Monday, January 6, 2020

Products I Wish Existed, 2020 Edition

Below is a list of products or startups that I am keeping an eye out for. I skipped listing things I wish existed that can *not* be implemented with today's technology in strong form - for example, the Young Lady's Illustrated Primer - although weak forms of this may be possible today.

A number of these may also turn out to be terrible businesses, and this is not meant as a "trends" or "what's hot" post. Rather, I would adopt a number of the products myself.

A. Software.
1. Trinet for full-time remote/distributed workers.
With the move to more and more remote workers and teams a number of companies are struggling with basic payroll and benefits for non-US employees. This is particularly true if the company is a startup or has many small teams around the world. There is a lot of complexity in terms of whether someone is an independent contractor or not, setting up foreign subsidiaries and payments, working with a PEO etc. The product would be a modern, easy to use way to hire and pay remote full time (and part-time) teams. You can think of it as "Trinet v2". Some of the complexity in the product may be driven by the need to establish foreign entities to hire remote workers. Deel is doing a subset for contractors, while RunaHR is doing payroll in LATAM.

2. New social network.
TikTok is a good reminder for the generational turnover of social products. While most social networks have not proven to be durable over time (Friendster, MySpace, Orkut, ....) the ones that take over generational shifts or new content types and formats have become massive companies. In general, most of the value of a social product is the network and interactions of the people using the product, with the remainder of the value coming from the product software scaffolding itself.

Places to watch for a new social products may include:
  • Generational shifts. Every 5-7 years there is room for a new social network to emerge in the next wave of high school and college students. TikTok is a good example of this, following SnapChat in the past.
  • New content and formats. The rise of podcasting and transcription, short form content highlighting, or other approaches may yield the right engagement model for a new social product to emerge. Past versions of this include Instagram for mobile photos and Pinterest for pins.
  • Gaming communities. DiscordTwitchFortniteMinecraft and others have shown the appetite for social networks in the context of gaming. It is always possible a game or gaming-centric network will make the jump to a broadbased one, assuming its features evolve over time to subsume additional use cases.  
  • Verticals. There is likely room for additional vertical social networks for very large verticals. Neighborhoods in particular still feel like a large potential opportunity over time with the sets of layered information and commerce that can be attached. Nextdoor feels a bit like the Myspace of its vertical in that someone could challenge it - however no Facebook of neighborhoods has arisen to challenge it.
  • High user fatigue. In parallel, user fatigue around spam, bots, and outrage culture without any controls built to deal with this may create the opening for a new network. What would be a network which allowed for more thoughtful discourse? Or at least the ability to more actively mute topics, threads, and groups of users while surfacing better content algorithmically?
  • VR. This is not near term, but a Black Sun like network could emerge eventually with a rise in VR.
  • Past examples relevant for today? Things like IRC, the WELL, and others captured user behavior in unique ways. One aspect was the highly curated or self organized nature of these communities prior to the Internet being deluged by everyone. There is room for a throwback to these more concentrated, in some sense high end intellectual (and non intellectual) communities.
Of the networks that has the cleanest stand alone use case and potential to be worth $100B, the ones which may be displaced or competed with soonest may include (1) Twitter, which captures both high velocity news, public discourse, and CRM in a single communication and media network. Twitter has not evolved much as a product with basics still missing a decade plus later. (2) LinkedIn. Github should have been a strong competitor to LinkedIn for engineers and designers. There may be ways to try to take over other specific use cases from the company as a starting point.

3. More SaaS and Dev Tools.
This one is kind of obvious, and I suggest analysis to be done below to find opportunities in this area (see "Software areas for exploration). I have specific ideas I may try to help pull together or test in 2020.

4. ADT 2.0: Digital neighborhood watch.
The common approach to security cameras is to sell the camera as a DIY installation hardware sales and then charge an attach to cloud storage. However, the traditional path to home security includes services-centric companies like ADT. ADT will install the hardware for you, have a person in the middle in case needed for monitoring, and spins off cash like crazy due to its subscription model.

I would love to see a modern next-generation consumer-centric ADT-like model. This model would include:
  • Services model. Part of the purchase includes a technician showing up and doing the installation. There would be no DIY component.
  • Subscription only. The product would be a hardware/software/services bundle with an up front fee and ongoing subscription as default.
  • Network driven. All cameras in a neighborhood would be virtually networked - for example, as a user I could report that someone stole packages from my doorstep and an alert would go out to all my neighbors to their phones to bring their own packages inside. There are interesting network effects available here as well as the potential for a neighborhood social product to be built on top.
  • Data exhaust. If you have enough camera density by neighborhood, other things suddenly become interesting adjacent businesses. For example, could you add a pollution sensor to installs and get unique and valuable data? Weather data? There are lots of opportunities here outside of home security once you have an installed base.
I have long wanted to fund or incubate a company in this area. Nest and Ring are trying to do things on the consumer side, but not quite there yet. A company to watch in an adjacent area is Flock Safety.

5. Neighborhood (and corporate?) pollution sensor networks.
Relatedly, the California wildfires have caused me as a parent to look frequently at pollution data. Even basal pollution levels may impact cognitive function. There seems to be room for both home/neighborhood and corporate level pollution sensor networks. One could imagine a service where companies or people buy hardware + analytics for their homes or facilities and then a subscription for people who do not own the hardware but live nearby. An early player in this area is Aclima which has done cool things with Google.

6. Climate product bundle for enterprises.
A bundled climate change product could be sold to enterprises including carbon offsets, carbon sequestration, solar installations, and other climate services. A number of technology companies adopted climate products early, and given employee interest in the area could lead to faster sales cycle then the past.

As an aside, a friend of mine and I put up a consumer carbon offset site back in 2007 due to concerns with global warming. The idea was to help people buy carbon offsets for their own activities. At the time, we saw very little interest.

As an additional aside, Nuclear is a strong potential solution for climate change but is politically unpopular. Could something be done to address this[1]?

7. Software-only defense contractor.
Anduril is a next-generation defense contractor focused on hardware + software (including machine learning) bundles. There is probably room for an adjacent company focused solely on software-centric machine learning and intelligence applications. Unlike Palantir, which seems to have a services-centric model, this new company would be focused on a more SaaS-centric software-driven model. The rise of machine learning and machine vision as analytical tools opens up the door for a new contractor to emerge to challenge incumbents, and also to provide new applications not available in the pre-ML world.

B. Software areas for exploration:
8. Global 2000 company IT needs.
Silicon Valley enterprise startups often focus on the needs of other mid-stage tech companies as customers, rather than the large enterprises that make up much of the business world by revenue. There are probably a dozen $10B+ enterprise software companies to build that are unique to the largest companies of the world that most Silicon Valley founders are never exposed to (UIPath is a good example of a company serving such a need).

I would love to see the following analysis:
  • A map of repetitious tasks, spreadsheets, and manual data extraction by function in the Fortune 500.
  • Budget breakdown of current software spend, by function, by line, in the Fortune 500.
  • A view of what Accenture, CapGemini, and Deloitte keep building over and over for large enterprises. Undoubtedly a subset of these custom consulting projects can be turned into SaaS software.
  • A tougher analysis to do is to ask what internal software projects various tech companies are working on. If you can get the list from 3-4 companies, you will undoubtedly see a few internal tool or product examples that should be built as a SaaS product for everyone.
9. More RPA and NoCode.
RPA (basically tools anyone can use to create programmatic APIs on top of legacy software) and NoCode/LowCode (letting anyone build an app with a spreadsheet as a database representation) are the biggest shifts in enterprise software since the cloud. In a few years, aspects of RPA and NoCode are likely to be incorporated into an increasing proportion of enterprise applications as a standard tool set. While the early leading apps of this area (e.g. UIPathAirtable, ...) make great headways, additional players like NotionParabolaRetool, and Simpo continue to take on additional uses cases. There is a lot more room for new players tackling specific use cases or verticals, or add on apps like Rossum or Instabase for NLP and data extraction into NoCode tables and apps like Airtable, or RPA apps like UIPath.

NoCode and RPA are likely to become more verticalized in terms of both function that uses them, and market served. More companies in these markets will emerge in 2020 and beyond.

C. Biotech.
Although I am no longer helping to start or invest in biotech (outside of my existing involvements), the following strike me as important.

10. Fertility for everyone (and perhaps saving endangered species in the future)
It is now possible to take a skin cell from a mouse, turn it into an induced stem cell, and then convert that stem cell into a sperm or egg. The implications to society if someone were to translate this to humans is dramatic. Imagine if any person, of any age, could have a child. Women could decide to push back child bearing dramatically without freezing eggs in advance. Gay couples could have kids together with genes from both sides. There are also nefarious uses - for example if you surreptitiously scrape skin off Kanye's hands in a club you might be able to show up 9 months later with a baby and paternity suit. Ovid Research is working on one aspect of this.

Relatedly, for endangered species, a non-commercial effort should be made to freeze cells from every living animal (assuming non-disruptive) and also to create embryonic stem cell or germline lines for future use in potential species rescue or rebirth. Here is a white rhino example of potential proof of concept approaches.

11. Longevity basics
Right now the bar for longevity or anti-aging companies is a high one (cure aging!). While each company starts with a specific targeted indication, I sometimes wonder if people are being too bold in application versus ambition. It would be great to want to cure aging, but start really small. The bar for anti-aging may be too high and too science-centric. Are there simple approaches to help people rapidly with off the shelf or repositioned drugs?

I think companies could set a lower bar and start by restoring function that dramatically improves lots of people's quality of life. Examples would include eyesight and hearing. For example, many people start to get blurry vision in their 40s, due to a variety of factors including the mix of proteins in the lens of the eye causing hardening and potentially the muscle holding the lens aging. Could a simple approach like rapamycin droplets in the eye reverse aspects of aging and therefore eyesight? Similarly, are there treatments that could restore lost hair in men or have other cosmetic applications?

As an aside, if you want to join an anti-aging company, BioAge and Spring Discovery are the two to watch IMO (I am involved with both, as well as a number of other companies mentioned in this post).

D. Biotech Areas For Exploration:
12. Biomarkers for everything (wetware and/or AI and digital)
Being able to measure a physiological change or response allows you to both understand a disease and its progression, as well as to create drugs to treat the disease. Major conditions such as Alzheimer's disease have traditionally been limited in drug creation due to an inability to find biomarkers that correspond with disease progression. This means that historically Alzheimer's trials have only been able to recruit people with late stages of the disease for trials. It would be useful to do deep proteomic, metabolomic, and potentially methalomic analysis of people with different diseases to start to develop robust biomarkers for all major diseases.

There are also "electronic" biomarkers that should be developed and put into use. For example, by using machine learning on pictures or short videos of children can you tell where they might be on the autism spectrum? Or can you tell if someone is developing Alzheimer's or other disorders based on changes in gait and phone sensors? There is a wealth of digital data we are not using for diagnosis and treatment. The challenge is taking a one-off research study and translating it into an actual product in widespread use.

Exact Sciences is a good example of a colon cancer biomarker that has decreased the needs for colonoscopies while creating a $10 billion+ company. Unfortunately, like everything in healthcare, the road from a great biomarker to commercial success may be long and difficult. Exact Sciences was founded in 1995, when public in 2001, and had a flat market cap for about a decade before in-licensing and developing its colon cancer screen in 2009-2014. A better product alone in healthcare does not mean success or adoption without the right industry body approvals and insurance reimbursement. However, from a human impact perspective this field holds enormous potential.

[1] For nuclear - an update on the decades old technology used in current reactors (for example molten core reactors or SMRs) + a PR campaign targeting millennials and GenZ seems valuable to do. Maybe you rebrand the newer safer technology something completely unrelated to nuclear? "Green atomics" or the like? When I last looked at nuclear 5-6 years ago, a big cost to build and deploy was largely NIMBYism driven - cost delays due to protests led to uncertain completion timelines, delays, and financing costs. Am upgrade to current technology + PR campaign might help here.

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