Angel Investor Esther Dyson Increases Dosage in Health Startups

Photograph by Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Esther Dyson is still excited about the possibilities with collecting data, and health devices that can give real-time feedback.

Angel investor Esther Dyson continues to spread her wings. The former technology analyst found success as an early backer of photo-sharing service Flickr and bookmarking site Delicious, both of which sold to Yahoo. She’s on the boards of high-profile sites such as online note-taking service Evernote, local groups creator Meetup and Russian search engine Yandex NV. And she has her sights set on opportunities beyond Earth: Dyson is involved with Golden Spike, which is planning missions to the moon.

So what is she investing in now and why? I caught up with Dyson on Dec. 21 and asked.

Q: Where do you see opportunities right now?

A: A lot more in health. One of my investments is Omada Health, which is a combination of online and offline. It’s a theme, to use the technology to help humans to communicate just like Meetup. Omada helps to treat diabetics, to deliver a curriculum of diet and exercise, with a counselor, in therapy groups of 10 people. It’s doing very well in pilot studies, and it’s made a huge difference. And it leverages people in a nice way. A lot of people who go through this end up being healthier and end up being counselors themselves. I made the investment some time in this past year, and then I re-upped this summer.

Q: Where do you see opportunities for next year, in geographies and sectors?

A: In the end, I don’t invest in geographies and sectors, I invest in individual companies. Where does one look? I am still very excited about all the possibilities of collecting data. If you look at health, sleep is becoming a big issue. Timing of physical activity. Timing of administering drugs, how you tie doses of drugs to minimize their toxicity. There are a lot of interesting things that are going to become more apparent as we get more data about usage of drugs, how your own behavior affects your health. With new devices and sensors, you get a lot more real-time feedback. The big challenge is not just giving people information, but motivating behavior change.

Q: Last year, you were talking about a “venture bubble.” What’s happening now?

A: Right now, there’s definitely a startup bubble. It’s too many startups, all of whom have good ideas, many of which are redundant. All these kids are trying to do a startup, but they can’t scale it: They can’t find the CFO, they can’t build a team. The challenge isn’t doing a startup, the challenge is going and scaling a company. It’s the team, and the whole company that matters, it’s not simply one 24-year-old Harvard kid.

Q: Does it make your work harder?

A: Yes. Getting ideas presented to you is not that interesting. What’s interesting is finding and developing a team. It makes it harder, there’s a lot more fluff. They take money, and disappear after a while.

Q: What’s the outlook for initial public offerings and mergers and acquisitions right now?

A: It’s not that great. It’s definitely more M&A, because you have a lot of interesting products that are not companies. There’s also a lot more attention to business-to-business companies, as opposed to business-to-consumer. It’s about not more efficient video-sharing between people, but about logistics.

Q: You invest in startups in Russia. Lately, there seems to be a surge in anti-American sentiment there. Does that affect you at all?

A: There is some anti-American sentiment in some parts of the government. In the tech community, it’s not there. What the Russian government should be doing is explaining it’s not about selling startups to rich foreigners, but creating services that make life better. This year, I invested in VitaPortal , which is a health site.

Q: Any other countries you invested in this year?

A: Nomanini, in Cape Town, South Africa. It’s sort of like “Avon ladies,” but for cell-phone airtime. If you know the market in a lot of emerging countries, they sell a code on scratch cards, and it’s very ineffective: The cards get lost, they stay in inventory. What Nomanini does is give people little printers that print out paper (with the airtime code). The users are often van drivers, or they have little kiosks.

Q: You are involved with a number of space startups, and you’ve trained for potentially going into space. Are you making any new investments in this area?

A: I am not making new investments, but I am very active. I am on the board of XCOR Aerospace, and I am an investor in Space Adventures. That’s fun, and when we do suborbital flights, I’ll be on one of them. And I am also involved with Golden Spike, which just announced its plans to take someone to the moon by the end of the decade – I am an investor, and I am on their board.


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