Technology

Non-obvious choices

My film school classmate Heather shared this video of Henry Thomas’ audition for E.T. Take a look.

What stands out are the choices he made. Before becoming an investor, I spent some years in film. I’ve auditioned children for roles and most of them make the obvious choice – screaming, shouting, being loud. That is likely what most of the kids who auditioned for this role did, too. “NOOOO!!! You can’t take him!!” etc.

But what Henry Thomas did was so unexpected. With such little information, he decided to very quietly cry. He made the creature his friend, he asked how the agent even knows all this. He decided to be extremely vulnerable. These are the choices that got him hired.

I’ve often said that there are a ton of similarities between tech and film1. This is one small example – when you are interviewing candidates, a majority will pick the obvious answers. That’s fine. They could be journeymen in the company. But when there is a candidate who makes an entirely non-obvious choice, something that makes you sit back and think in a new and different way, those are the candidates who can change the trajectory of the company. Hire them.


  1. That’s for another post 

Scaling Genomics

Joseph Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa, Gencove

Joseph Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa


Genomics is on the verge of enabling a torrent of data-driven invention, personalization and decision-making. 
Applications will extend across all forms of life?—?from humans to animals to plants to microbes.

In healthcare, genomics could pervade nearly every aspect of patient care, from prevention strategies to decisions about treatments. It also will provide the basis for a new generation of targeted drugs and therapies that can extend and improve the quality of life for billions of people. In agriculture, genomics will optimize plant and animal productivity while aiding in disease resistance and food safety/traceability. Genomics will also play a role in animal conservation, environmental monitoring, and public health and safety.

All these new opportunities will lead to the creation of new markets, products and services, requiring new tools and platforms.

At Spero Ventures, we invest in technologies that make life worth living. We believe genomics will be foundational to advancing the health and well-being of humanity and the planet. It will inform decision-making and touch lives in ways we cannot yet imagine and may not even see. And so it gives us great pleasure to announce our investment in Gencove.

Gencove, led by co-founders Joe Pickrell and Tomaz Berisa, is developing and commercializing a software platform to support low-pass whole genome sequencing. Low-pass sequencing sequences the whole genome at low depth (0.4–4x) and uses imputation algorithms to fill in missing data. The platform empowers decision-makers across consumer, clinical, research, and agricultural fields with easy and affordable access to rich genomic data and insights.

Whole genome sequencing is the most expensive form of sequencing and the most exhaustive. It maps all three billion base pairs within a (human) genome, providing a massive volume of data for analysis. It serves as the foundation for generating new knowledge of how and why living beings develop. And it is becoming the gold standard for discovering new genetic variants and new relationships between genotypes and phenotypes.

The cost of whole genome sequencing has declined dramatically since the early days of the Human Genome Project, famously outpacing Moore’s law. Reductions originally owed to the introduction of Next Generation Sequencing1, followed by hardware improvements, and more recently software that shifts cost and computational burden to later stage analysis2. Despite these reductions, the $500–1000 price point (and even the widely-touted yet still aspirational $100 price point) for whole genome sequencing remains out of reach for a wide range of applications. Without an affordable alternative, these applications will either fail to be commercialized, remain niche and unaffordable for most, or rely on the limited subset of data offered by less expensive DNA microarrays3 (which typically cover 0.03% of the genome).

Low-pass sequencing (LPS) is this affordable, data rich alternative. And Gencove is making LPS available to customers at price points beginning at $50 per sequence?—?on par with microarrays. In addition to offering comprehensive coverage, LPS outperforms microarrays in detecting both common and rare genetic variation. LPS does not require a priori knowledge of the genome making it suitable for new variant discovery and free from the bias inherent in microarrays (which are widely seen as unsuitable for non-Caucasian/European populations not well covered by reference databases).

Gencove’s customers are integrating low-pass sequence data into personalized consumer product offerings, new research modalities, novel diagnostics, plant/animal breeding programs, and more.

We are excited partner with Gencove in its mission to bring affordable genomic insights to customers and industries that have never before been able to affordably integrate them at scale?—?potentially unlocking discoveries and innovations we have yet to imagine.


  1. Next Generation (or High-Throughput) Sequencing became the most widely used technique in the early-2000s due to its ability to handle large-scale, automated genome analysis. 

  2. Including genome assembly, variant calling, quality control, etc. 

  3. Microarrays examine a predetermined set of sites on the genome from which one can infer ancestry, genetic relationships, and some disease risks. 

We + me

David Brooks wrote about his efforts to improve social isolation with his project, Weave:

The first core idea was that social isolation is the problem underlying a lot of our other problems. The second idea was that this problem is being solved by people around the country, at the local level, who are building community and weaving the social fabric. How can we learn from their example and nationalize their effect?

Brooks found these “weavers” all across the nation. When you can connect people around shared interests, common goals and mutually-experienced problems rather than the things that separate and divide them, you build communities.

This is something we think about since one of our key investment areas is human connection. So how can we use tech to do this better? Technology scales and can cross local/geographic boundaries. And it can be used to form deep relationships (remember Twitter in the early days when you formed friendships?). How can tech recreate the feeling of presence and attention? The feeling of a small group intimacy? If we can do this, we open up such interesting ways to make people feel less alone.

The only tweak I’d make to Brooks’ article is his statement that “We precedes me.” Relationships and compassion can live side by side with the idea of self-interest and self-expression. It’s should be in my own self-interest to want my community to thrive and be healthy because I live here. One does not have to precede the other and when we realize that we are all inter-connected and have to coexist is when there will be balance.

The Things that Make Life Worth Living

In the past couple of months, we’ve seen some dizzying headlines: “World’s first gene-edited babies created in China, claims scientist,” “AI expert warns automation could take 40% of jobs by 2035” and “Man Marries Virtual Reality Hologram.”

All of these headlines are troubling for various reasons. But they aren’t reasons to reconsider investment in science and technology. I think the opposite is true. We need to support entrepreneurs and technologists who want to use technology to benefit humanity at scale.

Just like nuclear technology can be used to light up a city or annihilate a country, many things have the potential to be used to create or destroy. Yes, genomics, outside the bounds of agreed-upon ethics, might be abused to create designer babies. At the same time, millions of lives could be saved when clinicians are able to harness genomics for preventive and personalized medicine. Yes, artificial intelligence will lead to some job displacement; but it can also assist robots in taking on dangerous tasks, as well as help us understand and solve complex problems such as climate change and patterns of infectious disease. And when someone wants to marry a virtual being, we should see it as one more call to solve the global loneliness epidemic.

About this time last year, my partners and I were thinking about what kind of fund we wanted to bring into the world and the types of businesses we wanted to invest in. As part of the process, we thought a lot about what the future might look like.

After much discussion, we came to the conclusion that regardless of what it looks like, the fundamentals are likely to stay the same. The things that matter most to us today will continue to be the things that matter most to us in the future. They are:

  • Well-being – health, the environment and the food we eat
  • Work and a sense of purpose
  • Human connection

These are the things that make life worth living.

We founded Spero Ventures to partner with revolutionary entrepreneurs who drive progress by building successful companies that both scale and inspire…

…like Tim at Roam Robotics, which makes a flexible, affordable exoskeleton that helps people in sports, life, rehabilitation and work; Ivonna and Gabby at Fathom.ai whose mission is to support every athlete to perform at their full potential; Michael and Matt at Skillshare, which aims to turn the new economy into an open meritocracy by making it possible for people to gain the skills they need; Porter and Ryan at Jopwell, which empowers underrepresented minority candidates to advance their careers; Anthony at SafeTraces, which helps ensure the safety and traceability of our food supply; or Grant at Droneseed, which uses drones to make reforestation safe, efficient and scalable.

We help companies scale their products and businesses to serve billions of customers?—?we’ve done it as operators and product leaders at startups and multi-billion-dollar publicly-traded companies, and now as board members.

If you’re building a company that aims to make an impact on the word at scale, please reach out to us at info@spero.vc.

True Product Leadership is Product Stewardship -

True Product Leadership is Product Stewardship

As product leaders, we all want people to love what we create. But people often use our products in ways we never could have predicted. Once we release something into the world, it belongs to the users?—?and sometimes they use our products in unexpected and negative ways. We can’t be held responsible for what they do with it… right?

It’s time we take more ownership of the impact our products have on the world. The stakes are too high to claim ignorance?—?particularly in tech, where our products can reach billions of people. True product leadership extends beyond creation: True product leadership is product stewardship.

We have become painfully aware of what can happen when the tools we use encourage our worst instincts and amplify the most virulent voices. In past few months, there have been several violent efforts where the suspects behind them had been vocal about their beliefs on social media. Do the platforms really have no control over the ways in which their products are used? That feels both naive and untrue.

When I led product at eBay, we wanted to be “a well-lit place to trade.” The company’s mission was “to empower people by connecting millions of buyers and sellers around the world and creating economic opportunity.” That was the intention. But as we scaled, people began to use eBay in ways we hadn’t predicted. At one point people began trading disturbing items, including Nazi memorabilia. As we thought about how to solve it, we asked ourselves a few questions: Who are we? What do we believe? Why did we create this product? Once we framed it in terms of core values, the decision about what to do became clear. The company decided to ban all hate-related propaganda, including nazi memorabilia.

Product leadership teams can do more than curb bad behavior. They can also work to encourage good behavior. Last year, during the refugee crisis when governments around the world turned them away, Airbnb’s product team worked on a solution. In June 2017, Airbnb launched Open Home?—?a way for people to give refugees a place to stay. This was not just a marketing stunt. Airbnb invested in building a brand new product: a marketplace that allows people to offer their homes for free to refugees and victims of disasters.

Thoughtful product stewards can also protect us from ourselves. Plenty of studies have shown that technology can be addicting. Apple is taking some admirable first steps to help us resist temptation. Screen Time, launched as part of iOS 12, offers new tools for managing screen time. Jony Ive was recently interviewed about it. “If you’re creating something new, it is inevitable there will be consequences that were not foreseen,” he said. “It’s part of the culture at Apple to believe that there is a responsibility that doesn’t end when you ship a product.”

How do we create that kind of a culture? Here’s a stab at a few steps we could take towards regaining control over the way our products live in the world.

Step one: Define.

Before you begin designing, sit down with the team to define how you want your product to be used, as well as what people shouldn’t be able to do with your product. Drawing this line upfront will provide clarity for a muddy future when the world changes around you.

Step 2: Imagine.

Think about all the things people could do with your product, including edge cases. What unintended consequences come up? What could happen if the “worst” person got their hands on your product? How can you incentivize people to use it in the right way, and penalize people who don’t?

Step 3: Communicate

Communicate your beliefs, values and intentions to everyone at your company. If a stranger asked anyone how the product should and shouldn’t be used, every employee should give the same answer. This ensures that everyone is on the same page, morally. Instead of making hard decisions when things are blowing up, you’ve already agreed what to do.

Step 4: Measure

Product people measure everything. How can you measure the ways people misuse your product? What early warning systems could you put in place? Review the data and the signals it’s sending you at least once a quarter.

Step 5: Do Something.

There will always be unexpected surprises. But since you already know your moral line in the sand, when you see something that crosses that line, you’ll know it. And you can take action.

Technology should enhance human connection. It should help make the world better. The first step is for us all to begin to see product leadership as product stewardship.

Want Your Company to Be More Successful? Deliver Value to Shareholders AND Society -

Want Your Company to Be More Successful? Deliver Value to Shareholders AND Society

When we launched our new fund, Spero Ventures, last month, we said our goal is to support founders that are driven to deliver value to shareholders andsociety.

Since then I’ve noticed some cognitive dissonance around that idea in Silicon Valley. It’s almost as if people think these two ideas are mutually exclusive.

Yet many companies have proven there is a direct correlation between building a successful business and having a positive effect on the world at scale. Most people are familiar with purpose-driven companies such as Tesla, eBay and Airbnb. There are plenty more. Here are a few:

LinkedIn’s mission is connecting the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful. In other words: connect people to jobs. The more LinkedIn executes against this goal, the more it expands economic opportunity for people around the world, and the more money LinkedIn makes. LinkedIn has provided access to opportunity for more than 500 millionusers. Two years ago Microsoft paid $26.2 billion for the company.

Turo operates a peer-to-peer carsharing marketplace. Turo’s app makes it possible for car owners to rent out their vehicles when they aren’t using them. Car owners get to earn money on an idle asset, while renters get easier access to better cars at cheaper prices. Turo is unlocking economic opportunity for people on both sides of the relationship.

Skillshare aims to make the economy an open meritocracy where anyone can learn the skills they need to succeed. On one side of the marketplace are experts who teach everything from email marketing to ink drawing, and aerial photography to 3D printing design. Skillshare’s 4 million students pay to take classes to further their careers, stay ahead of changes in their industries and earn money with side projects. The experts get paid for the classes they teach?—?the more popular the class, the more they get paid.

None of these companies is financed by charitable grants; they all raised millions of dollars from venture capitalists who expect big returns.

Countless studies show that mission-driven companies have many other positive externalities, including the ability to attract and retain top talent, the sense of purpose required to inspire a team that is willing to weather tough times, and a loyal customer base that connects to the product and the mission, leading to brand preference and affinity.

A successful business model is a fundamental underpinning to all this. It is critical to ensure a business not only survives, but thrives and reaches significant scale. When that happens, it will have a massive positive effect on the world. And when that happens, shareholders will benefit, as well.

If you are building a company and you share those goals, I hope you’ll reach out.

A Future That Belongs to Everyone

Sci-fi novelist William Gibson once said, “The future is already here?—?it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Some of us want to do something about that.

Today I’m proud to introduce a new kind of venture capital firm: Spero Ventures, a $100 million fund investing in founders who are building a future that belongs to everyone. We spun out of Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm entirely funded by eBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar. Pierre will continue to be our sole investor/LP.

The primary tenet of our purpose-driven fund: We are driven to deliver value to our shareholders AND society.

When the notion of disruption is to win at any cost?—?without regard for the impact on society?—?we know we have a problem.

When the tools that were supposed to make it easier to be friends actually push us further apart, we know we have a problem.

When nearly half of all Americans don’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense, we know we have a problem.

When loneliness is an epidemic, and is deadlier than obesity, we have a problem.

When we look out to the year 2050 and realize we won’t have enough food to feed the growing population of the world, we know we have a problem.

 

But when we see creatives, scientists and engineers working together to build solutions to these problems, we have hope.

When the entrepreneurs at Koko devised a way for social networks to create safe, healthy online communities, we saw hope.

When the founders of Bunker made it easier to give freelancers and gig-economy workers access to a safety net through insurance, we saw hope.

When the team at Skillshare began scaling a platform that allows anyone to learn the necessary skills to change their career trajectory, we saw hope.

When the entrepreneurs behind SafeTraces found a way to solve the food traceability problem using DNA, we saw hope.

 

Spero, the name of our new fund, means “hope” in Latin.

We are optimistic about the role of technology in building a better world, and mission-driven entrepreneurs give us hope for the future.

When we began thinking about what kind of fund we wanted to bring into the world, and what companies we wanted to invest in, we thought a lot about what the future might look like. Sometimes it is painted grey; sometimes it’s technicolor?—?but it usually has a space-age feel to it: vehicles flying through superhighways in the air; androids and people living side-by side; interplanetary travel, etc.

While some or all of that may come true, we believe some fundamental things are likely to stay the same:

  • We will care about our health and the environment we live in.
  • We will seek fulfillment in our work and our sense of purpose.
  • We will value relationships with friends, family and community.

These are the things that have the potential to define a life.

Last fall, a few days before a board meeting to pitch the idea of this new fund, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Immediately everything in life became hyper-focused. I thought about those three fundamental things:

  • My well-being
  • The purpose of my work
  • My family and friends

As I progressed through the treatments, I thought about what purpose drives me, and what kind of people I wanted to spend my life with. The answer is: People who give me hope.

 

If you’re building a purpose-driven startup in the areas of well-being, work and purpose, or human connection, we hope you’ll learn more about how we invest, our team and reach out to us.

We know that the best opportunities often come from unexpected, unknown places, so feel free to send us a note right here on our website.

The founding team of Spero Ventures in the construction zone of our new office. Clockwise from top center: Rob Veres, Christina Li, Shripriya Mahesh, Ha Nguyen, Sara Eshelman

Zoomed in vs Zoomed out

When you look at any successful company, the chart is up and to the right. It looks fantastic.

However, the zoomed in reality of the day to day is not that. It’s a rollercoaster of metrics and emotions.

Being a founder or CEO is hard. You live zoomed in. Don’t compare yourself with the zoomed out chart of others.

Why We Invested: Koko

The internet is, at its best, about human connections, trust between strangers and the power of people to help one another. It is on this foundation that Koko is built. Koko is a peer-to-peer network for emotional support that uses artificial intelligence and positive reframing to bring well-being to all users.

The premise is simple: We know that positive reframing can be a powerful tool to build resiliency. But doing it alone is challenging. We get caught up in unproductive thought patterns and hamstrung by our own biases. “You’re not alone” is a common refrain, but one that is of little comfort when you don’t feel like you have the support of people who understand what you’re going through. Koko democratizes access to emotional well-being by empowering anyone who can help to help.

Koko is meeting a fundamental need for emotional support that, to date, has really only been filled by friends, family, baristas and the like. But it’s often hard to share feelings of self-doubt or difficulty with bullying or loss with people we know. Koko is filling this gap by creating a completely new source of support. Koko is an anonymous, real-time emotional support tool that anyone can draw upon, when and where it’s needed, as often as needed, for free.

We’ve seen crowd contributions dramatically improve access to information (Wikipedia), knowledge (Quora, Stack Overflow) and capital (Kickstarter).When we first met co-founders Fraser Kelton, Rob Morris and Kareem Kouddous, they told us about the early inspiration for Koko. Rob was working on his PhD at the MIT Media Lab. With a background in psychology, Rob was new to coding and frustrated by code that didn’t work. He turned to Stack Overflow and found more than just answers. He found an unexpected source of mental and emotional support from fellow frustrated coders.

Like Stack Overflow, Koko harnesses the crowd’s desire to help one another by providing anonymous, one-on-one emotional support. Koko users see therapeutic benefits from contributing on both sides of the network. More than 80 percent of users both post and reframe, making the network that much stronger. Today, someone sharing a stressful situation receives an average of four responses, with the first arriving within five minutes. Ninety percent of responses are deemed helpful.

Unlike most other sources of emotional support, Koko reaches users when and where they need it most. With the launch of Kokobot, Koko extends the ability to give and receive support beyond the iOS environment. Kokobot works directly with messenger platforms like Kik to proactively identify individuals in need of support. For example, with the integration of Kokobot into Kik’s developer infrastructure, users don’t even have to recognize their need for support. When a Kik user shows signs of emotional distress while chatting with a third party bot, that bot can invite the user to meet Kokobot and receive support. Support is delivered seamlessly within the messenger platform, in real time. With Kokobot, we see enormous potential for any bot, messenger or conversational agent to provide its users with emotional support.

We are excited to lead Koko’s Series A, alongside existing investors Union Square Ventures and Joi Ito. With the new funding, Koko will focus on expanding its reach across messengers and improving the AI engine.

Earlier this year, a group of Stanford and UCSF researchers evaluated the performance of 77 conversational agents, including Siri, Google Now, Cortana and S Voice, in responding to simple questions about mental health, physical health, and domestic violence. Some performed better than others, but none was fully equipped to deal with users’ concerns. The researchers concluded: “if conversational agents are to respond fully and effectively to health concerns, their performance will have to substantially improve”.

As users continue to engage with bots and conversational agents, the need for emotional intelligence by these agents will only grow. We see emotional intelligence as a potentially enormous source of competitive advantage for these agents and their platform hosts, as well as a boon for human resiliency. While we’re not there yet, we look forward to a world that brings the best of human interactions to non-human interfaces.

It’s one thing to say, “you’re not alone”. With Koko, it’s nice to know that you truly aren’t alone.

Product FTW

Could not agree more with this post by Fred Wilson. One of the things we told PMs at eBay is “You are the CEO of the product”. It is great training to become the CEO of the company.

It’s not really different from what we look for in startup founders. Most of the time, the founders we back come from product backgrounds. They have a track record of building and shipping products. They are technical and can go toe to toe with their engineering team. They understand where technology is headed and they understand how software products are made and evolve.

When young people tell me they want to start or run a tech company, I always tell them to go work in product at a big tech company. I believe that product is the heart and soul of tech companies, it is where it all comes together. You can’t build a great company without great products (or great people).