they’d start playing or building things. They would advance as human beings instead of being passive and listening, not getting the life experience that those factors are inhibiting.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
I don’t like to talk about my own success, because everything I do is for a higher purpose or for others. What I’d like from BR!NK readers is to help continue the conversation about stirring progress and entrepreneurship. A lot of our improvements at Startup Genome have come from our community, about decisions ranging from how to predict valuations of startups using a binomial options pricing model to strategic decisions on which problems we should tackle with our research. If you want to help us improve in any way or form, you’re always welcome. At the end of the day, there are still a lot of challenges ahead of us and only together can we progress.