Investing in Frontier Tech

drone

Over the last few months, the usual debate around unicorns and bubbles seems to have been put on hold a bit, as fears of a major crash have thankfully not materialized, at least for now.

Instead another discussion has emerged, one that’s actually probably more fundamental. What’s next in tech? Which areas will produce the Googles and Facebooks of the next decade?

What’s prompting the discussion is a general feeling that we’re on the tail end of the most recent big wave of innovation, one that was propelled by social, mobile and cloud.  A lot of great companies emerged from that wave, and the concern is whether there’s room for a lot more “category-defining” startups to appear.  Does the world need another Snapchat? (see Josh Elman’s great thoughts here).  Or another marketplace, on-demand company, food startup, peer to peer lending platform? Isn’t there a SaaS company in just about every segment now? And so on and so forth.

One alternative seems to be “frontier tech”: a seemingly heterogeneous group that includes artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, augmented reality, virtual reality, drones, robotics, autonomous vehicles, space, genomics, neuroscience, and perhaps the blockchain, depending on who you ask.

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Internet of Things: Are We There Yet? (The 2016 IoT Landscape)

 

Is the Internet of Things the world’s most confusing tech trend? On the one hand, we’re told it’s going to be epic, and soon – all predictions are either in tens of billions (of connected devices) and trillions (of dollars of economic value to be created). On the other hand, the dominant feeling expressed by end users (including at this year’s CES show, arguably the bellwether of the industry) is essentially “meh” – right now the IoT feels like an avalanche of new connected products, many of which seem to solve trivial, “first world” problems: expensive gadgets that resolutely fall in the “nice to have” category, rather than “must have”.  And, for all the talk about a mega tech trend, things seem to be moving at the speed of molasses, with little discernible progress year on year.

Part of the problem is perhaps one of semantics. While gadgets are indeed part of the category (and quite often very large markets onto themselves), the Internet of Things (which we define as any “connected hardware” other than desktops, laptops and smartphones) is a much broader, and deeper, trend that cuts across both the consumer, enterprise and industrial spaces. Fundamentally, the Internet of Things is about the transformation of any physical object into a digital data product. Once you attach a sensor to it, a physical object (whether a tiny one like a pill that goes through your body, or a very large one like a plane or building) starts functioning a lot like any other digital product – it emits data about its usage, location and state; it can be tracked, controlled, personalized and upgraded remotely; and, when coupled with all the progress in Big Data and artificial intelligence, it can become intelligent, predictive, collaborative and in some cases autonomous.  An entirely new way of interacting with our world is emerging. The importance of the IoT perhaps emerges more clearly when you think about it as the final chapter of “software eats the world”, where everything gets connected.

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Hardware Startups: The VC Perspective

Among all the excitement for the Internet of Things and the resurgence of hardware as an investable category, venture capitalists, many of whom new to the space, have been re-discovering the opportunities and challenges of working alongside entrepreneurs to build hardware companies.  Below are the slides that David Rogg and I prepared for the recent Connected Conference, a great global event held in Paris.  They’re a good snapshot of how someone like me thinks about the hardware space, mid-2015.

 

 

The Internet of Things: Reaching Escape Velocity

An edited version of this post appeared on TechCrunch here.  A downloadable version of the chart is available on SlideShare here.

It’s been about 18 months since my original attempt at charting the Internet of Things (IoT) space. To say the least, it’s been a period of extraordinary activity in the ecosystem.

While the Internet of Things will inevitably ride the ups and downs of inflated hype and unmet expectations, at this stage there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. The Internet of Things is propelled by an exceptional convergence of trends (mobile phone ubiquity, open hardware, Big Data, the resurrection of AI, cloud computing, 3D printing, crowdfunding). In addition, there’s an element of self-fulfilling prophecy at play with enterprises, consumers, retailers and the press all equally excited about the possibilities. As a result, the IoT space is now reaching escape velocity. Whether we’re ready for it or not, we’re rapidly evolving towards a world where just about everything will be connected. This has profound implications for society and how we collectively interact with the world around us. Key concerns around privacy and security will need to be addressed.

For entrepreneurs, the opportunity is massive. Where Web 1.0 connected computers to the Internet and Web 2.0 connected people, Web 3.0 is shaping up to be connecting just about everything else – things, plants, livestock, babies… Each new wave has spun out giant companies (Google and Amazon for Web 1.0, Facebook and Twitter for Web 2.0). Will Web 3.0 create a comparable group of behemoths?

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Introduction to the Internet of Things (Slides)

I’m doing a talk on the Internet of Things tomorrow at the SIIA’s “IIS: Breakthrough” conference tomorrow, and here are the slides I’ll use.  It’s meant to be a high level introduction to the topic, for a broad audience of “information industry” professionals.  Also used an earlier version of those slides at the WIN Global Innovator last week, which was fun. Feedback welcome.

10 Quick Takeaways from CES 2014

1.  Big brand curved TVs and mega booths are cool, but to me this year’s show was all about the rise of the crowdfunded hardware startup.

 

 2.  It’s official, there are now more wearable wristband vendors than there are human wrists on the planet.

 

3.  The wearables category is still waiting for its disruptive “iPhone moment”.  New releases show nice progress, but mostly incremental.  Smart watches have a long way to go.

 

4.  Accelerating trends on display, still early: family tech and senior tech.

 

5.  The lines between the tech and non-tech worlds keep blurring.  Pizza Hut and Ford both had a very noticeable presence and were pitching their tech innovation.

 

6.  Hardware innovation is truly global.  Some of the most interesting startups I met were from Manchester (UK), Ukraine and Lebanon.  France continues to be very active in the space (Parrot, Withings, Netatmo, Sen.se, etc.). [UPDATE: See below some great 3D visualizations of the latest Withings and Sen.se products, produced by SketchFab]

 

7.  China was left, front and center.  Not just as the “workshop of the world” but, more strikingly, as as a producer/innovator in their own right. The rise of the juggernaut only seems to be accelerating.

 

8.  In home automation, entrepreneurs were talking a lot about AllJoyn, Qualcomm’s open source platform and language, and the AllSeen alliance that is going to promote an open standard for the Internet of Things.

 

9.  In 3D printing, Makerbot is killing it, with its three gorgeous new printers.  Toys still seem to be the killer app for consumer 3D printing, although the new Chefjet chocolate 3D printer by 3D systems was pretty awesome. Consolidation in the consumer 3D printer space seems likely, in the not-too-distant future.

 

10.  Yves Behar and Bre Pettis are incredible creative and entrepreneurial minds, who deserve all the hype they get.  I got to witness this firsthand as a judge on the finals of the first TechCrunch Hardware Battlefield (with Jen McCabe, also very sharp), as they turned the judging into a real time mentoring session, providing  insights that were worth way more than the top $50,000 prize.  Exciting and inspiring.

Mother (click to view in 3D)

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Mother

Withings Aura (click to view in 3D)

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Withings Aura

The Rise of the Female Hardware Entrepreneur

As the fundamentally important debate over women in technology and entrepreneurship rages on (most recently sparked by what Paul Graham said, or perhaps didn’t say), I’ve been intrigued by the comparatively higher proportion of women who seem to be starting companies in one of my areas of predilection: hardware (broadly defined: open hardware, Internet of Things, wearable computing, 3D printing, etc.).

I don’t have much data here, other than my anecdotal personal experience, both as a VC and as the organizer of Hardwired NYC. But, without having to rack my brain for more than a minute or two, a bunch of names of great female founders and/or CEOs in the general hardware space comes up, including, in no particular order:

  • Limor Fried, founder, Adafruit
  • Ayah Bdeir, founder and CEO, littlebits (who spoke at Hardwired NYC last November)
  • Amanda Peyton, co-founder and CEO, Grand St (see her talk at Hardwired NYC here)
  • Jenny Lawton, President, Makerbot (see her talk at Hardwired NYC here)
  • Kegan Schowenburg, co-founder and CEO, Sols (speaking at Hardwired NYC next week)
  • Helen Zelman, co-founder, Lemnos Labs
  • Cheryl Kellond, co-founder and CEO, Bia
  • Monisha Perkash, co-founder and CEO, Lumo BodyTech
  • Daniela Perdomo, co-founder and CEO, GoTenna
  • Mary Huang, co-founder, Continuum Fashion
  • Meredith Perry, founder and CEO, uBeam
  • Julia Hu, founder and CEO, Lark
  • Debra Sterling, founder and CEO, GoldieBlox

And there are many more (both in the U.S and globally), which is exciting.

The question, of course, is why hardware would be an area of particular focus for female entrepreneurs. As a category, hardware is broad, lends itself to all sorts of products, and as a result feels pretty gender-neutral.

Could it be that there are more female role models in hardware, since it is often said that role models are particularly important to female entrepreneurs ? It doesn’t appear that way. Sure, women have run some of the biggest hardware companies in the world (Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman at HP; Ursual Burns at Xerox) but it’s unclear how much of an inspiration they would be to early stage tech entrepreneurs, and more importantly, a number of software or internet companies have been run by women as well. Perhaps more relevant are female entrepreneurs like Limor Fried, who under her “Lady Ada” moniker has become the closest equivalent to a celebrity in the hardware alpha geek world (and beyond, through her appearance on the cover of Wired in 2011).

What’s interesting is that hardware lends itself particularly well to new entrants – there’s been a big gap in innovation in hardware in the last 10 or 15 years (with some notable exceptions like Apple), and as a result there’s a “missing generation”, and plenty of opportunities for new entrepreneurs to become leaders in what, in some ways, feels like a brand new field.

Curious if anyone can think of an explanation?

Regardless, and to the extent this is indeed a trend, it is particularly exciting and promising, and we should collectively think about how to accelerate it and extend it to other areas of tech entrepreneurship.

*****

UPDATE:

Got some great feedback on Twitter, and while my initial goal was not to be comprehensive here, thought it could actually be helpful to start a running list of female hardware founders  – perhaps it can become a good resource.   Here are the people that were recommended to me, who else should I add? (please add in comments)

First Name Last Name Company Location
Jeri Ellsworth Technical Illusions Bellevue, WA
Kati Bicknell Kindara Boulder, CO
Mary Turner AlertMe Cambridge, UK
Liz Salcedo Everpurse Chicago, IL
Anastasia Leng Hatch New York, NY
Christina Mercando Ringly New York, NY
Ezster Ozsvald Notch New York, NY
Gauri Nanda Toymail New York, NY
Lisa Fetterman Nomiku San Francisco, CA
Laura Berman Melon Santa Monica, CA
Amanda Williams Fabule Fabrications Montreal, Canada
Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino Good Night Lamp London, UK
Alice Taylor MakieLab London, UK
Natasha Carolan MakieLab London, UK
Becky Pilditch Bare Conductive London, UK
Becky Stewart Codasign London, UK
Bethany Koby TechnologyWillSaveUs London, UK
Emily Brooke Blaze London, UK
Jane ni Dhulchaoinfi Sugru London, UK
Jessi Baker Provenance London, UK
Ana Burica Teddy The Guardian Zagreb, Croatia
Mila Burger Loccie Zagreb, Croatia
Alicia Asin Libelium Zaragoza, Spain

Thomson Reuters CTO Series (Podcast)

Thomson Reuters CTO James Powell runs a great series of podcasts where he interviews people in the technology world about topics of relevance to his organization.  I was fortunate to be invited to speak with James about the Internet of Things and Big Data, and it was a lot of fun.   Below is the podcast, uploaded on SoundCloud.  Thanks to James Powell and Dan Cost for the opportunity.

Launching New Sites for Data Driven NYC and Hardwired NYC

Some updates on the event/community front:

1) A little while ago, I changed the name of the data event I’ve been organizing from “NYC Data Business Meetup” to “Data Driven NYC”.   I originally started the event mostly as experiment, and didn’t give much thought to branding (so yeah, that was a terrible name).  The event has now grown quite a bit (over 3.700 members as I write this), so it was time for a better name; also at this stage, it feels more like a community than “just” a meetup, so I wanted a name that reflected this reality.

2) Back in June, I launched a new community called “Hardwired NYC”.  It covers startups, technologies and products at the intersection of the physical and digital worlds, including topics like 3D printing, Internet of Things, wearable computing, etc.  I developed a strong interest in those areas through my involvement in the Big Data world – the Internet of Things, in particular, is deeply intertwined with Big Data (the proliferation of sensors has been contributing to the Big Data “problem”; equally  the Internet of Things will be highly dependent on Big Data technologies if it is to deliver on its promise).

3) As Hardwired NYC is taking off fast (more than 700 members after just two events), I figured that both events/communities should have their own website with full video libraries, including for people who don’t live in New York and are interested in the content. So, with the great help of my FirstMark colleague Dan Kozikowski,  I’m launching this week www.datadrivennyc.com and www.hardwirednyc.com.  Both sites have a “Watch” section where, from now on, I will post pictures and videos of events (as opposed to this blog).

Data Driven NYC

Hardwired screenshot

Making Sense of the Internet of Things

Note: This post was originally published in TechCrunch a few weeks ago (see original post here).  Below is a revised version of the chart, that reflects many of the comments we received.  Although the chart is very full, it is likely that some companies are missing.

The emerging Internet of Things — essentially, the world of physical devices connected to the network/Internet, from your Fitbit or Nest to industrial machines — is experiencing a burst of activity and creativity that is getting entrepreneurs, VCs and the press equally excited.

The space looks like a boisterous hodgepodge of smart hobbyists, new startups and large corporations that are eager to be a part of what could be a huge market, and all sorts of enabling products and technologies, some of which, including crowdfunding and 3D printing, are themselves far from established.

 
The chart above is an attempt at making sense of this frenetic activity. From bottom to top, I see three broad areas – building blocks, verticals and horizontals:

Building Blocks

The concept of the Internet of Things is not new (the term itself was coined in 1999), but it is now in the process of becoming a reality thanks to the confluence of several key factors.

First, while still challenging, it is easier and cheaper than ever to produce hardware – some components are open sourced (e.g. Arduino microcontrollers); 3D printing helps with rapid prototyping; specialized providers like Dragon Innovation and PCH can handle key parts of the production process, and emerging marketplaces such as Grand St. help with distribution. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter or Indiegogo considerably de-risk the early phase of creating hardware by establishing market demand and providing financing.

Second, the world of wireless connectivity has dramatically evolved over the last few years. The mobile phone (or tablet), now a supercomputer in everyone’s hand, is becoming the universal remote control of the Internet of Things. Ubiquitous connectivity is becoming a reality (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G) and standards are starting to emerge (MQTT).  The slight irony of the “Internet of Things” moniker is that things are often connected via M2M (machine to machine) protocols rather than the Internet itself.

Third, the Internet of Things is able to leverage an entire infrastructure that has emerged in related areas. Cloud computing enables the creation of “dumb” (simpler, cheaper) devices, with all the intelligence processed in the cloud. Big data tools, often open sourced (Hadoop), enable the processing of massive amounts of data captured by the devices and will play a crucial role in the space.

Verticals

Unlike the Big Data space, where the action is gradually moving from core infrastructure to vertical applications, the Internet of Things space is seeing a lot of early action directly at the vertical application level. Some notable players like Nest Labs seem to have adopted a deeply integrated vertical strategy where they control key pieces of the product, including both hardware and software, in order to have complete control over the end-user experience (a lot like Apple, which is not surprising considering the founders’ background).

Beyond the Nest, home automation in general has become the central battlefield of the Internet of Things, with some of the most exciting startups in the space jockeying for position. Another hot consumer-facing area is obviously quantified self, which is playing a huge role in developing consumers’ awareness of the potential of the Internet of Things.

Beyond consumer, B2B/enterprise vertical applications of the Internet of Things, fueled in part by robotics, hold considerable promise in a number of areas such as manufacturing, transportation, healthcare, retail and energy. Some of clearest revenue opportunities for IoT startups are in the enterprise area.

Horizontals

While a lot of the action is happening at the vertical application level, the ultimate prize for many ambitious players in the space is to become the software platform upon which all vertical applications in the Internet of Things will be built. For example, several of the home automation providers (SmartThings, Ninja Blocks, etc.) also provide a software platform, and seem to be leveraging their vertical focus as a way to kickstart activity on the platform.

Large corporations (GE, IBM, etc.) are very active in the space and are developing their own platforms.  Carriers (AT&T, Verizon) have a large opportunity in the area, as well.

One open question is whether a platform developed for a vertical will easily translate to another vertical. In addition, whether the winning platforms are open or closed will play a huge role in the future of the space. My bet would be on openness.

The related area of connectivity (connecting objects to the network/Internet and to one another through all sorts of rules) is also a very significant opportunity.

The space is extraordinarily exciting, but still very much in its infancy – expect this chart to change dramatically over the next few months and years.