An Interview with Jason Illian: How Tech Foraging is Transforming the World for Better

“The best ideas are probably someplace else.” This observation, made by Steve Case during a discussion with Koch employees in 2019, is at once incredibly simple and infinitely complex. Of course, the best ideas are not within our walls. The world is full of amazing entrepreneurs working on disruptive and transformative technologies, and most of them are working somewhere else.

At Koch Disruptive Technologies (KDT), our mission is to empower founders to create a could-be world. But first, we have to find them. That means creating strong networks of partners, building countless relationships, and constantly staying open-minded to the next big thing with the potential to create transformative value in society. So, how do we do that?

KDT Managing Director Jason Illian recently joined a McKinsey & Company panel, bringing private sector perspective on the concept of “tech foraging” with an audience of public sector employees. In an interview, he shared thoughts on the strength of KDT’s capabilities to create value both for Koch and its partners, and advice on how others can build their own robust networks to do the same.

Jason, tech foraging is the process of finding appropriate technologies to fill key capability gaps for the U.S. government. How does that relate to what KDT is doing at Koch?

One of KDT’s key mandates is to find founders with technologies and solutions that can transform Koch Industries. We’re looking for solutions to the problems we’re facing, and with 120,000 employees across 70 countries – working in dozens of industries – we have no shortage of opportunities. To find these people, we need a robust network. Now, this is something Koch has always done really well, so our work at KDT is really an extension of that.

Koch was built on the idea of virtuous cycles of mutual benefit. So many of our business units were already scanning the horizon for new technologies and thinking of how they could be implemented to transform our businesses. But it can’t just be a “Koch-centric” model, or your partners aren’t going to stick around for long. So, we’re always looking for what we can do beyond the check to help our partners succeed. What capabilities can we bring to them, what customers can we introduce them to, how can we help them prove out or pivot their technology in one of the world’s biggest real-world laboratories?

I think this is fundamental to the idea of tech foraging. You need a strong network of partners who understand what you’re looking for, but they also need to know that you’re not just looking out for yourself. You’re looking for ways to help them accomplish their goals at the same time.

What’s an overlooked node in terms of building a good network?

Don’t forget your employees. The people doing the work every day and dealing with the problems are likely the best people to understand what a good solution looks like. At Koch, we’re very focused on bottom-up solutions, not top-down decision-making. In fact, more than 25% of our deals at KDT were originated from employees who identified a solution and were actively experimenting with founders.

Not only are they helping us originate, but to the point I made earlier about mutual benefit, they’re also helping us bring value to founders in whose companies we’re invested. We’ve got an internal network of 120,000 experts in supply chain, software, chemical engineering, public sector, robotics, communications, and pretty much anything else you can think of. And if we’re doing our jobs at KDT correctly, they’re engaged with us to help empower our founders to help people improve their lives.

How would you advise someone looking to “tech forage” within their own company?

Partner with the best people on the outside because they’ll know the ecosystem, they’ll know who to go talk to and they will help you accelerate. Internally, put those in charge who have the best knowledge. From a leadership perspective, have a consistent message and a bold vision of where you’re going – and don’t be afraid to fail.

The big wins don’t come until after you’ve fallen in six potholes along the way, so be consistent. Be encouraging. You have to continue to fight through the challenges and the experiments that don’t work – because the bigger long-term vision is out there.

Most of us as humans think in a very linear fashion of where the future is, but technology is moving exponentially. So, we have to evolve the best way we can by deploying our best people, resources, and time to it.

Jason Illian
Managing Director, KDT
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