Tesla lawyer tells Madison startups to expect ‘resistance’ from status quo

A UW-Madison alum who’s now a lawyer at Tesla Motors warned Madison startup leaders they’ll face a lot of resistance as they try to disrupt their more established competitors.

The status quo, said Tesla associate general counsel Keith Witek, will want to “preserve current profit models.” But startups, he said Monday at the Badger Startup Summit in Madison, must continue to fight against those entrenched industries.

“There’s going to be a battle that has to be fought by hard-headed and tenacious entrepreneurs like we have in this room,” Witek said. “You are going to have to hit your head against the wall 26 times before you eventually break through and have some success.”

Witek, a former Motorola lawyer, said he the “disruption” trend is both positive and inevitable. And its pace is rapidly picking up, he said, pointing to common tech automation buzzwords such as big data, the Internet of Things and machine learning.

IBM, for example, says human knowledge doubles every 13 months. But with those technologies, the company expects that it will double every 12 hours in the not-too-distant future.

“Disruption is happening so much more quickly now than it ever has,” Witek said. “What do we have to do differently as professionals to keep up, and make sure our companies are winning, so that we’re not one of the companies being disrupted out of business?”

One clear example is Uber, as the company’s ride-hailing service has drawn major opposition from taxi companies.

But it’s not just the transportation industry that’s being disrupted, Witek said. Others will soon experience fundamental change, including gene editing and wearable health care devices.

Some of those technologies include scanners that might detect heart attacks hours before they hit or patches for those with diabetes that could monitor blood sugar in real-time.

He even pointed to recent breakthroughs in understanding aging that could allow companies to develop wearable devices battling the natural processes of growing older.

“None of these other inventions matter if we are perishing early,” Witek said. “It would be nice to get us into our 120s in a perfect state of health so we have more time with the people we love.”

— By Alex Moe,