The telephone totally revolutionised the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on…What’s next? What’s just around the corner?
In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Xavier Parkhouse-Parker.
Xavier is COO of Cambridge Future Tech, a Deep Tech Venture Builder. Cambridge Future Tech is a Tech Venture Builder with a vision to help facilitate the next generation of Deep Tech innovation. We work to commercialise scientific discoveries, platform level innovations that fundamentally improve the way the world works.
Xavier Parkhouse-Parker is a serial entrepreneur and founder who started his first company at 15 and jumped full-time while pursuing an undergraduate degree. Xavier has led several startups with technologies such as AI, media, marketing and HR tech. Xavier holds a masters from the University of Cambridge. He has been featured in The Guardian, USA Today, Tech Nation and other publications and was one of CVC Capital Partners Young Innovators for 2017 and NACUE’s National Entrepreneur of the year for 2016.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have always been interested in starting companies. I got my first exposure at 15 through the Young Enterprise programme at school in the UK. I very soon afterwards began selling products online through e-commerce platforms like Amazon. Since then, I’ve always been engaged and interested in founding exciting businesses. When I was an undergraduate, I helped to launch a number of companies such as PLATO Intelligence, an AI for HR and recruitment.
When I was an undergraduate, I was also President of Southampton’s entrepreneurship society, Fish on Toast. I loved running this society, primarily because I had the opportunity to work with so many exciting founders and helping them to build fantastic startups. My love of tech startups and assisting incredible founders are why Cambridge Future Tech is such an exciting and interesting venture for me. At Cambridge Future Tech, we have the opportunity both to work with some of the most innovative nascent technology in the world, produced by inventors at the bleeding edge of their respective fields.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
It was probably one when I was most out of my depth from when I was just starting at around the age of 22. I was a panellist at a JP Morgan and University of Southampton leadership debate, alongside very senior banking executives and founders of highly successful businesses. In front of an audience of 300 people at a similar level to the panel, I was asked the opening question. I do not recall precisely what it was about; however, I had no idea about the topic and had not seen or read a single news story about the subject. I was left to bluster an answer which was mostly unrelated before I could pass the question to another panellist.
Thankfully all for all of the rest of the discussion, I was able to participate fully. This event made a lasting impression on me about how meaningful experiences are and how different my bubble is to other peoples.
Can you please give us your favourite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I have two!
‘Every Experience Is Of Value’ — Oscar Wilde. Apart from the previous story, the understanding that everything we do adds value to the mosaic picture of our lives is essential to grasp and understand. Every success, every failure and everything in between matters and this experience becomes a tool we can use. Learning, education and reading are important, yet when I look at my growth, it isn’t primarily from books but from the sum of experience.
‘Opportunities Multiply As They Are Siezed’ — an apocryphal quote attributed to Sun Tzu has been core to my believes and actions. Every time we ‘say yes’ to an opportunity, take an initiative or complete any activity, more opportunities spring up. This is great and pushes me to take as many opportunities as possible, casting a wide net to bring back new, better and exciting opportunities. This quote is also a warning since, very quickly, we can become overwhelmed.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are numerous, too many to speak about in this interview from mentors, to family, friends and co-founders. However, very early in my career, when I was still an undergraduate, the then director of enterprise for the business school, Paul, helped me develop considerably (mainly by throwing me into the deep end). Paul kept meeting me at various events around the ecosystem. He invited me into very high-level events, which significantly developed my network and challenged me right from the beginning of my career. I developed a fantastic platform and foundation to create new and exciting ventures from a broad and high-level network.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Right now I’m passionate about climate change innovation. I’m an advisor of a number of cleantech startups in stealth mode and am a founding member of the University of Cambridge’s ESG society. I am also a co-founder of the first ESG focused licencing agency, DoubleGood, as I believe that our global economy needs to keep ESG issues at the core of everything we do.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Cambridge Future Tech is a deeptech venture builder based in Cambridge, UK; we work with top innovators in several scientific fields. We both work ventures within our portfolio and innovators, still developing technology in the labs.
One of the trends we see at CFT is a significant number of telecommunication technology innovation coming from edge computing and the cloud. Over 20 billion IoT devices are currently connected to the internet, all collecting data from apple watches to automotive vehicles and almost every manufacturing process. A self-driving car, for example, would generate 40 terabytes of data for every eight hours of driving time. This data needs to be processed, and it’s too slow to send this data back to a cloud data centre to do the processing, and without processing, this data is just noise. This is an extreme example, but all of those 20 billion devices produce data, and this data needs processing.
Traditionally this would have been done in remote data centres, but increasingly we see that this data will be produced at the edge. This is the next big wave in communication since we will see device to device communication without ever coming to a ‘central unit’ and producing smart information. When combined with automatic processing, we will see more ‘computing’ undertaken at the ‘edge’ than at the ‘centre’. This seamless communication is already taking out the human element from communication.
This is primarily happening in a business to business (or within large government organisations), and decisions are frequently being taken without human intervention — Seemless communication without the possibility of human error.
How this trend jumps into the human world is unknown; however, imagine arranging plans with friends without having a conversation and everyone’s preferences taken into account, so an optimal restaurant choice is chosen (no more arguing about where to eat). Imagine brain sensors being able to predict how successful you will be at a test or exam and then automatically informing your teacher so you can improve in specific weak areas? Imagine technology telling a doctor that you’re beginning to get ill or getting stressed or struggling with mental health challenges without you having to articulate a single sentence.
All of this without human interaction, seamless, smart communication.
How do you think this might change the world?
One of the best things about a lot of innovation being currently developed and released is that it means we can spend more time doing what is uniquely human. Firstly this innovation will begin to save incredible amounts of our time, and this is happening now.
The future of edge computing technology is even more exciting as we begin to solve some of the most fundamental human challenges. Ever since Plato and Aristotle (and perhaps for all human pre-history), we have struggled to communicate accurately. As said by the Austrian-British philosopher Wittgenstien ‘The limits of my language mean the limits of my world’; however, the future of this world of technology will allow us to communicate beyond the limits of our language. Using sensors and biometric devices connected to our body and processing that data at the source, linking in to other people’s devices, means that certain things can be communicated like never before in human history. Particularly game-changing in medicine, but this innovation will fundamentally change and improve how we live our lives.
One area I’m particularly interested in is how the future of this technology will affect the climate. Currently, a lot of the way we use energy and resources is based on outdated technology, frequently not even digital but still analogue (although this is changing rapidly). Once new, edge computing-based IoT devices, we will be able to predictively manage energy usage and even production perfectly, increasing efficiency and reducing the negative impact significantly. As well as more accurate weather prediction which allows companies to manage their resources more effectively, reducing the effects of extreme conditions such as the recent crisis in Texas and other southern US states.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Cybersecurity. We hear about cybersecurity all the time, and we all know how important this aspect fo technology is becoming. However, with the rise of edge-enabled IoT devices, devices’ security will become exponentially more significant.
Imagine that a nefarious actor could manipulate a powerplant’s sensors remotely and made it so that the sensor’s algorithms were generating incorrect information. Imagine this was the case at every powerplant in a country, and then they were producing at 10% capacity — the country would grind to a halt. This is an extreme example but also a very realistic possibility. The challenge comes as we rely more and more on remote and edge sensors; the greater the damage can be done through interference. Organisations could impact a nation’s security or manipulate the global economy.
On a more micro and individual scale (closer to black mirror), all the data generated by a human could be used to manipulate human action, and perhaps the least damaging use would be for marketing. Look at how we are all influenced by social media, with the comparatively limited data they have for each of us. Imagine if Facebook were able to utilise our brainwaves, our heartbeat or the chemical balance of our body? Imagine a government had access to this data and could use it to control a society. It sounds like a science fiction dystopian nightmare, but it’s entirely possible.
The need for privacy will become more and more critical. We will greatly benefit from this technology; however, the ethical, security and privacy implications need to be considered and protected against.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
This technology trend is happening now; however, there are key challenges that need to be overcome before this is widespread.
One of the significant challenges is the bandwidth necessary to transport information from remote devices. This is currently being overcome with the spread of 5g, which exponentially improves the amount of data that can be transported.
When we are looking at remote devices or devices which are hard to access (such as within the body), there is always an issue of power. Batteries always have a limited life span, and even chargeable batteries become less able to maintain power over time (think how your often your phone needs recharging when it is only a year old). If a sensor is in your body, then we need it to last for a long time to minimise discomfort or replacement. There are incredible advances in technologies such as photovoltaics or technology using harvesting kinetic energy, which will begin to overcome the power challenge. However, longevity is still frequently a challenge which means prohibitive replacements restricting widespread adoption.
The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them, of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?
This technology will be extremely important as we move to remote working. One of the biggest challenges we’ve all experienced is communication. We are all spending our days on back to back zoom meetings. Conveying information that sometimes might require human to human interaction; however, a considerable amount is just processed data. Imagine the freedom from reduced meetings due to seamless non-human communication.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1 . Time. It always takes time and it’s easy to underestimate how much time things take. As a new venture, it’s a challenge to predict how long things take, sometimes things move faster than expected, but usually, things take longer. Even with this fact and lesson in mind, it is still easy to underestimate time considerations since a new venture has different levers around which the velocity is based and makes prediction a challenge.
There are, of course, rules of thumb to take when predicting time, such as doubling everything, yet these are equally inaccurate. The best way is to be comfortable in the uncertainty of time and not to tie the company’s success to arbitrary time-based targets but instead to milestones. This lesson is especially important when waiting for external parties, who are unpredictable and mostly uncontrollable.
2. Have the difficult conversation early. I’ve been involved in several startups, and when founding a company, there is always a difficult conversation about equity. This is one of the most critical conversation’s you’ll have as a team, which is necessarily awkward. At Cambridge Future Tech, we had this conversation almost on day one, we knew it would be awkward, but everyone felt better after; no one felt resentment, and we have been able to work effectively ever since.
I have been in startups where we did not have this discussion until 18 months after starting. Needless to say, this did not end well. Have the conversation as soon as possible, whether it’s about equity, who is CEO or anything else, do not let it linger.
3. Know what you do not know. In my first venture, we needed to build a complicated machine learning algorithm, and we hired a fantastic data scientist with glowing recommendations. However, after six months of work (and a lot of money), we had as much built as we did on day one. The person we hired had never led a project of this type and was out of their depth; as CEO, I was out of my depth and did not understand the problem. I should have asked advisors and mentors to help, to understand the project and to have done this from day one. Every experience is of value.
4. Pick-up the phone. Slack is great, Whatsapp is easy and email accessible, they take very little time, and you can easily share ideas and express your thoughts. However, it’s very challenging to convey tonality. How many arguments have been caused by the lack of contextual tonality? Probably millions. If ever you think there is going to be a misunderstanding or an argument, pick up the phone and call them. Better the extra time was taken for a phone call than to waste time arguing. Startups are intense and high pressure; it’s easy to accidentally seem angry or arrogant, or dismissive through text. Just pick up the phone.
5. Talk to customers on day one. Do not build something that nobody cares about. The first idea I ever worked on (before it was even a company) was an idea-sharing software. My co-founders and I spent six months (and a fair amount of cash) developing software that no-body cared about, nobody would ever buy it, and nobody would even use it for free. Why? We didn’t speak to any potential customer. I always advise founders to build relationships with customers as early as possible, both to gain necessary feedback but also to have customer sales meetings prepped and ready as soon as the product is prepared.
You are a person of significant influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
An insistence from everyone to only invest in impact and ESG. Environmental, social and governance are important to make the world a better place. The most significant change will happen once investment capital starts to insist on investing in to companies that are doing good, making the world a better places. Both an investment into clean and green technology, as well as companies, are enabling social mobility and the elimination of companies who are damaging the world and the environment. The time is now.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
The best way is via our website (www.CamFutureTech.com) or directly via LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/xavierparkhouseparker/) always happy to speak with founders, innovators and entrepreneurs.