• Quick Chat with Kevin Talbot of Relay Ventures

    Kevin TalbotIn recent years, Relay Ventures, a nine-year-old, early-stage venture firm that once operated as BlackBerry Partners Fund, has been organizing one of the more thought-provoking events for investors: a half-day, invite-only affair in Mountain View, Ca., called Strictly Mobile.

    The event, like Relay Ventures itself, focuses solely on mobile software and services, and though we couldn’t make it this year, we caught up with firm cofounder Kevin Talbot recently to talk about what we missed. Invariably, we also talked about what Relay is looking to fund these days. Here’s some of that chat, edited for length.

    You dropped everything but mobile back in 2008. That seems pretty prescient now, though presumably it’s also less of a differentiator.

    People kind of laughed at us and said, ‘It’s a category.’ Now, I’d be surprised if any VC firm hasn’t figured out that mobile is real, although if you look across the board, you’ll still see just one or two partners at each firm who focuses on it, which surprises me.

    Given that “mobile” is now so ubiquitous, how do you narrow your areas of focus?

    We’ve been focusing on four verticals: healthcare, education, commerce and the consumer. If you pick any one, you see a huge amount of disruption, whether in the form of payments, in commerce; or the digitization of education – which is really the democratization of education; or the consumerization of healthcare, with all these new sensors and tools that are altering whole healthcare systems and turning doctors into white collar workers.

    We remember your early investment in Scanadu [a four-year-old company whose first medical device for home use measures temperature, blood pressure and oxygen].

    We’re big supporters of Scanadu, whose [Series B, which closed last month] was oversubscribed. The company has really been at the forefront of citizen-driven healthcare. It also ushered in a whole new model of, how do you embrace the FDA rather than run away from it. That deal was also led by Tencent, which speaks to the strategy of more American startups that don’t look at marketing as something to be done sequentially, where you launch in the U.S. first, but rather as something that should be done in parallel.

    Have you backed any fitness-related mobile tech?

    We’re not all that interested in another tracker of a relatively unverifiable metric like step counting. We don’t think that’s changing the world.

    What are one of your newer ed tech investments? 

    We’re excited about Galxyz, an iPad app that invites kids to solve puzzles and put the world back together while teaching them scientific content; it sees educators and game designers working side by side and was founded by Osman Rashid, who also founded [the publicly traded textbook rental service] Chegg and [the e-learning startup] Kno [which was acquired by Intel in 2013].

    You also mentioned the consumer. Are you focused on the so-called Internet of Things? 

    We think the Internet of Things is in an exciting phase that’s a bit like the Wild West. It’s all very fun and interesting, like the Oral B toothbrush that connects to your smartphone. We’re less sure how you’re going to make money on a lot of these things. We’re more interested in the meta layers that will make the market useful and frictionless.

    What’s an example of a related company you’ve backed? 

    We haven’t yet found it, but that’s what we’re looking for.

    Before you go, we have to ask: Thumbs up or down for the Apple Watch?

    I think there will be very point-specific solutions that work. But also, as I stare [at my own Apple Watch], I’m reminded of the bottom drawer of my desk, which is a graveyard of tech. There’s just about every fitness tracker in there; there’s Google Glass. There’s a lot of money sitting there. I still don’t know yet if the Apple Watch will stay on my wrist or [ultimately land] in the drawer.

    Are startups starting to pitch you on Apple Watch-related apps?

    No, but they are showing us the watch along with the smartphone app they’re pitching. Much of it won’t work on the wrist, but everyone has figured out that you have to have the watch picture beside the phone.

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