Mohand Khouider: “Perfection is a never-ending quest”

While the world is likely not benefiting much, I do try to make a difference in my community. I make sure to be available to people to contact for advice; I’ve had a number of different entrepreneurs ask to do a call with me or get coffee so I can walk them through the patent […]

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While the world is likely not benefiting much, I do try to make a difference in my community. I make sure to be available to people to contact for advice; I’ve had a number of different entrepreneurs ask to do a call with me or get coffee so I can walk them through the patent filing process or go over their business and give pointers in terms of strategy. It’s important to give back to the community whenever you can and be helpful. We can all grow together.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mohand Khouider.

Mohand is the CEO of VAE Labs , a startup looking to shape the future of energy with their flagship product VAE: a caffeinated energy spray. The recipient of the Prestige Scholar award at McGill, he has worked in multiple neuroscience-based labs, ranging from clinical to animal. He has designed and led his own Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation clinical study and has designed and created 3D-printed neurosurgically-inserted head bars for transgenic mice, significantly reducing costs for research projects on the progression of Alzheimer’s. His product is still used in McGill labs today.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Of course, thank you so much for having me! I was born in Montreal, Canada to Algerian Kabyle immigrant parents and moved around a lot as a kid, moving at 3 to New York City, and living intermittently between there, Los Angeles and Victoria, BC. I was always curious as a kid and loved reading — at a certain point, my parents’ friends would buy me encyclopedias as birthday presents! I also loved doing science fairs, playing soccer, and swimming whenever I was on the West Coast.

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

One of my favorites that was especially applicable recently is “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” As much as I am a dreamer, I always like to remind myself that it’s better to go for things that you can act on right now. It’s better just to start something rather than wait around for the perfect time or project to magically come up. For instance, when we got a proposal for investment in February, we had friends and family telling us to wait and that something better might come along — we ended up accepting the offer, and we are very glad we did! With COVID-19 becoming a big deal in March, it would have been challenging to meet investors and our US provisional patent, which we needed the money to update, would have expired in June!

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Perhaps one of my favorite books is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. As someone with a neuroscience background, it particularly appealed to me as it goes over ways that our subconscious influences our thinking and how we often think by using heuristics — mental shortcuts that save time, but don’t often give the optimal solution. Understanding oneself and one’s biases is key to making good decisions which is of paramount importance when running a start-up.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

Our primary inspiration came from seeing our friends in undergrad taking tons of energy drinks and caffeine pills to keep up with the rigours of university. We noticed that they would have these intense peaks and crashes which we knew could not be healthy. That’s when we decided to try and find a way to counteract some of the negative effects of caffeine. While we were going through the literature, we knew we also wanted to make it convenient, so our friends could carry it around with them wherever they might need energy. The “ah ha” moment perhaps came when we thought back to an old Mr. Bean episode where he used a breath spray before meeting the Queen of England. As funny as that bit was, we immediately realized that a spray would fit our product perfectly: extremely portable, easy to use, and simple to measure out each dose. We then looked into the solubility of caffeine, saw it was much too low to be useful in a spray and set about finding a way to radically increase it. The rest is history!

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I would say that the most important thing is consistency; it’s to keep working at it even when the path ahead may not be clear. For that, you must fully believe in your product and believe that you’ll always find a way to keep going. This can be difficult if it is only you working on it, and so one of the best things we did in retrospect was involve our friends — the very people we were developing the product for. They would taste test and incorporate the product into their daily routines, and in doing so we got a lot of good feedback on how our product was being received and how it benefited them.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

The most important step is definitely to have faith in yourself and the courage to look into your ideas rather than just immediately dismissing them, thinking someone else must have thought of it before. I like to live by a philosophy of cautious optimism: give yourself enough space to dream and to try new things without losing touch with reality. The best way to do that is to thoroughly research your idea without attaching your ego to it. It’s best to find out as early as possible that an idea is not viable or has already been done before. The best way to research your idea is to thoroughly and objectively investigate it, to ask friends and family for their unadulterated feedback and to ask yourself why your idea doesn’t exist or hasn’t seen large-scale adoption. It’s also important to thoroughly search the Internet, trying to think of variations of your idea, before committing to something fully. Take the criticism that people give you seriously, and make sure you either have an answer for everything or are looking for one.

For our part, when we came up with our idea, we first questioned whether our product had been done before, and why something like this didn’t exist yet. We saw that it was a technological problem as the natural solubility of caffeine was simply too low to allow for such a product to exist. Therefore, if we were able to increase caffeine’s solubility, we would have a unique product on our hands.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

Absolutely! Elon Musk has been a huge inspiration for me growing up — seeing him start from so little and accomplish so much in such exciting fields, pivoting ceaselessly between electric cars, solar energy, spaceflight and even neurotechnology! I know he had much hardship at the start, especially in the early Zip2 days, and powered through it to bring so many amazing ideas, in many different fields, to life.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

Sure! I previously talked about getting the idea, so I’ll continue from there. After managing to increase the solubility of caffeine and making it viable, we then worked on improving the flavor for a while. Once we realized we had something on our hands after lots of positive feedback, we went ahead with incorporation and started looking into how to patent our formula. We soon realized that filing for a patent can be incredibly expensive (especially for us on our student budgets). After talking with a lawyer, we found a much more budget-friendly solution: a US provisional patent. For just 1500 dollars, we were able to file a provisional application which gave us 1 year to test out our idea and come up with the money to file a full PCT patent. After being approved by Health Canada, we started looking for investors before locking in a deal in February. Once we secured funding, we filed our PCT patent and hired an industrial engineer through Upwork (an online talent sourcing platform) to design our bottle. We then built our website by ourselves using Squarespace and learned a lot of free software including Blender, Inkscape and GIMP to help us make a teaser video and a number of ad images. For the manufacturing of our bottles, we sent out a quote on Alibaba and interacted with the factories on Wechat. It’s very important to conduct calls and get to know the people you’re working with: there’s a big leap of faith to be made when you finally commit. For liquid manufacturing, we went through a directory of natural health product manufacturers in Canada that dealt with liquids and called down the list until we found someone who would make it in small enough batches for our budget. With all of these steps being very costly, we decided to run a crowdfunding campaign and began gearing up for our Indiegogo launch in September. Crowdfunding is a great way to raise some extra capital and also to test the market to see if people are reacting to your product in a positive way. Getting pre-orders and receiving positive feedback from your market also helps to build credibility for talking to retailers down the line. Currently, we have hired a production company to make our Indiegogo video and are running some Facebook and Instagram ads to acquire an email list for our upcoming launch!

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?

The funniest mistake I made was sending the wrong flavor sample to someone who asked for one; they had wanted mango, but we sent a mint one! Thankfully, they still loved it, and we learned to have better quality control and have two people check on shipments before we send them out.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I would say the “tipping point” was when one of our taste testers asked to buy our samples because they loved the effects they got from it and how convenient it was. The spontaneous request displayed the value of the product and showed me that it was clear that people were willing and interested in purchasing more. That’s when I knew we were onto something. We started taking it much more seriously, and perhaps the most important lesson is simply to make sure that people are willing to pay for whatever you’ve created.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

The 5 things I wish someone told me before I invented my product would be:

  1. It will take up your life. You must forego social opportunities and events and will have little free time as there is always something to do. Often, I would be invited to an event or social gathering and I would have to decline as I was working on VAE!
  2. It is okay to take some time off. Concurrently with 1, even though there is always something to do, it’s important to take breaks when you’re feeling exhausted. After a break, you’ll be more rested and can work even better than if you were just constantly grinding. As well, after taking your mind off things, you will come back with fresh eyes, allowing you to see issues from another angle and implement a new approach. For instance, creating ads for Facebook and Instagram can be exhausting, and coming back to it with a fresh perspective enabled us to try radically different ideas leading to an improved cost per lead.
  3. Perfection is a never-ending quest. It’s better to have something good and to start acting immediately than to hold out for something perfect once it meets a certain quality threshold. It’s important to be optimizing for time and there’s a huge time cost associated with taking something from good enough to perfection. A good example of this is in making ads: it’s best to run and compare multiple different styles of copy, even if the copy itself isn’t perfect so that you know which direction to take and optimize from there.
  4. Once you commit to a course of action, follow through whole-heartedly. Sometimes you will have to make decisions without having all of the relevant information and so it can be hard to commit fully as you wonder “what if I did something else.” For instance, when internally voting on a voice actor for our commercial, we would often bring our top pick back into question if we found new audio clips or new voice actors. However, we eventually ended up going with the same person and just lost valuable time in the process.
  5. Know when to cut your losses. Sometimes a decision you’ve made may not have been the best one — in these cases, it’s essential to not let yourself get biased by sunk cost fallacy and move forward with the decision that makes the most sense at the present time. For instance, we had originally approached an ad agency to run our advertising for us but eventually realized that working with them would not be an efficient use of resources. We had put in a lot of hours doing discovery and planning and had even sent them a sample of our product but in the end, they were turning out to be expensive and just not a good fit.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

The very first step would be to search for something similar on the internet, through Google or any search engine. I would then bring it up with some close friends or someone I trust to see what they think. Research would be the next step, to determine who your market will be and whether or not they will be willing to pay for your product. If everything checks out and the product seems achievable to make, only then would I proceed with constructing the first prototypes or finding someone who can.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

While I personally did not hire such a consultant, if you have the money, getting a consultant could be a good idea as they can provide valuable feedback. If you need help or direction or need to put some money down to feel committed enough to pursue an idea, then by all means hire one. However, if you are self-motivated and have experience designing and making things, it might be more prudent to spend your money on something else.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Bootstrapping can only take you so far — it’s perhaps a necessity at the start, but having money streamlines so many things and ensures that you can grow so much faster that, as long as you can get a good deal and not give up too much equity, it’s certainly worth looking for investment. Ideally, I would bootstrap as much as possible to get to an investment-ready point before talking to potential investors. This is a growth-focused strategy though — if you care more about keeping control, I would say bootstrapping all the way.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

While the world is likely not benefiting much, I do try to make a difference in my community. I make sure to be available to people to contact for advice; I’ve had a number of different entrepreneurs ask to do a call with me or get coffee so I can walk them through the patent filing process or go over their business and give pointers in terms of strategy. It’s important to give back to the community whenever you can and be helpful. We can all grow together.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. 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.

If I could inspire a new movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, it would be for increased funding for research all the way from the grade school to the university level. Scientific research at every level is grossly underfunded, and science fair type projects in schools give children a great head start on creating projects from scratch and bringing them to life. This kind of creative thinking is not often found in the more rigid structure of normal classes and gives them an important sense of self-worth which will allow them to become the innovators of the future.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Whilst of course it is a long shot, I would love to have a coffee or lunch with Elon Musk: the fact that he is self-made and the founder of so many important startups, using money he’s made along the way to begin the next big thing from PayPal to Tesla to SpaceX to NeuraLink, is massively inspiring. I would love to get a chance to pick his brain and discuss his vision of the future.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Thank you so much for having me! Loved the opportunity.

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