The article below is from our BRIEFINGS newsletter of 11 August 2020
Can technology be used to improve human performance? At the recent Goldman Sachs Asset Management (GSAM) Healthcare Investor Forum, Andrew Firlik, managing partner of JAZZ Venture Partners, spoke with GSAM’s Hugh Lawson about emerging technologies that are helping to improve health and wellness outcomes.
Hugh Lawson: Andrew, given your background both as a neurosurgeon and a venture capitalist in the healthcare sector, can you share your perspective on why you believe technology can help improve brain function?
Andrew Firlik: What we understand through neuroscience is that brains have an ability—known as neuroplasticity—to form new neural connections throughout our entire lives. Essentially, we can “rewire” our brains to adapt to new situations and conditions, or to compensate for a deficit. A child with attention deficit disorder, for example, struggles because of deficiencies in specific neurotransmitters. But therapeutic intervention can be used to strengthen that neural deficit in a way that is more beneficial than a pharmacological alternative.
Hugh Lawson: Artificial intelligence technology is seen by some as a threat to replacing human jobs. But AI can also be used as a force for good. Can you share your views on the therapeutic applications for AI in healthcare?
Andrew Firlik: Today, technology is mostly being used to improve workflow processes and to help make the business and infrastructure of healthcare more efficient. But AI and software technology is increasingly being leveraged to improve patient outcomes. One of our portfolio companies, for example, has developed a natural-language processing system that is designed to foster open-ended conversations. This technology is currently embedded in a robot that is being used to help children with autism spectrum disorder. Through seemingly playful interactions, the robot uses the same techniques that a human therapist would use—such as measuring eye contact, emotions and encouraging back-and-forth conversation—to improve a child’s ability to connect socially. But instead of working one-on-one with a therapist—often an expensive proposition—families can use the robot to do things repeatedly, consistently and patiently, and in a more scalable manner.
Hugh Lawson: Can you talk about the venture capital environment that you’re operating in, given that the industries you invest in cut across different disciplines?
Andrew Firlik: One of the reasons we decided to build a new venture capital firm in 2015 was to invest in emerging technologies that sit at the intersection of in AI and machine learning, and health, life sciences and wellness. In the traditional VC environment, there’s not a lot of cross-pollination between those areas. If you’re an expert in AI and ML, you’re often sitting in the so-called IT side of the house. If you’ve been working in biotechnology, therapeutics or dealing with the FDA, you are typically sitting in life sciences or biotech. In our firm, we have data scientists, technologists, as well as media and entertainment experts who are working alongside people like me with a background in neuroscience and healthcare. In a typical VC model, each partner might be going out to win his or her own deals. We work together on every opportunity so we can see how the different dimensions come together to build breakthrough products.
Hugh Lawson: What has the investing environment been like since the lockdown started?
Andrew Firlik: We have been making investments throughout this period in part because our fund is benefiting from many of the tailwinds of the pandemic, such as telemedicine and digital therapeutics. Many of our investments are also focused on technologies that can help retrain a workforce and improve workforce productivity, or accelerate learning in a distributed learning environment. As investors, we have to take our cues from the world that we’re living in and continue to back the entrepreneurs that are creating the solutions that we need. The arc of history reflects the constant battle between simply unleashing technology—with all its potency—on the world, and guiding technology in ways that help improve it.
Hugh Lawson: These days we’re spending even more time on our devices and with technology. How do you expect that to change?
Andrew Firlik: The last 20 to 30 years of technological development were primarily focused on building transactional systems—sharing and moving data, or posting and commenting on social platforms, for example. But what happens to a generation of people who are constantly interacting with these systems? To be successful at software investing, I believe you have to link neuroscience and human psychology, especially as technology becomes more immersive through the use of AI and augmented reality. You need to look into every transactional system that you’re building with an eye toward how it shapes us as people. And when you do that, you can see the incredible potential therapeutic or wellness potential that could come from that.