Interview with Machine Learnings

A few days ago, I sat down Sam DeBrule of Machine Learnings for a broad conversation about AI and startups.  We got into a number of topics including creative data acquisition tactics, data network effects, and what makes AI startups different.

The interview is here:  Why AI Companies Can’t Be Lean Startups – A Conversation with Matt Turck of FirstMark Capital.

 

The New Gold Rush? Wall Street Wants your Data

 

trading-data

 
A few months ago, Foursquare achieved an impressive feat by predicting, ahead of official company results, that Chipotle’s Q1 2016 sales would be down nearly 30%. Because it captures geo-location data from both check-ins and visits through its apps, Foursquare was able to extrapolate foot-traffic stats that turned out to be very accurate predictors of financial performance.
 
That a social media company could be building a data asset of immense value to Wall Street is part of an accelerating trend known as “alternative data”. As just about everything in our lives is getting sensed and captured by technology, financial services firms have been turning their attention to startups, with the hope of mining their data to extract the type of gold nuggets that will enable them to beat the market.
 
Could working with Wall Street be a business model for you?
 
The opportunity is open to a wide range of startups.  Many tech companies these days generate an interesting “data exhaust” as a by-product of their core activity.  If your company offers a payment solution, you may have interesting data on what people buy. A mobile app may accumulate geo-location data on where people shop or how often they go to the movies.  A connected health device may know who gets sick when and where.  A commerce company may have data on trends and consumer preferences. A SaaS provider may know what corporations purchase, or how many employees they hire, in which region. And so on and so forth.
 
At the same time, this is a tricky topic, with a lot of misunderstandings. The hedge fund world is very different from the startup world, and a lot gets lost in translation.  Rumors about hedge funds paying “millions” for data sets abound, which has created a distorted perception of the size of the financial opportunity.  A fair number of startups I speak with do incorporate idea of selling data to Wall Street into their business plan and VC pitches, but how that would work exactly remains generally very fuzzy.
 
If you’re one of the many startups sitting on a growing data asset and trying to figure out whether you can make money selling it to Wall Street, this post is for you: a deep dive to provide context, clarify concepts and offer some practical tips.
 

Continue reading “The New Gold Rush? Wall Street Wants your Data”

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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Phosphorus and the Rise of the New Genomics Startup

 

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:

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The Power of Data Network Effects

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.

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Sketchfab and the democratization of 3D content

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”

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 “Straight to A” Round

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”

The Astounding Resurrection of AI [Slides]

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.

x.ai and the emergence of the AI-powered application

AI is experiencing an astounding resurrection.  After so many broken promises, the term “artificial intelligence” had become almost a dirty word in technology circles.  The field is now rising from the ashes.  Researchers who had been toiling away in semi-obscurity over the last few decades have suddenly become superstars and have been aggressively recruited by the largest Internet companies:  Yann LeCun (see his recent talk at our Data Driven NYC event here) by Facebook; Geoff Hinton by Google; Andrew Ng by Baidu.  Google spent over $400 million to acquire DeepMind, a 2 year old secretive UK AI startup. The press and social media are awash with thoughts on AI.  Elon Musk cautions us against its perils.
 
What’s different this time? As Irving Wladawsky-Berger pointed out in a Wall Street Journal article, “a different AI paradigm emerged. Instead of trying to program computers to act intelligently–an approach that hadn’t worked because we don’t really know what intelligence is– AI now embraced a statistical, brute force approach based on analyzing vast amounts of information with powerful computers and sophisticated algorithms.”  In other words, the resurgence of AI is partly a child of Big Data, as better algorithms (in particular, what’s known as “deep learning”, pioneered by LeCun and others) have been enabled by larger than ever datasets and the ability to process those datasets at scale at reasonable cost.

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Lending Club IPO: Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last, and Other Lessons

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:

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A Few Non-Obvious Things I Learned as a New VC

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.

1.  A real commitment.  Like for many new VCs operating at the Series A level,  the biggest shock to the system was the realization that one gets to make very, very few investments – basically two or three a year.  You quickly find yourself having to choose between a number of opportunities you really like. Making a new investment is a big deal, and a decision that one has to live with for years to come. You also get to work with an entrepreneur very closely, and live up to their level of trust and expectations.  In a way, it feels like a marriage, except one where divorce is not really an option.  There’s an occasionally brutal asymmetry between the fundraising process (which can be quick and intense, especially if it is competitive) and what happens afterwards, which is a lot of hard work over a long period of time.  Both the entrepreneur and the VC would be well advised to get to know who they’re about to work with for the next few years of their lives.  You don’t need to be friends with your VC (although friendships develop over years of working together), but you do need a core of mutual respect and commitment to hard work and excellence, as well as a shared vision of the future.

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The French Startup Ecosystem: At a Tipping Point

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.

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Can the Bloomberg Terminal be “Toppled”?

In the eye of some entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, the Bloomberg terminal is a bit of an anomaly, perhaps even an anachronism.  In the era of free information on the Internet and open source Big Data tools, here’s a business that makes billions every year charging its users to access data that it generally obtains from third parties, as well as the tools to analyze it.  You’ll hear the occasional jab at its interface as reminiscent of the 1980s.  And at a time of accelerating “unbundling” across many industries, including financial services, the Bloomberg terminal is the ultimate “bundling” play: one product, one price, which means that that the average user uses only a small percentage of the terminal’s 30,000+ functions.  Yet, 320,000 people around the world pay about $20,000 a year to use it.

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Recombine

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:

Continue reading “Recombine”