Episode #7 – Paolo Bouquet from Okkam
Paolo Bouquet, Okkam
In this seventh episode of the InnovaBuzz podcast, Paolo Bouquet of Okkam talks about the semantic web, taking an idea from academia into the commercial world and Okkam’s product and system for linking web resources to things of the real world and make them available through any device. Listen to the interview to learn what Paolo shared with us on the podcast.
Listen to the Podcast
Watch the Video
I’m giving away a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen – a book that the author says will change the way that you do business. It’s a fascinating read. Leave a comment under the video and tell us what is the most innovative way that you’ve seen, dynamic data being presented (e.g. QR codes, Bluetooth, NFC), that you found and tell us how either you’re using the tool or how somebody else is using the tool in the public domain and what benefit that is bringing to the particular application. I’ll ask Paolo to come by in a couple of weeks and award the prize.
Some of the highlights of this episode include:
- Okkam organise big data around real “entities”. About attaching data to a name – a person, a location, a business, an event or even a process.
- Okkam have developed an open source Entity Naming System, that is available to developers.
- One of the most important mindsets for innovators is to focus on identifying REAL problems or needs and matching ideas to solve those problems or serve the needs.
- Communication and education of your customers is critical to the commercial success of any innovative product.
- Innovation is a social process – you need to share with people, compare, get feedback and learn from other people.
The Buzz – Our Innovation Round
Here are Paolo’s answers to the questions of our Innovation round. Watch the interview to get the full scoop.
- #1 thing to be innovative – Find your own way – don’t follow recipes that work for someone else (learn but then be yourself).
- Best thing for new ideas – Find REAL problems and REAL people and solve these problems in a new way.
- Favourite tool for innovation – Innovation is a social process – brainstorming with intelligent people and write down the ideas.
- Keep project / client on track – Put yourself in your customers shoes and then do a little bit more than the customer expects – keep building the relationship and partnership.
- Differentiate – Be yourself! Be genuine.
Paolo nominated Giovanni Tummarello, of the Digital Enterprise Research Institute in Galway, Ireland, to be on a future podcast. So, Giovanni, keep an eye on your Inbox for an invitation from me, for the Innovabuzz Podcast!
Hint: to enter the competition, leave a comment under this video and tell us what is the most innovative way that you’ve seen, dynamic data being presented (e.g. QR codes, Bluetooth, NFC), tell us how either you’re using the tool or how somebody else is using the tool in the public domain and what benefit that is bringing to the particular application.
- Entity Name System (Open Source)
- 13th International Semantic Web Conference
- Book: Jeff Hawkins: “On Intelligence”
Click to Read…
Hi, I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz. Welcome to Episode No 7 of the InnovaBuzz Podcast – designed to help smart businesses with an interest in innovation and the Internet of Things become even more innovative.
In this episode, our guest is Paolo Bouquet from Okkam, who are an Italian based company who have developed systems to link web resources to things of the real world and make them available through any device. We are going to learn how Paolo is driving the transition from an academic development to an entrepreneurial business which delivers real value to real people in a way that is profitable.
There are some fantastic lessons to be learnt from Paolo in today’s podcast. For example, innovation is a social process, so ideas need to be shared with others, it’s important to get feedback and then learn from other people. Another gem from today’s interview is the point that an innovator’s mindset should be focused on real problems or needs and real people – serving real people, rather than innovating for the sake of innovation or one’s own academic interests.
This week’s innovation tip following on from the idea of innovation as a social process, is: Share Your Ideas. Use the social media, speak to people in your networks, get their feedback and ask for their ideas. As Paulo points out in the interview, no single person can have all the good ideas for something new. By sharing with others, listening to their feedback and their ideas, brainstorming solutions to real problems, you will have a fantastic process for innovation.
Before we meet Paolo, a quick competition announcement – this week’s competition prize is sponsored by Innovabiz – where we help smart, innovative business owners who need REAL, tangible results from the internet, transform their online presence into a business generation machine, that works EVEN when they are not working. The prize is a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen which is a book that the author says will change the way that you do business. It’s a fascinating read. Stick around for details on how you can enter the draw to win that competition prize later on in the interview.
So stay with us, let’s get into the Innovation Hive and get the Buzz from Paolo Bouquet.
Jürgen: Hi. I’m Jürgen Strauss from Innovabiz, and I’m very pleased to have with me today all the way from Trento in Italy, Paolo Bouquet, who is the Cofounder and President of OKKAM. Welcome, Paolo. It’s a privilege to have you on the InnovaBuzz podcast.
Paolo: Hi, Jürgen. It’s very good to talk to you. I’m very pleased and very happy to share my experience with you.
Jürgen: Now Paolo is also the Associate Professor of Computer Science at the University of Trento, and his interest is developing semantic technologies for driving innovative business solutions. Is that right?
Paolo: It’s right. That’s my background. I, of course, come from academia. Knowledge representation and semantic technologies, indeed, are part of my academic DNA. Now we are trying create value from this technology, not just papers.
Jürgen: That’s great. Before we learn more about Paolo and about OKKAM, a quick competition announcement. Today, I’m going to give away a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen, which is a book that the author says will change the way that you do business. In the book, he talks about the risk of innovation, how to minimize the risk, and how to recognize opportunities that are worth pursuing. It’s a fascinating read. Stick around for details on how you can enter the draw to win that competition prize later on in the interview.
Paolo, before we learn about some of the innovative things you’ve been doing with OKKAM and some of your research, tell us a little about you as a person. When you were a young child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Paolo: Well, I’m not really sure I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do when I was a child. What I can tell you is that for sure, I was not expecting to become an entrepreneur at some point. Actually, my life was more or less created around the idea of becoming a researcher. I always liked to study. I really enjoy the academic world. That’s what I thought, becoming a teacher, researcher, running some projects. I was not expecting to become an entrepreneur. There was a kind of surprise that happened very late in my life, which is maybe not very standard as it … maybe also because part of family. Nobody was an entrepreneur in my family. My father was a doctor in a hospital. My mother was a school teacher. It’s been a big change, but it’s very exciting.
Jürgen: Okay. You decided that computer science was the area that you’re going to pursue that dream of research and teaching?
Paolo: Well, that’s another part of the story. I started from classical studies in the high school, and then I gained a master degree in philosophy, actually, not a very technical area. It’s true that from the beginning when I started my course in philosophy, I was attracted by areas like logics, knowledge representation, artificial intelligence, but there was a slow change from humanities, from philosophy, from Hegel, Plato, Aristotle to the big computer scientist. Then I realized that somehow, computer science is applied philosophy in a sense. That’s what I love about it. I’ve always seen computer science as a way to study representation and reasoning and intelligence. I love it.
Jürgen: Yeah. That’s great. I guess Plato, Socrates and so on are all about intelligence and thought and applied intelligence, right?
Paolo: Well, yeah, I never thought my background in philosophy was a prognostic or something. I think it’s so many great ideas there that can be reused. Even the name of the company, OKKAM, I will tell you later, is, of course, the result of my philosophical studies. On the other hand, I was very lucky because I had the chance to meet some of the great computer scientists of our era. For example, I spent 4 months at Stanford University in the ’90s, where I met John McCarthy, one of the inventors of artificial intelligence. That’s really changed my life. I think that the great computer scientists, in depth, are, in a sense, great philosophers as well.
Jürgen: I wondered about OKKAM, how that came about because I noticed on your website that a lot of the other products and projects that you talk about are acronyms for something and I couldn’t work out what OKKAM would be an acronym for. We look forward to learning about that one. Yeah, what’s the main goal behind OKKAM? Tell us how that came about.
Paolo: Well, the main goal, I can describe it at 2 levels. One is it’s kind of vision, and the other is the business level.
The vision is somehow that we should try to organize our information, our services, what we deliver on the web, on the internet more around the simple concept of entity rather than around machines, internet locations, servers, portals. This is all fine, but the easiest way for people to think about what they know is, “Well, I know something about people, about products, about location, about whatever, events and organizing stuff around the simple entities.” It’s much easier than thinking about schemas, tables or xml data or whatever.
That’s our vision. We do it in 2 directions. This is more now moving to business. One is we really work very hard with big data and we try to reorganize this big data around entities, as I said, using semantic technologies but using the concept of entity as a key. In this area, our main tool is what we call the Entity Name System, which is the … Of course, this is the dream. We should be a kind of phonebook directory of things which are named on the web, assigning them a unique identifier which people can use in their data and use these identifiers as glue for data coming from different sources. This is one direction.
The other obvious way of thinking about entities is that, of course, entities are … Most of them are in the physical world. Being able to link digital content to things, objects out there is the second part of our dream. This is what we call ObjectLinks, which is another platform we have, which uses proximity tags, like QR codes you see one here, but also Bluetooth, NFC, RFID … It doesn’t matter, proximity tags to basically allow people to link stuff directly to an object and use them, access them through mobile phones or tablets.
That’s the second part of the business. The vision is the same. It’s entities in the middle and then organizing things around them and not around abstract things, like data structures or internet locations.
Jürgen: Yeah, yeah. By entities, you mean physical objects or people or machines that do something, right?
Paolo: It’s any individual objects. It could be a person, for sure. It could be a company. It could be a specific location. It could be a product, can be an event like a big party … I don’t know, or a concert, even can be a process, can be a machine, for sure. Whatever basically has a name in natural language, okay. Of course, we are entities, but also, this tool is an entity and Australia is an abstract entity, if you want. It’s a country. Also, the … I don’t know. The elections of the American president is an entity. This is what we use to glue stuff around them and make them available for applications for customers.
Just to be more concrete, one big application we have at the moment has to do with … We work with tax authorities in Italy. The main problem with tax authorities is organize things around taxpayers to have a clearer picture of what they have and what they do and, in case, ask them why they are not paying what they should pay, okay. This is an example, which is not making us very popular, but from the technical point of view, it’s a fantastic example of organizing information around entities.
Jürgen: Okay, all right. Well, tell us what OKKAM … how the name came about then?
Paolo: Okay. This is an interesting story because OKKAM was a philosopher from the 14th century, 13th, 14th century, and-
Jürgen: Okkam ‘s razor, right?
Paolo: He is famous for a principle called the Okkam’s razor. Some people who study philosophy maybe remember about this Okkam razor. The idea of the Okkam razor is that entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity. That’s one popular way of explaining the Okkam’s razor.
When we started working in the area of the web, the semantic web in particular, what we noticed is that one of the main reasons why the semantic web … the data on the semantic web were not coming together very quickly, very effectively, is that people basically make new names for entities every time they publish data on the web, okay. This is very typical. If you look at the semantic web, you look for information about … I don’t know, Jürgen, you will find, I don’t know, hundreds of different URIs named Jürgen in a different way. There is a huge problem of connecting this information into single, global virtual graph as Tim Berners-Lee will put it.
We decided to apply another Okkam’s razor, which is not on the number of entities, but on the names of entities. Why don’t we try to agree on a service which can just maintain a single name for an entity that everybody can access and use and then everybody can attach their own data in their own internet location but about the same thing, which is you as a person, Australia as a country, OKKAM as a company, whatever it is. The deal was cut entity names on the semantic web to make integration easier.
That’s the story of the name, and we are still working in it to work this objective, which is very ambitious, very difficult because many people want to provide names for things, but I think we still have, with the Entity Name System, an idea which is very general, like the DNS on the web. The Entity Name System is called ENS precisely to recall this idea of the DNS because these are very low-level service. It’s paid. It’s a name. Use it as you like in your location with your data, but use this string as a name because that will help people to gather information around.
Jürgen: Okay, yeah. That makes sense, and I like the analogy to Okkam’s razor. The simplest solution is always the best, right? That’s basically –
Paolo: Exactly. That’s another way to express to the Okkam’s razor. Well, actually, they are connected because the single solution is a solution that assumes less … a smaller number of entities, okay. That was the connection between the entities and the single solution. I think it’s a very good principle, actually, in life in general, not only in business.
Jürgen: Yeah, yeah. One of the areas that you mentioned in your research synopsis and on your own web page, you talk about linking the web resources to things of the real world. This is really consistent with that, isn’t it? It sounds like it’s an idea borne out of your own research interests.
Paolo: Well, yeah, I think it’s an idea that, at the same time, is extremely simple but on the other hand, it’s not natural for lots of people. It takes a little bit and we are struggling a little bit to make people understand the idea because the need, I think, is there. It’s very simple. People have developed a lot of web resources, videos, pictures, web pages, documents, services which are somehow connected to objects.
Let me give you a very simple example where we are really working every day. The example is public transportation companies, okay. Take a single bus stop, okay, in the middle of nowhere, meaning not in the center of the city, in the middle of nowhere. There’s plenty of information which is connected to this physical object, okay. Of course, it’s the bus schedule. It’s the geographical information, where you are. It’s interesting things that are around the bus stop. It’s also public information about where you can find the supermarket or a drug store or a hotel, a restaurant, whatever. It’s the physical position of the bus you’re waiting in that moment. Maybe it’s, I don’t know, 500 meters from where you are. Maybe it’s 500 kilometers because it’s late for some reason. Then there are special offers. There are fares. There are payment to services.
All of this already developed, and it would be very nice to have a very simple way to connect all of these things without creating, every time, a new, specific application, okay, to the object through a simple web address. You say, okay, this is the web address of the bus stop. You can simply link stuff to this web address and then make it available through, for example, a QR code.
The idea is very simple, but it can be applied in any domain because with my example, it can be used for a bottle of wine, for a package of Italian pasta, for a book about computer science or you want to link many things to the book, to a tourist booklet, to its offer from any tourist board, can be … Just imagine in the pharma industry, where they spend a lot of time creating leaflets they put in the package of a drug to explain things that are not up-to-date after a few months. You might want to link.
All of these scenarios just require a simple infrastructure, a way to assign a web address, which we call an ObjectLink, to the object and then linking through some easy content management system, very simple, any interesting resource, interesting in a contextual way resource to the entity.
This is what we are trying to do. It’s very simple and so far, I think we have the only platform of this kind with all the general services. The idea, for some reason … This is a good question for us, isn’t it? Entrepreneurs take it more time than we expected to be understood. We’ll see.
Jürgen: Yeah, that’s fascinating stuff and particularly the examples you gave about documents that are out-of-date fairly quickly or live data which may be the bus, where is the location or how far away is the next bus for the bus stop. That’s where it becomes really powerful because of live data that can be changed or updated dynamically, right?
Paolo: Right. The key is exactly the … or dynamically that you mentioned because, of course, it’s very natural and normal today to find, for example, QR codes out there with a link to some website or to some advertisement about something. Using the QR code or another proximity tag as a dynamic channel that you can program from your office where you can change the resources you show, the services you publish or the documents that you attach to the object, that’s a different idea.
It’s really … It’s like having some monitors, displays in the environment, but the display is not there. It’s in your telephone. You’re using exactly the same idea of a display, but this time, the display is in the user’s pocket and you have something very cheap. Put a QR code or an NFC tag or a Bluetooth tag, and people can use their telephone as a display that you can program from home.
I think this is very general, very powerful and has a big potential because where is the business idea here? The business idea is that when you have these dynamic displays out there in the world, where people publish useful services so people scan the code for the service, you can add advertisement there, third parties’ communication. That, I think, is a completely new area, which is, so far, invisible to the big advertising companies, which we are trying to create. It’s a new space, the space of ObjectLinks, where we hope we’d be able to collect interest and then, of course, commercial advertisement.
Jürgen: Yeah, commercial application. Certainly, in the area of advertising, I’d see there’s huge potential there for that because like you say, if there’s a printed brochure that’s out-of-date in 3 months or so and there’s a huge cost to reprint those … It might just be a simple change or an update, it’s special, or change in pricing or something, but yeah, cost of reprinting is –
Paolo: That’s exactly the idea, and I’m glad that you are expressing the idea better than I can do, the value that means to … we can hire you to sell the idea to people! No, but the point is exactly what you said. In the future, the dream could be that instead of printing a brochure, you print a small business card and say, “Hey, this is our up-to-date brochure. Scan it,” and that’s it. You always have it up-to-date.
Actually, some people are already doing that. Another way of expressing the same idea because one objection is people say, “Why don’t you develop an application for doing this,” the typical mobile phone app. The idea is, well, we are doing that, but instead of developing the application ad hoc every time, we say, “Okay, this is a general platform where you can link contents as if you had an application,” but you don’t because this is on the web but it looks like it is. The costs are reduced, and it’s extremely more cost effective. You have people who are not programmers who can change the links, add information, remove information, add services with a few clicks on a general-purpose platform. I think that’s the idea.
Jürgen: That’s great. Looking at the 2 approaches you have with the Entity Name System as once, you talked about … in some of the publications, you talked about making that freely available. Are you thinking of developing a standard there that would be universally applied then at some point in the future?
Paolo: Well, the idea of the Entity Name System comes from a European project called OKKAM, not a big, which is in fact the father or the mother of this company. As part of the legacy of the project, there is a public Entity Name System which people can use on the web at http://api.okkam.org. Unfortunately, documentation is not very good, and this is typical in publicly funded projects that when the project is over, people don’t spend time to write documentation of the thing. The system is available, and we still have several thousands of requests every day. Some people are using the catalog for names.
What we are trying to do as a company … This is our commitment with the former partners of the project, is to maintain this platform public, open, free and everybody can register in the platform and add new entities, create new identifiers for their own objects. It’s open. Then we stay like that, open and free and accessible to people.
The challenge for the company is to take the same idea and take it into enterprise applications, where you don’t want to have enterprise information to be published, not even the entities, the list of entities published on the web for your competitor. What we are doing as a company is take this idea, put it in big enterprise solutions and use it to make sure that the systems can talk to each other in a very effective way.
The public ENS is there, http://api.okkam.org, and people can play with it whenever they want. We are still developing it.
Jürgen: Okay. That’s great. For all the developers out there, we’ll have a link underneath the video transcript for you to take a look at, and it might be people can actually contribute to the documentation and upgrading it.
Paolo: That’s great. It’s open source. People can even configure with code if they want.
Jürgen: All right, well, that’s fantastic. In terms of what you do, Paolo, when you meet somebody for the first time and somebody says to you, “What do you actually do,” how do you describe what you do in one sentence?
Paolo: That’s interesting because we are working on identity in OKKAM, identity and identifiers, but I have an identity crisis. Yes, there is because, as I said, for more than 20 years, I thought about myself as a university professor. That was easy. “What do you do?” “I teach at the university,” good. Then this OKKAM thing has become bigger and bigger in the last 4 years.
Now very often, I find myself introducing myself as, “Well, I’m the founder of OKKAM, and by the way, I teach at the university,” which is not a fair description because university is still paying my salary. That’s one of the issues here.
I have a second identity because what I do, as part of my university work, in the last 10 years, I’ve been proactive for sport development in my university, which is another thing. We started very small, very small, and others become huge. Just to give you an idea, at the end of 2013, we organized the winter Olympic games of universities here in Trentino, and I was the vice president of the organizing committee, a huge work. Now I’m part of the European expert group on the economic dimension of sport.
I really don’t know. I’m a guy with many interests, hopefully not too many. The only common thing is I really try to do my best in whatever I do. If I start to do something, I’m really trying to grow this something to something excellent, something big, something good. I try. I don’t always succeed, I must say. For one thing, my life is not boring, for sure.
Jürgen: Well, there’s certainly a thread, I think, that goes through there, and that’s the innovation thread, which is, of course, consistent with the theme of our podcast here. That’s interesting because I noticed one of your websites talked about driving innovation in sport, and that’s obviously where your interest in sports administration and so on comes from.
Paolo: Yeah, exactly. I think … Well, as part of the organizing of this winter university olympiad last year, I started to think about sport not just as physical activity, which, of course, is very important for people to stay fit, but also as a very powerful inspiration for research projects in areas which are different from sport itself.
We had a conference about that, and we had a very big success, lots of people from different research areas coming together and saying, “Oh, I have ideas” on materials, on ICT applications, on psychological, on social theories or whatever. That was interesting. Even for OKKAM, I must say that we also have a small fitness branch. We had a project called FitCity, where we are trying to use the idea of physical locations in the environment as opportunities for people to exercise.
We are developing with a mixture of QR codes and semantic technologies something for Trento first and then for more cities in general, where people can scan a code and know what opportunities they have in their normal, daily life to exercise a little bit, like walking the stairs or using a bench in the park for some exercise, showing videos, maybe showing famous sports men or sports women who will show how to exercise there. I am trying to connect my interest into a single picture, where entities are in the centre and just so resolve my identity crisis into a single line of activity.
Jürgen: That’s great. Innovation is clearly the theme here, but yeah, you’re looking to connect all your interests through that.
Paolo: Well, yeah, I think innovation is a very nice constant. In the past, I used to confuse innovation with research in the sense of developing new ideas, but I think innovation is one step beyond because new ideas are somehow the precondition for innovation but then understanding how these new ideas can solve real problems for real people.
It’s a different mindset. I think this is the main mindset for innovators, looking around, identifying potential problems or needs and then say, “Oh, I have the idea which can solve this problem better than other people are trying to do or in a new way,” or “I’m the only one with the solution and provide the solution.” This is a very important mindset for innovators, I think.
Jürgen: Well, that little tidbit of advice is worth the price of admission alone, and since it’s free, it’s probably good. Just to emphasize – innovation is about identifying problems and then finding a solution to real problems. I really like that. It’s great.
Paolo: Well, because coming from computer science and the academia, very often, I find many colleagues who want the full ideas and then they fake up problems and say, “Oh, I do this because there is a problem of doing this and this and that.” Then you ask people out there, “Do you have this problem?” “No.” When you fake a problem, then your solution is not likely to be adopted. That’s the problem. It’s not done in bad faith. It’s just that there’s no real attention to the real problems of real people. This is very important for success as well, not only for innovation but for success.
Jürgen: Yeah, because that’s the risk of academia in general, isn’t it, that there’s a little bit of a disconnect between the real world and real problems and some of the fantastic work that they’re actually doing.
Paolo: Yeah, I think the academia can provide opportunities. I think it’s a good thing that academia has the freedom to experiment with ideas, but they are not necessarily useful immediately. Then somebody else must look at the ideas and make the bridge. This is, I think, the role of innovators, the main role of innovators.
Jürgen: That’s great, yeah. In terms of your involvement with OKKAM, what do you spend your time doing day to day?
Paolo: Well, I love to say that every minute of my life is very exciting here, but of course, it’s not always like that. This is a small company. We now have 10 employees, which is still a good result. We started with 1 and 1/2, 4 years ago. That’s okay. There is still a lot of practical things to do. In the last months, for example, a large fraction of my time has been devoted to solve cash flow problems, which is a typical thing with start-ups, not very exciting but definitely something you have to do if you want to survive.
Paolo: This is not exactly the best moment in Europe and in Italy in particular to start a business. The crisis is still here, and that’s why we are, of course, expanding our business outside Italy and hopefully outside Europe. We have some contacts within North America and the U.S. This is part of my daily life, but on the other hand, I still have time to think about how to develop our business, which is exciting, talking to people from other companies over … for potential customers, refining the ideas we have because one of the problems I have understood in my experience is that an idea which can be very clear to you doesn’t have to be … Well, it’s not necessarily very clear to other people.
You need to really fill a gap between where you are when you think for years and hours every day about something and people who have never thought about it. They have their own business, their own issues and problems and daily work. It takes a lot of time to explain things and look obviously. This is something which is frustrating at the beginning, but then you understand that this is absolutely necessary if you are starting new because if you sell a car, there’s no problem to explain. People know what a car is. Maybe they like or they don’t like it, or maybe it’s too expensive or it’s okay.
When you have something which is new, it doesn’t have to be rocket science. What is different for what people use every day, it takes time to fill this gap. This is again … Now I think it’s exciting because when you make sure … When you succeed in explaining what you do to people who are outside your business, I think that’s an important step. You should more understand what you do to yourself. This is another important part of what I do in my daily life.
Jürgen: That’s the educator coming out in you as well.
Paolo: Well, yeah. It’s really a long process. I think this is a problem shared with many other start-ups of innovative businesses that making sure people understand what you do is not simple. Sometimes, you think that an explanation is good but it’s not. You can immediately understand that only if you talk to many people. You tried and you see their reactions, and then you learn, and then you go back. You do your homework and try to explain it again and again and again. I think that in the end, you’ll refine your message, and that’s the most important part for selling some innovative product.
Jürgen: That’s right, yeah. One of the recent podcast interviews I did was with Glen Finkel of Pureti. I don’t know if you know that company-
Jürgen: He made his point very strongly that a disruptive technology requires a lot of educating of the potential clients in terms of how it works, what it actually does, what the benefits are and why it actually solves the problems that it solves and why it’s different. That’s a really key point.
Paolo: Well, in my case, I must say that my academic background is not helping me very much because I had to learn a lot. By the way, another message is all this adventure with OKKAM is really teaching me a lot. I’m very grateful that I had opportunity to go through this learning process because sometimes, you think that to be innovative, you really must be beyond the edge, very, very far away from … It’s not true.
Actually, innovation happens in small steps in the real world. Being far away is not a good position. You can have a very long-term vision. This is fine, but then you must solve the real problems step by step, making sure that people understand the path from where they are to where you want to take them. This is extremely important.
Even a word like entity … Okay, we started from entities. This is something that I try not to use when I talk to customers because no, I think an entity is obvious. An entity is whatever we’re talking about, but it’s not like that. Speaking about things, objects or the concrete examples, the bus stop, the brochure, the booklet, the bottle of wine, that’s how people understand. Then from there, you can build a long-term relationship and take them to wherever you want to take them.
Jürgen: Exactly, yeah. Steer clear of the lingo or the techno speak and make sure you can explain it clearly to people in concrete terms that they can understand, yeah.
Paolo: That’s not easy, I must say, because we are all geeks in one way or another, more or less. For people out there, there is nothing like the internet of things directly or there’s no internet location, IP addresses, QR codes. They’re not like that. They have a problem. I need to … for me to discuss them, but I want to improve my visibility or I need to sell this service into people with mobile phones. This is what the language they speak, and we should speak the same language to establish communication and then build up from this common core the rest of the message, which is … As I said, it requires many trials and failures. We are slowly getting there, hopefully.
Jürgen: Yeah. One of the great things about being an entrepreneur, as you said, is that you certainly … It is a learning experience. You’re always learning something new every day. That’s certainly, been my experience, as well and continues to be. Do you worry about something? Is there something that keeps you awake at night?
Paolo: Yeah, I … Well, there are a few things, which in the last 4 years, kept me awake at night but of a different nature.
One thing is, I must say, switching from the university, from the lab, to a company also changes the personal relationship with people. That’s something that … I mean, not with the same people. What I mean is the different context. A company is not a university lab. People working for a company have different expectations. They have a different way of vision about things. They have different priorities. It’s not like a Ph.D. student where the priority is they need to publish. These people need to be happy. This work is an important of their life. They expect to have some salaries, to have a role in the company. They expect you to make decision in a kind of effective way very quickly, so all these things.
The union of the company have created some issues. I had, unfortunately, some problems with the people working with us, which I had to solve. It was very painful at a personal level. That’s one part of the reason why I lost part of nights.
The other part, which is probably more exciting, is that sometimes, I wake up at night and I have an idea on what we could do with our technologies or how we could sell the message in a better way or to a new industry or to a new customer. Then when this process starts in mind, I really have trouble to fall asleep again. I wake up and write it down, which is okay for that, but then it would be good to have time to sleep in the morning to compensate the time I didn’t sleep, but I can’t because I have a very nice family, which I love very much.
My life schedule is definitely influenced a lot by the family. That means at 6:30, I must get up anyway in the morning no matter what I did at the night. This is okay, but I love this part of the job. When you have a new idea, it’s so exciting that, “Who cares about sleeping?”
Jürgen: It is, isn’t it? Yeah. It’s fascinating. I have the same problem. I think of some idea in the middle of the night and there’s no way I can get back to sleep. I try to write down, but what happens if I write it down, that kind of generates more ideas, so-
Paolo: Yeah. Then there is another experience which is when you start writing down. Writing down is an interesting exercise because some people think that writing down is just putting on paper what you have already thought. That’s not true. When you write down, writing is part of the creative process. As you said, you write down something, then you don’t like exactly as it is and then you change it and then you connect it to other things.
The writing process is really, at least in my experience, part of the creative process. You end up with something which is much bigger or much better or anyway more complex than it was at the beginning just because you made the effort of starting to write down the idea. This was true for academic papers. It’s always been in my experience. It’s true too for business ideas. It’s always the same. Writing is a very important mental process, I think.
Jürgen: That’s right. You mentioned family. What are the things you do to keep balanced when you’re not working? What do you get up to?
Paolo: Okay. Well, one premise is that I don’t really see this kind of separation between my work and my family, which is … Of course, there is a separation, but unlike other people, which, I think, are really unlucky in this respect, I don’t see work as the bad time you have to have for salary because then, you can do whatever you like. I really love what I do. The problem, as you say, is to find a balance between these 2 passions, my work and my family.
What I do is, on the one hand, I try to save as much as possible my weekends for the family. That’s not always possible, but at least, I try to do my work in a kind of hidden way. When they are doing something else, I hide somewhere and try do something. I also try to limit my access to the internet because that’s crazy. If I start doing email or browsing the web, I never stop.
On the other hand, I’m lucky I live in a wonderful region with wonderful nature, in the mountains, close to the Dolomites, beautiful lakes, good weather. It’s easy to do some physical activities in the nature, skiing in the winter, hiking in the summer, swimming in the lakes. I guess it’s not very different from Australia. Of course, you don’t have the Dolomites, but you have wonderful beaches.
Jürgen: Yeah. That’s right, but-
Paolo: It’s interesting to do outdoor activities. That’s part of the thing, but I also try to give this message to my kids. “Look, it’s not that I do my work because it’s a kind of necessity, something boring or tiring or whatever. It’s part of life.” I really invite them to find … They are still young. They are 10 and 12, but if I can, I try to pass this message that what they should try to do is follow their passions and find the job which is part of their life, which doesn’t mean that it’s 100% of your life, but it’s a pleasure to do it. You have to balance different pleasures, life and work. That’s, I think, one of the most lucky situation that you can have in life, to be honest.
Jürgen: Yeah. That’s great, isn’t it? If you love what you do, it’s not work. It’s not a chore anyway.
Paolo: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Jürgen: That’s great. Have you read any interesting books recently that you could recommend to our audience?
Paolo: Well, I read … When I’m at home, I read a lot of … not technical books, but I don’t think this is interesting at the moment for the audience. What I read recently was a very nice book called On Intelligence. I will tell you in a minute the author. I have more lapses in my memory … where the author was trying to combine some kind of neural approach to symbolic approach to represent information and knowledge, which I thought was very exciting because I always thought there was a gap between all this kind of neural sub-symbolic approach to representing information and knowledge and the declarative approach, the knowledge representation approach, logics and axioms and formal rules.
I think understanding how the brain combines these 2 things is extremely exciting, and I really love the book. Maybe I will send you the information so you can put somewhere from this book.
Jürgen: Well, yeah, if you do that, we’ll put a link to it, under the video
Paolo: Then I read modern books, several papers. I’m really trying to follow what’s going on in the area of the semantic web, which is my, as I said, my first love in this area. By the way, in a few weeks, we will have here in Trentino the international semantic web conference, which would be a great opportunity to stay up-to-date with what’s going on in research in this area.
Then I also try to read marketing papers in the domains of interest for OKKAM, in particular in this area of the mobile services, mobile advertising, but I cannot recommend a single thing at the moment. I think reading and staying up-to-date with what all the people are thinking and what’s going on is a critical part of business. Read a lot.
Jürgen: Yeah. Okay, if you had a magic wand that you could buy, even fix one thing within your business in OKKAM, what would that be?
Paolo: Well, I have this idea since when I started the OKKAM project that my team and myself … first of all, myself. We are not very good in communicating what we do. This is my … I suffer from this because I know that we have within our company a lot of great things and I see other people, other companies, that maybe are doing something which is not as good as this, but they are extremely good in communicating what they do. I’m not complaining with them. I really complain with ourselves. We don’t invest enough, or maybe we are not good enough in communicating what we do in some exciting way that people really say, “Oh, that’s great. That’s what I want to use.”
We are still too much technically oriented inside. I see a lot of excitement. Then our developers come to my office very often, “You know, we’ve done this. Fantastic. We are faster than anybody else in this area,” okay, but this is not enough. This is good for the lab, for the developers there, but it’s not good for the rest of the world.
Yeah, I would like to fix our communication skills and making sure that we, at least, are able to explain exactly what we do to people. I’m sure that, that would lead to have people excited about what we do because we have a lot of good things in our safe here. It’s of no use if you keep it for yourself. We must definitely improve our communication skills here.
Jürgen: Okay, so communication around marketing.
Paolo: Marketing, yeah.
Jürgen: Yeah, great. What do you see as the risk of innovation within any company?
Paolo: Well, there are several risks. The most obvious risk is, like for any innovative company, that what you do is innovative but actually is not what people need. You think it’s a good idea. You think it’s a breakthrough, whatever, but it isn’t. It happens. You must be very honest to yourself and admit that after some time, if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It can be because you came too early. That’s somehow the positive explanation. It can be because simply, you were wrong, which, of course, is always a possibility when you try to open a new path. This is one risk.
The second risk, as I said before, speaking about marketing and communication, is that somehow, we are not able to wrap what you do into a package, which is interesting for people outside. Maybe you have a good idea, but you have the wrong packaging. Somebody else will understand your idea better than you do, and you sell it before you can do it. That’s the other risk which I see.
The first thing is that my team, I have several people coming from some research experience. Not all of them, but some of them had got a Ph.D. The risk is that instead of consolidating what we have, they always think of going forward, which is good, thinking for the future, but you never consolidate what you have. If you always move to the next thing because it’s exciting, because it’s new, because it’s fantastic, you lose contact, on the other hand, as we were discussing before, with real customers because you must make sure that your first step is done, is solid, can be sold, and then you can move to the next one and prepare and the next wave of things.
I see that we learn a lot, we follow new technologies, we make new experiments, we do a lot of things, but on the other hand, we forget that customers need … that we fix box, that we have some tiny improvement of what they have and the usual stuff. I think this is another risk when you have a highly innovative environment in the company and you don’t have enough focus on consolidation, not only building new things.
Jürgen: Yeah. I think one of the big challenges for any entrepreneur is the shiny object syndrome, right, something new and it gets exciting, gets more attention than, like you said, fixing or consolidating.
Jürgen: Okay, well, I’d like to go into our Buzz Round, which is our innovation round where I ask you 5 or 6 questions and hopefully, we’ll get a very short, sharp answer from you that’s going to blow away the audience with that insight and its brilliance. We’ll start off with what do you think is the number 1 thing anyone needs to be more innovative.
Paolo: I think the number 1 thing is to find your own way. Don’t follow recipes that work for somebody else. Learn from the experience from other people but find your own way and exploit your strengths and the opportunities in your environment. Learn from the others, but don’t try to copy recipes that work for somebody else.
Jürgen: I love it. That’s great advice. What about the best things you’ve done to develop new ideas or new products?
Paolo: I think the best idea, as I said before, is look around for real problems or real people and try to solve them in a new way. Otherwise, you will fail.
Jürgen: Look for real need, yeah. Okay, what about, do you have a favourite tool or system that you develop new innovations with?
Paolo: Here, I’m afraid I will somehow show my age. I still think that having a few hours of brainstorming with the intelligent people in the company or with other companies and then try to write down the outcome of this brainstorming is still the best tool. I’m not a big fan of innovation tools, which can be useful tools, but I cannot see them to replace the face-to-face interaction, maybe at night, in a very heated brainstorming on new ideas with intelligent, bright people.
Jürgen: A lot of different people contributing thoughts and ideas.
Paolo: Well, yes. Innovation is a social process. I don’t see how a single person having 100% of the good idea to do something really new. You need to share with other people, to compare with other people, being criticized, accept criticism from other people and learn from them and improve, and listen to everyone. You’ll never know. From all the experience of the entrepreneur to the fresh student at university, you can find a good idea anywhere. You must be very careful and listen a lot.
Jürgen: That’s great advice. What do you think is the best way to keep a project on track?
Paolo: Well, I think the best way is to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and try to understand what the customer or the funder would like you to do because if you take the other perspective and then you do what you would like to be done to you, if you were the customer, it’s the best way to succeed and make the customers happy. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and do the best that you would like to receive as a customer.
Jürgen: That’s great advice too. I love it, yeah. Play the customer and treat yourself well.
Paolo: Absolutely, and do a little bit more than is expected from you, okay, just a little bit. You cannot do always wonderful things, but if you do something which is a little bit more than is in the contract or is expected from you, then we’ll keep the excitement very high and the interest and also the positive feeling, positive relationship, which is another thing, establishing positive relationships and showing that, in a sense, we are partners, not just customer-provider. We are partners. We do something exciting together. I’m trying to do something new. I need you to use my technologies, and you need me because I’m solving a problem that you have. That’s a very nice partnership.
Jürgen: That’s great. I really like it. What do you think is the number 1 thing anyone can do to differentiate themselves?
Paolo: I’m afraid I must go back to my first advice, which is trying to be yourself. Very often, I have people saying, “You see, look at what this other person is doing, this other entrepreneur, this other company,” but even in communication. For example, I was wondering this morning what should I do. I should wear a tie. I should have a jacket, or I should go with the OKKAM. I said, “I will just dress as I feel like it,” not fake. I mean, that’s me, okay. You like it, okay. If I fake somebody else, it’s not going to work.
Jürgen: It’s amazing how many people actually say that when I ask that question. It’s probably the most common answer, but people express it in many different ways. That’s really good advice. All right, so what-
Paolo: Yeah. That’s my experience at least. I’m sure there is a much more intelligent answer, but I did not … That’s the best I can come up with.
Jürgen: Oh, I think that’s a great answer really. What do you see is the future for OKKAM?
Paolo: Well, I really hope that in the future, OKKAM will grow to become a mid-sized company, not a huge company, that will deliver services for people worldwide so that our services become part of the daily life of millions of people, in a sense, what happens but on a smaller scale with the, I don’t know, Facebook, Twitter or whatever, something that is normal for people to use, okay, and is part of life.
It’s not just something specific you’re doing in your work. Sometimes, people told me, “Do you have an exit strategy? Do you want to sell the company?” I’m a bit romantic about that. I feel like OKKAM is like my baby, and I’m not a serial entrepreneur. My goal is not to go for one company to the next to make money of them. My goal is to really grow this idea, the seed of the idea, and make it bigger and bigger and do something exciting for people who use our tools and for people who work in the company. Hopefully, it’s going to be that we grow, we reach a mid-sized level, 150, 200 people, and then we deliver things that people love. That’s my dream.
Jürgen: Okay. That’s a pretty bold ambition all the same, yeah.
Paolo: I know. I know.
Jürgen: Yeah. That’s been great, Paolo. Thanks for that. Now just a reminder for our listeners about the competition.
I’m giving away a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. It talks a lot about risks of innovation and some of the themes of this podcast. The author says that it’s going to change the way that you will do business. Now to enter this competition, what we’d like you to do is leave a comment under the video and tell us what is the most innovative way that you’ve seen, dynamic data being presented (e.g. QR codes, Bluetooth, NFC), that you found and tell us how either you’re using the tool or how somebody else is using the tool in the public domain and what benefit that is bringing to the particular application. Leave a comment under this video, and I’ll ask Paolo to come by in a couple of weeks and award the prize from the entrants. Is that okay, Paolo?
Paolo: Yeah, sure. I’d be very happy.
Jürgen: That’s great. In conclusion then, what’s the number 1 piece of advice you’d give any business that wants to be a leader in innovation and productivity?
Paolo: You know what, the best answer is I don’t know. First, I want to become very successful, leading the way in the business, and then I will give you the advice. Otherwise, it would be just … That would not be myself. I’m really sorry to disappoint people here.
Jürgen: That’s a great answer because we’re all learning as we go, right?
Paolo: Yes, absolutely.
Jürgen: We’ll watch this space! Well, thanks again, Paolo. Now where can people reach out to say thank you for your time and all the insights you’ve shared with us today?
Paolo: Well, they can find me, of course, on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, whatever, but probably the best way for me, again, my generation, it would be … Drop me an email, and I will be happy to start interaction with people who are interested in what we do.
Jürgen: Okay. I’ll put links to all of those places underneath the video as well. Finally, I’d like to ask you, who would you like to see me interview on the podcast in the future and why?
Paolo: Well, I met several innovative people in these years. I think an interesting place where innovation is happening in Europe in the area where I work is in Ireland. Maybe you know this Digital Enterprise Research Institute in Galway, DERI. Somebody from the institute there could give you an insight on what’s going on in that area. Maybe if you want names, I can suggest a friend of mine, Giovanni Tummarello. He’s done many innovative things on the web of data. He’s a very peculiar person. You will love him.
Jürgen: Okay. Well, Giovanni, look out. I’ll be in contact with you for a future InnnovaBuzz podcast. That’s great.
Well, thanks very much, Paolo. It’s been really terrific. You’ve been very generous with your time today, and I wish you all the best with OKKAM and with all your research as well, of course. I look forward to seeing what transpires over the next period and seeing some of those innovative QR codes or the entities, as you call them, being connected through your tools in that. Thanks very much, Paolo.
Paolo: No, thank you, Jürgen, for this opportunity because as usual, thinking about this interview allowed me to understand better things that we do. It’s been a … Even this one, this interview has been a learning, part of the learning process. Thank you very much.
Jürgen: Okay. Thanks. Bye for now. Bye-bye.
I hope you enjoyed meeting Paolo as much as I enjoyed interviewing him on the podcast. He is certainly an energetic and passionate entrepreneur who is balancing an academic career with building his start up business. With what looks on the surface to be quite a simple idea, Okkam has turned that into reality with innovative systems and structure, to provide a real benefit to the public.
Of course, you can subscribe to this Podcast via iTunes or Stitcher, so that you’ll never miss a future episode.
All the show notes for this episode will be at innovabiz.com.au/okkam, that is O-K-K-A-M, all lowercase, all one word, innovabiz.com.au/okkam for all of the links and everything we spoke about in this episode. Remember, leave your comments underneath the video for your chance to win a copy of The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen.
Leave a comment under the video and tell us what is the most innovative way that you’ve seen, dynamic data being presented (e.g. QR codes, Bluetooth, NFC), that you found and tell us how either you’re using the tool or how somebody else is using the tool in the public domain and what benefit that is bringing to the particular application. I’ll ask Paolo to come by in a couple of weeks and award the prize.
Paolo nominated Giovanni Tummarello, of the Digital Enterprise Research Institute in Galway, Ireland, to be on a future podcast. So, Giovanni, keep an eye on your Inbox for an invitation from me, for the Innovabuzz Podcast!
If you like these podcast episodes, please give us a five star review over at iTunes. It really does help to get more listeners and to share this information with a bigger audience. And I really do want to share these gems, that people so generously share with us on the podcast with as many people as I can.
So, Until next time.
Remember, if you don’t innovate, you stagnate, so think big, be adventurous and innovate on!