May 2, 2020
Photo: Getty Images/Philippe Desmazes
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Pipeline! I'm Biz Carson, Protocol's venture capital and startup reporter, and this is my new weekly newsletter about that community. Thank you to everyone who signed up to get this in their inboxes for the first time this week. (You have my full permission to consider yourself an early adopter.) If this was forwarded to you, sign up to get it every Saturday morning.
Don't forget to also join us Thursday for a Protocol Virtual Meetup where I'll be talking with top investors like Sequoia's Andrew Reed about the state of venture capital.
Anyway, on with business. This week: A VC's COVID moonshot, the cycle every health care (or edtech) startup goes through, and backcasting to a breakthrough.
Gmail creator and Y Combinator partner Paul Buchheit has an audacious goal: Test everyone, every day and wipe out COVID-19 by the end of 2020.
In March, Buchheit turned to BookFace, Y Combinator's internal messaging board, to solicit ideas about what to do about coronavirus and how startups could help. "I figured one thing I can do with my anxiety is see if I can find solutions to this," he said.
One YC company called PreDxion Bio seems particularly promising to Buchheit — and he views its work as a possible "third solution" to the pandemic.
But there's still a tremendous hurdle of both regulation and proving the science works. Then there's the matter of scale. And cost, obviously: Buchheit's goal is to get that down to around 10 cents for the raw materials, or under $1 all-in, for each test.
He's also far from alone in trying, and it was the talk of the town this week on what people are doing to help: There's renewed calls for a Manhattan project. A secret group of investors, scientists and billionaires have already been pushing their own version of it. Tech entrepreneurs, backed by Eric Schmidt, created their own coalition to deliver PPE. Salesforce's Marc Benioff went on a $25 million buying blitz. And Stanford's StartX launched its own brain trust.
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Do you have any new quarantine habits?
The positive of it is I'm home for dinner with my kids now. You're going to laugh about this because it's going to be so VC, but there's a wormhole of all my supposedly copious free time is being sucked into Clubhouse, Paul Davison's new audio app, which is fun. It feels very intimate.
What is a pitching pet peeve that you have?
To me, it's a really strong anti-pattern if an entrepreneur spends a half an hour talking about the macro backdrop with a bunch of high-level statistics versus approaching it from "this is my user or my customer and this is the need and desire we're filling."
What is the biggest misconception of what your job is like?
When people think it's a financial job. I've had a financial job before when I worked at Goldman Sachs for a year. We do need to understand it and it informs strategy: the company's cost structure, the business structure, gross margin, how efficiently it can scale — all of that really matters. But I have built five — maybe 10? — detailed financial models in 6.5 years at Greylock. The vast majority of the job is people and product and not financial at all.
What's one of the worst predictions you've ever made?
The fun thing about making predictions on the internet is you'll mostly be wrong, and it will be obvious to everyone. This is in the internet archives, and I've left it there, but back in 2016, I wrote a series of blog posts about the conversational economy. This was like the emergence of the Messenger platform, bots, NLP, and I spent a lot of time looking at companies in that space. I still definitely believe in audio and AI-enabled interactions, and the voice-controlled everywhere hardware has come through. But, I and a bunch of other people very much underestimated the complexity of getting automated human interaction with bots correct. There was definitely a hype cycle, and I was wrong on timing there.
Who is somebody you've never met in tech that you'd like to have dinner with?
I actually met Tobi [Lütke, Shopify's CEO] over audio recently, but I've never had dinner with him. So Tobi from Shopify seems like a really interesting visionary founder.
After years of bubble talk, the startup and venture capital world is bracing for a correction. It's going to be tough — but it's also a moment when many founders will be inspired to build and a new generation of companies will crop up, fueled by VCs eager to back them. Join Protocol's Biz Carson on Thursday, May 7 at noon PDT for our Protocol Virtual Meetup with senior guests from the venture and startup community.
Thanks for reading the first official newsletter edition of Protocol Pipeline. A special thank you to my London-based editor Jamie Condliffe for handling the time zone challenges and for being a sounding board, no matter the hour. Also a thank you to Tim Grieve, Tammy Wincup, Vivyan Tran, Bennett Richardson, Karyne Levy and Amanda Farnan for all their help in getting Pipeline up and running. If you like what you're reading, sign up here to get it in your inbox. Send story tips to email@example.com. Otherwise, stay safe, stay healthy and stay home. See you next week.