I’ve been investing in companies for the last five years — as an angel, part of syndicates and with Techstars and Zeroth. I’m excited to be continuing that journey as managing director of the Techstars London Accelerator. It’s especially meaningful, as Jon’s first program back in 2013 was my first opportunity to mentor. Following the programs that he and Max (who is now the VP of Innovation for Techstars) ran leaves me with some pretty big shoes to fill.
You can see some of the companies we’ve invested in through the London program here. It’s a pretty broad range of companies — from genomics to travel, food to language learning, B2B to B2C, AI to content businesses and all points in between. That range is a great match with my background. I’ve been a journalist, run content and travel guide businesses, developed games, helped incredible companies scale internationally, and invested in everything from fast fermentation for food, alcohol and pharma to on-demand office space (sadly not the one you’re thinking of).
tl;dr – applications for the 2018 class are open now — and we want the same diverse mix of founders, companies, sectors and stages in the next program. Get in touch on Twitter, find me on LinkedIn or just email me.
Alongside this, I wanted to share some of the sectors that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. If you’re working on or in a startup in any of these, let me know. In no particular order:
I’ve long thought messaging apps are effectively a command line for our lives. That’s true whether it’s Alexa, Messenger, WeChat or another current or future app/tech/device! I’m really interested in how companies can almost become a real-life abstraction layer. Take a look at the Plansnap demo day pitch (and pay attention to how this plays out on mobile, SMS and Alexa) to get an idea of what I mean.
I love the idea of products that don’t require you to download apps — but instead exist everywhere you are, regardless of the platform you’re using at that time. Over time, I expect to see these types of companies coming out in health, fitness, education, mental health, travel, recommendations and elsewhere. There are huge challenges around UI, UX and more around this — but if it was easy, everyone would do it…
Blockchain and the Token Economy
If I’m not being asked about Brexit, I’m being asked about ICOs and how tokens will impact companies, VCs and the whole world. I’m a believer in the power of the Blockchain and the utility that will evolve on top of it. I’m a big fan of Ethereum, zcash and others. I also really like practical token-based platforms like Sweatcoin, Reality Clash and Yovo. I even love the concept behind Cryptokitties. I’m keen to meet companies using tokens in interesting ways — particularly those who have thoughts on how to make their products, tokens, tickets and more accessible to a mass audience, and those who have thought about how to be a closed or open ended economy around those products, tokens and tickets.
AI, Machine Learning and computer vision
This probably feels like a hygiene factor nowadays, but I’m looking for companies using AI, ML and computer vision to solve real, everyday problems for individuals and businesses. I’ve worked with and invested in Lingvist, Intelligent X, Gastrograph and many others. I’m a board member at ADA alongside some of the smartest folks in the industry, and I’m really interested to see how people are using this technology for everything from healthcare to education and beyond.
Tech for older populations
People are living longer and having fewer children. As a result, we have an aging population base in several countries around the world. What I find fascinating is that there is very little visible innovation in tech for folks in their 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond. In many cases, the tech that does exist infantilizes people, is extremely condescending, or is frankly just ugly, non-functional and embarrassing. This is a demographic that in many cases has the means, the savvy and the ability to use, pay for, and most importantly — derive benefit from a wide variety of products.
There are huge opportunities around health and well being, nutrition, alleviating loneliness, entertaining, educating, engaging and more. I firmly believe this is a sector that will see immense growth over the coming years. The right products have the potential to not only cause change and improve life, but also build a real, sustainable and scalable business.
The Era of Escapism
The world is a grim place at times. Whether it’s our dopamine addiction or just the news, we’ve created a world of opportunities to feel blue. I want to invest in companies that are putting a smile on people’s faces. I invested in Party With because I love the idea of getting interesting people together in real life around the world. I love AR, VR, games, content and anything that can make people laugh or give them an amazing experience in the real world, a virtual world or anywhere. One of the best parts about being part of Farmvillain and Kiip was getting fan mail from folks who we cheered up with a simple cartoon that made them laugh, or a reward that made them feel amazing. I’d love to work alongside companies that are helping people to do fun, engaging things that put a smile on their face.
By 2050 we’ll need to feed over nine billion people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet? I’m keen to meet companies that are leveraging technology to create new food brands, experiences and more. The Impossible Burger is literally one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted, and I can’t wait to try Finless foods and many others. I love the elegance of the Apeel approach to produce quality and shelf life. I love what the team from Smallhold is working on with mushrooms and vertical farming.
I’ve invested in a couple of companies in this sector already — EatCultured, the world’s first beer brewed by AI and Gastrograph, who is using AI to understand and model human sensory perception for some of the biggest brands in the world. The food we eat, the way we grow it, the way we interact with ingredients, brands, dishes, restaurants and more is all changing, and I’m interested in hearing from anyone working on anything in the space.
The above is by no means an exhaustive list. I think we’re at the end of the beginning when it comes to the backlash against Twitter, Facebook and others. It strikes me that there are huge opportunities for platforms that allow smaller groups of people to interact around shared interests, or do something totally crazy like actually meet up in the real world. I’m curious how messaging, voice and more will impact how we (re)connect with one another IRL and online. I’m interested in what the future of marketing and advertising looks like — how do big brands do interesting and engaging things in a post-adblocking world? I’ve met some incredible companies working on healthcare, education and more — and I hope we can work with and invest in many of those areas as well as others I haven’t even mentioned yet.
Fundamentally, I think about things in terms of solving for basic human motivations. Are products making people happier or healthier? Are they saving them time or energy in a meaningful way? Are they helping people and businesses make more money, reduce waste and wasted time, increase engagement and more? Are they having a material impact on the people or the businesses that use them? I like to think about what the tangible benefits of a product are in the short, medium and long term — and how a company can craft a narrative around that to help with user acquisition, sales, marketing, retention, recruitment and all of the other processes that help make them successful.
If you’re working on a product that fits any of the theses above, I’d really, really love to hear from you. If you’re not, I’m still incredibly keen to learn about what you’re working on. We invest in all sorts of companies at Techstars London — the ideas above are just ones that I’ve been mulling over recently. I love nothing more than food for thought and opportunities to meet smart people working on products that make a real difference to their users, customers and the world beyond.
I’m as happy to invest in an amazing team where the ink is still drying on the back of the napkin where they jotted down their idea, as I am in investing in a Series A company with millions in funding and 10+ staff. Applications are open now. If you’ve got questions, you can message me on Twitter, find me on LinkedIn or just email me!