How Innovation Works w/ Anton Howes. Diffracted VC. Vaccines in Germany. Productivity.
European Straits #225
The Agenda 👇
Laetitia spoke with historian Anton Howes about innovation and the Royal Society of Arts 🎧
My essay published last week about the categories of ‘Diffracted Venture Capital’
A Twitter thread lamenting politicians botching the vaccination campaigns
Thumbs up/down for last week: female VC partners, university spinouts, the Paris ecosystem
Five of my tips about how you can become more productive
There are a few institutions in London that no one interested in innovation can afford to miss, and one of them is the Royal Society of Arts (RSA). I’m not sure how my wife Laetitia and I first crossed paths with the many great people working there, but at some point we were quite engaged with the community.
My first encounter, I think, was when I met Anthony Painter within a Fellowship we both participated in at the Oxford Internet Institute. Then on several occasions Laetitia and I were invited to contribute to the RSA’s Center for the Future of Work: see one of my contributions here, and Laetitia is now a member of the RSA Future of Work Advisory Board. Finally, following a co-optation by the late Miranda Bertram (who was my public speaking coach at the time), Laetitia and I both became Fellows of the RSA sometime in early 2018.
These are all the reasons I was amazed to discover that Anton Howes, the author of the newsletter Age of Invention, which I had been following with great interest from the beginning, was in fact the RSA’s ‘historian in residence’, and working on a book that has since been published: Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation. Needless to say, when Anton and I recently interacted over Zoom (via the Entrepreneurs Network), I immediately followed up to ask him if he would be a guest on our Building Bridges podcast.
Anton Howes is fascinated with the process of invention and what fuels it. I recommend his Substack newsletter, Age of Invention, which is full of interesting pieces about “the origin of patents”, “the birth of the business corporation”, and the maritime technology of the late 16th century.
His current research focuses on why innovation accelerated in Britain in the 18th century, i.e. why the Industrial Revolution happened there and not elsewhere:
One of my key findings is that innovation is a practice that spreads from person to person. I argue that people became innovators because they adopted an improving mentality - and that Britain experienced an acceleration of innovation because its innovators were committed to evangelising that mentality further.
I asked Anton why Britain became the cradle of the Industrial Revolution, if it could have happened elsewhere, who were the entrepreneurs of that time, what motivated them, and what Britain’s institutional recipe was. And of course he talked about the RSA, this “extraordinary society that has touched all aspects of British life”:
From its beginnings in a coffee house in the mid-eighteenth century, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has tried to improve British life in every way imaginable. It has sought to influence how Britons work, how they are educated, the music they listen to, the food they eat, the items in their homes, and even how they remember their own history.
If Britain prospered the way it did, it’s because it developed powerful institutions—norms, best practices & organisations like the RSA—to sustain that prosperity. That history is full of lessons for today as it helps us to understand how innovation works and how we can encourage it.
💸 Diffracted Venture Capital: The Categories
The shift to the Entrepreneurial Age means many positions are being shuffled around, some moves being made earlier in the cycle, some later. One of the industries in which the ongoing shuffle has become quite evident lately is investing, as we’re seeing what used to be a relatively straightforward activity (‘venture capital’) become quite diffracted: VCs expand the scope of their operations and non-VCs push into areas where previously they would have never dared roam.
In a changing environment it’s a good idea to have a map to understand the lay of the land. But before that map can be made, we need accurate categories to describe the ways in which VC is being diffracted; to that end, I used last Thursday’s essay to begin listing the categories I’ve been noticing lately.
These categories are quite diverse, ranging from large-scale indexing (similar to what is being done on the stock market) to revenue-based financing that has emerged with the maturation of the SaaS model. That diversity is also reflected in the types of players involved, from traditional private equity firms to solo capitalists. All in all, it’s a signal that we really are in a world where startups can tackle virtually any industry, especially those that were previously seen as too difficult to break into. And it’s also a signal that there’s a growing need for ‘digestive pills’ that can help software continue eating the world 😋
👉 Read the whole Diffracted VC: The Categories (unlocked for everyone 🤗)
😀 The lack of female VCs in Europe was already pointed out in my What I Learned Curating 32 Editions of Capital Call, and Willy Braun and Vincent Touati-Tomas and I have built a Twitter list to try and have a more comprehensive view. Sifted is now adding firepower to the effort!
🙂 I once wrote that we needed more controversies if we ever wanted Europe to make progress on the tech front. Well, we just had a good one—on university spinouts! Check out Air Street Capital’s Nathan Benaich’s initial op-ed in the FT, my own contribution in Sifted, and this follow-up by Nathan, responding to Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London:
Imperial College @imperialcollegeUniversities need investors to bridge the start-up funding gap, writes @AliceGast in the @FT https://t.co/LYzOw2XoxU
😏 In my essay on The Future of Wealth Management (April 2019), I was wondering if innovation in helping rich people staying rich would contribute to ending upward social mobility. As written by Chris Giles in the FT, we’re very far from it: Relax: trust fund kids are not taking over the world.
😐 In these times of botched vaccination campaigns in continental Europe, there’s a lot of talk about how startups could help governments deliver better public services. I liked this a lot—by Chris Yiu, of the Tony Blair Institute. Also, there’s this in Fortune: Investing where the government is falling short.
😒 Dragos Novac of the (excellent) Sunday CET wrote a whole section on the French entrepreneurial ecosystem and the fact that repeat founders tend to stay as far from it as possible. I couldn’t help but send him my views on the matter, which he quoted (with my permission) in his latest edition:
I think the most critical issue is the cultural and political inward-lookingness (for lack of a better word).
The key to early success in France is to pay tribute to the powers that be: bad angel investors, bad VCs, Bpifrance (the government's investing arm), corporates, even cabinet members (they'll invite you for dinner or events if there's local buzz about your startup), and of course Macron himself. At this point, you may have the impression that your startup is successful but:
your cap table is a nightmare
everyone in the company speaks French
you're failing at international expansion
in general, you're resting on your laurels
There are very few French founders who are aware of this trap. And those who are are in for a lot of pain, because France will make you pay for your desire to escape and look beyond its borders 😞 (and it'll be impossible to attract international talent anyway, so succeeding at outgrowing France usually means relocating elsewhere, typically the US).
😖 You may have noticed the recent controversy about Antonio García Martínez being abruptly fired from Apple because (?) of a few paragraphs in his (highly praised) semi-fictional book Chaos Monkeys. I don’t know Antonio well (we merely have friends in common), but I feel very sorry for what just happened to him—see my previous writings on related matters: cancel culture and workplace politics.
🏋🏻♀️ In my latest contribution to The Family’s daily newsletter, I reveal all my secrets for getting better at what I do everyday 😉 How to be more productive.
🇫🇷 Nouveau Départ (in 🇫🇷): yesterday’s edition was on Qu'est-ce que la culture d'entreprise ? and last Thursday’s was on Taiwan : nouvelle ligne de front ? Also give a listen to my conversation with Thibauld Favre, CEO of our portfolio company Fairmint, about everything crypto: Tout sur les cryptos.
From Munich, Germany 🇩🇪