Welcome to Episode 30!
Our guest for STIMY Episode 30 is Dr Finian Tan.
Dr Finian Tan is a Singaporean venture capitalist and Chairman of Vickers Venture Partners: a deep tech VC he founded in 2005 with 4 other partners.
Prior to Vickers, Finian was inter alia:
- Regional Director & Head at J.Aron – Goldman Sachs’ Asian trading arm;
- Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Trade and Industry for the Singapore Government, where he oversaw the creation of the $1 billion dollar TIF fund (he was subsequently appointed as chairman of the said fund); and
- A Managing Director at Draper Fisher Jurvetson Eplanet & the founding partner of its Asia Pacific Operations, where he led the investment into Baidu and remained its largest backer until IPO.
But how did it all begin?
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Who is Dr Finian Tan?
Born on St Finian of Clonard’s Day, Finian had what might be considered an ‘unconventional’ childhood for someone who grew up in Singapore. A childhood where he spent much of his days on the beach with friends and family crabbing, spearfishing, snorkeling, and swimming in the sea!
- 4:10: What it was like growing up in Singapore in the 1960s
He ended up studying engineering at Singapore Polytechnic before pursuing a degree at Glasgow University where he swept all of the academic awards:
In this STIMY episode, Finian shares:
- 6:14: How he ended up studying engineering at Singapore Polytechnic
- 8:19: How the bankruptcy of his father’s company impacted his family
- 9:15: Planning it “like a war” to win all the academic awards at Glasgow University
- 13:09: Completing his Masters & PhD at Cambridge University
From Shell to Creating the Silicon Valley of the East
Upon completion of his PhD, Finian ended up working at Shell as a Chief Trader before being poached by Goldman Sachs to head their Asian office.
Soon after, he left to join the Singapore government where he was tasked with creating the Silicon Valley of the East:
- 15:05: Working as a Chief Trader at Shell
- 15:51: Being poached by Goldman Sachs & later heading J.Aron – the Asian arm of Goldman Sachs
- 18:12: Why Finian decided to leave Goldman Sachs to become the Deputy Secretary of Singapore’s Ministry of Trade & Industry
- 24:21: Joining Draper Fisher Jurvetson Eplanet & figuring out where to invest by drawing a line in his book
- 27:01: Why Finian chose Baidu to be his first & only investment (at $7.5 million!)
- 28:57: Big decisions made by the Baidu board
Founding Vickers Venture Capital
After a string of successful investments, including in KongZhong (an online video game company that delivered x36 returns in 36 months) & Shanghai-based Focus Media (x14 returns in 14 months), Finian launched his own VC firm with 4 other partners (that remain with him today!).
- 31:51: Founding Vickers Venture Partners
- 34:15: Building Vicker’s reputation in the VC space
- 35:07: Best platforms to generate deal flow
- 36:44: Why Vickers pivoted into the deep tech space
- 44:24: Investing in Samumed, which is working to reverse aging by drugging the Wnt signaling pathway!
- 47:05: How Emergex is involved in the COVID-19 vaccine fight
- 55:31: RWDC – a company that is creating 100% biodegradable plastic that looks, feels & costs like plastic
- 58:01: The silver bullet
- 1:00:28: Spending time with entrepreneurs
- 1:01:52: Values that Finian looks for
- 1:03:01: What went wrong with 24 Quan (Finian’s biggest investment failure)
- 1:05:31: How Eavor is making breakthroughs in the geothermal space
- 1:12:13: Plans for Vicker’s Fund IV
- 1:15:21: Institutionalising knowledge as part of Vicker’s succession plan
- 1:17:11: What Finian looks for when hiring someone
- 1:32:17: “To whom much is given, much is required”
- 1:37:16: Charity Water & education in Africa
If you’re looking for more inspirational stories of people in the VC/startup space, check out:
- Ep 26: Cesar Kuriyama – Founder of 1 Second Everyday: a mobile app that lets you record 1 second videos of every day as a form of journaling, which just became the #1 App in the App Store 2020 in the US, UK, Canada, Singapore & many more!
- Ep 24: Malek Ali – Malaysian serial entrepreneur most known for founding Malaysia’s top business radio channel, BFM 89.9 & Fi Life
- Ep 23: Sarah Chen – Co-Founder of Beyond the Billion: a global consortium of over 80 VCs that have collectively pledged over $1 billion in funding in female-founded companies
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Some of the things we talked about in this STIMY Episode can be found below:
- Vickers Venture Partners
- Some of Vickers’ Portfolio Companies which were mentioned in this episode: Samumed, RWDC, Eavor, Chooch, Matchmove, Aardvark, AWAK, Lumitron
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Ep 30: Dr Finian Tan - Chairman, Vickers Venture Partners
Dr Finian Tan: If you have 10 companies, 5 of them fail and they're like your children cause you invest in them, you nurture them and then you grow them and then they become friends.
And when they die, it's because you've lost faith in them because you stopped funding them. If you keep funding, then they never die.
So at some point you have to bite the bullet and say enough is enough. I no longer believe in you. And that's very sad because if you are a father or a parent, you have five children. You would spend the most time on the weakest.
But as a venture capitalist, you have to spend time with the strongest because when you lose the maximum you can lose is one X. The maximum you can gain is unlimited. You can make a thousand X. So clearly, it's pushing the winners.
Ling Yah: Hey everyone. Welcome to episode 30 of the So This Is My Why podcast and the very first episode to be released in 2021!
I'm your host and producer, Ling Yah, and today's guest is Dr. Finian Tan. A Singaporean deep tech venture capitalist and chairman of Vickers Venture Partners - ranked the fifth most consistently performing fund manager worldwide.
But even prior to Vickers, Finian has done a lot, including being a Shell trader, the founding partner of J.Aron, the APAC trading arm of Goldman Sachs before becoming the deputy secretary of Singapore's Ministry of Trade and Industry, where he was tasked with creating the Silicon Valley of the East in Singapore. A tenure that led to him being appointed amongst others, the chairman of the $1 billion TIF fund.
He was also the executive deputy chairman of A*Star.
Thereafter, he became the founding partner of Draper Fisher Jurvetson ePlanet, a Silicon Valley VC, most known then for investing in Skype and Hotmail. And it was there that he made his first and most well-known investment in a little-known startup called Baidu.
We talked about all that, as well as what it was like building his own VC, the unique investment approach, why they pivoted into deep tech space and some of the most exciting portfolio companies that Vickers has, including a company that may very well have unlocked the key to reversing aging. This is a long episode, but I promise that it's an exciting one.
So if you've ever been curious about what it's like to be in the VC world, or just want to know a little bit about the companies that are doing pretty groundbreaking work right now, then this is the episode for you.
Are you ready?
I thought we would start with something that people might notice immediately, which is that you have quite an unusual name. Finian.
And I read that you were actually named because you were born on the day of St Finian of Clonard's day.
And is it fair to say that faith was an important part of your life growing up?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, I wasn't the one who chose my name, so-
Yeah, I grew up in a Catholic family. I was quite involved with the church when I was a young boy. I went to a Catholic school, attended church every weekend.
I served as an alter boy, and then later I joined the choir and later in my life, I became the choir master of two churches. But over the last few decades I've become a free thinker. So I would call myself an agnostic, but a cultural Catholic.
Because religion is quite encompassing. It's not just about the faith. It's not just about what you believe. It's about all the days that they celebrate all the events and Christmas Eve, Christmas day. All those things. So I do celebrate these events still.
So I would call myself a cultural Catholic, but then agnostic in terms of belief.
Ling Yah: And what was it like growing up in Singapore in the 1960s? Were there key moments for you?
Dr Finian Tan: Wow, that's going back quite far back. I grew up by the sea. When I was about eight, my father decided to move from Serangoon Gardens to Pungo, which is in the Northeast just by the sea.
He bought a bungalow, but it wasn't ready. So the priest actually had a small little attap house just by the sea that was empty. Wooden house, zinc roof with attap over it. And he allowed us to live there for a while.
So we lived there for about a year and a half and I have very, very fond memories.
Go by the beach every day, every evening, take off our shoes, play in the sea. We had ropes tied to the tree which is swinging into the sea and doing all sorts of stuff.
And then when the house was ready, we moved in and my dad bought us a motorized sampan initially then later, he bought a speedboat.
And so that's what we did every weekend with our friends. We went crabbing, we went spearfishing and snorkeling. We'd put fish cages in between the rocks. And then the next week we would go and collect the fishes. We would cook them there. Had a lot of fun.
Ling Yah: I understand you were a school swimmer, so did that kind of lifestyle transition you into wanting to swim in school?
Dr Finian Tan: Yes. I never really took lessons, but I grew up just in the water. So when they asked in my class if anybody could swim and I put up my hand. There weren't many swimmers, so re represented the school.
Well that good. We won a few prizes here and there, but no, we were never in competition for the national swimming league, or et cetera, like anything like that.
Ling Yah: And how would your parents have described you then as a child?
Dr Finian Tan: I don't know. They didn't see as much cause we were always out at sea, water skiing or sailing and windsurfing.
And we didn't study very hard. We were kind of exam kids. Maybe a couple of weeks before the exam we would buck up. So the only time when I dedicated my efforts was in the GC O Levels. It's when I spent more than a few weeks to prepare.
Ling Yah: So how did you end up choosing engineering?
Because I noticed you studied engineering at Singapore Polytechnic and you continue at university masters and PhD. So was it something you knew you wanted to do?
Dr Finian Tan: No, actually not. It was chosen for me. as a kid, right? Most parents would tell you to grow up to be a doctor or a lawyer or something like that. And that was kind of my goal too.
But I didn't do very well in Mandarin mainly because I am Peranakan. So we speak Veronica at home, which is a form of Malay. So a very simplified form of Malay.
So Chinese was very alien to us and my brother and sister both studied Malay in school and did very well.
I was the first one to take Chinese. I wasn't very interested in it and didn't do well. And so in Singapore at that time, during my year, it was the first time that you had to pass your Chinese in order to get into A levels.
So to go to college, you would need to pass your Chinese. And I had never passed my Chinese and I didn't really care about it, but suddenly I had to. And that was very tough.
So I ended up going to the Polytechnic. I did very well. I had a lot of A1s but they were all in science and math and English.
So I decided to go to the poly and at that time, the poly didn't have like today you have law, you have all sorts of different things, accounting. At that time, it was just engineering. That's it. Polytechnique was technical.
So what choice did I have? It was either mechanical or production or electronics or electrical or civil. So, eni mini mani mo. And I chose one.
I didn't know what engineering was about. I didn't really like working in the hot sun with a hard hat.
So it wasn't really the career that I wanted. It was more a stepping stone. So I thought, okay, maybe I would do my degree after and then maybe be a lawyer. Because you can switch after you get a first degree. You can do a diploma law. I'll go to the ends of court or something in the UK. So I thought maybe that's what I'll do.
So I went to the poly. I did reasonably well, got a place in Singapore and also got places in the UK, but I had more exemption. So in the UK, I had a 2 years exemption. In Singapore, I had 1 year.
So I was impatient. And so I decided to go to the university of Glasgow. So I went straight, to the third year in a four-year course to two years to graduate.
Ling Yah: And I think when you were there, your father went bankrupt and that was quite a momentous occasion in your family life, right?
Dr Finian Tan: He actually wasn't made bankrupt. His company went bankrupt. But the effect was almost the same because he was a partner in a partnership, so there's unlimited liability, so it didn't matter.
It's joint and several, right. So they seized our house. They took all our cars. So in the end my parents moved to an HDB flat. And that was the first time that they had lived in an HDB, but I was already overseas and I had a scholarship for my fourth year. Cause I did very well for my third year.
And so when I came back on holiday, I saw the HDB flat and lived there for awhile. And then I went back and I got a scholarship to go to Cambridge. I did my master's, my PhD. I taught for a while. And then I came back after that, but by then, , I had a job until I bought an apartment and then later a house.
Ling Yah: Do you feel that that moment changed you? Because I read that you were determined to win all of the awards in your third and fourth year, and you planned it like a war.
Dr Finian Tan: it didn't have anything to do with my dad's situation. In my third year, when I first went to Glasgow, I didn't have anything to do. Well, I didn't know.
So I got to know a few Singaporeans and on the first day of school, I came back, put my bags aside, like I always do and went around, knocking at doors to see who was going to play with me. But everybody was doing some work, so I had nothing to do. So I decided to just maybe go through my stuff and prepare for tomorrow.
And I started doing that daily and when the exams came, I really did well. I excelled. There were, I think, two or three prizes on offer. And after the final exams, I won all three. I didn't aim to win all three, but I happened to have won all three. And so I said, wow this is interesting.
So then I looked at the fourth year and there were like seven prizes or something like that for many, many subjects.
So I said, how cool would it be if I won? All right. Because I already don't have a perfect score. So I said, maybe I should try for that. So I plan for it and yeah, I took it like a war.
Cause if you want to win all the prizes, you can leave nothing to chance, right. So I needed to make sure I was at least 10 marks ahead of number two, but that's very, very tough. You must be super good.
So I planned how I was going to do it. And this may be interesting to you. I realized that when you are at an exam, your mind is not the sharpest and sometimes you have some memory lapses. I couldn't afford that. So I said to myself, how can I remember all the essay answers perfectly. Leaving nothing out because I had to be perfect, right.
So I said, well, actually I remember a lot of songs by heart and I never forget them even in that exam, right. So I said, how can I remember it like a song. How can I remember a particular answer, like a song?
The only way is to practice and to do it daily often. So I wrote all the perfect answers in point form because you can fill in the English language. You just need the points to make sure that you don't miss anything.
So every morning after I'd prepared it all, I would memorize them. And then every day I would write the answers. Every day. For many, many months. So by the time the exam came, I knew these points. It's like the back of my hand, like a song. So I would then spare a lot of time to do the analytical parts.
So now I'm sometimes callous. And sometimes you make a mistake and you don't know, you made a mistake and you get an answer and you feel good about it. How do you know the answer is right?
I knew I had a lot of time to spare. So why do I finish in half the time and then go home? I have to use the time well.
So I decided to find ways to check my answers by either back calculating from the answer to the question.
Sometimes you can do that. And sometimes you can't and if you can't, I figured out a way to arrive at the answer through another means. So completely different ways. And if I arrived at the same answer, then I know I'm correct. So I can check my numerical answers too. So that's what I did.
And I was so nervous because I was so prepared and on the first day of the first exam, I looked at the paper and I knew everything by heart. I could finish it in like one third of the time. I got so excited and I started to shiver and I couldn't keep my hands straight. I couldn't write.
So I said oh, calm down, calm down, held my hand. And then they were okay. I started it and I finished it in like one and a half hours. And in two hours I checked all my answers and I knew I would be like 100 or 98 or something close.
And then I had nothing to do because I was so quick. I still stayed until the end. I just checked and checked and checked and I never left because I didn't want to waste any spare time. So I felt very good after the exams. And then I came home because I had to finish my national service.
So I came home and when the results came out, a friend of mine wrote to me and said, we went to check the board. There's only one name. So I did it.
I was very, very happy because I worked for like a year for that.
Ling Yah: And so on the back of that, you got scholarship offers from Oxford, Cambridge and MIT?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah. I mean I had perfect scores, right. So I could go anywhere. Cambridge was really special because both Oxford and Cambridge. When you go there, it's like going back in time. It's like Harry Potter. Everybody wears a goan and everybody's on a bicycle.
We eat in the hall. And then there's a high table. There's somebody who speaks in Latin and you toast to the master and the queen and it was really nice.
So when I went there for my interview, I fell in love with the place. more than when I went to Oxford, because Cambridge is a little more liberal and I'm a liberal . Oxford is a little more conservative.
And Cambridge is also a little more scientific. And Oxford a bit more liberal arts, like history and PPE, et cetera. So I think Cambridge suited me better. And Cambridge is a town that's dedicated to the university whereas Oxford is a city. So I liked that about Cambridge and I also liked the professors who interviewed me.
So I decided to study at Cambridge. But I needed scholarships. So my college gave me a scholarship and then I won the shell Cambridge scholarship, which I didn't expect. So I was very happy with that. It could fund everything that I needed.
There was a vibrant Malaysia and Singapore in society called CUMSA - Cambridge University Malaysia and Singapore Society. In the past, it was just a Malayan society and then when Singapore and Malaysia split, it became CUMSA.
I was very active.
I ran for president, got elected, so I became the 45th president or something of CUMSA. CUMSA was started by Lee Kuan Yew and I think he was the first president. The second one was Yong Pung How. The ex-Chief Justice. And I think many of the cabinet ministers were also active in CUMSA. People like Georgia and Leng Meng Hao and people like that, I believe. So it was fun.
We would get all our local food when we go to CUMSA events. So rendang and mee rebus and all these things.
Ling Yah: So after all those years spent in that collegiate environment, what was it like transitioning out and working at Shell?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, I was always looking forward to working in a big multinational corporation. That was my dream. So Shell I guess is as multinational as you can get . It's Royal Dutch. So it's British and Dutch.
I enjoyed working for Shell very much. It taught me a lot of skills that I still use today. I started in supply and trading and then eventually I was posted to Japan, became a trader.
And so Shell also taught me Japanese and I became fluent in Japanese because I worked for Shell Japan for a few years. I lost some vocabulary because I don't practice as much . But every time I go to Japan after a few weeks, I'm comfortable again.
So I'm very happy that I learned another language, especially since my Mandarin is so weak.
Ling Yah: And how did you end up in Goldman Sachs? I think you were poached, were you?
Dr Finian Tan: Yes. I was a very active and gutsy trader.
Maybe gutsy is not the right word. I was a planner and I would plan big plays, kind of cornering the market. And I put on a few plays and on one of them the counterparty that lost the most was actually Goldman.
So in the end they decided to hire me.
So they offered me a very good position. So I joined them in Singapore. Then I was posted to London and traveled to New York a lot. And then I came back to head the office of J.Aron and J.Aron runs trading for Goldman. it's not, we just call it Goldman, but at the time it was still called J.Aron. Goldman acquired them in 1982 and kept the name until the 2000 something.
Goldman was a big, big change because Goldman is an American firm and that was the first time I was exposed to Americans because I went to Cambridge. I went to Glasgow, I worked for Royal Dutch shell. And then suddenly I joined an American farm and it's very, very different.
The hierarchy is very flat. And it's all a question of how good you are. Doesn't matter how long you've been there. And you need to be gutsy to speak up and just speak your mind and may the best man win.
So a very different culture was totally different and people were very relaxed. Dressing was relaxed.
You can put your feet on the table when you're talking to somebody else, whereas in Shell that never happens. Very prim and proper. I adapted. And quickly became the head of the office in Singapore.
And then somebody asked me to join the government and that really posed a big crossroad in my life.
Ling Yah: How did they hear about you? Because you were based in New York for a time, right, before you asked to go back to Singapore.
Dr Finian Tan: Well you know in Cambridge, most of them are scholars and all the scholarships come from the government. So I knew a lot of people in government. So they made me an offer to be deputy secretary of the ministry of trade and industry.
I was a young man of 34. And I knew that they stretched as far as they could to get me in. So even though they couldn't pay me what I used to ride it didn't matter. What mattered to me was that they tried their best. So they really stretched.
And they gave me a very coveted position. MTI is the place that runs the economy. So it was perfect for me.
Ling Yah: I read that they had never offered such a senior position to someone from private practice.
Dr Finian Tan: Yes at that time, no. Since then, no too.
Ling Yah: What were the main considerations for you to decide to make that jump? Because as you said, you had to take a pay cut and it was reported that your income then was less than what you were paying in tax in Goldman.
Dr Finian Tan: The reason was as a trader, you only know what you trade. And there's not very many, a few commodities, right. And that's it.
So whenever I would have lunch or dinners with my friends from the government, I found them very learned. They had opinions about everything in the world. And I didn't. I just knew about my stuff.
And every time I had an opinion about the education system or something, they would actually, and everything from a macro perspective, from a balanced perspective.
To give you an example, let's say you know, I suggested reducing the class size. They said, okay, to how much?
I said maybe 15 people per class. At that time it was 44. So that's like more than 2 times, right? So you have to increase the ministry of education's budget by two or three X. Where's the money going to come from? Do you take it from defense? Do you take it from the environment? Do you take it from the ministry of national development? Or do you take them all?
Wow. I would never think of an answer like that, right? You are only looking at it parochially from the bottom up. But his answer was from the top balance. So I wished to be as smart as them. So when the offer came, I thought, Hmm, maybe this is my opportunity to broaden my thinking and see things from the top down rather than from the bottom up.
So that's the main reason I think. Have you heard of the four L's?
To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy.
So my interpretation of that is to live on matters of the material senses. So material things. And then to learn involves the brain or the mind. To love matters of the heart and to leave a legacy methods of the soul, or I guess what you leave behind, right?
So the job in Goldman didn't fulfill all 4 Ls. I was materially, very, very satisfied, but I wasn't learning as much. I was contributing a lot. Because I was good at what I did.
Did I love my job? When I'm up? I loved it. When I was down, I didn't like it. So it was kind of a rollercoaster ride.
And was I leaving anything behind? Not quite as a trader. You're an intermediary, right? You don't really create anything. So it wasn't conceived from a 4 L perspective.
The government was more, you leave a legacy, what you do has an impact on everyone. If you do it well, you can make people's lives much better.
So leaving a legacy is good and you're learning every day and you are moving from ministry to ministry because at the end, it's an open ministry. So you're learning a lot and you're enjoying what you do because you're contributing.
Materially, it was okay. Cause Singapore pays pretty well. But I had to give up quite a bit there. But there is just so much you can get in each L.
So, let's say you earn 3 million you're fulfilled materially. If you earn 10 million, it doesn't change it very much. No, that L is already fulfilled. So it's more the other things that you should look at. So I felt that this would be more fulfilling.
And if I didn't like it, I can always go back. So I didn't really have very much to lose, just time.
So I took the plunge. It changed my life mainly because I was asked to help make Singapore into a Silicon Valley for Asia. And that got me into venture capital, into startups. And finally, I could use one part of my brain that I didn't use, which is my PhD in engineering.
Because as a trader, I was just using my numbered skills. But now I could use my financial skills plus my tech skills. So that was very helpful because with venture capital it's really a mix of finance and tech, so it was perfect for me. And I saw my calling.
So after one term, I joined Draper Fisher Jurvetson eplanet ventures.
They were well known today. Draper is well known today for Tesla space X and simplicity and all of Elon Musk's company. But at that time they were known for Hotmail and Skype.
So I joined them as the founding partner for Asia and lucky enough, my first investment was a small company at the time called Baidu.
So we took a very big stake in the company. We began with 25% and gradually inch that up to 28% of the IPO. And I think it still holds the record for the best performing IPO in NASDAQ's history.
Ling Yah: Before we jump into that, I wanted to go back to what you were doing at the ministry, because you came up with three recommendations and I would love to know the thought process behind how you came up with those three recommendations, because I felt that they were very big and very audacious.
One of it was the TIF fund of 1 billion. That's a huge sum. And like creating this tech hub at Bueno Vista, like how do you from being a shell trader and having that sort of narrow view of the world go to creating this big vision?
Dr Finian Tan: By the time I made those recommendations, I had already been getting the government for a few years and I had already been studying how to make Singapore into a knowledge-based economy.
So I had already been studying in Silicon Valley, studying Israel and studying Ireland, studying all sorts of different models. And I had already traveled the world before we made those recommendations.
And it wasn't me just by me. They had a whole team of people and Dr. Tony Tan, the then deputy prime minister who later became president, was also very instrumental.
There was Teo Ming Kian, who was the finance secretary who was seconded to the NSTV at the time A*Star, his predecessor.
And I think between the three of us, we came up with the three recommendations, which were approved. And I was made the chairman of all three.
Ling Yah: Were you not inclined to stay on to see it all through?
Dr Finian Tan: I was there for three and a half years and you can do so much as somebody in government. You're not a player. You're a referee, a trainer, an umpire, but you're not the player.
And with the internet booming like that, I was itchy. I wanted to play. That's the only way I could do it to actually go in by myself because the internet revolution at that time was the biggest revolution that I had ever seen in my life.
The biggest change. Everything else was incremental, but the internet would change everything. So I decided to go in headfirst.
And rightly so, because it has impacted the world in such a big way. And the other thing that was changing the world was China. So I got so excited about China and so that's why I became the founding partner for Asia and the first offices I opened in Beijing initially, and then later Shanghai as well.
Ling Yah: And I understand at the time you had this interesting way of deciding how to invest, you drew a line in the book, how did that whole thing come about?
Dr Finian Tan: The year 2000 was a very funny period. 1999, 2000. Anything that had dot com was going crazy for no good reasons. Just measured on eyeballs, even though there was no path to profitability, nobody cared.
Valuations were sky high. Everything was in the billions. So I was no longer a young kid at that time. So I couldn't just blindly invest in something that had no path to profitability. So I said, okay, why don't I draw a line in my book and on the left, write what I know for sure. And on the right, I would put what I was still unsure about.
So all the business models that I was unsure about of the companies like Inktomi, Inforseed, Ask Jeeves, Infospace, Ariba, all these companies, right? eBay, Amazon. And then, okay. It started to fill up the whole page.
So I said, okay, what do I do on the left for sure? The internet will grow, number one. China will grow number two and that's it.
So I asked myself since I know these two will happen. What could I invest in that will surely make money if these two things happen. And after thinking about it for a long time, I realized that it was the operating system of the internet in China, but what was the operating system of the internet? What is the operating system on the internet? That was difficult.
Was it Microsoft? No. Was it Cisco since they supplied all the devices? No. Was it the Explorer equivalent at the time, Netscape? And I didn't think so. So in the end, I concluded that it was search because that's what we still do today, as soon as we go in.
So that got me very, very interested in search. So we talked to all the companies that have come into the DFJ family. All the search companies.
Those that came to our friends. We talked to the incumbents, we talked to the customers and we realized that by do stood out perfectly because the way you measure such a company is relatively easy because its objective is speed and relevance and Baidu as the fastest and the most relevant because they had a completely new architecture.
So the choice of Baidu was easier than deciding what to invest in using the line in the book. That was the more difficult part.
Ling Yah: So they were better than OpenFind? Because that was the technology incumbent then, right? And Baidu was the upstart.
Dr Finian Tan: Correct. By far by far. We measured it, it was better. And we spoke to the customers, they were moving as well.
They were thinking of switching to Baidu, but not yet. They hadn't switched yet. So we took a risk, but that's the nature of venture capital, right? You have to take those risks.
Ling Yah: At the time when you jumped into Baidu, they were a small startup, no revenue.
They went to the market for nine months. No one else was jumping into it. And he decided to make that big play of 7.5 million. So was it the entrepreneurs like Robin and Eric who convinced you that it was worth that big, giant bet this one year, your first time?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah, I think obviously, the team was amazing.
Robin and Eric were amazing. They really knew what they were talking about. Robin had spent his life doing such at least the last few years of his life. And Eric was a boy Friday. He could do everything. And he had a lot of charisma too because he interviewed a lot of people in Silicon Valley, et cetera. He was kind of a semi journalist for a while.
So the team made a lot of difference.
But after deciding to invest in the operating system of the internet in China, deciding that that was search, finding the best company in that space, there was nothing else I wanted. So in the year 2000, when most people invested in anything that walked, that had www.com I only wanted one.
So we only invested in one company in the year 2000, which is Baidu. So since it's the only company I wanted, I decided to take as big an investment as I could make.
And after I filled my requirements on that, I could think about other things. So that's why we could take it off. There were other people wanting to put up a million here, a million there, and together they could form a consortium. I came, I liked it very much, I took it all.
And in the end we allowed IDG to invest a million with us. And that's it. And the rest of the REApps from existing investors.
Ling Yah: And were you very involved in the decision-making? Because you had 2 out of 7 board seats.
Dr Finian Tan: Yes. I had two seats on the board. So there was a big representation because we were the largest investor and became the largest shareholder later.
Besides having 2 out of 7, there was also an executive committee of 4 and we had 2 as well.
So yes, we had a lot of responsibilities on our shoulders, but we consulted a lot with the other investors and the other shareholders were from overseas from the US so they relied on us a lot and they would vote with us.
Because we were in the same boat as that we were shareholders and investors and non-executive, and we didn't have any conflict. So they were quite reliant on our take of any suggestions by the team.
Ling Yah: Were there any big decisions that you made at the time?
Dr Finian Tan: Oh yes. I wouldn't say a big decision that we made.
I would say that we made it together with the team. Yes. We made some very big decisions because we were at the time of technology provider to Sohu and Sina. So because we were suppliers of technology to these people, we couldn't compete with them. And if we competed with them, we would lose their business.
But because they had the power of the negotiation, they will always try to make sure that our price per click was low. And since they were so powerful, they could keep it low. And even though we would increase the volume a lot, they could reduce the price so that the net revenues remained roughly the same.
And that's not the way you would grow a firm.
So we were pressured on the revenue side because there were renegotiations of pricing every time. So we then realized that we had to compete and be our own website. And not just be behind the scenes powered by Baidu and launching Baidu was hugely risky because we would lose all our revenues suddenly.
And what if there was no takeoff? Then we would die.
So we started first with the temporary site Si fen. Fully owned by us, powered by us, but nobody knew that. So it was very clean and then we saw the take up very, very good. And then we changed it to Baidu and the rest of this is history.
But credit should be given to Robin and Eric because they were the ones strategizing, came up with these ideas. And the best thing I did was to say, yes, I agree.
Ling Yah: And in August 2015, when Baidu listed, were you surprised by the performance?
Dr Finian Tan: 750 was the IPO price. And it shot to 4 billion on the first day. And that's why it has the record of the best performing IPO.
I was surprised by the 4 billion number. I was unhappy with the 750, but we were convinced by the bankers that Chinese companies were unknown.
Nobody has made money from China. China is like a big black hole. You put money in, never comes out. So we need to go out with a sweet price. So we had to do what the bankers advised. And so we priced ourselves lower than what I thought the value should have been.
So we kind of underpriced it a bit to ensure that the take-up was good, but in the end it was not just good.
It was marvelous. And it shot up to 4 billion. So although we hold the record of the best performing stock there's not necessarily something to be extremely joyous about. It also means that we under-priced it somewhat.
So it would have been better if we had priced, it said one and a half or 2 billion, then a shot to fall and we might not have the record, but we would have had less dilution for the amount we raised or we could've raised more money, looking back.
But it was a very successful IPO and the company is a big player today. So I don't think there's anything to regret.
Ling Yah: And you were described as having the Midas Touch because after that you had KongZhong and Focus Media and they all had multipliers at an incredible amount.
Were you thinking at the time, because of all the success that you were ready to start your own firm, as opposed to going under eplanet?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah, my role in Focus was less because by that time I had already reduced my role in DRG. Cause I had already wanted to come out to start my own fund.
But I was still chairman of the investment committee and supported the deal. But yeah, with the performance of these three companies and with another three IPOs, we had a very, very good performance. In fact, if you circle the portfolio that we created, it would have been the best in the world.
So yeah with that, I felt that maybe I should do it myself.
I came on and started because together with 4 other partners. My brother, my old school mate, Jeffrey, and two guys that he introduced me to. One was Dr. Khalil Bein Bein, and a lady named Linda Lee.
And then I found a very good CFO named Raymond, who's still with us today. So in fact, all of us are still together and we started Vickers Fund 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. And as I said, we're still together today, so we're enjoying ourselves.
Ling Yah: And I read that when you founded Vickers, you actually sold some of your Baidu shares and invested pretty much all of your money into Vickers.
Were you not nervous about that? Having succeeded so well and just thrown into this new venture?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah, I didn't start that way. I had a backer initially. And then later I decided to buy his shares and then I raised a little bit of money from my ex Goldman people. And that's when I actually met Khalil Bein Bein, who has now become my best friend. He was introduced to me by Dr. Jeffrey Chi.
So in terms of nervousness, no.I fully believed in what we were doing.
Actually the risk of the GP, the venture capitalist is mainly reputation because the whole business model of venture capital is that you raise capital. If you make money, you get like 20, 25, 30% of the profits.
If you lose money, actually the VC doesn't lose much. Except his own investment in the fund. But you could lose a lot of LPs money. So actually the risk is not that high from that perspective, but you will lose a lot of reputation and you never raise another fund if you lost people's money.
So I wouldn't say that the fear was losing my money. The fear was losing my reputation and losing people's money. That people who believed in you. So that was my biggest fear of losing their money more than mine.
Ling Yah: But in the early days, reputation was something that you had to build as well, right? Because you had naysayers saying, oh, you succeeded because you had big names like eplanet backing you, and now you're alone.
So how did you build that reputation from the ground up?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, I had some reputation from DFJ ePlanet because I was involved in a very successful fund, I was the chairman of the fund. I was the founder of the Asian team. So yes. People were doubtful whether I could replicate the success. Exactly.
But there were enough people who had some faith. I was a head, right. So I must have contributed sufficiently. And in fact, I remained on the board of the DFJ ePlanet until 2008. Even way after I started Vickers, and that also showed that I didn't leave because I didn't perform.
I continued to be on the board. In fact, I remained the chairman of the investment committee until I started Vickers investment committee, and then I resigned as chairman of the previous fund.
And I remain a shareholder until now. I'm still a shareholder of DFJ ePlanet one. I had no executive role once I started to avoid any conflict.
Ling Yah: So in those early days, how did you go out seeking deals for your new VC? What was the best platform that you found to generate new leads?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah. At first, we were very reliant on burning shoe leather.
So we had to go out and hunt for deals because we were unknown and it was a totally new name, Vickers, so we tried to do things that would result in a lot of deal flow. So Jeffrey was then an adjunct professor at SMU.
Khalil was his normal self, which is he entertains every night. Every night. I think that maybe two weeks a year that he doesn't have guests.
Ling Yah: Personal physician to Malcolm Forbes. So good connections.
Dr Finian Tan: That's right. Yeah, indeed. And he knows the Royal family in Morocco very well. And as a result, he knew a lot of very highly influential people. And he's just naturally kind and he loves everybody and there's no defense for love. So that was our secret weapon. Khalil.
And then Linda because she grew up in China. She is totally Chinese and China is very important to us. and then there was some Beida. Beida's very big in the tech space, in the startup space.
And then my brother has been in IT for so long. Also brought a lot of deals. So in the end we had a small team, all partners. And we worked very hard to raise money and work very hard to get deal flow.
Today, different. We're more established. We have a track record, so the deals mostly come to us. It's still a lot of work to sieve them, to filter them because we get like 5,000 deals a year today and it takes a lot of effort and time and experience.
The good news is we keep getting better because we're a learning system and make less mistakes.
Ling Yah: And the interesting thing is that you used to be a generalist fund, but now you're a deep tech fund. So how did that transition happen for you to decide you wanted to niche down?
Dr Finian Tan: I started by being very interested in the internet and that's why I invested in Baidu and Khongzong, et cetera. As we went along, we realized that the B2C space you needed more and more money to acquire customers. And so the biggest pocket wins.
And number two, if you have a new idea, a new product. The chances of it succeeding is actually very low.
For every Instagram, you have a thousand failures of Instagram wannabees. For every Twitter. For every Facebook. There were thousands of failures and the winner takes all because of the network effect. So that's not a good business model for venture capitalists to be in, right?
Because the chances of you finding the Facebook amongst all the social networks is so small. So that's why the failure rate is so high. And so we have quite a high failure rate.
I mean, not as high as the industry average. Industry average like 60 over percent failure. We have a failure rate of about 34 or something like that, but it's tough having a 34% failure rate because that's measured in dollar terms. The number of our companies, more than 34%.
So let's say it's 50. If you have 10 companies, 5 of them fail and they're like your children cause you invest in them, you nurture them and then you grow them and then they become friends.
And when they die, it's because you've lost faith in them because you stopped funding them. If you keep funding, then they never die.
So at some point you have to bite the bullet and say enough is enough. I no longer believe in you. And that's very sad because if you are a father or a parent, you have five children. You would spend the most time on the weakest.
But as a venture capitalist, you have to spend time with the strongest because when you lose the maximum you can lose is one X. The maximum you can gain is unlimited. You can make a thousand X. So clearly, it's pushing the winners.
So it's like being a father. Then you have five kids, two of them a week, and then you focus on the strong that's very sad.
It's very hard to do so besides the losing of money in the failures. It was tough emotionally. So I wanted to reduce the failure rate a lot, just because of that.
And I looked at all the data as chairman of the investment committee. I looked at all the data and our performance. I realized that in these tikam type bets, we made more mistakes.
So what were we really good at?
We were really good cause we have a lot of tech guys. We have so many PhDs, so many advanced degrees. So we were particularly good at assessing technology risks. So does it work? We are not good at assessing market risk. So will people buy?
Having a PhD doesn't help me guess whether you were like this social network or whether you prefer this bike sharing or car sharing company. In fact, I have no idea what you would like. I can't even guess what my wife liked for Christmas.
So why should we be in a space that is needing us to guess? That's not what LPs pay has to do.
They pay us to do something that we are superbly, supremely good at, and that's tech. So I gradually morphed us into more deep tech and with fund six, we are purely deep tech today. But that required us to move and expand because D tech doesn't come mostly from Asia. It comes mostly from the West.
And today we have offices in New York. We have a presence in Miami. We are in LA. We are in San Diego. We are in San Francisco, Palo Alto, London, Shanghai and Singapore. So we have become a global firm with about half our deal flow from the US, quarter from Europe and a quarter from Asia.
Ling Yah: This kind of approach that you use, is it common among VCs?
Because when you lay out that way, it makes so much sense to focus on what you are good at.
Dr Finian Tan: You see, how do you measure a good performance? Let's say a VC has 10 companies, 9 fail. One of them makes a hundred times the whole fund makes 10 X. He feels like a hero. Because the result is good. LPs are happy and they invest in his second fund. Why should he change?
And then his second fund, maybe two out of 10 that really hit the ball out of the park. He becomes invincible, right? All the LPs come back and invest in his Fund 3. So based on results, he would feel emboldened. He would feel empowered and the LPs would believe in him because he's done very, very well.
But that's not quite my cup of tea because I asked myself you know, supposing that 10 companies that succeeded were in my second fund and not in my first.
And then I have 9 failures out of 10, then I'm dead, right? Then Fund 2 would have been very good, but I would not have been able to raise Fund 2 because Fund 1 didn't do well. So it's just too much volatility for my liking. And so I decided to cut the risk and keep the returns as far as I could.
And that's normally very difficult to do because when you reduce risks, You reduce returns. but I felt that we knew enough about technology that we could become the preferred partner. That's one.
Number two, I decided to narrow the type of technological risk we were willing to take. So let me explain.
Since we were taking technology risks, we like sort of really Holy grail type breakthroughs. So that would be highly risky, right?
But we did decide that we will not invest in a breakthrough. That's still a dream because that's too risky. We also would not invest in breakthroughs that have already been made. And the whole world already knows about because that would be too expensive. So we decided on a small little Goldilocks zone across all tech industries that was cheap enough.
So that there's enough upside. And the breakthrough was already made except that people still don't believe.
And then when we come in with money, we come in with credibility. We come in with our friends, we fill the hole that they had. And then after that we derisk the whole thing quite a lot.
Ling Yah: Do you feel that when you took that approach, that the potential companies you could invest in dropped a lot? I mean, you have 5,000 knocking, and you used to consider 1000 of them. Now it would be a lot less.
Or were you not so concerned because you already had your portfolio companies and you were going to throw everything into growing them.
So it didn't matter.
Dr Finian Tan: I think the answer is both your answers.
Firstly, we did feel that perhaps we needed to broaden our deal flow from the developed countries and that's why we opened all these offices in the West. And we were quite confident we could get a deal flow. So I hired people who had experience in those countries.
So the people who are in Palo Alto , Xin Hong and Poh Hui, both of them studied at Stanford. They did their PhD there. So they already had friends and family and networks. So they could hit the ground running.
And then Kenneth went to Michigan, did his undergrad, got a first class there. He decided to do an MBA in San Francisco with University of Penn, West campus. So that would give him enough of a deal flow as well. And so they kind of hit the ground running in San Francisco.
New York, Chris studied at Columbia AND did both in undergrad and last there. So New York is his hometown, so he felt very comfortable there. So he would hit the ground running too.
And then we continue to have our secret weapon, Khalil who goes all around the world. He has thousands of friends . All I had to do was shift his focus to say that we like tech deals. So go and spread the word amongst all your contacts.
Jeffrey did his PhD in MIT and he lives in Shanghai and Singapore. So we had enough of a deal flow.
And my brother Damian, his doctorate is in IT and business. So he will continue to bring to use from that perspective. But my life became that of a nomad because I had to travel like crazy. So some years, I spent a third of my time at home.
The rest of the time traveling. So that was tough.
Ling Yah: And you've mentioned Khalil quite a few times, and I think he was the guy who brought Samumed in, and that is the company you're always talking about cause it's your main focus. Could you share how that came into Vickers?
Dr Finian Tan: Yes. It's the largest company that we have in our portfolio.
I wouldn't say it's my only focus because I have a lot of children. I have a sort of portfolio companies, so we have a lot of very, very exciting companies.
But yes, it's certainly our biggest portfolio company. And it can certainly change the world. Samumed, they found a way to drug one of the largest pathways known to men called a signaling pathway.
And that controls all degenerative diseases and diseases in which the cells are going haywire like overgrowing and never dying like cancer, like fibrosis of the lungs or liver or any organ. And they finally found a way to drug this pathway successfully cause this pathway was discovered 1982 and everybody and his mother has been trying to drug this pathway unsuccessfully.
And Samumed we believe has done it.
So they have two drugs in clinical trials, phase three, and one of them is a very big disease called osteoarthritis. And we're looking forward to a readout in seven months, or so. On the phase three results.
The next milestone will be the NDA, which is the new drug application. And then after that, we're off to the races . selling for the first time an injection that can reduce cartilage loss, or even grow cartilage potentially. Grow your own cartilage from a single jet of a small molecule.
This would be a world first.
And indeed Khalil brought that deal. Khalil brought that deal and continues to bring a lot of exciting companies to the table.
Ling Yah: I was looking into what Osman does. I mean, the way he presents it is very catchy, how I'm reversing aging. I think normally people will look at it and think oh, I'm quite skeptical. How do you know if it's real or not?
I mean, like, this was the second biggest bet that you went in, right, after Baidu. So what was it that convinced you that this was the real thing and it wasn't another Theranox for instance?
Dr Finian Tan: Oh it's not so difficult. Because Theranox is different. It's a diagnostic. This is a drug company. The FDA is the final avatar. If it goes into clinical trials, , there's a lot of scrutiny already given to the company. But when we invested, they had no clinical trials yet they have preclinical trials.
So we went to the lab, we did a lot of extensive work. I actually got to know Xin Hong at that time. He is a specialist in the Wnt pathway. His supervisor was the founder of the first Wnt gene, so I had expert people to advise me as well. So the science was solid and we were convinced.
You know our due diligence is quite thorough.
There's this company, a COVID-19 vaccine company we're working on now. It's called Emergex. We spent more than a year, 14 months before we actually made the investment.
Ling Yah: Could you share a bit about Emergex because it's quite exciting where you can eventually put it into micro patch or the band-aid as opposed to all the trouble that we're facing now.
Dr Finian Tan: COVID-19 is a terrible pandemic, right?
And the immune system is comprised of both antibodies and T-cells. Antibodies attack the virus, but the virus escapes the antibody and infects a cell, say a lung cell. Cells are by the way, much larger than viruses. The virus enters the cell. It'll do two things. The cell will try to kill the virus.
It won't succeed. But it will try to kill some of them.
Those that it doesn't kill will multiply into hundreds of thousands of viruses and then the seller releases all of them. So it's a manufacturing plant for the virus. The killed virus will be chopped up into little bits of virus. And these bits will be displayed outside the cell by the cell to show that they are infected cell.
I need help. Then a T-cell will come around and the T-cell will realize that this is an infected cell and it will kill it. So if T cells kill the factory, and antibodies kill the antagonists or the antigen, the virus. If you only have an antibody response, then you'd better be perfect and make sure that no cells get infected.
Because once they infect a cell, the antibodies cannot kill an infected cell. So an antibody can only kill the virus. But if it goes into the manufacturing plant into the factory and it starts making more viruses, antibodies are useless.
They have to wait until all the viruses are released and then they have to try to attack all the viruses. But , you always wanted to bomb the factory, right. Because it's very hard to kill all of them when they come out. So in the world, there have been many eradicating vaccines, like the polio vaccine, like smallpox, like yellow fever.
They were all involving both antibiotics and T-cells.
The best example of an antibody-only vaccine is the flu vaccine and the flu vaccine has not eradicated the flu. It's still with us. So there is no expectation by most scientists that any of these antibody vaccines currently in the market will be successful in eradicating COVID-19. So because of that, there are a few of us who are working on T-cell vaccines.
I would say Emergex is the leader in that space. And we have applied for clinical trials. We hope to be ready for emergency use sometime in the late summer of next year. So we're waiting excitedly for clinical results to see how well it works. It's certainly worked very well in preclinical.
That's why we can go into clinical study by the scientists. Tom Rademacher, who is the founder and CEO of the company is a genius. And he'd been working on this for like two and a half decades. So it's not as if it's COVID that made him do this. He is in my view, probably the world's foremost expert on RNA viruses and how to stop them.
And it so happened that COVID-19 is an RNA virus, but his attention was focused elsewhere before COVID-19. Dengue, pandemic flu, hand, foot and mouth, or potentially a Corona pandemic. He had in his mind, SARS one and a universal coronavirus vaccine. So when Coronavirus COVID-19 hit, it was easy for him to shift gears.
So I would call this gen two vaccines and I'm waiting with bated breath for gen two to come out.
You see whatever you want to assess a vaccine, there are three Ds that you have to watch. One is durability. The flu vaccine is known to reduce an efficacy by 16% per month from a waning of the antibodies naturally, and also from the escape mutations that occur as a result of selective pressure.
Let me explain that.
Let's say you design a vaccine that elicits Antibody A because the virus is Virus A. So you try to elicit antibody to neutralize and bind to virus A. Virus A is mutating.
And so you also have Virus B. All the Virus A gets killed by the antibodies, but there is no protection against virus B.
So, okay. He managed to reduce his viral load quite a lot because all the A's died. And he also reduces viral diversity. Because A's gone, but he has Bs and Cs. So if he happens to infect somebody else, which viruses will go to the other person would be virus B and C. Not A, because A is all killed.
The other person is also vaccinated with vaccine A antibody, but he caught virus B and C for which he has no protection.
So he has no reduction in viral load or viral diversity and gets very sick and he infects B and C to the next guy. So you get this natural, selective pressure of B and C, as opposed to A and all A gets killed and disappears. But B and C is the one that is now spread.
So vaccine producers have to scramble to not produce vaccine B and C to elicit antibodies B and C.
Ling Yah: But Emergex doesn't have that issue, right? Because they have created the whole library of peptides, identifying all these different mutations that they can combat.
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah, that's almost what they do, but let me I guess correct that a little.
A virus has a surface and on the surface they have a lot of spike proteins. Inside the virus, they also have a lot of internal proteins. The virus is not empty. It's not hollow. There is lots of stuff inside that keeps the virus alive. It's like our internal organs. When a virus tries to cheat the antibodies, it changes its surface mainly. Because what's inside keeps it alive.
So to give you an example, let's say a criminal is trying to evade the authorities. He would disguise himself changes, hair changes, eyes, even go for plastic surgery, potentially change his nose and whatever right. Change the color of his hair. He doesn't change his liver. Doesn't change his intestines or his stomach. Same for the virus.
So we identify an infected cell. We identify the factory by looking at the chopped up virus. And the chopped up virus is mostly made up of internal proteins because volume is more massive than surface area.
So when you chop anything up, like when you eat a piece of meat, not all the meat will have skin, right? Only some of it will have skin.
But most of it doesn't have skin because there's so much volume that has no skin at all. So it's the same for the virus. If you chop up a virus, you get states and all these things are displayed and we collected all these states and we say which one is the most in most different blood types. And then we mimic that by making a vaccine that looks like the state. And most of it is from the internal proteins. And many of them are structural proteins that are unchanging. And non-structural as well.
So because of that, if you are focused on T-cell, you have no choice but to focus on the chopped up virus, which contains a lot of things the virus cannot change. So we don't have to guess what is going to mutate too, because the liver is still the same.
Ling Yah: Singapore, for instance, just got their first set of vaccines. Would it be a challenge to convince governments that Emergex's vaccine is the one that they need to purchase after it's available?
Dr Finian Tan: Data speaks. So I think we don't have to convince anyone. They can see the data and here's what I expect. I think that is going to be difficult for antibody based vaccines to stop the mutation because there'll be selective pressure. And eventually there will be mutations that the vaccines were not designed to stop.
And then what happens next is clinical trials or maybe not a very shortened clinical trial with a new vaccine. Maybe you don't even need clinical trials because the construct is the same. It's just changing the marinade and then they launch a new one, but that will be months in between.
So there will be this series of lockdowns again, if it spreads because of mutations.
And no government would be happy with that type of situation. Ebbs and flows, ebbs and flows, right. And mask wearing and social distancing and life will never go back to normal.
Like take, for example, the flu. Imagine the flu or the common call was as lethal as COVID-19. Would you be happy with the current flu vaccine?
No, because the efficacy drops and you would never feel safe. You don't mind getting the vaccine because even if you catch it, it's not the death sentence. But in COVID-19's case, it's different.
So a vaccine as effective as the flu vaccine will not suffice. We need to be eradicated as virus. And to eradicate this, you must have dedicated T-cell companies that focus on CDAT T-cells, which are cytotoxic, CTL types of lymphocytes . killer T-cells.
Cause there are other T-cells that are more like messenger ones, CD4, for example.
Ling Yah: And then another one that you are looking deeply into is RWDC. It's a Singapore company and it’s doing something really new and really exciting as well. Could you share a bit about that company too?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah. What they make is what we call a biovernesence material. So plastic, but they are biovernessence, which means they are degradable. Without composting without collecting and under natural conditions. So you can leave this bobbing in the seed. This is a bio in essence made from our WTCS material.
So it's a plastic fork. It looks like a plastic fork and feels like a plastic fork, high temperature. No problem. It's a hundred percent waterproof, but if you leave this bobbing in the sea, it disappears into fish food. That's very exciting. We can make straws, myths, cops. This is a corrugated straw.
You can see it bounces back. It's not like a paper. Straw is thin. It's waterproof. High temperature. So that's very exciting because the world is so polluted with plastic. It's not funny. Soon we will have more plastic in the sea, the fish.
It's causing a problem called myplasticocin because these little things degrade. It's not that they don't degrade. If you leave this in the sea, they will degrade. But they don't degrade into food. They degrade into micro indestructible plastic molecules that can go into the fish and then come into us as we eat the fish and it can cause strokes. It can cause all sorts of blockages because they are indestructible plastic mold that are not meant to be eaten
Ling Yah: And I understand that this plastic issue is something that you were concerned about for a long time. And you were actually looking for a company like RWDC for a very, very long time before you found them.
So, how did they first come to your attention?
Dr Finian Tan: Actually it came through Xin Hong. His good friend, a guy named Chow Tan who introduced us to the company and he is somebody I respect and somebody who has already brought us a couple of deals and also invested in us. So he was an oil trader.
And in his free time, he invested in companies together with his partner Sergio, and they were the ones who invested in RWDC and also in Emergex. So when they brought this deal to us, I was totally blown away.
Initially, I found it too good to be true and hard to believe, but as we dug more and more and more and more, we found out that this thing really works and the rest is I guess history because we're now the biggest backers of the company.
Ling Yah: So obviously you have found a lot of these gems. And as I understand it, Vickers has a very unique approach to deciding on which company to invest in. You have this thing called the silver bullet. What does it mean and have you ever used it yourself?
Dr Finian Tan: The silver bullet is something that allows any of the investment committee members to invest a million dollars in one company.
Even if all the other investment committees members said no, you can still use it. It's a silver bullet. You can kill anything. So we can go through anything.
And the reason why we have it is because sometimes when you're really trying to invest in a paradigm changing company, unison is not the right approach.
And this is something I started at DFJ ePlanet in the Asia team. We already had a silver bullet. So have I used it before? I actually was going to use it for a company called Chooch and I already promised the entrepreneur that I can commit this amount of money because even if my friends say no, all my investment committee members say no, and I would use my silver bullet.
I guaranteed him that.
I brought it to the investment committee. And surprise, surprise. They approved the investment. I thought I would not win it because it was at a very risky stage. A company was worth only 12 million. We typically invested variations of like 50, a hundred, 200 type valuations. This is a company worth only 12.
Which means it's still. doesn't have a full product yet, but they were convinced it's a visual search company. So search again. And I guess they trusted my instinct when search is concerned. So all the IC members said yes. So in the end I didn't have to use my silver bullet and the company started off.
A little slower initially, and then started picking up and then it started to improve on its AI. And recently it won this humongous contract with the US military.
This contract has a $950 million cap. They're probably close to like 400 million worth of contracts with the military over the next five years.
And the variation has exploded from 12 to 200. So that was our best performing company in Fund 6 .
Ling Yah: You still have that Midas touch for search.
Dr Finian Tan: So far. So good. So far. So good, very excited about Chooh.
Ling Yah: And one of the things I noticed as well is that you also don't allow anyone to vote until they've spent time with every single entrepreneur whose company is under consideration.
Dr Finian Tan: Yes. You know, if the team is so important, how can you vote if you've never met them? So a lot of global companies don't because they rely on the local guy to give his opinion. I felt that that isn't great.
But the drawback is if you implement a rule like that, you can't scale. Because if I have a hundred people, then all of us have to see all a hundred people deal, right. And we'll be too busy. So the cap would be much earlier than, otherwise.
But that's okay. I don't need to be the biggest fund in the world. I'm just trying to be the best.
Ling Yah: And I was really impressed because you said that you want to spend time with them. You would travel with them. You would invite them to stay in your house.
You really go above and beyond to ensure that you really see them in all surroundings. And you said once that this whole thing is a lifestyle that your whole family, even your dog has to be a part of.
Dr Finian Tan: That's true. That's true. Yeah.
And so both Khalil and I, our homes are all open in the sense that we don't lease out our home. We don't rent them out. We keep them open so that we can use them. When we travel, we can invite friends, we can have dinners. So yeah, everybody has to be involved. So my wife is pretty busy entertaining all the time.
But now we have help and we have chefs that can help us. So it makes life a bit easier to run this lifestyle.
I'll give you an example. If you want to interview a secretary or an assistant, you may have two interviews, three interviews.
After you spend those interviews, you hire them.You will still feel that you are sometimes right. Sometimes wrong.
Because when you work with them, you found things out that you didn't know during the interviews.
You must interview a person in a relaxed environment to a point that the interview is over. And now we're talking about different things.
And only then can you get to know the person what they are really like. And if the value system is different from yours, that's a problem. A fit wouldn't be good.
So I'd rather spend the time first before I spend the money.
Ling Yah: So what kind of value systems are you looking for that will align with you?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, first of all, the dreams must be aligned. If for example, they tried to pull a fast one on customers or they're trying to build a product that they can do a quick flip with. They want to sell it to the first few fools, obviously those won't fit us because we are trying to make a difference.
We are trying to build a product that is real and can stand the test of time. And we want to build a product in which the divine is already known and ready because we don't like to take market risk. It's not that I'm looking for people that are like me, not at all. But they can achieve their goals in many different ways.
And the more different, the better actually. So we have diversity, but they need to have drive. They need to have the same goals. They need to have the same values, et cetera. And you can only do that by spending time.
Khalil's mother once told him that if you want to really know a person, travel with them. And Malcolm Forbes once told Khalil, never do business with a person who is rude to a waiter. I take many of these things to heart.
Ling Yah: So I wonder because you do such a deep dive into the person's character, looking back, what went wrong with 24 Quan, which you have said was your biggest failure?
Dr Finian Tan: Oh a few things.
They were number three at the time. There were two other big players. Tianpin and Mei Tuan. We were number three.
And at that time, we were burning a lot of cash to acquire customers. CDH was also an investor together with us, and they were a big boy. Much bigger than us. But they also invested in Mei Tuan and eventually they decided to back Mei Tuan and stop funding 24 Quan. And we didn't have enough capital to fund them. So they died because we couldn't fund them.
So if you ask me what was the biggest problem, the biggest problem was playing in a space in which we ourselves were not enough to help the company. We didn't fill the gap. We were relying on others.
So we don't play in those types of spaces anymore, we don't pay very expensive acquisition. Of customers. We don't like the B2C space and we don't like where it's a red ocean strategy. There were like 1000 different players.
I don't know if you read the book blue ocean. Red ocean means everybody's fighting until the ocean is red with blood.
So we generally invest in breakthroughs. So because breakthroughs, you have IP. IP is protecting you. So it's effectively a de facto monopoly for a fixed period of time. So we don't need such deep pockets.
It's not that we don't invest in companies that need money. Clinical trials are expensive, but it's a fixed cost. Clinical trials are different from oh dear, this company is spending so much. 5 billion. I need to raise 6 billion to spend more. That's different because that's an unknown amount of capital needed.
We invest in companies that you'd have to go through clinical trials. We calculate exactly how much they would cost them. And maybe they have 10 things to push through clinical trials. If we can raise enough money to, again, push to. And also that they will have revenues, they'll have money that contributes to the margins that can help to fund the rest.
Ling Yah: At what point did you decide that it was time to pull the plug on them? Because you don't pull the plug on everyone, like MatchMove.
You knew that they needed to pivot and you were willing to stay with them until they found their niche.
Dr Finian Tan: That's a very good question.
I think in the case of 24 Quan is because the key is we didn't just have to fund the operations. We had to fund the cost of customer acquisition. That's a big difference. If a company needs you to fund the operations so that they can finish their software, that's different.
Matchmove is a B2B to C company.
They don't need to spend money to acquire customers at all. So that's different. So yeah, Matchmove pivoted from a game company to a payments company and they continue to grow the space and we continue to believe in them.
Ling Yah: And I think another company you're excited about is Eavor as well, in geothermal.
Dr Finian Tan: Indeed. This is a company that Chris brought to us. Chris is from New York.
Eavor is actually a very interesting company. When John first came to see us in San Diego and he made his pitch, it was a very simple pitch. He basically said the earth is warm and we can extract the heat.
And we found a way to extract the heat in very clever ways that has never been done before.
So then he goes about telling me how other people extract heat from the ground. They have to find a reservoir of water, a pool of hot water in a permeable membrane. So how many such hot water can you find in the world?
Only very few places. So that makes discovery very expensive and it makes extraction also expensive because you hit hot, but dry whales off it. So that makes the cost of geothermal so high that it prevents people from using geothermal. He's found a way to encase them in a pipe, extracting heat from conduction, without a permeable aquifer.
And he's found a way to drill horizontally and joining them and making them waterproof. So you have a close loop and because you have a closed loop. Hot water rises, you attract the heat, water goes back down and you get a thermal siphon effect without the need for parasitic pump load. So you don't need a pump.
It'll just turn almost like a perpetual machine, which is not possible to have, but in this case, it's perpetual because energy is taken from the ground. So it's powered by the earth as a battery. So that's incredible. So when he told me this, I said it sounds so simple. I'm surprised that nobody's done it.
And after we did our due diligence, we found out that it's true, nobody's done it this way. They're the only ones. And then they showed us all the ideas of how they can make cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. But the main breakthrough has already been made the main breakthrough is no pumps and number two, closed loop.
And this is a paradigm shifting change. And in my view decades from now, geothermal will be the main energy.
And this is all patented.
Ling Yah: So you don't expect competition in this area?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, we have 11 suites of patents but when Standard Oil first drilled for oil, they also patented their methods of drilling oil and Exxol bought them. And today they're one of the world's biggest oil companies, but they're not the only one.
There's Shell, there's BP, right?
So I don't expect that we will be a monopoly ever. But at the beginning we certainly have to have a very good head start. So I just want to be the Exxol of geothermal. That's good enough. 50 years, a hundred years from now, we are still under the top three, one top.
We are doing a lot of things, right. I think we certainly are the leader currently, and I think we will be the leader for a while. So the key now is to find a good partner. Or a few good partners. And I think we found them. We found them.
So this round, I think we will announce quite soon, early in the new year and you will hear of an oversubscribed round with very good name players. Big boys coming in, which will be a very strong validation.
And people with deep pockets because it's not cheap to build a pod to be the Evolut is not cheap, except that it goes on for 30 to 50 years, which reduces the cost. Because if you have no parasitic pump flow, it's free after that because it just spins, right?
And as long as it spins, it's free. So it's a one-time investment. And after that it's free. It's almost like solar. It's also free, except that solar is sometimes hot and sometimes not. So it's not a baseload. And you have to have mostly baseload and a little bit of intermittent. You cannot have so much solar that at night when people need to air condition or heat the house, they can't because there's no energy.
So you can't. So you always have to have fossil fuel as the base. Wind is sometimes windy and sometimes not. And there are places like the equator where there's no wind. So you have to find a base load. Green energy. How many are there? Hydro and us. But hydro is not so green, right?
When they built the three gorgeous dam in China, some species of dolphins became extinct. It's not so green.
And you know, millions of people were affected because you basically flood the whole area. So it's not so green and it's not so aesthetically beautiful. And it uses a lot of land. You have to move people away.
In geothermal, it's just 2 holes. We are 100 times less land intensive than solar and 1000 times less land intensive than wind 1000 times.
So if I draw a picture on a page, that's wind. And then a big part of it, one 10th of it is solar. And geothermal is a dot.
Ling Yah: And what's the plan in terms of rolling out and getting people to sign on board?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, there's several milestones. Closing the round is important. Then we're going to raise an infrastructure fund that allows us to invest, finding partners to invest in the projects, signing the contracts with the countries or companies and then delivering on the first project.
And it doesn't take us that long to drill a couple of years.
And once that's done and once you have a working, not prototype anymore, but a working plant that supplies electricity, then we're singing. And then the R and D will bring prices down. Even if you can only achieve incremental improvements thereafter, it will one day reach the price of fossil fuel.
Because the paradigm is shifting technological breakthroughs have already been made. So I'm convinced that geothermal will be the answer to the world.
You see, you have to realize that the center of the earth is as hot as the surface of the sun. It's not as hot as the center of the sun, but it's as hot as the surface of the sun.
And that's pretty damn hot.
In the case of solar, the rule of thumb is you have a detached house, single story, and all the roof is solar panel. You can power the house. If you have a 20 story building the roof only Polish the 20th floor, because you can't have two layers. Or solar panels, right? Because one will be shaded.
So if you have a high rise country like Singapore, it would work because we have many 20 story buildings. And if you have a solar panel on top, it powers the 20th floor.
But if you dig and let's say you did go three kilometers deep, let's say you can only p When you dig two floors down, you can now power 19, 18 and 17 because it's hotter. You are not shading it.
Then you build another story below that and you can power 15, 14, 13, 12, because it's hotter. So we don't need to dig very, very deep to power a 20 story building. And everything is free underneath us. No basements, because we are digging kilometers down.
It's lower than MRTS. So there's nothing there. And the surface outcrop is two holes. Everything is underground. That's it.
Ling Yah: What about maintenance costs though? Would there be any of that over time?
Dr Finian Tan: There is none. Because what do you have there? You have pipes and all horizontal is uncased. We actually have invented a chemical that solidifies the rock.
So that's quite a clever thing that they invented. There's no maintenance involved and then also it just moves with all pump.
So we have no mechanical parts, no moving parts other than the liquid. So it's maintenance free.
Ling Yah: And so now you are focused on raising for Fund 6, you mentioned briefly, and you're targeting $500 million. So Why are you investing in thereafter?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, we already have 14 companies in our portfolio, which we are very happy with. And about half our money typically goes into the best of the previous funds. So what we call best of Vickers.
So like Samumed is there. Matchmove is there. RWDC is there. And the new companies are like EAVOR, Emergex. We have another company called Aardvark that makes therapeutics for COVID-19 and for inflammation, obesity, et cetera.
We have a company called AWAK. It's a kidney dialysis machine that's the size of a handbag.
And then we have a company called Lumitron that has an x-ray machine that is 1000 times more accurate than traditional x-rays using lasers instead of white light. So that's also very exciting.
We have Chooch, the visual search company I mentioned, which we'll make sense out of any picture. So that's very important.
And the contract with the military is to make sense out of drone images from satellite images, they can detect whether North Korea is doing something fishy or They can detect whether they are fires in San Francisco or in California. So very, very useful, very important because computers can not read pictures. They read text. But to which can,
Ling Yah: And because we're recording this in 2020, there's COVID, how has that impacted the work that you're doing? Because you mentioned before you travel all the time, you entertain all the time. So there must have been a big hit on how you do this business.
Dr Finian Tan: It's changed it a lot. The biggest hit is the travel.
So I had to focus on Singapore. Cause since March I've been here in Singapore. It's the longest time I've ever been in one place.
So I've got to know Singaporeans better and people residents in Singapore better. I've also been able to spend more time with my companies because with my companies, I can zoom very effectively.
Raising capital has been harder because all my road shows had to be canceled. But that's fine. We can always raise money later. So right now that's focused on performance. So we focus on our portfolio companies and make sure they perform.
And we have a good track record. We can raise even more money later.
The sequence is slightly altered as well. We are now going to perform before we raised the funds, but that's fine.
Ling Yah: And what was your first reaction when you heard about COVID? You reached out to your companies to give advice?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah. We were lucky because in Singapore we had seen SARS 1 before.
So before all the shutdowns in the US, when we saw it coming to the US, we knew that this was going to be bad.
And so I sent a note to everyone to conserve cash. And to be prepared for any economy that's going into a tailspin. And then two, three weeks later, that's what happened.
Ling Yah: And another thing I would love to talk about before I wrap up is the succession plan.
It's something you've talked about quite a bit. And you said that you wanted to ensure that when you left, it would not leave with you and you wanted to institutionalize your knowledge as well, so that what you were deciding with your gut could be explained in words.
Can you explain a bit about how you're planning that succession plan for Vickers?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah. I'll tell you what I think about institutionalizing knowledge.
If I were to bring an apprentice with me. Say a young, super smart guy to be my PPS, principal private secretary like in the government, I can teach him a lot. He would probably absorb I think say if he's very good, 60%.
If he is then transferring knowledge to his assistant, 60 out of 60 is 36%, right. And then 60 of 36 is like 20.
So basically, he will never last as long as Goldman Sachs because eventually not much has been transferred.
You need to institutionalize knowledge. So we need to have it written down first hand so that everybody can read that.
And a 100% of it can be transferred even to the 5th generation, to the 6th generation. So that's what we're trying to do.
So I'm in talks with some trainers who can come in and really spend the time interviewing me and spending time with my other partners. Jeffrey has a lot to teach. Linda has a lot to teach. And my brother Damien as well.
And make sure that it's all written down. And then you can pass on to anyone down the line.
In fact that's the reason why Lee Kwan Yew was encouraged to write his books by the cabinet. So that he can institutionalize all his experience and knowledge that will be lost in the apprentice type transfer.
Ling Yah: Do you think you will eventually write your own book?
Dr Finian Tan: Probably with some help, I do. Cause I don't have any retirement plans in that sense to retire and do nothing.
At 70, I want to reduce my role, which is 12 years from today in investing. And I want to spend more time with the foundation.
So I'll still be busy. But if I could get somebody to shadow me and help me write this thing, then yeah, maybe I'll do that. Because it would help me with this valuation.
Ling Yah: So I noticed something when I was researching as well, that when you started this company, you said I own a hundred percent, and then you're down to 30% because you gave all the shares away to attract the best people.
I think a lot of people listening would want to know who do you look for when you're hiring?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah. I look for people who are, of course, very smart. That's very important.
Let me make one thing clear, right? As venture capitalists, our success comes from the companies, not from us. So the smartest guys are not us. The real deliverers of value are the geniuses. Are the people we invest in.
So I need smart people with us because we have to help these geniuses. And we need to at least keep up with them and find gaps in which we can add value. So because of that, I would hire people who have really excelled academically to begin with because we were dealing with scientists and we're dealing with people who are changing the world with new discoveries.
And yet they must be nice because people, relationships are so important because although we invest in them. We cannot lord over them because they are the ones that are running, right? They're the ones that are delivering all the results. You cannot lord over them. You have to become their partner.
So you must find gaps that they are not good at and add value. Hopefully there are not too many gaps. The lesser the number of gaps, the better. But whenever there is a gap, we try to fill that in or we try to help the company fill it.
So I need people who are multi-skilled.
And I'm not looking for people who are like me because the successful VC can be run in many different ways.I have one way of doing it. But they must agree with a few principles like number one, we are deep tech. I can't change that. And I don't think it will be changed under my watch.
We don't invest in B2C tech companies. We don't invest in burning customer acquisition type companies. So if you love predicting what the next Instagram is, we're not the right company to join. We are a deep tech firm. We look for breakthrough technologies all around the world.
If you love say India, and really want to invest in India, we're not. We're a global firm.
I look for people who can fit into those molds that I've created. That's one.
And they need to be able to keep up with all the geniuses that we deal with, that we will find our lifetime.
I need people who can quickly learn things that they don't know yet. And many of the things that they don't know, sometimes the finance stuff, because I have a lot of PhD, so they might not understand equity options, warrants and convertibles and IPO and green shoe.
And all that is not difficult. It's quite easy to learn.
You read the MBA book, you're already 80% there. With some experience you're almost there. And then a lot of venture capital speak, they can learn too. It's not difficult. It's a soft subject.
You can't come in as a MBA and try to learn to be a PhD in biotechnology. But you can be a PhD in biotechnology and roughly get a semi MBA from reading a few books.
So the hard subject you must already have, and then the soft subject you can learn, and then you must cross into other domains that you are not so comfortable with, but you have a general understanding of science.
So it's hard for say somebody who specialized in English did a PhD in English to join us because we are a deep tech firm.
But if you have a PhD in English, you can join a firm to find the next Instagram. You know why? Because nobody knows where it's coming from anywhere. It's all a guess. It's all a guess.
So whatever background you come from your guess is as good as mine. But if you are assessing whether T-cells will work, if you don't have a PhD in biotechnology, which I don't. You must at least be willing to put in the time to understand enough to appreciate whether that company is worth investing in.
So we are looking for sponges. People who can absorb and learn and be hungry and have the patience to study. So in order for me to appreciate this company and Emergex, I had to do so much work.
And for every work that my partner Xin Hong does, it takes me three times as long, five times as long, because he has a PhD in biology. Switching from one part of biology to another is easy.
But for me, I have to go down from scratch every time. But I'm willing to do it. Not just willing, I'm willing and keen to do it because I'm curious.
Ling Yah: To what extent do you find that you are comfortable with understanding these things? Because it’s a black hole, isn't it, once you start. There's always so much to learn and learn and learn.
At what point do you feel comfortable?
Dr Finian Tan: When I have reached a point that I can make a conclusion.
Let's say you want to buy a handbag. You can look at the stitching. You can look at the color, the leather, and you see how it looks on you. You can go much deeper, right? You can find out what thread is made out of, you know. Is this material that we'll call hide or how is the tanning done?
You can go very deep, but those don't matter anymore because they look good. It feels good. It fits with what you were looking for. And then you make a decision to buy.
You can actually keep on asking and asking. There's no end. But those things don't change your decision.
So when I reach a point where the details don't matter anymore, it's very uncomfortable. But until I reached that point, I don't buy.
Cause I am not comfortable with making a decision from the gut.
Ling Yah: It probably takes you awhile to make a decision on something new then.
Dr Finian Tan: Sometimes it's a rush. I'm forced to decide quicker than I'm comfortable with. And then I quickly learn. And within a few months after that, most of the time so far, I'm lucky in that it's actually made me more comfortable with the deal.
If it makes me less comfortable, I would then reduce my follow-ons in the company.
Ling Yah: Are there any big ideas you've changed your mind on recently?
Dr Finian Tan: I would say I've become more and more convinced that Emergex is on the right track. So rather than changing my mind, it's made me more convinced because more and more data has come out.
So when Tom told me that this thing is going to mutate, there will be selective pressure. And when you actually see the mutation happening, you get more and more convinced.
So Tom has been quite amazingly predictive throughout this whole pandemic from day one. And so we've been saying that this is going to happen. This is going to happen. This is going to happen. And everything happened like clockwork.
So because of that, I really think that he is probably the brightest mind to get us out of this crisis, which is destroying the world.
The only good thing that came up from the pandemic is the carbon emissions have dropped.
Aircrafts have stopped. So carbon emissions have really gone back a few years, so that is the only good thing. Cause climate change is a very, very, very serious problem.
I only have 20 good years left, probably. I'm 58. In 20 years, I'm 78. 33 years, I will be reaching sort of the average age of mortality. So I'm not going to suffer from this climate change.
But every time we use the car, every time we use electricity, it comes from fossil fuel. So we are digging out from the ground carbon that we then released. That's crazy.
It's amazing that we are still doing that when it's quite clear that the excess carbon dioxide is causing the world to warm up.
And it gets into a vicious circle because when the ice melts, all the reflection is gone from the ice. So it will then immediately get hotter and it will immediately melt more ice, and then it gets into a vicious cycle and we're going to get sea level rise.
That's unheard of, and it will be so hot that all the beautiful places in the world currently will no longer be beautiful. It'll Become deserts. We all have to move to Canada and Alaska. It's crazy.
People think that oh, by that time we can find another planet.
That's the craziest comment to me.
If we can't control carbon in the most conducive environment on earth where we can breathe the oxygen. If you go to any other planet, you can't breathe the air, right?
If we can't even control carbon emissions in our most conducive planet, what makes us think we can do better in the planet which is trying to kill us, right?
You can't even breathe the air. That's ridiculous.
Ling Yah: I did find it heartbreaking when I watched David Attenborough's, Our Planet and he showed exactly all these things. The ice caps melting. And he showed all these amazing further and said oh, after we shot it, it no longer exists because it's been cut down.
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah.
Ling Yah: But what I thought was amazing was he also showed Chernobyl as well about how, despite the disaster, give it time, nature has come back.
Dr Finian Tan: Oh oh yeah. They were curious in earth's history when everything we are seeing now happened. So climate change has happened many times before we had ice age, we had all sorts of different times, times when the world was so hot, right? So yeah, you can come back. No problem. Once carbon dioxide drops, it will come back.
Some of us might survive. Some of us might not, when the world becomes not hospitable to us. And then it will change, but it takes decades to change. So I'm quite convinced the human race will not be eradicated, but why put us through that? We have it in our power to do this.
So Eavor is fully involved with trying to solve that problem head on. So I'm very pleased that we have that company. RWDC is solving the plastic problem head on. Emergex is solving pandemics head-on virus, situation, bacteria situation, head on.
Samumed is trying to cure cancer and remove degenerative diseases and they can also solve the degenerative diseases of the brain. Neural tissues. So which means ALS Parkinson's multiple sclerosis, everything can be tackled. Parkinsons. Alzheimer's et cetera.
And even if they only tackle cancer, wouldn't that be great? Solving cancer problem.
So I'm so excited.
Lumitron has reduced the size of a synchrotron, which is the only thing in this world today that can produce the accuracy of a thousand times. A synchrotron is one square kilometer in size. Lumitron has reduced it to a tabletop machine.
AWAK has reduced a big machine that uses 70 liters of water to one that uses 2 liters of water. It's portable. You can carry it in your handbag and bring back life so that you don't live to dialyze. You dialyze to live.
Ling Yah: I just love to hear the passion that you have in each and every company that you've invested in. I can't imagine that you would ever want to retire and be away from being involved in what they're doing.
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah, absolutely. I don't think I will ever retire. But I would like to give the baton, the CEOship to somebody else when I'm 70. But I'm very happy to be a resource to anyone. I might be chairman or Emeritus something I don't know, but I'll mentor.
And I don't expect to be as sharp when I'm 80 and I don't expect to be as quick to pick up all these. I may not be as curious anymore. I might not cause I don't find generally, the average person who is 20 years older to be as good as they were when they were younger.
So I don't want to overstay my effectiveness.
So I'm very keen to pass it on to somebody else younger, faster, quicker, more in touch to take over. As long as I don't have Alzheimer's, I think I can still contribute. So I hope to do that, but from an advisory capacity, rather than running, as I'm doing now.
When I was in government, I had the privilege of working with Lee Kuan Yew on separate projects. And he had so much to still give, even at that age, he was in his seventies.
But if you were to compare his knowledge of the internet and my knowledge of the internet at that time, I was in my thirties and he was in his seventies. I knew so much more just because I lived it.
At the time, he was still typing with a few fingers, right? If you are typing with a few fingers, you cannot get to the internet quickly enough. And he was getting his secretary to print out his emails and that he would circle this and circle that and fax it. So you won't be able to fully embrace the internet that way.
Eventually he became very adept at typing and stuff, because he started writing his memoirs. During a time when I interacted with him, I could see that it's not so easy. As you get older, you can try to understand, but me describing that people are watching cats falling from the TV and laughing on YouTube. It will be hard for somebody who doesn't use it that way to envisage that.
Eventually we will all be cyborgs or some sort. We already are today because we are already using the computer of the phone to enhance our life. It's just that it's not stuck to our body.
We don't feel like a cyborg, but we are for all practical purposes stuck to our phones, except that the delivery, we are using our fingers to actually pass the message to the phone. And we're using our eyes to accept the message from the phone. Eventually we don't need that. We can think about it. And then we become truly, I guess, connected with the AI world.
Me? No, I can't imagine that life. But a young person who actually lives it, how am I going to compete with him? Yeah, I can give him some advice about the past. I can't select companies anymore. I can't see the future.
The technological changes that are happening now is so compressed.
It's incredible. We are, as Yuval Harari said, he wrote the book Sapiens and Homo Deus, and 21 things for the 21st century. He said humans will become God, not the almighty monotheistic God, but like the Greek gods. Where we can control life because we will control every single life, including our own, and we will be mortal and we can do everything at the speed of light or even faster.
So we would be like, God, yeah. In that sense, if you would define it as people who are immortal, people who control life, people who can think and everything so quickly at the speed of light.
With quantum, we are no longer limited by the speed of light now. Cause quantum mechanics is instantaneous.
it's incredible. The decades to come the centuries to come, the millenniums to come. It's going to be truly amazing. Let's make the planet good enough so that we can live to see it.
Ling Yah: So the prospect of us becoming gods excites you?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, the prospect of I guess, climbing a technological ladder and controlling all the things that cause us to suffer today.
Sure, if you asked me, do I want to eradicate disease? Of course. Do I want to create energy from nothing? Of course I want that.
So I wouldn't say that it's because I want humans to become gods. No. But they will become once they control these things, they will become the de facto gods because they will be basically immortal.
If you change the spare part of every car every time it fails, it can last forever, right? A human being dies when the first organ fails, correct? Imagine if a car died when the first part failed, how long would it live? Probably two years.
So when you change the part it can carry on and then you change another part, you can carry on. Eventually, we will be able to regenerate all the failing parts.
How long can we live?
We don't know. We don't know if we can regenerate the brain. Every time it starts to degenerate, we can regenerate it. All the other body parts. No problem. I'm sure we will find ways to regenerate the heart, the liver. The brain is the most complex organ that we have right now.
The heart is a pump. The lungs, all that, it's quite simple. All the vessels are pipes, but the brain is super complex. There are STEM cells that are waiting to regenerate. Signals are telling them to regenerate. As we get older signals drop it doesn't regenerate anymore.
So it's not so complex to make brains because they're STEM cells. They're actually playing with signals and you don't even need to create the signals. You just need to amplify them because when they drop you just make them louder.
So if we can regenerate the brain with just an amplifier, imagine what will happen if we could live for a thousand years?
Ling Yah: I think it must be especially exciting because you can see this happening in the companies they are investing.
Dr Finian Tan: Indeed. Indeed. Indeed.
Ling Yah: What struck me as I was researching is you don't want to hoard it to yourself because I read you have a family constitution where it states that the first sentence to whom much is given much is required.
And that you've decided to give most of your family fortune away, which is something that's very rare for people to decide on. Could you share a bit about that decision?
Dr Finian Tan: I think it's rarer in Asia than in Western world. The tax incentives or inheritance tax a lot of other things have led to more giving culture, like Bill Gates, like Warren Buffett, like Mark Zuckerberg.
So I don't think it's a good idea to just keep it to one family because okay. You create a dynasty. But why are you doing that? Because you are creating a dependent family tree. They're all then dependent on this to live. And what drives people is hunger. If you already have everything, then you can stay home and do nothing, right.
So I've always believed in this mantra that you know you give your children enough that they can do something, not so much that they can do nothing. So keep them a little hungry, make them kind of caretakers of the wealth and the more money they earn, the more people they can help.
The constitution combines both the foundation and the family office. So that they can see the fruits of their labor. The more they work, the more successful they are, more hungry are fed. And that's a direct correlation.
See when I became agnostic, I became less confident that God will take care of the weak. So I felt that if I'm not sure whether there's a God or whether there's a God who will do that job, who's going to do it?
It should be the people who were lucky enough to make it in life. And it’s actually all luck because nobody is responsible for the brains they have, right? They didn't create that. It came from their parents.
Then if the parents had money, they climbed up the ladder mainly because of the wealth that they had caused social visibility is very difficult, right. Right now the richer you are, the better education you have, the better networks you have and then the most successful you are. So everything is luck. Nothing is through your own efforts, in fact.
There is a strong view that free will is an illusion.
I'll give you an example, right? If you go back in time and you change nothing in the history, everything that happened was still happening. Which means that guy didn't have free will, right. Because nothing changed.
As long as it keeps happening, that means the circumstances, the experience that he had, the brain that he comes with, the surrounding environment, made him make that decision.
And that decision is unchanging.
As long as he has those brains, the surrounding didn't change, the inputs didn't change. At that point in time, he will still make the decision.
So that's Sam Harris's view, which I think is quite compelling. Sam Harris is a philosopher and a neuroscientist. So I think that's quite a compelling view. However, I don't live my life as if I have no free will. I live my life as if I have free will.
Of course I actively spend a lot of time making my decision because why does it matter what I do or not? Even if it's an illusion, I like living this way. I like making decisions in the best way possible. So because it doesn't matter I continue to do it as if I do have free will, whether or not I do.
I'm not sure. Even if it's an illusion.
Ling Yah: I don't know what to say. I do. I do disagree because I feel that at the end of the date, I do have a decision whether to get angry at someone, for instance, or keep it within. I mean, you could say it was formed by circumstances and my personality, but it's still a decision I made ultimately.
Dr Finian Tan: Well yeah, I fully understand that. But if you roll back in time, as I said, you would have made the same choice,
Whatever circumstances made you decide not to be angry or to be angry, those circumstances don't change. And so you would have still made that same choice because of who you are and because of what you went through at that point. It doesn't mean you will always make the decision but on that occasion, you would have made that decision as long as nothing changes around you.
And maybe you were angry that day, you whatever, and every little bit played a part in the decision you made and maybe you got angry.
But is that free because there are so many things that control that behavior and it would have occurred anyway, but if you change one thing, it can change history because it could have a domino effect meaning anything changed. So again, it might make you make another decision, which is totally opposite. But again, It wasn't you, it was the circumstances that changed that decision.
but anyway, it's a very interesting topic. there are a lot of arguments for and against, but think about it. It's fun.
Ling Yah: So you mentioned briefly that upon retirement, you want to spend more time with your foundation, just wanted to wrap up with that. What plans do you have with that? I think you wanted to spend more time in education in Africa?
Dr Finian Tan: Yeah, I think I want to spend more time in Africa for sure. And India.
And we just started, we just made a pledge to help fund Charity Water, something I'm very excited about. Fiona too.
Charity water, their dream is to bring clean water to the 600 million people on earth who still have no access to clean water.
It's hard to imagine that there are people like that. Cause we just turn on the tap and we have clean water, right. But there are 600 million, 10% of the world, they have no access to free water.
So Scott telling me this story, there was this woman She travels a few kilometers every day to take water, which isn't so clean from a river. Puts it on her head, in a porcelain pot and she would walk eight kilometers or something to bring the water home for her family to drink. So one day when she came home, she accidentally tripped and she broke the porcelain pot, and the family didn't have water that day.
The next day she hung herself.
Can you imagine, I mean like people going through the type of activity and the type of stress. And the water they get is not very clean anyway. And it's full of bacteria and viruses and causes all sorts of diseases and malnutrition and simple diseases that can be so easily cured.
So what Charity Water does is they dig a well and then they install pipes and the pump. Simple. When you're pumping, you get clean water and it's all they do. And it doesn't cost very much. Thousands of dollars per pump because they have a small little crane and they have all the equipment and they can do it very quickly. So I was very excited and I have believed very much in what the team is doing and Scott is a very visionary leader, so we decided to spot this.
So that's our first project for 2021.
So the reason why you heard me speak about education in Africa is because Nigeria will have a billion people in 2100. It's already one of the largest countries in the world, but at the rate they are going, they're going to grow like crazy.
And Africa is going to be like 3, 4 billion. And Africa is a poor country and the education is very low in Africa today. It's very tough on the world if you have a lot of people who have no money and no education. So I think it's a natural focus for the foundation to try to help them. That calamity that's about to happen.
But I began with water because if you have no water, you can't study. And you can never be rich. So let's begin with basics first. And that's why we're supporting Charity Water.
Ling Yah: I think with education, are you starting with preschools as well because your wife has a Masters in early childhood education, right? And she was traveling around looking at preschools around the world as well.
Dr Finian Tan: That's right. That's right. She has a Masters in Early Childhood Education, which is coming in very handy because I have quadruplets, right. Four kids just born. I mean, they are de facto quadruplets. They're not exactly the same cause I had to have the surrogates, but they're all about a few months apart.
So we have a little school at home already. They're about one year old. And so it's coming very handy.
But yeah, education and early childhood is important because they are like sponges when they're young. So like my kids we're teaching them 4 languages. So we have 4 nannies cause we have 4 babies and our nannies speak their native language to them.
So French native, Chinese Spanish and English from England. it's a bit of an experiment. Let's see what the kids, how much they will absorb, because language, you can teach them as much as like, but it must be alive. It must be alive.
They must use the language.
So we would have to spend time in those countries which speak those languages, like French, like Spanish. Okay. English is easy. so we plan to spend time in Shanghai, a bit more Beijing, and then in Latin America, in Spain and in the French speaking countries like Morocco, like France, like the West Indies.
So we will make sure we have enough time in those places, but since my business takes me around the world, it's easy for me to just stop over. In those places and just in LA, Spanish is already useful. And my partner Khalil, he's French. So we know all his family and we're very close. So that French would already been useful.
And Chinese, even in Singapore, you can use it.
Fiona speaks Mandarin to the kids? And then of course the nanny will also speak Mandarin to the kids. I speak English and then the French and Spanish, nannies will speak just language to them.
Ling Yah: And for those who are listening, how can they help you?
Dr Finian Tan: Wow. How can you help me? Well, I have a cause, I'm trying to change the world a little bit at a time. One discovery at the time. So I'll give you an example. See the vaccine development
In order for the world to eradicate ourselves off this virus completely, when we find a true eradicating vaccine. People must take them. If they don't, then the vaccine will not work because for it to be eradicated, you must have 70, 80% of herd immunity reached.
So if I had to say something to everyone is to look at the data and study the facts. And when there is any eradicating vaccine, you will know it and we should all take it. Otherwise it won't work.
And climate change. We have to make sure that we pressure the politicians to take heat. if they don't, then you have to vote them out. Because we need to help our planet. We need to rid our planet of plastics because otherwise you're going to be poisoned by it.
So there's so many things that we can all do, right. To make the world a better place.
Ling Yah: For sure. It reminds me of when I was invited to attend this UN youth forum on climate change. And they said the youth were very aware of climate change as an issue, but most of them did not think they could do anything about it.
There was a clear disconnect between what was happening to themselves.
Dr Finian Tan: Well, once the biodegradable plastic, what we call biovernessence plastic cutlery, and utensils and straws and cups, et cetera out. We should use them and abstain from going to companies that are still using polluting plastics and it will quickly change.
And that's how straws got banned from public pressure. So public pressure is super powerful. If we vote with our wallet we can achieve the results. Even if oil is cheaper than renewable electricity.
We shouldn't be using the oil because it's destroying the planet, right. So we must be willing to say don't dig out every single drop of all it just because it's there.
Obviously if there are no alternatives, we have no choice. But if there is, I think it's worth spending money, time, effort to make the world better, right. Because otherwise we're going to destroy it.
Ling Yah: Absolutely. So thank you so much Finian for all of your time.
Dr Finian Tan: Thank you. Thank you. This has been very enjoyable.
Ling Yah: So I normally end with these questions. The first one is, do you feel that you have found your why?
Dr Finian Tan: It's still a work in progress in terms of how, but in terms of why? Yes. I mean, what I'm trying to do because I have so many of these projects, right? If one of them worked I would have already done something useful in my life. but how to do it is, all work in progress because it's what I'm trying to do.
And it's what I consume myself every day. And I hope to be fairly successful in achieving it. Everything I hope to do.
I'm sure I'm not going to achieve it, but since the visions are bold, I don't need to achieve all of them. If I achieve a few of them is good enough. As long as I can make the world better than when I came, I would have done something good, right. And that's enough.
Of course, the more I can do, the better. But even if I made a slight change, that's good enough. If all of us thought like that and would have a big impact.
Ling Yah: And is that the legacy you want to leave behind? Which is my second question.
Dr Finian Tan: Well, you said it right. The constitution begins with, to those whom much is given much is required.
It's actually taken from the Bible. And it's a very, very good saying, I think. And the reason is because as I said, luck plays such a big part. You're born with brains from your parents. You didn't control it. You're born in Singapore instead of Ethiopia. So all this is luck.
If we are lucky enough to be given a lot, we should measure ourselves by how much we give back and return to the planet and through our species.
We are animal lovers of course, but the difference between animals and homosapiens is too wide, right? The cleverest thing that monkey can do is perhaps steal his friend's banana by saying something that means an eagle's coming. Monkeys can lie So many animals can do that.
What happened in this experiment was there was an Eagle and the monkey said something and they took the words and when they played it, all the monkeys looked up.
Okay. So that should mean that they can communicate, right?
And then there was an occasion where one of the monkeys had like some bananas and one of the monkeys said the same thing. He looked up and the guy took his banana.
So animals can also lie, but that's about the extent of what they can do in terms of communication and intelligence. But humans can go to the moon. Humans can create computers, electric cars, and AI, and the difference is so so stark, it's incredible. And the funny thing is our brains have not evolved very much since 70,000 years ago when we first evolved.
So how come we can do so much now when we couldn't then because 70,000 years ago, all we could do is make stolen tools. And today we can go to the moon.
And the difference is all about community and communication, the invention of money, agriculture, invention of language, and so many things that make us what we are today. So I think that the animals will never come up to our level because so many things had to come to that before. So I'm very protective of the homosapien species in that sense, because we are so unique and so many things happen in order to make us what we are today.
Anything that we can all do to make this species continue to thrive, we should.
Ling Yah: And do you think are the most important qualities a successful person should have? And I will tag onto that and say, do you think you're successful?
Dr Finian Tan: Hmm. Am I as successful as I want to be? No. I'm far from what I want to achieve.
So that's why I still have so many dreams. That's why I'm still busy. And I'm trying all these things and hoping that they will work. We have a very unique chance with Emergex because the world is truly in a problem. And we have the wherewithal to be a hero.
Not many people have a chance to be a hero to save the world, right? And we are lucky enough to be facing this position. And so that's very exciting and very adrenaline rushing.
But on your question on what it takes to be successful, I think one is curiosity, because you need to constantly learn and you can't do it if you hate it.
So you have to love learning. So I think a successful person has to love learning and he needs to be curious as a result, otherwise they stop progressing.
As a CEO, you need to be able to sell. Besides all the other qualities, the most important is to be able to sell because there's no company that doesn't sell something.
So you have to be able to sell. You have to sell to your investors. You have to sell to your customers. You have to sell to your team. You have to constantly sell.
And I think the third is to be able to have a vision to look forward and to be able to articulate that vision.
So I think these are some of the key strengths that you need to cultivate if you don't have it in you, but success doesn't mean see your success, right?
What does it take to be successful? Either as a person with no hands, if you can use his legs to drink water that's successful. Right? So I think success is measured on completely different levels everywhere in the world.
So success is being better or being at your best. Reaching what you think you can do and you should think far, stretch goals.
So in that sense, I am not successful because I haven't reached my goals yet, but I hope to be every day, as my friend David always say, he only has great days and good days, so yeah, I'm optimistic.
Ling Yah: And where can people go to connect with you? Support what you're doing?
Dr Finian Tan: Well, my website Vickers. Our emails are all there, so we're very connectable. We invited companies to send us their business plans. Investors can always contact us, so it's not difficult.
Ling Yah: And that was the end of episode 30.
The show notes and transcript for this episode can be found at www.sothisismywhy.com/30
And wow we did cover quite a lot, didn't we? Everything from how Finian swept all of his academic awards at university by planning studies like a war, to why he invested in Baidu and what it was like being on the board, how he began Vickers and the investment strategy they employ in investing in a wide range of companies, including Samomed, RWDC, Emergex and Chooch - companies that may very well change the world.
And if you want to know when the next episode is coming up, as well as learn about other inspiring figures, initiates, experiments and discoveries I've found along the way, which can't honestly all be included in this podcast, then you can also sign up for the weekly STIMY newsletter. The link is also in the show notes: www. sothisismywhy.com/30.
And stay tuned for next Sunday where we will meet a very popular, or shall we say somewhat notorious street artist whose spray paints and works can be found all over Malaysia and the world, including in Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
We deep dive into his world, understand why he does what he does, and what's like living in the gray.
See you next Sunday!