As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Isaac Balbin.
Dr. Isaac Balbin is a PhD-educated electrical engineer and a successful entrepreneur, currently serving as chairman and CEO of Parsl. With a passion for technology and how it will shape our future, Dr. Balbin has deep expertise across a wide range of topics including blockchain, cannabis, cryptocurrency, supply chain, physics, and a number of others.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
No worries at all. I grew up with a love of science and mathematics. I found great beauty in discovering the inner workings of the incredible machine we call our universe. But I always wanted to know more. In 2017 I had 2 interesting things happen to me. The first was I had a friend who was making a lot of money on bitcoin. And this friend continuously tried to get me to invest into it. Now, at that time bitcoin felt like a scam, looked like a scam, and was being used by some seriously dodgy characters. But even with all of that, there was something interesting there. So I told him I’d look into it.
Now I’m not a stock trader, but I can do math and so my investigation led me to understanding the principles behind bitcoin. In other words, I started learning how a blockchain actually worked. As I delved deeper and deeper into it, I started to fall in love with this technology because I could immediately visualize numerous ways in which it was going to completely revolutionize our lives. The potential impact was on a scale comparable to that of the internet.
Around the same time I had a colleague of mine that was studying for a PhD in biomedical science who was involved in a group that runs a series of meetups. She invited me to one of those meetups that was all about medicinal cannabis. Now I think that I, like most people at that time, used to think that cannabis was for getting high and that was about it. I’d heard stories of other applications but it all seemed like wishful thinking and was never backed up by anything verifiable. Now at this meetup I learned about medicinal cannabis for the first time, and more importantly I was presented with facts and data that could be used to back it up.
It felt wondrous, to find out so much about how and why cannabis is so effective as a medicine. It was fascinating to learn that we have an entire regulatory system in our body (the endocannabinoid system) and that it regulates so many of our internal organs. But the question I had was “where could you get this information?” I remember distinctly raising my hand in that meetup and asking the presenters. Their answer shocked me and motivated me to devote my time, effort and resources towards making a change as the status quo could not stand. Their answer to me was that it was my responsibility to go out and find this information. Well, that was simply not going to work. At the same time, I saw a kid by the name of Ben Oakley who has served as my own personal inspiration from that time. I heard his story, learnt about how medicinal cannabis had saved his life, and how his parents needed to work with criminals to save the life of their child. It was all so tragic to me.
Ever since that day I’ve been on a mission to flip the script and enable optimal access to medicinal cannabis for all patients on a global scale. We’ve still got a ways to go, but I believe the technology we’ve developed and are developing at Parsl will be a key part of the answer for how we move past all the nonsense of the past that still haunts us today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I tend to look back at my mistakes more as tragic rather than funny, and there’s probably still a bit of growing up to do there but it’s a hard habit to shake. My biggest mistake from earlier on in my career was that I was trying to change the world too fast. I’m impatient at times. I had a time in my career when I was working for a listed company, and I simply couldn’t accept the idiocy that resulted from a corporate bureaucratic structure that rewarded sneakiness rather than competence. I had a problem with my boss and I felt he had been given his job just to tell me what to do, which I resented. He had a poor understanding of what we were doing, and his best qualification seemed to be that he was personal friends with the CEO. I found it to be preposterous and a significant waste of funds to simultaneously underpay me, while paying an entire salary that provided no value. The CEO was obviously not going to be any help with things, and even the company chairman, who founded the whole thing, was not a person I could approach. I can say without a doubt that he was the most despicable person I’ve encountered personally in my life, by quite some margin. He had personally picked the CEO and in conjunction with his loathsome personal qualities, he was clearly ruled out as a potential person to bring this issue to.
Luckily, earlier that year, I had met a member of the board of directors of the company. He had seemed to be a fair minded individual so I reached out directly to him to express all the issues that the nepotistic leadership at the company was leading to. I flew to Sydney at my own expense and I sat with him for 6 hours detailing very specifically the issues I could observe in the company. I thought that I had done a great thing and saved the company from burning down. How wrong I was……. Turns out that the person I spoke to was actually close friends with the chairman, and that the only tangible result from my effort was that I was pushed out of the company. I felt I did the right thing, but it was a complete waste of time, effort, money, and energy that only resulted in the end of my time at the company. I learnt that fighting for honesty and transparency in a company can often backfire, spectacularly, and that most people would rather ignore the truth than face a reality that isn’t kind to them.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
I’m sure there are lots of these, but I think I’d have to say “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. In this book the author explains how we have independent and overlapping systems of thinking in our brains. It’s a big part of why we behave the way we do. There were also key insights into what makes us happy as opposed to what we think will make us happy. Many of the insights in the book were completely new to me and when I applied the knowledge to things such as how I interact with new people I meet at a conference or trade show, then I felt I became better at it for having read the book.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I was sick of the bullshit, it made me crazy. It’s driven me insane for as long as I can remember. I’ve always been the type of person that just wants to get out there and do what needs to be done without dealing with the overhead that society requires from you. I’m happy to comply with something that makes sense but when people require compliance without a proper explanation then I was much less willing to go along with it. When I was growing up, I didn’t use any illegal drugs. However, I couldn’t understand the paradox between all the authority figures around me telling me it’s bad, but then the people that I see doing it are not bad nor derelict nor demotivated. In fact, some of the most interesting people out there used them. So why exactly was it a bad idea for me to do so? I was never able to get a satisfactory answer to that, and to be honest, I still haven’t got one.
I can understand why it happened, but the fact that it did is still saddening. So when conceptualizing Parsl, I had a big focus on ensuring that people making a decision to purchase would have access to any and every bit of information about it that they might possibly be interested in. Furthermore, I’d seen how manipulative some modern companies were about how their operations actually worked and I felt that to be unfair and something that had to be eliminated.
But how to do it? What if a technology existed that helped a business both reduce costs and increase revenue, while simultaneously working in a way that made sure that the company in question was also doing the right thing? If everyone had an incentive to use it but it made it impossible to cheat, what would that mean?
In my mind, it means a better world for all. The main mission of our company is to optimize the potential outcomes for patients all over the globe to be able to derive everything possible medically from the cannabis plant and its derivatives. However we go beyond that and are creating a value structure based on truth (data), honesty (blockchain), and fairness (focus on the individual). That’s why what we’re building is going to be applied not just in cannabis, but in just about every industry on the planet and in fact, we’re going to flip the script on the cannabis industry and show that it’s at the FOREFRONT of innovation, rather than lagging miserably behind (as current software services would seem to indicate!)
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I can’t say I have only 1, that would be too simple :) But we have a few phrases we like to embody.
In regard to running a business, I think I would say;
- Nothing seems as bad tomorrow as it does today.
In general though, we like to obey the following principles in the business;
- No one should be forced to be a criminal for getting medicine for anyone.
- Everything has to be simple enough that my grandmother can do it.
- It’s not okay to exclude any person from the system
- People should be judged and treated as individuals rather than as part of a group identity.
- The most valuable and important part of any system is the human capital involved in it.
- We are going to frame the future of the cannabis industry
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
I’m married and I have 3 beautiful young boys that I have created in partnership with my wife over the last decade. One of the biggest challenges during this whole crisis has been the adjustment to remote learning for our children. Previously, my eldest son had a desktop computer and an ipad, my middle son had an ipad and that was it for the digital devices we kept at home.
Now my eldest son has a desktop computer running windows, a macbook pro, an ipad Pro, a chromebook, and a 35 inch monitor to extend any of his devices onto and a desk stand to free up space on his desk. My middle son got a chromebook as well as his ipad, and a new desk also with a 35 inch monitor and both of my children now message me during the day on google hangouts!
Now my wife and I need to provide tech support, admin, and follow-up for all the work our boys were required to do during the pandemic. And let’s just say that in a house with 3 young boys unable to go out of the house and expend that energy can be a fairly chaotic place! :)
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The biggest challenge that we’ve faced is the fact that we can’t all sit in the same place while we’re working. Even though this may not seem like a big challenge for a tech company, it has actually caused a number of different types of disruption. Some of these we’ve been able to mitigate by bringing people test devices for example. Other things we’ve been able to address by having online video calls.
But one of the toughest challenges has been on the emotional side of things. As people struggle through daily life and the requirements of a work day, there are a number of feelings that can arise and which can make working less efficient and more difficult. When people are all in the same office, it is much easier to get a sense of when this is happening and to pull people aside so you can find out what’s going on. However, we’ve had a few people who got fairly down in the dumps, frustrated or annoyed and we didn’t pick up on it early enough and so it caused some real issues. All of that has been sorted out now, but to mitigate against it happening in the future, we’ve implemented more regular 1on1 time for people, even if it’s on a video call, so that we can have a better sense of how people are doing.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
I do what I always do — use science to help me make my case. I try to tell people that there have been awful diseases in the past, but humanity has survived and thrived. I try to remind people that much of the information out there circulating about the crisis is false, unverified or sometimes a deliberate lie. I made a video explaining what 5G communication is and highlighting how preposterous the idea that it spreads COVID-19 is. In essence, nature is trying to kill us all the time and we’ve just become really good at stopping it. So good that we forgot about it. But we get reminders from time to time and so I like to look at this whole thing as just a big reality check for the world.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I strongly believe that the biggest difference in the Post-Covid economy will be the fact that having localized redundancy in supply-chains will be a requirement. That’s something that not only the USA will be eager to implement, but will in fact become the norm in most, if not all, economies. This is going to have a number of repercussions.
The first will be the advent of very smart, modern manufacturing happening in every country’s domestic supply chain. This will lead to a new class of entrepreneurs in those societies and will boost ingenuity and innovation in manufacturing. This will also have the effect of dramatically reducing the manufacturing-based political power that is wielded currently by China. We will see manufacturing becoming a significantly more distributed activity, as opposed to needing to take place under a single roof as it does today. Lastly, I can see that a revolution in news media is just around the corner. This was coming before the pandemic but the disinformation has been shown to have a true cost because of COVID. As a result, I believe we will see a shift in how news organisations, and more importantly individuals working in the news industry, are held accountable for what they say/print/write.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I don’t actually think COVID will permanently change the way we live. We might be more conscious of things like wearing masks in public and being more aware of the transmissibility of illnesses we carry, but other than that I think we’ll be back to normal faster than most are anticipating.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
We’re pretty lucky in that we’ve been relatively unaffected by COVID. Of course we all had to figure out the whole work from home thing and we had delays in going to market because our customers are busy dealing with other issues that sensibly have priority right now but all-in-all, we’ve managed things reasonably well. We are all just very excited now about prospects for how things move on for the rest of this year and we’ve had a lot of interest from customers who are keen to work with us.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I think everyone has to make their own decision based on their own particular circumstances. Someone who operates a cruise line is in a completely different situation to someone in the hospitality industry though both have suffered. I would encourage all people to simply be patient, be ready to move, and move quickly as soon as restrictions are lifted. People all around the world are keen to go back to living their lives so the businesses that are out there first will have an advantage.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favourite life lesson quotes is in response to people that complain that things are not fair. To them I say, “What made you expect life to be fair?”
Some people grow up with a sense of entitlement and expectation for the world around us. I feel like this is arrogant and self-indulgent and that the reality is our world has been trying to kill us for as long as we have existed. There’s nothing “fair” about that and there doesn’t need to be. Fairness is an illusion that humans conjured up to justify their expectations. Reality, science, and nature sometimes are required to remind us.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Find me on Linkedin or Twitter or get in touch with us at Parsl! :)