Get To Know the VC – Ajit Singh
As part of our “Get To Know the VC” blog series, Artiman partner, Ajit Singh, answered a few questions. Here’s what he had to say:
1. Did you ever start a company yourself? If so, what is the most important thing you’ve learned from this experience?
I never actually founded a company; I had several “near-founding experiences”. I was CEO of BioImagene, a company in the cancer diagnostics space, founded shortly before I was brought in to build the company. It was an Artiman funded company and I led it from its early days until it was acquired by Roche. At Siemens, I built two new businesses from scratch. Even though I didn’t have to raise money for the Siemens businesses, I had to convince the Siemens board – a task not too dissimilar to getting VC funding for a startup. I’ve learned a few very important things from these experiences: 1. The original plan never works out – you have to be comfortable, honest and know when to drop or change your plan and redirect your energy. You need to be able to trade the plan for an opportunity. 2. Stating the obvious, you have to hire a very strong team. Recruit the very best, and then, put up with them. I learnt to foster healthy conflict amongst the team, and avoid artificial harmony at all costs. I feel proud that every single one of my team members remained with me over multiple assignments, and every single one of them became my peer eventually. Having that degree of unconditional trust made a big difference in terms of my leadership learnings, successes and recovery from failure. Every time I recovered from a failure I grew, and it had to do a lot with the team that was surrounding me. 3. The value of dialog and trust – I wrote a brief document article in 1992 titled The Principles. It is one-pager that became my personal bible for leadership. It consists of five tenets: Dialog, Trust, Conflict, Performance, and Change. This has been the guiding document for me personally, as well as for the leaders I coach.
2. What company would you start today?
If I were to start a company today, it would be in the area of food. I’ve been in health care for nearly 30 years. I believe that there’s no such thing, at least today, that qualifies as HEALTHcare. Rather, our systems today are focused on SICKcare… On the spectrum, sickcare is at the late end – when you have either fallen sick or at the risk of doing so. If you look at the beginning of the spectrum, the early-end – you will have to look at what you eat. It is not an easy thing – it is behavior, which is extremely hard to change – that’s nature, but if you go back to the times throughout our evolution and our development, we were in perfect harmony with nature – especially in terms of what we ate. Investing in food means making sure it’s available for all strata of the society, and not only the affluent, and the “trendy.” This is why if I’d start a company today it would be related to food – the early-end of the healthcare spectrum.
3. Why white space investments are so interesting in your eyes?
Of course, to each their own, but for me there are many reasons. Creativity – I get bored if I’m not being creative; that’s just the way I’m wired. It also means being innovative – not incrementally, but rather, in a manner that changes the world. That is what white spaces do – paying attention to industries and areas that haven’t seen innovation in a while at, technology that haven’t been applied to those industries on in the past. That’s the intellectual reason. Financially – the risk is higher but if you succeed, the reward is much higher.
4. What has been the most interesting acquisition in the past year?
I believe the acquisition of Flatiron by Roche was very interesting for really one strong reason – we all believe that data is going to play a very important role in health care and something like that – when a giant like Roche is buying a small company gives legitimacy to the space and motivates people to take on the challenge. I believe something good will come out of it. When Roche bought my company they also bought it for data, machine learning and to see that what we started 10 years ago is continuing is very fulfilling.
5. What columns/blogs do you read?
I’m actually very old fashioned in what I read – NY times, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, Economist, some online stuff on BBC, Al Jazeera, and the Huffington Post. The feel of the physical paper is important for me. That’s also the format of choice when I read books.
6. Most challenging professional experience?
A 4-year old child died on one of the machines built by us. That was definitely one of the most challenging experiences in my life. When I heard about what happened, I was horrified, my blood left my body. This video tells the story about how I dealt with it.
Another very challenging experience was when I had to shut down a factory in California, lay off 1,700 people and move the R&D and manufacturing to Germany. I take pride in the fact that even though we chose to communicate the plan a year ahead of the actual transition, and my team in California had to train their replacements in Germany, it was implemented masterfully and in a very human, graceful manner. Every single person stayed with the company until the last day. No one “abandoned the ship.” We were very empathetic, transparent, disciplined and kept frequent contact with them.
On a more personal note, I left Siemens to do a startup and 15 days after I left Wall Street collapsed. Money that I wanted to raise for my company simply disappeared from the market, my home in New York lost 50% of its value, my children were still in high school and I had left a stable, safe CEO role to do a startup. Even though in retrospect it ended up being the best decision for me, it was very challenging at the time.
It is these challenges that actually made me grow. There is some wisdom to the adage after all: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
7. What have you personally invested in?
My investments outside of Artiman have all been in real estate. But really, my biggest investment has been my children.
8. Do you think bitcoin or other cryptocurrency has a chance to become a substantial piece in the world’s capital reserves?
I actually haven’t spent much time trying to learn and understand this industry in depth. Hence, unfortunately I don’t know enough to have an opinion.
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