For this month’s SPECTRUM member interview, we sat down with Victor NG, Executive Director (Investments) & Futurist at Mistletoe, who is on a mission to create a sustainable humanity-centered future using technology. Victor shared with us a bit about the drive behind Mistletoe as well as a few of the projects in the pipeline for the visionary company in the upcoming future:
Could you give us a quick intro about Mistletoe, when and why it was created and what is the meaning behind “Collective Impact Community”?
Mistletoe was founded by visionary serial entrepreneur Taizo Son. We aim to create a positive impact on society through people, technology and entrepreneurship.
We work with startups, investing in or partnering with forward-thinking entrepreneurs and creators, to solve interesting challenges that impact humanity. In areas of interest that are still nascent, we engage in ecosystem building or even build our own startups. We refer to ourselves as a “Collective Impact Community” as we work collaboratively without a defined hierarchy to progress issues we want to tackle and make change at scale.
Mistletoe has a reputation for being particularly daring and visionary when it comes to choosing companies to invest it. Could you tell us about some of your portfolio companies that you are excited about and their missions?
Let me start by saying that when we make an investment, we are really investing in people, not companies. There are many founders we are supporting that are doing exciting and promising things. If I were to pick just two examples…
The first would be Everest, a blockchain startup founded by Bob Reid and Brad Witteman, whose mission is to help the approximately 3+ billion people at the bottom of the pyramid experience digital and financial inclusion. The platform they have created is device-independent and biometrically secure, which helps in preventing fraud and exploitation. It has great potential to change the status quo, especially in developing nations where target users have limited or no access to financial services and products.
The second would be Agribuddy, a Cambodia- and India-based startup founded by Kengo Kitaura, that connects farmers together through a tech-enhanced network. The platform provides access to insured lending, supply chain services and farmer education, with a mission to improve the livelihood of farmers in the region.
Could you tell us about your personal journey: your experience as a serial entrepreneur and why you decided to move to venture capital?
You can say that I went into the world of finance by chance. After my early attempts at entrepreneurship failed, I didn’t know what I wanted to do and needed to put food on the table. In view of that, finance was an easy choice. I stumbled into finance this way but I ended up really liking the work itself.
I’ve been on most sides of the table. I started my career as an entrepreneur. I have been on both the sell-side and buy-side as well. As an investor, I’ve invested in cashflow generating companies as well as early stage companies. I’ve had the privilege of running a government-owned direct investment fund as well as a privately-owned venture capital fund. I think this helps me connect with entrepreneurs and provides a well-rounded perspective.
Joining Mistletoe is like a lifetime dream come true. Many years ago, I was a student leader and then a grassroots leader, because at the heart of what I do is the desire to create positive impact in the life of others. But creating impact often requires resources, support, and patience that few other organisations have in the same way that Mistletoe does. Prior to joining Mistletoe, I thought I would need to accumulate a lifetime of wealth to be able to make the change the way I am best able to, especially since I tend to have very unique ways of doing things. I’m deeply grateful for the opportunity that Mistletoe allows me to able to bring forward that timeframe.
You called yourself a “reformed VC” at one of your events with us recently. What do you mean by that?
Because of how the industry has evolved, VCs tend to be constrained to chasing short-term returns in a highly competitive environment. Ideas that change the world, which I idealistically think should be what VCs help to make happen, tend to need a much longer timeframe. I’ve experienced what it is like having to make that trade-off when deciding on what investments to make and what investments to pass on, and I didn’t enjoy it.
Also, there’s this longstanding debate about whether VCs invest in ideas or people. Today, I think most early-stage VCs say they are primarily investing in people, but that’s not reflected in the way they conduct due diligence or manage their portfolio companies.
Some of this is very subtle, and many VCs might not agree with me on this. For example, it is common nowadays for VCs to want to add value to their portfolio companies by supporting entrepreneurs with marketing, finance and growth expertise. Prima facie, this seems to make sense but I think that it can also stunt their personal growth. I believe that you need to give entrepreneurs some room to fail and learn from mistakes, and the counter-intuitive approach of deliberately taking a more hands-off approach might actually help them succeed more sustainably in the long run.
Can you also tell us more about the “Audacity” project? What is its vision?
Before I joined Mistletoe, there were already conversations brewing about the need for a new blueprint for future cities, given the chances to our lives that technology has brought and will bring about. In the past, cities have always been planned around a port, a city-centre, etc. and then developing outwards in a radial pattern there. This design worked well given the way people lived and worked, and was supported by the previously existing state of technology, particularly in communications and transportation.
Technology has changed the way we live and work but city design has remained largely the same. Audacity aims to get people to start thinking about how cities should change given that life has changed, and inspire them to make this change happen. We have already started various seeding projects that are meant to spark these new ways of thinking. Personally, I am using play as a medium to help people explore new ideas for looking at the problems of the cities we live in, through a card game that I am developing that will be launched later this year. There will be future activities built on top of that, but the card game is the starting point.
We have seen that a lot of the projects that Mistletoe is involved in are about imagining a human-centric future. How do you imagine the world at 2050? What are the innovations in the tech space that excite you the most?
I don’t know what the world will be like in 2050, and I’ve never given it a thought. Any specific predictions I give you at this point it would be meaningless conjecture at best.
But I do have a general view that could be useful, and that is that tech adoption always accelerates. New technology develops slowly at first, but once there is interest and funding in an area, once people put our minds to making something happen, technology tends to then develop at accelerating and not linear rates.
Let’s take electric vehicles as an example. I think we will see autonomous electric vehicles lot sooner than we expect. If we think it’s 15 years away, it’s probably shorter than that.
One area of technology I am most excited about right now is biomachines. There are two broad types in my mind. You have researchers that are using genetically engineered viruses to build lithium batteries, which is really mind-blowing. You also have natural ones such as the use of oysters to purify water, or plants to create energy, which is more conceivable but could have tremendous impact on environmental sustainability if we are able harness these natural technologies effectively.
When you meet entrepreneurs, what are your key evaluation criteria?
When I meet entrepreneurs, I personally try to understand their purpose for starting this particular company or pursuing this particular idea. I draw a distinction between “purpose” and “passion” as I feel that “purpose” has both passion and logic in the mix, but passion alone is an emotion that can fade over time.
I also like to see potential founders outside of an office environment. How do they interact in a team sport or a game for example? How to they behave at events? This is where play is a powerful medium because it allows you to better understand someone outside of the facet that a person chooses to present to you.
What do you think are the key trends in venture capital and how do you think the industry will change in the next 10 to 15 years?
For the VC industry itself, I think we will see a much more decentralised VC model, partly due to technologies such as Blockchain and evolving crowdfunding platforms, and the loss of negotiating position that VCs are already experiencing as funding becomes a commodity.
When it comes to investments trends, I actually prefer to look at industries that are not trending. I like to look at innovations that are quite niche, quite unique and therefore, by definition, these would not trend since there would not be many of these. Although this sounds risky and counterintuitive, I see it as practical because these investments would be the kind of that generate outsized returns relative to the amount invested. Especially if you get in on the game early, when valuation expectations are lowest.
Conversely, the sectors that I stay away from are exactly the trending sectors, such as fintech and proptech and e-commerce. Someone will make money, for sure, but it will be hard to predict who. On the one hand, you will have many more startups to choose from, many of which would appear to have great ideas and great founding teams, but are really just undifferentiated. On the other hand, valuations go up, funding is spread across more startups and so you have the twin effect of having to pay more to get in but yet the startup you back might have a shorter runway. Startup investing is always risky, but I prefer to choose the kind of risks that I think is more meaningful – socially, intellectually and financially – to make.
That wraps up our interview with Victor Ng from Mistletoe. Do watch this space to find out more on the company’s developments in the future as well as insights on our other members within the space. As always, you can keep up-to-date with what is going on around SPECTRUM here.