The Human Factors: A Different Way to Look at Investing
We recently wrote about some of our investment themes this year, but another way we look at investing in technology is not technology but the humanness inside the machine. Over the past half century of writing and selling software, technology and people had to work together, but it was a divided relationship. Computers more or less forced “end users” (aka “human beings”) to come to the computer.
Now, the machines are coming to the people, and most excitingly, incorporating people and their behavior in even the most basic instruction sets. Or, to put it in a somewhat geeky way, the “silicon-based processing” (ie., computers) is doing what it’s good at—computation, storage and network communication. The “carbon-based processing” (ie., the people) are doing what they are good at—relationship, nuance, judgement. We even see this in our vocabulary. We don’t call “artificial intelligence” typically by that name anymore, it’s “machine learning” with the implied “from what or whom?”—either directly or indirectly, humans or the environment around all of us.
Taking a step back, computers don’t understand people…they really don’t “understand.” They copy, store, and compute. As a result, people have had to learn computer languages, commands and input devices. We had to cater to the computers’ needs using keyboards, mice, and—as if they were a major improvement in not having us be beholden to the machine—touch screens. New sensors, speech recognition, awareness technologies such as location detection, and contextual data now are bringing the power of computation to the people rather than the other way around.
Unfortunately, we’re still mostly stuck in our tech vocabulary calling these things by their functional traits such as “wearables,” “internet of things,” “big data,” “mobile,” “virtual reality,” “augmented reality” and such. The new way of thinking about technology is how the people enjoy or benefit from it. Here are some examples of companies on the cutting edge of serving people seamlessly, many are local to Boston:
- Music—seeing: Harmonix— virtual reality will reinvent the way people interact with music. (Disclosure: Converge Venture Partners is an investor.)
- Music—listening: Sonos—sure they make great speakers, but the amazing experience comes through the software that tunes the sound to the room and turns mobile devices into remotes you actually enjoy.
- Building and fixing things: Daqri—this smart hardhat promises to do away with trying to juggle blueprints, design plans, maintenance information and repair steps. Laptop or papers balanced precariously on the jobsite no more—or worse, just taking a guess when the information isn’t available.
- Shopping: Look to personalized assistant e-commerce sites like Nextview-backed Scratch for your holiday gifts.
- Bling with swing: There are too many companies in the “connected jewelry” space to mention. Alerting the user of a call or text is table stakes; Sesame opens doors and lets you ride the MBTA.
- Memories: People have been slaves to technology for too long trying to save their family memories. Enter Boston-based Bevy (we are investors) and California-based Lyve, which automagically collect, protect and share your special moments.
- Home (security) is where the heart is: Boston companies leading here include Simplisafe home security, Blink wireless battery-operated highdef camera, and BeOn situationally aware lightbulbs.
- Home (management) is where the headaches were: Renoviso takes the headaches out of window replacement, and look to Super, backed by Founder Collective.
- Fit with bits: Step counters and heart-rate monitors are just the beginning. New technology goes beyond with companies like Humon and Zone2 helping elite endurance athletes train better, and Inside Tracker analyses your blood to give you the best nutrition and lifestyle information.
- Sailing away: Much has been written about autonomous cars (land) and drones (sky), but two-thirds of the world is ocean. What about autonomous boats?! Boston companies rule the seas there: BlueFin Robotics, Autonomous Marine Systems and Sea Machines.
One of my venture capital colleagues recently lamented to me that he didn’t see many investing opportunities remaining, saying “there just isn’t white-space in software anymore.” Maybe so, if one looks at the technology and what is missing between established product area. If we look up and around at the people, it’s a world of opportunity—we’re just at the beginning of an amazing new era.
-James | Managing Director