Samsung Next, the electronics giant's innovation arm, rebranded in January in an effort to jumpstart the worlds of mixed, virtual, and augmented reality.
Next provides cash and partnership opportunities, as well as much-needed guidance through rigorous product development. It has a $150 million fund and 60+ companies in its portfolio, including Maureen Fan's Baobab Studios, and VRB, which PCMag visited in NYC last year and Samsung just fully acquired. PCMag spoke to Samsung Next Ventures Director Ajay Singh, on the line from Silicon Valley, to find out more.
Firstly, tell us what Samsung Next's remit is. I'm specifically part of the investment group—Samsung Next Ventures. We interface with entrepreneurs where they are, around the world—from small, two-person teams, up to companies that needs a deep partnership at the larger Samsung parent level. It's not just about funding, we're active: we'll be a business development partner, bridge the gaps and provide industry connections. We are really looking for ventures that will be important for Samsung not just today, but tomorrow.
In your opinion, is being part of Samsung Next's portfolio a way to get early stage credibility for hiring and useful adult supervision oversight? You're absolutely right. Sometimes, when I'm interacting with very early-stage founders, who perhaps have a very technical background, they may come at it with a "hammer" and I need to consider "Do they have the ability to take it all the way?"
You mean not implode/explode? (Laughs) Right.
So how do you pick a winner? What are the questions you ask yourself before investing? There are quite a few. Do they have the stamina to see this idea/company through? Will they pay consistent attention to what matters? Will they be able to hire people at the right time? Can they create a great culture? Simply put: Can they go the distance and achieve the next level?
Backing up a bit, you came to the US after studying at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, and joined Samsung in 2013. Is there anything from your background that informs your philosophy as an investor today? In India, it was always about survival in so many ways. It's a country of limited resources and many, many, many people. But that's good, in that you're almost always thinking "Well, why should I not do this?"
Because the odds are so stacked against you—why not risk it and reach for the moon? Yes. Necessity is the mother of all invention. In India, one is almost opportunistic all the time, saying "How do I improve myself and my circumstances? Because, if I just sit here, I won't go anywhere." And that's what I see in the really worthwhile early stage investment prospects—a driven sense of: "Why not do this?" Plus, in India, people try to help each other—friends, family, everyone is there to help you elevate yourself all the time. So, as an investor, I know that creating a culture of freedom, and support, is paramount.
I'm sure it's still a competitive environment, but less of the cut-throat madness, because you've got early stage investments within your ecosystem, sometimes physically, as in the coworking spaces? It's still very competitive, but most of the time you're competing against yourself—trying to achieve your vision and go farther than you went the day before. That's just startup culture. That culture is very much a part of Samsung Next's DNA. That's the way it is within our team as well.
You must see so many cool ideas, and people, in your line of work. Good inventors are different: they have a spark in them, something else moves them, powers them, they have this hunger to acquire knowledge and education. I see this especially with those creating early stage companies in AI and AR/VR—the fusion of these areas is very interesting. That's where you see great inventions happen.
Which brings us to LA. I love LA.
Which isn't always the response we get from someone based up north. (Laughs) I was there for the first time in 2010, I stayed in Santa Monica for the summer—it was gorgeous. I really liked the laid back, very creative, vibe, [which is] actually quite different from anywhere else I'd lived before in the US.
You've now got a few key LA-based VR/MR/AR companies in your portfolio, including 8i and Wevr, both of which PCMag have visited. Apart from the fact that 8i is on a fabled Hollywood studio lot and Wevr works with Jon Favreau, can you tell us why LA is a focus for you right now? LA is center-stage right now. VR/AR/MR are bringing the city to the forefront when it comes to content and technology in those core areas. It's similar to Hollywood during the 1920s when its movie industry emerged. Creators in LA understand what it means to create heightened emotive experiences through immersion. Movies drive emotion, as do games—both [are] immersion industries. Today it's around movies and games. Next it'll be all about emergent VR/AR/MR.
Finally, what's next for you in terms of LA investments? Well, I'll be in town for [the] SIGGRAPH [Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques], so looking out for new and exciting immersion style VR/AR/MR early stage companies.