Episode 110: Jack Lang on Cambridge Entrepreneurs, Knowing Thy Customer and Molecular Gastronomy

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Reporting from Cambridge, England, Meet Jack Lang, entrepreneurial expert. Jack Lang is a Fellow and Entrepreneur in Residence at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. He’s also a “Silicon Fen” entrepreneur and angel investor, having launched more than 20 companies including NetChannel and recently Artimi, a company making ultra wide band wireless semiconductors.

He started in AI, as a computer scientist and is now Chair of Enrollment for the Computer Labs at University of Cambridge. Jack spends much of his time now supporting would be and burgeoning entrepreneurs. You’ll get the best advice from his book, “The High Tech Entrepreneurs Handbook,” which integrates the wisdom of his years as an entrepreneur and angel.

Discussions include augmented reality, 3D worl creation, fooglefarghs, fireworks for May balls and blowtorches.

Then Suz and Jack talk about an emerging trend in cooking called molecular gastronomy and Jack shares precise details about this science-meets-cooking strategy that uses very low temperatures over long periods of time to take into consideration the melting rates of fats, collagens and other chemical changes that happen during cooking. And the word unctuous is actually used in this show, so it's not to be missed. :)


Susan Bratton: This is Susan Bratton, and I’m here in Cambridge England at the University of Cambridge on my Traveling Geeks tour, and there’s someone special that I want you to meet and I’ve looked forward the entire week to coming here and introducing you to Jack Lang. Jack’s a fellow and entrepreneur in residence at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge. He’s also a Cambridge Angel. He’s got twenty start-ups under his belt, including some new start-ups we’re going to talk about. He’s written The High Tech Entrepreneur’s Handbook. He’s the Chair of the Computer Lab. And he’s also just a delightful and amazing and a fun human being. And so we’re here actually at the Judge Business School right on the campus, and I’m going to welcome Jack onto the show. Welcome Jack.

Jack Lang: Hello.

Susan Bratton: It’s great to have you here. Thanks for taking the time on a Saturday to spend doing a Dishy Mix.

Jack Lang: Oh, it’s a pleasure. By the way, I’m not Chair of The Computer Lab, I’m only Chair of the Outreach Committee.

Susan Bratton: Okay, there you go. Well we’re going to talk about what’s happening in The Computer Lab as far as Outreach a little later in the show. So the first thing that I want to talk to you about Jack is that you are entrepreneur in residence at the Business School, you’re working with a lot of young kids who aspire to be entrepreneurs. What does it take to get into school here, and how many kids are there in a particular year that you take through your program?

Jack Lang: The MBA course is about a hundred and twenty people. This year in my course I had about seventy. The qualifications are obviously higher ‘cause they need qualifications, good gmat scores. Plus something else, plus something that shows you’re an interesting person to be around.

Susan Bratton: What kind of things are they? What are some of the students that you have had this year, this last year now that summer’s out, what did they do to get into school in addition to just being very smart and good at gmat?

Jack Lang: Well the traditional course is that you do a degree somewhere. Then you go and work for a while, typically for a management consultancy, McKinsey for example. Then you come here. Then you go and work for a bank. Then you go and run the big company.

Susan Bratton: Do you think that working at McKinsey and running a bank are the things that really set you up to be an entrepreneur? It almost sounds contrary to me, different, so process oriented.

Jack Lang: Well that’s why a lot of the people are now moving out from the traditional route because banking is quite what it was, to start, to look at starting their own thing.

Susan Bratton: Are there any kids that have come into your classes that have already done start-ups by the time they get here?

Jack Lang: Oh yes, I got one or two. Typically when they’ve sold a start-up what you do next, you go and do an MBA (unintelligible) to find out how it’s really done. These aren’t kids, these are typically thirty year olds.

Susan Bratton: Oh, I thought they were a little bit younger. Thirty, so, alright, so they have a lot of time under their belt in bigger business, if you will, but working with a myriad of companies.

Jack Lang: And traditionally they’re also at the point where they’re transitioning from, for example, technician or tech stream to management stream.

Susan Bratton: So tell me about some of the companies that have been created by the people who’ve gone through your entrepreneurial program.

Jack Lang: Oh gosh, where do we begin? Recent ones from, span out from here, well you saw some today, they’re proposing. There’s a really neat company that’s doing Sodoko Solver. What they have is some nice technology they work with, an image recognizer. You can snap the puzzle and then it’ll solve it for you if you want. Or you can take it with you or you can blog distribute it or whatever else you like.

Susan Bratton: Yeah, while we were here with The Traveling Geeks we saw presentations from ten of the Cambridge entrepreneurs that are currently either just getting their seed or their initial of investments, so very early stage; medical companies… Well there’s another one, Movies Storm and I think you’re involved in that, right?

Jack Lang: Yes, I was one of the founding, founder and chairman of that originally.

Susan Bratton: So tell us about Movie Storm as a good example of an entrepreneurial story coming out of Cambridge.

Jack Lang: moviestorm.co.uk, you can download it for free. It’s a tool to do 3D animation. I have a belief that the web is moving. Originally it was text, then it was text plus pictures, now it’s text plus moving pictures. And we’re beginning to see going to 3D. Think about the multiplayer games; World of Warcraft, think about Second Life, think about car adverts where you drive the car. So we’re beginning to transition to augmented reality and immersive reality where it’s a 3D world that you’re looking at. So people need tools for 3D worlds. This is one of the tools to make 3D worlds.

Susan Bratton: Now is it a tool for professionals or is it a tool for consumers to make 3D worlds?

Jack Lang: It’s a tool for consumers to make 3D worlds. It’s available free, download it, and we make our money by selling you costumes and sets.

Susan Bratton: It’s kind of like the kids games where they get a pet or they create an avatar and they build a room and they buy things for it, starting out in Nintendo and now online with like Moshi Pets and Wee World and companies like this, now we’re moving into the three dimensional world of doing that? Is that, is that where it’s going?

Jack Lang: It’s a growing up version of that. It comes out on the Machinima. You know, the Machinima?

Susan Bratton: Mm hmm.

Jack Lang: Where people were using games to make movies. But the problem with that is the characters always got in the way. The Simm’s characters would go and go for a pee, in Warcraft they would shoot and beat each other up and that got in the way of the script. So we stripped out all their action and made a proper movie making tool.

Susan Bratton: Tell me more about augmented reality. I’m hearing about two things in my travels here; one is the real time web and another is augmented reality. Give me your perspective on what they are and then what’s happening with those in this world.

Jack Lang: Okay. If we take something like a phone – I’m just fumbling for my phone – you’ll see its got a camera on one side and a display on the other, so we can put some processing in there, so I can hold it up and recognize your face and replace you with your avatar. I can do that for the background. So we’re actually not sitting in a room at the Judge Business School, we’re sitting on the Starship Enterprise and you’re a Klingon, or not as the case may be. And that’s the kind of fun aspect of it. But more seriously, you could think about a doctor looking at a patient and superimposing the x-rays or your data and so on. This is of course all being predicted in science fiction. If you read Vernor Vinge Rainbow’s End for example. But what we need to be able to get the technology to do it in real life.

Susan Bratton: What are some other examples of business uses for augmented reality?

Jack Lang: Oh many. You look at a car and it superimposes the manual on what you’re looking at so you know how to prepare it appropriately and guide people through that, the instructional books and so and so forth. Or you can even take it to the desktops. With The Lab we’ve got a set up desktop with multiple projectors to do a zero size display on the desktop and people can move things on a real desk as though they’re real in virtual.

Susan Bratton: It seems like there’s going to be an explosion with phone applications now, and one of the things that I saw at The Computer Lab was a Nokia presentation of a couple of different things that they were doing with the phones. One was… So I don’t exactly know what the name of it was, but it was this pliable membrane that you could potentially roll up and take out of your pocket and unroll and hold up in front of you as kind of a heads up display so there would be computer information, and that looked like an augmented reality kind of a thing. Tell me where that comes from and what that’s called, what you know about that.

Jack Lang: No one in my companies, but it came out of a (unintelligible), who found plastic semi conductors and then plastic emitting (unintelligible) and made film displays from it, so Plastic Logic is the company, and they have a very nice roll up display, film display, and there also are some applications with that.

Susan Bratton: Yeah, they showed someone walking down the street and they put it up in front of them like a heads up display and it had the computer information superimposed over the location where they were. I think that’s really an interesting trend, the, you were talking earlier about it, the idea that you could have location based and personalized information that travels around with you in the augmented reality world. Someone had recently described to me being, you know…lets just say I’m here in Cambridge and I’m walking around and I have the ability to actually look at the information that people have left behind about the location, wherever I am. You know, I’m visiting one of the schools or another and I can just pull open my phone and look at everything that everyone’s left behind. Are you familiar with some of those kinds of applications happening in the world today?

Jack Lang: Some of them. I’m not sure that one’s going to work, but still… The problem is a lot of the people just write on walls and it’s, you get what you write on walls. But their blurring between reality and virtual world is increasingly happening, both, not only in physical stuff, but also in terms of community. We’re seeing a change from communities of locality to communities of interest. And of course Web 2.0 and social I think increases greatly. If you want to talk to the other six people in the world who are interested in learning Etruscan pottery you can very easily now.

Susan Bratton: I’m interested in Etruscan pottery, especially if I can go to Rome and see it. So, you’re a Cambridge Angel; what does that mean?

Jack Lang: We’re a group of high networths; people who’ve done it once, made their money, a couple of dimes, made their money. So now we’re old and fat, it’s much easier to give the money to other people to let them run around and make us more money. So we meet every six weeks for a good dinner. And the social aspect of that is probably as important as the networking and the gossip as the actual investment, but we just divide dinner by having companies present to us, and we then invest in some of them.

Susan Bratton: How many companies typically come in and present and for how long do they present?

Jack Lang: We have a filtering process, so we start off with an interval pitch, which is a ten minute pitch, and we get maybe twenty of those at a time. And then the dinner pitch is we select three or four of those to make a full pitch, and that’s a half hour pitch with a rather rowdy who’ll give you a hard time. And then have you seen the show Dragon’s Den? Okay well, it’s a TV show here where people pitch for money basically in front of investors and they get a hard time. So we give them a mightily hard time. Then we throw them out and discuss it over dinner.

Susan Bratton: And how often do you fund one of those companies that comes in and does the pitch? You’re meeting every six weeks with three or four or five companies; that’s actually a lot of deal flow. I know that one of your favorite things in the world is deal flow. How often do you decide to fund one of those endeavors?

Jack Lang: We fund far too many. We fund about one third, and that’s much, we should be funding about a tenth.

Susan Bratton: Is it just because you’re so enthusiastic you can’t help yourself, or what?

Jack Lang: Yeah I guess so. We’re suckers for a good pitch.

Susan Bratton: That’s good. And can you give someone advice about what makes a good pitch now that you’ve seen so many?

Jack Lang: The real problem with techies is they pitch the technology instead of pitching the market. It’s different for buyer tech. Buyer tech, the risk factors are different and I’ll come onto that in a moment. But for tech the big risk is does anyone need what you can build? There are three more risks in the business; there’s a market risk, does anybody want to buy what you’ve got; there’s a technical risk, can you make it; and there’s a financial risk, will you run out of money beforehand. The last two you can control. The one you can’t control is the market risk. And so the big is people talk about the technology more ‘cause their background, it’s what they love. They don’t talk about who needs it and why they need it. FAB, if you remember Thunderbirds, Features, Advantages and Benefits, and the problem is that techies talk about the features, where the customer talks about, talks about benefits. Think of it in terms of a car; a techie will tell you it’s got a double triple super acting heaticle fugle fog inside and they’re prepared to polish it every Sunday and take it to pieces and put it back together again, and that’s ‘cause that’s what they love doing. But the majority of the market just wants to buy the car for it to get them to work or get the kids to school, do the shopping. They don’t care that it’s got a triple double heaticle fugle fog; they just want it to work and start every time. And so the constraints are different, and understanding that market is key. So being able to talk customer talk, being able to talk why they need it, what they’re doing already. Concept due to – there’s a book, I’m trying to remember the name, but never mind – that says essentially there’s only two sorts of businesses; the something that you’re doing but doing it better or faster or cheaper, and that’s the majority of business, you’re making a replacement good. The thing that you’re making is doing something that was done before but better. Amazon didn’t invent book selling - books have been sold since the fourteenth century – but they did it better. And that’s a good business because the competition is not dead, it’s still alive, so you’ve got to go fast to establish yourself before your competition wipes up. The alternative is something new; “Here’s my fugle fog. Don’t you want to buy my fugle fog? It’s a very fine fugle fog.” You have no idea. You can only relate to it if I tell you this fugle fog is a better sort of coffee machine. Then you can understand it and relate where the market is and so on. But it’s something entirely new, never seen before. It’s very, very hard to make any predictions about how many you’ll sell, or indeed if you’ll sell it at all.

Susan Bratton: I want to go to a break, but when I get back I want to talk about the craziest worst idea you’ve ever had for a company, the absolute best idea you’ve ever had for a company, and I want to get a couple of key takeaways on The High Tech Entrepreneurs Handbook, the things that you think are really the zingers, if you will, in that. And then we have to have some fun, we’ve got to talk about some of your hobbies, like fireworks and gastronomy, so… We’re going to take a break. We’re with Jack Lang. He’s the entrepreneur in residence at the Judge Business School at the University of Cambridge, a Cambridge Angel, the man behind more that twenty start-ups including one of his latest, Movie Storm. We’ll be right back. I’m your host Susan Bratton. Stay tuned.

Susan Bratton: We’re back with Jack Lang. So Jack, when we leaving to go on the break I wanted to ask you about some of your worst mistakes, you know. You were just talking about what makes a good company, but obviously you’ve learned that by making the mistakes, so… Tell us the, tell us the juicy bits about the worst dumbest stupidest business idea that you ever had and why it was a failure.

Jack Lang: Starting a restaurant. Never start a restaurant. Restaurants are capital intensive, labor intensive, top end limited and fickle. The way to make a small fortune in restaurants is to start with a large fortune.

Susan Bratton: You know that in California they say that about wineries as well.

Jack Lang: I’m sure that’s also true.

Susan Bratton: So you started a restaurant, I thought you had a two Michelin star restaurant. Is this the one you’re talking about or a different one? And you’ve done this more than once?

Jack Lang: No, no. It’s now two Michelin stars, but it took a long time and different owners, so we sold it about ten years ago.

Susan Bratton: So tell us the name of your restaurant, where it is and how it ended up with two stars.

Jack Lang: It’s Midsummer House and it’s in Cambridge.

Susan Bratton: Midsummer House, that sounds good. Is it like Midsummer Night’s Dream?

Jack Lang: Sort of. It’s in the middle of Midsummer Common. It’s called Midsummer Common because the midsummer fair has been there and has been there for the last nine hundred years.

Susan Bratton: That’s right. This is the eight hundredth anniversary of Cambridge. And what are some of the things that you’ll be doing to celebrate that this year?

Jack Lang: Oh there are all sorts of celebrations; there’s parties, there’s concerts, there’s events, there’s lectures, there’s just anything you can imagine, there’s alumni events and so on.

Susan Bratton: So you and I are going to go to Sheri Cotu’s party tonight, which I think is going to be fantastic. I hear there’s fireworks.

Jack Lang: I hope so.

Susan Bratton: Yeah. And…

Jack Lang: If it doesn’t rain.

Susan Bratton: Yeah, it’s, well it will and it won’t I suppose, and Sheri has a fantastic amazing house. Have you been there before?

Jack Lang: Yes indeed. It’s a lovely house. It’s luctions, Garden’s by Treacle.

Susan Bratton: Yeah, that’s an amazing duo, isn’t it? So tell me, we’re going to go see some fireworks tonight at Sheri’s house, but you also, this a passion, a hobby, tell us about what, fireworks in your life.

Jack Lang: I used to have a (unintelligible), but I worked for a, from time to time, as an irregular doing firework displays.

Susan Bratton: What does an irregular mean, and it doesn’t sound like someone I’d want to hire for fireworks displays? It sounds very dangerous to hire an irregular for fireworks displays.

Jack Lang: Irregular means I didn’t do it as a full time job. But it’s a young person’s game. There’s also a lot of humping and lumping and I’m getting too old and fat for that.

Susan Bratton: So you’ve got lumps in different places now.

Jack Lang: Absolutely.

Susan Bratton: So you owned a fireworks company. How did you get involved in that and what was your favorite thing about it?

Jack Lang: Well in Cambridge we have the Mables. And the Mables are big parties after the exams and graduation. But they now occur in June ‘cause terms have got a bit longer. So May week is a fortnight in June, but that’s by the way. And anyway, the colleges give balls, and the balls are lavish black tie affairs, champagne flows like water and in some colleges they drain the fountain and refill it with champagne and they have firework displays. So when I was a baby undergraduate I got involved with doing firework displays. Then we watched very carefully what was happening and got involved a bit more, and then we started doing our own and one thing led to another.

Susan Bratton: And you’ve sold this company as well I think.

Jack Lang: That’s right, yes. One moves on. I’m a geek, I get bored easily.

Susan Bratton: You like a lot of variety and trying new things.

Jack Lang: Absolutely.

Susan Bratton: So is cooking one of your passions still, because I think that, I think about you and I think about food and not just because of the lumpiness.

Jack Lang: Yeah, absolutely. I’m list master for the molecular gastronomy mailing list, and that’s kind of the new style of cooking. If you want to cook say a piece of meat, meat’s cooked when it gets to about between fifty-five and sixty degrees centigrade, a hundred and thirty to a hundred and forty fahrenheit. So it’s crazy putting it into two hundred degrees centigrade oven, four hundred degree fahrenheit oven. So instead you seal it in a plastic bag and you drop it in a water bath, and it’s a very precise temperature control and that’s usually the most tender, and you cook for a very long time…. And I can go on being boring about this if you like. There are five processes that happen when you cook meat, one of which is the protein degredation that happens at about fifty-five centigrade. One is the hemoglobin, or rather the myglobin goes to oxymyoglobin, so it goes from pink to gray. That happens around sixty and you can use as a temperature color base. The third thing is that the collagen, which is the glue that holds it together, it’s the tough bit, melts, and that happens rather slowly in the presence of wet heat. When that happens, it’s very typically temperature dependent, but at these temperatures it takes typically twelve hours to twenty-four hours. With higher temperatures about seventy and above it goes quite quickly, but that gives you then tender but stingy meat. Think about a stew that’s cooked at high temperature for a long time, and that’s the collagen dissolving. But it gives you lunctiousness into it. Then finally is the fat melting and that happens about sixty, a little over, and there are different sorts of fat that melt at different temperatures. Finally there’s the outside browning, so called mayard reaction. Now you can separate all these by separating the temperature and the time, so you can get super tender meat, brown, that you cook slowly and longer, precisely fifty-eight centigrade. And then you brown the outside with a blowtorch.

Susan Bratton: So that’s how you get the mayard effect is with a blowtorch after you’ve given a plastic bag water bath for how long would you say? Give me some idea.

Jack Lang: Well I cook mine typically for twelve hours, but some people cook it for twenty-four or forty-eight hours.

Susan Bratton: So is it a crockpotty kind of thing that you’re using?

Jack Lang: Much lower temperature.

Susan Bratton: I know, but is it like a crockpot, but with a lower temperature? Is there a special meat bath electronic, you know, appliance that you have?

Jack Lang: These are typically adapted laboratory water baths, but you can do quite a good one with a pit controller and a rice cooker.

Susan Bratton: What’s a pit controller?

Jack Lang: Predictive controller, it’s a very precise temperature controller.

Susan Bratton: So have you rigged up these appliances yourself then?

Jack Lang: Absolutely.

Susan Bratton: So why don’t you start a company that makes these? This sounds like a really good idea and definitely a trend, ‘cause I heard about it. It’s the… What’s the name of the chef that’s in San Sebastian in the North of Spain, what’s his name?

Jack Lang: Adria Ferran.

Susan Bratton: Yeah. Wasn’t he the one that, wasn’t he the one that kind of came up with this whole idea of… He’s the foam guy and the water bath guy, isn’t he?

Jack Lang: He was certainly one of the ones that originated. In this country has been (unintelligible). He’s probably more usually known about.

Susan Bratton: And so what do you think about starting an appliance company?

Jack Lang: Well there are several already, I consult to some of them. There’s a company called Suvi Magic in the states for example that make the controllers; not one of my companies. There’s a company here called Grant Instruments that make very precise water baths that’s increasingly used in the catering trade.

Susan Bratton: So, this is fascinating to me. What kind of a cut of meat do you typically make? If you’re going to have company over and you want to make a dish, what’s something that you’ve made as a meal, the meat plus other things? Give me an example of a menu you’ve done.

Jack Lang: Oh, where do you begin? Typically wing rib works very well. It has the right ratio with the right sorts of rib. Or a rib round, something like that. Can do briskets as well. And the usual sides, vegetables and so on.

Susan Bratton: So what are the usual sides?

Jack Lang: This time of year? Well we’re just past asparagus season, so I guess we’re coming into some of the Spring greens, some of the beans, fava beans for example. You have to shell both the inside and the outside. Peas, fresh peas, mashed and so on. You can get purple ones of those and they’re rather nice. New potatoes, the new potatoes are wonderful, especially this time of year.

Susan Bratton: That sounds fantastic. I’ve heard you also have a oven, a wood burning oven in which you’ve made pizza and bread. Are you still doing that?

Jack Lang: Oh you’ve done your research. Yes, I’ve built a brick fire hut with oven in the garden instead of a barbeque, and it’s really a bread oven. The difference between a bread oven and a pizza oven is the amount of insulation, ‘cause the pizza oven you cook with a live fire inside, bread oven you heat the brick, take out the fire and then cook in the retained heat, but you can get wonderful crusts that way.

Susan Bratton: Yeah, you know, the Southwestern Indians out by us – I’m from the West of course – they have something called the Horno, which is, it’s h-o-r-n-o, it looks like Horno and it looks like a beehive, and it’s a bread baking oven that they heat up in the bottom and then put the bread inside and, you know, on top of a thick slab and that’s delicious.

Jack Lang: Yes, there’s a whole tradition of these cob ovens, these earth ovens. Canadians for example have them as well. In Quebec you particularly see earth ovens.

Susan Bratton: An earth over, I like the name of that. Thank you so much for coming on Dishy Mix. It’s been a real pleasure to learn more about the entrepreneurial world in Cambridge; so impressive and so much like Silicon Valley. And I really liked the Molecular Gastronomy tutorial. I guess I’ll go get my blowtorch out of the garage and put it in my kitchen now. So Jack and I have a special bonus for you, dear listener. I filmed Jack offering his number one top takeaway of the most important advice he can give any entrepreneur. And you can find this on my Dishy Mix blog at dishymix.com. Just search on Jack Lang and you’ll get this amazing man’s most sage wisdom for early stage company success. Actually in retrospect I think it’s the single most important thing for every company’s success, which means you must listen to it, and you’ll get a chance to see Jack in action. I think it’s the perfect ending to a great interview. I’ve enjoyed being here at the Judge School of Business at Cambridge. Really good. Oh, and while you’re online don’t forget to join the Dishy Mix Face Book Fan Club at dishymixfan.com. Or while you’re in Face Book just search on dishymix, all one word, and you’ll find me. Become a fan because I give away all sorts of goodies to our fans. As a matter of fact, I have Jan Valenta coming up from Scotts, the Miracle Gro company, and she’s giving away two big buckets full of fun stuff from bird seed and grass seed to all kinds of really good things including some Mary Oliver poetry, so that’s going to be one of the most fun giveaways we’ve had. So make sure that you sign up as a Dishy Mix fan at dishymixfan.com. Thanks for listening to this episode of Dishy Mix, and Jack thank you again. I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m your host Susan Bratton. I’ll see you next week.