In 3D: Davos, Dave, and Data

At this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Link Ventures Managing Partner and Cogo Labs Chairman Dave Blundin (shown with microphone in hand below) gave a presentation on Democratizing Big Data. Hosted in the iconic TCS Dome, Dave’s talk was part of the Blockchain in Action event which brought together global leaders from business, government, academia, and media. For those who couldn’t be there, we offer this summary of his remarks.

Having founded and exited multiple tech companies, Dave described how all of his entrepreneurial successes have been driven by the availability of data. In fact, his first major liquidity event involved a company with the word “data” in its name. DataSage — which was acquired by Vignette — was built upon a neural network algorithm developed by Dave to read handwriting, interpret x-ray images and predict retail demand for consumer products. In the two decades since then, he has had a hand in launching well over a dozen data-centric companies, including Vestmark, CourseAdvisor, Jobcase, and EverQuote.

Dave reflected on his 30-plus-year career and the many ways entrepreneurs, businesses and industries have been impacted by big data, the blockchain and related technologies. In particular, he cited three notable examples of how the ever-increasing availability of data has caused seismic shifts in the entrepreneurial landscape.

1. Tech CEOs are getting younger

No, it’s not something in the water. Dave observed that all entrepreneurs — including those still in or just out of college — now have access to far more data than even their most experienced predecessors could have amassed a generation ago. This has enabled a growing set of data-savvy founders to move forward with their companies and careers at an unprecedented pace. Dave illustrated the point with this chart.

Dave recounted how this demographic shift helped lead to his 2005 co-founding of Cogo Labs, which is committed to “accelerating the lives” of its resident entrepreneurs — and, by extension, their vertical teams. Flipping the outward-looking script of traditional incubators, Cogo Labs focuses on creating new internet businesses from internal experiments that leverage the more than five billion rows of consumer data collected by the company each day. Through the efforts of its engineers, analysts and design team members (many of whom are newly minted college graduates), Cogo Labs uses it burgeoning data assets to help its homegrown start-ups move toward profitability early in their life cycles.

2. Companies are growing much, much faster

As his next example of a data-driven sea change, Dave turned to the accelerating rate at which companies can now grow. He recalled that when he first started immersing himself in the world of “big data,” the available tools were painfully inefficient and incredibly expensive. Whether it was literally building the computer processors needed to run the algorithms he had written, or manually transcribing data from thousands of pages of photocopied records, the tasks involved were time-consuming and the infrastructure was lacking.

To contrast the then with the now, Dave shared this anecdote with the audience at Davos: “I started my career working with the world’s largest non-governmental database of its time, the Walmart commercial data warehouse based in Bentonville, Arkansas. The database ran on Teradata hardware at a cost of one million dollars per terabyte. Each of those boxes was the size of a fridge, cost over a million dollars, and held a whopping one terabyte. I’d like to point out that each laptop in the room today would have been worth about two million dollars in those times.”

Today, thanks to the prevalence of (truly) big data, distributed ledgers, artificial intelligence, and similar technologies, entrepreneurs have access to tools that cut out the weeks, months or even years of labor that often went into building the basic foundations of the original data-centric businesses. Dave added that, in the current start-up environment, first-time founders can also take advantage of the rise of incubators, accelerators and mentorship programs that help guide young entrepreneurs in every aspect of building a business. The chart below shows that upwards of one-third of all investable companies now come out of accelerators, whereas ten years ago that fraction was closer to one-fiftieth!

3. Democratized data will accelerate innovation

The world of data has matured tremendously over the last decade, but Dave expressed his belief that we have experienced only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unlocking its potential for society as a whole. He is currently involved in three organizations that are helping build and support the infrastructure to democratize data.

The first two are based in the Kendall Square innovation hub in Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cogo Labs (discussed above), which plans to widen its pipeline to thirty concurrent internet companies by the end of 2020; and Link Ventures, a venture capital firm founded by Dave. Link’s investment strategy relies not on subjective preferences — or even founder “passions” — but rather on the objective identification of markets and companies as revealed by the data. Execution is achieved through proprietary algorithms that sit on top of petabytes of clickstream and email data, allowing the team to source new opportunities and evaluate outside prospects’ existing online traffic resources. Once an internet company joins the portfolio (and in proportion to Link’s stake), it gains access to a broad range of consumer data assets. Most commonly, those are used to gather competitive intelligence and to generate hyper-targeted audiences for marketing and customer acquisition campaigns.

The third data-democratization organization to which Dave devotes his time and resources is XPRIZE. The California-based nonprofit is dedicated to identifying and fostering industry-changing technologies that will help all members of society realize a better and more sustainable world. As a member of the innovation board, Dave will soon be joining XPRIZE founder (and fellow MIT graduate) Peter Diamandis on a trip to Israel, where they will be exposed to some of that country’s emerging technologies. The group will meet CEOs of top exponential tech companies in various industries, including security, healthcare and more.

As Dave summed up in Davos, all three organizations — Cogo Labs, Link Ventures and XPRIZE — have recognized the need for a “Data Collective” to which entrepreneurial companies and researchers could get quick, secure and private access. Such an abundant data resource would empower all users to access clean data for purposes of research and the development of new ideas.

What’s next?

With Switzerland in the rear-view mirror and Israel on the road ahead, the next installment of the Imagination in Action series is on the horizon. With Dave one of the featured speakers, the event will take place on Saturday, April 27, at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts. To learn more, join the conversation or register to attend, visit http://imaginationinaction.xyz/.