Like many businessmen, Jojo Flores started his career in the brick-and-mortar space when he launched Wilkins Bottled Water in 1992 in the Philippines, a firm that grew globally thanks to the support of his business partner, Saeed Amidi. In 2005, the duo saw an opportunity in the real estate sector in the US and started a new venture there.
The two entrepreneurs bought an empty office building in Silicon Valley in 2006 and divided it up into smaller rooms to lease out to upcoming startups. “We didn’t have a word for it yet, but now the business model is called a ‘co-working space.’ That’s how Plug & Play started,” said Flores.
Fast forward to today, Plug & Play isn’t just a physical co-working space in Silicon Valley. It is an early-stage investor and accelerator platform that brings “the best minds” from startups, investors, governments, and corporations together to accelerate innovations and technologies, Flores said.
In his interview with Oasis, the experienced entrepreneur discusses what innovation is and how it differs from invention. Flores also shares how he tries to predict future trends to invest in new technologies.
Oasis (OS): What does Plug & Play do?
Jojo Flores (JF): There are three main activities. Firstly, we are an early-stage investor. We make about 200 investments per year, and we have over 1,200 startups in our portfolio. We’ve been lucky enough that about 20 of them have become unicorns.
Secondly, we are an accelerator. We give startups heightened access to investors, as well as to large corporations for potential strategic partnerships.
We also run an open corporate innovation platform. We engage with over 520 conglomerates and multinationals globally in about 18 industry verticals and help them augment their innovation strategies by giving them first-row seats to see the best startups. These startups and corporations work together to do pilot projects, commercial engagements, and potential investments.
OS: How do you define innovation? How do you determine the early products that are worth investing in?
JF: Though I don’t have a crystal ball, what I can say is that I do get a glimpse of what is going to happen.
We built Plug & Play into a platform where everybody can collaborate and talk openly about ideas. We have connections with people who have the ability to push the agenda of an industry. Our team listens to their pain points, observations, and demands. Then, we reflect on what could be the future.
Jojo Flores (center with white shirt) with the Plug & Play China team in 2019.
OS: Can you give us an example of how you get a glimpse of the future?
JF: For instance, when we started working with Daimler in Stuttgart, Germany, I remember having meetings with the former chairman of the management board, Dieter Zetsche, and the innovation team in 2016. Zetsche said that Daimler has been in the business for more than 100 years and that they are excellent steel vendors, yet, they don’t know about software. Today, the value of a car is 80% hardware and 20% software, but back then, that wasn’t the case.
They eventually realized the potential value of software, and partnered with Plug & Play. We helped them globally source the best startups addressing technologies such as autonomous driving, electric vehicle development, and ride-sharing.
Innovation doesn’t come from us. But this platform paves the way and gives us insights into what could happen in the future. However, I don’t think my team can tell you what will happen in the next ten years—we only have ideas. Today, one concept that is becoming popular, and that we are also very passionate about, is sustainability—things like carbon neutrality, climate change, water resilience, financial sustainability, etc.
OS: What’s the difference between innovation and invention? What would you do if somebody presents some avant-garde ideas to you, like flying cars or space travel?
JF: We see a lot of wild inventions and ideas. However, many researchers tend to do research to continue getting grants and medals. They don’t have in mind how their product is going to benefit mankind. I don’t hold any bad feelings about that, but Plug & Play invests in inventions that have a commercial value so that these products can get access to a larger market much quicker.
Invention and research are the backbones of new technology. But I believe innovation and technology need to have customers. So, I always ask founders, who are you going to sell it to? And how will it benefit them?
OS: With all the new trends and technologies happening now, it seems that the world has become noisier than ever. For Plug & Play, how important is it to stay on the edge of technology? And how do you do that?
JF: It is definitely important. In our case, we like to keep things simple while we focus on sources of information that we trust. We try to listen closely to our corporate partners. At least in our experience, not only do they have the best ideas on where innovation could take place, but they’re also the best customers for the applications of these innovations.
I’m an old guy, and I can’t avoid feeling that I’m lagging behind. For example, my kids tease me for not knowing how to set up a playlist on Spotify. But learning about new technologies keeps me young—I kind of force myself to research new technologies. I remember explaining the concept of blockchain to my nephews and my nieces, who are 20 years younger than me. They think I’m pretty cool for being able to explain that in a way they understand. The world can get noisy, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing because all these talks pave the way to what can happen in the future.