On this week's episode of the L.A. Venture podcast, meet Scott Lenet, the co-founder and president of Touchdown Ventures — a firm that helps corporations run professional venture capital programs. Before creating Touchdown, Lenet was a managing partner at DFJ Frontier and has two decades of experience as a venture capitalist.
Touchdown Ventures helps corporate funds manage their venture outreach and streamline their investment program. Lenet says Touchdown is working with companies in health care, media, consumer products, agriculture, security enterprise software and has its foot in the door with two different banks.
Despite being a new company, Lenet says every time Touchdown adds an account, they expand their team. He describes the company as a "growing beast" that's "a corporate venture capital and innovation firm first" and a "recruiting and training firm" second. The firm is hiring right now, which is unusual in the venture world.
Education is a very important part of Lenet's work. He wants to upend the "secretive" venture industry by prioritizing training the next generation of venture capitalists and "demystify what this the industry is about." In addition to his work at Touchdown, Lenet teaches the "How to Be a Venture Capitalist" class at USC and "Corporate Innovation" at UCLA for their respective MBA programs.
Lenet is unique among venture capitalists in many ways, but notably in that he believes business needs more regulation. Within his own company, his view is that venture capitalists need to let entrepreneurs manage their businesses, and help their companies thrive from board positions.
"It's my job to keep you safe," He argues. "I think that that should apply to what our entrepreneurs do with their businesses, and our job to protect them as well as their junior people. And this is a business where we're professional fiduciaries for other people's money. Most of the money that VCs invest is not ours, right?"
Tune in to hear more from Scott Lenet on how he runs Touchdown Ventures, tips from his business classes, why he prioritizes training, and how he wants to use venture funds to create positive social impact.
"So I think that probably to me, one of the biggest myths that are still sitting out there is this idea that you have to choose between being strategic and being financial. And I would say it's like a false Sophie's choice. You should not pick one or the other. You should figure out how to maximize both." — Scott Lenet
Scott Lenet is the co-founder and president of Touchdown Ventures.
dot.LA Engagement Intern Colleen Tufts contributed to this post.
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Concerts, performances and other public gatherings are back on come April 15 — that is if attendees can prove they've been vaccinated or recently tested negative for COVID-19.
This announcement came on Friday, with no clear plan of how Southern Californians will prove their credentials.
Experts are worried about initiating this new strategy without a set of single standards or regulations. It raises a host of questions about forgery, health privacy records and accessibility.
"Each jurisdiction is kind of left to their own devices," said Rita Burke, an assistant professor of clinical preventive medicine at USC's Keck School of Medicine of USC. "There's no one set of guidelines which — in a situation like this — would be really, really helpful."
On eBay, she said, scammers are already selling replica vaccine cards for around $200.
The landscape of vaccine passports has evolved into an unregulated, crowded market. At least four Los Angeles entities have created their own, some working with others, including UCLA and health care startups Carbon Health and Healthvana.
President Biden's chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci said Monday on Politico's podcast that the federal government will not require the credentials for businesses or travelers.
And last week, the Biden administration said it's letting private companies take the reins over vaccine passports, opting out of creating a centralized system for verifications.
How California — and any other state — will use the digital tools is still unknown. And the state has remained quiet on its strategy.
New York officials have launched their own version called Excelsior Pass for concert and event-goers. Meanwhile, a Florida governor on Friday banned digital certifications for vaccines, citing concerns over privacy and "individual freedom."
"It's going to be hard for businesses to require a passport because nobody wants to be perceived as forcing people to take a vaccine," said Ken Mayer, co-founder and CEO of the health tech company SAFE Health.
The L.A. startup is working with IBM and a coalition called the Vaccination Credential Initiative to develop passports for people to show proof of vaccination or recent COVID-19 test via QR code. It's one of several tech companies working behind the scenes for what will essentially be a ticket to freedom for many.
But the system, some worry, could create a have-and-have-not world where those with the vaccination gain access to concerts, offices and international travel.
"I think COVID passports should not be a thing that further divides people and makes it even more difficult for people who are on the margins," said Jakub Hlavka, a fellow at the USC Schaeffer Institute.
Hlavka said that inequitable vaccine distribution — especially in rural areas unable to preserve vaccines at specific temperatures for long — will impact how freely people are able to travel internationally, or how families across borders will reconnect after the pandemic.
It's also raising concern about personal health record keeping.
"This is a new concept so it sounds simple until you get into the security and privacy details," said Eren Bali, the co-founder and CEO of Carbon Health, which runs L.A.'s vaccine appointment website.
Bali said that any digital application should be for a single use and not allow providers to store "random health data" such as diabetes or other personal medical information that is protected and has no bearing on public health.
The company recently developed its own digital certification card called Health Pass, which is automatically provided to individuals who completed vaccination through the city of Los Angeles.
"I think this is only relevant for highly infectious diseases," he said, pointing to yellow fever as another use case for a vaccine passport.
L.A.'s Department of Public Health did not immediately reply for comment, but in March, a spokesperson confirmed that the county was working with Healthvana to send out their own electronic passport.
Even if vaccine passports catch on, people will still receive a white vaccination record card after getting the shot. But it's unclear whether venues or businesses will accept them as proof, or how they'll be verified for authenticity.
Almost a third of California residents have been partially vaccinated. Health officials in Los Angeles County report 1.3 million people have been fully vaccinated, but that data doesn't include Pasadena and Long Beach.
One upside to a digital passport is that it could serve as an incentive for those yet to be vaccinated, said Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel, who represents much of the west San Fernando Valley and sits on the Assembly's Privacy and Consumer Protection Committee.
The committee oversees California's Department of Technology, responsible for partnering with state and local government to deliver digital services like MyTurn, the vaccination appointment portal run by the state.
"Hopefully it's something that'll motivate people who may be on the fence, knowing that they're able to do these things," he said.
But Burke says those who are skeptical about the vaccine are also the people wary of a vaccine passport.
Plus, proving a negative COVID-19 test "does not guarantee that you don't have COVID," she added. Venues and businesses should reconsider accepting days-old negative test results before letting customers inside.
"Showing a negative test is not really a good way of approaching this," Burke said. "Now, as we're opening up, we really need to focus on getting as many folks vaccinated as possible."
This story has been updated.
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Alexa-maker Amazon is creating a machine learning and artificial intelligence research lab at USC as the retail giant grapples with growing privacy concerns around its products. The Center for Secure and Trusted Machine Learning, part of USC's Viterbi School of Engineering, will support research that looks at new ways to secure and preserve privacy in machine learning and can be applied at scale "to support billions of users."
Amazon's artificial intelligence systems extend beyond its smart home devices; the company automates much of its processes using machine learning; including product recommendation, the Amazon Echo and the Amazon Go store (a brick and mortar location that runs without cashiers). Amazon also recently launched Halo, a wearable fitness tracker comparable to the Fitbit that also connects with Alexa and the rest of its smart devices.
A.I. and machine learning underpin almost all Amazon's products, and the technology is what powers any smart home device. The "internet of things" concept -- the idea that different individual computers can communicate with one another on a universal network -- is also powered by A.I. Nearly all big tech companies use A.I.
"A.I. fuels just about everything we do at Amazon, and we challenge ourselves every day to find ways to use this technology to benefit customers," a company spokesperson told dot.LA. "A.I. is a key part of our culture because we are customer obsessed, and these technologies have developed as great tools for developing and improving customer experiences."
Amazon wouldn't comment on if it will use this research to develop its A.I.-enabled products, like the Alexa smart device.
Though it has relationships with other colleges, the program with USC is Amazon's first machine learning-focused fellowship project with a campus.
The center's goal is to make A.I. and machine learning technologies more secure and trusted by the public. It will be directed by Salman Avestimehr, professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC, who will also oversee related fellowships and the overall project.
Avestimehr said he thinks there are many companies besides Amazon that could benefit from the center's research.
"Amazon is interested in this, and many others. [Machine learning] is a hot topic, and it's on everybody's mind," Avestimehr said. "Privacy, security and trust resonates with everybody."
Salman Avestimehr is a professor of computer and electrical engineering at USC.
Privacy, according to Avestimehr, refers to keeping individual users' data safe, while security is related to securing the open-source systems from threats. "Since everybody can be a part of this ecosystem of machine learning, therefore it is also open to any adversary behavior," he added.
There's also the challenge big tech companies face in getting their customers to fully trust their automated systems (and keep using their devices).
Google is another tech giant that's trying to figure out how to approach and market A.I., which it uses in many facets of its business including its Google Home devices, which compete with Amazon's Alexa. Lead researchers and engineers at Google have quit over concerns the company and its CEO Sundar Pichai aren't prioritizing diversity in developing A.I. -- an issue they've voiced since 2015. Google's co-head of ethical A.I. Margaret Mitchell is currently under investigation for allegedly sharing classified Google documents with outside sources.
"If this is something like coming up with this algorithm to run your home, how would you trust that? How do you trust this algorithm that is learning by itself?," Avestimehr said.
Amazon had similar issues. Cybersecurity researchers including those at Check Point have uncovered privacy concerns with the Alexa, including the ability to hack into the device, steal personal information and change which "skills" Alexa can perform. "Successful exploitation would have required just one click," Check Point wrote in its report.
At CES last year, Amazon said it sold at least 200 million Alexa devices to date, and that its customers use the voice assistant prompts to control their smart homes a combined "hundreds of millions of times" each week.
"At Amazon, privacy and security are foundational," an Amazon spokesperson said. "Our highest priorities are keeping customers' information safe, providing customers with transparency and control, and making privacy controls incredibly easy to use and understand."
The technology and research produced by the lab could lead to a wider understanding of how A.I. and machine learning works. Avestimehr said he hopes it'll also convince the public to engage with more complex A.I. systems that could actually be dangerous, like autonomous vehicles.
"They're not making big decisions yet," Avestimehr said of most current A.I. systems.
Under Avestimehr's direction, the center will accept qualified USC PhD candidates into its Amazon Machine Learning Fellows program, where they will gain access to funded research projects, annual fellowships, public research symposiums and annual workshops. The program will also reach out to younger engineers; there are plans to train and eventually recruit high school and university students.
"Related to our university, it's good at attracting talent, educating talent and these fellowship resources will be very useful to drawing talented students, educating them and [also] recognizing the greatest students we have at USC," Avestimehr said.
Amazon and USC have partnered before on projects. The ecommerce giant said through a spokesperson that it chose to work with USC to develop a machine learning center partly because it deepens Amazon's access to the graduate talent pool.
"We are delighted to bring together top talent at Amazon and USC in a joint mission to drive ground-breaking advances in privacy and security preserving machine learning; advances that enable us to continue to safely and securely deliver experiences," Amazon's Alexa AI Vice President — and former USC vice dean of engineering — Prem Natarajan said in a statement.
Though it's headquartered in Seattle, Amazon has a sizable operation in Los Angeles. The company said it continues to hire at its hub in L.A., and added, "there are currently more than 500 tech and corporate roles available." Right now, Amazon said it employs thousands in L.A. County.