Investing in Progress
By Tim Hyland
Photo by Eric Millette
February 2, 2017
Pinkesh Patel, PhD
Pinkesh Patel’s academic credentials simply can’t be questioned.
He received a bachelor’s degree from Drexel University in physics (with honors) before completing a graduate degree at Caltech, where he dove into the just-developing field of research surrounding gravitational waves. He then went on to a postdoc at Stanford, where he branched out into the world of bioengineering.
But after years of hard work, not to mention a good bit of soul-searching, he decided that life in academia simply wasn’t for him. What he needed, he says, was a broader, bigger challenge.
With that goal in mind, he moved on to the fast-paced world of Silicon Valley, where he served in key roles at both Facebook and Instagram. The work was exciting, urgent and at the very cutting edge of the world of technology. But even at those two tech powerhouses, Patel said he felt somewhat limited. He had gone into that industry seeking a greater challenge. He still hadn’t found it.
Now, he says, he has. If you ask Patel to explain exactly what it is he is doing today, here’s what he’ll tell you: “I think the most succinct way to describe my work is to say that I currently help people who are solving some of the world’s biggest problems solve them even better.”
“I think the most succinct way to describe my work is to say that I currently help people who are solving some of the world’s biggest problems solve them even better.”
And here’s the thing: he’s not exaggerating in the least.
As a data scientist with Palo Alto-based Social Capital, Patel finds himself working alongside some of the brightest minds in the world of venture capital, and that alone makes the work fulfilling, exciting, even exhilarating. And because of the company’s unique structure and singular mission, he does more than just “work.” Indeed, the goal of Social Capital is not just to make money; it’s to make money while funding businesses that matter.
“The overall goal of our fund is to invest in companies that are trying to solve the most difficult problems,” he explains. “We invest in education, and in health care, and in environmental issues. And of course, we need to invest in things that make money, because we can’t fund our- selves without money, but it also goes beyond that. We aim to invest in companies that offer more than just a good business plan, ones that are also tackling problems that are non-trivial.”
Such talk may sound lofty, but Patel and his colleagues at Social Capital back up the company’s mission statement — “to transform society by using technology to solve the world’s hardest problems” — with actual action. Among the group’s portfolio companies are socially conscious startups like HomeHero, which seeks to provide a higher and more holistic brand of home care to seniors in need; Collective Health, which aims to change the way companies provide health care coverage to their employees; Saildrone, which captures ocean data to monitor such issues as climate change and over-fishing; and Neurotrack, which is working to help individuals track their brain health — and even catch early signs of cognitive decline.
Some might assume, Patel says, that issues as massive as health care reform, climate change and others might be best solved by governments or specialized nonprofits.
But that thinking is flawed, he says. Private enterprise — and yes, venture capital — has a major role to play as well. For instance, he explains, climate change is more than just an environmental issue; when ocean temperatures change, not only are coastal communities impacted, but the world’s fishing industry is as well. So why not get the major players and best thinkers from that sector involved in the pursuit of a solution?
“Some of these problems are things that we can’t just leave to governments,” he says. “There are commercial aspects to be considered as well.”
The firm’s focus on funding companies that matter is one big draw for Patel. But it’s not the only one, he says.
Unlike other venture firms that may back promising startups with money but little else, Social Capital actually commits its own staff ’s expertise to the companies it invests in. The idea behind the strategy is simple:
Social Capital has some really smart, really accomplished people who have done some really amazing things in their careers. They are the kind of people who make an impact at Social Capital every day. And so, of course, they are also the kind of people who can make an impact working somewhere else.
For Patel — someone who is always seeking a new experience, greater knowledge and a new problem to solve — this makes the experience of working there nothing short of inspiring.
He sought a career that was truly challenging and ever-evolving; at Social Capital, that’s what he’s found.
“What I feel that we do well is enable these smart young men and women to do what they want to do with their companies, and we do that by helping them as much as we possibly can,” he says. “Now, all venture capitalists can say that, I suppose, but here I get the opportunity to actually go out and work with these companies. I become a part of their team. I help them solve their problem. It’s very satisfying and it scratches that itch I have — to go out and explore and try different things.”
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "Agents of Change." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.