Dr. Wanli Min of North Summit Capital: “Start small and fail fast”

Start small and fail fast, a quick and dirty solution does more to test the market than launching a big and ‘complete’ solution that doesn’t solve real customer problems. As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Wanli Min , […]

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Start small and fail fast, a quick and dirty solution does more to test the market than launching a big and ‘complete’ solution that doesn’t solve real customer problems.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Wanli Min , Founder and CEO of North Summit Capital and QuadTalent Technology. Dr. Min is a leading expert in industrial intelligence and business innovations powered by data technology and mathematics. He pioneers a ‘technology + capital’ strategy to accelerate digital transformation in various industries ranging from e-commerce to manufacturing and smart city. As a Technology and business leader and innovation pioneer who spearheads China’s Industrial AI revolution, Dr. Min was named by Forbes as a leading technologist driving China’s AI revolution and also appointed to the advisory committee of the next-generation AI strategy under China’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

After I graduated from University of Chicago’s Ph.D. program, I moved IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre, which is quite typical for academia. My ‘unconventional’ and ‘atypical’ path started around 2009 when I moved to IBM Singapore’s Innovation Lab to commercialize data technology applications in smart city. This move was inspired by my 2008 research work of road traffic congestion prediction up to 1 hour ahead, which meant that traffic congestion could be avoided if commuters and authorities are warned of upcoming traffic jam so pre-emptive actions can be taken as the intervention. However, at the time, data storage and processing infrastructure limited our ability to process the massive data set and carry out complex computations in real-time. A large-scale roll-out was impossible, until 2016 when I was leading the City Brain project at Alibaba Cloud, where cloud computing was powerful and affordable enough to support my vision. In Hangzhou, City Brain was able to create an on-demand ‘green wave’ (syndicated green traffic lights) to cut down ambulance travel time by 50%, a typical situation where every second counts.

It was the first time I witnessed the power and impact of theoretical work when applied in the right context. My experience at Alibaba Cloud from 2016 to 2019 further reinforced my belief in the collective power of cloud computing, data technology, and industry domain expertise. Technology injection compounded with capital will ignite this value creation power across industries. Therefore I started my fund North Summit Capital and QuadTalent, a digital transformation business servicing clients from traditional industries in 2019, ‘atypical’ move again for tech veterans.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

On the technology front, my work of mixing topology/graph theory and large sample theory expanded the territory of conventional AI beyond image recognition, speech recognition and signal processing. Started out as a research scientist, this is something I am proud of.

Applying this framework to the traditional industry and commercialize it for value is another thing that is disruptive. This made it possible for us to ‘learn’ and make sense out of the domain-specific data despite lack of prior exposure to these domains. For instance, I successfully optimized operational parameters for petrochemical clients in their production process and helped them improve their top-line and bottom-line performance, without being an industry expert myself. The data told me all the stories, and this was made possible by the framework that came out of my research paper during my Ph.D.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Back in 2015, I was working with the Head of Information Centre from the Department of Transportation in Zhejiang Province to develop some AI components in the ‘Smart City’ project. In our conversation, information security emerged as a key concern for our public sector client when he learned that the data would need to be put onto the cloud.

In my attempt to persuade him that the cloud is secure and necessary for us to dig out details in the massive data set, I started to explain the power of MapReduce and how virtual private cloud could help get around security concerns. I could see him getting completely lost and irritated for not understanding a word I was saying. I then heard the absurdity in my words and shifted gear. Luckily I convinced him eventually.

It was a valuable lesson for me and for all technology practitioners — do not use tech jargon to cover up the inability to convey messages in plain language.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Indeed. My supervisor Jonathan Hosking at IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre is one of those mentors for me. He gave me some valuable advice that stayed with me until this day. I was just fresh out of school and started as a researcher in his team, and I included a lot of mathematical formulas in project deliverables to clients from non-technical/non-scientific backgrounds in the industries. Needless to say, clients were confused and lost in the maths while losing sight of the value we were delivering.

Jonathan told me afterward that it was crucial to make the key messages crystal clear, particularly during interdisciplinary communications.– it is okay to include technicalities during a detailed, in-depth discussion with peers; but when presenting to clients, it is critical to highlight the overarching goal of the work we were doing from a business perspective, preferably accompanying the verbal explanation with a clear, punchy statement in the title of the presentation deck; when necessary, mathematical formulae can be included but contexts need to be articulated and purpose described.

I am glad that he taught me this lesson so early on in my career. Being in the tech industry for so long, I witnessed first-hand how so many of those communications fail because technology practitioners talk jargon and technicalities, failing to articulate value in their work and getting across the messages in plain language.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

The fundamental value proposition of an industry normally remains stationary and can ‘withstand the test of time’; however, good disruptions enhance the value propositions and accelerate value sharing while ‘bad’ disruptions may have unintended consequences and lead to adverse effects. For instance, modern means of communication like email and instant messaging disrupted the way we share information which used to be facilitated by postmen. Yet while pesticides lifted agricultural productivity to some extent, it also led to pollution and food safety concerns, which requires further ‘good disruption’ to fix those problems.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

1. Be value-oriented and customer-centric as opposed to tech/tool-oriented

2. Be persistent

3. Start small and fail fast, a quick and dirty solution does more to test the market than launching a big and ‘complete’ solution that doesn’t solve real customer problems.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

We try to provide disruptive solutions that generate tangible and sustainable value; therefore in our pitch, we identify key decision-makers in client companies who will benefit most from our solutions, and we plant the seeds by articulating how we can help them innovate to create value. Once we establish the perception that we take a collaborative approach and aim for value-add, doors will likely open for us.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

I would like to continue on the path of propelling technology advancements as well as their real-world applications.

On the technology side, I am particularly interested in the latest technology development and ventures in cognitive science and brain-computer interface. I believe it will fundamentally revolutionize pre-emptive diagnosis and treatment of certain diseases of Alzheimer’s, the condition affecting millions across the globe.

On the application side, it has been my long-term pursuit to propel industrial penetration of technology across the geographical areas and vertical sectors, by infusing both talents and technologies with traditional business models. Spearheading digital transformation of data-intensive industries like retail, logistics, manufacturing and agriculture can be greatly impactful — lifting productivity, reducing carbon footprint and releasing humans from dangerous workflows are particularly relevant in the post-pandemic reality for businesses globally.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Steve Jobs spoke on several occasions about principles with Apple’s suite of products, which I cannot agree more with. He advocated for user-centricity — designing for ultimate simplicity while focusing on the essence of user needs, and aiming for engineering excellence; as opposed to starting with convoluted technologies and getting bogged down with specific programming languages and frameworks.

During my career of devising technology solutions for businesses, this was my guiding principle as well — start with legitimate, long-standing pain points of the industries, and work backward to architect the solutions. True value can then be realized and impact will follow.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Steve Jobs said, ‘stay hungry, stay foolish’. He repeatedly bid farewell to his past success, and embraced even bigger missions full of uncertainty, from Macintosh to iPod, from iPod to iPhone and iPad. Time and again, he re-invented himself and never stopped to leap forward.

This was inspiring for me. From IBM T.J. Watson Research Centre to Google, Alibaba and now starting my own businesses, I took many turns to re-invent myself. I stayed foolish when others thought I was knowledgeable enough to feel satisfied. I stayed hungry and kept trying to push my boundaries to do better when others thought I could sit back and cash out dividends from past achievements. I believe in the old-fashioned way of staying humble and working hard.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be a movement to demystify AI and big data and encourage more people from across a variety of industry backgrounds to get hands-on AI experience with basic applications. In return, AI technology and big data will gain more ground in industry adoption. Because I believe that in order to revolutionize industries with transformational technologies, key stakeholders within the industries need to be mobilized.

To revolutionize the industries with transformational tech, stakeholders need to be mobilized.

How can our readers follow you online?

I am quite active on my LinkedIn account, where I regularly write and publish opinion pieces and updates of my companies. Here is the link: https://www.linkedin.com/in/wanli-min-1869753/

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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