“I can’t get excited about helping rich white guys share videos” Esther Dyson on her investment passions

esther dyson
esther dyson

“Oh my God, that is so beautiful!” Esther Dyson leaps out of her bucket seat in the foyer of the Bayerischer Hof Hotel to take a picture of a milky sun hanging low in the wintry Munich sky.

esther dyson

Photo courtesy of Rick Smolan

Our interview is punctuated by stops and starts – everyone in the hotel wants to connect with the high-profile angel investor. And everyone in the hotel is here for DLD it seems – Yossi Vardi is holding court over club sandwiches at the next table; Yandex CEO Arkady Volozh stops to say hi; various stars of the global tech firmament are orbiting around in the foyer, waiting for their rooms to be prepared.

Dyson has time to stop and chat with everyone – with a memory for names and stories that exhibits her previous training as a journalist. She wraps her small frame into one of the large hotel chairs again and focuses: “I’m here at DLD doing a panel on sleep. It’s such an important factor in our health that we’re only beginning to understand. I’m involved a lot in health, and sleep is a large part of that for me – I have a sleep monitor to measure my sleep patterns.”

The future of health tech – “Let’s not make healthcare cheap, let’s make it avoidable…”

Indeed, Dyson is passionate about health. Her investments are now almost solely in pre-emptive health services: 23AndMe (which offers genotyping direct to consumers); Omada Health (a site offering pre-diabetes preventative care); and PatientsLikeMe (a social networking site for patients to share experiences) among many others.

“I divide my life between the following areas right now: health, Russia, commercial space and nonprofits,” says Dyson.

“I’ve said this before, but I simply can’t get excited about helping rich white guys share videos. But helping people manage their own health – that to me is exciting. Let’s not make healthcare cheaper, let’s make it avoidable. I mean, we take our cars in for maintenance, we don’t run them until they break…”

Given the current state of health in the Western world, especially in the US, isn’t this a massive undertaking, requiring a huge attitude adjustment? “Yes, of course,” agrees Dyson. “And also in the Middle East – diabetes is a huge problem – and in India too. It’s a sign of mid-level wealth. Suddenly you can afford to eat what you want but not necessarily well…

MyBasisWatch

“But health is beginning to be recognised as a bigger problem. In the US at least consumers are becoming more aware of their own health costs. And also, we have all these devices now [she brandishes a futuristic timepiece dwarfing her small wrists next to a Nike Fuel Band]. “It’s a Basis. I’m an investor in this – it basically measures my heart rate in real time.

“And also everyone is on a social network, so you can create not just health information but the motivation by connecting them to other people. Depending on your personality, you can either compete or collaborate.”

So, is it the confluence of the right tech, better ways to collect and sort data, and the arrival of apps that have meant health tech’s time is now? “Yes, and also the entrepreneurs are getting to the point where they realise that they can’t stay up all night and party. They now have kids, so they are starting to care more about this topic.”

“Europe has too many chefs, not enough restaurant managers”

chefSo what is the special sauce that makes an investment exciting for Dyson? Prior to Munich, she was in Berlin for the hy! Berlin startup event. Did anything get her investment senses twitching?

“Right now I’m between exits, which means I’m running out of money. I’m not complaining, I have lots of non-liquid investments, but I just don’t have any cash. So I’m in the nice position of finding it really easy to say no right now!

“That said, I was on the hardware judging panel at hy! And all picked a product called Solar Brush, that cleans off solar panels. Which is not that easy to do, especially if it’s somewhere remote in the desert. The guy was good, he was a good presenter.”

So what makes a great pitch for her? “They have to be engaging, they have to understand their market, they can explain who their customer is, and how they will make money.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I’ve been advising a Global Agenda Council for World Economic Forum on the topic of the importance of scaling.

“It’s easy enough to find great entrepreneurs, especially in Berlin. The problem is… OK, you can find a great chef. He makes a wonderful meal. But what you’re looking for as an investor is a restaurant chain. The chef who can build a restaurant and then complete the processes to make the chain.

“If you just want really great food, then just go for the chef. But if you want a business that’s replicable, that can grow, you need someone who can create a team, ultimately hundreds of thousands of people… and that’s much harder to figure out.”

So does she think that Europe is too full of chefs and not enough restauranteurs? “Yes. Or not enough restaurant managers. It’s not the guy who greets you at the door, it’s the guy who’s out there opening the second, third, fourth, fifth restaurant…”

Is it a difference in attitudes? Between Silicon Valley and Europe – are Europeans just not as equipped to scale? “To be fair, we have the same issue in Silicon Valley right now. We have 24-year-olds who have no idea how to manage anything, who create apps and think that they’re CEOs.”

“When you give people money, they start to listen to your advice…”

So why Russia? Dyson has described Russia as her “second country” and has invested heavily in Russian startups as well as being on the board of directors at Yandex. “I learned Russian in high school and I first went there in 1989. It kind of felt like Berlin feels now. A lot of people were trying to start companies, but with not a lot of business skills and I thought, ‘Gee I could be helpful here…’

“Also, I was still a journalist at the time [Dyson started her career as a fact-checker for Forbes, then worked on Wall Street for five years before issuing “Release 1.0″, a monthly tech newletter, plus launching PC Forum conference]. I invested in Russia and Eastern Europe precisely because I was known as a journalist in Western Europe and I didn’t want to have the conflict of interests.

“Finally I stopped the newsletter and the conferences and I already had started investing in the US.” So what is more fulfilling, journalism or investing? “Well, my career was a byproduct of my search for a continuing education if you like. Being a journalist teaches you to ask questions and not be scared of being stupid. It’s great training.

“And you can get interesting people to talk to you, you get to look at how companies work… I would advise companies, but they might not always take the advice. But if you start giving them money, they’re far more likely to listen,” she smiles.

Does she consider herself a catalyst investor? “I’m not sure I even know what that means!” Does the Dyson seal of approval on a venture attract more investors? “Well, I’m an angel investor, and the model is that you invest in lots, but you make lots of mistakes – but they’re cheap.

“Maybe I’m more a catalyst for industries. I have an instinct for markets – I think I ask questions rather than follow others.”

xcor

And what industries or trends are exciting her right now? “There are going to be one or two serious players who are going to be big in this quantified self area, helping people to aggregate all this personal data about themselves. I’m also on the board of XCOR Aerospace [pictured above] – I believe there’s going to be some interesting developments in commercial space flight.

“Also structured data – search isn’t going to be list-based in the future. I’m really interested in how to create an ontology of how things are related…”

And what keeps her going, keeps her enthusiasm fired up? “Curiosity. Pure and simple. And swimming every morning.”

And with that, she’s left for her next appointment, leaving me wondering if that’s really all it takes to enjoy Dyson-esque success… and where I left my goggles.

Image credits:
Chef: flickr user devnul