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As it adds Jeremy Milken to the partnership, Watertower Ventures nears $50 million close for its new fund

Derek Norton and Jeremy Milken have known each other for twenty years. Over their longtime personal and professional relationship, the two Los Angeles-based serial entrepreneurs have invested in each other’s companies and investment firms, but never worked together until now.

Milken is taking the plunge into institutional investing, joining Norton as a partner in Watertower Ventures just as the firm prepares to close on a $50 million new fund.

It’s an auspicious time for both Los Angeles-based businessmen, as the LA venture community sees a wave of technology talent relocating from New York and San Francisco in the newly remote work culture created by the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I see two things happen. One people look at the effects of where the market’s going. We’re seeing a lot more companies that are starting up now as a result of a [the pandemic],” said Norton. “New company formation is happening faster than before covid. [And] a lot of venture capitalists that have relocated to LA. They’ve moved down to LA for lifestyle reasons and they’re saying that they don’t need to go back to San Francisco.”

For Milken, the opportunity to get into venture now is a function of the company creation and acceleration of digital adoption that Norton referenced. “The pandemic is accelerating change in the marketplace. Things that might have taken a decade are taking two years now,” Milken said.

These opportunities are creating an opening for Watertower Ventures in markets far beyond the Hollywood hills. The firm, whose original thesis focused on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, is now cutting checks on investments in Texas and Utah, and spending much less time looking for companies in the Bay Area.

Derek Norton, founder, Watertower Ventures: Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

Norton’s latest fund is the only the most recent act in a career that has seen the investor traverse the financial services digital media and the early days of the internet. Norton built Digital Boardwalk, a pioneering internet service provider and the second commercial partner for the trailblazing browser service, Netscape.

Later, at Jeffries Technologies, and the $120 million Entertainment Media Ventures seed and early stage venture capital fund, Norton was intimately involved in bringing tech to market and focusing on early stage investments. With that in mind, the Watertower Ventures group, which launched in 2017 with a small, $5 million fund, is a return to those roots.

The plan, even at the time, was always to raise a larger fund. After founding and running the boutique investment banking business at Watertower Group, Norton knew he had to raise a starter fund to prove the thesis he was working on.

That thesis was to provide a bridge between early stage companies and large technology companies using the network that Norton has built in the Southern California tech and entertainment community over decades.

“We want to take our contacts at Google, Apple, Facebook, Disney, Microsoft, Cisco, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and other companies we believe should have a relationship with our portfolio companies, and help the CEOs and management teams more effectively do business development,” Norton told SoCal Tech when he closed his first fund in 2017. “We want to connect them to the right person at those companies to create a commercial relationship. That has a really large impact on early stage companies, who typically don’t have a deep network of relationships, and the ability to get to those type of people. It’s because of our advisory business that we have those relationships, and that’s also why those relationships stay fresh and active, versus people who aren’t in those businesses. It’s almost a full time job to maintain that, and that’s where our value-add is.”

Milken, who has spent his professional career in entrepreneurship, was ready to try investing, and was intimately familiar with Watertower and its portfolio, as an investor in the firm’s first $5 million fund.

“Two years ago we started having those conversations,” said Norton in an interview. “As Jeremy exited his business in September it created the opportunity to go out and raise together as the evolution of our partnership.”

Jeremy Milken, general partner, Watertower Ventures. Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

With the new capital coming in, Norton expects to back some 30 to 35 companies, he said. And, in a testament to the first fund’s performance, which has it in the top decile of venture funds for its vintage, Norton said he was able to raise the capital amidst the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 70 percent of the existing portfolio has been marked up, according to Norton.

Even though limited partners, the investors who back venture funds, were reluctant to commit capital to new firms in March and April, fundraising returned with a vengeance in June and July, according to Norton. The paper performance likely was enough to woo additional limited partners and individual investors including TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer, the former head of streaming at Disney.

Mayer’s presence in the firm’s investor base is a testament to the firm’s pitch to founders. “We view fundraising as a massive distraction for these early stage companies from their business. We try to deliver that network that’s ours to those founders,” said Norton.

“I think we’re in a unique position starting with a fresh fund here,” says Norton. “Uncertainty creates opportunity and people are bringing solutions. We haven’t noticed any slowdown whatsoever, we’re working with twenty five companies per week. Since the inception of the fund, we haven’t seen deal flow at this level.”

Comcast launches SportsTech startup accelerator with NASCAR and others

Comcast NBCUniversal believes its can access startup innovation while supporting future Olympic gold-medalists.

The American mass media company launched its new SportsTech accelerator today, based in part, on that impetus.

TechCrunch attended a briefing with Comcast execs at 30 Rock NYC to learn more about the initiative.

The SportsTech accelerator is a partnership across Comcast NBCUniversal’s sports media brands: NBC Sports, Sky Sports and the Golf Channel.

The program brings in industry partners NASCAR, U.S. Ski & Snowboard and USA Swimming — all of whose sports broadcast on Comcast NBC channels.

Starting today, pre-Series A sports technology startups can apply to become part of a 10-company cohort.

Accepted ventures will gain $50,000 in equity-based funding and enter SportsTech’s three-month accelerator boot camp — with sports industry support and mentorship — to kick off at Comcast’s Atlanta offices August 2020.

Boomtown Accelerators will join Comcast in managing the SportsTech program, with both sharing a minimum of 6% equity in selected startups.

Industry partners, such as NASCAR and U.S. Ski & Snowboard, will play an advisory role in startup selection, but won’t add capital.

An overarching objective for SportsTech emerged during conversations with execs and Jenna Kurath, Comcast’s VP for Startup Partner Development, who will run the new accelerator.

Comcast and partners aim to access innovation that could advance the business and competitive aspects of each organization.

From McDonald’s McD Tech Labs to Mastercard’s Start Path, corporate incubators and accelerators have become common in large cap America, where companies look to tap startup ingenuity and deal-flow to adapt and hedge disruption.

Toward its own goals, SportsTech has designated several preferred startup categories. They include Business of Sports, Team and Coach Success and Athlete and Player Performance.

SportsTech partners, such as NASCAR, hope to access innovation to drive greater audience engagement. The motorsport series (and its advertising-base) has become more device-distributed, and NASCAR streams more race-day data live, from the pits to the driver’s seat.

“The focus has grown into what are we going to do to introduce more technology in the competition side of the sport…the fan experience side and how we operate as a business,” said NASCAR Chief Innovation Officer Craig Neeb.

“We’re confident we’re going to get access to some incredibly strong and innovative companies,” he said of NASCAR’s SportsTech participation.

U.S. Ski & Snowboard — the nonprofit that manages America’s snowsport competition teams  — has an eye on performance and medical tech for its athletes.

“Wearable technology [to measure performance]…is an area of interest…and things like computer vision and artificial intelligence for us to better understand technical elements, are quite interesting,” said Troy Taylor, U.S. Ski & Snowboard’s Director of High Performance.

US Ski Team

Credit: U.S. Ski & Snowboard

Some of that technology could boost prospects of U.S. athletes, such as alpine skiers Tommy Ford and Mikaela Shiffrin, at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

In a $7.75 billion deal inked in 2014, Comcast NBCUniversal purchased the U.S. broadcast rights for Olympic competition —  summer and winter —  through 2032.

“We asked ourselves, ‘could we do more?’ The notion of an innovation engine that runs before, during and after the Olympics. Could that give our Team USA a competitive edge in their pursuit for gold?,” said Jenna Kurath.

The answer came up in the affirmative and led to the formation of Comcast’s SportsTech accelerator.

Beyond supporting Olympic achievement, there is a strategic business motivation for Comcast and its new organization.

“The early insights we gain from these companies could lead to other commercial relationships, whether that’s licensing or even acquisition,” Will McIntosh, EVP for NBC Sports Digital and Consumer Business, told TechCrunch.

SportsTech is Comcast’s third accelerator, and the organization has a VC fund, San Francisco-based Comcast Ventures — which has invested in the likes of Lyft, Vimeo and Slack and racked up 67 exits, per Crunchbase data.

After completing the SportsTech accelerator, cohort startups could receive series-level investment or purchase offers from Comcast, its venture arm or industry partners, such as NASCAR.

“Our natural discipline right now is…to have early deliverables. But overtime, with our existing partners, we’ll have conversations about who else could be a logical value-add to bring into this ecosystem,” said Bill Connors, Comcast Central Division President.

Major ISPs now say they won't sell your browsing history. Yeah. Right.

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Internet service providers are in an awkward spot. After getting all dressed up for the sell-your-data dance, it turns out they’ll be staying home. 

Or so they claim.

Reuters reports that representatives from Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T all came out today to assure worried consumers that the companies will not in fact sell customers’ browsing histories to the highest bidder. 

“We do not sell our broadband customers’ individual web browsing history,” writes Comcast Chief Privacy Officer Gerard Lewis on the company’s blog. “We did not do it before the FCC’s rules were adopted, and we have no plans to do so.”   Read more…

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Amazon shuts down its cable store, probably because ISPs are awful

amazon-cable-store Remember that time when Amazon decided it wanted to sell you internet service and cable TV? Well, that’s done now. Yep, Amazon’s “Cable Store” is no more. As you may recall, around a year ago, the online retailer launched a “cable store” website where it began reselling a variety of Comcast’s services, including its internet, TV and phone bundles. The… Read More

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