Posts from April 2019

Do The Right Thing

Airbnb has been operating in NYC and NY State for about ten years now and yet we still don’t have comprehensive home sharing legislation on the books in NY State. The reason is that the enemies of Airbnb, mostly the hotel employee unions, have been fighting Airbnb’s existence in NY State very effectively in Albany.

Many of the largest cities in the US and around the world now have comprehensive home sharing legislation on the books. It makes sense. It allows homeowners to share their homes legally and earn extra income but it also protects neighbors and neighborhoods from bad actors who abuse the system.

It is time for the folks in Albany to join that group and put fair and balanced and serious home sharing legislation on the books.

The good news is that we have good comprehensive bills before both houses of the state legislature right now.

Assemblyman Joseph Lentol and Senator James Skoufis have recently proposed comprehensive regulations for short term rentals in NY State.

An increasing number of New Yorkers rely on home sharing services not only when they travel, but also for the additional income they generate by opening up their homes here in New York.

The bills proposed by Lentol and Skoufis will create fair and restrictive rules to govern short-term home rentals in New York. Existing NYC legislation has unfairly penalized everyday New Yorkers for sharing their homes and left many confused about the law.

The proposed legislation bans short-term rentals in all affordable housing and also limits NYC residents to listing only one home. The bills also mandate data-sharing with New York City to boost transparency and enable NYC agents to target and take action against bad actors abusing the system.

The proposed legislation also allows Airbnb to collect and remit taxes on behalf of its users. Currently, NY State is missing out on badly needed tax revenue.

It is time for the NY State Legislature and Governor to pass clear and commonsense legislation to safely and responsibly regulate the home sharing industry. I would like to acknowledge Assemblyman Lentol and Senator Skoufis who have the common sense and courage to lead the way.

Concrete Vs Wood

Our friend Eric sent us an article in the Globe and Mail yesterday about plans to build a 35 to 40 story tower in Vancouver out of wood. Here’s the link to that story but you can’t read it without a subscription.

Contrast that to the dominant way we build tall buildings in NYC which is out of concrete, steel, and glass.

The reason that a move back to wood based structures is so important is that the concrete structures are huge contributors to greenhouse gases. According to the Globe and Mail article, “concrete construction is responsible for an estimated eight per cent of all carbon emissions worldwide.”

The Gotham Gal and I are in the process of making two passive house apartment buildings in Brooklyn based on cross-laminated timber structures with only a small amount of concrete in them.

This is a photo of one of them back in December when the CLT structure had just been completed:

Our buildings are five or six stories high. The idea that you can make a building of 35 or 40 stories out of CLT and dowel laminated timbers (DLT) is very exciting to me.

I believe we can innovate our way out of the climate change mess we are in right now and changing the way we make our homes and offices is a big part of that.

Opting Out Of The Legacy Model

When you look at industries that continue to operate on old, outdated, and highly regulated models (education, health care, banking, brokerage, etc, etc), it is interesting to look at the numbers of consumers who are opting out of the legacy model.

In K12 education, many people think of charter schools as the disruptive model and there are something like 3.5mm to 4mm students attending charter schools in the US now (out of roughly 55mm K12 students in the US: 50mm public, 5mm private).

But if you really want to look at where the disruptive models exist, you need to look at consumers who are completely opting out and in K12 education, that is the homeschooling movement.

My partner Andy sent around this tweet this morning and it is quite interesting:

In the US, we have almost as many students being homeschooled as are in the charter schools.

And homeschooling, which has its roots in the religious communities, is increasingly breaking out of that and slowly moving into the mainstream:

It has gotten much easier to consider homeschooling over the last twenty years via a combination of technology and infrastructure that has largely been developed by the early adopters of homeschooling.

This is a trend to watch and, possibly, to invest in.

The Upside And The Downside

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, there are good and bad things that come from new technology and new innovations.

The challenge for many of us is that the promoters of the technology only want to talk about the upside. And often the media responds by focusing on the downside. It is hard to find a balanced take on things.

Let’s take this Bloomberg article on ISAs in which students trade a percentage of future earnings to fund tuition. The headline is “College Grads Sell Stakes in Themselves to Wall Street.” Which of course, is the negative narrative on this innovation in financing education.

As my colleague Nick pointed out to me this morning, “the stories often seem to ignore the reverse: how hard it can be to carry a large amount of debt, which is the situation that the vast majority of student loan holders find themselves in.”

The whole ISA movement is a reaction to the student debt crisis that many in this country have found themselves in.

Certainly there are questions that need to be asked about ISAs and the model will evolve and adjust over time.

But to throw ISAs under the bus by suggesting that “students are selling themselves to wall street” is the kind of negative narrative that doesn’t help anyone.

Facial Recognition

I would like to start this post with a disclosure. USV portfolio company Clarifai has one of the best facial recognition models on the market and is very active in the facial recognition market. Now that I have disclosed that, we can move on.

Facial recognition has come of age. Machines can figure out who we are and more.

One of the most popular booths with students at The Annual CS Fair this year was the Microsoft booth where they were showing some of their facial recognition technology.

The delight and amazement on the students’ faces was infectious.

But of course, not everyone is excited about facial recognition technology being deployed in the market.

I particularly like that question in the embedded image in that tweet:

How does Jet Blue know what I look like?

The answer turns out that there are many ways to know what we look like and you can start with the federal government and go from there.

Like all technologies, facial recognition can be used for good and bad. And it will be.

I like what my partner Albert wrote on this topic recently:

And then some things are incredibly hard. Such as face and object recognition. There are tons of amazing positive applications for such technology. And yet they could also be used to bring about a dystopian future of autonomous killer weapons chasing citizens in the streets. Does that mean we should not develop these capabilities? Should we restrict who has access to them? Is it OK for corporations to have them but not the military? What about the police? What about citizens themselves? Those are hard questions and anyone who thinks they have obvious answers I submit hasn’t thought long enough about them.
So what is to be done? A good start is personal responsibility. 

We used to have to stop at toll booths and wait in long lines to get across bridges and tunnels. Now we drive past the tolls at 60mph and the machines detect our license plates and debit our accounts.

The same is going to happen with our faces and that will be great for many things. But, of course, it will also freak us out on a regular basis and add to the “technology is turning everything into a surveillance state” narrative that has more truth than we would like to admit.

So what is my point? Well for one, the technology is here and we had better get used to finding it deployed in the wild. And second, that it will bring a lot of good. So we should not over react. But we should be mindful of the downsides and those of us who are working on this technology, those of us who are financing the development of it, and those of us who are deploying it, need to take great care with it.

Video Of The Week: John von Neumann on K12 CS Education

As many of you know, I have spent a fair bit of my time over the last ten years on increasing the amount of CS Education in our K12 system in NYC and around the US.

My friend Rob sent me this short (2 1/2 min) clip of John von Neumann in the early 50s talking about how important CS Education and in particular K12 CS Education would be.

We largely ignored his advice for the last sixty years but I am optimistic that we are finally heeding it.

A Hackathon At NYC’s City Hall

I like going to hackathons. A number of USV portfolio companies have emerged out of hackathons, like our portfolio company Dapper which created its hit crypto-collectible game CryptoKitties at a Hackathon in late 2017.

So yesterday I headed down to NYC’s City Hall which was hosting the finals of a citywide hackathon competition (called The Hack League) among NYC schools to create the best software applications to make the city better.

The final projects were judged by people like the Chief Policy and Data Office (Comptroller’s office); the Chief Analytics Officer (City of NY); the Chief Technology Officer (Mayor’s office); the Executive Director of NYC311 (City of NY) and other folks in city government tasked with a similar mandate.

There were 28 finalist teams at City Hall yesterday competing to win the trophy. They were from all five boroughs, representing schools from all kinds of neighborhoods. It was as diverse as the city is and that is a wonderful thing.

I gave them a pep talk at the start of the day and encouraged them to “instrument their applications” so that they and others can determine how their users are getting value from them.

This is a photo I took of the students as I was about to address them:

The winning teams came from these schools with these applications:

Middle school Winners:
1st: Queens TWYLS – “Trash Go” game that incentivizes proper disposal of trash

2nd: Staten Island IS63 – “Oh Deer” app for residents to report on deer sightings and upload photos so the Dep’t of Environmental Conservation can track the deer

3rd: Brooklyn Parkside Prep – “Hero Foods” app that delivers nutritious lunches to students with special needs (financial or health)  

High school Winners:
1st: Brooklyn International HS at Lafayette – “Busted” app for students to report real-time data about buses (such as too full, never arrived)

2nd: Manhattan Bridges High School – “Heat track” app that tracks temperatures inside and outside of homes and communicates to landlords about issues.

3rd: Bronx Millennium Art Academy – “Safety 1st” bi-lingual alert system to keep students informed when they are without their phones during the school day.

I was super impressed by how focused and committed the students were on making their applications better yesterday:

Here is a photo of all of the students who competed yesterday in the City Hall Rotunda.

These are the employees of the future for NYC startups, larger tech companies, and, frankly, every company in NYC. And let me tell you something. They are going to be really good.

Healthcare At USV

Over the last five years, we have stepped up our investing in and around healthcare. About 15-20% of the early stage companies we have invested in over our last two fund cycles are working in this sector.

If you look at our current investment thesis at USV, you will see that wellness is one of the key areas of interest for us:

USV backs trusted brands that broaden access to knowledge, capital, and well-being by leveraging networks, platforms, and protocols.

So where in the healthcare sector are we focused?

Rebecca tweeted this out yesterday and I think it is a good articulation of what we find most interesting in healthcare:

Making affordable healthcare more available to everyone seems like the winning formula in this sector.

Take our portfolio company Nurx for example. They make birth control and other important prescriptions and home testing kits available to millions of people who have found them difficult to obtain through traditional channels.

I hope and expect that we will increase our investment in the health and wellness space in the coming years. It is an important sector that has immense challenges, but also immense opportunities.

Underground Infrastructure

One evening last week my daughter and I spent an hour with a team from our portfolio company Pilot Fiber who were pulling a new fiber cable from Sixth Avenue to Fifth Avenue along a cross street in lower Manhattan.

My daughter is doing a project and wanted to understand how this all worked and I was curious myself. It was fascinating.

We met them at a manhole near Sixth Avenue where they had pulled a fiber cable into a building where one of their large customers is based.

The team uses a thin line of “mule tape” that is placed in the conduit between the manhole and the building to pull the fiber cable from the manhole to the building. Ideally the mule tape stays in the conduit so that the next team that needs to run fiber from one manhole to another or into a building can use it again.

Pilot had a couple of their trucks on the street that have huge fiber spools on the back of them.

The team runs fiber using the mule tape in the conduits that exist from manhole to manhole. This was the next manhole they worked in that evening.

You can see that there are a lot of fiber cables in these manholes. The big clunky plastic things are splice enclosures that protect the splices that join fibers to each other.

You can see a line of mule tape on the lower right of the photo above that the team was using to pull the fiber cable from one manhole to the other.

When we got to Fifth Avenue, the manhole was cavernous. One of the team members was comfortably working down in the hole which would not have been so easy in the manholes on the cross streets.

I learned quite a bit that evening about how all of this infrastructure is laid and managed. But mostly I was so interested in how this modern infrastructure (fiber) has overwhelmed the prior kind (copper and coax) under the streets of NYC.

If you want high speed/reliable/reasonably priced fiber Internet in Manhattan for your company, you can get that from Pilot Fiber who is out on and under the streets of NYC most nights laying the cables to make it happen.