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Famed VC Jim Breyer on finding the next Mark Zuckerberg

Famed VC Jim Breyer on finding the next Mark Zuckerberg
From TechCrunch - November 8, 2017

Yesterday, at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon, we caught up with Jim Breyer, renowned in Silicon Valley thanks to a decades-long track record of smart bets, most notably in Facebook. Breyer was the managing partner at Accel Partners,which invested $12.7 million in Facebook in 2005 when the company was priced around $100 million; that bet proved to be among the most lucrative in the history of the venture business, returning many billions of dollars to Accels investors after the company went public in 2012.

In 2013, Breyer segued out of the firm, opening up his own family office, called Breyer Capital, where he has continued to make bold bets. Breyer has also partnered over the years withthe Chinese firm IDG Capital Partners, which formerly collaborated with Accel Partners and where Breyer Capital has since become an anchor investor in a series of funds that now manage more than $4 billion.

Breyer will be taking the stage today in Portugal, but he also sat down with us behind the scenes yesterday to talk about Facebook, Softbank, and ICOs, among other factors playing an outsize role in the startup ecosystem. You can find much of that conversation below, edited for length.

TC: Youve just come to Lisbon from China. How much time do you spend there?

JB: Im there four times a year. I probably have 100 partners who are part of IDG China, where Breyer Capital is a sponsor and Im a general partner on the investment committee and we cover 10 cities in China.

TC: Meanwhile, youre also overseeing Breyer Capital, your family office. How active is that, and is its focus exclusively on U.S. companies?

JB: We make six to 10 new investments a year, investing in artificial intelligence and deep learning mostly, and how it applies to finance, healthcare, publishing, and other large verticals, and yes, [the investments are stateside].

TC: Before sitting down today, Id seen a CNBC interview youd given, where you said you expect to see a number of big companies focused around artificial intelligence that are even bigger, much bigger, than Facebook and its ilk today. I think of Google and Facebook and Amazon and Apple as having an insurmountable lead, given the monopoly they have on these huge data sets. Why are you so sure thats not the case?

JB: Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, [Alibaba founder] Jack Ma, [Tencent founder] Pony Ma, [Baidu founder] Robin Lithese are phenomenal founder-driven companies and I expect the Apples, Facebooks, Amazons, Alphabets, and Baidus will only get stronger in many ways. But the [opportunity] to apply deep learning and true artificial intelligence to large verticals [is immense].

For example, doctor recommendations around cancer researchboth in the U.S. and China, where we can pull together data from hospitals, analyze that data in ways that have never been possible before, and provide better potential advice to doctors and nursesthose are just great opportunities for startups.

TC: Im still confused as to how nascent AI teams get very far. It seems that most are either getting pulled into these bigger companies before their companies can really prove themselves, or else theyre having to focus on very small verticalslike assessing the health of cabbagesand building a data set around them. Can AI teams still build big defensible businesses?

JB: Im no longer on the board of Facebook, but I have these conversations with Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg all the time, and its interesting. Facebook continues to grow dramatically but theyre also optimistic about startups and building new companies than ever before. Yes, there are strong founder-driven companies, but I dont think its about fringe opportunities.

TC: You mentioned AI in healthcare.Where else do you see these bigger opportunities?

JB: Im an investor in [the publicly traded video distribution platform] Bright Cove, and out of Brighcove came Circle Internet, which is a four-year-old blockchain company thats applying AI to financial services to address how to deliver better payment services around the world, who should receive some lending, and should whether they should receive it it in euros, pounds, dollars, or different coins. A lot of that is AI applied to the blockchain and to digital currencies.

TC: You think well see giant AI companies. Do you think youve met the next Mark Zuckerberg yet?

JB: I dont think Ill ever find a Mark Zuckerberg. And the combination of Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, who I helped Mark hire in 2008I dont think Ill ever find a team like that again. Sheryls opportunities to make Mark better, Marks opportunities to make Sheryl betterthat combination is the best single leadership combination in the world. In fact, theyre two of the key references on so many of the new deals that I do.

TC: Youre getting their advice on potential investments?

JB: Absolutelyand reference checks on people who might be from Google or Apple or Amazon. Not a day goes by when Im not in contact with Facebook executives about a potential new deal or recruiting. Theyve been a wonderful source of both references on new deals in AI, specifically, or in talent management and referrals of executives who I meet who are potentially future founders or future executives of these AI companies.

TC: Does that put the company or executive or founder on the watch list of Facebook andfor good or baddoes it increase the likelihood that Facebook will try and gobble them up at an early stage?

JB: The experience I have is that when Im meeting with the top talent, the ability at some pointsay 12 or 24 months from nowto speak with Sheryl Sandberg or Mark Zuckerberg or some of the senior people at Facebook, they view it as a big positive.

TC: Are Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg de facto venture partners of yours, or is that overstating things?

JB: That would be too much. But they are very much part of almost every due diligence process that Ive done.

TC: Do you help them with their diligence? Do either of them make private investments?

JB: They dont make too many private investments, but I certainly offer them advice and sometimes they listen on either people or opportunities or . . . different elements of Facebook and its global opportunities.

TC: Speaking of Facebook, can you comment on these newly revealed ties between early Facebook investor Yuri Milner and the Kremlin? Hes very well-regarded in Silicon Valley circles. Does this development change anything?

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