In conversation with… Roland Harwood

If you’ve not met Roland yet (it’s only a matter of time), he’s a passionate, super smart and interesting chap. We’ve loved working with him and were lucky to get some time in his diary for a chat.

Short intro time…

Roland Harwood is a compulsive connector of people and ideas. As a successful serial entrepreneur, he is currently Founder and Director of Liminal, a new venture currently in development. Prior to that, he was Co-Founder and Managing Director at 100%Open, the multi award-winning open innovation agency that works with the likes of LEGO, Ford, UBS, Oxfam and in 25+ countries around the world to co-innovate with their partners. It was a spin-out from NESTA in 2010, the UK Innovation Agency and Investment Fund, where he was Director of Open Innovation. Graduating with a PhD in Physics, he has held senior innovation roles in the public and private sector and in addition has worked with hundreds of start-ups to raise investment and commercialise technology. He is chair and trustee for several not-for-profit organisations, a regular visiting lecturer at Universities around the world, and a mentor as part of many start-up accelerator programmes including TechStars. He is a failed astronaut, a composer of TV and film music for Sony, and a proud and exhausted dad of three children.

What was your first ever job?

My first job was as a milkman when I was 10 years old. A friend and I used to jump on the float of our local milkman on our way to school and help him to deliver the milk for about 45 minutes every day (including some weekends). I think we were paid 20p per week to start with rising to the dizzy heights of £1 per week by the time we went off to secondary school. The peak of my milkman career was being able to carry 10 empty bottles (one per finger) at the same time. The low point was crashing the float into somebody’s front garden wall.

Who would you most love to share a coffee with / go for a drink with?

I’ve been spending a lot of my time having coffees with people recently and genuinely believe I can learn a huge amount from virtually anybody. However, if I could have a coffee with anybody then Elon Musk would probably be fairly fascinating but probably not very nice to be around. So I’m gonna go with Demis Hassabis from Deep Mind.

Highlight of your career (so far?)

Being eliminated in the 3rd round of the 2010 European Space Agency astronaut selection process was definitely a highlight as a) it’s a good talking point and b) it’s made me more determined to go to space one day. Also, I’m immensely proud of co-founding and building 100%Open into a multi-award winning agency working in 25+ countries which I exited late last year.

Nature or nurture?

Both of course, although I lean slightly towards nurture as I do believe in the possibility that people can change. See the recent film Three Identical Strangers for a deeply weird and intriguing story which shows how both nature and nurture affect us so powerfully in ways we can barely fathom.

Best advice you ever heard or received?

Somebody once said to me “don’t say too much – leave room for other people’s imagination” which is incredibly wise and I wish I could remember who told me so I could credit them for it.

What talent do you yearn for?

I’d quite like to be able to slam dunk in basketball but sadly at 6 foot 1 and 44 years old that is never going to happen without a trampoline.

What is your favourite brand and why?

Definitely LEGO. Because they live and breath play and creativity and fun. I’ve had the privilege to work with them several times too and that has not diminished my fascination.

What book do you most recommend to others?

It varies daily. Previously ‘The Connected Company‘ by Dave Gray. Currently ‘Small Arcs of Larger Circles‘ by Nora Bateson.

What last impressed you at work?

I spent a week in Shenzhen and Guangzhou late last year and the rate of change and development is incredible. They are building the future at a phenomenal rate.

Which lesson has been the hardest to learn? What failure did you learn the most from?

To be myself. To collaborate with others. Both are still a work in progress but I think I’m making some progress on both fronts. Biggest specific failure I learned from was a big project we did in South America a few years ago that I talk about in this recent podcast interview. It was painful and we lost a lot of money and nearly didn’t survive it. But in many ways, it was the making of us and underpinned all of the learning and successes that followed.

What do you want to do when you retire?

I really don’t think I’ll ever retire. I have worked hard and feel very lucky that I pretty much pursue what interests me through my work right now and hope to be able to do that for as long as possible.

Roland’s currently working on developing and launching his latest venture We Are Liminal. He’s not saying what it is yet, partly because he’s still figuring that out. But needless to say it’s exciting and you can find out more at
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