#29 Trond Arne Undheim: The Happy Futurist

updated on 02 June 2021

If you have the means to directly realize your dreams, you are not dreaming big enough. Instead, experiment with different creative ideas to achieve your stretch goals.  

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Trond Arne Undheim, PhD, is a futurist, 2X podcaster, 5X author, investor, and serial entrepreneur who grew up in Norway, spent his student years in Europe, and currently lives in America from which he speaks on a myriad of topics including the future of technology, commercializing innovation, our health tech future, the future of work, leadership and reskilling, global e-governance, the futurist’s view, inclusive capitalism and the future of Finance, and mastering our physical world. 

Our conversation with Trond felt like a scene from Back to the Future in which he brought us with him on his time machine to the year 2050. Trond articulated a vision in which AI/ML, blockchain, robotics, synthetic biology, and 3D printing are not only the technological pillars of the world but also where their role in society is also fully understood. This view of the future reflects Trond’s innate curiosity and his mission in life: understand the world and be at the forefront of societal advancement, making orders of magnitude of difference for business, society, and the planet. We left the conversation with excitement through the roof and filled with motivation to build the world we envision for the future. 

Trond started his career as a researcher at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim. After stints in the military, European Commission, and Oracle, he continued his journey to MIT, where he was a senior lecturer at the Sloan School of Management and later spearheaded the MIT Startup Exchange Program, MIT’s own startup/industry accelerator. Today, he is a Venture Partner at Antler and Hitachi Ventures while running his own startup, Yegii, an insight network for professionals analyzing trends, tech and markets. 

Fun fact: Trond researched the future of work already back in 2002, with a focus on the potential of remote work, and is now deeply engaged at predicting the future once again. If you want to know more about what the next years might bring, you can follow Trond’s futurist podcast, Futurized, or his industrial podcast, Augmented.

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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

What did you always dream of when you were a kid?

I dedicated most of my childhood to the few things I loved and dreamt about. Firstly, I used to spend a lot of time building with Lego. I created all kinds of structures; tall, short, wide, and abstract forms, a big city, and even a Lego movie my friend Jørgen Tegdan and I made on a 1980s Panasonic Camcorder. I always wanted to see how far I could go and push the boundaries of what was possible. I was an endless experimenter. By the way, I have more Lego today than I did as a kid, and have sought to transfer the love of Lego, and the engineering drive it generates, to my kids.

Secondly, I dreamed about travelling. As a child, I wished to meet all kinds of people in different places all around the world. However, being from a modest Norwegian background, I couldn’t afford to hop on a plane. My solution: books. My mom and I visited the local library so often that the people working there became our second family. I brought a plastic bag every time to carry the books back home, reading multiple books a day throughout childhood, and eventually, I had gone through all the books in the library. This was my way of travelling. To this day, as we are approaching the virtual age, my office is a library with thousands of books. In the age of Twitter, TikTok and Clubhouse, I’ve also written five books (see my books) and I’m working on my sixth. You could say I’m a contrarian. More than anything, I want to be part of endless discussions (a trait some love and which drives others crazy). 

If you do not have the means to directly realize your dreams, experiment with different creative ideas to achieve those goals. 

Trond devouring books!
Trond devouring books!

What were your passions during your time in school, and how did you nurture them?

Due to my upbringing by parents who were educational dreamers, in High School, I believed that University was a place filled with individuals wanting to dive into deep conversations about the world we live in, our society and how to advance it as it stands. I was wrong. In my undergrad, I had difficulties finding these individuals. It was a time where I was filled with questions and had very few answers. 

My solution was to retreat to the library. With the idea of replicating my reading strategy as a child, I was ready to delve into all the books and journals the library had on its shelves. As it turned out, the university had plenty of reading material to offer (laughs). At some point, I started dropping my classes, to be able to spend more time in the wonderful environment of the academic library.

It all changed during my graduate studies when I got the chance to travel to Naples, Italy, and Berkeley, California. At both places, I developed a deeper personal relationship with my professors. They became mentor figures for me. The teaching method was different and resembled that of an apprenticeship. The focus was on learning, experimenting, and iterating with a constant feedback loop and not just memorizing information for a test. In an environment focused on mentor-based learning rather than memorizing, I started to thrive. 

Then you moved to the US. Did your time at UC Berkeley grow any desire to be involved with early-stage companies? 

Funny that you ask. I actually travelled to Berkeley for love rather than science. That was why I ended up at Cal and not any other university in the US. But my involvement in early-stage companies started before Berkeley. During my time at NTNU, I co-founded one of the first business incubators in Trondheim, InnoVisionHouse. This happened in 1997, and unfortunately, the city and its entrepreneurial ecosystem was not ready for an incubator. We were the Antler of 1997, but the timing was not right (also, starting an accelerator to advise others when you still are very much in need of entrepreneurial advice is also not recommended).

Berkeley was fantastic and it had a much more developed ecosystem. However, I spent my days mostly studying innovation rather than focusing on scaling a particular set of startups. My concentration was on knowledge workers and how the power dynamics in an organization change when working remotely. My doctoral thesis, What the Net Can't Do: The Everyday Practice of Internet, Globalization and Mobility ended up deeply critical of remote work. I remain doubtful that top leaders or career climbers will go fully remote anytime soon--because convincing people is still a face-to-face game. I guess I was ahead of my time (smiling). It was a ton of fun and I loved every second of it. Berkeley and its entrepreneurial environment made me feel alive, and ready to enter the startup world!

Although Berkeley had a developed ecosystem, the number of start-ups was rather low, and it was more known for its counter-culture. To witness a place bombarded by entrepreneurship and venture capitalists, at that time, I had to go to Stanford. Today, Berkeley is one of the global innovation hubs in the world. We often forget that the entrepreneurial focal points were once just like any other city. 

Trond giving a lecture.
Trond giving a lecture.

You worked for a couple of years, before going back into academia. Why? 

I worked at think tanks, at the EU and at Oracle, to get a broad view of work life, although my passion remained research driven thought leadership. Then, again for family reasons, life took me to New England, and after knocking on many doors, I got the chance to teach at MIT, one of the most entrepreneurial places on earth. I had the time of my life there. After 2 years of teaching, I was given the chance to build out the university’s own corporate/startup accelerator, MIT Startup Exchange. It was thrilling to meet a tremendous amount of creative entrepreneurs on an everyday basis. All of them wanted to change the world, and their energy was contagious!  

The founders at MIT had the right attitude, and motivation. They wanted to start a company to solve real problems, not to get richer, although many do succeed with both. Because of that, these founders were willing to go the extra mile and accomplish their goal quicker than anybody else. Additionally, they all had an incredible level of deep tech expertise. Seeing a company go from 0 to 1000, becoming unicorns that change the world, is beautiful and worthy of history books!

Without the right attitude and the willingness to go the extra mile, it’s impossible to bring a company up from ground zero. 

Trond launching the MIT startup exchange. 
Trond launching the MIT startup exchange. 

Was the transition from Norway to the US what you had expected?

I have lived in the US for 11 years, which is quite a long time. In my many years living across the pond, I have noticed that the American dream, in which I used to believe, is often little more than a fictional trope, at least for the great majority of us. Its “New World” excessive boastfulness can expand horizons but can also diminish true diversity and respect for others, which its legacy of racism indicates in spades. In a global world, myopic Americans concerned about being ‘the best country in the world’ can come off somewhat provincial, in the same way that the Romans, the French and the British did towards the end of their glory days. I want to always look outward and to the future.

Having said that, there are terrific people here, when you look closely, and for all its flaws, the country still has an abundance of opportunities. The coastline is particularly beautiful and both East and West coasts are obviously famous for their connection to foreign-born talent, innovation and technology. These attractive aspects of America made me, an urbanist Norwegian from the countryside, feel at home as soon as I stepped on the American soil. 

As with many aspects of life, perfection only exists in the eye of the beholder. Don’t be too disappointed when life doesn’t mimic your dreams--just dream up something new. 

What are the lessons learned from working with several hundreds of startups? What advice would you give to an aspiring entrepreneur?

The founder’s motivation is key. There is no escaping that. Founders must be willing to sacrifice everything for their company. Moreover, the problem that is being solved better be important. Otherwise, the entrepreneurs are spending their time working on a problem that does not exist. I have met many coffee entrepreneurs who have jumped into this world because it’s popular. That is very dangerous. 

The dedication needed as a founder is almost endless. 

Dedication is a key criterion we examine at Antler. We are looking for the people who will go all the way, the people who do not have time for excuses. This mentality is shared by all the people within Antler and for the people joining us in the future. 

When I look for founders to invest in individuals who have stretched goals as part of their identity catch my eye. There is a problem in the world that pains these people to the bone. They can’t allow themselves to die tomorrow because the problem they are tackling has not been solved yet. At the same time, they need the capability of visioning so they can share not just their enthusiasm, but the path that needs to be taken, with their teams, partners and clients. Finally, I look for diversity and divergence of thought. Conformists don’t create startups. Rather, they embrace what I call Leadership From Below

What about the founders with endless dedication who did not succeed? 

I’ll tell my personal story. I have been working on a competitor of Google for many years - Yegii. The idea was to focus on only the insight that matters instead of mapping the greater web. Even identifying and indexing the top 500K websites, people, events, and papers have proved too difficult (so far). For all that I’ve learned from it, from the perspective of creating a competitor to Google, I did not succeed. I have pondered on the plausible reasons behind the lack of success, from capital insufficiency, to conceptual weaknesses, to hiring mistakes, to technological shortcomings, to my own leadership failures or misplaced bets. Going through this process made me realize that there are a lot of nuances in failure which are still not widespread. One of them is the value of failing slowly. Failing fast is the Californian version, the Silicon Valley mantra of success. I find that way of thinking quite shallow. Worldwide, there are many more ways to fail, each may be equally valid and fruitful in the long run. I’ve recently summarized my thoughts on this subject in my book Disruption Games

There is tremendous depth in failing slowly because of the reflection process. Call me a post-Freudian disciple, but this is an aspect that has been neglected in the conventional fail-fast methodology. Friends, colleagues, advisors among others might not believe in the proposition an entrepreneur is building. Because of this lack of validation, many founders stop their projects halfway. However, at the same time, many of the outsiders will not understand what the founder is trying to build. Especially if it’s frontier tech. To keep it short, don’t let other people dictate the story. Carve a personal path, even if it might seem to be an unconventional decision. Most startups seemed crazy at the time, even to fellow founders. I’m not sure I would fund a founder who adamantly claimed they have never failed in their life. 

What does the future look like?

As I point out in my recent book, Future Tech, the next decade will be dominated by platform technologies such as AI, blockchain, robotics, synthetic biology, and 3D printing. To the Venture Insider readers, I strongly recommend finding material on those technologies and try to understand them better because they will be the main drivers shaping our society in the next decades. However, you cannot pick one technology, you need to understand them all, and you need to reflect on the ethics surrounding their deployment. We are entering an age where only the polymaths will thrive. 

Short term, in this decade alone, we will be dealing with what I’ve called the Pandemic Aftermath. After that, a perspective on a longer time horizon - more than 50 years into the future is needed, which is something I’m actually working on. I believe humanity needs to make certain changes in how we live and treat the planet, or we will have to live in a radically different and deteriorated world from an environmental point of view but perhaps also from a humanistic one. 50 years from now will be an interesting juncture in human civilization. We will know whether we will be living in a synthetic world or in a natural world or, most likely, in a hybrid. We will also know whether earth will be able to sustain us for another humanity cycle of a few thousand years, or whether humankind will either gradually (or suddenly) perish or, with what certainty and pace will need to rebuild a new world elsewhere (become interplanetary) within the next few generations. 

When was the time you felt the most vulnerable?

I already covered the struggles I had with my startup so I’ll mention another experience that occurred in Sicily, Italy. I was on a bus trip and the bus caught fire inside a tunnel. I was sitting in the back of the bus flirting with some Sicilian students when we suddenly saw and smelled smoke. The driver refused to believe us, but the engine failed soon enough. It was definitely scary, but I made sure everyone on the bus made it out. We all ran for a mile or so through the smoke before the bus exploded behind us. The driver ran some more, to try to escape the police, for some reason, I never found out why.

My takeaway from this accident is that whenever you feel cornered, figure out what your next steps are. Once that has been done, you don’t feel that cornered anymore. Rather, the choice appears simple. In this case: get everyone out and run for your life. 

When you end up feeling trapped, there are always solutions. It’s a matter of defining the next steps and opening your mind to different ideas: just not too many at the same time so you get stifled. Dreams come through by action, not by the act of dreaming itself. 

What would you do if you only had 30 days to live?

Return to Trondheim and spend time with my mother who is the kindest person I know (as was her own mother). I would also enjoy the fantastic local cuisine, likely I’ll opt for a filet mignon from a local farm, accompanied by an aged (the 1989 vintage) red wine from the Left bank, ideally from the Pauillac region in France, while writing about one page of text for each of my children telling them to go on with their life with a smile on their face. 

One book? One podcast?

Future Next & Future Insiders.

One Billion Dollar Idea: if you were to start a company today, what is your one-billion Idea? 

I don't think any idea itself can have such a monetary value. The value is not in the idea, but rather in the execution. Ideas are great. But without proper execution, they are ultimately worthless. What I dream of is coming up with a one billion dollar process to grow any startup. It is not about building on the perfect idea, the best team, or even getting money from the best venture capitalist. It is likely more akin to finding the best ways to fly or surf by timing your surge effort to the wind or to the waves. 

Key Takeaway

  • Be creative if conventional methods are not available. Trond discovered that books enabled him to travel the world and that writing gave him a way to interpret it. 
  • Without the right attitude, it is difficult to get anywhere. It is the make or break for going that extra mile which is necessary to succeed.
  • There are always solutions. Even in difficult moments, it’s all about reflecting on what happened, then looking ahead, even further than before, and then defining the next steps. As one path closes, make sure another opens up. Then pursue it with all you’ve got.

Inspiring story Trond, thank you very much. 

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