If you've already been a fund manager and serial entrepreneur, how do you seek a fresh perspective on work – and life?
For Adarsh Radia, who’s ex-Merrill Lynch and co-founder of popular Indian restaurant Dishoom (you may have queued to get in), the answer was to enrol himself at the Singularity University, a Silicon Valley think tank that changes its curriculum so frequently that it can’t officially call itself an educational institution.
One of its founders, entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, has an asteroid mining company in his portfolio. “It’s very rational thinking. The earth has limited resources and asteroids are mineral rich. I put him up there with Elon Musk as someone who’s thinking very differently about things,” says Radia.
Radia was worried that the university’s focus on cutting edge changes in science and “exponential” technologies would leave him “way out of my depth. For instance, before I started, I still thought of blockchain technology as meaning bitcoin. I didn’t really understand quite how transformational the tech behind it will be.”
It was fortunate that he had this learning curve. While on the course, he met now business partner Ignacio Macias, and in late 2014, they founded innovative funding startup organisation WiderPool. So far, of the three startups they’ve narrowed down from the 87 that applied to them, two use blockchain technology.
The firm focuses on businesses that are past incubator stage – so they must have gained some traction, have some revenue potential and may already have VC money behind them – but need help scaling. “We see ourselves as a scaling partner. A lot of tech businesses are losing their way and dying, so there’s an opportunity to really understand what they’re trying to do and help catalyse growth.”
The pair’s strategy is to match tech startups with corporate partners – i.e. if the entrepreneurs they’re working with have built something that could transform the work a corporate is doing, WiderPool facilitates a relationship and gets it to a point where a partnership deal can be signed. “Our exit strategy isn’t to wait until IPO; it’s likely a corporate or VC will buy us out,” explains Macias, who is a long-time entrepreneur and VC. So far, WiderPool is talking to 63 corporates.
He goes on to illustrate the importance of what they’re offering. “I was having lunch two weeks ago with the head of innovation at one of the two largest banks in the world, and he told me that he has 11,000 engineers working on innovation in fintech – out of 22,000 tech people across the bank. But when you look at the last 12 months, the three most successful technologies that they’ve implemented worldwide were partnerships.”
Macias warns against thinking that a small startup can’t really pose a threat to institutions of this size. “Banks can make 10 to 15 per cent of their profits from a specific service. It only takes a small startup to disrupt a specific service.”
But banks – and other corporate businesses (WiderPool is also focusing on the telecoms industry) – are becoming “increasingly open-minded,” adds Radia. This year, WiderPool has opened applications for corporates. The idea is that they’ll reverse their process, seeking out startups to solve successful applicants’ challenges. So far, 11 have come forward.
Tweaking normal ways of doing things is something Radia is more than used to. I ask him how he went from Dishoom (his co-founders the Thakrar brothers now run the business day-to-day) to making glasses – he’s co-founder of eyewear firm Kite – to starting a venture firm (he also ran 29 Subway franchises along the way).
“There is a common thread to everything I do – and it’s about coming to an industry with fresh eyes. I used to believe that, if you didn’t have experience in an industry, you were at a disadvantage. Now, I think it means you can steer clear of complacency and understand the pain points. With Dishoom, that offering didn’t exist before – and that’s why it exists today.” Kite is a direct-to-consumer business that charges a flat rate, regardless of prescription strength.
And of course, Radia’s plans go bigger. He’s recently been on the hunt for facial mapping technology to integrate in his product – eventually, the glasses will be furnished with everything from microphones to display capabilities.
Google Glass comes up in conversation. “I’m actually a big promoter of Google Glass. It was a bold idea, and just too early. People currently care too much about aesthetics; I see the area as an opportunity that no-one is really focusing on.”
Breaking new ground
The difficulty Radia had in finding partners to provide the facial mapping technology reminds him how hard it can be to access the right people. “Our ambition is to be a platform that helps connect stakeholders generally.” There are also plans for a follow-on fund and, Macias adds, regional headquarters that’ll help WiderPool keep an ear to the ground locally.
They have already “gone global”, though. Social recommendations platform Myreks (investment number two) is based in Brazil. “It would’ve been ruled out next to European equivalents when it came to partnership decisions for corporates. But we’re already talking to corporates around the world, and we can help both sides access each other.”
Radia chips in that they’re keen to move away from a mindset he’s come across too many times in Silicon Valley: “I asked a VC the other day if he was looking at India or China. It turned out that 80 per cent of his firm’s investments were headquartered within a 15 mile radius of the office.”
“In time, we will also be taking institutional money from the corporates,” says Macias. “At the moment, we’ve just got private investors, but once we’ve got the numbers to show the impact our investments are having, we think they’ll be really interested in capturing that value themselves. It makes total sense.”