Blackstone’s PE group gets disrupted at Singularity University

  • Silicon Valley think tank co-founded by Kurzweil, Diamandis
  • Executive Program teaches how to “think exponentially”
  • Blackstone wants to be industry’s data leader: James

Blackstone Group’s private equity team has undergone training at Singularity University, the Silicon Valley think tank dedicated to futuristic technology scenarios, President and COO Tony James said on an earnings call.

Speaking with analysts Feb. 1 about fourth-quarter 2017, James was asked how well the firm is positioned to take advantage of data-related opportunities.

“We’re big believers in data,” he said. “In fact, as we speak, our entire private equity group, everyone from [Global Head of PE] Joe Baratta down to the most junior guys is in Palo Alto attending something called Singularity University, and getting steeped in new technologies, technology disruption, use of data, and so on and so forth.”

Singularity University is inspired by the concept of technological singularity, a theoretical point at which artificial intelligence achieves self-sustaining improvement, with overwhelming effects on society.

The notion was popularized by author and inventor Ray Kurzweil, famous for his far-flung predictions, such as the imminence of uploading human consciousness into digital form, as well as his work on machine learning and natural-language processing at Google.

Kurzweil founded Singularity University with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis in 2008.

Located on the grounds of a NASA research facility in Santa Clara County, less than an hour south of San Francisco, Singularity University describes its mission as “to educate, inspire, and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.”

In addition to its Global Solutions Program, made free to participants by a grant from Google, it offers a week-long Executive Program for corporate clients. According to the website, “The Executive Program curriculum includes exponential technologies, transformational practices, and relevant global challenges and opportunities, each taught by world experts. … Prepare to be transformed.”

Participants are said to gain first-hand experience with technologies including 3D printing, robotics, VR headsets and drones. “It costs $12,000 a person,” ABC’s Bay Area affiliate reported in 2013. “It always sells out.” The most recent program ran from Jan. 28 to Feb. 2.

Blackstone did not respond to a request for comment on what the private equity team was doing at Singularity University.

On the analyst call, James also said Blackstone has “built an internal data group,” which is working to apply big data to the investment process and “starting to mine our own portfolio companies for data that has value both in terms of our own investments and potentially third-party market value.”

He pointed to the recent Thomson Reuters deal, in which Blackstone bought a majority stake in the company’s financial and risk division, as evidence of an enthusiasm for data.

“Having said all that, I think this is a journey that we’re just beginning and while we’ve got a team, it’ll take more investment in the team,” James added.

“It’ll take somewhat of a cultural change, it’ll take education around our people. It affects all of our businesses, not just the investment side of the businesses, but how we do things internally and processes. For example, we’re starting to use AI to screen job applicants. … So we want to be the leading firm in our industry in the use and application of technology and data.”

Action Item: Find out more about Singularity University’s Executive Program here.

Inventor Raymond Kurzweil speaks at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference in Pasadena, California, on July 24, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser