Oscar Ramos is an engineer and innovator with experience ranging from product design to corporate strategy. Ramos built his own micro-fund to invest in early-stage Chinese startups prior to joining SOSV’s Chinaccelerator as a mentor in 2010. He began his career in R&D with Ericsson and Telefonica in deep-tech applications such as mobile network protocols, cybersecurity, and bio-technology. At SOSV, Oscar has worked closely with over 160 startups. He and William Bao Bean are responsible for Orbit Startups, which focuses on high growth companies in emerging and frontier markets. We asked Oscar a few questions about his background and work at Orbit Startups.
You are an electrical engineer and were a PhD candidate in biomedical engineering. What brought you to the world of venture capital?
I have always liked to act as an engine of change and to get involved in multiple projects at the same time. That’s how I see venture capital.
There are two pivotal moments that brought me to VC. When I started my career, I was in corporate R&D working on topics related to 3G packet switching to RF. We were mostly very nerdy engineers. One of the projects had a deliverable about business model innovation. I agreed to take care of that. I knew almost nothing about business but those tasks changed forever the way I look at my work. I read about business models and got involved in design thinking.
At the same time, the consortium that was running the project involved startups in addition to private companies and research centers. I always felt the contributions startups brought to meetings were quite special and soon I had enough courage to join one.
I think an engineering education helps you think about systems and ways to explore and model the world, to identify inefficiencies and opportunities for improvements.
My biomedical engineering background has helped me evaluate companies and work with founders. When it comes to medical devices, for example, you have to consider at least two stakeholders – patients and healthcare professionals – and in most cases you actually have to consider even more. This experience has been very useful when looking at companies and their products from a multi-stakeholder perspective.
You’ve also founded a company before. What did that experience bring you?
I have lots of respect for founders. Sometimes the line between crazy and brilliant is very difficult to draw.
Entrepreneurship is one of those disciplines that you can study, get some practical exposure, and even be considered an expert, but everything changes radically when you actually launch a company yourself. My own experience with the ups and downs, the uncertainty, the fear and the passion helps me connect with founders and understand how complicated it is for them to make certain decisions.
You have been living in China for many years. How did you move there, and what did you learn from its tech scene?
I moved to China in 2008 to start my first company. Everything started at a family dinner with a comment from my uncle, who was my inspiration to study engineering and to become an entrepreneur. In general, my close family is very traditional and risk averse. Everyone studied humanities and works as public servants.
I was exploring moving abroad, and my uncle said, “If I were you I would move to China.” I was 25 and thought, why not? One month later I was in Shanghai with the idea to build something.
The tech scene in China for me was an eye opener. I was very lucky to arrive in a moment when there was some technology foundation but the startup scene was just getting started. China was moving from a market where the most common strategy was copying something in the US to generating their own ideas.
At Chinaccelerator you helped build many partnerships with corporates. How do you work with them?
Corporates are efficient and risk-averse, which makes innovation hard. China is an extremely competitive and dynamic market and without innovation, multinationals will eventually lose market share.
What we do in China is find matches between MNCs and startups that can help corporations innovate and startups trial their products, especially in areas of innovation. It’s a win-win that founders love and corporates really value.
Being involved in the decision search, evaluation of opportunities, and most importantly in the execution of the pilots we are able to acquire very valuable know-how to make better investment decisions and support the rest of our portfolio by sharing the latest best practices.
In Engineers Without Borders we used to say: “You cannot walk in your customer’s shoes if you do not remove yours”.
At Orbit Startups, you are investing in emerging markets such as India, Pakistan, Kenya and more. How does the China startup playbook apply in those markets?
Personally, I have always been very interested in emerging markets. During my college years I was involved in Engineers without Borders, I completed some projects on the ground and my master’s thesis was a solution specific to deliver digital health services in rural areas. I combined some very old technologies in telecom with some of the newest concepts.
A key thing I learned from that experience is to take into account local conditions and check your personal assumptions. In Engineers Without Borders we used to say: “You cannot walk in your customer’s shoes if you do not remove yours”.
At Orbit Startups, we have been investing in emerging markets for over 5 years. The China playbook has been very valuable, but localization is the critical success factor.
During the early days of the Internet boom in China, most companies were copycats and the ones that adapted to local conditions were the winners. They optimized their products and operations for the local market and built moats to keep challengers out.
Recently, companies in markets in Latin America and Africa refer not only to Chinese but also Indian startups as the inspiration for aspects of their strategy.
You have invested across many areas of software – B2C and B2B, including fintech, edtech, ecommerce, and many more. What are your favorites?
An engineering education helps you explore how to model the world, identify inefficiencies and opportunities for improvement.
That’s how I look at opportunities in multiple sectors. Having exposure to multiple verticals helps me to bring ideas from one sector to another one and sometimes look at combined opportunities.
In my portfolio I have many B2B or B2B2C companies. I used to say “I like boring traditional industries where there is a lot of inefficiency and opportunities to help.”
You live in Shanghai with your family. How have you managed during the lockdown?
The lockdown has been hard on everyone, but the Orbit Startups team did a great job carrying on with our work with founders around the world. It was a reminder not only founders have to be ready to take on any and every challenge! We have been busy sourcing food for our colleagues, families and neighbors in addition to our work. The situation has also been an important reminder of how important it is to take care of one another as well as one’s own mental health.