Startup ideas are products of environment

I used to fashion myself as “idea” guy … in terms of the ideas of the startup variety. I felt like I could, at any point rattle off 4 or 5 startup ideas …. and not ALL of them would be laughed at by an investor. Somehow I believed there was something innate in this ability. However, since coming back for grad school at the university of alberta, my perspective on this “ability,” has changed.

It’s been over a year since starting my research in reinforcement learning. During this time, I can’t say I’ve had a single startup idea (not quite true, but close). You’d think I could say that it was because I didn’t give any thought to it … but that’s not entirely true. There’s been moments where I’ve tried to think of ideas. And each time I’ve grasped at straws. Maybe the lack of ideas, stems from the fact that I approach the search for ideas, armed with my reinforcement learning hammer, seeking a nail. This approach (trying to find a problem your technology expertise can solve), could be argued as an anti-pattern for coming up with good ideas. Furthermore, it seams that reinforcement learning is in the infancy of being applied to real world problems, and still struggles to find traction because of the lack of data (or to be more precise, the time it takes to acquire real life data). I blogged about this challenge before in a post called “Scaling horizontally in reinforcement learning.” But I think the root of it might be environmental. My time spent at the water cooler is spent talking about how to optimize algorithms. Or how to leverage GVFs to form predictive state representations. It’s not spent talking about creating an app for that, as it was when spending my days in the Bay area startup scene. For the record … I’m not complaining about this change.

The effect seems intuitive. Obviously someone who is immersed in an environment where everyone and their dog are talking about startup ideas, is going to have a few ideas of their own. But until I was immersed in the academic environment, immediately after spending several years working in SOMA in startups, I didn’t realize how much of an effect the environment has on the type of problems a person is attempting to solve.


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