Zack Ellison

Zack Ellison, Founder at Applied Real Intelligence

Zack Ellison, Founder at Applied Real Intelligence


Can you give us a teaser of your talk?

An institutional investor's perspective on identifying the opportunities and risks within disruptive technologies and FinTech in particular.

What mature financial firms should do to remain relevant by innovating, adapting, and evolving in order make financial markets more efficient and less risky.

How financial start-ups can create compelling products and achieve buy-in and investment from institutional investors.

Tell us about what you are working on right now.

In 2018, after many years working as an investment banker, trader, and institutional investor, I founded Applied Real Intelligence LLC (“A.R.I.”), a venture capital and financial consulting firm located in Los Angeles, California.

A.R.I. serves the entire spectrum of financial services companies, from seed stage startups to global giants in banking, insurance, and investment management.

Currently, I am advising and investing in FinTech startups who develop scalable applications, platforms, and technologies related to trading and investing.

I am also advising clients at established financial firms who are preparing for the disruption ahead by adapting and improving their businesses. I help them understand and apply data science, predictive analytics, and artificial intelligence, along with the latest advances in trading, investing, and risk management theory to create process efficiencies, improve decision making, and generate sustainable competitive advantages.

What is your background?

In college I majored in Economics and later went on to earn an MBA with concentrations in Analytic Finance and Economics from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business along with an MS in Risk Management from New York University's Leonard Stern School of Business. Additionally, I obtained the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and Chartered Alternative Investment Analyst (CAIA) designations.

Although my career successes might lead many to believe I’ve traveled a path of little resistance I have overcome a lot to get to where I am.

I was raised in Boston by my single-mom. I witnessed the sacrifices she made in order to make ends meet for us while she worked as a radio announcer, artist, and community organizer. She instilled in me the importance of obtaining the best education possible and the need to be strategic and resourceful to achieve success. We had no safety net, and everything achieved had to be earned.

Through my mom’s dedication and a combination of planning, hard work, and good fortune in finding an amazing mentor, I was able to turn my early achievements in the classroom and on the basketball court into (virtually) free educations at a prestigious private high school and college.

To succeed I had to be creative at finding opportunities where others saw none and be willing to take intelligent risks. These later helped me immensely as an institutional investor and trader.

More importantly, my upbringing led me to develop deep empathy for those who have ambition and determination but lack financial resources – a familiar situation for many entrepreneurs – and created a desire to give something back and help young people in need of guidance.

I’ve been an active mentor to high-school and college students for over a decade. I consider the professional work I’m doing with startups now as a natural extension of sharing what I've learned in life to help founders overcome obstacles and reach their goals.

Professionally, before founding Applied Real Intelligence LLC, I was Director, U.S. Fixed Income at Sun Life Investment Management, whose teams manage over $100 billion in assets. At Sun Life, I was responsible for corporate credit trading and contributed to the firm's investment strategy, investment processes, portfolio construction, financial technology, and risk management practices.

Prior to Sun Life, I developed my investment and risk management skills at Deutsche Bank as a trader, and at Scotia Bank as an investment banker during the Global Financial Crisis.

My experience with financial technology, market structure, investing, trading, and risk management enabled me to become a frequent public speaker at financial industry conferences. I’ve presented my views on how financial firms need to innovate, adapt, and evolve in order to remain relevant and make financial markets more efficient and less risky.

What should we look out for in the next 5 years?

In terms of the big picture it is undeniable that technology and big data are going to disrupt every industry. Business models that previously evolved over decades are now being radically transformed over a period of months.

Most individuals and companies are ill-prepared for this rapid pace of change and the skill level that will be required going forward. We’re potentially headed for a bifurcated world of “haves” and “have nots”.

Pragmatically speaking the most important thing to consider – for individuals as well as companies – is how to become, or remain, relevant amid massive uncertainty. To survive it will be imperative to constantly be learning, retooling, and innovating. Those who rest on their laurels or outdated ways of thinking will become obsolete…very soon.

Investors will need to re-think how to optimize their portfolios. They must become more effective at leveraging data science and technology while adopting novel approaches to investing in alternative assets such as venture capital.

Within venture capital, we will begin to see a departure from the traditional model – where “investment” teams are often led by business builders and “one-hit wonders” who source opportunities through opaque personal networks and evaluate investments based on instinct.

The new VC model will favor a more transparent, systematic approach, that applies the best practices of highly-trained and experienced institutional investors. As this new approach gains favor, I expect to see an expansion of venture investing as asset allocators become more comfortable making larger investments in the space.

Who is doing good work in your field?

As an investor I have always admired Howard Marks of Oaktree Capital. He has a brilliant investment mind but what really sets him apart is that he is a skilled writer who simplifies difficult concepts and makes deep insights readily accessible. Anyone who wants to better understand the most important underlying investment principles should read Howard’s work early and often. He’s a legend whom I strive to emulate in many respects.

In the realm of emerging technologies, there are so many people furthering innovation that it becomes difficult to single out anyone individually.

Also, it’s too early in many cases to know who is worthy of praise. Many of the current “influencers” who appear to be doing "exciting stuff" receive too much notoriety relative to the value they have actually created – they are great marketers but their contribution to the advancement of society remains dubious.

There are many early-stage founders on the verge of creating immense value. Oftentimes they just need a little help in bringing all the pieces together and overcoming initial hurdles to see their vision become a successful reality.

My mission is to identify these entrepreneurs and help them succeed on their journey by providing guidance and support with strategy, operations, marketing, networking, finances...anything they need.

How do you hope Tulip will be different / better?

Tulip has the potential to differentiate itself and become a “go to” event by creating an ecosystem of thought leaders who are shaping the future. Tulip’s ability to bring together strong presenters, smart content, and meaningful networking opportunities will be crucial to its success.

Where can people find you online?

Applied Real Intelligence