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General Commentary
June 25, 2017

Winner Takes All

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We did a lot of things that seemed crazy at the time. Many of those crazy things now have over a billion users, like Google Maps, YouTube, Chrome, and Android.

— Larry Page, CEO, Alphabet

A brand is a promise. Accordingly, great brands are created by consistently delivering a product, service, or experience that confirms that promise. It’s reality. It’s the truth.

Starbucks has built an $85+ billion coffee empire by delivering affordable luxury in a consistent yet comfortable setting. It’s one of the reasons you will never see a franchised store — too much brand risk. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz once said that franchising was worse than a terminal disease.

Apple is the most valuable company in the world because its brand represents beautifully designed, easy-to-use technology. The Apple logo is still a status symbol that people proudly display — not coincidentally — in places like Starbucks.

Google is among a pantheon of great brands that have become verbs — which is why many were shocked to learn in August 2015 that the company was changing its name to Alphabet. But the name change punctuated a transformation 15 years in the making. Google, once a search engine, has become a platform of assets — from Android, the largest mobile operating system to YouTube, a disruptive media platform with 1.5 billion users, and Waymo, a pioneering developer of self-driving cars. The list goes on.

In a blog post announcing Google’s new shingle, CEO Larry Page wrote, “We’ve long believed that over time companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes. But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.”

An alphabet is a collection of letters that represent language. Alphabet, accordingly, is a collection of companies that represent the many bets Larry Page is making to ensure his platform is built to not only survive, but to thrive in a future defined by accelerating digital disruption. It’s an “Alpha” bet on a diversified platform of assets.

If you look closely, the world’s top technology companies are making similar bets.


Source: GSV Asset Management

Technology in general and the Internet in particular is all about disproportionate gains to the leader in a category. Accordingly, as technology leaders like Facebook, Alphabet, and Amazon survey the competitive landscape, they have increasingly aimed to develop and acquire emerging technology capabilities across a broad range of complementary categories.

Market Value Comparisons ($B) with GSV Asset Management Estimates for Business Units, including Bing, Google (Alphabet’s Search Business), and YouTube

Source: Company Disclosures, Yahoo Finance, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Recode, BMO Capital Markets, BofA Merrill Lynch, GSV Asset Management Estimates

Facebook, effectively a desktop application when it went public in 2012, has completely reinvented itself into a powerful platform of mobile apps. It has built a monster network of nearly two billion people thanks to high risk venture bets on Instagram and WhatsApp. Instagram now has over 700 million daily active users, including 250 million daily Instagram Stories users. WhatsApp has over 1 billion users and 100 million voice calls are made on WhatsApp daily.

Key Facebook Acquisitions

Source: Facebook, GSV Asset Management

Applying the same mindset to Augmented and Virtual Reality (AR/VR), Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in 2014. At the time, Mark Zuckerberg observed, “Every 10 to 15 years a new major computing platform arrives — we see that virtual and augmented reality are imports parts of this upcoming next platform.”

In just over a year, Alphabet kickstarted the creation of a robotics innovation arm, acquiring eight promising startups beginning in 2013. While the company has kept its plans close to the vest, the new technologies could be applied to everything from self-driving cars, to a much broader array of autonomous systems — including warehouse work, package delivery, and even elderly care.

Key Alphabet Acquisitions in Robotics

Source: GSV Asset Management

Amazon launched in 1994, offering a novel way to purchase books while helping retailers like Target fulfill their fledgling online orders. Today it’s the dominant platform in global e-commerce. But in recent years, much of Amazon’s growth has been fueled by its pioneering cloud infrastructure services business, Amazon AWS.

What began as an internal digital infrastructure investment, Bezos productized AWS in 2004. Today it’s a $12 billion business with 40% market share, greater than the next three competitors combined — Microsoft, Google, and IBM. Analysts have recently extrapolated a $190 billion market value for AWS, which would rank it as the 30th largest business in the world.


1. Autonomous Vehicles + Drones

In 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a Grand Challenge series, a multimillion-dollar competition for university robotics teams to design autonomous vehicles. A rivalry quickly developed between Stanford and Carnegie Mellon (the schools traded the top spots in the first two years of the competition) that shaped the early future of self-driving cars.

Sebastian Thrun, the leader of Stanford’s winning team, took a leave from the university in 2007 to work on Google Street View, and later founded the company’s self-driving-car project. Alphabet’s (Google) highly publicized self-driving car initiative served as a starting gun for the entire industry because it leapfrogged incremental ideas. As opposed to focusing on assisted driving, the company instead committed to creating a car without a steering wheel or pedals. It was the stuff of science fiction and it captured the World’s imagination.

As it has increasingly become clear that self-driving cars are within our grasp, everyone is taking notice.

For automakers, it’s a matter of survival. The combination of ubiquitous ride-sharing platforms with self-driving cars calls into question the need to buy a car. It’s why you’ve seen GM invest $500 million in Lyft in a long-term partnership to deploy a network of autonomous vehicles. Ford has announced that it will create a fleet of self-driving cars by 2021 in a shared network. Tesla’s cars are already outfitted with “Autopilot.” The list goes on. (Disclosure: GSV owns shares in Lyft)

A screenshot of what the Google car sees approaching a right turn; inset, the view from inside the car

Source: Alphabet

For technology companies like Alphabet (Google), Baidu, Microsoft, and Apple, cars could be the next great computing platform. Alphabet spun out its self-driving car project into a new company, creating Waymo in December 2016. Since 2009, Google and Waymo’s cars have spent the equivalent of over 300 years driving in simulations and live demonstrations, with about 2.3 million miles driven on real roads.


Source: Company Disclosures, GSV Asset Management

While Apple scaled back “Project Titan”, its autonomous car initiative, Tim Cook recently announced the company’s renewed focus on autonomous systems, prioritizing the development of the underlying technology for self-driving cars. In June 2017 Cook called this the “mother of all AI projects” on Bloomberg Television.

Microsoft announced an agreement with Renault-Nissan in January 2017 to develop core technology for the company’s autonomous vehicles. Renault-Nissan becomes the first customer for Microsoft’s “Connected Vehicle Platform,” which provides carmakers with a set of apps built around Microsoft Azure’s cloud, Microsoft Office, and Cortana.

Baidu has partnered with the chipmaker nVidia to create an autonomous driving and navigation platform for use by third parties in 2018.

Key Milestones: Autonomous Vehicles, Public Transportation & Consumer Services

Source: GSV Asset Management, McKinsey, Company Disclosures, Bloomberg, New York Times

While robots on wheels are taking to the highways, flying robots, or Drones, are lifting off faster than most predicted. In 2010, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) estimated that by 2020, there would be 15,000 consumer drones in the country. Today, that’s fewer than the number of drones sold per month. The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that over three million drones were purchased in 2016.

In 2014, Google acquired Titan Aerospace, a maker of high-altitude, solar-powered drones, with the idea to beam internet access from the sky to get more people connected. In January 2017, Google shuttered Titan and shifted the focus Titan’s team to other GoogleX projects, including Loon and Project Wing, the latter of which is building an automated delivery aircraft.

Facebook, which lost out to Google to purchase Titan Aerospace, bought a company that created the Aquila glider. Like Google, Facebook has sought to use the drone to increase internet access in remote areas as part of its initiative. Facebook has faced its setbacks as well, with an Aquila drone crashing on a test flight June 2016.


Source: Company Disclosures, GSV Asset Management

In December 2016, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that the company had completed its first fully-autonomous drone delivery in the sleep countryside town of Cambridgeshire, England. A customer ordered an Amazon Fire streaming device and a bag of popcorn and found the goods at his doorstep 13 minutes later. A flurry of patent activity around drones signal major bets are underway.

2. Digital Assistants & Connected Home

The Internet of Things is effectively a catch-all for connecting devices — from consumer objects to industrial equipment — onto a network. This enables information gathering and remote device management via software to increase efficiency. It also enables the creation of new services, to achieve, health, safety, business, or environmental benefits. But increasingly, anything than can be connected will be connected. Accordingly, we’re poised to see a rapid proliferation of IoT devices. Today, Cisco estimates that there are 18 billion such devices, growing to 50 billion by 2020.

Google’s (Alphabet) $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest, the smart thermostat maker, in 2014 signaled the beginning of a land grab for the connected home. Later that year, it bought Dropcam, a home security camera maker, for $550 million.

As the Economist has reported, Nest has undoubtably been a disappointment to date for Google. It sold just 1.3 million units in 2015, and only 2.5 million in total over the past few years. Nest founder Tony Fadell stepped down in June 2016 amid reports that he had a much broader and aggressive vision for the product than Google was willing to pursue.

Nest’s problems are symptomatic of IoT for the home more broadly. According to Forrester, only 6% of American households have a “smart” home device, including internet-connected appliances, home-monitoring systems, speakers or lighting. But as isolated offerings evolve into integrated, compelling services, the opportunity is open-ended. Major technology companies have taken notice, rolling out a variety of offerings to network key aspects of your home.

Last December, Wynn Resorts announced that it would install an Amazon Echo in each of the 4,748 rooms of its flagship Las Vegas property. Beginning in this Summer, the voice activated smart speaker powered by the digital assistant, “Alexa”, will enable guests to control the lights, television, room temperature, drapery, and other amenities. As CEO Steve Wynn observed, “[Alexa] becomes our butler, at the service of each of our guests.”

Amazon Echo at the Wynn Las Vegas

Source: Wynn

Applying this technology to conversational speech recognition led to the launch of Apple’s Siri in 2011— the first broadly distributed advanced consumer digital assistant. A year later, Alphabet (Google) launched Google Now.

But it’s Amazon’s Alexa — which wasn’t released until 2014 — that is becoming the face of digital assistants. Why?

Ironically, Amazon is winning with hardware. Unlike Siri, which resides in a crowded field of iPhone apps, or Google Now, which is embedded in Android applications like “Search”, Alexa was launched as the flagship feature of the sleek Echo speaker. Buying an Echo was like buying a robot. It captured the public imagination, selling 4.4 million units in its first year. Amazon was projected to sell over nine million units in 2016 — it moved 9x more Echoes this Christmas than last year — and more than 40 million per year by 2020 alone. That’s a $4+ billion revenue line.

The company recently announced that Alexa has over 12,000 distinct “skills” in her toolkit — up from 1,000 in June 2016. New “features” announced include whispering and pausing for emphasis. Customers love the product so much that there have been over 250,000 marriage proposals to Alexa.

Amazon’s ambush has broader implications. As with the smartphone, we’re seeing early signs of platform wars around connected homes, with “Smart Speakers” like Echo as a gateway. You can use the device to control a variety of smart appliances and on-demand services through integrations with companies like Samsung, Philips, Belkin, and Uber. It recently released an open API framework to enable the integration and management of other devices and services.

Apple, which announced HomePod this Summer, and Alphabet, which launched Google Home in 2016, are scrambling to catch up.


Source: Company Disclosures, GSV Asset Management

Leading technology companies are also competing to build the software to connect IoT devices, creating a centralized network of devices. Apple’s HomeKit, for example, aims to connect a range of proprietary and third-party smart home devices through an integrated control panel. Amazon recently released an open API framework to enable the integration and management of other devices through its voice-controlled Echo product.


Source: Company Disclosures, GSV Asset Management

3. AR/VR

Virtual Reality (VR) had been pursued and promised since the 1950s, but the convergence of low-cost mobile hardware and powerful new software platforms is bringing it to life. In less than five years we are seeing ripple effects across digital media and beyond.

Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, a college dropout, created a Virtual Reality (VR) “prototype” in 2011 with a smartphone, two eyeglass lenses, duct tape, and a bucket. One year later, Luckey tried to raise $250,000 on Kickstarter and raked in $2.4 million. In 2014, Facebook bought his company for $2 billion and VR had seemingly arrived.


Source: Mark Zuckerberg

While Oculus may be a disappointment for Facebook to date given the nascent technology, today there’s a big belief and a lot of momentum in the idea that first Virtual Reality, and ultimately Augmented Reality, are the next major platform in computing — in the same way that the World went from mainframe to PC to client server to web to mobile. You can already see the smartest companies in the world are deploying billions of dollars of capital around making this happen.

Snapchat, in particular, has pioneered commercial Augmented Reality technology in the social media space with its “selfie lenses” that can seamlessly apply everything from puppy dog ears to flower crowns over user images seamlessly. This April, Snapchat announced a new set of features that allows users to place virtual objects in the real world using a combination of advanced camera and depth sensor applications.


Source: The Verge

This January, Google announced partnerships with Gap and BMW, deploying its AR app Tango to create virtual showrooms. With BMW, Google is developing an app that displays BMW vehicles on smartphone screens, allowing shoppers to walk around superimposed vehicles, manipulating, colors, trims, and even backdrops (e.g., home, garage, etc.) for additional context.

Amazon is rumored to be exploring digital stores to sell furniture and other home products. These stores will reportedly integrate augmented and virtual reality technology, enabling people to see how things like sofas, desks, ovens and more look in their homes before they make a purchase.


Source: Company Disclosures, GSV Asset Management

Apple officially entered the AR/VR race this Summer, announcing ARKit at WWDC. This new platform allows developers to create AR experiences for the iPhone and iPad using the device’s camera. ARKit opens up mobile AR experiences beyond Pokemon Go and immersive games, potentially bridging the technology into schools, hospitals, and retailers. Furniture retailer IKEA has already announced plans to launch an ARKit catalog for the iPhone this Fall.



The launch of Bitcoin in 2009 marked the next frontier for open platforms. At face value, Bitcoin promises an alternative to one of the World’s quintessentially “closed” platforms — money. Instead of relying on central banks for validity and subjecting people to arcane exchange mechanisms, Bitcoin is an open, electronic, peer-to-peer currency. It’s not without controversy.

But while the future of Bitcoin is uncertain — it could be the Facebook or the MySpace of so-called “cryptocurrencies” — the underlying technology powering it, “Blockchain,” is here to stay. Effectively a decentralized, open-source public ledger for the exchange of information, blockchain has the potential to transform any industry that relies on middlemen and “honest brokers” for critical functions — from finance to supply chain management and academic credentialing.

To paraphrase Marc Andreessen, blockchain gives us, for the first time, a way for one Internet user to transfer a unique piece of digital property or information to another Internet user, such that the transfer is guaranteed to be safe and secure. Everyone knows that the transfer has taken place, and nobody can challenge the legitimacy of the transfer.

In other words, Bitcoin is just the beginning. The underlying technology can applied to all manner of “exchanges,” whether or not they’re related to money. The consequences of this breakthrough are hard to overstate. Ethereum, a non-profit that is creating a blockchain framework intended to be more flexible that the original which was created for Bitcoin, has helped evangelize the technology. Ethereum’s value has increased 4,500% this year and it is now 80% the total value of Bitcoin, poised to surpass Bitcoin’s market value in the very near future.

While leading technology platforms have yet to announce major Blockchain initiatives, it’s not hard to see where the applications of blockchain can intersect with current product offerings.


Source: GSV Asset Management


Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Blue Origin are shattering the old Space cost paradigm by making rocket reusability a reality. In November 2015, Blue Origin’s New Shepard became the first rocket to stick a controlled, upright landing after a brief visit above the Space line. SpaceX’s Falcon 9 followed suit weeks later.

All told, Goldman Sachs estimates that improved rocket design and logistics have driven down launch costs 10x over the last decade — more than the entire previous history of Space exploration combined.


Source: GSV Asset Management

As James Crawford, the founder and CEO of satellite imaging startup Orbital Insight has observed, “In the old days, when satellites were like mainframes, incredibly expensive, if you managed to get an image, you probably spent $10,000 on them.” New satellite technology fundamentals, coupled with declining costs for computing power and data storage, have changed the paradigm.

Lower-cost satellites can now be deployed to capture enormous quantities of imaging data that can be applied across a wide range of business functions. Weather services, for example, can utilize sensors on Nanosats to gather more timely information, to the benefit of farmers, transportation and logistics businesses, and rescue workers. Government agencies can analyze imagery to monitor deforestation and environmental impact over time.

In 2014, Google purchased satellite startup Skybox Imaging for $500 million, renaming it to Terra Bella shortly afterwards. Through this acquisition, Google integrated its machine learning capabilities with Terra Bella’s satellites in orbit, with the goal to analyze images taken from space in ways that have never been done before. This year, Planet acquired Terra Bella, and as part of the deal, Alphabet will take a stake in Planet and it has agreed to purchase satellite images from the company for five years.


by Luben Pampoulov

Slack Momentum

The best companies of all times have one common characteristic — they produce healthy growth rates (revenue and earnings) for the longest. Naturally, as companies grow in size, the growth rate decreases. At some point, you can’t keep on growing if you’ve hit your total addressable market. That’s why a company like Apple, which was growing its revenue by 20-30% even at a $500, $600 or even a $700 billion market cap, finally hit a wall and posted a few quarters of revenue declines last year. There just aren’t that many more people they can sell iPhones to.

At an early stage, things are different. A disruptive new company can experience revenue growth rates of 200%+ for years. Some of the best companies can even produce such growth at levels above $100 million of revenue. Lyft for example, generated $700 million in net revenue last year, growing at an impressive +250%, according to The Information. Another example is Snap, which will likely grow over 200% this year. What’s impressive with Snap is that it is seeing increasing engagement, as measured by time spent per user, at the scale of 166+ million daily active users (DAU). (Disclosure: GSV owns shares in Lyft, Snap).

Slack has been a very dynamic growth business. In February 2016, its year-over-year DAU growth rate was +360%, and in May of last year it was still a solid +260%. But it has been decelerating at a faster pace lately. In October 2016, the company announced it hit 4 million DAUs, up +142%, and this January it announced it crossed 5 million DAUs, implying a growth rate of +110%. Never mind the deceleration, it is still impressive growth considering this is a collaboration app, not a social media app, and also given these are daily active users.

Slack is a social collaboration platform that has replaced email for a majority of small and medium sized businesses. It is highly effective for internal communication, and it has been adopted by the majority of tech startups across North America and Western Europe. Even larger customers such as Harvard, eBay, Samsung, Airbnb, or Time Magazine have adopted Slack.

But the competitive landscape is heating up. Other large platforms are launching their own business collaboration tools; Dropbox recently launched Paper, Salesforce has Chatter and RelateIQ, Google has River, Atlassian has HipChat, and Facebook has Workplace. Many big players are moving in quickly, and Slack will have to maintain a superior service in order to stay ahead. (Disclosure: GSV owns shares in Dropbox).

In January, Slack also announced it hit 1.5 million paying users, growing at 130% year-over-year. This implies its current conversion ratio of daily active users to paying users is 30%. While this is up from the 28% conversion ratio two years ago, it is slightly down compared to October 2016.

Last week, media sources indicated that Slack is raising a new $500 million round at a $5 billion valuation. Other sources also reported that Amazon is possibly looking to acquire Slack for $9 billion. (“Alexa, ask everyone in the office what they want from Whole Foods”). A $5 billion valuation would value Slack’s paying user at a cool $3,330 (or about $1000 per daily active user), while the average revenue per paying user is approximately $110 per year. While there is a long way to justify this valuation, Slack’s leverage is in its high growth rate and its pricing power. If it can stabilize and maintain strong user growth, everything will take care of itself. Additionally, with the on-boarding of larger customers, Slack will continue to increase its ARPU, which will give it more leverage on monetization.

We estimate that Slack’s last twelve month revenue is approximately $120 million. With an estimated +110% paying user growth this year, and with ARPU going from $9 to $12, 2017 revenue could be in the $300 million level. At that level, a $5 billion valuation implies 16x ’17 P/S, and a rumored $9 billion acquisition, implies 30x ’17 P/S.

Source: Company reports
* To get Slack MAU number, we estimate Slack to have an 85% DAU/MAU conversion rate

We continue to keep Slack high on our priority list.

Pioneer Notes

by Li Jiang

Staying ahead of the innovation curve has never been more difficult for corporations. Over 72% of Fortune 500 CEOs indicate that, “the rapid pace of innovation,” is their biggest challenge and 90% believe they are too slow to market with new products. As an entrepreneur, imagine if you could iterate at the speed of a startup, but with the scale with the resources, knowledge, and customer channels of a Global 100 company?

This is what we set out to do with the Cisco’s Hyper Innovation Living Labs (CHILL) and GSVlabs partnership. Using an unique process developed by Kate O’Keeffe and her team, over a period of several weeks, we launched a startup with rigorous initial customer discovery, feedback, and product iteration. (Disclosure: GSV owns shares in GSVlabs).

We think this is a game changer in corporate innovation, particularly bringing together the rapidly iterating process of startups with the powerful distribution and customer reach of corporations. Read below on the process of launching the new startup, in Kate’s own words:

MyWays: How Two Days of Innovation Helped Build a Startup from Scratch

By Kate O’Keeffe

As leader of Cisco’s Hyper Innovation Living Labs (CHILL) I see first-hand the race for breakthrough ideas. Markets are moving fast, and everyone is trying to leapfrog the leaders. Yet, even as big companies become leaner and more agile, too many innovation efforts lead nowhere.

Even if the will and the resources are there, all companies, big and small, find the process of engagement with all the relevant stakeholders exhausting and time consuming. By the time you’ve connected with end user customers, industry players, in-company stakeholders and sponsors, investors, subject matter experts, marketing, engineering… it’s almost time to start the whole damn thing again because no doubt the market will have moved.

We designed CHILL to overcome this through a process we call massive inclusion. Anyone who can help deliver a disruptive innovation – from the frontline user to the CEO—needs to be there in person. Here’s how we broke that down when we created a lab around Transforming the Patient Experience of Cancer Care last fall:

  • We brought the industry together: Walgreens, UCSF, Community Health Network, Vocera, Cisco and a large consumer wearable tech company
  • We placed on teams senior executives from those corporations who were involved in oncology, patient experience, digitization and innovation
  • We put them through eight rounds of prototyping and end-user feedback with 40 cancer patients, cancer doctors cancer nurses and pharmacists
  • We assembled a panel for them to pitch to of CEOs, CSOs and CIOs who had authority to invest in the outcomes

In a nutshell, we took two years of iterative development, socialization, and investment decisions and condensed it into two days. One of the outcomes is MyWays. This brand new startup was conceived, and received its first round of investment, from Cisco and Community Health Network, there in the Living Lab. It’s proof that CHILL is turning the traditional innovation model on its head.

Kate O’Keeffe explains the MyWays vision at GSV Investors’ Day.

Next week at Cisco Live, you can hear the MyWays story and meet its acting CEO, Mike Jordan, who will be joining me on stage at 2:00 on Wednesday June 28. The MyWays journey so far illustrates how CHILL enables large companies to move faster than the speed of start up.

Mike Jordan, left, discusses MyWays with Marlon Evans, CEO of GSV Labs, a Silicon Valley incubator
What is so special about MyWays?
MyWays provides a social network environment to coordinate care and information for cancer patients and their caregivers. It engages with users on three levels—clinical, logistical, and emotional.

“There are a lot of tech-forward solutions in healthcare,” says Mike Jordan. “And there are tons of websites and applications that can help people organize meals or rides for people who are sick. But what is missing is a holistic way to guide people through a process that feels overwhelming.”

When someone first hears the word “cancer” from their doctor’s mouth, suddenly their work life and their family life are turned upside down. They need to become an expert in their disease and they need a plan for keeping their life together while getting treatment. It’s all too much to absorb at once. The MyWays app walks people through the process step by step, and provides the right information at the moment users need it. The application looks at the process through the lens of the caregiver, who must understand the big picture while also dealing with a myriad of logistical details. And it provides an easy way for people to provide the specific support needed at any moment—from putting dinner on the table on chemotherapy days to taking notes at a doctor appointment.

Diane Flynn, a breast cancer survivor who provided end-user feedback during the CHILL lab commented, “I think it’s incredible that tools like this—that can be so empowering to both the patient and their caregivers—could emerge in such a short period of time.”

I hope you’ll join me at Cisco Live to see how the next stage of MyWays is unfolding and how Cisco customers are joining us on this journey. And how together, we just might change the world.

Kate O’Keeffe is the Managing Director of CHILL, Cisco Hyperinnovation Living Labs. The mission of CHILL – which is anything but – is to drive disruptive innovation with and for Cisco customers, bringing together diverse corporations and interests with the goal of generating ideas that will lead to breakthrough services, businesses and products.

You can also find Kate on Twitter @Katecokeeffe

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