By Howie Kahn, photo by John Francis Peters. Though D.A. Wallach is a man of many worlds, transitioning from music to tech, his projects have one aim: to make an impact. IN LOS ANGELES’ Koreatown neighborhood, D.A. Wallach’s brain is all lit up. He’s been in the MRI machine in an office for nearly two hours, wearing a medical gown, meditating, trying to tune out the clang-clang-clang of the machine.
Technicians have already captured hundreds of images. As they work into the thousands, completing his full body scan, they have an axial view—illuminated lobes and cortices—up on their screen. “Good brain,” one tech says. Wallach, who turns 31 this month, isn’t here as a patient. After having lunch at a nearby Thai barbecue restaurant with the CEO of a start-up called Klarismo, he’s putting the company’s technology to the test and evaluating its potential for investment.
Klarismo, Wallach explains, wants to use MRI machines like tanning beds, purely for recreational and aesthetic purposes. Scans might then result in highly personalized consumer products. Need a gold-plated, 3-D model of your intestines? Klarismo! (At least, that’s the idea.) Wallach emerges from the tube, sheds his gown and gets back into his street clothes. He pulls a turquoise cashmere beanie over his wavy, red locks and slides his feet into a pair of Visvim sandals adorned with bells that chime when he walks. “So you can hear me coming,” Wallach jokes.
Wallach doesn’t need his shoes to get people’s attention. His ideas easily do the trick. His recorded music does too. Nine years ago, while still an undergrad at Harvard, Wallach sent out demos of Love the Future, the album he recorded with his indie-pop, soul-influenced band, Chester French. Pharrell Williams ultimately outnegotiated Kanye West to sign them. After a few years on the road, however, Wallach decided he’d take a shot at making bigger change in the world than he felt he ever could as a musician.
“I wanted to be a significant artist in the sense that I could have a real impact on culture,” he says, driving out of the MRI clinic’s parking lot in an electric, four-door Tesla manufactured by his friend Elon Musk. “I wanted to be like John Lennon, Bob Marley and Curtis Mayfield, people who stimulated change. But I realized that I just wasn’t going to be that guy as a musician. It wasn’t going to happen.”
In 2011, having grown up in Milwaukee building computers in middle school and working in Web design in high school, Wallach took his first major step into the tech world, talking his way onto the team at a nascent music-streaming business called Spotify. A one-man social network in his own right, he had patched together connections through friends at Facebook (Chester French was the first band to have its own page on the site), who led him to the angel investor and Spotify adviser Shakil Khan and eventually the company’s CEO and founder, Daniel Ek.
Possessing a job-winning combination of rocker cred and Ivy League intellect earned Wallach the title of Spotify’s first artist in residence. One of his first duties: explaining Spotify’s business model to other musicians prior to its U.S. launch. “Initially,” Wallach says, “it was just me and [Spotify board member] Sean Parker flying around, trying to convince people to let us use their music.” Later, Wallach helped develop a dashboard tool with which artists could monitor their music’s performance. As a consultant, he was compensated, at various times throughout his tenure, with a salary and stock options.
By the time he left in 2015, Spotify’s subscribers had rocketed to 20 million from fewer than one million when he began. While working to help validate the company, Wallach started thinking about the implications of emerging technologies beyond the entertainment space and decided to switch directions. “It seemed like there were bigger problems to solve in the world than convincing artists to jump onboard with something that was bound to win anyway,” says Wallach, who remains a minor investor in Spotify. “If you succeed at any of these other problems, there’s a much bigger payoff, financially and for humanity.”
Wallach’s list of big problems includes: the way medical research is conducted (not enough scalability and automation); the lack of data available to people about their own bodies (Klarismo may be an answer; he’s still deciding); and, outside the biotech sector, inefficiencies in the industrial workplace (an augmented reality company he invests in called Daqri may help). These days, Wallach, who released his first solo album, Time Machine, last fall, is less focused on enhancing life’s soundtrack and more attuned to helping devise ways to live longer, healthier and with greater productivity.
“D.A. brings an entirely different sensibility to the table,” says composer David Campbell, who worked with Wallach on Time Machine and has contributed to albums by artists from the Rolling Stones to his son, Beck. “The breadth of his musical interests reflects his broader interests in the world.” Driving through Los Feliz, Wallach transitions seamlessly between topics from particle physics to Bhutan, which he recently visited. “He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever interacted with,” says the venture capitalist Chris Hollod. “That’s definitely how he got through to Ron.”
Ron is billionaire Ron Burkle, who, along with Hollod, has now partnered with Wallach in a new investment fund called Inevitable Ventures. Once again, Wallach got to Burkle through his A-list Rolodex. “Puff Daddy introduced us at Clive Davis’s Grammy party,” says Wallach. “I did a song with Puff called ‘Ciroc Star,’ and then I helped him and Ron’s fund invest in Spotify.” Wallach had another link to Burkle through Ashton Kutcher, with whom Burkle partnered in the fund A-Grade Investments.
“All these people in Hollywood and Silicon Valley were talking about D.A.,” says Hollod. “So, last year when Ron and I were looking for a partner for our latest fund, we picked him—for his connections, for his positive outlook and for his intellectual horsepower, which is unrivaled and ferocious.” Through Inevitable Ventures and his own personal investment and advisory work, Wallach has aligned himself with start-ups like PicnicHealth, offering personal medical record aggregation; WiserCare, a personalized patient advocacy platform; and Iggbo, which likens itself to Uber for phlebotomy.
Further, there’s Daqri, the augmented reality company that allows workers to interface with complex machinery using a specially designed helmet, and Emulate, which has developed technology that allows scientists to mimic the work of human organs on thumb-size, plastic chips (each chip is lined with organ cells and can then replicate their behavior). On the side, Wallach found time for a minor role in La La Land, an upcoming film starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone and directed by Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle, his former Chester French bandmate.
Wallach certainly doesn’t resemble a conventionally sleek or smug financial giant; nor does he come off like a tech-world alpha geek with newly deep pockets and a vocabulary out of Silicon Valley. He says that the more money he’s able to move around in the name of progress, the closer he’ll come to effecting change. “I’d like to be moving billions,” he says. “But my sales pitch will be about putting it to good use.” As Wallach pulls the Tesla to a smooth, even stop, he continues: “Returns won’t just be measured in dollars. They’ll be measured in fundamentally advancing society.”