Spreading a Globally Oriented Innovation Meme in Ontario: A Prediction Market?September 14th, 2009 — Michael G. Cayley
UPDATE, January 2016: Hmm … I think we maybe on to something. In this experiment we switched focus from working with one investor and trying to push dozens of startups through the platform, to working with one startup who posted a cash prize for the winner of their LAB. Around this one startup we had 19 experts join the platform and we received 17 forecasts for the startup.
UPDATE, October 2014: This month, we have finally launched an updated version of Cdling.com, working with a world class team of computer scientists in Italy and Advisors in Toronto, Silicon Valley and New York. We now have about 1800 users from 80 cities on the platform. It has been great to be recognized early by folks like the President of CrunchBase as part of a new class of startups.
UPDATE, November 29th, 2010: Although I have not been actively pitching, a lot of people that I talk to have a point of view on the state of the venture capital industry and innovation in Ontario, so I end up sharing mine too (i.e. the ideas below).
Most provide feedback that VCs won’t invest in a start up to do what I have described below. The VC model is based upon the notion that two or a few guys sit around a table making decisions with the belief (in cases, validated by success that has my utmost respect) that they are smarter than the market or at least ahead of it. I agree with this feedback. In fact the ideas below are based in part on observations of these kinds of structural challenges to innovation.
In any event, I have registered the domain www.cdling.com and tried to put a finer point on the ideas below.
UPDATE, Mar 2010 – This idea could easily be applied across Canada, in Silicon Valley … globally. I trust that readers can envision the edits that would be required below to adjust.
UPDATE, Nov. 19, 2009: It seems that something like the idea below is being tested in an executive program at Singularity University in Silicon Valley. Crowdcast points out that there are fundamental flaws with an idea market but it seems that they go on to explain how a prediction market may work for the application that I have described below.
UPDATE 2, Jan. 2, 2010: Was just introduced to Jed Christiansen’s Mercury Blog on prediction markets and innovation and found his simple introductory video. I would love to have Jed’s comments on the post below.
Quite a while back I wrote a couple of posts over at www.socialcapitalvalueadd.com that provided some observations on the dangers of tightly knit social networks in Ontario’s business community and a request to the Ontario Government to focus any investment to bail out the troubled venture capital industry in this province on building global connections.
A year later the meat of these posts became a cocktail conversation at NetChange Week at MaRs. The cultural irony in the air was noteworthy, having boot strapping social entrepreneurs gathered, talking about self starting, market driven enterprise while a concentration of Canadian establishment digital media execs and politicians were assembled in Stratford “defining Canada’s digital future” with a $10-million cheque, a declaration and the idea of a government led national digital media action plan.
Is it safe to say at this point that Ontario needs a change in culture to continue to enjoy the privileged position it has held in Canada and globally? I think so. There is a lot of quality conversation (like Research Capital’s effort & the exchange at StartUpNorth) and some money being thrown at the problem (by the Ontario & Federal Governments).
That cocktail conversation led to an email exchange that I have been meaning to dump into a blog post all summer. I hope that you put this into the mix of quality conversation. Perhaps if it drums up some interest, we can evolve the thoughts here from a rough set of cut and pastes into a viable plan?
While we think we suffer unique hardship in Ontario, with power and money being concentrated in Toronto and Ottawa, while innovation is often highly distributed at the edges – disconnected from power, money & each other – it occurs to me that this is a well recognized pattern once you understand social networks. Innovation – a new combination of information, insight & resources – often takes place when weak ties bring together the previously unassociated. So we need solutions designed to improve these loose connections, not reinforce the status quo.
If you talk to local angel organisations you will learn that they are seeing more then 200 seed stage companies a year. About 25 are getting funded at this stage.
VCs say that they need at least 50 quality deals to get through initial start up to have a funnel of activity that will produce enough home runs to float the domestic industry.
Both VCs & angels will tell you that one of the problems in Ontario is that they are not seeing enough quality deals.
Seed stage companies are full of risk. So far Ontario doesn’t seem to have a Yossi Vardi who can successfully invest in 50 to 80 hungry entrepreneurs that he can believe in.
Most agree that companies that survive and thrive do so because of the PEOPLE! I can not believe that there are not 40 or 50 promising people to back in business in Ontario each year. Once you get going with a business relationship among good people, you might change the business model, you might change key players, go after different customers, etc but you are way more likely to come out with a growing business then if you take this crazy view that quality deals are divined by Angels. That is sort of the point. World class Angels & VCs work with great people through the good, the bad and the ugly and still come up with a return on investment that keeps institutional investors coming back to the table.
So can we agree that Ontario would be much further ahead on the innovation file if we were seeding great business people? So the question is … how do we seed 40 to 50 promising startups in Ontario every year? (i.e. funding under $500K).
Some thoughts to steer around (or through) …
– we don’t need to start something like MaRs that is GREAT, but money is needed in startups not institutions,
– we don’t want to give money to the same people (i.e. Ontario VCs, Ontario bankers) to solve this problem, they have their own problems to solve, pre-revenue startups are not an ideal focus for them and besides … startups are going to save Canada’s Venture Capital industry.
– we don’t want to put any team of experts (more people to pay instead of funding start ups), a bureaucracy or government in the position of trying to pick winners from losers in the start up world, too risky, too slow, too much same old “who you know” thing in Ontario.
So how about setting up a prediction market to select the companies that will get seeded?
I am told that if you are going to sit down with government, you should have some sort of ask in mind.
My ask would be this –
Use some dough out of the Ontario Venture Capital Fund and the Emerging Technologies Fund (since hardly any of this money has hit the street yet) or find new money to set up an Ontario Seedling Prediction Market. Get Ontario VCs to partially fund or make some sort of commitment to this initiative since this is helping solve the quality deal flow problem that they complain about. Make the Prediction Market open and global but the companies vying on the market must be Ontario based.
Set up a standard corporate structure so that these seedlings are ready to scale and (if their promise warrants) take on a $10-million B round (keep founders in, but be big enough and compete with US early stage venture companies).
Get commitments from government and globally based investors (to bring competition and connections for later rounds) to provide the $20-million a year needed to seed 40 companies.
A couple of other upsides from a prediction market approach that come to mind …
a) A prediction market would orient seed companies toward a global market rather than a local closed network. We all know how the Bell Fund, the NRC programs and other government programs (ACOA comes to mind) skew companies away from global business focus and turn their attention towards the special “screening”, applications and procedures required to win government favour. Look out! Here come a bunch of new consultants that local capital ends up paying to get their companies through the hoops (money that should be going into start ups!). The relationships required to get funding from an Ontario government program are not aligned with the attention & relationships required to make it through a globally competitive B round (i.e. around $10-million).
b) A prediction market positions the Ontario government to champion the cause of early stage companies with global investors in an consistent, long term, sustainable way. If the Ontario government hires a bunch of “experts” to pick winners (i.e. the typical role of partners in a VC firm or Angels or managers of a pension fund) they become accountable for the picks. They will get evaluated based upon the performance of these investments. Just ask local VCs and Angels how difficult it is to achieve positive returns by picking winners. Have any of them achieved this yet? The success of a prediction market would be a function of the kind of attention & engagement that it obtained from global, diverse markets. The Ontario government could lead targeted programs designed to capture the attention of investors in Silicon Valley, New York, Boston, Hong Kong, Singapore, London, etc … all based upon the premise that obtaining the attention of these investors makes the prediction market function better and showcases Ontario innovation rather than a limited portfolio of companies caught in time by the rear view mirror of a few connected locals.
Here’s a pretty good FAQ from an open prediction market platform called Inkling: http://inklingmarkets.com/homes/faq
Here is a NYT article about Crowdcast another start up in the prediction market space: http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/06/25/start-ups-software-crowdsources-company-forecasts/ Google, HP, Warner Bros., GM and companies in media and pharma all trying out some variation of prediction markets.
In Ontario we really need government to take a lead on something like this because most of our companies are too small to take advantage of these new abilities to tap into emergence and make better decisions on innovation.
GE & Motorola use Consensus Point Software to manage internal prediction markets …
Take a look at The Industry Standard’s prediction market …
Another thought to keep in mind, domestically, encouraging companies across the province to list on the prediction market would create broad awareness of government leadership on the innovation file and awaken Ontario companies to the need to oriented towards globally competitive innovation. The prediction market would create a cross promotional effect (with no crazy spends on wasteful the kinds of broadcast advertising often use to raise awareness of government efforts). As companies oriented themselves towards it, work towards announcing key customers, great products, highlighting great teams, all of their activities would demonstrate to their peers in Ontario what it takes to hatch globally competitive innovation.
A prediction market would cross industries better then common place business plan competitions and pitch forums for start ups.
As some of you know, I have some recent experience with this. My Social Capital Value Add method of linking social media to corporate value was a finalist among over 320 entries from 48 countries in a business plan contest held at the University of Miami by WeMedia in February. (part shameless plug, but this experience definitely pushed me beyond the idea of “democratizing” into learning more about prediction markets which deal with unequal distribution of information better).
Offering prize money only works when you are damn sure the kind of innovation that you want to incent. For example, you could not spur innovation in cleantech and Web 2.0 with the same prize, although once you put a structure in place you could duplicate it in various areas of interest.
Most importantly, while prize money would crowd source desirable innovation, unlike a prediction market, it would not achieve the most important provincial goals which are to wake up all Ontarians to the need for an economy led by globally competitive innovation nor would it orient domestic companies towards global markets instead of a local prize while giving the Ontario government something that they can confidently promote to forge links with foreign markets that are critical to commercialization, marketing success and next rounds of finance.
By the way, a prediction market would not get in the way of Angels or VCs boot strapping early stage seed financing in Ontario. They would be free to go after the same deals, co-invest, etc. We agree that there are more then 20 or so quality groups of hungry, crazy people to invest in. The current ETF approach makes the government a follow on investor, essentially giving this money to existing early stage (not seed) investors, relieving them of the responsibility of earning returns that attract institutional investors. It is relief to existing early stage investors not start ups.
Feel free to read more about prediction markets:
http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/09/prediction-markets-as-collective-inteligence.html The Farmetrics(R) Prediction Market https://www.farmetrics.com/
http://mashable.com/2009/08/31/pretweeting/ Did Intrade Predict the Resignation of "Green Jobs Czar" Van Jones? http://www.daily-chuck.com/2009/09/did-intrade-predict-resignation-of.html http://www.consensuspoint.com/resources/academic-research/Harvard_Consensus_Point_Prediction_Markets.pdf