The VC Long View is a regular series of posts where Seedcamp talks to our network of investors on the trends they’re following and the ideas they’d like to back. In this post, we talk to John Henderson.
John is an early stage tech investor at White Star Capital, backing Seed and Series A companies across Europe. Prior to this, he ran operations and business development at Summly, a news app that used natural language processing to automatically summarise hundreds of thousands of news article every day — acquired by Yahoo in early 2013. He also held roles at The Boston Consulting Group and Linklaters, and co-founded his own startup in 2005, where he had his first taste of just how hard the entrepreneurial journey can be. White Star Capital is an LP in Seedcamp.
Summly was a natural language processing (‘NLP’) company with the vision of algorithmically summarising all the content on the web for mobile. Four years later, I still believe in that vision and the potential for NLP and deep learning to create huge value. For example, NLP will allow us to interface with machines that don’t have a natural UI such as cars, wearable devices, robots and our homes. We are already seeing the beginnings of this in Siri, Google Now, Viv and others. Combine NLP with deep learning and the possibility to automate many communication tasks becomes apparent. Examples might include scheduling (x.ai and others are creating automated personal assistants), medical diagnostics (IBM’s Watson will soon be the world’s best GP), legal discovery, call centres, translation and even journalism. I wrote about this recently and gave a bunch of examples there.
I’m similarly excited about recent advances in computer vision. Just last week, researchers in Canada announced they had developed software that can take any image and automatically generate a caption describing it. This combination of vision (image recognition), machine learning (image labeling) and NLP (caption creation) is simply astounding.
There are whole professions dedicated to deciphering images and drawing insight. Think about the airport security official who scans your bags looking for that gun you shouldn’t be taking on the plane, or the radiologist who trains for 5+ years to be able to accurately diagnose illnesses from scans of your body. Computer vision could also be used to help self-driving cars understand where they are, to diagnose skin cancer from photos or to identify fertile agricultural land from satellite photos. There are startups doing all these things and much, much more.
What do you look for when evaluating investments? Any specific themes, regions or other considerations?
I try not to make investments based on trends or themes per se, but rather to identify outstanding entrepreneurs solving problems in areas where I believe there is an opportunity for disruption.
My job, therefore, is a combination of identifying the most talented people and evaluating promising markets and competition.
One important thing I look for is founder-market fit (why is this person/team the right one to solve this problem?) and market timing (why is now the right time for this company to win?). It’s surprising how many companies I meet that simply don’t fit these criteria.
When it comes to regions, at White Star, we invest across Western Europe and North America. Personally, I’m focused on the UK, Germany and the Nordics. I like those regions because of the deep technical talent coming out of universities and established companies, a great work ethic, a support network of talent and experience, and global-minded ambition.
How can founders get in touch?
The best way is always via an introduction! Otherwise, I’m very responsive on Twitter @JohnEHenderson.