First, a story. We initially heard about entrepreneur Felipe Peixoto in 2017. At the time, he was running a small company called SafeTest Diagnóstocos, in the southeastern corner of Brazil. He spent his days developing tools to detect infectious tropical diseases endemic to the region like Zika, dengue, and yellow fever.
But to us, Peixoto was already living in the future — and founders who live in the future have the best chance of winning big. We knew the world would one day come calling for personal diagnostic technologies like the ones SafeTest was developing. So we invested. That moment arrived sooner than even we anticipated, as the coronavirus spread across the globe in 2020. SafeTest quickly built an affordable, 15-minute test for Covid-19 that’s become a critical weapon in fighting the disease.
Last year created unprecedented challenges, but also validated our core philosophy at VST: the best entrepreneurs always build towards the future, rather than just addressing the market demands of today. The crisis fast-forwarded the need for innovative solutions and accelerated waves of emerging technologies. SafeTest and other seeds we planted in prior years ripened quickly, and many of our portfolio companies achieved major goals sooner than expected. In fact, 2020 represented a record year for VST.
But this is just the beginning. We continue to live in the future. As all-consuming as the present moment may seem, our eyes are fixed firmly on what’s next. With that in mind, here are the trends and technologies that will shape the world and guide our investments over the coming decade.
A radically new landscape
There are certain innovations that reshape the world around them, unleashing economic opportunity inconceivable beforehand. In the 1700s, this was the steam engine. In the 1800s, railways made the world smaller. In the 1900s, cars, phones and electricity converged to remake society. More recently, computers and the internet have unlocked untold trillions in value.
But this pales in comparison to what lies ahead. In the future, we will experience far greater disruption, much of it driven by five inter-related innovation platforms, as highlighted by investment advisor and CEO of ARK Invest Cathie Wood: artificial intelligence, robotics, energy storage, genomics, and blockchain.
Artificial intelligence is the ability of machines to “think.” The next phase of AI, deep learning, will enable machines to learn from and adapt to their environments, rather than operate on man-made algorithms. Robotics will become more like the robots of science-fiction, making decisions rather than just obeying simple commands. Energy storage will enable the world to capture power from intermittent renewable sources like solar and wind. Genomics will give us the power to read and rewrite DNA — the blueprints of all living things — so we can cure disease, save species, and end hunger. Blockchain, the decentralized ledger system behind crypto-currencies, will enable people to share information and make transactions more securely.
Each of these platforms is powerful on its own, transcending individual sectors and crossing geographic boundaries. But together, their impact is staggering. In the years ahead, they will converge, multiplying the effects of each other. AI will catalyze innovations in other platforms, powering advances in automation and genomic discoveries. As the flywheel accelerates, we’ll see driverless cars, personalized medicine and machines that diagnose and repair themselves, to name a few technologies set to go mainstream.
But there’s more. Driving these advances will be the biggest push factor the world has ever known: the survival of our species. Much of the innovation in the decade ahead must, of necessity, be directed towards solving the climate emergency. This crisis endangers the world and every living thing in it. Stopping it will demand trillions of dollars in investment across many sectors, and commandeer as much ingenuity as humanity can muster. The stakes, and the market opportunities, are enormous.
An unwavering mission
VST will be at the forefront of these massive global transformations. But, critically, the philosophy that guides our investments in the decade ahead will remain unchanged: identifying what comes next and finding accessible entry points to capitalize on the future, now.
It was this approach that informed our early bets over the past decade on future-forward sectors as diverse as gaming, e-sports, blockchain, AI, AR/VR, and health technologies. We’ve seen those bear fruit in the hypergrowth of our portfolio companies Immersive Tech, FansUnite, Game On, Victory Square Health, and many more.
As we look forward, that same philosophy will continue to set us apart. It’s supported by a core set of underlying principles.
- First, we focus on picks and shovels — supplying the tools for others to create disruption. Many innovative businesses are capital intensive and speculative, but we focus on surer-footed, capital-efficient ways to support them. SafeTest, for example, makes products proven to diagnose diseases, leaving the speculative and capital-intensive process of developing therapeutics to other players.
- We build to an audience, rather than building products in search of an audience. This distinction is critical and dates to our earliest investments in the online dating space. We realized early on that customer acquisition is the central challenge of the digital age. While VC-backed behemoths can afford to spend exorbitant sums to acquire users, we ensure demand exists before we invest time and resources, while actively looking for audience synergies between companies.
- We always consider second-order effects — not just the most immediate consequences of actions, but the chain of consequences following from those first consequences. We know, for example, that the pandemic accelerated the shift toward working remotely, and that boosted demand for communications tools like Zoom and Slack. But people can’t collaborate well without sharing data, so we’re building tools to help teams do that securely and privately.
- We recognize the need to look forward, but not in a straight line. The future isn’t just an arithmetic extension of the past, as the pandemic has vividly shown. The combination of technological advance and climate change will bring exponential and often unpredictable change in the years ahead. Tomorrow will look fundamentally different from today, which requires abandoning comforting sureties and constantly reevaluating what’s valid and vital with fresh eyes. We’ve seen this in recent years as blockchain has gone from a derided, misunderstood technology to the cornerstone of a new decentralized internet.
- Finally, when we look at the future, we’re working towards making it brighter than today. Disruptive innovation can help solve some of the world’s most persistent problems. We invest to be a force for good — focusing on technologies and companies we believe will affect the environment, our society, and the world’s ability to create further innovations in a positive way.
A roadmap for the next decade
So what does all this look like in practice at VST? We’ve locked our sights onto three main target areas over the next decade that we believe will improve people’s lives: solving the climate crisis, driving the genomic revolution forward, and creating the next-generation of internet.
Climate change isn’t just an environmental issue. Clean energy and decarbonization will bring enormous economic rewards for companies that can build solutions. Clean tech alone presents a $26-trillion opportunity globally. In my own backyard, British Columbia has banned fossil-fuel-burning cars and trucks by 2040, joining numerous jurisdictions around the world moving towards zero-emissions transport. That’s driven electric car-maker Tesla to become one of the most valuable companies in the world, and it’s also spurred demand for sustainably sourced clean-tech materials like graphite for batteries. VST sees enormous potential in climate tech, as these innovations transcend sectors and become woven into the fabric of our daily lives.
Equally promising is genomics, the use of DNA sequencing technology and tools like CRISPR and molecular diagnostics to transform everything from healthcare and pharmaceuticals to agriculture. Right now, genomics are the tip of humanity’s spear in the fight against diseases like Covid-19, as scientists use gene sequencing to read and track changes in the coronavirus’ genetic code and create new mRNA-based vaccines. Genomics are also key weapons in the battle against cancer, with technologies like liquid biopsies helping detect the disease more quickly and less invasively than before. VST is heavily investing in diagnostics and telemedicine, and we’re looking to expand our healthcare portfolio with new genomic technologies.
Finally, we’re already deeply invested in next-generation internet technologies — innovations changing how the world sells goods, crunches data, communicates and plays online. The events of the past year have only driven home how much of our lives are mediated by the internet. It’s abundantly clear that more and more of our affairs will be conducted online in the years ahead, bringing with it the need for better and more efficient tools. VST is well positioned to expand here on our current investments in blockchain solutions, AR/VR, cloud infrastructure, and online gaming.
Last year brought incredible disruptions in the form of a world-consuming health crisis. Yet these changes are less an anomaly than a sign of things to come. The truism, “Change has never been this fast; it will never be this slow again,” has never been more apt. But while the future is uncertain, the challenges ahead are plain to see and, in many respects, timeless: health and safety, the desire to communicate and play, the need to eat and work and thrive. VST knows that living in the future means finding creative new ways to solve these timeless needs. At root, we’re committed to investing in technologies that address these fundamental human issues and help us get to a brighter 2030 together.