Feb 26


There is disagreement over what makes a VC successful. But there is definitely consensus on one point: Fred Wilson, co-founder of Union Square Ventures and an early investor in Twitter, Foursquare, Etsy, Zynga or Tumblr, is one of the best. I don’t know any entrepreneur who wouldn’t want him on his board. So when Fred speaks, the InSITE fellows listen. And yesterday, in the seventh annual fire chat with fellows and alumni, we listened again.

There are 2 trends that Fred is thinking about right now:

·      ‘Pervasive computing’ revisited

·      Machine Learning

Pervasive computing revisited

First, Fred is interested in finding new applications for the new connected devices we will own in the near future, such as glasses or watches. Most of us are spending more and more time on our tablets and smartphones, but we’re still using our desktop computers as well. There are some applications that we use on all devices, but some others that we prefer to use only on our tablets, phones or computers. The question Fred is asking himself is what are the new applications that will emerge with these new devices? And how will our behaviors change as a result?

To explain this trend, Fred mentioned the concept of ‘pervasive computing’, which in the 1990’s was developed by Spanish social scientist Manuel Castells in his book ‘The Rise of the Network Society’. Over two decades ago, Castells suggested that there was an ongoing shift from “already-decentralized, stand-alone microcomputers and mainframes towards entirely pervasive computing by interconnected information-processing devices, coming in multiple formats”. As he predicted, “users will be able to access the network from a variety of single-purpose, specialized devices distributed in all spheres of life and activity, at home, at work, at shopping, at entertainment places, in transportation vehicles, and ultimately, everywhere. These devices, many of them portable, will communicate among themselves”.

In fact, back in 1999, when Fred was at Flatiron, he was part of a $50 million initiative to invest in ‘pervasive computing’: companies that developed hardware, software and services for post-pc gadgets and the mobile internet. Their bet then was that as people became more connected to the internet, they would want increased access to online services. As they stated, “as information appliances proliferate, we will soon be interacting with the Internet in our kitchen, in our car, and through our PDA’s, smart phones and clothing.”

Fred and Flatiron were ahead of their time with this initiative and the market blew up a year later. But those old bets seem to gain a new relevance today. As he mentioned: “I think now we are entering that world of pervasive computing. And we are looking for applications that will use those new devices” (connected cars, TV’s, glasses, watches, etc.)”. So if you know any entrepreneurs who are thinking about these issues, definitely send them Fred’s way.

Machine Learning

The second trend that Fred is thinking about ismachine learning, or the ability of computers to learn from data. He quotedentrepreneur and VC Marc Andreesen when he said: “The spread of computers and the Internet will put jobs in two categories: People who tell computers what to do, and people who are told by computers what to do.” As scary as this sounds, the rise of machine learning also opens a world of opportunities.

The challenge here is that Google is so far ahead of every other big company (and most small companies) that it is hard to imagine how they are not going to win over the emerging user-interfaces of our mobile future. But entrepreneurs always find a way. And Fred is looking for those entrepreneurs.

As he said, “I’d like machine learning to be more easy to use for the everyday person, and to make it more accessible”. In the same way that everyone can blog today, he’d like to see a world where everyone can use their data to make life easier, more enjoyable or more productive. When he was asked about the potential dangers of machines on our brains, he acknowledged that there may be some negative effects, but that our computing devices are also making as smarter. In this sense, he cited a quote attributed to Einstein “I don’t have to know everything. I just have to know where to find it”.

fred sauce

After Fred presented his thoughts, the fellows fired some great questions about 3D printing, online education, Netflix’s attempt to break into producing quality TV, the changing nature of work and even politics. This year’s thank you gift for Fred wasn’t a book, but a bottle of delicious A&B American style sauce, produced by the new company created by InSITE fellow Brian Ballan.

As always, the evening carried on with more questions for Fred over drinks. And since we still have many more questions to ask, we are already looking forward to having him back next year.

Post written by Lila Pla Alemany (MBA Columbia Business School)