What caught my attention – week of 24 February 2020

Coming to you from Hong Kong this week. Below are a selection of readings covering the Gates Foundation’s annual letter, (the must read) Berkshire letter and a fascinating article on chemical toxicity and reproduction, amongst others.

1. Philanthropy

Title: Our 2020 annual letter – Why we swing for the fences
Twenty years after starting our foundation, we’re just as optimistic about the power of innovation to drive progress.

At the core of our foundation’s work is the idea that every person deserves the chance to live a healthy and productive life.

2. Global population

Title: Chemical toxicity and the baby bust
In today’s society people are choosing to have fewer children, and delaying having children at all into later, less fertile years. These two factors have driven fertility rates below replacement level in most of the world, but a crucial third factor gets little attention and is having a profound impact on fertility: toxicity. The economic and social ramifications will be severe.

3. Zen Buddhism

Title: Admonitions
Link: Daily Zen
Inwardly strive to develop the capacity of mindfulness; ourwardly spread the virtue of uncontentiousness. Shed the world of dust to seek emancipation. Over the ages you have followed objects, never once turning back to look within. Time slips away; months and years are wasted. The Buddha first defined precepts to begin to remove the veils of ignorance. With standards and refinements of conduct pure as ice and snow, the precepts rein in and concentrate the minds of beginners in respect of what to stop, what to uphold, what to do, and what not to do. Their details reform every kind of crudity and decadence.

4. Berkshire letter

Title: Warren Buffett’s 2019 letter to shareholders

This letter is always terrific. This year the section about board and ‘corporate governance’ was spot on.
Here, a pause is due: I’d like you to know that almost all of the directors I have met over the years have been decent, likable and intelligent. They dressed well, made good neighbors and were fine citizens. I’ve enjoyed their company. Among the group are some men and women that I would not have met except for our mutual board service and who have become close friends. Nevertheless, many of these good souls are people whom I would never have chosen to handle money or business matters. It simply was not their game.

They, in turn, would never have asked me for help in removing a tooth, decorating their home or improving their golf swing. Moreover, if I were ever scheduled to appear on Dancing With the Stars, I would immediately seek refuge in the Witness Protection Program. We are all duds at one thing or another. For most of us, the list is long. The important point to recognize is that if you are Bobby Fischer, you must play only chess for money.

At Berkshire, we will continue to look for business-savvy directors who are owner-oriented and arrive with a strong specific interest in our company. Thought and principles, not robot-like “process,” will guide their actions. In representing your interests, they will, of course, seek managers whose goals include delighting their customers, cherishing their associates and acting as good citizens of both their communities and our country.

5. AgTech

Title: Agri-foodtech investing report – 2019
Link: AgFunder
Foodtech and agtech startups raised $19.8bn in venture funding across 1858 deals. Following on from a record-breaking 2018, that’s a 4.8% decline year-over-year in dollar terms and 15% by number of deals. But there were some clear bright spots with a 1.3% increase in funding to startups operating upstream — on the farm and in the supply chain — as they raised $7.6bn, posting the highest levels of record during any H2 on record.

Innovators operating upstream in the supply chain achieved a record year, raising $7.6bn driven particulary by an increase in funding to alternative protein startups and vertical farming.

The industry’s first meaningful IPO no doubt had an impact after venture-backed plant-based burger startup Beyond Meat listed on the NASDAQ with a stellar debut that pushed its valuation as high as $9bn during the year; alternative protein startups raised $1bn in 2019, double what they raised in 2018.

While there was a pullback in both deal activity and funding for agri-foodtech’s largest global markets (US & China), Europe continued its trend for growth across VC industries posting a 94% increase in funding, while Latin America had a breakout year, closing $1.4bn and 40% more deals than in 2018. Africa also more than doubled its funding in the space.

This increasing global diversity of agri-foodtech was notable in the make-up of investors too; the leader board is much more diverse this year.

+1 Book of the week

There are 10-15 books I re-read, either in whole or parts, every year. Most books in general aren’t worth reading cover to cover but when I find one that is I just hold onto it.

This is one of those. It’s the one book I found which has such low page count and disproportionally large impact on my life every time I read it. Peter Drucker, in case you are not familiar with him, is regarded as the person who created modern management and is a terrific author who writes from decades and decades worth of experience (he also wrote 30+ books).

This book is aimed at the knowledge worker, who is in the second part of their career but the lessons really are applicable to anyone who wants to get better. It aims to raise your self-awareness and help you understand better how you work best by asking questions such as:
What are my strengths: put yourself where your strengths are, improve them, check where you are arrogant.
How do I learn: reading, writing or listening?
Do I work well with people or am I a loner?
Do I produce results as a decision maker or an adviser?
Do I perform well under stress or need structure/hierarchy?
Ethics test: what kind of person do I want to see in the mirror in the morning? Put another way, would you be satisfied if what you do ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal (or your paper of choice).
Once you know the answers to these you’re able to operate with a higher level of self-awareness. By using your strengths in the right work environment you can work to make a lasting impact.