Entrepreneurs and investors read the tea leaves for 2017
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The stock market has surged since trading opened Nov. 9, but I’m calling this the Wile E. Coyote sprint. Like the famous cartoon coyote who keeps moving forward even once he has run past the edge of the cliff, investors are relying on hopes and expectations based on past Republican administrations, and President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign promises, to guide them.
But with Trump assembling an unrivaled “team of amateurs” for his Cabinet, this administration is likely to be different. Different how? We don’t know yet.
As Inauguration Day nears, I’ve been asking entrepreneurs and investors in Boston what makes them optimistic or pessimistic about the year ahead, as well as Trump’s four-year term.
Elizabeth Lawler is chief executive of Conjur , a Waltham security firm. She says she’s an optimist at her core but says we haven’t been thinking enough about “the societal impact of adopting technology at such a breakneck pace. We’ve let the speed of the industry dictate the speed of adoption, whether we’re ready for it or not. As technology becomes an increasingly sophisticated and a primary force in our lives, this needs to be an active discussion amongst philosophers, legislators, technologists, and others. We should look at actual costs, as well as potential human costs, whether it is the risk of autonomous vehicles being hacked or the risk of job loss due to automation and artificial intelligence.”
For Jules Pieri, chief executive of The Grommet , “Optimism and pessimism are opposite sides of the same coin.”
The head of the Somerville e-commerce site (which features newly launched products) says, “After six years of congressional constipation, I am looking forward to our legislators having no excuses for not getting their job done. But the flip side of the coin is my deep worry about what they will do to roll back human rights, environmental protections, and our international stature as a country.”
The last Republican administration, that of George W. Bush, approached the Middle East and Iraq “like the homeowner that discovers a wasp nest in the yard and hits it with a stick — more interested in urgent action over thoughtful action,” says Steve Papa, chief executive of Nashua, N.H.-based Parallel Wireless , which develops wireless telecommunications gear. “Hopefully, the nest goes away without too many stings, but often the wasps start a new nest. The incoming administration seems to be approaching most foreign and domestic policy issues” — including trade, nuclear weapons, China, tax policy, and ethics — “as if they are wasp nests,” Papa says.
From Maia Heymann, a partner at Converge Venture Partners , a Cambridge investment firm: “Massachusetts will continue to lead on attracting the world’s brightest to come here for education, and our next goal will be finding ways to keep the entrepreneurs, including immigrant entrepreneurs, who start businesses here.”
Health care venture capitalist Bruce Booth, of the Cambridge firm Atlas Venture , says he is enthusiastic about the cutting-edge work being done to address diseases and ailments that don’t yet have cures. But he’s concerned about “the health of the ‘social contract’ our sector has with society, especially as it pertains to drug pricing and its link to value. Further, the pharma industry has become a popular punching bag for politicians, which creates uncertainty that could dampen long-term investments in new medicines. We need to find a better balance here, and I’m anxious that’s not possible in the current environment.”
From Woody Benson, a partner at the investing firm Launch Capital Partners : “Goodbye mobile, cloud, social (thank God). And hello artificial intelligence, AI apps, AI service, autonomy, and advanced research (hello, MIT). New tech waves are great for Boston-based early investing.”
Rob Infantino, chief executive of OpenBay , a Cambridge-based online marketplace for car repair, says, “What makes me concerned and anxious is the lack of support for Boston’s startup community from local top-tier investors. These top-tier investors are unreasonably conservative and risk-averse when it comes to investing in early stage companies.”
What tack will the Trump administration take on government funding of early stage academic research, which often supports the creation of new generations of startups? Eric Giler says he has sensed anxiety in the entrepreneurial arena about whether “there’s going to be continued funding of research from agencies like the Department of Energy or the Pentagon. It’s a big question mark.” Giler is chief executive of Speedy Packets , a Boston startup seeking to accelerate the Internet.
Scott Griffith, the former chief executive of Zipcar, and now an executive-in-residence at General Catalyst Partners , a Cambridge venture capital firm, is focused on bringing jobs and economic activity to the Rust Belt. “As I graduated from high school in the ’80s in Western Pennsylvania, I recall the city of Pittsburgh as a single-industry town on the brink of economic disaster, with an unemployment rate three times the national average,” he says. “Today, Pittsburgh is a booming multi-industry mecca of health care, technology, financial services, higher education, and yes, manufacturing, too! It can be done. It takes vision. It takes time. It takes smart policy and smart investments. But it can be done.”
At CloudHealth Technologies , a Boston startup that helps companies manage their cloud-based computing services, chief technology officer Joe Kinsella is wary. “All the signs suggest we have a global recession coming,” he says. “In spite of the post-election bull market we have been in, I do not think the markets have fully accounted for the uncertainties of a Trump presidency. I also fear a recession could be amplified by poor management from a new and uncertain administration.”
“That said,” he continues, “I still remember what we came through in 2008 and have to appreciate the relative health of our US economy compared to the world. For 2017, I am going to double down on building the most successful Boston-based business I can, and remember that I am fortunate to live in a vibrant area of the country, near one of the most attractive cities in the world, and in a region that values technology, education, and diversity.”
Boston angel investor David Chang describes himself as “a glass-half-full kind of person.” He plans to go “heads-down on what I can control in 2017.”
“Control what you can control” — that sounds like a pretty good mantra for the year ahead.