Meet the Team: Chris Cusack
Q&A with Silicon Foundry’s Principal
Chris Cusack is a Principal at Silicon Foundry. Previously, he was a seed-stage investor at Village Capital, which invested in 100 startups in mobility, financial services, healthcare, education, and agriculture. Prior to that, Chris worked with the Cleveland Cavaliers to launch new initiatives related to startup engagement and local economic development.
Tell us about your career path — what are the key experiences that led you to Silicon Foundry?
Prior to Silicon Foundry, I spent my career working at the nexus of policy, emerging tech and economic development, where I was largely focused on a couple of core themes and questions:
- What makes a city/region competitive in the new technology-driven global economy?
- How can we generate more startup activity in areas that reflect critical global needs (e.g. climate change, access to finance, healthcare and education)?
I had several unique opportunities to see these issues firsthand. At the Cleveland Cavaliers, I was the only employee with no basketball-related responsibilities. Instead, I worked with our leadership to find innovative ways to use our assets (e.g. the arena, our brand and partnerships with other Dan Gilbert-owned ventures) to make Cleveland a more attractive place for young people to live, work and play. I won’t take full credit for Lebron’s return to Cleveland, but I also won’t not take credit for it…
At Village Capital, I was fortunate to spend time with local entrepreneurial leaders in 40+ cities around the world — accelerator heads, VCs, founders-turned-angels, economic development pros — as the firm looked for seed investment opportunities in health, education, fintech, food and climate tech. Whether in Jakarta, Buffalo or anywhere in between, two common themes stuck out:
- Cities were finding early wins by focusing their entrepreneurship communities around regional assets. For instance, Nashville may never out-do Silicon Valley for cloud storage, but it’s home to 17 publicly-traded healthcare organizations — so why couldn’t they be the global leader in health IT?
- As startups drifted toward entrenched industries, corporations were becoming critical partners — and neither side knew how to navigate a relationship with the other. Moreover, accelerators and other existing formats weren’t structured to bring the best companies together with the most interested buyers/partners.
Based on those learnings, we launched an innovation services business to help foundations and corporations find the best ventures in their areas of interest. That work grew rapidly, but eventually I decided to move back to San Francisco (I’d moved to London by that time) and found Silicon Foundry, which felt like the natural “2.0” version of what we’d built at Village Capital.
Can you share an example of a great corporate innovation or transformation process that you’ve seen in your current or past work?
This is a well-known initiative, but the impact that Vodafone/Safaricom have driven with M-Pesa is difficult to match. You can find the full origin story here, but in short, the two telcos turned a grant from the UK’s Department for International Development into a massive regional mobile money business (42 million customers in seven African countries). M-Pesa allows users to send and receive money via mobile phones and a network of agents, which leapfrogged the region into the forefront of global fintech — and by doing so, helped lift many people out of poverty. It’s also a tremendous example of how corporations can build entirely new businesses on top of their existing infrastructure/assets, and Safaricom was able to foster M-Pesa’s growth without crushing it along the way.
What “superpower” do you bring to the team?
This is a dangerous question to answer independently… I’ve always tried to be a “glue guy” on any team. For those unfamiliar with the term, “glue guy” is a basketball term that refers to the person who makes an impact on the team without necessarily showing up in the box score the — “no stats all-star”. I’ve always tried to play that role by filling in overlooked gaps, finding new insights that are helpful to our team/members and creating structures from which we can grow. I’m not sure if that’s a true “superpower,” though.
What sector or industry trend are you most fascinated by at the moment?
I’m particularly interested in two (and a half) topics:
- What will the long-term impact of COVID-19 be on entrepreneurial talent? We’ve all seen the moving trucks around San Francisco and New York, but is that a real trend that will lead to more geographic diversity in the next wave of great startups?
- The Creator/Passion Economy: Adam Davidson (former host of Planet Money) and Li Jin (formerly at Andreessen Horowitz) independently developed this concept, which Jin defines as: “New digital platforms enable people to earn a livelihood in a way that highlights their individuality. These platforms give providers greater ability to build customer relationships, increased support in growing their businesses and better tools for differentiating themselves from the competition. In the process, they’re fueling a new model of internet-powered entrepreneurship.” The Passion Economy is already changing the way we think about work, and it’s only just beginning.
You’re great at finding the latest scoop on nearly any topic. What are your favorite industry reads, podcasts, event series, etc. at the moment?
I’m a Twitter addict, and while I believe my decade-long attachment has broken certain important parts of my brain, it also helps me learn about all sorts of things I wouldn’t have otherwise discovered. I’ve fallen off podcasts through COVID, but we’re in a new golden age of email newsletters (again). There are so many great people to read — Ben Thompson’s Stratechery, Web Smith’s 2PM and Nathan Baschez’s Divinations are a few favorites — that it’s hard to keep up with all the real work.