Part two of our Innovations Insight San Francisco event summary. Part one can be found here.
Thursday 24th took us further into the heart of Silicon Valley, with exposure to the sort of innovation and household names more commonly associated with the region. First up was a tour of Fetch Robotics’ development warehouse, where COO Carl Showalter introduced us to the company’s running and objectives, but more importantly, the robots!
Fetch Robotics is developing a base AI platform for robotic technology, upon which others can build and add extensions. This means that the primary function of their warehouse robots is currently to carry and transport goods, liberating humans from these time-consuming tasks so that they can focus on stocking and loading their metallic co-workers. In addition to increased efficiency, using Fetch’s robots provides the warehouse with in-depth data on their operations, obviously advantageous when it comes to analysing and ameliorating performance in a space where logistics are king.
It is for this reason that Carl adamantly assured us that workers are fully in support of the changes taking place in their industry, seen by the decreasing rate of staff turnover (previously a manifestation of over-working and stress). That said, it was difficult to shrug off the idea that enormous job loss is going to be an inevitable result of these changes.
Some members of the group commented that the technology itself seemed some distance from cutting-edge, and they would be excused for doing so; the robots are simply exhibiting GPS and sensory capabilities, two things which have been around for at least a decade. The fact, however, that Fetch Robotics is a trailblazer in its industry serves to highlight that programming and AI development are a deceptively complex field. After this visit, fears of robots taking over, or the Terminator turning up at my front door, felt very premature.
We then visited the Intel museum. As well as providing elucidating insight into a company which is so successful that it has essentially come to monopolise the computer chip industry, the experience was an inspiration for the potential benefits of thinking outside the box and, at times, verging on the absurd. Only by dreaming about the inconceivable could Intel have gone from producing computer chips with 2000 transistors to ones with billions in the space of 50 years.
Visionary thinking continued to be the theme as we visited tech titan Google, with a talk from Cliff Redeker, Innovation and Culture Evangelist. With 10 years’ experience at the monolith, Cliff was well placed to offer an intriguing glimpse into the work culture at Alphabet’s prize asset. He talked of their “aggressive goal-setting”, with “roofshots” aiming for constant improvement and “moonshots” resembling radical ideas to change the world. 70% goal accomplishment is the Holy Grail, as it implies a good balance between success and ambition.
Google cultivates an impressively democratic workplace, with constant anonymous employee feedback, annual employment happiness surveys, an enforced sense that managers are not superiors, and frequent role switches amongst the workforce in order to resist traditional hierarchy. Yet the talk was disappointingly light on insight into what Google is working on now, or its genuine thoughts surrounding controversy such as data protection etc. Not much was gleaned beyond that which could be accessed online already. Perhaps this is merely a well-oiled corporate machine operating sensibly in the public eye, but nevertheless that contagious electricity felt elsewhere on the trip was lacking.
This energy was fully restored, however, by the day’s final event with Astia Angels. Astia is a non-prof which only invests in startups with at least one woman in the founding team. In other words, Astia would not have invested in Facebook, Apple Amazon, Google or Microsoft. Neither Sharon Vosmek (CEO) nor Anna Sheen (Business, Development and Investor Relations) are worried by the prospect of such ‘missed opportunities’, however, as their foundational investment thesis – based on deep data analysis – is that “women-led ventures out-perform for investors”.
As well as the financial prudence of what Astia is doing, there is of course the social imperative. Gender inequality is rife in the world of VC. Softbank – owner of the world’s largest technology fund – does not have a single female founder in their portfolio. Not one. Such imbalance is widespread; two years ago, just 5% of VC in Silicon Valley went to companies with women in the founding group. Last year (including the aftermath of the #MeToo movement), that fell to 2%.
There is clearly so much work to be done, and Astia has admirably and successfully been leading the way for almost 20 years. But they cannot do it alone, which is why the way that their story affected the Horizons group so profoundly is so important; it will ultimately be down to individual investors, as much as Softbank-scale groups, to exact the change we need in this field.
On the final day, we left the frenzy of the Valley for the more tranquil scenery of Napa Valley. Visiting three vineyards (Robert Mondavi Winery, Merryvale Vineyards, Alpha Omega Winery), for tours and tasting sessions was obviously rather enjoyable in its own ‘gustatory’ right. But in light of all the modern technology we had seen over the last few days, witnessing the merits of ancient practices – tweaked but never supplanted – held an equally important message: the world of Silicon Valley may forever be aspiring to pursue the unexplored and unimagined, but each and every new day is built on the premise of all those that have gone before it. Progress is a collective drive.
Marcus Solarz Hendriks