Philip Greenwald: Q&A Session

Q&A Session: Philip Greenwald

Philip Greenwald Q&A Session is happening on July 27th, 2019 at 10:00 AM PST (1:00 PM EST)

Philip Greenwald is the associate director of technology at Harvard Innovation Labs. Before founding the Lab’s Technology Development department, he led technology programming and advised student and alumni entrepreneurs on software development and building new technologies. He is passionate about business empowerment and enabling people to bring an idea to reality without outsourcing every aspect of the development and details. While he still advises select students and alumni in tough technology and startup issues, his primary work at the Lab consists of building out technology infrastructure. He built and, for 2 years, managed the Innovation Lab’s Augmented & Virtual Reality Studio. He also oversaw the Maker Studio and developed its electronics teaching programs. His workshops on AI, web development and technology communications are amongst the highest rated at Harvard Innovation Labs.

In addition to teaching, Phil has worked with aspiring CEOs and young professionals from Boston to Korea to bring minimum viable products (MVPs) to realization, secure business funding, and get accepted into accelerators such as Y Combinator and MassChallenge. He has officially advised approximately 60 startups that have in aggregate raised over $100 Million. Prior to teaching, Phil was the chief software architect on several large-scale web and mobile applications and the Founder of the Code Undercover coding school. Phil continues to take on a small number of clients for whom he oversees large-scale and tough tech development tasks, primarily in the fields of AI, AR/VR, and mobile app development.

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Phil Greenwald  – Transcript

Q&A Session with Phil Greenwald @ Harvard Innovation Labs

June 27th, 2019

Augmented Reality -> I describe it to people as “the thing that will come after smartphones” – am I wrong?

Not wrong, but perhaps incomplete. Our smartphones have a lot of augmented reality tech in them already. A lot of people tend to think that new technology comes along and immediately but most of the time, there’s a lot of overlap. The car didn’t immediately replace the horse and buggy. For a long time, both shared the roads. Smartphones and AR will go hand in hand, and to a certain extend already do. Pokemon Go, the new harry potter game – all AR.

What’s the craziest way people have reached out to get your attention?

Haha, we’ve had random people mass email all i-lab staff. No one has done anything too outlandish, although people have often shown up at my office or the i-lab unannounced and expected meetings. Lot’s of people tell flat out lies IE I’m the new CEO of Microsoft.

Can extension school students apply to Hi Labs?

I am 99% positive yes. Full-time degree-seeking extension school students.

Is there ever something you passed on that you regret?

If you mean have I ever suspected that a startup would fail and they didn’t – kind of. Twitter for example blew my mind. It seemed like they said “Hey, let’s take a website like Facebook (remember its around 2005) and only offer their status functionality, and that’s a site — it shocked me that Twitter took off. I’m not an investor, so I don’t really “pass” on startups. I have never rejected a startup from the i-lab and later come to regret it. 99% of startups fail, so the stories we hear all about the time about how “I can’t believe I passed on this startup” are actually pretty rare compared to how often we hear about them.

How do you think AR will revolutionize the advertising and digital media industry?

This could absolutely be to the benefit of the user. Imagine if I say to my glasses “Find me a vegan place” and arrows appear in front of my eyes pointing to vegan places. Companies that pay might have their arrows show up first or be bolder. For example, on a trip to Salem, a witch (that’s not really there but is computer generated) could appear in your glasses and take you on a tour. What’s amazing is that people will just STUMBLE INTO EXPERIENCES LIKE THIS — they won’t need to plan them. They’ll just be chilling and find it.

What other use cases do you see for VR other than entertainment and gaming? Any tips for selling/advertising VR to businesses.

Education! VR will primarily be entertainment and education. People have been trying it in real estate for a while, and for some reason, it’s not really taking off. I think this has to do with a startup 101 concept which I’ll mention again and again in this AMA which is that “startups and products have to solve real problems.” When buying a house, which is for most people a gigantic purpose, no amount of realism in the current level of technology will be a replacement for seeing an actual house.

Where do you see AI/ML having real traction?

Absolutely everywhere, I think voice recognition (disclaimer: I’m working on a voice recognition startup) will be the highest growth area of the next 5 years. Face recognition will be far more commonplace, but those are technologies, not applications. As far as what applications we’ll see, I suppose I’d say wearable computer vision and voice recognition. The most significant things stopping AR from gaining traction are the heavy hardware you have to wear (hololens is insanely uncomfortable and magic leap is only marginally better), the expensive cost of AR hardware, and the increase in good computer vision we’d need.

With new technology, it’s insanely easy to overstate problems in order to find a use for the tech. How do solve serious problems with new tech without feeling like every solution looks like a nail when all you have is a hammer?

Yes – almost all startups drastically overstate the problem they’re solving. You can’t just make a startup to help people walk their dogs. Instead, you have to “dramatically change and disrupt the way people and their dogs interact and maintain their lifelong relationships.” You should start with a problem you want to solve. Once you understand the problem, you come up with a solution. Then you realize you were slightly wrong with the problem statement, and so you adjust it. Then you adjust your solution accordingly. Then maybe your solution changes and then changes again, and then all of a sudden it doesn’t solve your problem at all but solves a completely different problem! So you change your problem statement… This whole process is called being an entrepreneur. The best rule of thumb I can give you is to give the problem FAR MORE weight and time than the solution.

What are some of the most known startups to come out of the invention labs?

Handy, LovePop, ArtLifting, Six Foods, Chirp Chips, Hourly Nerd, Catalant — 2 of those were invested by Mark Cuban, 1 by Mr. Wonderful. For whatever reason, Shark Tank seems to love i-lab.

In your opinion what’s the future of education? And more precisely universities, especially in the USA where people have crazy fees and debts and where new models thanks to startups such as lambda school are starting to emerge more and more (sorry if there are some mistakes, not a native English speaker).

Universities have insane value! But… all learning experiences also have insane value. I think the learning that happens at universities is second to none IF you learn best with a teacher. I don’t learn best with a teacher (although ironically I am a teacher) so I learned FAR MORE of what I know outside of the university. I’d actually argue that the university failed me. But the university is still the best means of communicating legitimacy. Coding bootcamps that offer you jobs after graduating are for the most part a joke and don’t work. I do think as we figure out how to make online learning communicate legitimacy like universities do, > 75% of universities will basically fail overnight or completely transition their methodologies. Brand name universities will always have a place, but they’ll also have to be far more intentional.

Does your team make use of online consumer surveys? Are you familiar with innovation happening in this space?

That’s fine. My team at Harvard did it once or twice. The thing is don’t do a survey for the sake of a survey. make sure you actually will utilize the results. Most surveys are answered and then discarded without use.

From your experience with funding ventures, what are some common traits you see early on the ones that make a huge success in the future? Any signs or red flags on some that don’t succeed? Does that go through a process?

Nobody knows why anyone gets investment money and if they claim to know they’re lying. More important than anything is your speaking ability and that you can clearly communicate the problem you’re trying to solve. EMOTIONS MATTER MORE THAN NUMBERS!

What are some sure giveaways that a startup in your opinion is going to go places?

How captivating the founder is, that they’re solving a compelling problem, solutions don’t matter, if they can tell me why something sucks about the world and I believe them, they’ll probably make money, but most startups don’t go any places.

Do you think there’s too much type with VR? I have yet to see a functional use-case.

Absolutely. Entertainment and education. We’re already doing amazing things with education, such as the ability to explore Mount Everest, get up-close looks at molecules, etc… The price needs to go down though for this to be mainstream. AR though is underhyped, AR will be the operating system of the world around us.

Since we’re on the topic of startups when you sit down and look at a pure numbers game. How many of them actually get out of the gate and have a future. Would you say it’s more than 10%?

Not even close to 10%, maybe 2%, and that’s assuming that the ones who claim to get acquired actually had a meaningful exit and didn’t just make a deal with another startup for marketing purposes.

Do you think adults will pave the way for AR/VR?

VR, and it already is. I can’t remember the name of the company though. I saw this guy speak at the nanoworld fair in Brooklyn a year or two ago.

What is the best use of crowdsourcing you’ve seen in a startup? 

I think 99designs is a great tool, I don’t have any personal stories, but captchas are an ingenious way of crowdsourcing. So when an effort was being made to digitize a bunch of books, they would scan book pages and divide them into words that would be a part of captcha for web pages.

How much AI (if any) does your company implement when coming up with a specific curriculum for a client’s potential product?

I’m not sure I understand the question, but in general when a client asks for something we design it conceptually and completely build it if a solution does not exist.

Focusing on the broader concept of artificial intelligence: Once the point of “singularity” is reached for AGI, many are wondering how the world as we know it will change. Some believe we will join the AI in a type of machine-human symbiosis. It has been stated that we are already technically at this point, through our very personal interactions with machines today. Do you believe that this may be a likely course of things? Do you subscribe more to the fatalistic side of the conversation, where “the AI” will consider humans “subpar” (much how humans look towards animals today)?

We are not even close to the point yet of the symbiosis that humans will have with machines. I absolutely believe that AI will over time become less important than the enhancements we will do to our own brains and the intellectual and mental capacity we will add to ourselves. I absolutely believe that AI will over time become less important than the enhancements we will do to our own brains and the intellectual and mental capacity we will add to ourselves.

Have you seen any innovative startups working in the space of architecture and VR?

Several, in fact, I worked with 1 or 2. Unfortunately, I can’t remember their names. This is an asshole thing to say, but I’ve worked with WAY too many startups to remember them all.

I currently live in the Indianapolis area and have a marketing background. The tech industry is blowing up in Indy right now. I’ve heard people call Indy the Silicon Valley of the midwest. I have no experience working in tech. It’s mostly been non-profits, retail, and the medial industry for me. Do you have any advice on how to break into a new industry like tech? I already go to networking events to meet people and try and get my foot in the door but I was wondering if there’s anything else I can be doing that I’m not thinking of that could help.

Honestly, in Indianapolis, I have no idea. I think it requires a lot of real-world networking and it’s not easy to do it only online. Do you have any technical background?

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