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MIT Venture Capital and Innovation Conference [02/09/18]

By: Dennis Karpovitch

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​The MIT Venture Capital and Innovation Conference was the place to be for anyone with an idea looking to kick start their business. The conference hosted multiple speakers and panels of professionals who discussed a variety of topic ranging from artificial intelligence and blockchain to design thinking and raising venture capital. While there were so many interesting conversations, here are some highlights from the experts.

The session opened up with an AI Fireside chat with IBM’s VP of AI Science, Alexander Grey, and the moderator, Jackie Snow. In this panel, they discussed the frontiers of AI and the direction it’s heading towards in the future. One interesting notion was the application of AI to cloud technology; although still very primitive, it could foreshadow a day when AI supplements the life of the average person. However, in a presentation on the Ethics of AI, VP of Product and Strategy at integrate.ai Kathryn Hume introduced an important road block that currently hinders AI technology. The algorithms used by AI in machine learning are symbolic of convex mirrors in the sense that they refract human biases. Much of the data being used to train AI is based on historical corpuses, past social conventions that are largely outdated today. This becomes a problem when deep learning causes AI to express a trait such as racism. In an experiment, one deep learning algorithm on criminal re-offense rated black people as more likely to reoffend than white people even though the white subjects had done more wrong than the blacks.

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Another interesting presentation on Design Thinking in Venture Investing was conducted by Steve Vassallo, an entrepreneur and investor in innovation who discussed several dogmas of start-up culture that he believes to be false. The first was the importance of minimum viable product, that is obtaining the fastest possible product output. While copycats and competitors put pressure on companies to sell as much of their product as possible, it is still necessary for a company to develop a fully functional product before it is released to the public. If a product in development is released prematurely, the company risks product failure and poor customer reviews. In addition, he noted that product market fit was not static, but rather liquid. The competitive landscape is constantly changing as customers want more out of their products, so it’s necessary for companies to stay up to date with popular trends. At the end, Vassallo acknowledged the idea that most start-up opportunities are inspired by the limits of day to day activities. As the marginal cost of software approaches zero and its accessibility becomes more widespread, companies will need to find ways to differentiate themselves from competitors when designing their products. Building relationships with customers rather than trying to maximize transactions is the best way to stand out because these relationships can help innovators create products that are tailored to the customer’s preferences. He introduced a quote by Evan Sharp, CEO of Pinterest, who said: “Where engineering is all about capability, what we could do, design is about suitability, what it should do.” The customer is ultimately going to use the final product, so the customer should be at the center of attention during the design process.

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A conference on technology and innovation couldn’t take place without a debate on the future of Blockchain, so that’s exactly what Jamie Goldstein (Founder and Managing Director of Pillar Venture Capital) and Vanessa Grellet (Global Executive at ConsenSys) did. They started off by remembering that the original goal of Blockchain was to create a new decentralized Internet. However, we have seen that its function as a currency has gained much more momentum in recent months over applications like a decentralized YouTube (DTube) or a decentralized Twitter (Twister). Although cryptocurrencies offer the benefit of quicker transactions over large distances, they are a new class of assets without proper metric systems to minimize their volatility. In the past, the value of tangible objects has largely been attributed to their scarcity; that’s why a metal such has gold can maintain a global standard. However, what happens when you introduce an asset without a limit? This is where many of the questions around regulation emerge as policy makers work with crypto companies to establish standards for this unprecedented technology. Another problem with Blockchain technology is the amount of energy that it uses. As companies compete to mine for new currencies, they consume more and more electricity without considering the future consequences. Some companies have enacted electricity sharing schemes that rely on renewable energy in order to reduce the carbon footprint of mining, but what is neat is that blockchain technology can also be used to track the use of renewable energy and award credits to companies actively minimizing their energy use. This application thus has the potential to become a regulatory system as by using tax reductions based on renewable energy use as an incentive for companies to start going green.

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These discussions among many more provided a lot of insight into the future of startups and technology. At the end the day, the conference hosted a Startup World Cup Pitch Competition in which 7 startups competed for a chance to move on to the Startup World Cup Final in Silicon Valley to compete for a million-dollar prize. Some of the ideas included a service for surveying construction sites through drones, a billboard that shows ads tailored to the drivers going by, and a chrome add-on that compiles top headlines into an easy-to-read format. These innovations among many more highlight the fact that there are countless problems in the world waiting to be solved. If you have an idea, come to the MIT Technology and Innovation conference next year to find out how you can get Venture Capital funding.

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