They say necessity is the mother of invention and dual Olympian Simon Arkell’s amazing life’s work is testament to that, but for Simon, something that was born out of necessity ended up saving lives.
Simon grew up in Adelaide, South Australia and like most young athletes, dreamed of becoming an Olympian, except Simon’s Olympic dream was born a little differently.
He wasn’t a gifted or talented sportsman, in fact, if you ask him, he will tell you he was a “bad athlete,” but his motivation to succeed and achieve a goal outweighed any shortcomings in his natural athletic ability.
“In 1981, when I was 11, my stepdad took me to see a documentary on the Montreal 1976 Olympics. I was so inspired, that then and there, I decided I was going to go to the Olympics one day,” Arkell said this is when his dreams of Olympic glory began.
But there was one problem, although he played a number of sports, Arkell wasn’t very good at any of them, so he did not know which one he would pick for his Olympic dream.
“The fact that I didn’t really know what I would compete in because I was no good, was a bit of a problem because being good at sport is generally a pre-determinant for success as an athlete!” he laughed.
“But, around the same time I decided I want to be an Olympian, my best friend was invited to a track and field athletics camp and I ended up joining him.
“That was the first time I’d encountered the pole vault and I was instantly hooked,” he continued.
“I liked that it was different. It was a sport with a path less trodden, so it became clear to me that pole vault could be the vehicle that would get me to the Olympic Games, and I just went for it.
“I figured out what I needed to do to be the best that I could be and get to where I wanted to go.”
From then on, Arkell poured all his efforts into making sure he would achieve his Olympic dream.
Training twice a day and studying in between, a teenage Arkell was unable to work a 9-5 job. But being an athlete who competes overseas was expensive, so he needed to figure out how to pay his way through competitions – this is how his first ‘business’ was born.
“I left Australia in 1986 when I was 19 to compete in the Commonwealth Games and by then I had already accepted a scholarship to go to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, USA, but it was a ‘books and tuition only’ scholarship so living expenses weren’t covered,” Arkell explained.
“As a result, I had to be quite creative to come up with enough money to pay for rent, food and to travel to Europe for summer competitions. This lit a spark in me to be entrepreneurial.
“When I was an undergraduate at New Mexico and still training full-time, I started a business.
“It was an advertising company where I gave away notepads to the students which were printed with a college calendar, and each page had ads around the edges.
“I literally walked door to door up and down the main road by campus and sold the ads for the project.
“I tried to make a profit doing that, but also learned a lot about grit, sales and persistence. It was a life-changing experience.”
Arkell’s ingenuity meant he was able to pay the travel and associated costs to compete on the European circuit each summer until he was good enough to make enough money to cover those costs.
As his performance improved in his early 20’s, Simon began receiving appearance fees and prize money in Europe. He was eventually offered an AIS scholarship that paid him a stipend even while he lived in the US.
“I am eternally grateful to the AIS for supporting me at this time, even though I had taken the route of moving to the US to improve in my event,” Arkell said.
Simon went on to achieve his goal and compete at Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996 as well as two World Cups and three World Championships. He has also been inducted into the Halls of Fame for Athletics South Australia and the University of New Mexico.
After becoming a two-time Olympian, Commonwealth Games Champion and breaking nine Australian and four Commonwealth records, Arkell hung up the spikes after Atlanta 1996, but his list of accolades did not end with his athletic career.
Arkell channeled his ambition into founding seven high-tech companies which together raised over $100 million in venture funding, and also changed the lives of those who were diagnosed with potentially fatal illnesses.
He now lives near Laguna Beach in Southern California with his wife and two teenage children.
In 1998, Arkell was riding the dot com boom in ‘Silicon Valley.’ There he co-founded his first company, Versifi Technologies, which was one of the world’s first web content management systems and the first-ever written in java, a programming language.
It allowed companies to publish mass amounts of content, which was unheard of back then, and the company raised over $10 million from venture capitalists.
Arkell sold Versifi Technologies and went on to start a wireless software company, acquire other businesses, and he even worked for an investment bank to better understand the venture capital industry.
In 2009 he moved into the health-tech industry where arguably his most successful and world-changing business ventures were born.
“The biggest and probably most relevant company I founded is one called Predixion Software, which raised about $46 million from venture capitalists,” the successful entrepreneur said.
“We built software to allow companies to analyse huge amounts of data and predict potentially expensive outcomes.
“It was initially in ‘hospital patient risk analytics’, where we helped hospitals predict which patients were more likely to be readmitted after discharge, thereby costing systems and insurance companies huge amounts of money.”
Then Arkell went one step further with his latest company, Deep Lens, in 2017.
Arkell teamed up with his customer and friend who worked for Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio and another co-founder with a Ph.D. in cancer genetics, and together they created a cloud-based software platform that initially allowed pathologists who diagnose cancer, to scan magnified, whole-slide images of tumours and upload them to the cloud for global remote collaboration.
This evolved into artificial intelligence (AI) that enabled computers to identify tumours better than a human expert and ultimately match cancer patients with potentially life-saving clinical trials.
“If you think about the true north of what we do as a company, we’re really helping cancer centres to match their patients with available clinical trials, which is a really complex problem,” Arkell said.
“We make the software and our services available to them free of charge, while generating revenue from the pharmaceutical companies who are trying to get their drugs successfully through clinical trials.
“In many cases, a cancer patient will be going through what’s called standard of care, which is just the normal therapy that a doctor would put them on, and they miss the fact that there may be three or four different life-saving clinical trials that they could or should be on.
“All of the research that’s happening now, especially in molecular genetic-based therapies, makes it even more difficult to match a patient to a clinical trial, but if you get the right match, it could save their lives.
“To be able to use technology and a business model to go out there and potentially save lives is very motivating,” he continued.
“It creates an incredible culture in our company where every one of our employees gets out of bed in the morning thinking they can help change the world.”
Simon also has a personal connection to his cause, having recently lost his mum, Merilyn, to cancer.
“Starting Deep Lens, then going through the process of having a loved one diagnosed with cancer, was hugely impactful,” Arkell shared.
“Losing my mother last Christmas to cancer was devastating to me and everyone in our family and although I’m still recovering, it somehow makes my work even more meaningful.”
He is also the founder and MC of Megan’s Wings Orange County Gala, which raised almost $1 million for children diagnosed with cancer.
“When I went to college and did my undergrad, a couple of my track team friends, Dave and Kim, ended up dating, getting married and moving to California,” Arkell said.
“They had three kids, and one of them, Megan, was diagnosed with leukemia and she died when she was just 10 years old.
“It just tore me apart to see not only how sad it was for a young girl to die of leukemia, but to also see the effect it had on the family. Megan’s parents will never be the same.
“They are my heroes because despite the pain of losing a child, they put this charity together to help with financial and other support to the families of children diagnosed with cancer,” he continued.
“Generally, if two parents are working and their child is diagnosed with cancer, one of them has to quit his or her job so they can care for the child.
“They can end up getting their car repossessed or being evicted from their homes because they can’t pay their bills, so about 13 years ago I went to one of Dave and Kim’s, ‘Megan’s Wings,’ events and I decided I had to do something to help. I recruited my best friend and we put on an annual fundraising dinner for them which was a huge success.
“We have another friend whose family owns Ketel One Vodka, and they have this beautiful big ballroom at their headquarters which they let us use for free, and they covered all the drinks and we did that once a year for 10 years and raised a million dollars.
“One year we raised $140,000, which was exactly our target to buy a house near the hospital, where families can now stay free of charge while their kids are getting their chemo treatments. It’s amazing.
“Getting involved in charity work and being able to make a positive difference in people’s lives by starting those companies felt like exactly the space I wanted to focus on with my background and skillsets.
“I want to be remembered as someone who helped move the ball forward, improved technology, and possibly even helped save lives in some small way. Just someone who tried to make a difference.”
Simon is one of many elite athletes who have gone on to continue leading elite lives even after sport. He says there is no ‘secret ingredient’ that makes some pre-disposed to being successful as an athlete, entrepreneur, or whatever someone wishes to pursue, but there are simple traits to help, which everyone possesses.
“I’ve often thought about the question: does being an Olympian create a personality trait or does having a personality trait make you an Olympian? I think it’s probably the latter,” Arkell shared.
“From a young age, my mindset was always that if I was going to do anything I might as well go all in and pursue it as hard as I could, no matter what.
“I was bad at sports, but I wanted to go to the Olympics, so my mind was set on finding a vehicle and focusing on it solely until I achieved that dream. It was part social science experiment and part thrill-seeking.”
“I’ve met many successful athletes and many successful entrepreneurs, billionaires even, and I think the common trait amongst them all is an incredible ability to focus myopically on the goal they set for themselves.”
“I never had a natural trait that made me successful enough to become an Olympian. In terms of natural talent, I was definitely not a good athlete, in fact, I was a bad athlete, but because I had this myopic focus and a chip on my shoulder, I was able to just channel my energy and overcome the obstacles,” Arkell explained.
“I think the trait of a great athlete, in fact, any role you choose, is to have tunnel vision and a really great ability to focus very, very closely and as soon as my athletics career was finished, I knew that I still had the drive to succeed.
“Getting comfortable with failure also helps. It is needed for you to realise that these experiences may not be failures, but instead are lessons that help you learn and evolve.”
Simon has also set up an online resource, where Olympians can come together and discuss their businesses and pursuits after sport.
“One thing I realised about 10 years ago was that there was very little crossover between sports and business and that made it very hard to network with other Olympians, so I set up a group on LinkedIn called ‘Olympians in Business’,” he said.
“Now, there are almost 2000 members who have competed in the Olympics, and they use the group to network with each other and, in some cases, get a leg up in business as they start their careers at the bottom after being on top in their sport.
“This process takes a long time, and it can be very disheartening,” Arkell said.
“I’ve met great athletes who have had severe depression and suicidal thoughts at the end of their careers so there’s a huge need for support of athletes at this stage in their careers, not just when they need money to win medals.
“There is a great documentary called, “The Weight of Gold,” that depicts that need perfectly.”
Simon says that the difference between being an elite athlete and an elite businessperson is that no one can be disqualified.
“The problem you have in business is that anyone can start a company or be successful in their industry if they have grit, drive and a bit of intelligence.
“You’re not disqualifying 99% of the competition because they’re not physically talented or are too old or too young. The pool of potential competitors in business is much, much larger.
“It can be much more complex and requires a lot more thought, but you really just have to have faith that the hard work will pay off, it just won’t be an overnight success unless you get very lucky, so the more tools that athletes are given, the better equipped they’re going to be to apply whatever it was that made them successful in sports, to the business world.”