The Startup King
Who's Shaping Our Future
By Madeleine Ross
"I consider myself a global citizen but my core network and roots are in Silicon Valley,” says Kent Ho, the Kentucky-born, Stanford-educated founder of the early-stage venture capital fund Spectrum 28.
Having spent a decade in the world’s tech mecca before settling in Hong Kong in 2012, he now sees it as his mission to “tie the two together;” to bring the innovative thinking that defines Silicon Valley to Asia, and to connect Asia’s corporations with the technology in the US. That’s the big picture, anyway.
On a day-to-day basis, however, the former Goldman Sachs banker invests in experimental and pioneering tech companies. The scope of Spectrum 28’s investments is broad; its portfolio spans digital health, genomics, retail and hospitality, fintech and construction, and even drones, the common denominator being that big data and software are core to changing these industries.
“Our investments go across the spectrum but the one thing that I’m always striving for is driving impact. I’m a big believer that tech will improve society and drive productivity, and that’s ultimately what I really care about.”
A badge of honour in the world of venture capitalism is the ability to say you’ve backed a unicorn, a start-up that has reached US$1 billion in market value. Kent has invested in a number of these lucrative beasts, including software company Palantir, e-commerce businesses Coupang and JD.com, archiving app Evernote and cloud-based video platform Zoom Video Communications.
He recently became the youngest honorary trustee of Peking University and this month joins the innovation and technology advisory committee of the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.
“I’ve always liked technology as a consumer but I’m actually motivated more by business,” he clarifies. “I attribute that a lot to my dad [Sing Tao News Corp tycoon Charles Ho] giving me exposure earlier in life."
"At 16 I sought out an internship at Goldman Sachs. These things were never pushed on me. I even started trading stocks at the early age of 12, first buying Applied Materials, the company that sold all the equipment for Intel and AMD to manufacture microprocessors.”
"My father brought me to his business meetings from a young age and I was never bored by the subject matter; I connected with it."
Kent himself is a father. He and his wife, Emily, welcomed a daughter in January to join their son who arrived in 2015. Has fatherhood changed him? “I think it has made me much more efficient with my time,” he laughs.
Creating efficiencies is his mission in business, too. He recently invested in two tech start-ups that want to revolutionise the construction industry. “If you look back at the last 20 years, there has been almost no productivity increase in construction,” he says. “That’s scary. Every other industry, except for agriculture and hunting, spends more on tech than construction.”
One of these start-ups, Rhumbix, identifies and eliminates inefficiencies at building sites by tracking the movement of construction workers via sensors on their mobile phones. This data is used by operations executives to analyse performance and facilitate more productive work methods.
Other highlights in Kent’s portfolio include a company called MeMed Diagnostics, which is tackling the growing problem of antibiotic resistance. “In Hong Kong we have great healthcare but we are also guilty of very liberally prescribing drugs, and antibiotics are one of the big ones,” says Kent.
MeMed has created a device that is able to tell within 99 minutes whether an infection is bacterial or viral, a huge improvement over the current practice, which takes days. “This is just one example of how we are focusing on opportunities to provide preventive care. Something like this has a huge impact across the entire health ecosystem.”
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One investment that seems de rigueur for venture capitalists right now is drones. From surveying to package delivery to use in the military, the myriad applications of these airborne machines suggest the market for unmanned aerial vehicles will be worth US$100 billion within four years, according to Goldman Sachs. But what happens when drones go rogue? “We need to start thinking about airspace, privacy and defence,” says Kent. “The reality is that drones can also be used in ways that are not helpful to society.”
In 2015 a drone landed on the lawn of the Whitehouse. That same year, a drone laden with radioactive sand landed on the roof of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s house.
“These devices can be extremely dangerous because they can carry chemical weapons and explosives. We’ve also had reports of pilots having to divert because drones have flown into their flight path.”
Technology to disable them, however, is in its infancy. Because drones don’t have engines and thus lack heat signatures, they’re immune to the kind of technology that enables heat-seeking missiles to target and destroy ships or planes.
Spectrum 28 recently invested in Airspace Systems, a company developing a drone security system. It is the only solution capable of identifying, tracking and autonomously removing rogue drones from the sky.
Banking is another sector Kent wants to disrupt, and he’s doing so via an investment in a start-up called Earnest. “There is a huge opportunity globally to rebuild the consumer experience in banking from the ground up. Given Hong Kong’s position as a fintech hub, I hope we see some of this innovation in our local banks to improve customer experience.”
Our conversation turns back to Silicon Valley. Will the region continue to hold pride of place as an innovation hub in the context of China’s rise as a tech power? And how will it fare in the era of President Donald Trump?
“Trump’s immigration policy is a potential concern. If you look across Silicon Valley at the top engineers and founders, there is a broad mix of Asian Americans and immigrants. I think the US and its success, especially in technology, has a lot to do with attracting great international talent.”
Silicon Valley’s loss, however, might be Asia’s gain. If Trump is as damaging for tech as some pundits think he’ll be, Kent suspects much of the top international talent will flock towards the region. “We might see teams bringing their skillsets from the US back to their home countries and sharing these skills with local entrepreneurs, thereby helping those communities build up faster.”
As for whether China holds the next Silicon Valley: “China is a great success in its own right. I think there are some extremely innovative business models, products and designs coming out of China. There is a lot of knowledge that we should take from there and apply back in the US.”
Take, for example, the overwhelming success and ubiquity of WeChat, says Kent. “That’s a very exciting product—the way it is integrated into your life not only as a communication platform but also as a payment platform. WhatsApp and Facebook have continued to do what they’ve always done and have had challenges in expanding their ecosystems."
"China and companies like Alibaba and Tencent have done a much better job of expanding horizontally. People always say China is just copying the US, but there is actually a lot to learn from both sides. What’s really exciting right now is the number of entrepreneurs coming out of the big companies to do start-ups. And in Beijing, Tsinghua and Beida, two great universities, are driving talent and that is a critical piece of a tech ecosystem.”
Does he ever worry life is moving in the direction of 1984? Technology is fuelling a culture where robots are taking jobs, surveillance is ubiquitous and data collection is eroding our privacy. Even if the outcomes aren’t sinister, doesn’t he feel technology is limiting life’s mystery a bit?
“I can’t say that it has ever really been a concern for me. I am not on that end of the spectrum. I am a huge believer in how much positive impact technology can have on things.”
In 2014 Kent married Emily Lam in a lavish ceremony at the Hôtel du Cap-Eden-Roc on the French Riviera. Emily sported gowns by Oscar de la Renta, Valentino and Dior, and dazzling jewels, and their first dance was serenaded by Coldplay frontman Chris Martin.
Since then, the power couple have become a staple at high-society soirees and Emily’s glamorous outfits are regularly splashed across the pages of the city’s fashion magazines. I remark that their portrayal in the press seems at odds with Kent’s earnest, bookish persona. Is what we see of them in the glossies their reality?
“I think a lot of what Tatler has seen of Emily is not necessarily the full representation of us. It is just a snapshot of our public life and barely a glimpse of what our private life is like."
"Now that we are married and settling down, and have two children, I think you will see Emily spending time with initiatives that she cares about, like women’s rights, children and education, and there may well be some overlap with things that I do in technology."
“At the core, very similar values make us a great match. I think this is the most important—it’s the foundation of any relationship. So as different as we may be on the surface, Emily and I make a perfect partnership. She is an incredibly supportive wife and hands-on mother, and we’re both very family oriented. We have the same values, and we share a vision for the kind of impact we want to make in this world.”
Watch our behind-the-scenes video of Kent's photo shoot below:
This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Hong Kong Tatler.