Denmark meets Silicon Valley: Interview with Sunil Maulik from the Danish Innovation Center

This post is for all of those who wish to have an exciting career in Silicon Valley. I had the chance to get to know Sunil Maulik, a biophysicist by training now working in software, during my Silicon Valley experience.

After a seasoned career in start-ups in the UK and the US, he’s now the Innovation and Information Technology Director for the Danish Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California. Sunil was kind to answer all of my questions over a Skype call last Tuesday. Here’s the story:

1)   As a Silicon Valley veteran, what have been the highlights of your experience?

Danish Innovation Center Motto: “Where Innovation goes to Scale”

I have been involved in the founding of 5 companies in the last 25 years and 2 companies went public. The first one was a UK company, called Oxford Molecular, that bought a Silicon Valley company and floated it on the London Stock Exchange.

In my early thirties, I had the opportunity to get access to top venture capitalists and lawyers. I realized how easy it is to have a chat with them if you want to make it happen. (Nowadays, young entrepreneurs can do so in their twenties.) That was a big highlight.

2)   You started your career as a biophysicist after moving to the US at age 22 and doing your PhD on a full scholarship at Brandeis University. How do you think this experience has helped you in your career in Silicon Valley, which has focused on Internet technology and software?

At first, I was much more focused on biotech and 3D drug modeling. In biotech, having a PhD is a requirement. Most managers had MDs and/or PhDs.

As I moved out of biotech, these credentials meant less and less. In Silicon Valley, you don’t even need a degree in a lot of cases. However, the experience I gained through doing the PhD has been helpful. I did lots of data analytics, then called big data, data mining, and data visualization. The experience is still relevant now. It helped me figure out how to learn on my own and think critically. I don’t have any fear of taking a textbook and teaching myself about anything.

On the negative side, having a PhD may mean at any stage that you’re over-confident about your knowledge. There’s so much stuff about running a company and working with other people that a PhD does not teach you.

3)   Based on your experience at the Danish Innovation Center, how do you think a foreign start-up can benefit from having a presence in Silicon Valley?

Any start-up can benefit. We’ve spent so much time selling Danish companies on the idea of coming to Silicon Valley. Just think about the whole ecosystem. It’s not just about funding. The motto “The streets are lined with gold” is a misconception. There’s more funding here but there are more companies as well.

It’s more about the networking and partnership opportunities: this is a direct advantage of SV.

About scalability: we spend lots of time explaining that SV has many people who can scale companies and do so rapidly.

SV is also an outstanding place to expand internationally since there are so many influential people and strong connections abroad, e.g. in India and Brazil.

4)   What do you think is the best way for a foreign start-up to enter the ecosystem?

We try to bring the entrepreneurs in for at least 3 months. If you stay for a couple of weeks you’ll have meetings but you’re not going make significant progress.

Going through a center like the Danish Innovation Center helps tremendously but it is not necessary. If you’re a good entrepreneur, you can go on Linkedin for example, set up contacts and meet the people that will help you when you come.

We help with pitching, making business plans and we’re very active in aligning our contacts and expertise with the business. We act as an accelerator.

5)   You’ve been involved in a few successful start-ups, the most recent two being 500Friends and People Power Company. What do you think were the key ingredients of success?

Justin Yoshimura and Gene Wang are aggressive CEOs and make it happen.They’re constantly reaching out to people and trying to get leads. Even if they get constantly turned down, which is normal at the beginning of a start-up, they continue to reach out and build connections. For example, if they meet someone at the bar at a reception on a Wednesday, they’ll call the person on Thursday morning at 7 AM to have a coffee chat. They move very fast to get people on board.

Also, both of them have been enthusiastic about completely changing their companies to achieve success.

6)   Any concluding advice for people out there considering a move to Silicon Valley?

It’s a fantastic place to share ideas. If you’re not afraid to do so, you’ll get much more back. It’s an amazing place to get help from top people. This is true much more so than in the rest of the world.

If you want to do banking, you go to New York. I’ll say this about SV: It’s like a big casino. There will be a few big winners and if you do well, you’ll do fine. Silicon Valley is a stock-option economy and you have to be comfortable with it because you only hear of the big successes.

Thank you Sunil Maulik! I can’t wait to hear comments from you folks about your thoughts on Silicon Valley!

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