Innovations & Inspirations

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Frugal Innovation (Jugaad) & Indian E-Commerce

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Last week, I spoke in New Delhi at The Growth Net.  My panel on “frugal innovation: technology for those living on less than $2/day” had Sanjay Kapoor and Nandan Nilekani, both of whom have had remarkable careers building technologies that have touched billions (literally).  Here is an interview I gave with Boom Live after the panel which talks about the future of Indian e-commerce (e.g. Snapdeal at $5 billion valuation could be cheap) as well as the way I think about frugal innovation (e.g. using tree stumps as cricket wickets in India is just the beginning of frugal innovation – and companies like Uber could touch those in the middle class and lower class more than we think).

Written by sheeltyle

April 4, 2015 at 3:09 pm

200 miles from Selma

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“We honor those who walked so we could run. We must run so our children soar.” – President Obama honoring the 50th anniversary of the marches in Selma that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act.  A riveting, must-watch speech.

In December, students held the largest demonstration on Harvard’s campus since apartheid.  The Black Lives Matter protest blanketed Harvard Yard with students, of which I was one, wearing hoodies and staging die-ins.  It shut down the roads in Cambridge.

My criminal law professor first semester, Ron Sullivan, is a man I deeply admire and a key advocate of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as minority rights broadly.  The former head of the DC public defenders, he famously testified in front of the Senate on the Trayvon Martin case: the jury got it right, but the Stand Your Ground law was wrong.  There should be a fundamental duty to retreat when safely possible, otherwise we as a society are signing up for vigilante justice.

In class, we began discussing the stop and frisk laws in NYC, which historically have disproportionately targeted minorities.  Professor Sullivan asked a simple question to the 80 of us:

“How many of you have been stopped and frisked anywhere in the US? I don’t just mean patted down, but actually frisked.”

4 people raised their hands.  Two were African American males, one was a Sikh male, and one was me.

“Talk about stereotypes.  4 men of color,” Professor Sullivan said.

As a country, we have come a long way.  Just ask Congressman John Lewis, who marched 50 years ago in Selma, if he ever thought he would be holding the hand of a black President 50 years later on that same bridge.  Just ask Congressman Mike Honda, whose family was sent to a Japanese-American internment camp after Pearl Harbor, if he could ever dream of representing the community from which he was banished 70 years before.

But as a country, we have a long way to go.  When my black classmate gets unfairly harassed or frisked, that hurts my civil rights.  When my Muslim friends get ‘randomly selected’ for extra security screenings 100% of the time by the TSA, that endangers my religious freedom.  And when an Indian grandfather visits Madison, a place 200 miles from Selma, and ends up partially paralyzed for being ‘suspicious’, that threatens my safety.

The march began 50 years ago, but must go on.

Written by sheeltyle

March 8, 2015 at 11:41 am

The Blockchain: What it is & Why It Matters

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Originally posted by the Brookings Institution.  Link is here.

The Blockchain: What it is & Why It Matters

By Mohit Kaushal & Sheel Tyle

Chances are that you’ve heard of bitcoin, the digital currency that many predict will revolutionize payments – or prove to be a massive fraud – depending on what you read. Bitcoin is an application that runs on the Blockchain, which is ultimately a more interesting and profound innovation.

The Blockchain is a secure transaction ledger database that is shared by all parties participating in an established, distributed network of computers. It records and stores every transaction that occurs in the network, essentially eliminating the need for “trusted” third parties such as payment processors. Blockchain proponents often describe the innovation as a “transfer of trust in a trustless world,” referring to the fact that the entities participating in a transaction are not necessarily known to each other yet they exchange value with surety and no third-party validation. For this reason, the Blockchain is a potential game changer.

In 2008, Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous person or group of people credited with developing bitcoin, released a whitepaper describing the software protocol. Since then, the network has grown and bitcoin
has become a recognized unit of value around the globe. Bitcoin is extremely important because it provides a mechanism for accessing the Blockchain – but it’s not the only application that can leverage the platform.

Bitcoin has also been on the receiving end of some bad press, such as around the collapse of the Mt. Gox bitcoin exchange earlier last year. The Mt. Gox story is not necessarily an indictment of bitcoin. For the purposes of this post, simply remember this: bitcoin is just a mechanism for transacting on the Blockchain and the Blockchain is the key innovation.

The Blockchain: Trustworthy Transactions in a Trustless World

The Blockchain enables the anonymous exchange of digital assets, such as bitcoin, but it is not technically dependent on bitcoin. The elegance of the Blockchain is that it obviates the need for a central authority to verify trust and the transfer of value. It transfers power and control from large entities to the many, enabling safe, fast, cheaper transactions despite the fact that we may not know the entities we are dealing with.

The mechanics of the Blockchain are novel and highly disruptive. As people transact in a Blockchain ecosystem, a public record of all transactions is automatically created. Computers verify each transaction with sophisticated algorithms to confirm the transfer of value and create a historical ledger of all activity. The computers that form the network that are processing the transactions are located throughout the world and importantly are not owned or controlled by any single entity. The process is real-time, and much more secure than relying on a central authority to verify a transaction.

There are many analogous concepts both ancient and modern. Technology has and will continue to transfer power and control from central authorities and distribute them to the masses. For example, time used to be determined and communicated by large clock towers that were expensive to build and maintain. Engineering innovations ultimately decentralized the quantification of time to the individual. Likewise, WhatsApp, a popular cross platform messaging app, cut the transaction cost of sending messages globally – and cut profits for the carriers. The central authority (phone carriers) lost to the application (WhatsApp) built on a decentralized network (i.e. the Internet).

Similarly, third parties that currently verify transactions (the central authority) stand to lose against the Blockchain (the decentralized network). As such, the Blockchain essentially disintermediates these third-party transaction verifiers: auditors, legal services, payment processors, brokerages and other similar organizations.

While you may not be convinced that exchanging bitcoin is an invaluable service, there are many other examples of value transfer that are critical – and currently very slow and expensive. Consider the exchange of property: numerous intermediaries are currently involved in this process, such as a third-party escrow service that works for both parties to ensure a smooth transfer. The escrow service, like other services built solely on trust and verification, collect fees that would be mitigated by performing the transaction on the Blockchain – as would wire transfer fees, third party financial auditing, contract execution, etc.

The use case of the Blockchain enabling a decentralized currency exchange – such as bitcoin – is well defined and will likely be the dominant use case near term, however there are a multitude of innovative and disruptive use cases. Companies are already building their own Blockchains for various applications such as Gridcoin that leverages the Blockchain to crowdsource scientific computing projects. Gridcoin uses its own protocols that require much less computing power and electricity to manage than traditional bitcoin networks.

The Blockchain: and Why it Matters (Let’s Not Mess it Up)

The Blockchain is a foundational technology, like TCP/IP, which enables the Internet. And much like the Internet in the late 1990s, we don’t know exactly how the Blockchain will evolve, but evolve it will.

Similar to the Internet, the Blockchain must also be allowed to grow unencumbered. This will require careful handling that recognizes the difference between the platform and the applications that run on it. TCP/IP empowers numerous financial applications that are regulated, but TCP/IP is not regulated as a financial instrument. The Blockchain should receive similar consideration. While the predominant use case for the Blockchain today is bitcoin currency exchange that may require regulation, this will change over time.

Had we over-regulated the Internet early on, we would have missed out on many innovations that we can’t imagine living without today. The same is true for the Blockchain. Disruptive technologies rarely fit neatly into existing regulatory considerations, but rigid regulatory frameworks have repeatedly stifled innovation. It’s likely that innovations in the Blockchain will outpace policy, let’s not slow it down.

Written by sheeltyle

January 13, 2015 at 8:03 am

2014

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Tragic begging and triumphant benevolence.  Paper gains and palpable losses.  Newfound empathy and noticeable disdain.

I’ll never forget seeing thousands of Syrian refugees – mothers who fled the Assad regime clutching toddlers – on the streets of Istanbul.  They had a small cup or piece of cloth in front of them, asking pedestrians for spare change in Arabic – a language Turks don’t speak.

I’ll never forget the smile on the faces of the BCNA loan officers who had given small business loans to immigrants in all of NYC’s boroughs.  These loans allowed these immigrants to realize their American dream through their corner stores, their laundromats, their beauty salons, and their restaurants.

I’ll never forget the phone call from a fellow investor that my first venture capital deal, Snapdeal.com, was about to announce an investment from Softbank at a $2 billion valuation.  Or, the text message about Hired.com, a deal that I had seeded at NEA, had closed a round at a $200 million valuation.

I’ll never forget the phone call from a portfolio company CEO that he had run out of money.  He was going to have to shut down his business and, in the process, I would lose all my invested capital.  He was in tears.  He had given it his all, sacrificing everything for his business.  He hadn’t even paid himself in the last few months to keep the company afloat – and he was broke.  I was, in the next 5 minutes, defeated and encouraging, confused and consoling.

I’ll never forget meeting General David Petraeus 1:1 in his office, and the many emails, discussions, and meals that continue to follow.  He’s a man who led our armed forces in Afghanistan and also was the Head of the CIA.  He was—and still is—the quintessential American hero: a gentleman, a class act, and a selfless leader.  But one mistake caused him to give up his career in government.  I think the world of him—and if he can make a mistake like the one he did, then I’m pretty sure anyone can.  We’re all just human.

I’ll never forget meeting Lance Armstrong in New York as part of a group dinner.  Because the event was off the record, I am not at liberty to share quotes.  However, I could tell Lance was noticeably frustrated at the doping scandal; not necessarily because he was upset at the backlash and the titles that were vacated, but because he still feels like he was wronged.  He had brought a knife to a gun fight.  And if everyone was doing it, then why was he the villain?

What a year 2014 was.  2015, you’re on the clock.

Written by sheeltyle

December 31, 2014 at 4:41 pm

Entitlement

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This email exchange, where HBS professor Ben Edelman quibbles over $4 of Chinese food in the pursuit of making a broader point, is disturbing.

Here is my email to the Dean of HBS.  Let’s see what happens.

Dean Nohria, 

I hope you’re well.  I’m a JD/MBA student here.

The article about Ben Edelman was disturbing – all the negative stereotypes about HBS up and down social strata ringing true in one exchange.  I hope HBS is looking at disciplinary action related to it.  I know I don’t want to associate myself with someone who, in a petty pursuit of integrity, seems to display none himself.

Warmly

Sheel

Written by sheeltyle

December 10, 2014 at 10:25 am

Cumbre De Negocios Interview

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Here is a Spanish-dubbed interview with Gabriela Frias of CNN Dinero on why I’m excited about Mexico’s future position as a leader in Latin America and in technology.  The interview is from the Cumbre de Negocios (Mexican Business Summit) in Queretaro, where I spoke this past week.

Written by sheeltyle

October 30, 2014 at 11:49 am

Bold predictions for the next 10 years

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Chris Schroeder, author of the book “Startup Rising: The Entrepreneurial Revolution Remaking the Middle East”, asked me the following question at the Abraaj Forum in Istanbul a few weeks ago:

“What are some bold predictions this audience needs to hear?  What will happen in the next 10 years”. 

The audience included heads of state (Mexico, Turkey, and other Presidents/Prime Ministers) and highly influential wealthy business leaders (founder of Aramex, chairman of Airtel Nigeria, etc). What could I possibly say that would cause them to look up from their cell phones?

I decided to make some provocative predictions based on many companies that I have met around the world.  Bold, and slightly crazy, so they would at least listen.  The following 5 predictions are the ones I made, and I strongly believe at least 3 will happen…although I don’t know which three!

Within 10 years…

1) Driverless cars will be on the road and owned by consumers…and within 15 years, you will be able to press a button on your mobile phone to call one to pick you up.  That app could be Uber or a whole new system.  Within 20 years, driverless cars will make up 25% of the cars on the road.

2) A 3D printed organ will be transplanted into a human being.  Likely a liver or skin.

3) Bitcoin will become the official currency of certain countries with high volatility.  Already, in Argentina, companies like Bitpagos are allowing merchants to accept pesos and cash out in bitcoin because some would rather hold BTC due to inflation.

4) A tragedy like the disappearance of MH370 will never happen—because we will have drones in the sky that will be able to take a picture of nearly any spot on earth within seconds of receiving a command, likely administered through a mobile phone, and not subject to orbital revisit time, unlike our satellites.  Regulations are already changing in this space to open up the use of drones commercially.

5) Part of our food supply will come from genetically modified micro-organisms that secrete, as a waste product, various types of amino acids and proteins.  Companies are already doing this at a lab scale and by 2025, this will be at a commercial scale.

Let’s see what happens.  Hopefully I’m not 0/5.

IMG_0173

Written by sheeltyle

October 7, 2014 at 11:16 am

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