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.
As we are perhaps reaching the end of a cycle of innovation in tech – the one that resulted from the simultaneous emergence of social, mobile and cloud – and collectively pondering what’s next, one of the areas I’ve found particularly exciting recently is the intersection of Big Data and life sciences.
A little over two years ago, in connection with my investment in Recombine, a genomics startup, I wrote (here) about another powerful combination of trends: the sharp drop in the cost of sequencing the human genome, the maturation of Big Data technologies, and the increasing commoditization of wet lab work.
The fundamental premise was, and still very much is, as follows:
In the furiously competitive world of tech startups, where good entrepreneurs tend to think of comparable ideas around the same time and “hot spaces” get crowded quickly with well-funded hopefuls, competitive moats matter more than ever. Ideally, as your startup scales, you want to not only be able to defend yourself against competitors, but actually find it increasingly easier to break away from them, making your business more and more unassailable and leading to a “winner take all” dynamic. This sounds simple enough, but in reality many growing startups, including some well-known ones, experience exactly the reverse (higher customer acquisition costs resulting from increased competition, core technology that gets replicated and improved upon by competitors that started later and learned from your early mistakes, etc.).
While there are various types of competitive moats, such as a powerful brand (Apple) or economies of scale (Oracle), network effects are particularly effective at creating this winner takes all dynamic, and have been associated with some of the biggest success stories in the history of the Internet industry.
Network effects come in different flavors, and today I want to talk about a specific type that has been very much at the core of my personal investment thesis as a VC, resulting from my profound interest in the world of data and machine learning: data network effects.
We’re about to see a lot more 3D content in our digital lives. Various trends, some years in the making, are now intersecting to make this a near-term reality.
On the production side, 3D has of course existed for many years – this has been, in particular, the world of Computer Aided Design (CAD), which originated in part from MIT’s Sketchpad project in the early sixties. In one form or another, 3D has been used as a professional format across many industries, such as architecture, engineering, construction, and entertainment. Creation of 3D content (even for consumer-facing products like gaming) has remained largely the province of a comparatively small group of specialized professionals. Continue reading “Sketchfab and the democratization of 3D content”
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 venture financing path has evolved incredibly fast over the last 18 months. In this very busy financing market, what used to be a reasonably well understood progression from a seed round to a Series A to a Series B, etc. has now morphed into a more complex nomenclature of pre-seeds ($500k or less), crowdfunding rounds (especially for hardware), seeds ($1M-$2M, 6-9 months after the pre-seed), seed primes (an extra $1M or so, 12-18 months after the seed), Series A (now routinely $10-$12M in size, occasionally up to $15M), Series A-1, Series B, C, D, E, F etc. (as companies remain private longer).
The latest entrant in this rapidly evolving nomenclature seems to be what I’d call the “Straight to A” round, where the founders skip the seed stage altogether and raise directly a $5M-$10M Series A, often before building anything, sometimes even before incorporating a company. I had seen it here and there in the past, but it now seems to have become an accelerating trend. Continue reading “The “Straight to A” Round”
A few days ago, I was invited to speak at a Yale Entrepreneurship Breakfast about about one of my favorite areas of interest, Artificial Intelligence. Here are the slides from the talk — a primer on how AI rose from of the ashes to become a fascinating category for startup founders and venture capitalists. Very much a companion to my earliest post about our investment in x.ai. Many thanks to my colleague Jim Hao, who worked with me on this presentation.
The superb Lending Club success story is what the startup world is all about: a software-based reinvention of massive and inefficient industry; a product that puts consumers first and delivers undeniable benefits ; and an entrepreneurial mega-hit that brings incredible riches and returns to its founder and investors.
In some ways, Lending Club is a classic Silicon Valley story; in some other ways, it is pretty atypical. As a friend of Renaud Laplanche’s for over 20 years, I have had a chance to witness from up close some parts of his journey with Lending Club. It is full of interesting lessons for entrepreneurs and the tech industry in general:
I joined FirstMark as a partner a little over 18 months ago now, and it’s been a thrilling ride. It’s also felt like a steep learning curve: lots of nuances, and lots of institutional memory to absorb. Below is a glimpse into what I’ve seen happening “behind the scenes” on the VC’s side to the table – stuff that was not obvious to me in my former roles as entrepreneur, angel investor or corporate incubator/strategic.
I know, when thinking about hotbeds of startup innovation, France doesn’t exactly jump to mind. Sure, there are interesting things happening in European tech – in London, or Berlin (which I covered here). Or Finland. But France? Ask U.S investors and entrepreneurs, and you’ll hear more or less the same thing: high taxes. Impossible to fire people. Government intervention. Language barrier. Fear of failure. Strikes. The country of the the 35 hour law, where people are prohibited by law to answer email past 6pm.
Yet things have started to accelerate meaningfully in French early stage tech, particularly in the last two or three years. I was fortunate to be recently invited as part of a delegation of US VCs and media guests to spend a few days in Paris to meet with local entrepreneurs and VCs, as well as President Hollande and other senior members of the French government. As a Frenchman who has spent his entire professional career in the US, I’m perhaps more cynical than most about those matters, but I came back from my trip genuinely intrigued by the potential of the French tech scene.
For anyone who cares to look, the fairly obvious conclusion is that there’s a huge gap between perception and reality, when it comes to the French startup ecosystem. Very significant progress has been made on all fronts – more interesting startups, more funding, lots more talent rushing into the sector, improved legistation, etc. – yet the word has not caught on.
3. Crowdsourced data. From Estimize (which crowdsources analyst estimates) to Premise (which crowdsources macroeconomic data through an army of people around the world equipped with mobile phones), a whole new way of capturing financial data has emerged. Quandl, a financial data search engine, has aggregated over 8 million financial and economic datasets through both web crawling and crowdsourced, community contributions. Once such a data platform has been built, could third party developers add analytic and visualization tools on top, essentially resulting in a crowdsourced “terminal” of sorts that would be reliable enough, at least for non mission critical, non real time use cases?
The field of bioinformatics is having its “big bang” moment. Of course, bioinformatics is not a new discipline and it has seen various waves of innovations since the 1970s and 1980s, with its fair share of both exciting moments and disappointments (particularly in terms of linking DNA analysis to clinical outcomes). But there is something special happening to the industry right now, accelerated by several factors:
• The cost of full genome sequencing has been dropping precipitously, in fact a lot faster than Moore’s law would have suggested. Illumina just released brand new machines that make the $1,000 full genome sequencing a realistic possibility. As a result, an extraordinary amount of data is going to become available at reasonable cost (5.5TB or 6.3 Billion bases… per patient).
• Big Data technology has had its own, separate evolution, and there is now an arsenal of tools to process and analyze massive amounts of data, at a comparatively cheap cost.
• Wet lab work has become a more standardized and increasingly automated process, considerably reducing the “friction” involved in collecting and processing physical samples. The cost of setting up biology labs, while still high, is starting to decrease, and molecular techniques are no longer the limiting step in genomic analysis.
As a result of the above, biology is rapidly evolving from being predominantly driven by traditional life sciences research to being largely driven by software and Big Data. This evolution considerably reduces the capital required to build a successful venture in the space. It also opens up the field to a new generation of startups run by inter-disciplinarian teams that have at least as much of a software and data science background as a biology background. A whole new world of bio-hackers is also emerging, from synthetic biology to personalized medicine, the possibilities are immense and the impact on our lives potentially unparalleled. It is entirely possible that the next generation of great entrepreneurs will be building “biology 2.0” companies, rather than mobile apps.
This opportunity has not been lost on entrepreneurs and the last 3 years or so have seen a rapid acceleration of startup creation, in a wide range of area from diagnostics (Counsyl) to cloud platforms (DNANexus) to lab automation (Benchling, Transcriptic). Interestingly but not surprisingly considering the above, most of those startups are funded by technology, rather than life sciences, venture capital firms.
Today I’m excited to announce that FirstMark is partnering with Recombine, a New York based startup that very much operates at this intersection between software, Big Data and biology, as its lead Series A investor. Recombine’s CEO, Alex Bisignano, symbolizes this new generation of entrepreneurs who have deep knowledge in multiple technical fields. He has built around him a great, multi-disciplinarian team, and benefits from the deep industry knowledge and expertise of co-founder Dr. Santiago Munne, the owner of Reprogenetics and pioneer in pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
Recombine’s core focus is the field of fertility and reproductive genetics, and it has had a spectacular early start with CarrierMap, its first product, generating a profitable multi-million dollar business with a comparatively small seed investment. The CarrierMap test is the most comprehensive, cost-effective, carrier screen on the market, and has already helped thousands of couples to identify and mitigate the risk of passing on serious illnesses to their children. CarrierMap is sold exclusively through doctors and clinics, it is not a Direct to Consumer product (and therefore falls in a different category than 23andMe).
Beyond this initial focus, Recombine has ambitious plans to fully leverage Big Data technology to help decode the myriad aspects of our genome that are still not well understood. They have already obtained Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval for their first large-scale study, and the company is currently assembling a crack team of data scientists in New York City. If you have deep expertise in data science field, this is an opportunity to help bring about a revolution in personalized medicine. Come join us!
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.