First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Brian Dolan: Truthfully, it sucks. We have two teenagers at home trying to learn remotely in one of the most affected parts of the US, plus running a company makes life quite challenging. We even had to move out of our house temporarily during all of this because of mold, which, while unrelated to the pandemic, adds to the hardship.
I am hopeful that this experience is showing my kids how to get through something tough, that they are learning resilience and will remember this as a time their parents showed them how to overcome a challenging period. I hope that they see this as the year they learned to rise above difficult circumstances.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded VerdantAI.
Brian Dolan: I’m a Cyberneticist, which means I study systems for the purpose of making them more effective and efficient. That has been a key theme for me since grad school, where I earned a Masters in Pure Mathematics and Bio-mathematics and spent a lot of time working on ecological restoration of kelp forests. Since that time, I have applied my love of math and analytics to improving systems such as healthcare, agriculture, and the environment.
I have a deep interest in using my knowledge to tackle the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change and better systems of health.
In my career, I have built over 3,000 AI products and founded several companies. Before founding VerdantAI, I was exploring what could be my key offering and likely, my legacy. What I know best is how to design and build products. I looked for company structures that would enable me to build products and to be useful to other people while still turning a healthy profit. I considered first a consultancy, but there is no shared risk and reward in that. I then discovered the startup studio model, where I could work in collaboration with people to help them build out their products and where we are jointly incentivized. I focus on building products, and the entrepreneurs I work with a focus on building their companies. I decided to launch Verdant as an answer to what was missing for me; a jointly incented structure between the company and startups that come through our studio.
I’m a mathematician at heart, with interests in everything from computational psychology to genetic algorithms. Verdant is developing technologies that are working to resolve the UN Sustainable Development goals, which is an endeavor I am proud of. I want to be clear that our focus on resolving the major challenges the world faces is not purely altruistic, we intend to be profitable with each initiative, investing our time in companies that have a solid business plan with a clear path to profitability. We are also proud to note that most of our startup studio companies are female-led.
How does VerdantAI innovate?
Brian Dolan: The old fashioned way. We start with our understanding of an industry by getting to know people in that industry. We bring our data strategy and AI expertise and apply them to problems the industry is facing. For example, we’ve been delving into the world of virtual therapeutics through one of our portfolio companies, but the only way we can understand how we can help the industry is by talking to experts in healthtech and therapeutics. We’ve successfully applied a similar approach for ag-tech, and our startup studio cohort company, Hexas. We met Hexas’ founder, Wendy Owens, who is an expert in biomass and renewable resources, and as we got to know her, we were convinced of her capabilities as a founder. We looked to see how we could apply our expertise to help her build an AI-driven marketplace to support her idea of turning biomass into profit for farmers and in doing so, move the industry forward. Our innovation strategy is to focus on relationships and smart people trying to solve interesting problems. Subsequently, we find our technology angle by focusing on these problems first and then learning through our networks.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Brian Dolan: At first, it was okay because things were sailing along for us in digital health, but then we lost two major clients who were heavily impacted by the COVID situation. We understood that at the onset of the crisis, the first response was operational such as getting PPE and testing gear distributed, which did not require AI. This was challenging for us, but now that operations have somewhat equalized, people can turn to solutions like analytics. We are seeing the focus coming back around, and we are looking forward to launching some very exciting new technologies in the world of health-tech and addiction recovery.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Brian Dolan: Yes, we still have difficult choices ahead and must think strategically about our resources. Luckily, we had a good plan in place from the onset that has gotten us through Planning is crucial and because we took the time to think carefully through our workflow, we’ve been able to get to this place. I’m cautiously optimistic about the remainder of the year.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you protect yourself and VerdantAI in the future?
Brian Dolan: Having dinner with my family keeps me on track. I try to keep reasonable hours so that I have time for my family and myself. Certainly, my work-life balance has been thrown off, and I am working a lot more than I used to, but I make sure that I always make time for dinner with them. I am also fiercely protective of my mornings and my daily cup of coffee where I use the time to plan the day and week and ruminate on what we are trying to accomplish.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Brian Dolan: We have many competitors, basically anyone who calls themselves an innovator is a competitor. GSSN is a global startup studio network where you can find many of our competitors. We also compete with in-house innovation teams, but we feel confident in our expertise and agility when it comes to corporate innovation, as there are many hurdles these larger companies face.
I feel there’s room for lots of people in the innovation game. The game is broad, and by definition, innovation is about creating new frontiers. As long as our team continues to look for new frontiers, we are viable. If we rest on our laurels, we will be overtaken by someone doing the same thing,
Entrepreneurs can feel pretty protective of their ideas, and I often tell the founders I work with that if this is your last idea, you should protect it fiercely, but if we have a lot of ideas, then we can afford to give away.
The key enabler is the generation of ideas.
Your final thoughts?
Brian Dolan: Please don’t ask me for my final thoughts as I’d like to have many more thoughts in the future.
But some additional thoughts are that the world is improving and being improved by people who are working towards their individual values. I have been enjoying the shift in entrepreneurship from a focus on cap tables and returns to people building companies based on their values, all of which contribute to the world’s slow but undeniable improvement. Change may seem glacially slow and often chaotic, but the world is fundamentally improving, and the startup community is contributing a lot to those improvements. As the mainstream business community looks to startups to point the way, we will see more of that improvement coming through innovation and people committing to building a better world.
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