A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.
The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
Matthew Mugo Fields: Welcome to Shaping the Future, a production of HMH. I'm your host, Matthew Mugo Fields. Here, we'll examine leading issues in education, and I'll be joined by experts, innovators, and leaders to discuss how we prepare our students for an unpredictable future.
On this episode, I speak with Amit Patel, managing director at the largest EdTech venture capital firm in the world, Owl Ventures. This means he is one of the people who provide essential financing for many of the most popular education apps and companies.
As most educators know, EdTech has become even more important in the past year, so we thought it would be cool to talk with one of the people responsible for bringing new technologies into the classroom.
After studying mathematical economic analysis at Rice University and theater and film in New York, Amit in earned an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business and an M.A. in Education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. After a brief stint as an actor, Amit got his start running a couple of tutoring businesses and eventually was in a leadership position at a charter school network.
In his current role, he sits on the board of several EdTech companies, including Amira Learning, Codecademy, Panorama Education, Thinkful, and many others. In our discussion, we get into why education is a good investment category, what Amit looks for in an elevator pitch, and the reason why no amount of EdTech or artificial intelligence (AI) will ever be able to replace a teacher. Now, here's Amit Patel.
Amit, welcome to Shaping the Future podcast. It's so, so great to have you.
Amit Patel: Thank you for having me, Matthew. Really appreciate you inviting me to join you today.
Matthew: Awesome. So, the way this typically works is we like to ask our guests to start by telling us a bit about their educational journeys, particularly highlighting any educators who were influential in your life. So, give us a sense of your educational journey.
Amit: So I had, I would say, a mix of educational experiences. And what I mean by that is, I was born in Texas, had the chance to attend a school in the United States up through about middle school. And then, for eighth grade, I actually got to study internationally because my family was moving abroad for work. And so, for eighth grade, I specifically was in Italy, and then ninth and tenth grade, I had the chance to attend school in the Middle East. So, I went to the first years of high school in Kuwait.
Amit: Yeah. And then, the final two years of high school, I had the opportunity to come back to the U.S. and actually study at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science on the University of North Texas' campus.
Matthew: Wow. So when you were international, were those American or American-like schools that you were in, or were they truly of the country you were in?
Amit: No, they were both American schools. So, in Italy it was the American School of Milan that I attended for the eighth grade. And then in Kuwait, it was the American School of Kuwait that I attended for ninth and tenth grade.
Matthew: I can imagine that those experiences probably shaped a lot of your view of the approach to education and the work and career and all that. Is that a safe assumption?
Amit: One hundred percent. I mean, in Italy, for example, we had a course called Humanities where it was bringing together ELA as well as history and weaving both of those subjects into one, so that you could go back and forth between topics over the course of about two hours or so. But the teacher that I had at the time, Mr. Barassi, I just think went absolutely above and beyond in terms of really bringing to life what it was that we were studying. And so, what I mean by that is, we were studying the Odyssey and learning about what it took to build an empire, forge an empire, and everything like that. And while we were reading that, he did two things that were really interesting and memorable for me. One is that the entire eighth grade played a game of Risk, and I don't know if you're familiar with that board game or had the chance to play that board game.
And he basically said, "You can form teams as small or as large as you would like. You can make deals at any time during the school day or after the school day." And the only rule was that moves were made one time per day. And so, it really gave us a flavor of what it was like to form alliances and what it was like to do negotiations and things like that, which was really memorable and got a lot of folks a lot more interested in the Odyssey itself. And then the second thing that he did, which was particularly memorable, is—I don't know if you recall when Agamemnon came back from the war, Clytemnestra, his wife, sewed an outfit for him where she sewed the head shut. And then, he ended up getting murdered while he was putting on that outfit.
And he actually put together a court trial where various people from the eighth grade were playing different roles in the trial. Some were the lawyers, some were the witnesses, and et cetera. And then, he actually got the seventh grade to serve as the jury for that court trial, where it was Clytemnestra on trial for the potential murder of her husband. As I just think about how much he invested in bringing that story to life for us, where I'm now able to recall those types of details several decades later. I think that's an experience that really just stuck with me.
Matthew: The other thing that's interesting about the story you just told is, I can't help but make some sort of a connection between that assignment around the game of Risk and your day job, helping be one of the leaders of the world's leading venture capital firm in the education sector. Did you go to college? Did you study your post-secondary education with a mind for or an eye toward education as a place where you wanted to make a mark? Or how did that come about?
Amit: Yeah. So, that was another, I would say, circuitous route for myself as well. So, in my post at the Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, I actually started at Rice University down in Houston, where I originally thought that what I wanted to do was go into medicine, and I had it almost inculcated in my mind since I was in kindergarten that I was going to become a physician. And what I discovered throughout my time at Rice was that what attracted me to medicine wasn't necessarily the science; it was the human interaction. And then, I also had an opportunity to go to film school. I actually took a leave of absence from Rice for about 3.5 years. I had to go to New York and study film and acting. And while I was taking that leave of absence from Rice and was in film school, I had the opportunity to go down to Guyana and work on a project down there in South America.
And we had a lot of time off set, that we were working down there and the locals there really, I guess, just appreciated the way that we spoke English with an American accent and how fluent we were and wanted us to see if we would potentially work with their kids down there, or tutor them. And this was another moment in my mind where I say, there's another opportunity here where you have that type of real genuine interaction that occurs, and that's between tutor or teacher and the student. And so, when I eventually came back to Rice to finish my undergrad, I actually switched from pre-med and moved into what was the closest thing at that time at Rice University to an undergrad in business, which was mathematical economic analysis.
And during my junior year at Rice University, I actually ended up starting a tutoring company. And that was my entry into education and how I found my way there. Reflecting on it a few decades later, one of the things and one of the reasons why I think I was very particularly attracted to it is, my dad was born in India, and my mom is of Indian descent—was born in Kenya. And they immigrated to the U.S., and just the journey that they've been on as individuals is amazing to me. My dad grew up in this really small village in India, where he literally was tested every year with how much he wanted to value education, because the elementary school was located in his village, but the middle school was located in the next town over, and the high school was located two towns over.
And so literally, he would have to walk further and further to complete his education. And so, as I was having a conversation with my dad about, "How did you do this? What made this all possible?" he said there were two things. One was education, and the second he said was, there were random acts of kindness that people did in his life. And both of those really gave him the opportunity. And as I was thinking about, "Hey, pre-medicine wasn't the route for me, and what is it that I really wanted to do?" making educational opportunities available for as many people as possible is something that I felt compelled to dedicate my life to.
Matthew: Now that we've gotten a chance to hear a little bit about you and your background and your journey, I want to switch gears a little bit and talk about what you do today, keeping in mind that our audience is largely educators, administrators, and teachers in schools. This idea of both venture capital and venture capital in EdTech, I imagine, is fascinating for many, but really I want to unpack a little bit with you what that all means and what that looks like from your vantage point. So, could you just quickly just give us the elevator pitch on your work on Owl and what you guys do?
Amit: Yeah, happy to. So, Owl Ventures—we're an education technology-focused venture capital fund. We're actually the world's largest education technology-focused venture capital fund. We invest across the education spectrum. So, everything from early learning to K–12, to higher education, to the future of work or lifelong learning, as well as what we call an "EdTech plus" category, where it's EdTech meets the other industries. We invest in companies around the world, and we invest across stages. We're actually stage agnostic, meaning we've invested in companies all the way from the seed stage to pre-IPO rounds. Usually, when we're investing in these companies or leading or co-leading rounds and taking board seats—so not passive capital into these companies—we're really trying to be thought partners to the entrepreneurs and the executive teams at these companies.
Matthew: So, for folks out there in schools, in particular, what are some of the companies that you guys have invested in or are invested in currently that they would know of?
Amit: Some of the companies that we've invested in, in the K–12 sector—first, I'd be remiss not to mention Amira Learning, which is one of the first AI-based measurement technologies of reading oral fluency. And a second company that we've invested in is called Panorama Education, which is really focused on social and emotional learning measurement, family engagement, school culture, and measuring that, and also focused on students and data analytics. A third company that we're invested in is company called Quizlet, which many students and teachers, I imagine around the world, are very familiar with. And that helps students really retain and learn content for the long term. So, those are companies in the K–12 sector that folks might have heard of.
And then, one or two more that I might mention that are interesting—and one is that "EdTech plus" category—is a company called Hazel Health, which is bringing telemedicine services to the K–12 sector. And so, as many folks are familiar with, there's a nurse shortage in general in the U.S., but in particular, there's a nurse shortage when it comes to the K–12 sector itself. And so, this is bringing those types of services within the K–12 ecosystem. And while not all of our companies are necessarily direct-to-school, we have a fair number of companies that are direct-to-consumer. And so, the last company that I'll mention is a company called SplashLearn, which is offering a K–5 math learning product for free to schools, but it's a gamified solution. The premium version of the product is a direct-to-consumer offering that they have.
Matthew: That's a good overview. And in the spirit of full disclosure, we are at HMH co-investors with Owl in Amira Learning, and we distribute Amira to schools. A fantastic product—we're proud to be partnered with you guys in bringing this advanced AI into schools and helping address early literacy. I can imagine that there are folks out there who, when they hear "venture capital" or "investor in early-stage companies," the most popular image that probably comes to mind for people is Shark Tank and entrepreneurs showing up at your door, doing a pitch, wearing some clever T-shirts sometimes, and getting you to negotiate with them. For our audience, could you describe the process a bit? I know there are differences and idiosyncrasies in each case, but generally the process, and then what you guys look for.
Amit: Yeah. So, Shark Tank is something that's definitely, I would say, brought this idea of startup investing to be a bit more mainstream. I would say in general, our process isn't quite as instantaneous as that, where it's a, call it a five-minute pitch, and then a decision is made at the end of that five minutes. There's a longer period of time within which we get to know the team that's starting this company, as well as doing our diligence on the idea, as well as the company. And so, at a high level, there are three things that we're really looking for whenever it comes to investing in a company. The first is their business fundamentals. We want to understand, hey, what has the historical trajectory of this company been? What is it that they plan to do with these fundings? How scalable is this business model, and are they doing it in a way that we believe makes sense and is efficient, and they have positive unit economics, right?
The other question that we're going to ask is, "What are the long-term competitive advantages of this business?" Right? Our goal and our mission at Owl is to invest in what will eventually become the world's biggest and longest-lasting education technology companies. And so, we want to see and believe in the fact that there is a multi-decade path forward for this company. The second thing that we're investing in, or the second thing that we're looking for when we're making an investment, is the team, especially at these early stages that we're making these investments. We're investing in the idea as much as we are investing in the team. On average, when it comes to venture capital investments, you're talking about seven or eight years that you're going to be partnering with these founders or the executive team for. And we want to be as excited about the idea as we are about the team, and we want the team to be that excited about partnering with us, because there are a variety of forms of capital out there, and venture capital is just one form of investment you can actually take.
And then, the third area that we're looking for is some type of thesis around impact on either educator or learner outcomes. Now, that doesn't mean that every company that we're going to have invested in has run a randomized control trial or something like that. But we want to believe that when it comes to efficacy and outcomes, it's not an afterthought for the company, but something that's really woven throughout the DNA at the company and something that they view as very important. And so, that's why it's the third thing that we actually look for whenever we're making an investment.
Matthew: So, let me recap what I heard. So, number one, business fundamentals—will this become big, and is there a fundamental logic that at some point the business will make money? And the team—making sure that you're clear on the fact that this is going to be a partnership of some period of time, so you want to feel good about the team. And then, outcomes or efficacy. And I think for that last one, some folks may be actually a little bit surprised. But you guys are really focused on this idea of, it's got to work, it's got to have an impact—not just create for the sake of a social good, I imagine, but also that there's a sign of probable sustainability, correct?
Amit: Absolutely. In order to create what I was describing as the world's largest as well as longest-lasting education technology companies, you have to have that kind of viewpoint, in our opinion, in mind. We're not in this to invest in a company and within, call it 12 months or something like that, do some type of quick flip or anything like that. We're really trying to partner here for the long term and create the world's largest education technology companies.
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Matthew: In the world of investing, there's a seemingly infinite number of things that you could invest in. Why is education a good area to invest in?
Amit: Yeah. So, that's a fantastic question. And I think that has really changed over the last decade or so. So, Owl itself was founded in 2014, and the catalyst for us starting Owl had a lot to do with the infrastructure and investment that was getting put into place to make it finally possible to actually build and scale education technology solutions. And what I mean by that is, first of all, education is the second largest industry in the world, right? Healthcare is the largest industry; education is number two. For a long time, it's been very difficult for entrepreneurs or founders to even create and build out EdTech solutions because there were a lot of obstacles that stood in the way of distributing product or scaling product and et cetera. For example, in 2010, if you look at the number of schools in the U.S. that actually had high-speed broadband internet connections, that was somewhere around, call it about 10% or so, versus if you look at the end of this last decade, at around 2020, that was almost ubiquitous.
And almost every school in the U.S. had access to high-speed broadband internet. A second component is devices, right? And while that's not quite a one-to-one device-to-student ratio, as high as where high-speed broadband internet is today, I think it's roughly about, call it 60–70% or so in U.S. K–12, and it is on its way to becoming ubiquitous. And so, you now have the devices in students' hands, you have the high-speed broadband internet connection that's necessary, which has attracted entrepreneurs to the sector. So, that I think was part one, and you almost have this virtuous cycle that needs to exist.
If you have the entrepreneurs who are coming in, then you need the capital to actually start to invest in these companies. In 2014, when Owl was started, there weren't a whole lot of people who were necessarily looking at the sector, but look at what's happened over this last decade. In 2010, there was something like half a billion dollars or so that was invested into education technology companies. In 2020, that was slightly north of 16 billion that was invested into education technology companies. So, almost a 32-times increase that's happened in terms of dollars that are flowing into the sector. And that's not just happening from a sector-focused fund, such as Owl Ventures. We're really starting to see generalist funds or folks who might've only previously looked at enterprise SaaS or consumer tech start to say, "Hey, this is a sector that we really need to pay attention."
Matthew: What you're saying is, you guys in some ways were pioneers in 2014, but nowadays traditional investors in technology are getting in the game. Is that right?
Amit: Absolutely. Absolutely. And this last, call it 12 to 24 months, has just accelerated that, right? I mean, as the importance of education technology solutions, not just in K–12 but also in higher ed and in the corporate sector, have increased—given the situation that the world's been in for the last 12 to 24 months—that has just accelerated multiple fold. And so, now you're starting to see even more generalists start to come into the sector. Coming back to that virtuous cycle that I was talking about, you have the infrastructure that's in place; you have the entrepreneurs that are coming into the sector now; you have the funding that's starting to come into the sector.
And then, the last piece is, you need to start to show that there's real economic value that's getting created here, and we're starting to see more education companies start to go public. And according to estimates, while there's about, call it 45 or so publicly traded EdTech companies right now, that number is expected to more than double in this coming decade. And so, we're going to start to see those proof points we believe in this coming decade, which will then attract even more entrepreneurs and founders to the sector, which will then attract more funding and then continue that virtuous cycle.
Matthew: And so, you've made the case, okay, this is why education's a good area to invest in. It's so attractive nowadays that even the more traditional investors are coming in. I want to ask, is this a good thing that this is happening? And if so, what's good about it?
Amit: Coming back to the three things that I mentioned that we're looking at, right? Why is it that we are looking at efficacy and outcomes measurement? And when we talk about efficacy and outcomes, we're not only looking at what is the impact that this actually has on assessment scores and things like that, but we also look at it from an access perspective as well. And so, when you think about what could be the negative impact of education technology solutions, I think it could be widening the access gap, where only certain individuals from certain backgrounds are getting access to this technology because they're the only ones who can afford it.
But the companies that we're actually backing—because the goal is to invest in what could potentially become the world's largest education technology companies—these are companies that are working with the large urban school districts around the country, and the majority of the students they are serving happen to be students who qualify for free and reduced lunch. And they are focused on making sure if there is an efficacy- and outcomes-resulted type of measurement, that they're moving more from a qualitative version of measuring that to a more quantitative or rigorous form of measuring that. And so, that's something we at Owl are constantly focused on. In fact, we've actually hired someone full time at the firm—my colleague by the name of Malvika. Her title and role is called the Director of Outcomes and Efficacy. And her whole role is focused on helping our companies think through this and helping them, as I mentioned before, moving more from that qualitative to more quantitative or rigorous way of measuring efficacy and outcomes.
Matthew: One of these nightmare scenarios that I think gets conjured up for some people when they hear about EdTech and venture capital, AI, things like that, is about, "Is this about eventually replacing teachers? Are we going to replace teachers with robots or software?" Could you just say a word about how you guys think about that issue of replacing teachers or helping teachers?
Amit: Yeah. We are definitely in the camp of helping teachers. We don't at Owl envision a world where teachers are going to be replaced by education technology solutions. I think in terms of our approach—first, we really listen to whether it's teachers or administrators or superintendents, et cetera, in our network to A., understand their thoughts and opinions on these solutions and how they view those solutions and the value that they're adding. I think the ways that we've actually seen EdTech solutions really resonate in the market, and what gives us conviction is, there are solutions out there that are really saving educators time, right? There are only so many hours that you have in a school day. There are a lot of additional requirements that are being placed on educators, not only during the school day but also outside of the school day.
And so, one way education technology solutions can really help out is by saving teachers time. I think the second is really presenting key data and analytics to teachers so that whenever they are having that one-on-one interaction with the students, small-group instruction, or even frankly, whole-class instruction that's happening, they're really almost instantaneously able to understand, "These are the topics that my class has really understood. These are the topics that they might still need clarification on." And so, there's a real place for data and analytics to exist. And then the third, and this is where technology like Amira comes into play, is with a solution like Amira where students don't always have access to adults in the same way possible. And when it comes to oral reading fluency, there's a lot of practice that has to happen there.
Matthew: That's right.
Amit: And so, having a technology there that gives the student the ability to practice multiple times, that gives the student the confidence to learn and really makes them feel secure in how they are continuing to learn reading, which is very critical in that early elementary phase, is something that technology can really make possible. Those are a handful of ways that we think about education technology, how it really partners with educators and administrators, and definitely not in the camp of, "We believe there's going to be some type of AI solution that is going to replace teachers or educators."
Matthew: Yeah, no robo-teachers anytime soon. Yeah. We certainly agree with that. At HMH, we have this idea, we call it purposeful technology and making sure that technology is being used in its best and highest place because we know that at the end of the day, the most important driver of success in education is relationships. And relationships between teachers and students, in particular—those relationships are key.
And to the extent we can use purposeful technology like Amira to enhance, create more time, allow teachers to do things like customization of learning and assignments for students based on their levels, et cetera—that's the right role for technology. So, we're in violent agreement with you guys on that front, for sure. You mentioned earlier about the pandemic, and a lot has been talked about the pandemic as an accelerant of change across many different industries. In the case of education, being a driver of things like getting us closer to one-to-one student to device ratios. The pandemic has obviously also been a huge disruptor of education. Are there any things you see as we begin to peek our head out of the pandemic into the future, that you think has changed, that's with us to stay, and would impact what kind of investments you guys are making in the future?
Amit: Yeah. 100%. I think you put it well when you said this last, call it 12 to 24 months, has really been an accelerant for education technology solutions. Now, whether that's pulled forward adoption by a few years, by five years, by 10 years, obviously we'll be able to tell in this coming decade exactly what the impact is. But without question—and once again, this is not just limited to the K–12 sector—but this extends to higher education and adult learning as well; education technology solutions are now woven further into the fabric of education throughout everyone's lives. And so, what I mean by that is, there are a few things. So one is, let's say in U.S. K–12, there are a few things that have changed. So first of all, a lot of parents experienced either some type of remote learning or blended learning solution that occurred for students.
And I think that really got parents involved in a way with education, especially in the U.S., that might not have been the case before. And so, what that's led to actually is a really interesting opportunity for education technology companies to not only start to think about a product that serves schools but also start to think about a product that serves consumers as well. Right? And so, we're starting to see education technology companies that much earlier are starting to think about both of these go-to-market motions, which I'd say historically was something that you picked one or the other. And then, once you got to scale in one, maybe you'd turn your attention toward the other type of market, but that's something we're starting to see.
The second thing that I would mention that's a really interesting trend that we're starting to see is the global nature of education technology companies. Meaning, you're starting to see companies that are based in the United States that are starting to think about serving students all around the world. And then similarly, you're starting to see companies based in other countries around the world that are coming to serve students in the United States as well. And once again, this is also starting to happen at a much earlier stage than historically. And I think the last 12 to 24 months have definitely accelerated that, especially as parents and students were looking for learning solutions where they might not have traditionally necessarily been able to find them. And that's something we're also seeing.
And then, the third thing I would say that's really been brought to the forefront is mental health or social and emotional learning, and really starting to think about, hey, how are we thinking about the student as an individual and not just the curriculum that we're putting in front of them or the assessment that we're putting in front of them? What is going on with the student? Because, if certain things like school culture or trust between a student and a teacher or a family engagement and things like that are not in the right place, it really doesn't matter what math curriculum you put in front of them. Those things have to be at, at least a certain place or level. And so, from that perspective, we believe that is something that's going to be more woven into everything that we're looking at from an education technology perspective.
Matthew: Got it, got it. So, those are good trends that you see continuing into the future. So, a lot of the changes, not only in the infrastructure but also changes in behavior coming out of the pandemic, you would say are with us to stay?
Matthew: All right.
Amit: I guess what I would say is, this is not a genie that's going to go back into the bottle. I think these are solutions that a lot more students, educators, administrators, and parents have all experienced. As we discussed, these are solutions that are hopefully making things more convenient for everyone involved, giving them real-time data and information that's helpful, as you mentioned, allowing for a more personalized journey or experience for each person. And so, for a lot of those reasons, I don't think we're going to emerge in a post-vaccine world where folks are going to say, "Hey, you know what? We did this for the last 12 to 18 months, but we're going to go back to doing things the old way. And I want to forego all of these conveniences that I've necessarily experienced over the last two years or so."
Matthew: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think there are some things that have definitely been sped up, and the future has been pulled back. That being said, I also think in schools, this year, year and a half, has been incredibly challenging, and remote-only teaching and learning has been very challenging. And so, I think there will be a snapback to some of the best aspects of the past. I mentioned earlier the importance of relationships. I've mentioned that social connection that school creates above and beyond just the academic learning. But I also believe that can coexist with the greater use of some of these digital tools as well. So, I think it's a mixture.
Amit: No, and I agree with you 100% on that. I have two young kids and my oldest, who's just 2.5 years old right now, actually just started Montessori school about three weeks ago. And the first effectively majority of her life had really not had that socialization and really not had that interaction with other kids. And even just in, call it two or three weeks, we're seeing the remarkable impact that's having on her development. And so, I agree with you 100%, in terms of whether you're talking about that interaction between educator and child or just children with other children in real life. I think that's absolutely important.
Matthew: That's right. That's right. We go to school to pick up and learn many more things besides math and reading, and those are important, but they aren't everything.
You've talked a lot about your journey. You've had this fascinating career. You get to do this really cool job of getting to evaluate and invest in cutting-edge educational technology. If there are folks out there as educators thinking about, "How do I create more folks like you?" what advice, what counsel do you have for educators on how to think about doing that?
Amit: Man, what advice do I have? I'd probably just first express a tremendous amount of gratitude for all of the educators and administrators out there. I know I only talked about my eighth-grade humanities teacher, but if I think about my third-grade ELA teacher and my elementary school principal—Ms. Linder was my third-grade ELA teacher—and just the dozens and dozens of educators who went out of their way to just really take the time to help me believe in myself, I don't know how I could ever repay them. So, thank you to them. Thank you to all of you for everything that you're doing. And I guess if I'm maybe giving one piece of advice or one request, it is trying to have as many moments like that with as many kids as possible.
Because as I think about when I had moments of self-doubt or when I had moments of really questioning whether I was qualified to do something, or should I do something, I often turn back to those moments where those educators really instilled a sense of confidence in me and expressed their belief in the fact that I could truly accomplish anything I set my mind to. I think not just educators, but all of us, as much as we can do that for as many kids as possible—I think the world's going to be a better place for that.
Matthew: Yeah. Indeed. And well, well said. And I'm sure that many of those educators out there are really thankful for the work that you're doing and creating the tools and helping to ensure that we make the most of this innovation that's occurring, and doing it in the way that actually makes a difference for teachers and for kids out there. So for you, thank you for all your hard work.
Amit: Oh, thank you, Matthew. Once again, thank you for inviting me to join you today, and I really have appreciated our friendship, our partnership on Amira, and everything that you've done throughout your career as well to impact the sector.
Matthew: Well, thanks my friend.
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