Investing in Alpha Geeks, Hackers, and Hobbyists

“Good ideas” can come from a variety of sources of inspiration. But according to Bryce Roberts, the Managing Director of O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures, “disruptive ideas” in technology often come from “hobbyists, hackers, and alpha geeks.” In a blog post today, Roberts lays out some of the investment themes and signals that are of particular interest to him and his partners, Mark Jacobsen and Tim O’Reilly.

Citing Tim O’Reilly, he writes that “Over our years watching the alpha geeks, we’ve concluded that many big technology revolutions don’t start with entrepreneurs, but with hobbyists having fun. Think the Wright Brothers and others who enabled the age of flight, the Homebrew Computer Club that helped birth the personal computer industry, the early web sites that were built with no expectation of financial return, the open source developers who wrote code, as Linus Torvalds admitted ‘just for fun.'”

What the Kinect Hacks Signal

The explosion in the numberofhacks for Microsoft Kinect demonstrate just this sort of disruptive innovation. As Roberts points out, although the Kinect is a “slict little peripheral” for the Xbox 360, it really does have a specific intended use. However, with the open-sourcing of the drivers, that initial intended use seems, quite frankly, the least interesting thing about the Kinect. To that end, hobbyists and hackers have developed some really amazing new applications.

As the Kinect demonstrates, when expensive and proprietary hardware and software becomes more accessible, affordable and open source, it provides the opportunity for “hobbyists, hackers, and alpha geeks” to really expand what’s possible.

Roberts asks the important question of how something like the Open Kinect projects can actually signal trends – for tech and for investment. He writes, “We look at what these hackers do in their spare time then try to find possible connections between them and any underlying trends they’re trying to expose. For instance, what do these Kinect hacks have in common with something like Google’s self driving car? They could be pointing to a trend among alpha geeks of exploring machine vision. If so, we ought to look at what immediate investment opportunities may be available directly in the field; but also, what pieces of infrastructure need to be in place for this trend to be fully realized at scale.”

Looking to the alpha geeks – their hobbies and side projects – as a signal to future trends and technology movements is fascinating. And of course, it prompts the question: what are you working on this weekend?

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