Seeing the future

I saw the future in 2004.

I was taking the subway across town in Seoul, when a guy sat next to me, took out his phone and started watching Spiderman 2 while we bustled through the tunnels. Full colour, decent resolution and on a device that did everything that my phone did and so much more. For reference, I was sporting the ultra modern 6310 that day. In Ireland, WAP and the launch of 3G (which barely worked above ground, much less underground), were the talking points of the day.

“Aisle” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by screenpunk

That chance meeting on the Seoul subway was a catalyst. The phone I saw that day made a truly mobile future seemed real to me. It was the first time that the William Gibson quote about the future being here, but not being evenly distributed was made manifest for me. Not long afterwards, I started my first company. I’d seen the future, and I wanted to be part of it.

Fifteen years on, I want to understand, invest in, and be part of your vision of the future. Applications for the 2019 Techstars London program are open now. Our team, mentors, partners, friends and supporters want to help you build and scale the products and services that you think will shape the months, years and decades ahead.

We’re open to applications from companies in any sector, at any stage, and in any country. Last year’s program had everything from two people and an MVP through to 30+ person ML companies generating over $1m in ARR. We had participants from Korea, India, Hong Kong, Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, the US and the UK — across everything from fish to high finance. In the four months since finishing Techstars London, that group has already raised well over $6m in additional funding, generated close to $2m in additional revenue and grown and scaled significantly. Based on the conversations I’ve had with them over the last few weeks, they’re just getting started…

If you want to be part of this year’s program, you can get your application started here. Follow Marko and myself on Twitter to learn more about upcoming office hours and events around the UK and Europe.

We are open to applications from any type of company — but I did want to share some sectors that I’m particularly excited about at the moment.

Food tech. By 2050 we’ll need to feed over 9 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, products, experiences and more. The Impossible Burger is one of the best burgers I’ve ever tasted. I love the elegance of the Apeel approach to produce quality and shelf life. I’m a fan of what the team from Smallhold are working on with mushrooms and vertical farming. I’ve invested in a couple of companies in this sector already — Kencko, Pesky Fish, EatCultured, the world’s first beer brewed by AI and Gastrograph, who are 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, prepare, cook and consume it is all changing, and I’m interested in hearing from people thinking about what that chance could and should look like.

Tech for older populations. We have an ageing 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 infantilises people, condescends to them or is frankly just ugly, non-functional and embarrassing. This is a demographic that has the means, savvy, desire and (crucially) 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, co-living, remote living, 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 effect change and improve life, but also build a real, sustainable, scalable, beneficial business.

An abstraction layer. 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 other 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 in the cloud and are accessible to you on your Watch, phone, messaging platform, smart speaker or any other platform you’re using at that time. Over time, I expect to see vertical-specific products in health, fitness, education and almost anywhere else you care to think. There are huge challenges around UI, UX, user acquisition, retention and more around this — but if it was easy, everyone would do it…

The era of escapism. The world is a grim place. There are days when just looking at the headlines are enough to make you pull the duvet back over your head, or pull a Homer. I want to invest in products that can make people smile, laugh, or give them an amazing experience in the real or virtual world. One of the best parts about being part of Farmvillain and Kiip was getting fan mail from folks who we’d cheered up with a simple cartoon, or a reward that made them feel amazing. I invested in Party With because I love the idea of getting interesting people together for food, drinks and conversation IRL. There are so many potential applications for this that it’s almost impossible to list them — but to give some context — I love Failspace, Carrot, Epic Win, Stupid Hackathon, apps with personality, little big details and much, much more more. I wrote about this a few years back, and I still firmly believe we need more fun and mischief in our lives.

AI and machine learning. This probably feels like a hygiene factor nowadays, but I’m looking for companies using AI, ML and computer vision to solve real, problems for individuals and businesses. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the board at Lingvist for the last four years, and watching them developing their knowledge mapping technology has shown just how engaging, sticky and downright useful AI and ML can be with the right product, algorithms and team. London, and Europe more widely has some of the best minds (deep ones too) and companies in this industry, and I want to continue to support teams using AI, ML and computer vision across a wide range of sectors, a broad variety of product types and at all stages.

A.N. Other. The above is by no means an exhaustive list. I’m curious how messaging, voice and more will impact how we (re)connect with one another. I’m interested in what the future of marketing and advertising looks like. I think edtech is starting to heat up again, and I see a huge amount of potential in tools that deliver value for teachers and students alike. I’m also keen to talk to people who are doing interesting things in audio content and anything related to gestural interfaces.

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 or solve some fundamental problem they have? 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 can a company 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, Techstars London would really, really love to hear from you — my DMs are open on Twitter. Even if you’re working on something that doesn’t fit with what I mentioned, or something that’s a total moonshot, I’m still incredibly keen to learn about your business. Some of the best companies I’ve invested in have come as total bolts from the blue. In all honesty, I love nothing more than the opportunity to meet smart people working on products that make a real difference to their users, customers and maybe even the world.

I’m excited to learn more about what you’re working on. Our incredible community of alumni, mentors, partners and friends want to help you and your company grow, scale and do amazing things during Techstars London 2019 and beyond.

I’m looking forward to seeing your future.