Episode 17: Who Drives Innovation…in Your Business?

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What does it take to foster a culture of innovation? Assaf Natanzon explains how collaboration and education leads to new ideas.

Observation, Collaboration, & Education Foster Innovation

The popular perception of an “inventor” is someone sitting by themselves, racking their brain until a light bulb comes on over their head. But that kind of lightning-strike innovation, one person creating something entirely new all by themselves, is extremely rare.

Assaf Natanzon holds 200 patents, with over 200 more pending. He fostered a love for innovation while working in the startup culture, and now helps create new ways to keep data safe from corruption, crashes, and cyberattacks.

In this episode, Assaf shares great advice on how to foster an environment that promotes innovation. It’s not about one person thinking hard until inspiration hits. It’s about taking in new ideas, listening to people’s problems, combining disciplines, education and technology in new ways. For more information about Assaf’s work, also see this Direct2DellEMC blog.

Featured Luminary : Assaf Natanzon

Assaf Natanzon is a Distinguished Engineer and Vice President of Advanced Technology and Investment Evaluation in the Office of the CTO at Dell EMC. He defines the vision for future technologies, especially in data protection, and leads the technical evaluation of Dell Technologies Capital Investments in EMEA. Assaf has also been recognized on the Wikipedia Most Prolific Inventors List for registering his 200th patent.

“Everywhere that people see a problem, I see a place for innovation.”

Assaf Natanzon, VP Advanced Technology and Investment Evaluation EMEA, Dell EMC

The Luminaries Hosts

Mark Schaefer (left) is a digital storyteller, podcaster, blogger, author of six books, international speaker and college educator. Douglas Karr (right) is a digital story teller, podcaster, blogger, author and technologist. Together they shine a light on their guests’ technology vision, human side and motivation to build a better future. Mark and Doug have a unique ability to illuminate highly complex technology topics from fresh and very human angles by focusing on technology’s purpose as an enabler of human progress. Take a listen to Luminaries to learn, laugh and be wowed by human potential.

       

WOMAN: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech.

MICHAEL DELL: And my hope is that we come together to share more than technology and expertise and products, but that we share a vision of a future that is better than today, a vision of technology as the driver of human progress.

WOMAN: Your hosts are Mark Schaefer and Douglas Karr.

MARK SCHAEFER: Hello, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Luminaries. This is Mark Schaefer with my erstwhile co-host Douglas Karr a.k.a. Dougie Baby. How you doing, Doug?

DOUGLAS KARR: Fantastic, Mark. How are “yous?”

MARK SCHAEFER: I couldn’t be better. And on this show, we talk to the brightest minds in tech. And we are certainly going to deliver on that promise today. Our guest is Dr. Assaf Natanzon. He’s a vice president of advanced technology and investment evaluation for Dell Technologies.

Now, not only is he Dell’s most prolific inventor, he is one of the most prolific inventors in history. I’ll just let that soak in with you a little bit. He has more than 200 patents to his name with another 200 patents pending. This man has 400 patents to his name.

Dr. Natanzon, welcome to our show.

ASSAF NATANZON: Welcome, hello. Thank you for having me. It’s 430 right now though.

MARK SCHAEFER: 430!

DOUGLAS KARR: [LAUGHS]

MARK SCHAEFER: Thank you for making me feel smaller than I already did.

[LAUGHTER]

So Assaf, it took me a long time to figure out what I was good at. And I think some people would even suggest I’m still figuring that out. When did it dawn on you that you were a person who was good at inventing things?

ASSAF NATANZON: I think my first invention was in my previous company with a guy named Talmon Marco, was the founder of Viber after it. So he was also an inventor. And basically, I was always interested in inventions. But I think that I took it to the next step after I joined EMC.

We were acquired– we were a startup called Cash and we were acquired by EMC in 2006. And we had our vice president. He was named Dr. [INAUDIBLE]. And he was really pushing us towards innovation. And he made small innovation conferences, and he pushed us– he told us that he had several patents. And he really made us very excited about patents.

So I started– then, after the acquisition by EMC, I found out that I’m actually good at it. So I started writing more and more.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s pretty cool. So I mean, you were relatively later in life when it you really started to get this momentum and got the inventing bug.

ASSAF NATANZON: Eh, not that late, no, no.

[LAUGHTER]

MARK SCHAEFER: Well, see, I was trying to find hope for myself here.

[LAUGHTER]

I’m still very young. I don’t know.

DOUGLAS KARR: Assaf, I’m curious, with the spread of technology, obviously, worldwide, how important are patents nowadays? Do they do any more good in the global economy than they used to?

ASSAF NATANZON: I think, yes. You even see now with China, there are a lot of stocks– even China is going to be more restrictive about not infringing US patents. So I think patents are important for companies to protect their IP.

And in the past, a lot of foreign companies used to just infringe their patents, and maybe they couldn’t sell their stuff in United States, but in other areas, they could have sold it. And I think this is changing now.

So I think patents are still important and will be important. Developing technology is very, very expensive and you don’t want others to get your work for free.

DOUGLAS KARR: Right.

ASSAF NATANZON: Reverse engineering is sometimes much easier than inventing it on your own. So–

MARK SCHAEFER: I’ve always been very interested in the creative process. I know you’ve got some strong ideas on that. And earlier this year, I had a really cool opportunity. I got to meet Walter Isaacson and talk to him. Walter Isaacson, of course, is the person who authored quite well-known books on Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs. He has a new book out on da Vinci, which I highly recommend to our listeners.

And he’s also the host of Dell’s other podcast called Trailblazers. And when I talked to Walter, he described genius as an intersection of recognizing patterns with insatiable curiosity. I’m wondering, how does that description stack up for you? How do you how do you describe

ASSAF NATANZON: Huh. So first of all, you need me to say that I’m a genius. I’m not sure that I agree with this, but–

[LAUGHTER]

So yes, there is a lot in what he says. You need to recognize patterns, but you also need to be able to apply the patterns to other fields. And I think that applying knowledge from one field to another is a thing that is the basis for many, many innovations. This is one thing.

Also cross-pollination and fruition between people also another source for innovation. For me, usually, innovation comes in when I study about a new thing and I bring my knowledge and talk to someone from a new field that I don’t really know, and we start to understand what are the problems and how we can apply knowledge that we have from other fields to this field.

It’s very rare that you invent something from zero to zero, nothing in the past resembles it. A lot of times we take a thing that we already know and apply it to a completely new field. So it looks something completely new.

But in a way, there is a commonality in the past– not that you invented a– the [INAUDIBLE] started by inventing, maybe, the wheel 3,000 years ago and built only more and more, more and more technology. When you apply all the technologies together and you get something new, you add a little spice to it, and that’s innovation.

Usually, innovation is not something that is a complete revolution. Sometimes, it is. But I think it’s really, really rare when it is. Usually–

MARK SCHAEFER: I think that’s a super interesting point you make about collaboration. And it was actually a piece of inspiration I got from Isaacson’s book on da Vinci, and realized that da Vinci is arguably one of the most creative people in history, but so much of his innovation came from collaboration. They would collaborate on paintings. Even his famous drawing, The Vitruvian Man– it’s kind of like the picture of the guy inside the circle– was named for Vitruvius, which was a friend of a friend who had this idea.

So a lot of people talk about thinking out of the box. But for me– and I think what I’m hearing from you is that, really, a lot of innovation comes from combining boxes, just getting people together in a collaborative way. Do you have a system to do that or does it just kind of happen by chance?

ASSAF NATANZON: Sometimes, it does happen by chance. But a lot of time, we deliberately do brainstorming, where someone talks about something new they could learn– technology, or we bring someone from different field to talk to us and understand what these problems are. Sometimes you try to apply your knowledge from one field to another field.

And you see it in many cases– in mathematics, in computers. A lot of time it takes techniques from one field and applies them in other fields. So you need the knowledge from people who are experts at two separate fields and try to see if you can collaborate between them. Because nobody can know everything today, especially today. I don’t know if it was David Gilbert that said that he knew, like, 80% of all the mathematics in the world. Today, nobody knows any more than 1%.

MARK SCHAEFER: Hm.

DOUGLAS KARR: [CHUCKLES] Yeah, it’s true.

ASSAF NATANZON: Between everything, you know? Because the knowledge grows so fast that you cannot know everything. So there is a lot that you don’t know that can help you. So a lot of time, collaborating with others is the only way to actually gain access to information, to process information. Information with brain behind it can help you solve problems that seem completely unsolvable from where you stand.

DOUGLAS KARR: Well, it seems that there’s a good stretch there between actual innovation ideas and then bringing it to fruition and actually executing it. Last year, Mark and I got to meet and interview your friend Dr. Orna Barry. She’s been an incredible inspiration to us. She talked about the incredible startup community in Israel and the deep culture of innovation there.

Can you provide some input on what makes Israel so special in this way? How is such a small nation making such a huge impact in the technology world?

ASSAF NATANZON: That’s a very big, good question. So a lot it, I think, comes from the army. We’re a a small country. We have a small army that needs to be very, very smart. So there is a lot of innovation coming from the army. We have a lot of smart people sitting in there.

Because everybody goes to the army, so you have the smartest people, very young and very eager to innovate, sitting together and thinking how they can solve problems. This is, for example, how the firewall was invented in Israel. So you have a lot of people thinking how to solve.

And this is one thing, I think, also– a very strong academy. And I also know a lot of investments coming from a foreign countries. So now, you also have the industry. So with the army, industry, academy, I think that you have a lot of things that are pushing people to innovate.

And I remember, I was in Hollywood in Los Angeles in the year 2000, and everyone you talked to said that he’s in the business. And I thought, what are they, in technology? And then I understand that, in Los Angeles, “the business” means show business.

And in Israel, at the same time, everybody was in the business, but they’re in the business of making startups. So I guess it’s a lot of the mentality that people see. Everybody has a friend that made an exit with a startup. I have at least 100 or 200 friends that an exit with a startup. So you’re surrounded by technology people, by people that think how they can invent something.

And it’s also, I think, the Israeli mentality of doing things more quick and dirty without– and this is very good for startups. Startups– this is also a reason why, in the past, you didn’t see a lot of very big companies in Israel. Because usually people are trying to do things very, very fast. And then you get acquired, and then you become part of a global company, not grow up to a huge company.

We have some exceptions, but still, compared to the amount of technology developed in Israel, you don’t see a lot of unicorns.

DOUGLAS KARR: Right.

ASSAF NATANZON: You know, the startups are sold relatively quickly. And the people move to the next venture. So we have a lot of serial entreprenuers.

DOUGLAS KARR: Hm.

MARK SCHAEFER: Well, yeah, I think that’s a really interesting point, Assaf. You know, everybody is in the business these days, it seems. They all want to try to find the hustle. They all want to try to be the next successful startup.

And the world today is just so overwhelming. There’s just so much change happening in so many different places. I know that you sort of emphasize– I think your emphasis is kind of in the cybersecurity area. But how do you personally stay on top of what’s going on to know where to work, where the innovation needs to happen.

Because we’ve got this constant churn of people trying to be in the business. But look. You’re doing it. I mean, you’re inventing. You’re creating this amazing value to the world. How do you choose the right things to work on that are going to rise above and succeed?

ASSAF NATANZON: Well, first of all, not everything I worked on succeeds. So I want to just get that out of the way.

[LAUGHTER]

MARK SCHAEFER: All right.

DOUGLAS KARR: Good enough, good enough.

ASSAF NATANZON: It depends, on the environment that you’re in. Now I’m part of the– the CTO of the trigger team, which looks at the future technologies and sees how Dell should use them in the upcoming three to five years.

So here you see the most updated technologies. You see what’s coming, what’s currently in development. I also work with a lot of startups, so what’s being developed.

So I have a very good vision of what’s coming to us in the future– all the things about IoT, block chain, and new memory architectures. A lot of things are going on today. So we’re innovating all of them.

I’m currently focused mainly on data protection. So I look at this technology and then try to understand how they– what impact they are going to happen on data protection also, or the new development architecture that you have something as a service and stuff like that. So a lot of things going on.

And I look at technologies that are coming, and nobody– almost nobody looks at how to use these technologies in a specific area. There are the [INAUDIBLE] areas where, if you’re looking to– for example, in IoT securities, they keep very important things. So you see a lot of startups, a lot of people talking about security.

But data protection and data management, it’s currently not on the main [INAUDIBLE]. So this is a place for a lot of innovation, for example.

When I was part of the product groups, also, you talk to customers, you understand, what’s missing, what they would like to see in the product. And there, you can also innovate. So there is innovation, which comes from understanding new technologies that are coming. And there is also innovation coming from understanding what people actually need. And this also changes with the cloud technologies, where everything needs to be simple, where we need to manage huge amounts of data. So everything needs to become more and more simple.

All of these are places for innovation. Everywhere that people see a problem, I see a place for innovation. So for me, all of this, the fact that things become more complex, the fact that a lot of things are happening is actually good for a lot of places to innovate.

MARK SCHAEFER: That’s a great quote. [LAUGHS] Where people see problems, I see innovation and opportunity. That’s great. I think that’s what makes you special.

ASSAF NATANZON: Thanks.

DOUGLAS KARR: Well, you mentioned data protection and innovation as a priority right now. Could you describe any-point-in-time data protection to our listeners?

ASSAF NATANZON: Any-point-in-time, yes. So any-point-in-time was– the startup that I came from, this was our key innovation. And basically, typically, when you have data protection or– so data protection is a very big word.

By the way, a lot of people are confused between data protection and data protection. In the EMC and Dell technology, data protection means being able to create copies of the data. So this includes backup and disaster recovery and replication system. Continuous data protection, which is– what you refer to is a type of remote replication, which allows, also, operational recovery. And this means that you take your data and you basically copy every transaction that happens to some remote site.

And on the remote site, something that is very common to relational databases, you have a copy of your data. You create a copy of your data. And you create a journal which you can do analog in the [INAUDIBLE]. And based on the copy of the data in the [INAUDIBLE] can actually replay the data back and forth and bring your data to the exact point in time where you had the disaster– where you had the disaster, where you had the problem.

For example, if you had data corruption, you can try to find exactly the point in time before the data corruption. And this way, you don’t lose data. I remember, when we were a small startup, we had a very funny story.

We went to one customer and we replicated the data so that the data is existing on the replica site. And then what he did, he did the format of the drive. Now it’s a quick format. It just erases the tables of the disk. It doesn’t do a lot of [INAUDIBLE].

Of course, it replicated to the replica site. And [INAUDIBLE] the replica site. And then he told us, OK, you have any-point-in-time. Now recover. So we told the remote drive, please move back, like, two minutes. Of course, it took a few seconds just to roll back the disk two minutes before. And then he saw all the data.

And the guy told us, hey, you’re cheating the game. Because he don’t believe that we restored all the data within two minutes. And we had to explain to him, the data didn’t disappear. Just what you did with the quick format, you just erased the table, and the disk doesn’t know where the data is. We just restored the table and everything is there. So he was very surprised and very happy, but it took him a little bit of time to understand. So–

DOUGLAS KARR: That’s incredible. And any pending patents that have you excited?

ASSAF NATANZON: I have so many that I don’t know. It’s very hard.

[LAUGHTER]

We have a lot of patents about data protection for cloud native applications. Because basically today, with cloud-native applications, you can do backup and data protection, but instead of making your life much simpler like all these, the platform as a service, the environment, and the [INAUDIBLE] service environment do for you, it makes life actually much more complex, because you have a lot of services, a lot of databases in which you have some data corruption. You maybe need to go through many storage administrators, backup administrators, and have them reverse, or this database is at risk, or this database, instead of working just with a single Oracle.

So instead of having a much simpler life like you have when you develop, when you try to restore the data, you get much more complex life. And basically, we have a lot of innovation around this, how to actually simplify it, how to integrate it with your CI/CD the environment, and stuff like that. So a lot of exciting innovations there.

DOUGLAS KARR: That’s fantastic.

MARK SCHAEFER: One of the responsibilities that you have that we haven’t talked about yet is your role in helping Dell evaluate startups and potential investments. I think there’s probably a lot of our listeners out there thinking, boy, it would be really cool to be involved in some sort of a new company or startup that would be evaluated by Dell and maybe become part of Dell.

Whenever you’re in these meetings, what are some of the things that you listen for? What would happen in a meeting to make you smile, to make you think, these people really get it? This is interesting.

ASSAF NATANZON: So I think when you’re trying to evaluate a startup now, you’re evaluating two things. You evaluate the technology and you evaluate the people that try to bring the technology.

And these two things are very, very important. Because you need to believe in the people, that they can deliver the things. You need to believe that these will be people that you’ll be comfortable working on, and that you’ll be able to trust them. So this is one important thing.

The important thing is to evaluate the technology, see that the technology is not too trivial. Because it’s too trivial, everybody can do it. But on the other end, you have to evaluate that it’s not too complex. Because if it’s too complex, it would be very difficult to delivery.

So we need a technology that is feasible. We need to understand how much effort it is. And for example, in storage, a product, people usually underestimate how complex it is to bring a storage product to market.

I remember talking with the XtremIO team. I also had to evaluate them when they were just a startup. And I really believed in the team. I thought that the team was an amazing team. But they told us we would need– I don’t know– $10 million to bring the product to the market.

And I told them, look, I believe that you can do it. You seem like a very strong team. But it will cost you at least $14 million to bring the product to market. And boy, I was wrong. I think it was much more to get the product to the market.

Because a storage, for example, is a product that needs to have a very high availability, a lot of reliability. And this is something that is very, very difficult to create. This is why, after that position, is took a couple of years to get XtremIO to the market. But it was a phenomenal success, so it was great.

DOUGLAS KARR: We’re hearing– we’re hearing a lot of hype these days, or pessimism and optimism, about blockchain. Is there a future? Is there part of a future of data protection that will utilize blockchain technology?

ASSAF NATANZON: Yes, there is a lot of potential and blockchain for data protection and for provenance. This is also an area where we have a lot of internal innovation. Not sure how many things I can already expose. But I do see a lot of potential in blockchain because you have this distributed ledger, where you can prove that things happened.

So for example, you can prove that you backed up your data. And you can prove that you didn’t cheat, and you were compliant to all the things that needed to be compliant.

So there is a lot of potential to blockchain. Again, we need to see how this technology is– if it’s really adapted or if it’s just a hype. I’m not sure yet. But there are a lot of interesting aspects. The question is also about how you deploy this, how you leverage the technology.

But to be able to have distributed ledgers and immutable– sorry, mutable– and can be trusted in a nontrustworthy environment is something very interesting also for data protection– for everything– for many other things– for provenance, for a lot of things that are already happening, a lot of things that’s will be happening in the future. So definitely interesting.

MARK SCHAEFER: Assaf, this has been such a fascinating conversation, and, certainly, a unique opportunity to talk to someone that is in your place in the world. And we appreciate so much you spending some time with us today. Everyone listening, we hope that you’ve enjoyed our episode today. And we hope that you’ll stay in touch with us.

We love hearing your feedback. We love seeing your reviews on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to the show. So thanks so much. We never take you for granted. We appreciate the time that you spend with us.

This is Mark Schaefer on behalf of Doug Karr. Thanks for listening to Luminaires where we talk to the brightest minds in tech.

WOMAN: Luminaries– talking to the brightest minds in tech. A podcast series from Dell Technologies.