Fourth Industrial Revolution

We spoke to 12 small business leaders about the keys to their success – this is what they told us

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What is the key to success?

The journey of an entrepreneur is a continuum of challenges, opportunities, successes, and turning points, which often provide new perspectives and lessons along the way. Image: Kobu Agency/Unsplash

Saemoon Yoon
Lead, Innovator Communities, World Economic Forum Geneva
Michelle Mormont
Lead, Innovator Communities, World Economic Forum
This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

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  • Entrepreneurs building a business always need to face up to challenges and opportunities along the way.
  • The World Economic Forum's Global Innovators and Technology Pioneers are communities of innovative start-ups.
  • Twelve small business leaders tell of key turning points in their careers that got them where they are today.

The journey of an entrepreneur is a continuum of challenges, opportunities and turning points, which often provide new perspectives and lessons along the way.

We asked small business leaders within our Global Innovators and Technology Pioneers communities about the factors that have contributed to their success. They shared some of the important points in their professional careers that have gotten them to where they are today.

From knowing when to take a break, to ‘quick and dirty’ learning on the job and wanting to make a difference, here’s what they had to say about what inspired them along the way.

'Our AI identified a drug that could be repurposed for treating COVID-19'

Joanna Shields, Chief Executive Officer, BenevolentAI

One of the key turning points for us at BenevolentAI was when we deployed our artificial intelligence (AI) drug discovery platform to identify existing drugs that might be repurposed for treating COVID-19.

In January 2020, we identified a drug, baricitinib, owned by Eli Lilly, using our AI workflows that ultimately received FDA approval for treating hospitalized patients and was proven in clinical trials to reduce mortality by 38%.

Our AI models identified an unknown, off-target antiviral effect of the drug that made this known anti-inflammatory drug marketed for rheumatoid arthritis a life-saving treatment for hospitalized COVID patients.

'Cracks in the day-to-day taught me more about life than many other things'

Ariel Katz, Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder, H1

I took a break. Between selling my first company and starting H1, I took six months off. That pause in life and those cracks in the day-to-day taught me more about life than many other times in my life.

Those pauses cause you to ask the bigger questions in life than deal with the race that life becomes over time.

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'I realised you don't have to be an expert in something to make a difference'

Aba Schubert, Chief Executive Officer, Dorae

One of my biggest professional turning points was when I realised that you don't need to be an expert in something to make a difference.

In my first start-up role, our small but rapidly growing team had to tackle new issues every day. Many of them where things we had never done and did not know how to do. There was no long-standing process or institutional knowledge to draw upon, but things still had to get done – urgently!

My careful professional habits of watching and listening until I had mastered a topic or skill were not enough here. Sometimes we had to jump and figure out the landing mid-air.

For a time, I started each day in a state of fear mixed with exhilaration. I learned more rapidly about more things than I thought possible. Amongst this new jumble of quick and dirty learning, I began to see patterns and connections that had previously been invisible to me. I found new ways to be effective by countering knowledge gaps with skill and determination. I got my sea legs. Then I never looked back.

'Anything worth doing takes three years and having real impact takes 10'

Thomas Leurent, Chief Executive Officer, Akselos

Starting a deep tech company geared towards the energy industry entails long timeframe, both on the company and the market side.

It was useful to remember that "anything worth doing takes three years, and having real impact takes 10 years". There we are. And we are very energized, every day, by what better engineering tools can do to accelerate the energy transition.


Who are the World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneers?

'It's okay to not stick with your original plan as long as you are growing'

Chrissa McFarlane, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Patientory

Definitely, turning points are big and little moments of clarity that provide us with new perspectives and opportunities to change our lives.

I've been in the healthcare industry since starting out doing microbiology research in high school. Eventually, this led to me pursuing a pre-medical degree.

However, I decided to explore business applications in healthcare. I made a decision to go from clinical / research into healthcare administration and consulting, which led me to digital healthcare start-ups where I created and built product solutions for the industry.

I would say it's okay to not stick with your original plan as long as you are growing and learning in the career field of choice. Everything will fall into place.


'The imperative to bring a new approach to nuclear energy was always there'

Stefano Buono, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, newcleo

When I worked at CERN in the early 90s, with Nobel Laureate Carlo Rubbia, it became clear to me that his vision for safe, clean and sustainable nuclear energy generation was absolutely possible.

The difficulty of realizing this innovation at that time – with low oil prices and no concern for decarbonization in the energy sector – made me take a side step into nuclear medicine. I established my previous company Advance Accelerators Applications (AAA), which rapidly became a successful business, whilst improving the health outcomes of cancer patients with our theragnostic products.

But in my mind, the main application of the nuclear technology I strongly believed in was always going to be energy. The entrepreneurial experience, financial success and international credibility I gained with AAA enabled me to create newcleo, incorporate it with excellent initial funding and launch the project that I was dreaming of 30 years ago.

Despite big or small turns in my personal road, the moral and scientific imperative to bring a new approach to nuclear energy was always there. I am delighted that today it is rapidly becoming a reality.

'I saw what it means when medical aid does not reach where it is needed'

Tom Plümmer, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Wingcopter

I lived in West Africa for two years when I was 20 years old and experienced a lot of good things in my work with young people at an NGO. However, I also saw what it means when medical aid does not reach where it is needed most urgently.

Back in Germany, I wanted to make a difference and, together with two engineers we founded a technology company called Wingcopter that develops delivery drones. Today we save lives every day, for example, in cooperation with UNICEF by delivering vaccines, medicines, blood and laboratory samples faster to remote regions and thus giving millions of people access to medical aid.

My wish has become reality and I am grateful to the World Economic Forum for recognizing us as a Technology Pioneer. I am so pleased to build drone-based delivery networks around the world with the right partners to provide access to urgently needed supplies.

'A turning point for me was being brave enough to start asking, 'Why'?'

Sean Hinton, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, SkyHive

A turning point I've taken professionally that got me to where I am today is being brave enough to start asking, 'Why?' Especially amidst people who may be more comfortable assuming that the current way of addressing problems is the best way.

I've leaned into the fact that ignoring re-occurring questions or challenges in my industry and company did not negate them, only increased their significance, and delayed their resolution.

Consequently, I was led directly to those who were also looking to drive change and find better answers, many of whom I still work with today.


'I realized the potential companies have to make a positive and lasting impact'

Julie Gerdeman, Chief Executive Officer, Everstream

I didn't start out with a plan to work in technology. I aspired to be a professor. I was an English Lit major who enjoyed reading and discussing world issues with my peers.

My professional turning point was my first internship in a corporate setting. I quickly realized how much I loved the pace, collaboration, and, most importantly, the potential that companies have to make a positive and lasting impact on society. It took me in a direction I hadn't imagined, but I am glad I followed.

It was in fintech that I experienced another turning point in my career. I had an 'aha moment’ when I realized that the value of any transaction lies within the data. I'm obsessed with using data to address immediate issues and enrich B2B commerce and help solve some of the most significant challenges we face as a society, such as emissions, heat stress, and water risk.

'I realized there was an opportunity to transform technology sharing'

Kasim Alfalahi, Chief Executive Officer, Avanci

There have been several turning points for me. From realizing the value of listening to all stakeholders in our family furniture business, whilst growing up and choosing to study engineering and business in Sweden.

But two of the most significant moments were when I chose to join Ericsson, and then later when I left to establish Avanci.

Joining Ericsson, I had a choice of a traditional sales or engineering role, or a more niche role in the business management of intellectual property (IP). I chose the latter, believing there was significant opportunity for the company in managing and delivering value from its extraordinary assets, developed from years of R&D investment.

After 20+ years and now leading Ericsson's IP business, another turning point was realizing, based on experiences and conversations with others in the industry, that there was an opportunity to transform how technology sharing is done, in a more independent and efficient way, delivering value for all parties involved. That led to my decision to leave Ericsson and start Avanci.

'We want to move people from 'test ready' to 'job ready'

Bhakti Vithalani, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, BigSpring

During my time at McKinsey, I worked on research that determined only 20% of software engineers graduating in India were actually employable. That was a turning point for me and the genesis of our approach at BigSpring.

Education needs to move people from ‘did they pass the test?’ to ‘can they actually do the job?’. The example of Indian engineers is a microcosm of a much larger global problem. Billions of workers risk being unemployable because their skills are out of sync with market needs.

In an increasingly accelerating world, the skills gap is becoming a skills crisis. Moving people from ‘test ready’ to ‘job ready’ is what drives us at BigSpring.

'I saw the significant threat cyber attacks pose to infrastructure'

Robert M Lee, Chief Executive Officer and Founder, Dragos

An early turning point was 2015, when I was leading the response effort to the cyber attack in Ukraine, which was the first cyber attack to disrupt electric power. This showed me the significant threat cyber attacks posed to infrastructure that enables our basic needs as humans and led me to co-found Dragos to help industrial organizations protect against cyber threats.

By 2018, it was evident we needed an additional way to solve a long-standing national security problem—the lack of visibility into threats among critical infrastructure operators due to barriers around information sharing. Dragos launched Neighborhood Keeper to allow sharing without revealing sensitive data and with full anonymity.

Funding Dragos was another turning point. Early on, the venture community, with their focus on hot trends and low-cost/high-return models, was not interested in Dragos. Instead, our industrial customers and partners recognized the need and opportunity for operational technology cybersecurity and in 2020 coalesced to raise a record $100 million series C round for Dragos.

These investors include National Grid Partners, Saudi Aramco Energy Investors, Koch Industries, and Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, and sharpened our industrial focus to better meet sector-specific needs. In 2021, the larger investment community took notice, with Blackrock and Koch Industries leading a series D round of $200 million, bringing the valuation to $1.7 billion.

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