People of MECHA: Dr Phil Marshall

My name is Phil Marshall, I am 50 years old, live in Auckland and am an Electrical Engineer with undergraduate and PhD degrees from Auckland University. 

After completing my undergraduate degree, I worked for a year at BHP New Zealand Steel before returning to Uni to pursue a PhD. My PhD research was in radio engineering, which led me into the telecommunications industry.

After I finished my PhD, I worked for TCNZ (now Spark) before taking on a network engineering role with Bell Atlantic International, in Mexico and Indonesia. In 2000 we moved to Boston and I took on a role as an industry analyst at a company called Yankee Group. This was a career shift for me. Instead of building things, I was now working with companies to help them develop commercial strategies for new products and technologies.

I have essentially remained an Industry Analyst ever since and am now the Chief Research Officer for two companies; Tolaga Research, which I co-founded in Boston in 2009 and Topio Networks, a San Francisco company that I joined as a founding member in 2020.

What made you want to become an engineer? And what inspired you to continue your study into postgrad?

I have always enjoyed building things and making things work. In sixth form (Year 12) I planned to leave school to do a trade but was talked out of it. I stayed on at school and when I went to Uni, Engineering was the most logical thing for me to do. 

Once I got to Engineering school I realised that it would give me the opportunity to make a career out of what I enjoyed doing. After finishing undergrad, I worked alongside several research engineers at NZ Steel. This gave me a glimpse into R&D and I was hooked.

What led you to create your own company?

I decided to create a company when I found a solution to a problem that had persisted throughout my role as an Industry Analyst. I have worked with startups for most of my career and always enjoyed the energy and enthusiasm that they exude. So, it wasn’t a difficult decision for me to pursue a startup when the opportunity arose.

Here’s the background.  Part of my role as an Industry Analyst is to build market forecast models to predict the viability of new technologies. Typical models are rudimentary and tend to over inflate hype-cycles. In the 2006 timeframe many of my clients were interested in a new communication technology called WiMAX. I knew that there were problems with WiMAX but couldn’t produce a convincing argument with conventional modeling techniques. When I looked around for a better modeling solution, I came across System Dynamics. Systems Dynamics is widely used in social sciences and operations research, I decided to apply it to Industry Research and model the WiMAX market as a system. Since it worked, I co-founded Tolaga Research in 2009 to commercialize the modeling methodology that we created.

Have you got any advice for current engineering students who may want to set up a company of their own some day?

A start up is hard work and there is a lot of uncertainty and risk. That said, it is a ton of fun and exciting to be part of something new and innovative. But to be successful, you need to be passionate about what you do. You need to be persistent, but also adaptable, recognizing that your initial ideas are most likely wrong. It was for this reason that some companies like Facebook and Google launch minimum viable products, to test the market and fail fast without investing in ‘dud’ products. At Tolaga we started with System Dynamics. It didn’t work that well and we ended up pivoting and finding much more success with other modeling techniques that leverage Natural Language Processing.

When you start a company, pay close attention to who you hire. It is the employees rather than the original product idea that will normally determine the likelihood for a startup to succeed. Don’t just go out and hire your friends. A startup has limited resources and you need to hire people who are good at the things you’re not good at.

Cash Flow is always a challenge with startups, be frugal and the sooner you can get to revenue, without compromising the company’s reputation, the better. If you need to go out and raise capital be measured and selective in your approach. For example, it is wise to prioritize investors with helpful industry connections and experience. It is also important to carefully evaluate the cost of raising capital against alternatives that might prove more effective in bringing the company to viability.

What skills have been really important for your career? Is there anything that students might not know about? 

Throughout my career I have found that interpersonal skills are more important than anything else. This is particularly the case when working in operationally challenging environments and in other countries where customs and cultures are different.

My engineering training has been tremendously valuable. It has not so much been about the subjects and courses that I took at engineering school, but the systematic analytical methods that I learned and have continuously applied throughout my career.

Understanding finance and the commercial aspects of businesses is a skill that I think all engineers should have. I don’t have any formal training in this regard, but I have learned the skills on the job.

Since you work with startups creating new technology, what are the most interesting new things being developed? 

This is such a great time to be in engineering, with virtually every field being a hive of innovative activity.

Many startups are augmenting and reinventing systems to leverage Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning capabilities – which is thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

The convergence of cyber and physical systems is creating numerous startup opportunities. Examples include factory automation with Industry 4.0, autonomous vehicles, smart homes and buildings, and immersive end user experiences that use augmented and virtual reality and the tactile Internet.

Many industry pundits believe that the innovation we will see over the next five to ten years will dwarf those associated with the microprocessor and Internet. I think they are right.