An Interview with Peter Corbett, Local Tech Leader with Global Vision

Corbett v2

Singapore, Kaula Lumpor, Jakarta, Moscow, Bangkok, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Cairo, Zagreb… It’s not unusual to meet someone in DC who is well traveled, but local tech wonder Peter Corbett’s travel schedule reads like a secretary of state’s. In fact, he’s been to about 50 innovation hubs around the world (and he endearingly calls himself “a spoiled bastard” for being able to do it).

“Every time I travel I try to share what I know—there’s a cross pollination of ideas that happens. …it doesn’t have to translate into revenue and profit for a company,” said Corbett during my recent interview with him at his iStrategyLabs office in DC.

I asked Peter to offer some perspective on what’s happening in some of the places he’s been to lately. Here’s a recap of his off-the-cuff impressions.

Corbett airport

Block

Russia

He calls Moscow the most underperforming capital on the planet. “So much talent but it’s so constrained by lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy, corruption…legacy of communism. If they were really democratic, they would rival Tel Aviv as the other Silicon Valley.” He describes the inefficiencies of Russia with the example of it taking three plus weeks to ship a package from Moscow to the other side of Russia.

Thailand

“Bangkok is on fire, and so has Thailand’s economy been for maybe the last decade,” says Corbett. In Asia, most markets are focused on consumer technology. And often in emerging markets, the first customer tends to be the government, so there is some public sector innovation. This is not dissimilar to the US—Silicon Valley owes its existence to Uncle Sam.

India

Corbett points to the ills of the socio-economic stratification and gender inequality in India, which he believes translates into the inability to get the velocity they need to become a developed nation. Despite this, he notes that there are healthy and growing startup communities in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and other cities.

Nigeria

He describes Nigeria in terms of its “massive acceleration in the luxury segment, and none at all at the bottom.” He finds Africa on the whole to be really interesting from a technology and innovation point of view.

Tanzania

Many people may not realize that many telecom companies test their networks in the Africa. “…to have 4G in the middle of the Serengeti was mind boggling. If you can run it in Africa in the heat, it will run anywhere—that’s why they test there.”

Egypt

He doesn’t expect much out of Egypt in the near future. “When I was in Cairo two years ago there was a lot of buzz and hope, but now the infrastructure is a mess.” “I’ve got a lot of friends there—really talented, young entrepreneurs who were very hopeful…I wonder what they think now.”

Singapore

“It’s called ‘Asia Lite’ for a reason,” says Corbett, “it’s very easy to travel and do business there, everything is in English, it’s in the middle of everything. The tech community it dense and people know each other. It’s probably half the size of DC’s ecosystem, maybe 10 percent of NYC. The government is incredibly supportive, having recently announced a $40,000,000 early stage investment fund. The real constraint for them is in regard to engineering and design talent. They have a visa policy that inhibits hiring foreign workers, and it’s already a small country, so there just aren’t enough technology people graduating from college.”

“I feel like [my travels have] given me a good understanding…of why some countries are weaker than others and what their challenges are [for tech businesses] from a policy point of view, tax and immigration…so when I come back to DC I have it all in context. Most of the world wishes they were us and had our policies.”

Corbett at internat conf

Tech Inspiration from Near and Far

Some of the most interesting tech innovations Peter has come across lately were at the Smart Cities World Congress in Barcelona last year. A developer from Helsinki built an app called BlindSquare to leverage the Foursquare API so that people who are vision impaired can have the nearby venues read to them audibly as they walk through the city. “That’s audio, social, technology services all coming together.”

A US-based company called Breakfast NY that’s a competitor of Peter’s own iStrategyLabs invented a product called Points. “Points is a new age street sign. It’s a simple pole that moves and will point in the direction of things—it’s intelligent signage powered by citizens.”

Peter’s company iStrategyLabs is also creating products in the physical space—they are working at the intersection between digital and physical. For example, they made a social fridge for GE that requires checking into Foursquare in order to open it.

corbett social fridge

“We are like the real-time commercialization layer of technology. We’re good at executing—when we say we’ll do something we do it, we figure it out.”

“Almost everything we do is open source,” says Corbett. “We generally start with open source…[such as] with java script or PHP framework. We leverage what’s been built and share it back if it’s worthwhile. We don’t work with any proprietary technology—no javascript.”

“We’re inspired by the deep web hacker communities” (by “hacker” he means people who are building weird new things and building on open source). “For example, we might be on Hacker News and come across something like parallax.js.”


Behind the Product

“Everything we do needs to tell a story,” said Corbett, “so we don’t specifically talk about storytelling.” However, they do tell stories about their work. His team recently built a scroll-able parallax site that tells the story of how they made a product for Nickelodeon.

“The idea that we need to tell the story of our creation process is crucial because it’s nearly impossible [for others] to understand the level of effort that goes into what we do, and the process, and how valuable all that is unless we document and show it. Usually people evaluate it based on the final product and they don’t realize that there’s this long tail of input that goes into that. So we are focused on getting better and better at telling our own story of how we make things.”


Peter’s non-technical advice to the tech community:

“Don’t forget that there are people in the physical space that you should probably meet. If you’re a developer or designer and you’re not trying to find your local meet-up in Nairobi, then you’re missing out. They exist in every single place on the planet. Those are where you’ll get the kind of connections and insights that are invaluable. I encourage people not to just consume online industry news—go talk to people.”

 

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Erica Malouf

Erica Malouf

Erica Malouf manages Marketing for ODDI (and is the communications go-to, copy editor, and UX researcher). She is currently earning her master's at Georgetown University, focusing on communications and marketing. Follow her on Twitter: @ericamalouf or connect via LinkedIn.

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