John Spinale is one of the general partners within JAZZ Venture Partners, a firm dedicated to making intelligent bets on companies at the intersection of life sciences, biology, and technology.
At the time I sat down with John, we were sitting atop the prominent 4th-floor balcony of San Francisco Metreon Center and he was calmly gripping a bottle of cold water at the end of a busy day. JAZZ Venture Partners had just put on their notable annual conference, "The xTech Expo."
At the time, I sat down with John and we discussed his experiences as a founder and investor. John has been a part of five separate early entrepreneurial endeavors all leading into acquisitions before he and his partners founded their current team.
If you’re like John, you probably have the same thoughts his team had when filing to officially launch their new firm, years ago; “Do we really need another VC firm in Silicon Valley?”
A fair question, indeed.
Silicon Valley seems to be littered with firms run by ex-entrepreneurs of the dot-com days who have proven themselves among their peers and now reap the benefits of “changing the world” from the reclines of a chair somewhere in Palo Alto.
Yet, there’s something about this team and John that has captured my attention as a writer, thinker, and startup marketer that screamed maybe these guys are of another breed.
“Ultimately, while we are a VC firm who looks for financial outcomes, we work hard to know that every single bet we make is moving humanity forward in some way…
…It’s hard not to sound pretentious when we talk about our goals because it’s easy to sound pretentious when we say that.”
For the past two years, I have attended an event which plays the role as a meeting grounds for people at the intersection of life sciences and technology.
"xTech," as the event is called, is short for experiential technology. The event focuses on displaying breakthroughs and leading technology within the industries of neurotechnology, neurogaming, AR, VR, and then deeply investigate how they are improving human performance through channels such as health, wellness, learning, training, sports, and entertainment.
In other words – a big room full of really cool futuristic devices and insanely smart people talking about how it can all mash together into improving the human race.
A unique aspect of this conference is that all parties co-mingle as one. Leading Ph.D. Neuroscientists and physicists attend the event to see what’s going on alongside hobbyists, investors and even high school students. Yet - you find seamless intermingling. This is no middle school dance with closed off cliques by the punch bowl and snack table. Everyone meets everyone.
It's a rare environment.
From this intimate exposure with the experts last year, I was able to pick up on a few key industry phrases like EEG (electroencephalography) and tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation) which have really helped me sound way smarter than I am for the last 365.
For the curious, EEG is the process of slapping little pieces of rubber on your head called electrodes which can read the electrical activity in your brain. tDCS is the process of using those same electrodes to massage your brain with little baby microcurrents of electricity. Ideally, EEG gives you data on what the brain is doing, then you can use tDCS to alter what the brain is doing.
I told you it was cool.
To me, items like EEG and tDCS seem like a foreign language. But flying a drone with your brain, deaf people hearing sounds through their tongue and flying a rocket ship through your brain (all technologies presented at the conference) have been exciting enough for me to keep coming back and asking more questions.
That’s how I ended up speaking with John. The kid had some questions. I wanted to better understand how we could make these types of insane innovations more accessible to all entrepreneurial hopefuls and how to approach entrepreneurship in this space.
Here’s what he had to say:
Entrepreneurship Rule Number One: Solution to a Problem
Despite existing within technologies of the future, John was adamant about the fact that ideas and concepts within life sciences must be approached with the core, the fundamental truth of entrepreneurship; you must be solving a problem.
Sweet technologies can get us overly excited and lead us to craft really cool things that no one really wants. As John shared, “The question to ask yourself is if there really is a fundamental problem you are solving or is there a customer for what you’re doing and are you solving their problem.”
The possibilities are endless when it comes to life sciences. EEG and tDCS literally enable creators the ability to manipulate the firing power of the neurons in the brain. But it always comes back to what we actually need: solutions to problems.
As John shares, “This is the ultimate challenge.”
Find Trusted Counsel, Be It Your Mentor, Advisor or Sensei
John being a seasoned entrepreneur and advisor I asked him, “When is the time to give up and when is the time to be ignorant to the naysayers and to power on?” This question is more relevant than ever for the world’s mountain movers.
How do you know if electric cars will work or if a privatized rocket company makes sense? When do you double down?
“It’s essential to find trust counsel who cares about you and will give you objective feedback [...] they will keep your best interests at heart, they will say hey I love that you are chasing the rainbow but I think you are chasing the wrong rainbow.”
This was a point John emphasized throughout our entire talk. When referencing building out your team, he spoke of minimizing the learning curve through great mentors and teammates. Be it life sciences and brain hardware, drones, AR/VR or just normal software, your goal should be to minimize the learning curve.
“Everybody goes through the learning curve, that’s okay but don’t surround yourself with a bunch of other people who are on the learning curve, get a Senior VP of Engineering who is smart and can teach you things.”
Be Careful Who You Take Money From
If you’re trying to change the dynamics of the world and bring to life something revolutionary, as many are within life sciences, you better have advisors who are in for the ride. “Be careful of whom you take money from, if there is not a good fit between vision and fit, things will become difficult when you hit rough waters, which will come, and at that time you want someone who will have your back.”
A case study for this is Jeff Bezos and Amazon. While not life sciences, Jeff Bezos aimed to bet big and change the world. If the investors for Amazon had not been locked in for the long-haul, board meetings would have been terrorizing hell for those 10-15 years Amazon was not profitable.
If your motivation isn’t money, which for most founder it is not, John’s advice is to “Raise just as much money as you need, money is the most expensive thing you’ll ever take. It comes with strings, you have someone on board who has the goal of financial profits and be aware of that.”
The Science Must be Proven
Entrepreneurship is hard. Convincing people you can actually manipulate the waves of the brain and lead to 10x productivity (or whatever) is going to be doubly difficult. For this, John recommends evidence. Very much proven evidence that you have got things figured out. Not just hypothetical lines are drawn connecting a few research studies.
“Our world is science meets technology. What is important here is that the science is proven. The table stakes are that the science is valid and new ideas, innovations, and companies have proven whatever it is are effective in a rigorous science study.”
What Technology Should Come Next?
Considering John lives within the realm of the coolest of the cool that is emerging from the sciences, I had to ask; “what next? what do you want to see?”
“There needs to be the next lightweight display platform before AR/VR. I think you see examples of what people are trying to make where devices are aiming to display information directly onto the cornea or you know laser based projection that are rasterizing images onto the eye.. those are potential outcomes.”
“Then, lightweight consumer exoskeletons and/or muscle amplification, companies like ROAM ROBOTICS are consumer grade exoskeletons which are beginning to generate lots of heat in that area.”
“The next generation of technology down the pipeline is going to be absolutely mind-shattering and I know that’s way down the pipe but that stuff is so fascinating.. once you know these things are possible you can’t unsee them”
Want to learn more about futuristic technologies? JAZZ Venture Partners invests in companies that “improve human performance.”
Keep up with them here.