Following an earlier introduction to the first five Innovation Workshop mentors participating in the event this year, we had a lengthy conversation with one of them, Gerard Michael MacCarthy. For eight years, he headed the Russian office of Enterprise Ireland, which traditionally supports Irish businesses exporting abroad, but since Europe and Russia exchanged sanctions in 2014, the agency has come to focus on Russian innovation-driven startups, bringing them to Ireland to help them grow and internationalize. Besides innovation and investing, Gerard talked about his creative projects and how they fit with the diversity-oriented mindset he is trying to foster in IW students.
Q: You’re not giving any formal talks at IW, but if you made a presentation for the students, what would it be about?
A: Most likely it would be about guiding startups to making their case convincingly when seeking seed investment, explaining what it takes to impress — or depress — an investor, and making sure people enjoy the process. It’s a huge privilege to be able to pursue this way of life, and you can meet some great people, and achieve enormous success, and have great fun trying. Life, for those of us lucky enough to be aware of it, is predominantly a game, however difficult or challenging its “stages” may be.
There are some common challenges all fledgling companies face. A vast majority of startups are so in love with their idea, they forget how to explain it properly to an investor who isn’t an MIT graduate. Or they don’t share the spotlight with the team, so there might be a brilliant Founder-CEO but he/she has no support in sales or marketing, or doesn’t tell people who else is supporting him/her. Or they think positive posts on Facebook and extra followers on Instagram are going to influence an investor. They’re not. There’s a whole list of things like that.
Q: Do you get an impression Skoltech researchers are any different from those you’ve met elsewhere in Russia?
A: The people I meet at Skoltech seem more globally oriented compared with the more traditional research institutes. And they also seem to have far more pride about where they are compared to the average university. Being accepted into Skoltech is already a validation for them, making them feel that they have somehow already “arrived.” That’s probably due to the various support systems that Skoltech offers them, and the overall profile of Skolkovo and Skoltech as a reflection of Russia’s vision of itself for the remainder of the 21st century, reflected in turn by the amount of investment that the government has committed to the location.
Q: What do you like about the Innovation Workshop format?
A: What came across right away in discussing the format was that there’s quite a lot of different experiences and cultures represented with the various mentors that are participating. That’s really important for startups and the students, because they need to be exposed to as much variety and diversity as possible.
There is no absolute recipe for a successful startup: but there are key things you need to ensure to have a fighting chance. One common factor is that you will always be dealing with unexpected situations and with different types of people. If you can’t adapt coolly to the crazy stuff that arises, it’s gonna be very difficult to survive. So I like the variety of the workshop participants and also the relaxed nature of how the whole thing is organized.
Q: Variety must be a big thing for you.
A: I’ve had a very strange and “varied” career both in the creative world and also in the business world.
On the creative side, I’ve published a book in Russian about Ireland, called “Ireland: More Than an Island,” taken part in some group exhibitions as an artist, and my latest film, a mini feature [“Restoration,” 2021] has just come out on the Start platform. Only this week I released an eight-track music album, “Reverse.” I’m also the founder of the Irish Film Festival in Russia — the largest showcase of Irish cinema anywhere in the world — and co-founder of a festival here called Subtitle, which brings international casting-directors (Bond, Avengers, Game of Thrones, Bourne, Breaking Bad, Vikings) and Russian actors together for overseas projects, such as Yuri Kolokolnikov appearing in Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet,” and Sofia Lebedeva and Daniil Kozlovskiy acting in “McMafia.”
But of course, as a curious person, I’ve also worked extensively with business people and scientists. Aside from time running Enterprise Ireland in Russia, I also ran, for example, the Russian State Glass Research Institute for five years, and have overseen a number of property development projects, as well as advising a range of startups and companies focused on AI, NFT markets, and blockchain solutions.
Q: Does a science research institute have something in common with a film set?
A: The interesting thing I learned is that a film set and a science institute are not that different. It’s all about the personnel and their personalities. Just like on a movie shoot, an institute will have its stars and egos — the creative talent, if you like — and its technicians, lab people, drivers, and ALL of them are essential to keeping things running.
Q: Do you ever have to deal with both science and creativity at the same time?
A: Together with a close neuroscientist friend of mine, we’ve carried out some research into the process of “flow” from an artistic/sports/high-performance point of view. You know, when you go into that “zone” where time and space and the outside distractions no longer matter. They just fade away, allowing the brain to focus exclusively on the task at hand.
We got some people together and did a couple of experiments to try to reverse-engineer that state so we could then, in turn, artificially create it, or “jump-start” it, as I prefer to call it. One of the biggest problems for creative people and sports people is to be able to spontaneously get into that zone. We haven’t figured out how to do it yet, but we’re working on it.
Q: When you talk about exposing people to variety, what are some of the mundane and the crazy things you have in mind?
A: For people who are only used to hanging around in labs or in front of a computer — you know, put them on a surfboard in shark-infested waters, or throw them out of a plane — in some lucky cases, with a parachute [laughs]. Anything at all to produce just a whole new set of experiences and get them completely out of their (very comfortable) comfort zones.
Last year we proposed a thing we christened the Improbability Institute, which was to try and create situations that are as awkward and difficult as possible for the students so they found themselves in those weird situations and had no escape. I mean, it’s as simple as getting together 50 people who’ve never met each other and making sure that by the end of the evening everyone has talked to at least 10 other people, which for some people is absolutely the scariest thing you can imagine: going up to a stranger and saying hi.
The scientific side of this is that pretty much any new experience creates new synapses in the brain. Anything at all new develops neuroplasticity: I mean, if you take a different route to work, it will develop new synapses. If you suddenly decide you want to learn to play the violin, new pathways will emerge to cope with the stress of that. And that’s why — and it’s a well-documented fact — people who speak two or more languages have a completely different set of neural pathways.
Learning and trying new things keeps the mind — and spirit — healthy. We need to keep doing that for as long as we can. And it’s good fun as well.
I think life is definitely more interesting and more rewarding if you are exposed to different experiences. And from the point of view of a student or a startup, this variety of experience translates into being more capable of, you know, walking into a minister’s office or not completely panicking at Y Combinator, or not freaking out when making an appointment with a potential investor.
So my message is agility and adaptability. And not being afraid to fail. In fact, not being afraid of anything.
Q: But you’ve also said that failure culture is embedded into the venture capitalist community to the point that it is “perhaps even a bit too much.” Can you elaborate on that?
A: Well, it is certainly true you are never gonna get anywhere without experiencing failure which is a very important part of an evolution process, and plain and simple living. Not many people marry the first person who breaks their heart!
But I feel like over the last couple of years in the startup world it has become an excuse to settle for failure, to see failure as an achievement in itself, and that kills our ability to dream further.
A little bit of blind belief is important as it’s one of the few things that can get you through massive disasters which, in my life at least, have always provided the most cathartic lessons.
Q: I read that your debut feature film “Staircase of Light” (1992) was believed irretrievably lost for 15 years. How come?
A: Yes, we thought the film had been destroyed in St. Petersburg, and lost in Dublin. But it actually magically showed up first in the Irish State Film Archive, and then in the Russian one — a true quantum event!
On our side in Ireland, not too many feature films were getting made and shown in cinemas at the time, so it was destined to be preserved. In Russia, with stars like Igor Kostolevsky, Andrey Urgant (“Vecherniy Urgant” Ivan’s dad), and Inga Ilm (best known at the time as Masha Startseva from “The Adventures of Petrov and Vasechkin”) it also somehow got spared. But I didn’t find that out for many many years. All I had was a very poor-quality VHS cassette, so I definitely felt more like the movie was a “fluke” than an important step in my personal evolution.
Q: The movie ran with the slogan: This is not the Russia you know. Do you feel like this has become a bit of a motto for you since you started working in Russia in 1989?
A: Well, for sure the Russia that 99% of the people who have never been here think they know is totally not the one I see, or most of us living in Russia experience from day to day. It’s very easy, let’s say convenient, to define things in cliches and stereotypes.
I have to be honest: I knew nothing about Russia when I first came here. Russian history and literature weren’t taught in our schools, and the USSR/Russia was just a huge red blanket on the map, and the source of an overhyped world-ending nuclear threat, summed up by footage of missiles trundling through Red Square on May Day.
Part of what comes with almost everything I do, is — as I live here most of the time — trying to make Russia more familiar to foreigners, and make our (Irish) culture more familiar to Russians. If I ever create another band, it will be called “Smashing Cliches.”
It’s always great to bring Irish filmmakers, musicians, comedians, or international business people and casting directors over and show them “Russia behind the headlines,” and introduce them to people — and situations — that broaden their perceptions a bit.
Skoltech’s Innovation Workshop is also doing that very effectively, giving the mentors a chance to taste more about the flavor of Russia than borscht and vodka — although I’m sure there’ll be plenty of that too! But also giving the students and startups access to a range of different experiences and cultures which is really important right now as recently, many Russians have also started settling for convenient cliches and stereotypes about the West, and Westerners, that do nothing to bring us closer. We can’t give in to those cliches. We all need to find out for ourselves.
Q: Is there a big difference between a creative approach and an innovative approach?
A: There is a subtle difference. A “creative” approach often falls within the realm of using some kind of existing precedent cleverly, or in an inspired way, combining things unexpectedly.
So in screenwriting, and drama, there is an idea that there are only seven basic plots. When you take elements from each of those — say, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, and Chekhovian drama — and combine them with characters and circumstances imaginatively, that is “creative.” Probably one of the most “creative” directors of the last 40 years is Tarantino, or perhaps Nolan.
An “innovative” approach is inventing ingredients and elements that didn’t previously exist, and using them in a way no one else ever has done. Creating the “eighth” basic plot that no one has ever thought of before. Ever! For me that is the essence of innovation.
So the creative approach takes what already exists and uses it in a new way, whereas the innovative approach creates that which does not yet exist, and reveals to us ways in which it can be used, but which to date we had never imagined.
That will no doubt upset a lot of people, but that’s what creative innovators do!
Q: Are scientists by definition creative people? Is creativity an imperative for science?
A: Scientists, of course they are creative. And they also fail, and dust themselves off, and start all over again … and again.
Some great pieces of innovation resulted from experiments that were trying to achieve utterly different outcomes. The level of imagination, and desperation to succeed, drove the scientists to extremes that — while somewhat accidental — were rewarded with groundbreaking results.
Of course the “imperative” in science is empiric. Speculation and hypothesis need to be proven irrefutably. But sometimes — as quantum theory has shown us — there are proofs that cannot be proven, scientifically, or otherwise. And that’s where some creativity can really help bridge the gap, and lead us back again to blind belief.
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