Opportunities (and traps) for the scientist founder: Lessons from Pinecone’s Edo Liberty

Peter Wagner
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Edo Liberty, the mind behind Pinecone, reveals how his background as a scientist has uniquely positioned him for startup success and shares the benefits of applying a research-driven approach to entrepreneurship.

When I first met Edo Liberty, the brilliant scientist who founded Pinecone, I took an immediate liking to the man but struggled to understand the opportunity.  Because I had such respect and personal affinity with Edo, I continued to meet with him for over a year and eventually got it (sort of). 

Finally in 2020 I led the seed round at Pinecone, still only partially confident in my understanding of the business but totally confident in Edo. Fast forward to 2024, and Pinecone has become the industry’s leading platform for vector data, the lingua franca of AI.

In this article, I'll share some of the valuable insights Edo shared with us as part of our Founder Docs project. The founders of Wing's portfolio companies, like Edo, have a wealth of knowledge and practical advice for building and scaling successful startups. You can read all of Edo’s Founder Docs here.

Here I'll focus on Edo's key pieces of advice about the advantages of being a scientist founder and the importance of encouraging collaboration between research and engineering teams. This knowledge has been a game-changer for Pinecone, and I'm confident it'll be just as valuable for your own startup journey.

The scientist CEO: Leveraging research to push boundaries

Scientist founders bring a unique perspective to the business world, and they approach problems with an innovation-focused mindset that can drive their companies forward in novel ways.  

As a scientist CEO, Edo has leveraged his research background to disrupt the status quo and push the boundaries of what's possible in his field.

“The unique thing about being a scientist founder is that because innovation is key to the way you think, it becomes key to the way you approach business, too,” Edo explains. “Because of this, every scientist-led startup is going to be special.”

He adds, “As a scientist, I tend to think about problems abstractly, looking for commonalities and patterns. I often resist accepting the status quo. This mindset aligns well with the role of a founder, as we're often trying to do things that have never been done before and disrupt existing ways of thinking.”

I must admit that at times this has driven me kind of crazy.  Edo is a first principles thinker and won’t accept received wisdom just because “that’s how it’s done.”  But there is power in such thinking, and I have learned a lot working with Edo and questioning my own assumptions as a result.

Read more from Edo about being a scientist founder in the startup world.

Recognizing the need for balance

Scientist founders like Edo are not afraid to question assumptions and rethink business problems from the ground up. This allows them to approach challenges from new angles and develop creative solutions that others might overlook.  

While this way of thinking can be incredibly powerful for discovering new solutions, Edo also notes the importance of balancing this approach with pragmatism: “Not every aspect of the business needs to be perfect or groundbreaking — sometimes, a solution that's 85 percent good is sufficient, and it's better to focus your energy on the areas where innovation can have the greatest impact.”

As a scientist founder, it's essential to recognize when to push for disruptive innovation and when to opt for more practical strategies. By striking the right balance, scientist founders can drive their companies forward while ensuring that their efforts are focused on the areas where they can make the most significant difference.

The immersion model: A powerful approach to integrating research in startups

One of the most effective ways to integrate research into a startup is through what Edo calls the “immersion model.” In this approach, a small team consisting of one to three scientists, a product manager and an engineer are dedicated full time to a single critical project within the company.

The key to the immersion model's success lies in the scientists' level of involvement and accountability. Rather than simply focusing on their individual research tasks, the scientists are fully embedded within the project and are responsible for its overall success.  

They work closely with the product manager and engineer to ensure that the research aligns with the project's goals and that the insights generated are effectively integrated into the product.

“For the immersion model to work, scientists must be truly embedded within the project full time,” Edo says. “They should be deeply familiar with the project's engineering challenges and product requirements.” This deep level of involvement allows the scientists to get a comprehensive understanding of the project and to contribute their expertise in a meaningful way.

How to unite research and engineering teams

Cultural gaps between research and engineering teams can lead to tension and collaboration problems. Differences in perspective can hinder progress and limit the potential for innovation. As a leader, Edo believes it’s critical to proactively address these issues and create an environment that encourages mutual understanding and support between the two teams.

One of the first steps in bridging the cultural gap is to clearly communicate expectations for how research and engineering teams should interact and support one another. Founders need to set clear expectations for collaboration and mutual respect.

Edo says it’s critical to “clearly communicate your expectations for how the research and engineering teams should interact and support each other. Make it clear that both groups are working toward the same overall goals, even if their day-to-day work and priorities differ.”

Leaders should highlight the value that each team brings to the organization and encourage empathy and understanding between the two groups.

Edo’s lessons on leveraging research

If this topic of building research functions in startups is of interest to you, I highly encourage you to dive deeper into Edo's wisdom by reading his full articles on Wing’s Founder Docs collection. These pieces are a treasure trove of practical advice and hard-won lessons that can help you navigate the challenges of building and scaling a successful research-driven startup. 

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