When I started at CSIRO as an intern, in 1984, I had no idea that one day I would end up as Chief Executive of the same organisation. But it was no linear path to get there.
When I was 10, my father died. Four years later, when I was 14, I almost died when I fell off a cliff at West Head. Losing a parent and having your life flash before your eyes has a way of focusing you. They are, to be sure, devastating experiences, but at the same time they’re a catalyst.
When I was at school, our parents and teachers told us, “Whatever you do, study computer science and learn Japanese because computers will rule the world.” Things actually haven’t changed that much today except that it’s, “Learn Mandarin.”
In fact, I ignored all of that sage advice and studied physics instead – and not software, but hardware, pretty much making sure that I was unemployable as a graduate. Like most PhDs at that time, I was encouraged to chase an academic career; if I was lucky, maybe in 10 or 15 years I could become a professor. But I decided to work in Silicon Valley and see if I could have a go at commercialising some of my science. I thought, “Give it a go for six months, what’s the worst that could happen?“
Well, six months turned into 26 years. Today, Australians going to Silicon Valley is a very well-trodden path, but back then, there were very few Australians stupid enough to think they could compete with the Americans.
Studying physics at university back then, we used Richard Feynman’s textbooks, and they said if you studied Feynman, you would deeply understand physics, but you would have probably no chance of passing an exam. But I think Feynman is recommended reading for life as well as for science. And one of the things that really differentiated him was his passionate belief in the notion of socially responsible science and innovation. We have to own the responsibility for the inventions that we unleash upon the world.
I specifically remember this because he worked on the atomic bomb; he shared the passion and excitement with a group of scientists as they celebrated the key breakthrough that enabled the bomb to work. Months later, they literally cried when they realised what had been done with their amazing breakthrough.
I have had that moral crisis many times in my career. Very early on, I worked in a start-up trying to translate my breakthroughs in science to application. I did some of the best science of my life, but the problem with this company was they wanted to do military contracting. Now, I perfectly understand the need for lasers in defence, but some of the things they wanted to do, I simply couldn’t be blind to. So with Feynman ringing clearly in my head, I left to find other applications for my lasers. Before I left, I told my CEO why I was leaving and that I wanted to try my hand at commercialisation, and without skipping a heartbeat, he said if I did that, he would relentlessly pursue me and sue me.
For me, that was an irresistible invitation to do my first start-up. The invention that got me hooked was the world’s first solid state green laser, which was used to cure blindness in diabetics. It was born in my basement in a laser lab that I’d created there and it led to my first NASDAQ IPO. That then led to another five companies. Each time I found a new market by turning amazing, breakthrough science into real world solutions.
You never know where things will lead you. Years later, I had to rush my daughter to a surgeon’s lab in San Francisco because she’d burst a blood vessel in her nose and was losing blood very rapidly, and it amazed me when he pulled out my laser to cauterise her injury. And as the surgeon finished the treatment, my 10-year-old daughter said, “Gee, I’m lucky my daddy’s a doctor.” And he said, “No, you’re lucky your daddy’s an entrepreneur.”
I’m heartened by the way the next generation of scientists is leveraging science to make the world a better place. We need that more than ever right now: leaders with purpose.
My journey began with a degree in science, but that didn’t define me. It empowered me. I became an inventor, and then an entrepreneur and then a CEO of start-ups and then of a public company and then of a venture capital firm, and now I’m Chief Executive of a billion-dollar company. Many times I have hit brick walls, and failed. And those failures sure didn’t feel like the way to success.
But entrepreneurs never give up. We may die trying, but we will never die wondering, and that’s the power of leading with purpose.
This is an edited version of a speech delivered to students at Sydney’s University of Technology.