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Paul Powers of Physna: “It encourages me to strive to be better every single day”

“Why do you care about yesterday? Last time I checked, today is a new day.” My mother told me this once when I was twelve. I often think of this when I have a bad day and am tempted to view myself more negatively as a result. This advice reminds me that defining myself based […]

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“Why do you care about yesterday? Last time I checked, today is a new day.” My mother told me this once when I was twelve. I often think of this when I have a bad day and am tempted to view myself more negatively as a result. This advice reminds me that defining myself based on the past is useless and limiting. It encourages me to strive to be better every single day.


As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Paul Powers. Paul is the Founder and CEO of Physna, a venture-backed startup focused on digitizing the physical world by making real objects fully software-legible. He was recognized by Forbes in 2019 as one of the Forbes 30 under 30, and has presented on stage at TEDx, Startup Grind, Startup of the Year at SxSW, and is a regular commentator on Fox Business and other national news networks. Paul’s unique journey started as a homeschooled child who went to Harvard at 16 before moving to Germany, learning German and passing the German bar exam before returning to the US to found Physna.


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?

My goal since the age of 7 has always been the same: Change the world in the most positive, meaningful way possible by unlocking a technical or scientific breakthrough that allows humanity to move forward even further. I grew up homeschooled, which allowed me to focus on my obsession with science. I went to Harvard at the age of 16 for Astronomy and Astrophysics. I quickly realized that a more impactful approach might be to create a tech startup, so I decided to switch over to a more generally applicable degree. At the same time, I had an opportunity to do an exchange year in Switzerland, where I learned German. I chose law over business because I had already started a business at that point and believed law would be more advantageous and provide a different perspective. To pay my way, I always ran a company since the age of 16. This started off as a tutoring company that later became more digitally focused, and later I created a translation company that transitioned into an enterprise software company.

I was accepted into the University of Heidelberg in Germany where I studied law. If your goal is to get the most difficult useless degree you can think of, go to another country and take the bar exam in a foreign language, pass and then move back. That’s essentially what I did, but obviously not to pursue a career as a lawyer in Germany.

The reason I share that is because all of that led to Physna. Lawyers use algorithms to find stolen logos, plagiarism, and other types of intellectual property theft. But this wasn’t possible for product patents because the algorithms were unable to match 3D data. I looked online and found a number of tools in the category of “geometric search” or “shape search” and decided I would use that technology to build a company to fix that problem. I moved back to the US and quickly got to work. Unfortunately, none of those tools worked as I had hoped. They only found exact duplicates — and only some of the time. Model orientation, file type and changes easily caused the search tools to fail — and none of them could find parts within parts.

Inspiration for how to address this came from astrophysics, and I hired a team of developers to create an entirely unique, purely mathematical approach that would allow us to map and relate every type of 3D relationship. It would be the DNA of physical objects. Physna is short for “Physical DNA”, and that is how we were born.

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

Imagine taking a glass vase and smashing it against the ground. It would shatter into millions of tiny, random fragments. If Physna saw the vase, it would immediately know how to reconstruct it out of those fragments. Physna will show you where every tiny shard of glass belongs.

While that certainly isn’t an example of a common use case, it illustrates how Physna works — and that’s just one of our algorithms. Physna applies five proprietary algorithms to every 3D model we receive, and that generates a unique code — the “DNA” of that object. Anything else in the world that matches that object — whether it is 100% the same or less than 0.001% similar — is correlated to that object. To use another analogy: Physna can tell you, and show you in 3D, exactly how to assemble random parts from your garage to build anything they are capable of creating.

But when we created this, the idea was simply to protect patents from theft. What we didn’t realize at the time was that in the long, arduous process of making that possible, we had uncovered a capability that had virtually limitless applications. In the past three years, we have been approached by over 100 of the Fortune 500 with more than 300 unique challenges our technology could solve.

We can’t build 300 businesses, so we focused on one issue: If you are a product designer or engineer, studies show that, on average, you are likely only 1/5 as productive as a software engineer. The reason is that software engineers have many tools we take for granted that simply weren’t possible in 3D: Copy/paste, spell check, autofill, etc. There was no “Google” for 3D, and no “GitHub” for hardware engineers. So, we created a tool to change that.

Since then, we have grown our customer base tremendously and cover industries ranging from apparel to defense, from aerospace to electronics, and from medical devices to consumer-packaged goods. Meanwhile, these customers have begun to utilize Physna for more than just their engineering departments. It’s used to automate supply chain decisions, since Physna can show all supplier options for every part. It’s used to identify parts in the field and know not only what you’re looking at, but visually in 3D where it goes and how to use it (think IKEA instructions on steroids).

In August of this year, we launched Thangs. Thangs.com is the world’s first geometric search engine that searches public 3D data as well as user-uploaded data. It empowers not only professionals but also hobbyists and students to collaborate with automated version and revision control — something that was never possible before. And we decided to make it 100% free. Even private models and folders are free of charge.

Our mission at Physna is to bridge the gap between the physical world and the digital world. Most of the world’s economy is based on physical objects, but little software drives the intelligence around physical objects. The next big leap in technology will come from merging the physical world to the digital world, and Physna’s geometric deep learning technology will power the connection.

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?

There are too many to count. Creating the technology that powers Physna was much like inventing the lightbulb: We first invented the 9,999 ways it wouldn’t work.

We were completely unaware of how impactful the technology would be, and we didn’t invest much into our user interface at first. The first public demo of Physna’s technology in 2016 was literally us showcasing mathematic results on two black monitors and highlighting redundant identifiers (strings of data). Unsurprisingly in retrospect, very few people understood what we were talking about. We have luckily made great strides in our user interface and marketing since then.

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?

I’ve certainly been influenced by, and received great advice from, many people in my life. It’s important to be open to views and ideas. This may sound idealistic, but I truly believe that literally everyone out there can be a mentor in some way. It’s important to maintain humility and realize that it’s possible to learn from anyone — and to listen. Some of the best advice I’ve ever received didn’t come from mentors in the traditional sense, but rather from random individuals of all walks of life who said something I needed to hear at that point in time. If I only listened to a select mentor, I would have missed those many lessons.

Although he was a friend and colleague rather than a mentor, I did learn a lot from my late co-founder Glenn Warner. Glenn unfortunately passed away unexpectedly last year, and it was a professional and emotional crisis all in one. Glenn was nearly twice my age, and our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. Working so closely with someone to build a company creates a strong bond and you reflect on those countless conversations when someone passes away. Going through the months following his passing was a very painful lesson in itself, but it was also a very powerful one. I had to be very strong in many ways, and work unforgiving hours for many months, in order to keep our fast-paced startup on track despite the sudden loss of our CTO. I learned that I can be a lot stronger in those moments of tragedy than I ever would have thought, and I truly learned to lead by example when things are at their hardest.

Our new CTO, Dennis DeMeyere, is about as different from Glenn as humanly possible. And I’ve learned a great deal working with him in the same capacity as well. It is crucial to always learn from everyone around you.

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?

That’s a very interesting question. My personal view has always been that there are those who create traditions, and those who simply follow them. It’s healthy to question everything. A system or structure should never be immune to reconsideration, improvement, or disruption for that matter.

I think it would be foolish to assume a system or structure is good simply because “that’s how it has always been”, but the inverse is also true: It is equally foolish to assume a disruption is a positive thing purely because “that isn’t how it used to be”.

The burden of proof is always on the disrupter. You have to prove that there’s an advantage over the status quo. Speaking at a very general level: Humans are essentially hard-wired by evolution to lean towards fearing the uncertain more so than aspiring for even more. We mimic our parents from a young age and are far more likely to adopt and copy a behavior than to challenge it. But that wiring can be modified through our cultural environment, and there are certainly cases where new approaches are automatically assumed to inevitably be better.

The way to address this is to evaluate new ideas based on the desired outcome and whether that is achieved more easily than it could be previously. But that assumes that the disruption is only a direct replacement. Sometimes disruption happens by completely rethinking the purpose of something.

For example: Smartphones aren’t necessarily better than flip phones at being phones. I’m old enough to remember texting in class with my phone in my pocket because I could feel the buttons and knew exactly what I was typing. The batteries lasted longer in flip phones, and getting to the dialing function didn’t require opening a phone app. Having said that, like almost everyone now, I use a smartphone and I have for some time. It’s not a better phone — it’s a far better tool for various types of communication and applications. And that value is so significant that I’m willing to give up the better battery life and pay a lot more for a phone than I ever dreamed of paying in the past.

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

“Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you’re right.” This is a quote from Henry Ford, but I was told this by a friend a few years ago for what I believe was the first time. At the time, I wasn’t sure how we could make Physna’s algorithms work until long after we started. I had poured all of my money and time into it, and I was starting to convince myself it just couldn’t be done. I expressed my frustration and self-doubt to a close friend and told him I was wondering if I should just give up. He responded: “Do you really think you can’t, or are you just saying it’s really hard?” That made me stop and think. He followed up on his question with the quote from Henry Ford. That made me realize that I had been convincing myself it was impossible, and the problem wasn’t the algorithms — it was my mindset. Only one week later, one of our coders ran up to me to tell me that Physna’s algorithms were working. And at that moment I realized that I had almost given up when we were just one experiment away from finding the solution.

“Why do you care about yesterday? Last time I checked, today is a new day.” My mother told me this once when I was twelve. I often think of this when I have a bad day and am tempted to view myself more negatively as a result. This advice reminds me that defining myself based on the past is useless and limiting. It encourages me to strive to be better every single day.

“Never let what you want to say get in the way of what you want to accomplish.” I unfortunately can’t remember who told me that, but on countless occasions that advice brought me back from saying negative things to someone when I’m frustrated. That negativity wouldn’t help anyone, and it certainly wouldn’t improve any situation.

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

Physna Enterprise and Thangs have been growing at incredible rates, but this is just the beginning. We plan on fully changing physical industries by rewriting how the digital and the physical interact. With hundreds of requested use cases, the way to achieve this is by creating a platform and API licensing structure that allows others to build tools based on our core technology. You could say we’re leaving “binary” behind in favor of “trinary” — which contains over 100,000 times more information and doesn’t rely on human proxies like text descriptions, video and audio recordings, and pictures to convey information about the physical world.

It’s time for technology to mirror reality — not a 2D representation of it.

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?

I found “The Magic of Thinking Big” by David Schwartz to be very insightful. It outlines not only psychological factors that are important, but also makes a strong argument for something I’ve learned to be true throughout my life: It is vital that you determine your goal first, and then work your way back to today. Map out that journey. If you don’t know where you’re going, there is no right path. Never let the path define your goal. If no path exists, forge one.

This resonates with me because I held a clear goal in my mind throughout my life. All through law school in Germany I knew that the real end goal was to create an impactful technology through a startup. That’s not a direct and obvious path, but I was able to see that obtaining a law degree in Germany as an American would set me apart, which would give me an opportunity to work with some of the world’s leading technology companies (not only in Germany, but in the US) because virtually every large German or American company does business in the other country, and that requires legal work. Within one year of starting law school in Heidelberg, I was recruited by one of the top law firms in the country and immediately began meeting with people such as the CEO of Siemens, SAP, etc. These relationships and the experience dealing with these companies gave me insight and advantages I wouldn’t have received if I hadn’t stood out from the crowd. The only way to go through all of that and still actually start a company like you said you would from the beginning: Know your goal, create the path, follow it and never give up.

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

“We become what we think about.” — Earl Nightingale

This quote is quite closely related to the sentiment in the Henry Ford quote I mentioned earlier. In the end, success truly boils down to mindset. I’ve learned that it’s important to train your mindset over everything else. As a startup founder, you are glued to an intense emotional roller-coaster. If you are in the right frame of mind, you will naturally seek out information around strategies, techniques and efficiencies. But the reverse is not true. You will become the person you truly believe you can become because in focusing on it, you will naturally begin to think about how to get there.

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. 🙂

We evolved to survive in a world full of natural predators and famine. We are built to be cautious hunter-gatherers — and for the vast majority of our time on this planet, that’s exactly what we needed. But society and technology have evolved far faster than we can biologically, and those once life-saving instincts are now hindrances from reaching our full potential. The reason most people don’t take big leaps of faith in their career or business is that we have evolved to fear failure more than we seek reward. And that makes sense. Being an overzealous hunter going after two large Mammoths while armed with only one spear was likely not a trait that lent itself to high survival rates. Our fear of failure is a dreadful one. It is closely linked to the fear of death, because the two were often synonymous.

But in the 21st century, we no longer need instincts to survive. We need instincts to thrive and reach our full potential. The most depressing anecdote anyone ever told me was that they realized that the richest place in the world is the graveyard. After all, that is where most potential ends up.

If I could start a movement, it would be to counteract this by promoting a society that respects the value you can gain from failure, that acknowledges all who dare to do great things — no matter what they achieve. Rather than frowning on those who take risks and lose, we need to applaud them. That in no way means we should promote failing. But we should accept that it’s a natural part of trying. The only real failure that has zero value and cannot teach any lessons at all is to never try.

It’s time to stop enriching the graveyard. If one dies empty — having shared all their ideas, passion, creativity, and drive — you might say they never died at all.

Just imagine how wonderful the world would be if we all had a chance to see each other fully come to life.

How can our readers follow you online?

You can reach me through either of our product websites, Physna.com and Thangs.com.

I’m also available on LinkedIn and enjoy speaking with creative, driven people whenever I have the chance: https://www.linkedin.com/in/techlab/

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


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