3 Boston VCs Share Investment Themes for 2016

The early results are in: 2016 will be a year of conversational interfaces (think actually having a back and forth with Siri), on-demand services, new tools for sticking to your healthcare goals (and meds)—and of bringing innovation to the underserved. And yes, there will still be a place for the “weird and wonderful.”

Those, anyway, are some results from an informal survey I am conducting of leading venture capitalists to get their views on important trends shaping the market—and their investment decisions—as we enter the new year.

I intend to continue this survey quasi-regularly in the early part of the year—across much of Xconomy’s entire 10-region network. But I started where Xconomy started—here in the Boston area—with three VCs investing in different aspects of tech and healthcare.

The trio consists of Larry Bohn, a managing director at General Catalyst Partners; Dana Callow, a founder and managing general partner at Boston Millennia Partners; and Eric Paley, a managing partner at Founder Collective.

So without further ado, let’s dive in. Please keep in mind that the following aren’t the only things these investors are looking at—I just asked them to share one or two areas on their minds.

Conversational Interfaces, On-Demand Services—Larry Bohn, General Catalyst Partners

LarryBohnConsumers should be happy. Two big areas General Catalyst is eyeing for the coming year are the aforementioned conversational interfaces and on-demand services—and both promise a new era of seamless interaction with our devices and pastimes (including shopping).

“The two are quite related,” says Bohn. Voice interfaces like Siri, he points out, tend to be unidirectional—you ask a question, you get an answer. “Conversational interfaces, both speech and text, enable humans to have a more dialoged interaction in which topics or requests can be explored. This makes talking to a computer far more human and productive.” (Note: Machine learning technology from various domains makes this possible, allowing systems to give intelligent responses to what you are saying, Bohn says. I am personally pining for this day, as Bohn’s words made me think of all the times I have automatically asked Siri a follow-up question based on the answer she just gave me, and….nothing.)

“When these technologies are applied to on-demand services, they enable people to request a variety of services, from travel to building websites, in which much of the dialog can be automated but where humans are required it can be done efficiently by having context and appropriate talent respond. “

Some investments GC has in these areas:

Semantic Machines (Boston): Some Xconomy coverage about a former Apple speech scientist joining the company.

Lola (Boston): Xconomy’s story about the new startup from Paul English of Kayak fame.

GoButler (New York)

Unlimited Labs (New York)

Helping People Stick to Healthcare Plans and Goals —Dana Callow, Boston Millennia Partners

DanaCallowTennisWhen it comes to healthcare—whether it is taking drugs, following a physical therapy routine, or just a plan to stay healthy—one of the biggest challenges is simply getting people to do what they’re supposed to do, and stick with it. “We’ve probably met with 100 companies around compliance,” says Callow. “We continue to believe it’s a very large opportunity.”

For instance, he says, estimates hold that more than 50 percent of patients fail to follow their prescribed drug regimen, therapy, or discharge program. That means, says Calllow, that “a one percent increase in compliance or adherence to taking your medicine” could be the equivalent of the next blockbuster drug for a drug company.

This is hardly a new insight, of course. But investor groups, Callow says, have typically looked at companies in the compliance area as standalone opportunities—products like Fitbits or a smart pill bottle that reminds you to take your meds, or a variety of apps on your phone. Whatever the case, says Callow, “The retention rate falls off after about 90 to 120 days.”

Callow is looking to invest in companies that will change this paradigm. He doesn’t think success will come from some breakthrough device. Rather, he thinks it is about mastering the psychological or social skills of getting people to stick to the plan. In short, he says, “We have concluded it probably is a service business, not a product business.”

One company in Callow’s portfolio that addressed at least a piece of the compliance issue was Boston-based PHT Corp., which sold in early 2015 to ERT of Philadelphia. Among other things, PHT developed software and apps that let patients self-report on the outcomes of their treatment—an important component of the Affordable Care Act that figures into how hospitals, drug companies, and others are reimbursed.

Underserved Customers and Weird and Wonderful Spaces in Unusual Places – Eric Paley, Founder Collective

One of the more eclectic approaches to venture investing likely comes from Founder Collective. As Eric Paley puts it, “we’re stage focused and sector agnostic—we love seed stage deals, no matter if they’re trying to build “Keurig for Wine” (Kuvee), a new kind of propulsion system for micro-satellites (Accion Systems ), or a service that connects publishers, authors, and book lovers” (BookBub).

EricPaleyBut that doesn’t mean there isn’t a plan or philosophy. Here are a few of the thematic principles guiding the firm in 2016.

Underserved Customers—In the past year or so, says Paley, “We’ve backed companies bringing the Internet of Things to pharma labs, a plus-sized fashion ecommerce company, and a food delivery service that targets second-tier cities.”

The common element behind all these companies, says Paley: “The founders are obsessed with the idea of serving customers that no one else cares about.” In fact, he says, none of these companies have real competitors to speak of, even though their target markets are worth nearly $200 billion dollars. And that is not an unusual circumstance, he says. “There are entire industries that are being ignored and we want to back founders who disrupt them.”

Weird and Wonderful Spaces in Unusual Places—I had to save this one for last. Here is how Paley describes the idea:

“While Uber is the dominant company in tech right now, when we invested in 2009 it was more of a curiosity. It has no relationship to our other portfolio company, BuzzFeed, which is nothing like PillPack’s robotic pharmacies, both of which are completely different from Coupang, which is the largest ecommerce company in South Korea (and one of only 5 startups to raise a billion dollars in a single round of funding).

“Basically, if what you’re working on scares other VCs, we’d love to learn more.”

Bob is Xconomy's founder and chairman. You can email him at bbuderi@xconomy.com. Follow @bbuderi

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