Bill Maris interview: Google Ventures into Europe

The online giant is here and ready to invest

Oscar Williams-Grut
Tuesday 28 October 2014 01:35

Bill Maris runs a tight ship. “I sign off not only every investment, but every dollar that goes out the door – I’m aware of it,” said the 39-year-old founder of Google’s investment arm, Google Ventures.

And there are plenty of dollars for Mr Maris to keep track of – since it launched in 2009, Google Ventures has invested some $1.5bn dollars in around 250 US tech businesses including Uber and “smart” thermostat pioneer Nest, which was acquired by Google for $3.2bn (£2bn) in January.

Now Google Ventures, or GV, is coming to Europe. The search giant revealed in July that it had recruited a team based in London, its first outside the US, to invest $100m in European technology.

Mr Maris revealed at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference that the sum has now risen to $125m, both to help the EU team sync with its US counterpart’s annual fund cycle and to reflect the health of Europe’s technology industry.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” Mr Maris said. “There are a number of start-ups in Europe that are able to reach beyond their own country. Take Spotify – Spotify just in Sweden isn’t that interesting compared to Spotify all over the world.”

As for choosing London as GV’s European base, he said: “It was about finding the right people and those people happened to be in London. But it’s not just a coincidence – we share a common language; Mountain View to New York is equidistant to London to New York; and London is the centre of the start-up ecosystem in Europe.”

GV Europe has yet to make an investment but last week Mr Maris and his European team held a “final” investment meeting with an unnamed London start-up and the group also visited businesses in Paris and Berlin.

But unusually for a venture capital operation, Mr Maris stressed that there is no pressure on his new team to invest at all, thanks to the deep pockets and patient approach of its one backer, Google.

“With a regular venture fund, you raise, let’s say, a billion dollars and then over the next three or four years you’ve got to invest that money, otherwise the people who invested with you will say ‘What are you doing? You’re just collecting fees on our money.’

“My instructions to the team are to avoid losing money rather than aggressively seeking to just do something. It’s like when you become a doctor and they say: first rule, don’t kill anyone. First thing: don’t lose money; next, let’s try to make some money.”

Mr Maris is “extremely involved” with the London operation: “I interviewed all of them personally – they’re hand-selected.”

The team is Eze Vidra, the founder of Google’s Campus office space in Shoreditch; Peter Read, an early investor in Songkick, Farfetch and YPlan; entrepreneur Tom Hulme; Avid Larizadeh, who worked at tech venture capital firm Accel Partners before co-founding fashion accessories marketplace Boticca; and MG Siegler, a tech writer turned investor.

They’re a capable bunch and Mr Maris won’t be flying in for investment meetings for ever. The team “no more need babysitting than the people in the US – and I don’t have time for it”. In the future they will just send him investment recommendations, on which Mr Maris can sign off.

But just what the $125m will be spent on isn’t clear yet. When the GV Europe team appeared together in public for the first time at a panel discussion last week, each took pains to stress that it’s about finding the right entrepreneurs rather than going fishing in the right ponds.

Mr Maris has said in the past that he, too, is open to investing in any good idea or entrepreneur, but the American highlighted biomedicine and medical technology as particularly interesting areas at the moment.

It’s perhaps unsurprising, given Mr Maris’s background – he studied neuroscience at Middlebury College in Vermont before going into technology and was involved in launching Google’s next generation healthcare spin-off project Calico, although he wouldn’t be draw on its progress.

But healthcare is an area where Google and other tech companies’ “invent first, plan later” approach can run into trouble – one of Mr Maris’s own investments, personal DNA analysis service 23andMe, which was founded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s estranged wife Anne Wojcicki, has already encountered some difficulties. Last year the company was ordered by the US Food and Drug Administration to stop marketing its personal genome analysis service, over concerns that people could draw the wrong health conclusions.

Elsewhere Uber, another of Mr Maris’s investments, has also faced problems with the regulators: it was recently hit with a ban in Berlin.

But Mr Maris is confident his strategy of making big bets – $258m went into Uber – on innovative companies such as these will come good in the long term.

“We don’t make investment decisions based on regulation,” he said. “We make them based on technology. We’re optimistic that those technologies can find their place in the world and the people who care about making people safe will ensure that there are the right rules in place. The reality is regulation often lags behind innovation.”

Google, he said, “would never tell a company to break the law”. With Google backing them, it’s not hard to see how these companies will eventually triumph. As well as significant funding, Mr Maris reveals that unlike traditional finance, where a church-and-state divide is said to separate departments, there is rampant cross-fertilisation between Google Ventures and the rest of the company.

“My mandate is unlock as much of Google as necessary for our investment companies – whether that’s real estate services, or some legal help, or design or engineering.

“Look at Uber – one of the board members is David Drummond, who is Google’s chief legal officer; part of our thinking when we made the investment was: ‘We have a global infrastructure and we have problems around rules and regulations, maybe we can help you or you can help us, or we can help each other figure this out.’ ”

That may grate with tech entrepreneurs and regulators alike – companies not anointed by Google are put at a significant disadvantage thanks to their privileged access to Google’s resources, while lawmakers hardly like to see their handiwork as problems to be “figured out”.

But Mr Maris, as with most Silicon Valley true believers, feels he’s fighting the good fight. Asked what GV’s best investment to date has been, he replied: “It’s way too early to say. We’re just getting started. But ‘great’ isn’t just about financial returns. Part of what we’re doing is helping entrepreneurs feed their dreams.”

A few of Europe’s lucky entrepreneurs are about to get a hearty supper.

In figures

$125m: Google Ventures’ European capital

250: Companies in which GV has invested

$258m: What GV put into Uber

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