Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Changemakers: Bo Zhu

Early-stage venture capitalist who believes deep tech can help humanity find a new home in space

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Space exploration. That’s where the smart money of the future will be.” So says Bo Zhu MBA2012, who has spent his entire professional life at the frontier of tech innovation.

As Vice President of Eight Roads, the proprietary investment arm of Fidelity International, it’s his job to be on the lookout for the “next big thing” in deep tech. Building the capabilities to find our next planetary home, he says, is set to become a cynosure for engineers and investors alike within the next couple of decades.

“There’s a kind of consensus in the human imagination – in our fiction, our novels and our movies – that if we have the capability, it’s our destiny to find new worlds for our species. That’s where we are going to see future traction in innovation and investment in space exploration and visiting new planets. This is where we’re going to see more capital being invested. It’s the next big thing in the medium to longer term.”

Meanwhile, there are plenty of pressing issues on our home planet to be addressed – and Zhu is confident that technology has the potential to find answers to many of them: “Technology is fascinating because it drives the advancement of the human race. You have the first industrial revolution, where machines revolutionised human existence, taking over many of our mundane but essential requirements to provide food, shelter and so on, and freeing us as a species to do and explore other things. And part of that freedom is about finding answers to problems.”

With the internet revolution putting the world’s information at our fingertips, he argues, we are now in a position to do things and to find solutions that were not only impossible previously, but unimaginable.

"There’s a kind of consensus in the human imagination ... that if we have the capability, it’s our destiny to find new worlds for our species"

“The democratisation of information availability is reshaping the world today. It used to be that a very small group of people hoarded our knowledge. Today any layperson in front of a computer with internet access can tap into almost unlimited sources of information. Someone with a good idea living in a remote village has access to the information resources to make that idea a reality. And that’s the basis of innovation.”

Zhu’s fascination with technology began young. He graduated from Nanyang Technological University with a first-class degree in computer engineering in 2005 and found a job as a software design engineer with Encentuate, a Singapore-based information security start-up later acquired by IBM.

Three years as a software consultant leading treasury transformation projects for Chinese banks followed before he made the transition to a business role in channel-partner development with Microsoft.

His MBA at London Business School, graduating in 2012, played a critical role in his desire for change: “Although I loved the creativity [of software development], after a few years I realised I wanted to do more with my career than coding. LBS helped me transition into a commercial role with Microsoft at an interesting time, as they were launching cloud services like Office 365 and Azure in China. And from there I built the business nous to jump at the opportunity when I was offered a role in venture capital – something I had long dreamt of doing.”

His experience on both sides of the computer screen and in business partner ecosystem development with one of the world’s foremost software companies means he is well positioned to source, evaluate and execute early and growth-stage venture investments in emerging tech players in the China market.  His is a role that exposes him to ideas, products and services that are “pushing at the frontier of the new wave of innovation.”

The trend that excites him most at the moment is big data and its capacity to transform industries. As an engineer, he is particularly interested in big data analytics made possible by Moore’s Law – advances of such magnitude that computing power is doubling every 18 months globally and driving a kind of virtuous circle, with increased processing capacity in turn generating more data.

“There’s a view that as much as 95% of the world’s data has been generated in the last two years alone and this in itself is driving more innovation out of the necessity to store, manage and exploit all this information,” he points out.

For business, he believes, the availability of this data is critical in driving so-called artificial intelligence technologies that are behind innovative solutions such as face recognition, predictive maintenance and autonomous driving. “We are living in really interesting times,” he says.

Making accurate predictions and deciding where and how to invest is, of course, a core aspect of his own job. Spotting the next big thing means assessing a number of criteria that range from the total addressable market, the founding team, the quality of the end product, and whether it can be scaled – whether it can be sold at minimal or zero cost.

There’s gut feeling and there’s its corollary; due diligence. But is there a discernible formula for success?

“In my experience, and when you look at the big tech companies out there that are really delivering innovation, there’s usually a visionary founder at the helm. When you look at the difference between the ‘good’ and the ‘great’, you normally see that the founder is pretty different from most people. These are people who are undeterred by the usual setbacks and set a visionary goal for the people around them. They have a kind of halo effect, which means they can get others to buy into their vision, however extraordinary, innovative or impossible it seems.”

“Today any layperson with internet access has access to the information resources to make their idea a reality. And that’s the basis of innovation.”

Zhu cites the example of Elon Musk and SpaceX, the Tesla founder’s vision for human space travel and multi-planetary colonisation.

“You know, 15 years ago we didn’t have the internet, let alone AI or machine learning or augmented reality. I would expect that by 2030 we will realistically be looking at planning the first human residence on the moon or even on Mars. Within the venture capital industry there is a lot of talk about the need to spend more time on space exploration and getting more capital into this area.”

And while he acknowledges that space travel may seem the least pressing of our challenges, given the serious issues facing our own planet, he insists that not only does human innovation have the capacity to search for a new home while tending our back yard, but that doing both may well become a necessity: “We have an imperative to fix the things that are wrong with the Earth and I believe that every CEO, whether they are a tech professional or otherwise, needs to develop a strong moral compass and high ethical standards to ensure that our impact on our world is positive.

“But we also face the problem of a growing global population. There is a limit to how many human beings our planet can support. If we want to grow beyond that limit, then maybe a second planet really is our only option.”

Technology, Zhu believes, has the potential to deliver the answers. “With technology, you have this simplicity: small changes can have huge impact. And that’s its beauty right there.”

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