Michael Yang Opens Up about the Startups that Excite Comcast Ventures
Media conglomerate Comcast Corp. is known for its cable system and TV networks. Meanwhile, venture fund Comcast Ventures has been backing innovation across country since 1999, with offices in San Francisco, Palo Alto, New York, and Philadelphia.
Michael Yang, managing director of the Silicon Valley office, spoke with Xconomy about the types of investments Comcast Ventures looks for such as companies in the digital health sector.
BodyMedia in Pittsburgh, one of Comcast Ventures’ latest portfolio companies, develops wearable exercise and health monitors used by contestants on NBC’s televised weight-loss competition “The Biggest Loser.” Comcast Ventures’ other investments include app maker Flipboard in Palo Alto; mobile enterprise software company Enterproid in New York; digital video recorder maker TiVo in Alviso, CA; and Web guide About.com, which is now owned by Barry Diller’s Internet company IAC in New York.
With 2013 just starting, Yang gave a glimpse of the strategies at play at Comcast Ventures.
Xconomy: Which sectors and industries does your venture fund look to for potential deals?
Michael Yang: Our investments fall into four major classifications: consumer-centric technology and companies, advertising-based businesses, enterprise-centric startups, and the infrastructure space. We have several trends and themes we are focusing our investments on. Obviously digital healthcare. We are spending a lot of time looking at cloud-based technologies and big data. That’s targeted more at the enterprise and also on the infrastructure side. We have been very prolific investors in ad tech. There’s a lot of expertise we can glean from [Comcast Corp.]. We are also big believers in the resurgence of commerce, e-commerce, and mobile commerce. Because we have insights and expertise on things related to content and video in a content manner, we are also highly interested in those types of opportunities. Think of all the online video ecosystem and the content producers that are spawned off of YouTube.
X: How do your various offices stay plugged into the innovation communities in different parts of the country?
MY: When you look at our history and see where we’ve invested, we obviously map very closely to the major tech and innovation hubs. New York, Boston, and the Bay Area principally, and opportunistically in other markets. The origins of the fund were in Philadelphia; all of the investment professionals were based and housed there. About four years ago we started to plant boots on the ground on the West Coast with a Valley and a San Francisco presence. That makes a lot of sense since we are already had up to 50 percent of our portfolio on the West Coast. New York came about more recently, principally in conjunction with our assumption of the Peacock Equity Fund, a former venture fund which was the investment vehicle for NBC Universal and GE Capital.
As Comcast became the operator of NBC Universal, that venture vehicle fell under our mandate. In the last two or so years, we’ve opened and populated a New York office. This allows us to be bicoastal, which has several luxuries. Healthcare is particularly strong in New York and the East Coast as well as on the West Coast. Commerce is strong in the New York area and on the West Coast. Ad tech is New York and a little bit in the Bay Area. You see that in a number of sectors we are highly interested in. We’re thesis driven and geographically agnostic when pursuing investment opportunities. Some of my colleagues who focus on the cloud and big data may be based on the East Coast but they’ll invest on the West Coast. I’m focused on commerce and healthcare; several of my investments are on the East Coast. We’ll go wherever the right investment opportunities are.
X: What interested Comcast Ventures in BodyMedia and how does that fit in with your overall investment strategy?
MY: We’ve been building a thesis on healthcare and digital health for three and a half years now. Healthcare is a complicated topic for consumers, patients, and families. Literacy is a major issue. Advocacy on behalf of these individuals is a major issue. Our first investments in healthcare included Healthline, based in San Francisco. Think of it as WebMD for a lot of other players. Healthline powers Web portals, Web applications, and Web content for other media companies, insurance companies, and anyone with direct-to-consumer access. Prior to joining Comcast Ventures, I used to run Yahoo Health. Healthline powers Yahoo Health so I know exactly what that is about.
The other major focus was on the advocacy side. Most people get their healthcare [coverage] through their company or employer. Every year there is an open enrollment period and no one ever knows what health plans they are going to choose. It’s massively complicated. We invested in a company called Accolade in the Philly suburbs. They provide health coaching services to employees of Fortune 500 companies. Every employee [with companies that use the service] and their dependents would be able to call Accolade’s health assistants and coaches about a whole host of issues such as getting primary care physicians or taking prescriptions. They handle issues from administrative to clinical decision support. All 125,000 employees of Comcast, and our family members, have access to health assistants and coaches at Accolade. We’ve helped build this company up from a concept.
We evolved from that first pillar to transparency and behavioral change. The patient is more informed and now they need even more data or assistance in changing themselves to become healthier. This led to our investment in BodyMedia. Its body monitor has more sensors than anyone else, has more data points, is FDA-approved, and has clinical trials and studies that back the accuracy and efficacy of the device [for weight management]. If you want to lose weight you need to know how much you weigh; you need to know how many calories you’re burning. That’s all part of transparency. By having a device on you all hours of the day, that fosters behavioral change. BodyMedia is going after obesity as the No. 1 epidemic in healthcare in America.
We were able to help BodyMedia get on “Biggest Loser.” Employees within Comcast and NBC are also trialing the BodyMedia armband. This is some of the synergy we’re able to foster between our portfolio companies and Comcast and NBC.
We’re starting to look at the next major pillar in healthcare, which is what we call delivering care without boundaries. Today healthcare is very siloed. You go to a hospital; you go to a doctor; you might go to a nursing center; you go to a pharmacy. There’s no care coordination. The [Patient Protection and] Affordable Care Act is going to start changing and breaking down some of these barriers. We are now interested in technologies around remote patient monitoring, telemedicine, and also things like alterative care channels [such as clinics in pharmacies and concierge medicine].
The last pillar is big data in the healthcare setting. The regulations around Obamacare are going to push people into being a lot more accountable as care organizations, meaning you take the risks and are responsible for delivering outcomes for patients. That’s going to lead to a lot of data, analytics, and software being applied. Most of big data in healthcare has been historically applied to the pharmaceutical side. We think the next thing is going to be shifting [big data] more to the providers as well as the payers.
X: What kind of barometer do you use when considering potential investments?
MY: We start with the market opportunity. You’ve got to invest into a big market opportunity. The next thing we look at as the team. We are a multistage fund; we do seed investing to late-stage, growth investing. If it’s a seed investment, I want to know the founders and know their abilities and potential. If it is a late-stage investment, we’re looking for functional expertise across the ranks. Number three is tying back to the product and technology, what its competitive advantage or differentiation actually is. There’s been, especially in commerce, a lot of product and technology categories where you see low barriers to entry, a lot of copycatting. If we’re going to invest in those things you better have something that is superior and has a sustainable advantage.
X: What kinds of trends will you track as this year unfolds?
MY: We just made an investment late last year in Nebula [in Mountain View], that’s in the cloud space. It’s around an OpenStack [software infrastructure] protocol and set of technologies that is being standardized in infrastructure-level cloud computing. That’s an example of a company we invested in, and now we’ve got various internal IT groups at Comcast adopting some of Nebula’s technology.
Another investment we made was in Tely Labs [in Menlo Park, CA], which makes an accessory that brings videoconference to the small and midsize business marketplace. Companies like Cisco have tried to take industrial strength, high-end videoconferencing and telepresence units downmarket and they really haven’t been successful. Comcast is going to help take [Tely Labs] to market. Our investment in WhoSay [in New York] goes back to our heritage in content and social media. WhoSay has an interesting means to acquire content from celebrities in the form of pictures and other things that they can distribute, monetize, and create a media and ad network around.