The journey so far: Bright Simons, founder, mPedigree

Bright Simons

Ghanaian entrepreneur Bright Simons is the founder and president of mPedigree, a company that provides technology to help authenticate products such as medicines, seeds and cosmetics. The technology is used in several countries across three continents.

1. Tell us about one of the toughest situations you’ve found yourself in as a business owner.

A little over two years ago, a minor research activity in preparation for a conference panel led to an epiphany about a novel way of addressing a major threat to global vaccination: poor cold chain practices that expose vaccine vials to bad temperature fluctuations, leading to either waste or deactivated vaccines that cannot protect infants from disease.

The solution that suggested itself, though, required a different trajectory of technology and business strategy from what we were about at mPedigree. In fact, it called for a new business, a startup. I had been in entrepreneurship [for] almost a decade and [was] just starting to settle into a somewhat familiar routine at the helm of a growing business.

A new startup would unsettle that and throw me back to midnight panic attacks and seven rejections per day territory. But the biggest challenge would be unlearning a lot of the habits you pick up when you graduate from early stage to growth stage.

I decided to take the plunge by taking steps to prise me out of my comfort zone: geographical relocation, returning to an academic research environment, [and] ensconcing myself in multiple incubators and entrepreneurial hatchery programmes.

Steadily, I managed to reorient myself back to a phase of early-stage entrepreneurship and our new startup, Koldchain, started to hit its milestones. And [it] march[ed] towards its grand vision of inventing the internet of “dumb” things, as opposed to the internet of “smart” things. [We did this] through the creation of ultra-cheap sensors, made from polymers and interpreted by smartphone scanning techniques powered by computer vision and similar telematics.

We are starting with vaccines, with the goal of equipping nurses to validate vaccine potency on the frontline.

2. Which business achievement are you most proud of?

A year ago, I would have said building the world’s most affordable, widely accessible and robust anti-counterfeiting solution. Pioneering a model now in use on three continents and in more than a dozen countries. A solution that has helped some 100 million people authenticate nearly two billion life-impacting products such as medicines, seeds and cosmetics.

Today, though, I am inclined to tilt more towards our efforts to invent a new science of blending ultra-cheap polymer-based sensors with smartphone sensing capabilities to make the long, unfulfilled promise of the internet of things finally relevant. [And that would be] even in the most under-resourced regions of the world, addressing problems such as weak biomedical cold chains [which are] implicated in compromised immunisation and contaminated blood; pollution tracking; and zoonotic surveillance.

3. Describe your greatest weakness as an entrepreneur.

Sure, entrepreneurs have a stubbornness that often drives them towards fits of narcissism. But that is not our biggest blind spot. The biggest defect of the entrepreneurial mindset is the tendency to treat all relationships as a means and never as an end.

In my case, this generic flaw manifests in a roundabout way: the persistent belief that people proximal to the mission, whether as employees or customers, are somewhat incapable of good faith for good faith’s sake. And, therefore, that every social context is actually a “process” that must be “engineered” in order to attain “desirable ends”.

Serendipity is … [seldom] thought of in terms of human potentiality, it is always an auspicious market turn or transactional bonus. Accepting that people are capable of great, extra-context magnanimity and full of positive surprises has been hard for me.

My attempts at self-re-education … have focused on preventing any emphasis on interpersonal process from degenerating into distrust. We work aggressively at all our organisations to remove “clique politics” and toxic favouritism. This widens the circle of trust and prevents management controls from fuelling, rather than mitigating, colleague sabotage.

Invariably, and this has become clear to us after a decade and half of entrepreneurship, no system of management controls can prevent bad behaviour without relying fundamentally on a good dose of human goodness and desire for goodness.

4. Which popular entrepreneurial advice do you disagree with?

Focus. Don’t get me wrong, execution does require immense focus. But increasingly, two trends are adding subtlety to this ancient plinth of wisdom: the digitalisation of business models has made … [the] logics of operation uncertain. Constant iteration is not merely a norm of innovative thinking, it has become the barrier across plain survival and instant obsolescence.

Secondly, everything is integrated. Every business model now depends … on integrations into third-party systems to maintain viability, that steady course navigation is simply no longer an option. Managers don’t control their own process anymore.

A single flicker of algorithms at PayPal, Facebook or Google Search has seen fairly big companies sputter and, sometimes, collapse. Focus, therefore, no longer means, as it once used to, constant fidelity to some process of execution.

It means authenticity of purpose: being clear why some outcome drives the team and leaving little ambiguity about the values pushing towards that outcome. Clearly, that is a substantially different kettle of fish from the “focus” of conventional anecdote.

5. Is there anything you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before you got started?

How essential the discipline to be mature about the loss of control is. Growing in entrepreneurship is … a process of learning to sacrifice control of momentary opportunities and, in return, to gain a deeper understanding of strategic options.

In the past, every deal lost to a rival, every proposal rebuffed, every product launch flop, stung like the tail of a radioactive wasp. Today, they merely shed more light on what our deeper purpose is anchored to, our true differentiator in the marketplace.

It has been hard unlearning the earlier habits of always leading from the front to exert control over outcomes and learning to stay in the background as the gadfly, prompting constant collective reflection of what every outcome, any outcome, really means for our identity, and all the newer paths that superior understanding opens up.

I wish I hadn’t come to this place of growing equanimity after so many years wandering [in] the wilderness.