Today we take a peek into the life of 2017’s Australian Young Engineer of the Year, Stephen Bornstein, who founded Cyborg Dynamics Engineering (CDE) — a company that has become a serious contender in delivering high-tech, multi-disciplinary engineering products (with a focus on robotics and Artificial Intelligence!)
It probably needn’t be said, but robotics and AI are the future. And, the market that surrounds both has only continued to grow over the past two decades — with Medium reporting that the latest projection for the AI market is expected to be worth almost $60 billion by 2025. (With Military Robotics alone set to be worth around $16.5 billion in the same year!)
Stephen and his team (of highly experienced and motivated individuals) over at Cyborg are devoted to making a mark in both industries. A goal that has been, on multiple occasions now, acknowledged by Australia at large. What with Stephen adding another award into his portfolio after making his way into the list of “Australia’s Most Innovative Engineers” under the Electronics and Communications sector.
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What else does Stephen Bornstein (and CDE along with him) have in store for us in the future? Find out more below:
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Let’s start with an easy question! Why did you decide to start your company?
Stephen Bornstein: I felt that there was a gap in high-tech solutions, robotics, and AI to the defense and commercial sectors within Australia. And Cyborg Dynamics Engineering was founded to address that gap. Primes were innovating too slowly due to processes and red tape. And there was growing importance — at a government strategic level, for high-tech capabilities in the country. Ultimately, it just felt like the right time for deep tech-tech robotics and AI businesses with export potential.
What projects are you working on currently that have you and your team excited?
Stephen Bornstein: At the moment, our two main defense projects are our Modular UGV and our AI decision support tools for military operations:
- The UGV is the lightest in the world — while still being able to fire a 50-cal machine gun and using double-acting suspension for recoil management.
- As for the AI decision support tools, they were developed to enable high-speed sensors to effector decision-making for critical response applications.
Looking back, was there any point in your career where you struggled to stay on your feet? (What, if anything, stopped you from quitting?)
Stephen Bornstein: The first two years for us were really hard. I was a burning candle at both ends — in between my job and the company. I was placing bids in the evening, answering emails before my day job, and taking leave constantly when I needed more time for reports, business meetings, etc. It took two years for us to land a contract big enough to allow me to go full-time with Cyborg. Earlier contracts were simply there to add cash to the balance sheet (not necessarily for drawing a salary.)
But, even during those years, I never thought about giving up as I felt that running a company was where I had to be — and what I had to do for the long-term in order to reach my potential. Especially as someone who, up to that point, had been unable to find an employer that didn’t hold back my potential in some way, shape, or form.
What is a mistake that you see beginner entrepreneurs stumble upon? (What advice can you give them to put them back on the right track?)
Stephen Bornstein: Counting your chickens before they hatch. Entrepreneurs are prone to thinking that a discussion or some level of interest in your idea (or even a capital raise) means you have made it. But that’s not how it works.
A sustainable business means revenue and value generated, and until the contracts are signed and money is in the bank with a high-quality product delivered — there are no chickens to count. Often, people also get big-headed from simple discussions (most of which never go anywhere.)
In any case, as an entrepreneur, it’s important to stay both humble and hungry. I have found that this is the key to ensuring that you can generate enduring relationships and long-term value creation.
What is resilience to you? (How has your resilience affected your business journey?)
Stephen Bornstein: To me, resilience is being able to roll with the punches, dust yourself off, and keep on — even when you’re faced with unending failure. For example, when Cyborg was just starting out, our first 10 submissions for tenders or grants had all been unsuccessful. But, we kept on, until, finally, on the 11th one we struck gold.
To be resilient, you need to know how to navigate around failures. You can’t take it personally when people don’t want to invest in you. You can’t get angry when you lose a tender. Instead, you must continue to look for new markets and business opportunities and keep on keeping on.
What kind of work environment do you foster at Cyborg?
Stephen Bornstein: When it comes down to it, Cyborg stands out because we’re a high-performing team. We focus on high-tech products and fully enable our talent. We make sure that we have a flexible budget for resources and equipment. We maintain open communication to make sure that each innovative idea is heard. We enforce flexible work arrangements to stay at top-form.
No staff member in Cyborg is pigeon-holed. Everyone is encouraged and exposed to various tasks (both technical and non-technical) that keep the business going. Which, ultimately, ensures that we have an empowered team of high-potential individuals that are able to perform at their best at all times.
As a successful business leader, what three things do you believe have led to your success?
- Exposure to a variety of different businesses such as large primes, a startup in a high growth phase, and a government organization. I was able to pick what I liked and didn’t like from each one to try and build a strong culture from day one.
- Military leadership training. This gave me a direct report of personnel in an environment where I could still learn and receive feedback.
- Open-mindedness in continuous learning. I read books on emotional intelligence, leadership styles for different personality types, strategy, negotiation, etc. Every day I do my best to learn something new — to better lead the company and support my staff with the products that they produce.
As the CEO of Cyborg Dynamics, do you believe that you embody the values of your company?
Stephen Bornstein: I do feel that my personal brand reflects the company’s values. I often speak at various conferences and events on either innovation, collaborating with other small businesses, or AI ethics — all of which are core pillars at Cyborg.
As the CEO I have to practice what I preach and, to that end, when the company is developing deep tech products I become a technologist before a businessperson. And, for our defense products, it is important for the customers to see that I have some understanding and training that I can effectively intersect with the tech and the tactics.
What leadership style do you value over others?
Stephen Bornstein: For me, it is all about transformational leadership. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing my graduates turn into leaders — able to effectively present their solutions to the customer and lead their own small team.
Given the fact that we are a small to medium-sized business, the staff that works here at Cyborg are constantly looking for opportunities to grow in a way that they wouldn’t be able to at a big firm. My aim is to help enable them with an effective leadership approach that builds the team’s technical knowledge, business skills, and leadership skills.
What advice would you give to our younger readers who might be in the same position you had been when you were just starting out?
Stephen Bornstein: Create a stress-free window from which you can take risks before you commit 100%. Being able to not push stress downhill onto your staff usually requires you to not have the same level of financial or emotional pressures that most people have.
In order to enable a risk-taking approach that will result in initial growth, give yourself a 6-month window financially. if possible, to try and win enough business, raise more capital, or get to cash flow positive. Also, if you are working on the business after hours, know that you will need to sink at least 30 hours a week into it, at minimum, to compete with full-time businesses (so that means working during weeknights, before work, and weekends until you are ready to go full time.)
Describe a moment in your life where someone told you something that changed the way you thought about your business.
Stephen Bornstein: Before winning my first big contract the head of the program awarding the contract, a successful entrepreneur, said to me, “Stephen, there are rich people out there and they are rich because, no matter how many people said no to them, someone finally said yes. 10 people have said no to you but I’m saying yes.”
It was the first time I felt like someone was actually backing my business and it gave me a lot of motivation. Especially as that project subsequently led to two follow-on customer-funded projects and helped boost our continued growth.
ValiantCEO would like to thank Stephen for taking the time to do this interview and share his knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Stephen or his company, you can do it through his – Linkedin Page
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