Six years ago, virtual reality (VR) was heralded as the next big thing. Facebook paid US$3 billion (S$4.2 billion) for headset maker Oculus VR in 2014. Large consumer technology companies such as Google, HTC and Samsung were falling over themselves in a race to push VR headsets into the market. Time magazine even put Palmer Luckey, founder of Oculus VR and designer of the Oculus Rift, on its August 17, 2015, cover.
Today, VR remains a tech novelty with mass adoption looking more and more like a pipe dream. In 2016, venture capitalists threw close to US$900 million into VR start-ups. Two years later, that amount more than halved to US$280 million.
It is this cautionary tale that Martin Berry preaches when we talk about the next big thing that will upend the world.
“Compared to others [during that time] that have done well, VR hasn’t gone anywhere. Now, I prefer investments that are less theoretical and have more real-world applications. Where have we seen traction? How are the customers behaving? How is it working?” he elaborates.
Berry is the founder and CEO of d:tribe Capital, an Asia-focused venture capital firm specialising in seed to early-stage technology companies. The Singapore-based philanthropist is a former entrepreneur himself, having founded Gong Cha Korea in 2012 and scaling it up before subsequently acquiring the beverage brand’s parent company Royal Tea Taiwan in a joint venture with a private equity firm in 2016. He remains as a non-executive director and shareholder of the Gong Cha Group.
Like many others, Berry is bullish about digital transformation, especially in a post-Covid-19 world. He was surprised at the number of businesses with underwhelming online capabilities but sees this as an opportunity for companies in the technological enablement space to make their mark.
Under the wide umbrella of digital transformation, Berry believes remote working will become even more widespread. Scientists have already predicted that there might be more viral strains in the future that may have the same, if not bigger, devastating impact as Covid-19. Companies must then incorporate resilience into their operations by adopting technological solutions.
One of Berry’s portfolio companies, Aircall – a Software-as-a-Service cloud-based phone system provider – recently raised a US$65 million Series C round despite the pandemic. Berry invested in Aircall in 2017 during a seed stage.
Besides remote working, Berry views telehealth as another potential goldmine. “It’s got two things going for it: the fact that digital transformation already has a tailwind and that healthcare is becoming even more of a priority now. Some of our portfolio companies in this as well as the remote working space are doubling revenue every month during this time. That’s tangible proof that they’re on the right track.”
He’s willing to bet his life savings on technology dramatically upending the healthcare landscape and, subsequently, forming a core pillar of society in the future. For Berry, telehealth isn’t just about meeting with a doctor via a video consultation and having your prescribed medicine couriered to you.
“It’s broader than that. We’re talking everything from AI to big data analytics. We have a rich history of health data; now we just need to study it and use it for pattern detection and recognition, diagnosis, treatment, and so on. There is a huge untapped opportunity. When it comes to drug discovery, there’s a lot we can do in this area with the help of machine learning,” Berry says.
“Think about it. The healthcare industry has lagged when it comes to technology. We still use clipboards to monitor patients and then put these clipboards at the end of the bed. Imagine being able to digitally capture this information for analytical purposes. Healthcare is a bigger priority now and I believe that, from an investment standpoint, there is a lot of opportunity.”
What’s also clear to Berry, however, is that while technological advancement will be the key driving force shaping the future, this change will still very much be driven by the human journey. Robotics and automation will not replace humans; instead, they will be collaborating with us. Berry opines that we’ll still need a human to make judgement calls and provide oversight. What he believes will gain the most traction is robots taking over jobs that are dangerous to humans.
“Machines have proven that they cannot be creative. Those with creative mindsets who can think of ideas and solve problems are the ones who will flourish in the future,” shares Berry.
In the 2008 financial crisis, multiple fintech start-ups emerged from the wilderness, disrupting the wealth industry with their technology-first approach. If Berry is right, we can expect a slew of healthcare and remote working start-ups to shake up the world soon.
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