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June 10, 2020updated 11 Jun 2020 1:59pm

From roadie to CEO: CognitionX and CogX founder Charlie Muirhead on technology, networking and beyond

By Berenice Healey

Ahead of this week’s CogX AI and technology-focused global leadership event, founder and CEO of CognitionX Charlie Muirhead talked to Verdict about the history of the knowledge networking platform and his aims for this year’s event, which has the theme “How do we get the next 10 years right?”

Like many others, CogX 2020 is being held entirely online due to the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Here Muirhead shares his road to success, his views on the state of technology and how he built the CogX brand.

Charlie Muirhead, CEO and founder of CognitionX and CogX

CognitionX and CogX founder Charlie Muirhead on technology and his road to success

I was a roadie as a kid for bands on tour; I’ve worked with lots and lots of people from Peter Gabriel to Prince to all kinds of people but that was my passion when I was younger.

I was going to study architecture at UCL because it had this incredible mix of disciplines. But through that roadie-ing and my gap year work in a museum, I realised that even in musical shows everything ran on random computers. So I switched to programming and retook all my exams, had my gap year and got into Imperial College to study computer science. Then I left after a year and founded my first software company. Since then, I’ve been building software companies for the last 25 years, and this is number eight. I’ve done three initial public offerings in companies.

I’m 45 this year and about five years ago I was thinking if I’ve got one more in me. What do I want to do? Tabitha [Goldstaub, Cognition X co-founder] had worked for me two companies ago, and then the last company as a co-founder. We sat down and said, it’s got to be time to focus on something purpose-driven and think about what are the big challenges society faces. I think it’s fair to say, access to knowledge is about as fundamental as it gets. We wanted to democratise access to knowledge on new and important technologies originally, and when we looked to the technology space five years ago, it was predominantly called data science then. The original business plan talked about improving access to data-driven innovation, but very quickly after we started, we identified AI as the core topic.

The first CogX was in 2017 and the vision was to look at not whose technology is faster, whose chips are better, but to examine what’s the impact of AI on industry, government and society. It was a question of what’s the “so what”? How does it change the outcome? And how do we celebrate innovation and help accelerate adoption, while ensuring that adoption is safe and responsible and that the benefits flow through to everybody? It was very much how do we make this good for everybody and safe, but at the same time wrapped up in our innate enthusiasm for progress and moving forward?

I think it’s fair to say that when we talked about this common concept of knowledge networking, we wanted to do it both at a physical event as well as an online platform. So, Cognition X has become a knowledge networking platform where you can ask questions, and it in real time finds the best person to answer it. You can use that both inside an organisation as well as outside, and the event business is effectively the same as a physical event, where you can go to that event this year for the first time fully, virtually.

Everything you’ll see is simple in its presentation; it’s all about the inspirational content. And we always think of if you think of a pyramid, a Maslow’s hierarchy; content first audience second, and, sadly for my shareholders, revenue, third, yeah. Our job is to put inspirational speakers in front of you and to try and move the conversation forward by having them engaged with the audience.

After that first event in 2017, a lot of my dear friends who I’ve known for a long time in the industry turned around said wow, if not the best that was amongst the best events I’ve ever been to. That was only 1,300 people and 200 speakers.

The second year we expanded the scope from just the impact of AI on industry, government and society to AI and emerging technologies, which included blockchain and others. We moved to the Tobacco Docks and it was six and a half thousand people, seven stages and 400 speakers.

In our third year, we wanted to do something different so we partnered with a group called Project Everyone started by Richard Curtis of Comic Relief fame to promote the UN Sustainable Development Goals because a lot of companies had heard of them but weren’t doing anything about it. Through them, we partnered with a company called 2030 Vision to say, on every single stage, how do we apply the tools, tech and talent of the technology industry to delivering the sustainable development goals for 2030? What is it that we could contribute? And with 687 speakers around technology in one place for three days, that is an extraordinary brain trust of people.

We looked around the market of all the different conferences, and of course, you have the World Economic Forum in Davos, you have the Milken Institute, the Aspen Institute, and the UN does amazing events. But a lot of these events around the global issues are very small groups of people, they’re quite hard to access, and they tend not to have the depth of technical expertise. There’s no industry, there’s no domain in the world that’s not powered by technology now. Our vision was there is a gap here where we can connect global leadership to technology expertise and the public at scale.

That’s the moment where we thought to ask the question, how do we get the next 10 years right? Not just the SDGs [sustainable development goals], but how do we get the next 10 years right full stop? And that was that moment in August, September last year, where we defined what CogX 2020 was going to be. This year is the fourth CogX but the first year that we are a global leadership summit. We think of everybody as having the potential to be a global leader; you could be five years old, you can be 50 years old. You can be in science or you could be a political leader; you can be a CEO.

We love the idea of flattening everything and democratising access to the very best expertise. The idea that we have the best of both worlds because we run things to a tight schedule, but have the heart of a meet-up so we want anybody, whether you’re the biggest executive in the world or a scientist, whatever, when somebody walks up to you and says, hey, I had a question to go, absolutely.

This year was the first year that we thought we might get to bring all of that together as a global leadership summit, and it was going to be the first year we might make a profit out of everything and then, of course, Covid happened. We thought about cancelling we thought about delaying until later in the year, then we thought about the recovery. For all of us, because we’ve all got jobs, families and mortgages and so on, in some ways, there’s nothing more important right now than making sure that we address the pandemic. But also that we collaborate and work together to recover both health-wise but economically. On the back of that, we thought we shouldn’t cancel this event we should make sure.

Obviously, Covid is a big topic, climate is a big topic, economic recovery is a big topic, and diversity and inclusiveness has always been very important to us is. With everything that’s been going on in America recently around Black Lives Matter, I think that’s a huge topic and we’re proud to have some amazing speakers on that as well.

Read more: A century-defining event: Surviving the future normal in Verdict Magazine Issue 3