The business of blockchain and the benefits of belonging to a School community

Startup founder and Imperial College Business School graduate, Andrea Bonaceto, on blockchain’s potential for boosting transparency, and how he benefited from his Business School experience. Interview by Ellen Buchan and Tim Banerjee Dhoul

‘Blockchain is philosophically aligned with providing a positive social impact,’ says Andrea Bonaceto, Founding Partner and CEO at Eterna Capital, a blockchain-oriented investment fund.

Andrea argues that the technology behind Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies is a disruptive force for finance because of its ability to remove the ‘middleman’ and create greater transparency in business.    

The Imperial College Business School graduate’s entrepreneurial passions were awakened during his studies, with Eterna Capital his second venture since his time at the UK institution. In this interview for Business Impact, Andrea talks about the intensity of life as an entrepreneur and offers some valuable insights into how belonging to a community of like-minded peers can open doors to new ventures and partnerships that can fuel your professional interests and ambitions.

Why did you choose to study a master’s in the UK, and why Imperial College Business School? 

I studied in London for a couple of months as part of the LSE Summer School in 2011. I really liked the vibe of the city. Moreover, London is one of the world’s main financial centres, so I decided that London would be my first choice for my post-graduate education.

When I first joined Imperial, I was interested in a career in strategy consulting or investment banking. Coming from a theoretical economics background, I thought an MSc in finance would provide me with a set of tools to leverage in the real world and provide a direct boost to my career.

Being enrolled at Imperial meant I was able to benefit from its top-class engineering department as well as its high-profile Business School. Looking back, I think this combination is crucial for building a healthy, innovative entrepreneurship community. 

How did your time at Imperial College Business School help you to launch HiredGrad and now, Eterna Capital?

While at Imperial, I had the opportunity to work with Imperial Innovations, a technology commercialisation and venture capital investor that focuses on technology, as part of my programme’s Applied Project. This experience introduced me to London’s startup ecosystem, captured my professional interest and encouraged me to start my own company.

The Imperial College Business School community, and that of the wider Imperial College London, have been very supportive during the set-up phase of both HiredGrad and Eterna Capital, offering advice to me and my colleagues, as well a workspace at the Imperial College Incubator.

How else have you been able to use what you have learned from your master’s in finance in your career to date?

Imperial has a very diverse community of students and recent graduates. Studying my MSc in finance at Imperial meant I was constantly in touch with people from very different backgrounds to my own.

I learned so much from talking and sharing ideas with friends from different cultures that I met while studying at Imperial. The importance of diversity in both personal life and business became even clearer to me.

What prompted the move from a company that helps graduates to one focused on blockchain and fintech?

After completing my studies, I dedicated my time to launching my first venture; HiredGrad, a London- and Bangalore-based graduate recruitment startup, with my classmate and Co-Founder Krishna Venkata. The company was born of an idea we had developed together during our studies, which gained momentum thanks to support from Imperial College’s startup incubator.

While the venture grew, I became increasingly interested in working in the blockchain and cryptocurrencies space. I started researching the blockchain space with Nassim Olive, another alumnus from my programme, who was working at [investment management firm] BlackRock at the time. Nassim introduced me to his colleagues, Asim Ahmad and Mattia Mrvosevic, who were researching similar fields, and a new partnership grew.

Can you provide any examples of the use of blockchain technology that is already making a positive social impact?

Blockchain is philosophically aligned with providing a positive social impact. By definition, blockchain is a list of blocks, or records, which are linked together and secured using cryptographic techniques. Information held on a blockchain exists as a shared, and continually reconciled, database. However, this database isn’t stored in any single location, meaning the records are truly public and easily verifiable.

There are numerous applications in the industry for this technology, from supply chain and data management, to sharing economies, financial services and environmentally friendly projects. Blockchain has the ability to remove the ‘middleman’ when not necessary, creating greater transparency and sustainability in business.

You’ve worked in large organisations in the past, such as KPMG and Deloitte, what were the biggest challenges you faced on entering the startup world?

Entering the startup word was a natural transition in line with my personality. I prefer less hierarchical and fast-moving environments. I learned that starting a company is a very intense endeavour. You never fully ‘switch off’ and, for those projects you are passionate about, you’re always willing to walk the extra mile to get things done.

Therefore, before starting a venture, it’s important you are psychologically ready for a long-term rollercoaster. Resilience is one of the most important characteristics of an entrepreneur, as there are many challenges to overcome, no matter how far your company has progressed.

Andrea Bonaceto is Founding Partner and CEO at Eterna Capital, an investment fund focused on blockchain technology. He holds an MSc in finance from Imperial College Business School.

   

Is AI making dangerous decisions without us?

Artificial intelligence (AI) is set to take control of many aspects of our lives, but not enough is being done with regards to accountability for its consequences.

The increasing application of AI across all aspects of business has given many firms a competitive advantage. Unfortunately, its meteoric rise also paves the way for ethical dilemmas and high-risk situations. New technology means new risks and governments, firms, coders and philosophers have their work cut out for them.

If we are launching self-driving cars and autonomous drones, we are essentially involving AI in life-or-death scenarios and the day-to-day risks people face. Healthcare is the same; we are giving AI the power of decision making along with the power of analysis and, inevitably, it will have some involvement in a person’s death at some point in the future, but who would be responsible?

Doctors take the Hippocratic oath despite knowing that they could be involved in a patient’s death. This could come from a mistaken diagnosis, exhaustion, or simply missing a symptom. This leads to a natural concern about research into how many of these mistakes could be avoided.

The limits of data and the lack of governance

Thankfully, AI is taking up this challenge. However, it is important to remember that current attempts to automate and reproduce intelligence are based on the data used to train algorithms. The computer science saying ‘garbage in, garbage out’ [describing the concept that flawed input data will only produce flawed outputs] is particularly relevant in an AI-driven world where biased and incomplete input data could lead to prejudiced results and dire consequences.

Another issue with data is that it only covers a limited range of situations, and inevitably, most AI will be confronted with situations they have not encountered before. For instance, if you train a car to drive itself using past data, can you comfortably say it will be prepared it for all eventualities? Probably not, given how unique each accident can be. Hence, the issue is not simply in the algorithm, but in the choices about which kinds of datasets we use, the design of the algorithm, and the intended function of that AI on decision making.

Data is not the only issue. Our research has found that governments have no records of which companies and institutions use AI. This is not surprising as even the US – one of world’s largest economies and one that has a focus on developing and deploying AI – does not have any policy on the subject. Governance, surveillance and control are all left to developers. This means that, often, no one really knows how the algorithms work aside from the developers.

When 99% isn’t good enough

In many cases, if a machine can produce your desired results with 99% accuracy, it will be a triumph. Just imagine how great it would be if your smartphone can complete the text to your exact specification before you’ve even typed it.

However, even a 99% level of precision is not good enough in other circumstances, such as health diagnostics, image recognition for food safety, text analysis for legal documents or financial contracts. Company executives as well as policymakers will need more nuanced accounts of what is involved. The difficulty is, understanding those risks is not straightforward.

Let’s take a simple example. If AI is used in a hospital to assess the chances of patients having a heart attack, they are detecting variations in eating habits, exercise, and other trends identified to be important in making an effective prediction. This should have a clear burden of responsibility on the designer of the technology and the hospital.

However, how useful that prediction is implies that a patient (or her/his doctor) has an understanding of how that decision was reached – therefore, it must be explained to them. If it is not explained and a patient [that is given a low chance of having a heart attack] then has a heart attack without changing their behaviour, they will be left feeling confused, wondering what the trigger for it was. Essentially, we are using technical solutions to deal with problems that are not always technical, but personal, and if people don’t understand how decisions about their health are being made, we are looking at a recipe for disaster.

Decision making, freedom of choice and AI

To make matters worse, AI often operates like a ‘black box’. Today’s machine learning techniques can lead a computer to continue improving its ability to guess the right answer or identify the right result. But, often, we have no idea how the machines actually achieve this improvement or ‘learn’. If this is the case, how can we change the learning process, if necessary? Put differently, sometimes not even the developers know how the algorithms work.

Consumers need to be made more aware of which decisions concerning their lives have been made by AI, and in order to govern the use of AI effectively, the government needs to give citizens the choice of opting out of all AI-driven decision making altogether, if they want to. In some ways, we might be seeing the start of such measures with the introduction of GDPR in Europe last year. However, it is evident that we still have a long way to go.

If we are taking the responsibility of decision making away from people, do we really know what we are giving it to? And what will be the consequences of the inevitable mistakes? Although we can train AI to make better decisions, as AI begins to shape our entire society, we all need to become ethically literate and aware of the decisions that machines are making for us.

Terence Tse is an Associate Professor of Finance at ESCP Europe Business School and a Co-Founder of Nexus FrontierTech, which provides AI solutions to clients across industries, sectors, and regions globally. His latest book, The AI Republic: Building the Nexus Between Humans and Intelligent Automation is due for release in June 2019.

Why the tortoise can beat the hare in investment strategy

The benefits of low-volatility investing outweigh those of high-risk stocks, argues Pim van Vliet, in an interview with David Woods-Hale

For generations, investors have believed that risk and return are inseparable. Just ask the huge banks who invested billions in sub-prime mortgages prior to 2008. But is it time we accepted the truth: this just isn’t the case anymore? Pim van Vliet, the founder and fund manager of the multi-billion-dollar Conservative Equity funds at Robeco, has set out to rewrite the rule book on investment strategy. 

In his book, High Returns from Low Risk: A Remarkable Stock Market Paradox, van Vliet combines the latest research with stock market data going back to 1929 to prove that investing in low-risk stocks gives surprisingly high returns – significantly better than those generated by high-risk stocks.

The low-risk funds, in which van Vliet specialises, are based on academic research and provide investors with a stable source of income from the stock market. 

He is a guest lecturer at several universities, the author of numerous financial publications and travels the world advocating low-volatility investing. Together with investment specialist Jan de Koning, van Vliet has presented his counter-intuitive story as a modern upbeat stock market equivalent of ‘the tortoise and the hare’. And he explains why investing in low-risk stocks works and will continue to work, even once more people become aware of the paradox. 

But this theory flies in the face of traditional and accepted thought regarding classic investment theory – so how did he build a theory that goes against the grain?

‘High risk does not bring more return,’ he explains. ‘It’s a paradox and I want to get the message out there. Unfortunately, this is an inconvenient truth for the finance community and it’s puzzled me for half my life.

‘It’s because we define risk in the wrong way, but when I was able to reconcile the paradox and started to research and apply the knowledge I was accumulating, by managing low-risk funds for investors, we were able to generate high risk-adjusted returns by investing in low-risk stocks, which attracted billions of dollars

The concept of investing in low-risk stocks for high returns is a compelling argument, but at odds with the views of some economists. Van Vliet, outlines his own hypothesis as follows, explaining: ‘My investment hypothesis is evidence-based: any idea on investing should be validated by empirical data. Although this approach is common in the field of medicine, it’s not in the world of finance.’   

He pauses, then adds: ‘In general – at a high level – the truth still holds: more risk will equate to more return. In the long run, stocks will earn higher returns than bonds for example. But if you dig a level deeper down, this idea fails within the stock market and also within the bond market. Lower-risk stocks provide higher returns than higher-risk stocks. The slow stock beats the fast stock. I explore this at length in my book. 

‘Benchmarking provides an important explanation for this effect. If you have stocks with lower risk factors, you will be less affected by the stock market. Imagine a stock posting a fixed return of 10% per year. That stock has – in absolute terms – 0% risk. However, when adopting a relative perspective this low-risk stock would lag behind if the market is delivering a return of 40% in a year, or be well ahead of the market during a market loss of -20%. This 30% return gap – whether positive or negative – is perceived as relative risk. It is the misalignment of interest here that poses a problem, because the role of an investor is different to that of a money manager. A professional investor is paid to take risks with people’s money to generate return and if they are not taking these risks, they could be shunned. In other words: due to benchmarking low-risk stocks become unattractive.’

Van Vliet compares his investment hypothesis similar in idea to the fable of the tortoise and the hare in that ‘slow and steady’ often wins the race but there is a human nature lesson here as well as advice for financial strategy. 

‘Most people want to bet on hares,’ he says. ‘In psychology, finance and literature it’s the moves in the market that generate the most attention and they drive up prices in stocks, which in turn makes the news. Tortoises are never in the news. Volatility makes headlines – this exacerbates a culture of short-termism and people who are bullish and want a quick buck.’

Van Vliet is quick to point there is fine line between ‘bullish’ and ‘reckless’ when it comes to investment and he worries that investors in general are too quick to ‘shun’ more defensive equity funds. 

He elaborates: ‘For this reason, society is experiencing a collective sense of over-confidence [in that they want to invest in high-risk funds]. This is really good for people’s mental wellbeing but it’s bad for financial health.’ 

Tortoises, according to van Vliet, are stable companies and defensive funds that ‘never seem to go up’ in stock market terms. But, as the saying goes, at least, fortune favours the brave – and in van Vliet’s analysis, it’s those that invest in risky funds that view themselves as brave. He counters this assumption. 

Re-defining bravery

‘Low-risk investors are brave,’ he asserts. ‘They are seen as conservative, but in reality they are not following the crowd. It’s like the character in The Pilgrim’s Progress, following a tough long road, but leading to a good end result.’

To capitalise on the low-risk anomaly, a long-term investment vision is required. The advantage of a low-volatility strategy is that the stocks involved will fall less than other stocks in a declining market. Once the market recovers, low-volatility stocks have less ground to make up to recover and start yielding positive returns again. 

Citing the experiences of the world’s second-richest man as an example, van Vliet explains that Warren Buffett is inclined to take a long-term view when it comes to his investments. Instead of following the crowd, Buffett has built his career and success on seeking out undervalued investments. Although Buffett’s portfolio has lagged behind the market several times during his career, he has beaten the market average decisively over time. 

For Buffett, average is doing what everybody else is doing; to rise above the average, you need to measure yourself by what he terms the ‘inner scorecard’ – judging yourself by your own standards and rather than the world’s.

A sustainable approach

 But where do ethics fit into a low-risk investment strategy? Does van Vliet agree that a values-led, sustainable approach to investing is becoming more important in the current financial climate?

He explains: ‘Low-risk portfolios make for sustainable, long-term investments, but in terms of ethics, the key consideration is how we, as investors, take care of our clients’ money – perhaps by investing in green companies or more sustainable funds for that reason.

‘High-risk and low-risk investments have the same mechanisms. And low-risk investments drive up risky projects. I’m not saying that a degree of risk is not a good thing – but prudent decision making is more important.’ 

Does van Vliet therefore believe that would-be investors have to be finance experts to understand the intricacies of the market?

‘You can over-train for a marathon,’ he explains. ‘You need information about the markets and I’ve outlined this in my own work – but the secret to successful investment is wisdom [rather than market knowledge only]. For example, the latest “hare” in the market place is FinTech and investors are keen to invest here. The truth is that some of these FinTech organisations will win, but most will lose.’

 He sums up by adding: ‘I think a good philosophy for investment is “some risk”. Putting this into the context of diet, a moderate amount of vitamins and salt is a good thing – but not taken to the extreme. There is no such thing as “no risk” as the risk spectrum is not linear. You have to create a bit of risk to generate value. If there is no risk, your investments will be negative. I believe the ideal investment choice, is what I call the “conservative middle”, which is a situation between very high and very low risk. 

‘We often are attracted to the extremes, but ancient philosophers wisely pointed to the virtue in the middle. Too much risk hurts long-term wealth creation, but a moderate amount of stock market risk is good. There are more and more companies that live and work according to this prudent investment principle, from private equity firms to family businesses. This is the secret to sustainable investing.’

Dr Pim van Vliet is a Senior Portfolio Manager within the Quantitative Equities team of Robeco, an international asset manager with
a strong belief in sustainable investing, quantitative techniques and constant innovation. His primary responsibility is Robeco’s conservative equity strategies.

Van Vliet has published articles in the Journal of Banking and Finance, Management Science, the Journal of Portfolio Management and other academic journals, plus a book on the topic of low-volatility investing. He is a guest lecturer at several universities, advocating low-volatility investing at international seminars, and holds a PhD and
MSc (cum laude) in Financial and Business Economics from Erasmus University, Rotterdam.