Channelling Our Thinking | Dr Ashwath Sundaresan
Dr Ashwath Sundaresan (a.k.a Ash) joined our Pacific Channel team in July 2021. Living in Wellington with his young family, Ash is incredibly passionate about the future of our environment and leads our investments that focus on clean tech and advanced engineering. We asked him to channel his thinking for us - here's what he had to say:
Tell us about a couple of career highlights and what they taught you:
- Acting – believe it or not, I was a professional actor in my early teens. It’s not every day that you get to be on TV! Seriously though – I believe acting taught me a lot about how to “get into different characters”, which is really about putting yourself in other people’s shoes and appreciating their view of the world and why they might have particular perspectives or ambitions.
- Starting multiple companies (but not necessarily succeeding). Since leaving school, I have endeavoured to set up a medical device company, an aged care social network, my own search fund and a couple of other companies. For me, I really value the learnings that come from a breadth of experiences - resilience building, different industry insights and perspectives and lateral thinking.
What piece of advice were you given that you still stand by today?
Inductive vs Deductive communication – Figure out whom you are talking to and what communication style works best.
What’s the secret to mastering the success of commercialising ground-breaking technology and accelerating growth?
We’d all tell you that there’s no one secret – but we have a few pieces of advice that might help the commercialisation journey:
- The right team at the right stage: A single individual is not going to change the world, but having the right composition of people in the team, from management to board to investment partners etc, might help move the needle. We need to shift the focus away from an individual “hero” and recognise the strength of the entire team. If you think about deep tech as a sport, then you have to play football, not golf.
- Have a ‘global from birth’ mindset: Deep tech is capital intensive, which means if you are trying to solve a small problem, it will be really tough to scale the technology to make an impact. Innovators, researchers, and scientists behind these ideas need to make sure the problem they’re solving is hairy, big and urgent.
- Get rid of the “build it and they will come” mentality: If you are not solving a problem, then it will fail. What I mean by this is to make sure the stakeholder pathway and commercial intent is mapped out before fully developing the tech. Ask who will use it, who will pay for it, and who will help scale it. Knowing this will help success.
- Ground-breaking technology doesn’t automatically translate into ground-breaking business: But it could be. Anyone who’s tried to build a business knows it takes a lot of hard work, patience and resource. Deep tech is no different, and in fact, because it’s not really a ‘thing’, there’s a whole lot more work that needs to be done even to call it a business, let alone ‘ground-breaking’.
What’s your perspective on the importance of building a world-class deep-tech ecosystem?
Having a deep tech ecosystem that comprises multiple stakeholder groups is fundamental. We think of the ecosystem as ‘whole of box’ thinking – where multiple participants with diverse perspectives, roles and objectives interact at different levels to achieve value.
We see companies struggle because they focus on forming a 1:1 relationship between the innovator and the funder, which means they’re essentially developing the tech in isolation without any input from government, regulatory agencies, and industry or consideration of what these stakeholders are looking for, can influence or need.
Innovators need to be constantly asking themselves: to what extent do I need to build relationships to inform, educate, seek insights, and to what extent do I need to understand that this tech will be valuable to them? But to be truly effective, the stakeholder groups within the ecosystem need to be answering:
- What do we bring to the ecosystem,
- What do we want from the ecosystem and
- How do we interact with others to achieve our goals
You must come across a lot of people who are on the edge of bit of a leap of faith moment. What advice do you have for that?
- Talk to people and do this as early as possible. We find a lot of people are afraid that if they talk to people about their idea or ambitions, they might run and steal it, but the risk of this is low. The more people you talk to, the better, because they have different perspectives and can shape your thinking.
- Don’t be scared. The beauty of deep tech is it doesn’t have to be binary. You don’t have to quit your day job fully to go on the commercialisation journey. There are ways to be creative to what extent you get involved; obviously, this needs to be balanced with what the business needs, but it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.
Which of Pacific Channel’s three key investment areas interest you most and why?
I definitely have a bias towards our focus on the Future of the Environment. I have kids and I worry about the quality of life this next generation will have. We see many issues arising from water scarcity, air pollution, energy security, and food security. Not only are these impact the environment, but they also trigger geopolitical crises and exacerbate issues around wealth inequality etc. I truly believe that some of our portfolio companies have the capability to move the needle on these environmental issues.