In this episode of Innovation Capital
We look at the rise of the R&D-minded CEO, and leadership that is now taking more personal responsibility for directing and inspiring innovation as it becomes an ever more vital element of business survival and success.
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- R&D is no longer a line item within the organization, its a symbol of survival and growth.
- The road to becoming obsolete for organizations who are not innovating could be 3 years or less.
- Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk and Jensen Huang are examples of the R&D CEO.
- The CEO role has a statistically significant impact on the level of a company’s R&D investment.
- CEOs need to learn how to be storytellers of their technical solutions and they can only do that with an R&D orientation.
- Want to spark an impactful discussion around innovation within your organization? Download your copy of our free e-book, The connected innovation intelligence blueprint. In this report, we explore what connected innovation intelligence is and how the world’s disruptors are using it to grow, compete and win in a hyper-competitive world.
Ray Chohan: Well, Scott, welcome to Innovation Capital. I just want to say, our team and myself have been pumped about today’s episode. I’ve had the opportunity to research your achievements and your focus online, so segueing into a professional setting, how did you end up in the wonderful world of venture investing? What was your journey there and your road to that world?
Scott Amyx: Well, I think, you know, in terms of both insights, as well as some lessons learned from listeners, is that, transitioning from personal to professional, I think, for the majority of my career, I’ve tried to be a generalist. And, I think part of it is because you know, I have a certain mind that is versatile, but gets bored very easily. So, I don’t like to focus on any one topic too long, because it really fatigues me in the sense of not intellectual fatigue, but boredom. So, I’ve always kind of had this ability to cover many different domains and topics and readily be able to go deep into any topic, and just found that kind of research process very, very intuitive for me. But with that said, I think the generalist approach, I think, you know, has been problematic in the past, because, you know, most people value specialization. And I think after my last corporate gig as a VP and GM of a publicly traded company, I realized that I needed to change something about my approach. And so going back to my earlier point about this notion of character development and personal development, is that, in order for me to achieve the intended lifetime goals that I have, I have to not only invest in myself, but I have to be willing to transform myself. And that includes innovating myself. So, I spent, I would say, the last seven years really reinventing myself. Part of the way I did that was, and I remember vividly in Silicon Valley, sitting in the auditorium of this major industry conference, listening to the speakers and thinking to myself, why are they up there? Why are they speaking on something? And why are they adding so little value to the overall dialogue at hand? And, you know, I was a little bit I suppose, cocky, but thinking that, you know, I should be up there. Of course, you know, I wasn’t really anybody worth inviting to the keynote podium, but I worked my way. And, over time, I think I’ve given 300 or more speeches throughout the world, and learn to go from being behind the curtain to forcing myself to come out to be at the forefront and sharing the kinds of things that I would never have shared. I mean, if you met me, let’s say even 10 years ago, you wouldn’t have been able to find me on LinkedIn, because I will not list my last name. I am a highly private person. And I’m very introverted. And I prefer not to be out in public, and instantly share anything around my personal self. So, I had to really force myself into an incredible degree of discomfort. And in that process, one of the things that I talked about, that’s a very important passion of mine is market fits. And I think this is very much in line with Y Combinator. And some of the others that have a similar thesis is that the market fit notion isn’t just for start-ups or corporations or products. Market fit also is for individuals. So, the last, you know, five, seven years has been a journey for me to figure out market fit in terms of how does the market view me? Where do they see the greatest value? And I think, you know, over time, what I saw, whether it was from JLG, or other consulting gigs was that they perceive me as somebody who really knew how to do due diligence. If you put me on any type of VC panel, I tried to be as diplomatic as possible. But I would generally ask very relevant questions and get to the heart of it much quicker than most. In the end, it’s not a reflection of my intellect, but my ability to be able to actually laser focus on what actually matters the most and be able to sift through the facade and scientific babble that sometimes these founders will actually present. So, I know exactly what I need to laser focus on and why they will be successful and why they won’t be successful.
Ray: When you initially were talking about the overview of your investment thesis, if you went back to the first principles of how you were biologically designed in that short term “fight or flight” mode, just when you said that, it reminded me of so many people that I’ve met in my life and sometimes how I personally think that we’re biologically wired that way. But there’s a few special people on planet earth right now who seem not to be wired that way. And here are paths that we are very much fascinated by with the rise of the pure play, R&D, innovation-facing CEO. So, folks like Elon Musk at Tesla, obviously, that’s a very obvious one. But also we love folks like Jack Dorsey at Twitter, in particularly Square, what he’s doing in the FinTech space, and also at Nvidia, Jensen Huang, and what is hopefully, fingers crossed, if it goes through, the huge deal with AMD that will revolutionize that end-to-end GPU to edge computing cycle to enable smart cities and a lot of the themes that you’re talking about. Those three trailblazers, they seem to not be hardwired, in that fight-or-flight, short-term caveman fashion. They’re thinking 10 20, 50 years out. So, my question is, do you see that as a preeminent trend, where we will see more folks like Jack, Elon and Jensen, kind of being selected by boards or being backed by investors? Who are the folks who think into the future and very much are what we call innovation, R&D facing founders and CEOs? Do you see that that trend continuing to play out?
Scott: Yeah, so I’m going to back up a little bit and just put this in the right context. For those that are listening, certainly your constituency are going to fall in support of this thesis, but for those that are not, may find that going down this path may be somewhat biased. But let me kind of set this in the proper context, you know, when I was growing up in the 70s, and 80s, you know, I had to use a rotary phone. And the rotary phone also was attached, you know, on the wall. So, you stretch this thing out. And I remember, I actually showed a picture of a rotary phone with, you know, a wire extension cord and my daughter said, “what in the world is that?” Similarly, you know, when we traveled to London, and they saw some of the phone booths, they were like, “what in the world is the phone booth for? Is it to take your phone and selfies in there?” But I remember it; phone booths were in every street corner. And the cars that I learned to drive initially were manual, you had sticks that you had to use to shift gears. And if I wanted to buy music, I had to go to a physical music store. If I wanted to watch a movie, I had to go to a video rental store to rent VHS, or whatever the format was at that point. If I wanted to buy clothes, I would have to go to a retail store in the mall. And then the robot, the notion of a robot back then in my days was a wind-up toy that was sold on the ground after you wind it up, right. Many of the things that I’m talking about do not exist anymore. The rapid change caused by the convergence of exponential technologies is accelerating the life cycle of innovation. I remember when I was consulting at Samsung, and there was a period of panic about I would say about maybe three, four years ago when they saw the cash cow of their smartphones being decimated because people were not either upgrading or they were moving on to something else. So, what we’re seeing is that what we anticipate from the profit maximization of a particular product launch isn’t as long as it used to be like the way semiconductors and eventual, you know, PCs, and so forth, where the cycles are getting shorter and shorter. And what we’re finding out is that the only thing that is constant is change itself. And part of the reason I think this is coming back to your question is the reason for innovation. The reason for R&D in particular, is no longer just a line item within an organization, but it is a means of survival. So, I think, you know, we don’t have to go into too much detail about the capital of destruction that we’ve seen from some of the industries that I alluded to. We see empty retail mall spaces, or billions of capital destruction in terms of institutional holders that were holding their debt financing, or the real estate property owners and investors in the reach that used to house those types of businesses. So, we’re talking about real change, so innovation now has to be at the forefront for survival and growth. Otherwise, you’re going to become obsolete. The obsolete cycle isn’t 10-20 years, but it could be three years or less. It’s amazing, absolutely amazing. You know, I wrote an article for Forbes and I talked about how most of the focus on innovation is on the ability to innovate and execute. But there’s this one area that is often overlooked, which is the CEO role in terms of catalysts for innovation. And I talked about one or two research studies that point to the fact that the CEO role actually has a statistically significant influence on a company’s innovation and performance through the R&D investments. And then moreover, the findings indicate that when there is, in fact, proper, full support from the Board of Directors, shareholders, investors, in conjunction with the right characteristics and skill of that CEO, then you have a really forward-looking indicator for long-term company success and shareholder value. That’s what we’re talking about fundamentally. And that’s why that I’ve agreed to be on this interview, because it is the right approach. It is not always the right approach for every single case, but it is definitely a trend. Now, with that said, of course, oftentimes, and this is a case that we see with many of our start-ups, is that many of them have PhDs or post-docs from the Ivy League, usually MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Caltech, and Oxford, and so forth. They’re brilliant. They’re brilliant, but they’re not always the best storyteller, or they can’t quite translate that. So, either they can be transformed into a true leadership-oriented CEO, or they need to be coupled with the CEO and other CEOs that can help support that organizational leadership point of view.
Ray: Okay, so it’s interesting, you talk about that storyteller DNA in kind of deep tech start-ups, but in a nutshell, say, if you were to summarize this in 60 seconds, what are the key elements, you look for in a founder CEO, in the types of investments that you make at your fund, and does that R&D facing CEO play a huge part of your investment thesis where they’re technically gifted, but they also have to be great storytellers? So, in 60, seconds, what are the key dimensions you look for when you’re placing a bet on early-stage entrepreneurs?
Scott: So, I think we are contrarians in the sense that I think many VCs tend to prefer low cap x, low op x, you know, like the FinTechs. We’re somewhat contrarians in the sense that we think that some innovation, especially the kind that’s going to really have a long-term impact, needs patient capital, and needs the right deep tech to properly solve it. I think a good example of this is, is the engine that spun out of MIT, for instance, their thesis, and their approach, I think, very closely aligns with our philosophy as well. So, the kinds of start-ups that we tend to look for, and the founders that we look for have to have incredibly deep domain expertise. Ideally, we’d like for them to be one of the 10 most prominent, most referenced, most cited researchers in their domain, in their subfield. And they need to have an incredible track record, whether it’s academic and publishing, whether it’s research or entrepreneurial exits, they need to have that track record. And then the last piece that we look for is again, and we know this is where we also need to come in and help as well, is the storytelling. You know, I think there’s so many great technical solutions, but if not framed properly, just will never get anywhere, because it’s never understood. And I think many PhDs and post-docs don’t understand that. People don’t really buy feature sets, they don’t buy pure capabilities, people are buying really whole stories or entire systems, or platforms. So, you know, being able to properly tell that story. And when I say properly tell stories, sometimes it’s not just an only singular story. Certainly, you have an umbrella story from a brand architecture, but being able to, you know, customize, and tailor that story depending on the various verticals that you’re attacking, as well as the different stakeholders. So, you’re speaking with, it’s a very important piece, and that’s something that I think Astor Perkins works very hard on with our portfolio start-ups.
Ray: Brilliant. Reminds me of a group called Lux Capital. Josh is a fascinating guy and he’s very much in it for the long term. So, yeah, that cohort of investment fanatic, and is very much close to our heart here at PatSnap, because we serve a lot of the companies and the ecosystem, you try to work that way. Do you see that spreading with groups like yours? Now with his long-term view, investing in kind of healthcare education with a long-term time horizon, do you see that increasing in the next two, three years? Will other funds start deploying that type of investment strategy?
Scott: So, I think what I would say is, you know, certainly my perspective is going to be one outlier of many, and certainly isn’t going to fall within the mean. What I will say is that I don’t necessarily see that as becoming a broad-based theme. And there are many reasons. So, to give you a concrete example around this is the rise of spec. Spec as a vehicle has been around for several decades, it has gotten a facelift and is becoming become much more popularized through some of the features and some of the regulatory aspects. However, what it’s showing is an indication, a manifestation of the fact that investors are getting tired. And waiting is not a game that they like. In other words, more and more of these unicorns, for instance, are staying private longer. And these investors are anxious to find liquidity, to be able to put their money to work, to quote one family office, for example, they have one business that’s doing active trading, and they don’t want to take any type of resources away from that. So, they’re looking to the other buckets and trying to figure out how to accelerate investment to liquidity faster and faster, so that you can actually sustain itself. So, they’d rather go larger multiples, or x multiple in terms of exits, for quicker cash in return. So spec is essentially one of those symptomatic manifestations of what the industrial climate is saying; that they want to see a way to be able to actually have an exit. And by having these vehicles go public, where I can actually exit out is great. And really, it gives them the option of two things, right. So, within a finite period, let’s say two years, that team is expected to acquire a large growth company. And then once it gets merged, the investors claim those owners that are holding the pipe, for instance, will both have the ability to have short term liquidity, but also if they choose to convert over and hold on to the long term as you know, the parent company or the entity continues from a public life cycle. So okay, the challenge of the start-ups in the space that you’re in, is they’re always going to be caught in difficult spots and spaces. And some of the life sciences and biotech that we cover really is a good indication that the traditional VC model is highly problematic in terms of supporting true patient capital, because of the fund structure, even though their fund duration may be eight to 10 years, they really have to, for our purposes, need to have exits within the next three to five years. And realistically, for transformational technologies and solutions, three to five years may not make sense. So, in other words, we’re certainly not going to, you know, solve some of these bacterial aspects, including some of the innovations around CRISPR gene editing, or, or the kinds of, you know, new single cell diagnostics and therapies came to a certain scale, for instance. We’re not going to see this in necessarily three to five years before it becomes fully mature. So, this is really where I think we’re trying to come in with a creative solution. And one of the things that we’re recognizing is that the VC vehicle and approach isn’t the solution to all things. And one thing that we’ve really been working hard is to build our family office network. And matter of fact, in January, we’re kicking off something called the Astor Perkins project, which is going to be a series of private, very exclusive invitation-only conversations where we bring family offices and one or two subject matter experts, and really deeply examine it from a thought leadership point-of-view. So, that’s the kind of series that we’re starting off. And we think that’s probably a reasonable, blended approach that makes it possible. So, to give you one more example just to hit this all the way home, is a company called Marvel Fusion out of Germany, they’re working on a laser approach to nuclear fusion. And unlike a lot of the fusion oriented projects that are out there that are really looking for very small incremental wins, this team, including one of the Nobel or winners in physics, they are looking for commercialization sooner than later. They cannot find funding from the traditional VC model. And they were fortunate enough to find a single, private family office that were willing to support them with $100 million funding. That’s the kind of creative thinking and solutions and approach that we’re taking.
Ray: So, that’s a great example, and there is another kind of example, at the moment, with Quantum Scape. They’re doing some amazing work in the EV and battery space, deep tech play. They’ve got it past a science now. So, is that another example which listeners can look at and observe as a reference to the trend you just described there? Are we going to see a lot more of this, because this is fascinating, because I think then this opens up a vehicle to maybe get to that holy grail where you can just have retail investors who are passionate about technology and innovation and are willing to be patient and long-term. So, do you think this platform and examples like Quantum Scape, and probably a couple of others, which will probably come through the pipe in 2021, will really expand where maybe in three, four years, we’ll see 50-60 examples, like Quantum Scape? Do you see that really playing out in the next couple of years?
Scott: I think what I would say is if I had to apply and keep in mind that my primary focus isn’t on spec, but from what I understand, firsthand, is that getting to the point of not only maturation, but over abundance in terms of supply. So you know, I think what we’re seeing is that the specs that are going out there are trading below $10 a share. And they’re highly compromised. And it creates a lot of economic challenges, and potential for insolvencies for those that are backing it. And certainly not all specs come with a steady pipe of you know, steadfast long-term investors that are fully committed, regardless of volatility in the marketplace, which means many are also very subject to those that are short-selling, and speculators that are looking to make money off of high volume, high speed type of trading approach. So spec is becoming problematic in many ways. And certainly, it is not a guarantee. Rather, it is one of many tools to consider. But again, we’ve kind of gone past the tipping points and unless you’re truly exceptional, which again these days, it’s hard to stand out, it’s going to be very difficult to stay afloat and to make it viable. Now with that said, spec as a tool and as a vehicle to continue to be sustained and used, you just start to see a lot less and I think it’s not a perfect analogy, but it’s somewhat similar to the hype train the initial coin offering that had to eventually become more securitized, and we started to see a lot more rigor from a sec and FINRA perspective.
Ray: I’m spinning off slightly because you touched upon this, Scott. Earlier in our conversation today, you mentioned decentralization. So, another bellwether moment we’ve observed this year here at PatSnap and actually do serve clients and that ecosystem, is the world of blockchain digital assets, just the crypto market. And obviously we’ve seen Bitcoin and Etherium have spectacular growth since January. And just Central Bank digital currencies being talked about openly for the future. Last time in history, you’ve got large groups like BlackRock who are comfortable talking about Bitcoin. Obviously, you had a huge moment with Michael Sailor, deploying nearly $400 million off his corporate treasury into bitcoin, Jack Dorsey at 50 million. So we’re seeing all of these interesting moments really have a lot of eyeballs now on this whole kind of digital asset space. So, what’s your thesis on this whole blockchain movement, digital assets and trailblazers like Vitalik Buterin or Etherium 2.0 going? December the first, like, do you see this as a compelling space? Like, which will really play out in the next 5-6 years? What’s your opinion on this rapid kind of development in the last 12 to 18 months in terms of just velocity?
Scott: Well, I think firstly, as a disclaimer, I’ve kind of moved away from FinTech to a great extent to really focus on deep tech. You know, even though I was an early pioneer, a robo advisor back in the early 2000s, I do have a reasonable background on it. I think what we’ve seen, again, this is meal planning only, is what we’ve seen is that we finally started to cross over from kind of the retail exuberance to the fact that Goldman Sachs and others have a dedicated desk. And that’s really what we’re seeing is the different vehicles that are coming in, that’s actually really kind of pushing up some of the volume aspects and being done in a way that’s hopefully a little bit more systematic than what’s currently blended media with the Robin Hood. So I think from an asset class, it’s here to stay definitively. But I think I do want to separate the speculative aspect from the underlying thesis around decentralization. So, from speculation, I’m not going to comment, but on the decentralized, you know, the thesis of what blockchain is supposed to support, it is very sound. Now, is it truly being implemented that way? It’s difficult because for all purposes, it’s a decentralized paradigm that still has to exist in a centralized cloud environment and install type of a model. So, it’s highly problematic. And it’s subject to lots of vulnerabilities. So, we’re still working through scalability and accessibility and all the things that others are trying to work through. But blockchain definitely, I think, has an important component in the exponential, for technologies, especially around those that are looking to have that immunity and the kind of privacy aspects as well. There’s one start-up that I spoke with, it’s kind of escaping me, they’re the actual standard, but they also have physical manifestation, which is nice. They actually allow for people to opt in to allow for their mobile devices and their hubs to become hotspots. And then they create this mesh, and then allow for others to connect to it. And I think they’re the largest in the network, for instance. So, we like it when it becomes more, I would say, real projects that people can use versus those that are just purely for speculative purposes.
Ray: So, this has been mooted. Please correct me if I’ve got it wrong, Scott, but Joe Rogan talks about this one. He was saying the first trillionaire will be the entrepreneur who can nail kind of mining an asteroid and bringing back some of those highly valuable minerals metals back to Earth. So yeah, I do hear people talking about this. So, looking at more near term in the next say, call it 10 to 12 years, what should we be keeping an eye on in terms of you mentioned that new paradigm of the space economy and if companies can execute their valuations will be at another dimension compared to now? Is there any low hanging fruit which the audience can get excited about or just keep a gentle eye on?
Scott: Well, I think, you know, going back to our discussion around spec, you will start to see more spec. I can’t share some other information because it might be private but expect other public vehicles to go on next year as well. That’s going to help facilitate some of the vertical integration of some of these capabilities within this space. So, we’re going to start to see a lot of interesting things that you know, whether you’re retail, whether you’re institutional or family offices, can really start to sink your teeth in. Some of some of these opportunities don’t necessarily have to be 10 to 20 years out, many of these start-ups that we’re working with are generating, you know, anywhere from three, 5 million to upwards of hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. So, this is real. And this is now.
Ray: Okay, so that there will be some real tangible examples coming into the public markets, maybe in the next two, three years, which people can really observe and unpack.
Ray: Brilliant. Today’s been brilliant. I mean, we could probably go on for ages. But one final question. So it looks like you’re working at this fascinating intersection of longevity, space and smart cities. But when you look at these companies and the great entrepreneurs that you partner with, in terms of an R&D process, so Stage Gate, or agile Stage Gate is typically a really popular methodology. And seems to work well for a number of years. Are you actually seeing big changes? And actually the innovation process itself, with the types of organizations you partner with? And do you see some of those new processes, really, really scaling in the market? Is there anything different from an R&D execution standpoint, that you’ve observed with the types of organizations you work with?
Scott: I think on the biotech and life sciences side, what I would say is, there are specific companies that we’re working with that are fundamentally challenging the, you know, the 510K, and the FDA gates, for instance, most, I think, you know, realize the potential on the biotech side, and even the pharma side from an FDA, but, you know, to support the various FDA stages and the clinical trials, they tend to be incredibly cost prohibitive. So, we’re starting to see start-ups and solutions that are looking to really have better precision, better clinical grade, upfront, so they can actually start to really have a lot of confidence early on. And what it ends up doing is you lower the cost structure of the different clinical trials, as well as the precision and expected results. And to that end, there’s a lot of applications of ML and DL and other things that’s been done to really hone the science to get that level of accuracy. So that we’re not just simply hoping that once we get into larger size clinical trial, that it’ll pass, but we’ll know exactly all the potential, you know, issues that could come up even way before you start to embark on some of those later stage FPGAs. So, I think that’s really where we’re excited is when you can start to, you know, strip out the cost aspects, then you’re starting to really challenge the innovation paradigm.
Ray: So, is what you’re touching upon there connecting some of the data used in discovery and preclinical, to the trial phase, so you’re de-risking some of their failure and loss, once you get to a trial.
Scott: You are de-risking before you get to even trial. That’s right.
Ray: Yeah, it’s fascinating. You mentioned that scenario that were closely working on here, here at PatSnap in Life Sciences, and we’re probably you service probably close to well, we have hundreds of clients are really trying to get their arms around that challenge. And we think as a community, I think there’ll be some big strides in the next two, three years on how machine learning can really de-risk that element before getting to trial. So I’m really happy you mentioned that one. But what’s your time horizon? Your opinion on that specific so early in that discovery and preclinical phase where you’re doing analytics and a whole bunch of work before you even get to trial and making sure you’re placing the right bet? Do you see that impact of ML, improving that process? In the near term in the next year and a half, two years? Are you seeing kind of really tangible proof points on that?
Scott: I think, one to two years seems a little bit on the aggressive side, but I think realistically five to 10 in terms of a tangible evidence. And then of course, you know, making sure that the regulatory side is going to then respond to the advancements. And I think one of the frustrations that we’re hearing from our sort of co founders is the policy and the legislative side, keeping up with the capability and advancement of the speed of things. So, whether that’s, you know, FDA, whether that’s on the food safety side, there’s a lot of interesting things but I think do think that it’s closer than we think.
Ray: Well, Scott, on that exciting note, thank you so much for an enthralling episode today. It’s been amazing learning about your story, your personal context, and the amazing things you’re doing with your current fund. Thank you so much for your time today and all the best with your work.