Danny Lopez is the living embodiment of that rather suspect statistic saying we’ll have seven distinct careers in our lifetime. At 43, he’s already well over half way there, having been a banker, a civil servant, Britain’s youngest ever consul-general in New York and now chief operating officer for tech unicorn Blippar.
It makes it difficult to know what stereotype to expect. Mild mannered courtier? Cut-and-thrust go-getter? Preachy optimist?
Try unassuming polymath, with a little black book to die for.
‘I hosted a thousand events over five years,’ Lopez says of his stint in diplomacy, without a hint of braggadocio. ‘I hosted the PM on numerous occasions, members of the Royal family, cabinet ministers. It was an amazing experience.’
British by birth and accent, Spanish by upbringing, Lopez is quick to emphasise the continuity in his unorthodox career path. His ten years at Barclay’s brought him into the inward investment space, so moving to run marketing for UK Trade and Investment, as it was then known, was a ‘natural next step’.
Blippar's augmented reality in action
After three years he left to set up the capital’s promotional agency London & Partners, before zooming off to New York to press British interests in the States and munch on Ferrero Rocher, as part of the Coalition government’s efforts to open diplomatic roles to outsiders with commercial experience.
It was from there that he parachuted into a top level tech role at London-based Blippar. As you do.
‘I got fascinated by the tech space and wanted to refresh my private sector credentials. I thought I’m going to start the second half of my career and tech’s going to be a big part of that, so let’s just immerse myself in it,’ Lopez says. ‘Blippar really caught my eye because of the vision of what it’s trying to achieve.’
What Blippar’s trying to achieve is, in the words of founder and CEO Ambarish Mitra, ‘bigger than the internet’. When it started in 2011, Blippar was an app offering brands augmented reality (AR) content when consumers pointed their phone at a product. Now Mitra and Lopez are pushing hard into altogether grander sounding technologies of computer vision and visual search.
The idea is that you just point at something and find out instantly what it is.
‘We’re not aiming to replace Google, we’re complementing it,’ Lopez cautions. ‘The world we’re heading into will be heavily reliant on camera lenses. We’re providing those lenses with intelligent behaviour and cognition.’
Applications include tourism, education, navigation (using a phone camera to work out where you are, something Lopez says is twice as accurate as GPS), medical diagnosis and autonomous vehicles.
While all this has been going on – and faced with reportedly underwhelming consumer demand for the original Blippar app – the company’s business model has pivoted. Lopez says it’s building an AR B2B ecosystem, allowing other companies to create AR experiences on their own apps or license Blippar’s visual recognition technology.
That of course brings Blippar into increasingly direct competition with tech leviathans like Google, Facebook and Apple, a scary prospect for even the best-funded unicorn.
‘This is the starting line for visual search. It feels like an 18 month race. It doesn’t matter if it’s the bigger or smaller guy, the next 18 months will likely determine the foundations of what visual search will be over the next ten years,’ Lopez says.
The tech giants do have awfully deep pockets though, which means they might just spend their way to the finish line, raising the question of how Blippar can compete.
Lopez isn’t fazed. ‘A lot of our engineers have worked for the big players, but the reason they choose us is that we have only one objective, visual search. If you’re a specialist in that field, you have a choice to make between a small company that just believes in that or a big company that does 500 things.’
Unsurprisingly for someone who used to represent UK trade interests abroad, he’s also bullish about Britain as a place for tech companies to start and grow, Brexit or no Brexit.
‘We haven’t seen a drop-off in our business or access to talent for the last year and a half. The thing we do talk about is the making sure we’re able to retain that access and the existing EU talent we have,’ Lopez says.
‘There’s always an element of playing the cards you’re dealt. The cards we hold now are different from the ones we had two years ago. You can’t change that. The question for me is are we a capable country with the sufficient brainpower to do the best we can for the next generation. The answer is yes, so let’s get on with it.’
Danny Lopez’s career pivot tips
‘If it feels right, go for it. When I left banking for the public sector, people thought I was absolutely bonkers. When I moved to being a diplomat, they said "how are you going to do that, you have no background?" It’s not so much about taking the plunge as having sufficient confidence to take on a new challenge.’
‘Have a healthy dose of humility. You can’t go into these radical changes thinking you know everything. If you’re not humble, you won’t learn in the right way and people won’t respect you.’
‘Remember you bring a lot to the party. You’ll have a whole host of skills and experiences that will be useful to your employer. The experience of leadership in a large institution for example is very helpful for a company that’s growing at the rate that Blippar is.’