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Opinions & Interviews

5 Feb 2020

U.S. investor: Belarus reminds me of Silicon Valley during its golden age

U.S. investor: Belarus reminds me of Silicon Valley during its golden age
Alex Newman

Michael Pompeo’s visit to Belarus made headlines last week. It was the first visit of a U.S. secretary of state in more than 20 years. Prior to this visit Minsk had welcomed a number of other high-ranking officials from the United States. Their visits were broadly covered by mass media and discussed by the public. However, there are also some low-key visits that are just as important as visits by politicians and officials. These people also study and discover Belarus and their mission is to promote cooperation in business and investment.

At a time when Michael Pompeo was on a visit to Belarus, the country also hosted a San Francisco-based businessman Alex Newman. He specializes in artificial intelligence projects. He came to Belarus to find partners for his new business.

- Alex, how did you get into the IT business and what projects are you working on now?

I have been programming since I was seven years old. I started my first startup before I went to college. This was before wi-fi was a standard and as a young man I ended up creating wi-fi access points to deliver internet in Atlanta. After graduating from school I worked in the financial industry. I was lucky enough to get an offer from a Silicon Valley startup. It was this startup called Cloudera and that was my first Silicon Valley company. After that I started a few successful startups. The first one was on distributed database technology. We ended up selling the company quite quickly to a public company. I was very fortunate to exit, so I worked on a few things that were more humanitarian. Machine learning started to explode. I met my current co-founder. We built the company, Intuition Machines, that we have today. 

-Have you come to Belarus to find new partners and start new projects?

I came to Belarus to open an office. We currently employ some independent entrepreneurs from Belarus. They are amazing, absolutely hard working, brilliant people. We would like to expand more and more in Belarus because of the education here, especially around mathematics, and people are hard working and passion is apparent.

Since I have come to Belarus I have been introduced to a lot of local Belarus businesses, startups, even some young people doing interesting things in industries like coffee and technology. It actually reminds me of Silicon Valley during its golden age. You can see the passion in people's eyes, the brilliance. I

So far in Belarus our focus has been on hiring. Only this week have I really started to work with entrepreneurs in Belarus. They have all promised that they will come to Silicon Valley and visit me there so that I can introduce them to investors and other companies.

-What kind of projects are you discussing with Belarusian companies? Or are you just testing the waters and studying the capacity of your possible partners?

 There is a wonderful eco-system of machine learning programs here. You must be doing something right because people know math here. We exchanged ideas technically and discussed how we can work together for investment, how we could work together with joint projects and how we could bring some of the customers. However, my main goal of coming to Belarus is to figure out how do I invest in people  and how do I build a company because we do think that it will be a big part of the future of our company.

One should really not understate how passionate the entrepreneurs are in Belarus. They are really hungry to win and I think that this is going to be the key to continue to have the hockey stick growth that we have seen. When I was at the Hi-Tech Park learning about it, the companies’ growing looked like a straight line up. This really shows Belarus' commitment to technology.

The secret of Silicon Valley is that we just try to move as fast as possible. We let nothing get in the way and then we always focus on our reputation. When I was running my first Silicon Valley startup I met a great investor.  We had a one hour conversation. He looked at me in the eyes and he said: I love what you are doing, how can I invest? Two sentences were exchanged about what the deal would be. We shook hands, he went on his phone and transfered the money right then and there. I think this trust means that we can move faster than anyone else.

You are now focusing on artificial intelligence. Some say that it can pose a threat to humanity. Others believe that it is a thing of the future. What is your take on it?

As far as artificial intelligence is concerned, I think why many people are afraid of machine learning is because it works so well. It is surprising how easy it is to build a system that can identify people and cars. However, as these technologies have grown we realized that there are still a lot of limitations. The worries that we had about how the computer is going to wake up and be talking to us have not happened that quickly.

I think that we should work together both on a country by country level but also internationally to come up with the regulations so that the technology is safe. Corporations, especially in America, are thinking about this. They are already limiting this technology, especially in the political sphere. People are very focused in America that machine learning should not affect politics. I think that it shows great progress that we are asking how to safely implement such important technology. In America we have lost many jobs in manufacturing due to automation. That being said a lot of wealth has been added as well.

I talked to a lot of colleagues in China and India and their perception about artificial intelligence is very different from American. I think that it is important that every country figures out for itself how they want artificial intelligence to impact their economy. For example, my colleagues in China say it has made their streets much safer, and their city much safer.

I think all technology is dangerous. A radio can be used to make a friend or call in a bomb. So the more powerful the technology is, the more opportunity it has to help people and also harm them. This is why it is important for business leaders and governments to work together to come up with regulations the benefit all people while still keeping the country competitive.

- Alex, you are an advisor in a crypto- and blockchain project. In late 2017 Belarus passed a decree on digital economy that made it the world’s first country to legalize cryptocurrency and blockchain technology. Belarus also offered favorable tax terms for businesses operating in this field. Do you think it has really helped Belarus to stay on the cutting-edge of new technology?

This is a great policy your president has made. As I was saying before, the key to technology is allowing companies to move fast. Whether you are talking about this legislation or the tech park, it is important that we allow businesses to focus on being businesses, so clear guidance is incredibly important. I am embarrassed to say that Belarus may be far ahead to that of America in terms of this legislation.

Have you had time to visit some museums or restaurants or places of interest in Minsk? Or was it purely a business trip?

Not yet any museums. That is coming up. To be honest, it has been back-to-back meetings with entrepreneurs so far. Although I have enjoyed some of the restaurants and the food has been wonderful. We have gone to so many places and you can tell that the quality of the ingredients is great. And the healthiness of the food is very apparent to a visitor. In America our food is… Some of it is not so healthy. The food here seems very natural and people are very healthy. Actually that reminds me of California where we have the same focus on pure natural ingredients.

I have actually my ancestors on my father's side from Belarus so when I came to Belarus and landed here I felt it in my heart. Meeting with entrepreneurs, talking to these passionate people is really inspiring.

Every time I interact with Belarusian people and I see how excited they are for the future and how things are growing, especially in technology, it gives me hope that America and Belarus will continue to become closer.

By the way, U.S Secretary of State Michael Pompeo is in Minsk right now.

That's right. In America Secretary Pompeo has much power. My hope is that we will become close friends. I hope that as we invest more and more in Belarus, there can be a lot more dialogue between the United States and Belarus.

I think that the meeting at the highest level like Secretary Pompeo is important, but I would also love if Belarus were to interact with the states and the local levels of America because unlike European countries like the UK or France, in America the power is at the city level. And I would love to see Minsk and San Francisco to have a brother-sister relationship, so that way we could have more dialogue between entrepreneurs. Because I think in America that is how you make changes. We must come from the bottom up. And I hope that not only you have a great relationship with Secretary Pompeo but that at this local level we can have a real exchange of ideas so that things can change.

What can Belarus do to make it more appealing for people like Silicon Valley CEOs and investors like Elon Musk to want to visit Belarus and invest in the country?

As far as Elon Musk goes… I think an important thing to realize about Elon Musk is he puts it all on the line. He has gone broke 3 times starting Tesla, setting up SpaceX. In fact one time he lost… This was after he’d made millions of dollars on selling PayPal.  And even after being a millionaire, he was broke and sleeping on my friend's couch while starting Tesla. Elon Musk is focused on helping people. He is already so rich. Why would he bother except for to help people?

If Belarus becomes a capital of IT, machine learning, of course he will spend time in Belarus, of course he will invest in Belarus. I think that business is an important way for us to learn from each other. I think there are some things to learn from Belarus as well.

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