The Spark meets the 33 year old Edmund Efe Olotu after he defied a Bachelors degree in Mechanical Engineering from Manchester University and 14 rejections, in one day, from foreign Investment Banks; then went on to receive MSc [Distinction] in Science and Technology Entrepreneurship from the University of Nottingham Business School; took a pass on a PHD from Nottingham for another Masters, in Management, from Harvard University where he co-founded a biotechnology company, received the Bill and Melinda Gates Grant for Global Health, and raised 29 million US Dollars in funding.
Read this sparkling tale of re-invention from Edmund Efe Olotu perspective…
I am from Benin City in Edo state. I was born in 1981 to loving parents, a sister and two brothers. In my early days I grew up in Warri, Delta state, and Port-Harcourt in Rivers State. I attended Lumen Christi Secondary School, in Edo State. I did my A’Levels in England and proceeded to Manchester University to study a Bachelor in Mechanical Engineering. After my Bachelors degree I became acutely aware that I didn’t want to work as an Engineer…
I think my professional career began when I spent five months in Saudi Arabia during my studies at Nottingham University as part of a team of four gentlemen. I performed some high level IT consulting work for one of the largest interior building materials company in Saudi Arabia…
Then while doing a research project with a classmate at Harvard University, we came across a paper written by a prominent scientist in Germany about the transport of HIV and other viruses in the body. It got our creative juices flowing and we decided there and then to start a company to discover a new class of Antiviral drugs. We had no prior experience and no money- But that didn’t stop us. In 2006 I co-founded Molecmo NanoBiotechnologies
(now Novira Therapeutics) with Ali Munawar. The preceding two and a half years that followed were some of the best and worst times of my life; but I am glad to say that the company still exists today. Our Anti-Viral drugs are being considered for Human trials in the USA, after passing Animals trials with flying colours. We raised more than twenty nine million US dollars in Venture capital for the company and I left the company and the USA, in 2008 December, to return to Nigeria to set up a technology incubator.
When I arrived in Nigeria I was offered a job with the now defunct HITV. I was the GM for International Business Strategy and Special Projects for about two years before I resigned. My experience there was a steep learning curve in the dynamics of doing business in Nigeria—the potholes and obstacles that await any forward thinking entrepreneur, whether deliberate or incidental. But we had a good run of it but ultimately the tumultuous Nigerian business climate got the best of the company. While I was there we were able to secure contracts to distribute our Nollywood channels and Nigerian Music channels across Europe and Africa. We won the football rights for both Nigeria and Africa in a competitive bid, although the limited financing options available to young Nigerian businesses forced us to concede the Africa rights to the competition.
I left HITV in early 2011 to focus on building my technology incubator- Its called TechAdvance and basically it focuses on the advancement of technology businesses in Nigeria and more importantly the breeding of a new class of Entrepreneurs within the Nigerian ecosystem.
TechAdvance is run by Samuel Uduma and I. We have successfully launched companies in Nigeria and the USA with the intention that when the Nigerian technology space advances such companies will open shop in Nigeria and replicate the successful business models of the USA. In the USA, we have launched My Merchant Services Match– An online platform that allows business owners to find business accounts that match their business needs and apply to open such accounts from the platform. We also launched GenerateForSchools—a company that helps schools, in the USA, generate recurring revenue by converting surrounding business to our credit/debit card processing platform.
In Nigeria, we launched G-Pay Instant Solutions Ltd, a payment application development company with a focus on payment applications for universities and electricity utilities. Last year we launched SuperGeeks LLC, a Personal consumer Electronics repair shop and a provider of extended warranty services for Personal consumer Electronics.
Sometimes people only see the success but what challenges have you faced to become who you are?
I have always had outlandish ideas so I had to deal with a lot of “No” and skepticism when I dream up something. As someone who builds businesses, especially as a Nigerian, the access to capital is very limited so you tend to find that the growth rate of such businesses can be slow. But in all, these things just make you a little bit more tenacious and more steadfast in your desire to reach your goals- For me it definitely has.
For example, I was a full time student when I was building Molecmo and on numerous occasions I spent my school fees and rent money doing experiments that I knew would get us to the next level. Most of my friends thought I was crazy and they still do- but they were gracious enough to allow me a space on their couch to sleep or for me to occupy their spare rooms. At that time in the USA, no one was going to give a Nigerian and a Pakistani, money for an unproven and untested idea. I thank God for my Dad- he has the most supreme belief in me (and all my siblings) and he would often sacrifice heavily to support my dream. Because at that time that was what it sounded like. A lot of people do not have the same support structure so they are forced to really grow up fast and be very creative about the next steps they take. And that is where mentorship helps—a stranger might have the answers to that otherwise insurmountable problem of yours.
What are your thoughts on mentorship? Did anyone play a pivotal role in your success?
A lot of people have played pivotal roles in my success—from lecturers at the University of Nottingham and Harvard University, who believed in me and were always on hand to advise me, to my parents who are always there, and never tired of being bombarded with the next business idea. To a man who had never met me before, back in 2010, but cut me a 6 million naira cheque before I finished explaining my business idea. There is another gentleman who is one of the largest recharge card wholesalers in Nigeria. The way he ran his business was very enlightening. I’d love to name names because but I don’t know how they will feel about being called out in such a public forum.
Does your climb to the top leave room for romance and fun? Or family? If so how do you manage that balance and still stay successful?
Well… I try to have as much fun as I can, whenever I can. All work and no play will definitely leave one’s mind completely blocked. One must always make space for romance; but I admit it is very difficult for technology entrepreneurs. For the most part your office may be your bedroom and a laptop. And most conventional thinkers won’t get it. They might deem you lazy or lacking in ambition. When it gets difficult for a romantic interest to explain to her friends and family what it is that you do for a living, the relationship will get tested. More so if you are always broke which you will be at early stages, it impacts your self confidence and even if it doesn’t, it surely limits your ability to have a fun and romance filled relationship with someone. Even when you start to make some money and you move from pyjamas in your bedroom with a laptop to a suit and office with staff, you will find yourself extremely busy and married to your business. Potential romantic interests will feel threatened by that and you may find yourself not being empathetic enough. These factors combine to make having a meaningful relationship quite difficult. My advice is to stay focused on what your goals are, try to compartmentalize your time so your spouse knows that during a set period of time of the day you are fully focused on them and wish yourself good luck.
What core belief have you held on to in your pursuit of success?
Never cheat anyone. Cheating people makes success very bitter. Sometimes because of the business environment in Nigeria you may not be able to hold steadfastly to a promise you made. In such circumstances it is good to over communicate why and try to make provisions in other ways. You never want to have a reputation of being a cheat. As Nigerians we have a bad brand globally and that is beyond the control of the majority of business people who are doing great business both in Nigeria and abroad. Attracting more negativity or notoriety as a consequences of your own actions is very detrimental. Keeping your integrity as a young business person even when everyone around you is compromising is extremely important.
Where do you envision yourself 10 years from now?
Hopefully, married with kids. Hopefully, working less as hard and having the opportunity to give back to society either via work within the Public Sector or higher education or through a corporate social responsibility vehicle of one of our incubated companies.
How do you give back to the community?
I give back both formally and informally. There is always room to do more. But I try to be very accessible to other up and coming business owners and university students who need general career guidance. We have instituted some formal CSR initiatives through the SuperGeeks Academy and other foreign partners and I am sure if you get my partner, Samuel Uduma on this platform he will have a lot more to tell you about that. Right now, as part of G-Pay’s CSR program we are giving away a free e-commerce portal to up and coming online retailers to help them get more out of their internet presence.
What advise do you have for young people who would like to follow in your steps?
Entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Some people are better off working and contributing their quota to an establishment and receiving due acknowledgement for it. A lot of ground floor staff, middle management and executive management have helped bring the dreams of entrepreneurs to life and in so doing have found fulfilment themselves. They seldom get credit for that. They are equally important too. So I’d advice that young people should do a lot of soul searching and make sure it is exactly what you want to do and not something you are doing because you think it is the cool thing to do. The road to entrepreneurial success is
windy and difficult to navigate; but if it is for you, you will enjoy every step of the way and every single day of doing it- Even the bad days.
And the moment our readers are highly anticipating, what will you give off as The Spark–an incentive to encourage the rookie of the month in his or her own pursuit of success!
I will give the rookie of the month a desk at our incubator in Lekki Phase 1, with internet facilities and electricity for six months. We will also give them a free payment platform that allows them collect mobile and online payments. And of course I can be their friend and mentor if they would let me.
Photo Credit: Literati Clothing