Saturday, February 4, 2012

Dinner and the theater

DSC08025Following on New Year’s renewal, I’ve been working to get out more – lectures around town, a bit more exploring in London, events to warm the short winter days.  The University maintains a really good notification service for lectures around campus through Talks@Cam, worth subscribing to if you live in the area or consulting when you visit.  The Music and Events guides are much worse, nothing like the Week in/Week uit guide for Maastricht.

Wolfson College held it’s annual Burns Night Formal Hall and Ceilidh last week. And, looking at that sentence, probably everything in it needs translating.  (And, no, that is not me in the kilt, above).

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Wolfson was my home college at Cambridge; Formal Hall is a formal dinner arranged for the Fellows, Members and Guests twice a week.  Attendees dress up in their college robes (a bit like Harry Potter), sip champagne with the president, dine by candlelight in the main hall, and share spirits from the college cellar afterwards.

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Burns Night is a traditional Scottish dinner celebrating poet Robert Burns: there are bagpipes, readings from his works, haggis, whisky, traditional toasts, lots of thick brogue and kilts.  And there is a dance afterwards, a Ceilidh, pronounced Kay’-lee and a bit like a barn dance in the US, with more drinking and revelry until the wee hours.

It’s always fun: the toasts are filled with clever Cambridge irony and commentary, the conversation with other Members of the College is always interesting, and the dancers are game but dismal, a good time all around.

Pitmen PaintersAnd, while in London on business there was time to take in the Pitman Painters, a production at the Duchess Theater about the true story of the Ashington Group.  These are Newcastle miners who invited a university lecturer to teach them about art, then guide them through creating paintings of their own.  Their primitive realistic works became a hit in among critics and patrons, sparking debates about the nature of art, talent, class, and economics.  It’s engaging and thoughtful, sometimes getting a bit preachy but generally capturing the contradictions in these men and their work very well.

A persistent idealism runs through the play, part of 1930’s politics and economics, suggesting that the failures of capitalism could be addressed by a new classless socialism, giving the tools of production to the workers and distributing the benefits equally.  Ashington GroupThe miners see their work enriching others at their expense, not just separating them by income and opportunity, but relegating them to a diminished class of people.  Some of the best scenes are when they try to reconcile who they think they are with how others see them, proud of their value yet suspicious that they are being used by others. 

Newspaper reviews of the play generally speak of the tragedy of that idealism, how it was crushed during the Thatcher years.  It’s difficult to understand what hope they thought they saw in socialism, it’s not a part of the political vocabulary today in the same way (or, in the US, at all).  But the problems that they rail against remain real and widening.  A little idealism in some alternative wouldn’t hurt.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The two-minute pitch

2-minThis week we presented our second-round funding pitch to investors at London Business Angels, a regional angel syndicate.  We worked with them on our successful first-round funding in 2010 and so approached them again this time.

Their service is straightforward. If we are selected, then we are trained and groomed for a pitch event that they organize.  If we raise money, LBA gets a percentage as matchmaker.  They provide guidance and resources, we make the most of the opportunity.

This year, the format included both a 2-minute video pitch and an 11-minute audience pitch.  I feel like I’ve gotten pretty good at the live, long-format event, but the short studio set was a new experience.  Armed with some general guidelines, I went off to prepare.

I started by writing down a few paragraphs and tried it out against a stopwatch. Three minutes. I hadn’t actually written that much; it was surprising how little content can actually be put into 120 seconds. I start to appreciate the challenge of writing commercials.

And I started chopping.

I’m Dr. David Hampton, CEO and founder of CamStent, a Cambridge-based medical technology company that is improving patient outcomes and decreasing hospital costs.

Our company began when I met a chemistry professor who had developed a non-stick coating that could prevent the buildup of biofilms, a persistent problem in medical devices. It’s especially prevalent in this one, a Foley catheter, used to drain the bladder in a quarter of all hospitalized patients. 100m of these are sold worldwide each year, a 375 m gbp market. But when toxic Foleymicroorganisms settle onto the catheter surface, they cause infections, hurting patients, adding hospital days, multiplying costs. A successful solution, an antimicrobial catheter, will be readily adopted at a premium price.

We formed the company, applied for patents, and obtained first round funding, including investment from London Business Angels.  18 months later, we’ve met our milestones; we’ve stayed within our budget. The polymer sticks to catheter surfaces; we’ve demonstrated its antimicrobial effectiveness. The coating is safe, not a drug or a biologic, so there’s a simple path to regulatory approval: we can reach market in 18 months.

We’re raising 650,000 pounds in second round funds: 250,000 has already been obtained by winning a highly competitive Technology Strategy Board grant; our existing angel investors have pledged 200,000 more. We’re seeking an final 200,000 from new investors to close this round.

Our license revenues will reach 7.5 m each year within three years of product introduction. A trade sale could net £20 million 2 years from now at market entry, or £50 million in 5 years with proven revenues. And our platform technology leverages to other applications in drains, stents, and pins, further increasing investor returns.

We’d like to discuss the details, answer your questions. Thanks: I’ll look forward to talking with you.

That’s it: no time for more.  I caught the early train to London to deliver the pitch at 11.  The guide is to repeat 20 times to commit things to memory, then relax and do more to make it flow. To my seatmate’s concern, I repeated the talk over and over and over until it became meaningless second-nature.  Fortunately, the cold snap cut the signaling lights, so we were an hour late into King’s Cross.  I was ready.

Staring into a camera is much harder than looking at an audience: there’s nobody to smile at, no body language to interpret, no reassurance from partners planted our front.  There’s just the camera operator, looking at his watch. 

First run, my brain froze half-way through the third sentence.  Sigh, sit up straight, shake it off, deep breath,nod, ‘Again.  1:56: nailed it.  Thumbs up, done and out.

The 11-minute pitch was four hours away, so I started rehearsing, but there was now no way to get the two-minute one out of my head.  It’s like a song I couldn’t forget.  I gave up and rewrote everything, wrapping my remarks around the two-minute phrases.  A bit silly, but it flowed and I didn’t hesitate.

RedfordThere’s a scene in the Robert Redford movie The Candidate where he collapses in the back seat of his car, reciting phrases from his stump speech.  I can see the same thing happen to Mitt Romney, pulling out safe, familiar phrases to suit every occasion.

It didn’t get to that point, though.  I was lead-off speaker, a bit more pressure, but hit the marks clearly (content and time) and I hope it came across conversational.  We had good investor response, but, with a month of events upcoming, though, this is just the opening game of the new season.

Disclaimer:  As always, this essay reflects personal opinions and experiences: I have neither received consideration nor been asked for endorsement by LBA.

Further, this account does not constitute an investment proposal nor is it an offer to accept investment funds.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Deciphering Dutch grammar

rosettaI’ve been stroking through my daily hour of Dutch, alternating sessions in Rosetta Stone with periods reading the FD or Volkskrant and listening to Klare Taal.  It’s making a difference, one seems to play off of the other, and as my writing vocabulary improves, my listening is better able to parse words from sentences.

For Rosetta, I’m on the lasts month of my subscription, so I’ve finished Level 2 and my goal is to wrap Level 3, the last series, within the next couple of weeks.  I’ll write a better review of that experience after I’m done.

Grammar remains a problem, though.  I ran in frustration to Skype the other day to try to sort the difference between dezelfde and hetzelfde with a Dutch friend: they both mean “the same” in sentences, but its impossible to try to sort out which to use when from looking at examples.  (As with so many things, it turns out to depend on whether the noun is de- or het-.)

Dutch An Essential GrammarMy go-to guide for grammar has always been Shetter’s Dutch, an Essential Grammar. I have the orange 9th version (2007), well battered, well studied: the Nuns in Vucht insisted we get a copy.  (Aside: Doesn’t it seem a bit baffling why there should be nine versions?).  But on questions like this one, it’s not much help.

Fehringer2Searching Google for answers, I stumbled across Fehringer’s Reference Grammar of Dutch, which I am really liking.  The points are well-organized, clear, and concise, and it’s a quick job to look up a point while working through.

Fehringer

Neither is good for casual reading, but both are worthwhile supplements to a self-study program with Rosetta, Delft, or other methods.

Disclaimer: As always, these are products that I bought and used: my opinions are my own and I have neither been asked nor compensated to write these comments.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Experiencing reality (TV)

I don’t watch a lot of television, but I confess to having a soft spot for a good competition / elimination.   Amazing Race, MasterChef are probably my favorite US and UK variants, respectively, but it’s hard to compare US and UK takes on the reality format unless you have two shows built on the same premise airing at about the same time.

Surprisingly, that opportunity came from Art.

Aspiring artists, hoping to break into the big time, showed their works to a panel of three judges, two men and one woman, hoping to be selected for a spot in a gallery exhibition to be attended by wealthy patrons and influential critics.  In the US, the show was Work of Art, airing on cable channel Bravo; the UK featured Show Me the Monet on BBC2.  You can see clips from each show by clicking on the two embeds below.

Work of Art–Episode 4, Part 1
Show Me the Monet–Fiona Cockburn

The BBC program is a bit like Antiques Roadshow: artists bring their work in for the “Hanging Committee” to review.  If they score well on originality, technical skill, and emotional impact with at least two judges, then the work goes on to the exhibition.  Immediately, we learn whether the artist managed to sell it. 

There’s a lot of drama in having each artist judged on a single representative work for less than 10 minutes. These are charged emotional encounters, putting forward very personal works and the artists really struggle to keep composure as the judges dissect them.

Charlotte MullinsI’m absolutely fascinated by Charlotte Mullins perfect hair and unflappable poise, but enjoy art critic David Lee’s remarks the best.  Still, the format is so low-key and the entrants go by so quickly and repetitively, it’s hard to get involved with them, and the show wears thin quickly.

Bravo’s show is more like the Apprentice: artists are given a task (creating cover art for a novel), materials, and a time limit, then judged on the results that they were able to product.  The worst performers are voted off by the critics, and the remainder go to a further round, eventually arriving at an exhibition.

WoAThe critics are completely faceless; the engagement is with the contestants who each build a presence and a narrative over the weeks.  The artists have to work fast and are outside of their best medium, so the technical quality of the art feels low and and the participants have little emotional investment in what they create.  There’s relief or disappointment after the judging, but none of the confidence shattering dismissal of  the British judging.

I think that the differences in the shows are reflective of the differences in audiences, the difference in culture.  Britain prefers an examination; the US a performance.  The UK wants art, the US prizes style: one focuses on the work, the other on the individual.  I think it’s a reflection of the respective societies as much as it’s a lens on the artists.

Neither show was a hit with the media: the Guardian and Time were critical, but both Monet and Work are coming back for a second season.  I would prefer to blend the two: the highbrow seriousness of Monet’s judges, the extended opportunities for the artists to show their personality and creativity in Work.

Until then, there’s MasterChef, which is ironically judging as much by artistic appeal as by culinary taste.