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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.”

Energy Vault raises $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund as energy storage grabs headlines

Imagine a moving tower made of huge cement bricks weighing 35 metric tons. The movement of these massive blocks is powered by wind or solar power plants and is a way to store the energy those plants generate. Software controls the movement of the blocks automatically, responding to changes in power availability across an electric grid to charge and discharge the power that’s being generated.

The development of this technology is the culmination of years of work at Idealab, the Pasadena, Calif.-based startup incubator, and Energy Vault, the company it spun out to commercialize the technology, has just raised $110 million from SoftBank Vision Fund to take its next steps in the world.

Energy storage remains one of the largest obstacles to the large-scale rollout of renewable energy technologies on utility grids, but utilities, development agencies and private companies are investing billions to bring new energy storage capabilities to market as the technology to store energy improves.

The investment in Energy Vault is just one indicator of the massive market that investors see coming as power companies spend billions on renewables and storage. As The Wall Street Journal reported over the weekend, ScottishPower, the U.K.-based utility, is committing to spending $7.2 billion on renewable energy, grid upgrades and storage technologies between 2018 and 2022.

Meanwhile, out in the wilds of Utah, the American subsidiary of Japan’s Mitsubishi Hitachi Power Systems is working on a joint venture that would create the world’s largest clean energy storage facility. That 1 gigawatt storage would go a long way toward providing renewable power to the Western U.S. power grid and is going to be based on compressed air energy storage, large flow batteries, solid oxide fuel cells and renewable hydrogen storage.

“For 20 years, we’ve been reducing carbon emissions of the U.S. power grid using natural gas in combination with renewable power to replace retiring coal-fired power generation. In California and other states in the western United States, which will soon have retired all of their coal-fired power generation, we need the next step in decarbonization. Mixing natural gas and storage, and eventually using 100% renewable storage, is that next step,” said Paul Browning, president and CEO of MHPS Americas.

Energy Vault’s technology could also be used in these kinds of remote locations, according to chief executive Robert Piconi.

Energy Vault’s storage technology certainly isn’t going to be ubiquitous in highly populated areas, but the company’s towers of blocks can work well in remote locations and have a lower cost than chemical storage options, Piconi said.

“What you’re seeing there on some of the battery side is the need in the market for a mobile solution that isn’t tied to topography,” Piconi said. “We obviously aren’t putting these systems in urban areas or the middle of cities.”

For areas that need larger-scale storage that’s a bit more flexible there are storage solutions like Tesla’s new Megapack.

The Megapack comes fully assembled — including battery modules, bi-directional inverters, a thermal management system, an AC breaker and controls — and can store up to 3 megawatt-hours of energy with a 1.5 megawatt inverter capacity.

The Energy Vault storage system is made for much, much larger storage capacity. Each tower can store between 20 and 80 megawatt hours at a cost of 6 cents per kilowatt hour (on a levelized cost basis), according to Piconi.

The first facility that Energy Vault is developing is a 35 megawatt-hour system in Northern Italy, and there are other undisclosed contracts with an undisclosed number of customers on four continents, according to the company.

One place where Piconi sees particular applicability for Energy Vault’s technology is around desalination plants in places like sub-Saharan Africa or desert areas.

Backing Energy Vault’s new storage technology are a clutch of investors, including Neotribe Ventures, Cemex Ventures, Idealab and SoftBank.