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After a record year for Israeli startups, 16 investors tell us what’s next

Israel’s startup ecosystem raised record amounts of funding and produced 19 IPOs in 2020, despite the pandemic. Now tech companies across industries are poised for an even better year, according to more than a dozen investors we talked to in the country.

Mainstay sectors like cybersecurity continue to matter, they said, but are maturing (more about that here). Some people are more excited by emerging areas like artificial intelligence, which has been a focus of the country’s military for years, and like cybersecurity is now producing many fresh teams of founders. Other investors felt that a broader range of industries, like fintech and biotech, would eventually produce the biggest companies in the country.

Overall, local investors cited the country’s focus on global markets from day one, general support from the Israeli government and deep relationships with Silicon Valley and other global tech centers as additional factors that are powering it forward today.

Here are the investors in their own words, for any TechCrunch reader who is interested in hiring, investing or founding a company in the country. Oh, and one more thing. We just launched Extra Crunch in Israel. Subscribe to access all of our investor surveys, company profiles and other inside tech coverage for startups everywhere. Save 25% off a one- or two-year Extra Crunch membership by entering this discount code: THANKYOUISRAEL

The investors:


Boaz Dinte, Qumra Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
At Qumra, we get excited about companies that disrupt traditional industries while doing good and improving quality of life. Our portfolio includes some great examples such as Fiverr that has disrupted the labor market by unlocking the global talent pool, or Talkspace, which is providing access to therapy to all.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Our latest investment is At-bay, the insurance company for the digital age. At-bay offers an end-to-end solution with comprehensive risk assessment, a tailored cyber insurance policy, and active, risk-management service.

Traditional insurers don’t have the know-how to properly and continually assess risk and approach digital risk the same way they approach physical products, through a statistical model that tries to predict the future based on past events. This a great example of company that is disrupting a traditional market.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
As a growth fund, we are sector agnostic and diversify our investments across multiple industries. Would be happy to add proptech and agritech startups to our portfolio.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We stay clear of nonregulated industries and do not invest in cryptocurrency-related companies, gambling, etc.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are focused on Israeli and Israeli-related companies. As growth companies they may have moved to NY or CA with their headquarters and maintained their R&D in Israel.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
A great amount of talent is cultivated in the military, which has spawned innovative cyber, AI and machine-learning companies. Also, significant experience and know-how have been accumulated here in big data analytics. SaaS models and cloud technologies have eliminated some of the barriers for Israeli companies and enable companies to quickly set up and set up a proof of concept.

A few highlights in our portfolio include AppsFlyer, JoyTunes, Riskified, Talkspace and Guardicore.

Data-driven AppsFlyer, spearheaded by Oren Kaniel, is an exciting mobile-attribution company that is rapidly growing ($200 million+ ARR in 2020) yet maintains a unique DNA. JoyTunes, led by Yuval Kaminka has developed a music-learning platform that has skyrocketed in 2020. The platform has been widely adopted doing so much good for so many people in a short amount of time. Guardicore is disrupting the traditional firewall market by providing fine-grained segmentation for greater attack resistance. Led by CEO Pavel Gurevich the company is seeing excellent traction. Riskified makes e-ommerce easier and safer and enables a thriving e-commerce environment. Founder duo Eido Gal and Assaf Feldman are a powerhouse of vision and execution capabilities. Talkspace has not only created the leading online therapy business, but is actually improving the quality of life of hundreds of thousands of Americans, which are gaining access to therapy for the first time. Founding husband and wife Oren and Roni Frank are the ultimate power couple — creating an incredible business while creating some real impact.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Tech investors must make sure that Israel is part of their portfolio. Same as VC funds are deeply acquainted with Silicon Valley, tech investors cannot ignore this hub of innovation that has produced global market leading companies and serial entrepreneurs

What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Products and services that require anything requiring on-site visits and integration as well as a long sales cycle involving face-to-face meetings and customer education are negatively impacted during this time. The upside is that companies that will develop a remote and simplified approach can reap gains from this time. Such an example is Augury from our portfolio that has developed an end-to-end solution to provide manufacturers with early, actionable and comprehensive insights into machine health and performance. This has proved to be of crucial value in the supply chain during the pandemic.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?
Earlier in the month we have closed our third fund, Qumra III, at $260 million. This was done in a short time in a period when traveling and face-to-face meetings were impossible. Commitments to this fund, which is larger than its predecessor, included increased investments form existing LPs as well as new LPs from new geographies. This is a vote of confidence in the Israeli growth market in general and in Qumra in particular and has been a great achievement and source of hope going forward.

Rafi Carmeli, Viola Growth

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Platforms that are transforming how people and businesses operate, go about their business or leverage their core assets, using superior products, data and AI.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Zoomin Software.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Transformation of the CFO and treasury suite of tools.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
A+ team, superior product demonstrated with business/market traction and a sizable market opportunity.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?

Any area that needs to compete both with incumbents and also a set of already successful “new age” companies that made the first step of meaningful disruption.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?

Plenty of interesting opportunities but like many places, competitive around the best of the best.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Definitely see changes in evolution of young startups given the behavioral changes caused by COVID.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Any area that is exposed to mass physical engagement (pockets in travel, food, sports, etc.) are at risk. Remote engagement and productivity have potential to disrupt more industries, such as corporate events/virtual events.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Founders are generally resilient and based on their view on the company’s position post-COVID (winner/at risk) and the capital resources available, should decide on appropriate level of caution/aggressiveness.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes in many areas. In general software has proven to be a winner and specifically SaaS as a business model has proven its resilience.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The speed and decisiveness at which humanity acted to adjust to the effects and aftermath of the pandemic, and importantly to proactively get us all out of the health and economic crisis as quickly as possible (e.g., the speed of creating vaccines).

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
If something won’t matter in five years, don’t waste more than five minutes worrying about it now — easier said than done!

Yonatan Mandelbaum, TLV Partners

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Fintech (specifically embedded finance or financial SaaS), synthetic bio. This is in addition to traditional focus areas that we remain bullish on — cloud infrastructure, ML infra and cyber.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Unit.co, meshpayments.com.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
There simply isn’t enough innovation in fintech from the Israeli ecosystem. Our locale has managed to produce three of the most prolific insurtech companies (Next, Lemonade and Hippo), has a strong history of successful fintech companies (Payoneer, Forter, Riskified) and even has a few very promising earlier-stage ventures (Unit, Melio). That said, only about 10% of our overall deal flow are fintech companies. Areas such as vertical banking, embedded finance, compliance as a service and consumer finance consistently get overlooked by young Israeli founders.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The cliche VC answer: strong team, big market. This remains constant during all times.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
(1) Cybersecurity — with one caveat. Israel will always be at the forefront of cyber innovation, and thus there will always be an opportunity for fledgling cyber companies in Israel. That said, it is 100% oversaturated, and there are too many examples of strong technical founders creating “yet another” SaaS security startup. (2) Remote work collaboration — clearly an issue that needs solving, but we have unsurprisingly seen an absurd amount of companies in the space. They are largely reactionary companies, and the companies that will prove to be the winners in this market have already been in the market for quite some time (Zoom, Alack, Miro, etc.).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Fintech and bio are very well-positioned to thrive in Israel. In 10 years I wouldn’t be surprised if Israel is more well-known for those two sectors than it is for its cyber companies. Some companies to keep an eye on: Next Insurance, Unit, Mesh Payments, Aidoc, Deepcure, Immunai.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
I’m not saying anything new, but Israel is known as the startup nation for a reason. There is an incredible, thriving entrepreneurship culture that breeds fascinating companies weekly. Interestingly, valuation trends seem to trail the U.S. by about 12-18 months. So for later-stage VCs around the globe, Israel can represent an interesting opportunity to do deals of the same quality that they are doing in their locale, but for a more reasonable price.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Not particularly. Israel a small country, and even if there may be a residential exodus from Tel Aviv, there won’t be a commercial one.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and proptech are more exposed due to COVID-19.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID hasn’t impacted our investment strategy much. We have remained steady in our search for interesting early-stage software opportunities and our commitment to invest substantial amounts even at the seed round. The biggest worries of the portfolio founders surround slower enterprise sales cycles due to WFH and smaller budgets from potential customers. Our early advice to founders was to ensure runway for 18 months in order to weather the storm. Recently however, after witnessing the incredibly founder-friendly fundraising landscape, our advice has been to put the pedal to the metal, reach certain benchmarks and raise capital.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
No, there still hasn’t been enough time. That said, I will say that the initial enthusiasm of WFH has faded. The vast majority of our companies are clamoring to be back in the office.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
My grandparents both recently passed away from COVID-19. Despite the tragic loss that it was for my family, there was one moment that truly gave me hope. I had the opportunity to visit my grandmother in the COVID ward at a local hospital before she passed (in full protective gear of course). Before entering the ward, while the nurses were going over the protocols with me and four other individuals who were there to visit their sick family members, I was surprised to realize that the five of us in the room were an eclectic bunch. Jewish, Muslim, religious and not, young and old. In that moment, we all gave each other strength, wished each other well and it gave me hope that we can truly become a unified country in the near future. The next exponential growth that occurs in the Israeli ecosystem will be when there is an influx of minorities (Arabs, ultra-Orthodox) into the workforce.

Natalie Refuah, Viola Growth

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
DevOps, martech, digital health.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
RapidAPI.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Exciting team, hypergrowth, disruptiveness.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Cyber, automotive.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Close to 100%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
DevOps, cyber, enterprise software.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Very positively.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
There will be changes, that’s for sure.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?

E-commerce tech-related companies will thrive.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We lowered our check size per company. My advice — if you are “with COVID trend” push hard, if you are “against COVID trend” — preserve cash.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
More time with my kids, but in general I miss hugging people when i meet them, and I prefer meeting people face to face.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Let the vaccine go!

Daniel Cohen, Viola Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Games, vertical AI and AI agencies, digital health.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Hyperguest, creating direct connectivity between hotels and OTAs. It’s the perfect next-gen travel infrastructure for the world post-pandemic.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
The biggest trend in the post-COVID world will be the new work environment. We would love to see more startups that will create corporate solutions that are focused on the future of work. That can be at the workplace or at the home.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Unique, innovative go-to-market. Leveraging technology to reach consumers in a more innovative way. It’s basically innovation in growth hacking, not only in great products.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Cybersecurity — the market is real and important, but there are too many startups with small niche solutions.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
The most exciting trends locally are everything AI with focus on B2B apps. Same goes with digital health and consumer-focused health applications.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Israel is the #1 region globally in unicorn production, probably the hottest startup region right now.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
No.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?

The biggest change has been on company culture, which is hard to maintain in a distributed work-from-home environment. Companies need to be innovative and creative in maintaining/building culture, which was so much easier pre-COVID.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic? What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.

The announcements around the vaccines make it clear that the end of the pandemic is near. I think 2021 will be amazing.

Ben Wiener, Jumpspeed Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Jumpspeed invests exclusively in pre-seed and seed-stage startups from the Jerusalem startup ecosystem.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
MDGo.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Not really, we are sector agnostic/bottom-up rather than thesis driven.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
10x better, paradigm-shift solution to a large, near-term, acute business problem, produced and led by a complementary founding team (hacker+hustler+designer).

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Cybersecurity, crypto, telehealth.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
EXCLUSIVELY, see above.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Jerusalem is well-positioned in certain clusters such as computer vision, general enterprise SaaS, AI/ML and healthtech.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Our city’s startup ecosystem is underexploited and generates a few fantastic under-the-radar opportunities per year.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Yes.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Little direct impact on strategy because by definition I am investing in things that will go to market and ripen over years.

Founders’ biggest worries are employee well-being, after that access to overseas customers and markets.

Advice to founders: Stay calm and healthy, play the long game, take care of yourself, your family and your employees, don’t panic or cut staff reactively.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes but not that I can attribute directly to the pandemic.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
No specific moment, just the general resilience and ability to adapt to the radically changing new realities that our portfolio founders have exhibited.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
“Entrepreneurship in advanced technology, is not merely a matter of decision-making; it is a matter of imposing cognitive order on situations that are repeatedly ill-defined.” — W. Brian Arthur, “The Nature of Technology”

No situation has been this ill-defined in the past century. Keep calm and carry on 🙂

Inbal Perlman, TAU Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
At TAU, we are interested in a variety of sectors and evaluate each potential investment independently. In regards to trends, we look at trends with a grain of salt understanding that trends might come and go. When we see a particular trend, we try to understand if there is a need behind the trend and see beyond the initial hype. We want to assure that a startup is meeting a real need in the market. We are particularly interested in technologies that do not require too much time and capital to get to market.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
We invested in a company called Xtend, which is creating human-machine telepresence allowing us to “step into” a machine, anywhere in the world, breaking the limits of physical reality. In particular, it develops solutions that allow people to interact with drones and other unmanned machine technologies. The company’s technology enables humans to extend themselves into the action by allowing them to virtually sit inside the drone for various tactical missions. What is exciting about Xtend is how the technology can be implemented in a variety of ways from defense and homeland security to reimagining entertainment, gaming and cinematography.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
We like to see startups that are disrupting traditional industries by solving basic challenges and needs with innovative means. There are some industries that haven’t changed in many years. And if you create a technology that can be simply integrated into existing markets, it has the potential to gain significant traction and drastically change an industry. So we would love to see more startups going “back to the basics” asking questions about commonly felt pain points and innovating to solve those pains.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We want to get the feeling from the entrepreneur that they are professional, ready for the entrepreneurial journey, have the right mindset and skill set and will conquer the world. We understand that with early-stage startups, the product or service will likely change and therefore pay significant attention to the entrepreneurs themselves as an early indicator of future success.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Technology trends that often come and go can create an oversaturated market for startups. For example, previously there was hype around drones. Now, only the strongest companies in the drone industry have stuck around. Today, there are many startups responding to needs exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic such as remote learning and remote work. It is important to filter out whether these are solutions that will be around for a while and survive a post-COVID world or are temporary.

We are more cautious about particular industries. In edtech, those who have successfully done exits, have done so at low amounts ($200 million-$300 million). For us, we are seeking larger exits. Blockchain is a difficult sector because it lacks a clear regulatory environment, subsequently raising many questions. Similarly, the cannabis industry also does not have a fixed regulatory environment across countries. Any small regulation change can highly impact the company. These are the sectors and areas that we are more cautious around.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We invest in startups that are exclusively Israeli startups but are targeted for a global market. At TAU Ventures, we have 1,000 sq. meter coworking office space where majority of our portfolio companies and accelerator program companies sit on a daily basis. On a daily basis we are engaging with our startups through kitchen chats and hallway encounters. Through our coworking space, we are directly investing in our local ecosystem both supporting entrepreneurs and identifying rising entrepreneurs.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
In Israel, many Israeli entrepreneurs bring a high level of technical capabilities that they learn in the army such as in cyber and AI. After acquiring this knowledge and ability, they are well-prepared and able to transfer it to the commercial area. This is why we see many successful startups coming out of Israel particularly in these fields.
For example, founders of our portfolio company, SWIMM all come from leading elite tech training units in the army (Aram, Talpiot) and before founding SWIMM, established ITC (Israel Tech Challenge, a nonprofit high-tech academy that offers in-demand tech training programs in English in Tel Aviv, inspired by the IDF’s 8200 unit).
Furthermore, Tel Aviv University (TAU), our affiliated university, is a leading research institute and academic leader in AI, engineering and other sciences and is producing entrepreneurs with high levels of knowledge. 50% of entrepreneurs in Israel have studied at TAU. And TAU ranked eighth worldwide as a top university producing VC-backed entrepreneurs, and the first outside of the US. So we are very excited by the added advantage we have in being affiliated closely with the university and the talent which it is producing.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The significant advantage of Israel is its small size. Because there is little to no local market, startups automatically think globally in their marketing and growth strategies. To best understand Israel and Israelis, it’s important to understand the influence of the military and the reality of thriving in a complex political environment in the Middle East. Military service is compulsory for all Israelis at the age of 18. The army plays an important role in the socialization, education, skills development, social network and fabric of Israeli society. Many personal and professional networks are the result of army service. As Israelis, we live in an environment where we need to constantly be innovative and one step ahead to survive. This innovative mindset has been instilled in our state of mind and cultural DNA.
We are proud that In Israel we have academics at the highest level in the world across a variety of fields. Multinationals from all over the world have local R&D centers or innovation hubs in Israel to source from the local talent pool. This presence of multinationals creates mutual exposure for both startups and corporates alike.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
At TAU Ventures, the majority of our portfolio and accelerator companies sit next to us at our 1,000 sq. meter coworking space. At our offices, we love seeing our founders and their employees on a regular basis. This is how we have successfully created a strong familial culture at our VC. Throughout COVID, companies have continued to come in person to the office. This has reinforced to us that there is no exchange for face-to-face engagement. As early-stage investors, we understand that at this stage it is all about the people. At the end of the day, people want to be around people and you can not replace the experience of sharing a cup of coffee and shaking someone’s hand.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
COVID affected companies in different ways. For some, it boosted business and for others it led them to shift their strategy and approach. Our companies who had clients in the travel industry or airports were obviously affected. In this situation, the company looked at their technology and reconsidered where and how their technology could be relevant to other consumers and industries. This particular company saw an opportunity to shift to logistics and supply chain clients. COVID is presenting opportunities for companies to reevaluate their target market and discover new applications of their technology for different purposes.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
As a result of COVID, we have come to understand that things simply are taking more time, such as processes of raising funds or achieving the next milestone. We are patient and empathetic to the experiences of our startups.

The startups’ most significant worry is that they will not succeed to raise enough funds before reaching their next milestone. And more so, if they are unable to prove their achievement milestones in time, then they might be forced to close business. As a result, our startups are raising more funds during this time to assure a longer runway. Our startups are also keenly aware of how periods of crisis might call on them to pivot and adapt to the current circumstances. Startups are making decisions around adjusting budgets, determining whether customers are still relevant, anticipating whether the circumstances are temporary or will renormalize and ultimately whether there is a completely new path to pivot to.
In light of the circumstances, we are advising our portfolio startups to raise more funds in next rounds to have runway for at least 1.5 years and not to be afraid of making drastic changes (i.e., pivots, changing budget, raising more funds).

As a fund, we are assuring our entrepreneurs that if they choose to change paths, it is okay. Working from a coworking space alongside many of our founders enables us to stay updated on the startups, foster a strong internal ecosystem and network, and provide ongoing psychological safety for our entrepreneurs, which is ever so needed during these unprecedented times for startups.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Two of our portfolio companies have experienced impressive growth and are thriving in 2020.
1. Gaviti is a SaaS company that specializes in receivable collections acceleration. Its system maps out the collection process to spot inefficiencies and optimize clients’ procedures. Specifically during COVID, many companies had increased economic pain points related to generating cash flow on a timely, efficient basis. Gaviti’s solution helps companies manage their collection payments. As a result of of the economic crisis this year, Gaviti saw fast growth in clients and have thrived during 2020.
2. Medorion understands that health companies and hospitals want us to get regular health checkouts. Using AI and behavioral science, Medorion is driving people to take action for their own health by increasing engagement and communication between insurance companies and patients. During COVID, they are combating the coronavirus pandemic by applying their technology to create highly personalized engagement and communication plans targeted at those individuals who are at highest risk of COVID-19.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
In recent months, it is inspiring to see our entrepreneurs continue fighting despite the uncertain economic and global circumstances. Many of our companies are continuing to recruit and hire. Our founders are resilient and are finding creative means to succeed. It is also a blessing to have a large coworking space hosting the offices of 10 startups and to see employees continue to come in to the office day in and day out working with their teams.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
TAU Ventures is a venture capital fund, affiliated with Tel Aviv University, for investing in early-stage, cutting-edge technologies based in Israel. TAU Ventures is the first and only university-affiliated VC in Israel.

The fund has a unique, triangle model creating ecosystem connections between industry, academy and entrepreneurs. We connect to available resources at Tel Aviv University, foster strong partnerships in the high-tech industry and support entrepreneurs as they work side by side in the coworking office space of the VC located on the university campus.

TAU Ventures also runs incubation programs in a variety of tech fields and offers a vibrant hub for entrepreneurs with concrete opportunities for design partnerships with international leading companies: AlphaC program (in partnership with NEC, Checkpoint, Innogy, Team8 and Cybereason) and The Xcelerator (an acceleration program with the Israeli Security Agency).
In 2018, IVC awarded TAU Ventures an award for one of the most active VCs in Israel. And in 2019, Geektime ranked TAU Ventures among the top five best VCs in Israel.

David (Dede) Goldschmidt, Samsung Catalyst Fund

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Digital transformation and AI.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Solarisbank (Germany).

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
AI-acceleration technologies seems to be overcrowded.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Less than 50%.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
AI, cyber security. Excited about our portfolio company Innoviz (LiDAR). Excited about Avigdor Willenz, serial entrepreneur, including our portfolio company Habana Labs that was acquired for $2 billion.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Highly dynamic and competitive, very global approach of entrepreneurs, risk takers, “can-do” approach.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I don’t expect that to happen because a strong ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors and service providers would be needed, and it takes years for that to grow.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
Industries serving brick-and-mortars are likely to get weakened by accelerated transition to online.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our advice has been to be careful with cash. There is a disconnect between the strong momentum in the tech financing vis-a-vis overall economic crisis (unemployment, governments deficits, etc.). We have yet to see the full impact of COVID-19 on tech startups and better be prepared for that.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, for pure digital plays.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Frankly, I remain concerned because of the disconnect alluded to above. Vaccine momentum brings some hope, but too early to tell.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
I am very concerned from potential crunch in early stage. While overall financing numbers are growing almost across all geographies, investments are heavily weighted toward later stage and unicorns, and much fewer new companies are being formed. This will have dramatic impact on the tech ecosystem a few years out, if it does not change in 2021.

Dror Nahumi, Norwest Venture Partners

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We are a large fund that invests in early-to-late-stage companies across a wide range of sectors with a focus on consumer, enterprise and healthcare. My focus is primarily in Israeli companies and I’m seeing many exciting startups in security, SaaS, enterprise and cloud infrastructure, robotics and semiconductors.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
We are naturally excited about all our latest investments. I recently invested in three seed-stage companies that are in stealth mode: an open-source cloud infrastructure company, a people analytics (HR) SaaS company and a next-generation business-intelligence platform.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I believe there is a massive opportunity for startups to develop new solutions to fuel the digitization of next-generation enterprises. We’re seeing innovation and activity in this sector, but there’s so much more to be done, especially in light of challenges and vulnerabilities that COVID-19 has exposed. The hottest areas will be in human resources, production, security, infrastructure, sales and remote work.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
We look for a great team, strong intellectual property and compelling execution. The new product idea can be a replacement (i.e., replace existing products that are aging, low performance) or a new category. Gong.io is a great example of a new category we invested in early on. We created the new “revenue intelligence” category that offers businesses automated, unfiltered and real-time insights on customer interactions and deals. This helps businesses understand what’s actually being said to transform the way they go to market.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Security is currently oversaturated. There are too many companies doing similar things, which can make it difficult for newcomers to break through. Additionally, most emerging security startups are all claiming to use machine learning and AI to combat the next level of breaches. These are important areas to focus on, but it’s getting harder for these companies to differentiate themselves. That aside, we have made several great investments in security over the years and will continue to invest in great teams.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Our team in Israel is 100% focused on our local market.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Numerous industries in the Israeli market are poised to thrive and are doing so currently. Examples include startups in the security, SaaS, enterprise and the cloud infrastructure space, and even consumer services. We are especially excited to continue to witness the growth and success of Gong, VAST Data, WekaIO, Cynet, Wiliot, ActiveFence, Ermetic and SundaySky while building new companies who are still in the stealth stage.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
At Norwest and especially among our Israel portfolio companies, we’ve been able to let our companies mature. We’ve given them the time and support they need to reach maturity. This is a very different approach than what we are seeing in other environments.

Today, growth comes before M&A and companies get valuations much quicker. In past years, it was hard to raise money but it’s not so difficult now. In Israel, inside sales and marketing analytics allow companies to sell more effectively now than in the last decade. This gives entrepreneurs flexibility, room to expand into other markets and the ability to hire top talent globally versus just within their own region.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Israel is so small that you are never really too far outside a major city. We expect our startup hub to stay intact even if individuals and businesses choose to move slightly outside of the main CBD.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
The travel industry has been massively impacted in every market globally since the COVID-19 outbreak. That said, that means there is a huge opportunity to fill gaps based on business and consumer needs as we approach a post-pandemic normal.

I would say that solutions with huge potential are those centered on hybrid workforces as enterprises rethink the future of work. These have the potential to significantly benefit from the pandemic in the short and long term.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
COVID-19 has not impacted our investment strategy. However, in recent conversations with our portfolio companies, it’s clear that brands can emerge stronger than ever with an adaptable strategy, adjusted expectations, strong marketing and B2C communications, and compassionate leadership.

Over the past several months, we’ve advised companies in our portfolio to focus on building their business while prioritizing the safety of their workforce, which could mean further extending work-from-home policies or making remote work a standard option in their hiring practices. Companies’ ability to innovate and adapt while building their business around the new normal will be better positioned to succeed in a post-COVID landscape.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
While it’s not one particular moment, there were many times this past year where our portfolio companies faced major challenges due to the pandemic and were still able to continue to expand their businesses. Every sales quarter that shows growth and success gives me hope.

Sharin Fisher, Fort Ross Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
I’m mostly excited about AI/ML technologies, cybersecurity companies and the global opportunity in B2B SaaS companies in general; companies that help to optimize business processes and boost efficiency (e.g., one of our portfolio companies, Kryon, is operating in the robotic process automation space, evaluating business processes, and recommending which ones to automate in order to free up underutilized human talent). We are seeing many successful Israeli SaaS companies across the board, from marketing and collaboration tools, business intelligence products, to payment systems.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
My latest investment was in a B2B SaaS company that disrupts a huge market. I’m mostly excited about the team, which contains senior executives and second-time entrepreneurs with domain expertise.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?

We are looking for companies that have a big market, a compelling story and a clear path to building a large business. When we invest, companies already have traction, a diverse customer base, established and repeatable sales process and metrics. So, when we dive deeper into the company’s metrics we would like to see they support the company’s assumptions and ability to scale up properly.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
WFH enablement tools (from security to communication tools).

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We are a global VC with a distributed team, focused on investing in midstage companies based in the U.S. and Israel, that can become global leaders. I’m leading our investments in the Israeli companies, globally.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Israel is well-positioned to build and grow large companies that can become segment leaders. We are seeing many leading companies across multiple sectors such as mobility (Moovit, Mobileye), cybersecurity (Armis, Cybereason, SentinelOne), fintech (Lemonade, Payoneer, eToro), information technology (Jfrog, Snyk), etc.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The Israeli ecosystem has matured significantly over the last decade, mainly due to repeat entrepreneurs who bring knowledge and relevant experience to the table. They aspire to build meaningful companies. On top of that, there’s more available late-stage capital, allowing companies to stay private longer and become mega-acquisitions/IPO.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The COVID-19 crisis has impacted Israeli founders in terms of how and from where they work. As many Israeli startups aim to tap into the U.S. market, they usually relocate pretty early on, mainly to build relationships with potential customers. Since the pandemic has created a situation where you have to sell your product/service remotely, physical location has become less relevant. In the short term, I believe we’ll see more Israeli founders working out of Israel, especially when taking into account the advantages (e.g., lower cost of living compared to other places like NYC/San Francisco). In the long run, there’s a high probability that founders who can keep the same sales efficiency remotely will continue to work out of their home country.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
All of the segments we look at are thriving or haven’t changed significantly. I’m mostly interested in startups that are able to sell remotely and have an established inside sales team with a simple integration/deployment, because I believe they are in a better position to scale faster even in this climate.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our investment strategy remains the same; we are still looking to back companies that can become global leaders and aspire to disrupt huge markets. In terms of the work with our portfolio companies, our founders have already made the needed adjustments and are now more focused on capital efficiency and expanding the runway.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Most of our portfolio adapted to the crisis quite fast and have enough runway to reach their next milestone. For some of our portfolio companies, especially those that support the digital transformation, the pandemic has created business opportunities and accelerated the adoption of their technology. As a result, we deployed additional capital to help them leverage this momentum.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Although the pandemic has created uncertainty for all of us, we have still been seeing more (+14) Israeli companies reaching unicorn status/going public during the past months.

Adi Levanon Chazan, Flint Capital

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Sensi.ai.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
A bit over 50% of the portfolio are Israeli startups, the remaining 50% divide between Europe and the U.S.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Fintech has been continuing to grow and will thrive over time. I’m excited about companies like Melio, Unit, Acrocharge and Rapyd.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Very important to have local partners and try to expand the local network as much as possible, best would be to have a person on the ground dedicated to Israeli investments.

Chaim Meir Tessler, partner, OurCrowd

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Fintech, cloud services, quantum software, cyber.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Closed at time of writing this: D-ID.
Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Built from the ground up remote educational platforms.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Founders I like to work with and believe in.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Micromobility, autonomous car sensors.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
60%-70% local.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Cyber, computer vision, semiconductor, quantum computing all thrive.

The banking infrastructure companies starting to emerge look fantastic.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Great market, easy to network, mostly friendly to coinvestment.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
With the world becoming flat, innovation will definitely sprout up in new areas.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy?
COVID hasn’t strongly affected our overall strategy other than a slowdown in March/April. The biggest worry is inadequate funding/runway.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Realizing that we landed in this pandemic on a moment in history that we had the tools needed to enable a large amount of the world’s population to continue working without having to be in a specific physical location.

Noam Kaiser, Intel Capital

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Cloud adoption through digital transformation to hybrid cloud, 5G, vertical AI-based SaaS.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Cellwize — basically opening up RAN (4G and 5G) to any API, cloud environment compatibility.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Solution allowing application to run across data sources in multiple buckets across hybrid/multicloud environments.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Deep understanding of the area and the customer needs, a complementing trend, high revenue potential within five years.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
MLOps, too many, too quickly, Storage at large.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
More.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Safebreach — Red Team automation for cybersecurity teams, Verbit — vertical AI, transcription.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
It hasn’t slowed down, plenty of opportunity, you have to move fast.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I don’t see the pandemic having that effect. Hubs will remain as are.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?
Anything relying on on-prem slowed down; this can be semiconductors and retail. but it’s recovering.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not really, we invest the same amount into the same amount of companies at same stages as before.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, deals are closing, financing is taking place as well as M&As.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
Simply lively investment atmosphere, new up rounds and several M&A processes emerging.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
Careful optimism, raise aggressively and cash up when possible, refresh the pipeline and get to it, corporates are back into closing deals.

Tal Slobodkin, StageOne Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Cloud computing and​ software infrastructure​/cybersecurity/DevOps/connected everything/deep compute, big data and AI/next-generation storage and data center.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
R-Go Robotics are pioneering an artificial perception technology that enables mobile robots to understand complex surroundings and operate autonomously just like humans.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
More sophisticated cyber solutions, additional MLOps technologies, AI solutions.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
Deep-tech technology solving complex enterprise challenges.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
We see a lot of could monitoring services/SaaS cloud startups all competing with very similar technologies.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Israel 85%; USA 15% — always looking to expand in the U.S. market as well.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
StageOne portfolio companies: Coralogix, Silverfort, Epsagon, Avanan, Neuroblade. Other companies: OwnBackup/RunAI/Verbit/Indegy — all based in Israel.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Less relevant for Israel and more for the U.S., but yes we will probably see new founders from different geographies, which is a good thing, giving new opportunities to people that before may have not considered starting a company.

What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
We do see that COVID-19 has less of an effect on the cybersecurity industry as many organizations are looking for new solutions, as the risk of cyberattacks increases due to remote working and refocusing a lot of their activity to the digital world.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Our companies continue to adapt and make the necessary changes and plans for the near future. Most of the companies have continued the work-from-home policy.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Seeing our companies continue to grow and expand both in people and product. They all adapted to the situation for both the short term and long run. They have continued to raise funds and some companies have even developed additional products to assist with COVID-19-related issues.

Ayal Itzkoviz, partner, Pitango First

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Disruption in traditional markets yearning innovation, such as retail, insurtech, logistics, etc.

B2B2B: Companies no longer wish to build things they can buy. Buying key components of the product/software enables companies to focus on the innovation side. One example is Frontegg — the company provides a set of pre-built, essential SaaS product capabilities that can easily and seamlessly integrate within any new or existing SaaS application. This enables dev teams to focus on perfecting the truly differentiating and valuable features at the heart of their SaaS offering. Another viable example is Stripe and its offering in the payments market.

Cyber: 2020 taught us many lessons, one of them is that tech is just getting more exciting as digital transformation is enhanced, and the other is that the digital revolution presents cyber challenges that didn’t exist before. This results in continued opportunities for disruption in this domain.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Frontegg — a startup that transforms the way SaaS is being built, so that developers don’t need to develop nondifferentiating code and features. Frontegg provides a state of the art SaaS-as-a-service platform, perfectly integrated within the company’s stack and allowing it to do what it’s best at: building their own product. Frontegg is the first pre-built suite of universal SaaS capabilities, enabling teams to focus on core features, shorten time-to-market and drive user adoption. Frontegg’s mission is to accelerate the delivery of enterprise-grade SaaS applications while providing the safest, most secure and optimal user experience.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
First: more open-source projects. They do exist, but usually operate under the radar and come out of stealth mode when they’re already mature and beyond the phase of seed and stage on which Pitango First is focused.

Quantum computing, in our view, has reached a point of no return. We’ll be happy to see entrepreneurs, scientists and business people in Israel jumping on the opportunity wagon already now, and build companies now, before the quantum market begins what will surely be an exponential growth.

Lastly are startups with a double bottom line, i.e., startups that while solving a pain point in the market they’re in and have a potential to become category leader, also address an impact category. Pitango is the first VC to integrate ESG practices into its mainstream activities. As part of this strategy, and as a first step, we are focusing on our vast portfolio of companies and work closely with them to embed

ESG into their core practices through a “migration” process.

Pitango aims to move the needle in the venture capital space through the “AND” philosophy: profit AND purpose, capital AND impact. Pitango is introducing a new paradigm of how venture capital does impact and integrates the “AND” philosophy by turning to a new opportunity set: the impact migrants. i.e., those startups that, although might not have been created under the SDG narrative, have the potential and a desire to embrace and track their impact. They will define their impact mission, integrate SDG targets within their business performance and track impact in alignment with financial targets, all without losing sight of their primary mission to deliver superior financial returns.

Furthermore, Pitango applies this AND philosophy beyond its existing portfolio and onto future deal flow review. We call it the “mainstreaming” of impact investing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The Israeli market has evolved tremendously in recent years. While the IPO market used to be out of reach for Israeli-born companies, this is no longer the case. We are looking for the visionaries, the dent blowers, the unconventional types who are eager to solve the biggest of challenges and are aiming at building an IPO-able business rather than an M&A one.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Pitango First is focused on Israeli/Israeli-related startups. From time to time we identify an investment opportunity in areas we have defined as strategic, in which the Israeli market isn’t mature enough and for which we believe we can add significant value and then invest in non-Israeli companies.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Israel is a super strong innovation hub. One of the major evolution trends of recent years is that the traditional glass ceiling that Israeli startups used to tackle has been shattered. Global players realize that now they can get the same upside like SV-based companies, in much more reasonable terms, and sometimes, less competition.
Somewhat counterintuitively, we see the investment climate in these times of COVID-19 being extremely vibrant and competitive. Strong teams are raising significant rounds at record high valuations, which add up to the current belief that COVID-19 didn’t slow, but accelerated the digital transformation.

What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
For many seed early-stage startups that have secured funding, COVID-19 didn’t set setbacks in their plans, as they are further from the market from more mature companies. However, such companies, when backed by strong investors, while they may experience decrease in their revenues, are using this period to gain strength by acquiring companies within their ecosystem and position themselves better toward the out-of-pandemic curve that will eventually be here in a few short quarters.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
The pattern of investing for the long run during the pandemic. Looking far into the horizon, as veterans of previous crises we were able to share our experience and insights and help them better deal with the crisis. Also, this question can’t be answered without mentioning the COVID-19 vaccines, which set a magnificent example to the extent humanity can benefit when tech, medical companies and governments join hands and engage in a group effort.

Ittai Harel, Pitango HealthTech

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
The consumerization of healthcare.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
HomeThrive — a tech-enabled healthcare services company tackling the aging-in-home challenge and helping families help their loved ones age happily.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
An all-star team building a category-defining or category-leading company with demonstrable clinical AND financial outcomes.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Narrow wearables that do not integrate into a clinical or life workflow.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Pitango HealthTech is focused on Israeli/Israeli-related startups. From time to time we identify an investment opportunity in areas we have defined as strategic, in which the Israeli market isn’t mature enough and for which we believe we can add significant value, and then invest in non-Israeli companies.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Israel has many thriving healthcare sectors — from RPM and computer vision in digital health to cardiovascular in med devices to drug research in biotech and pharma. We are excited about our portfolio company Variantyx (a provider of whole genome sequencing and analytics unique platform solution) and Alike (a patient-facing platform to allow individuals to access and analyze their medical data and to connect to others similar to them). We are also excited to be part of this ecosystem and to lead thought leadership in it.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
The healthcare innovation ecosystem in Israel is thriving. There are incredible entrepreneurs and opportunities with global potential and reach that global investors should be aware of.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
To some extent we are witness more disbursement in Israel, but there is nonetheless a strong draw to co-locating in hubs and we expect to see Tel-Aviv and the central area in Israel to continue dominating in terms of attractiveness to strong teams.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19?

Hospitals have seen a drastic decline in elective procedures and an overall disruption to their operations and budgets. Startups that are able to introduce new technologies to make this shift efficient and painless stand to win from the current trend.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
For the healthcare industry, COVID-19 has brought challenges — but also opportunities. We believe overall that our companies (and the industry overall) stand to gain from the shift as stakeholders are quicker to adopt changes that before took much longer. We advise our — and all — portfolio companies to prepare for the days after COVID and think through what changes in their specific segment will be long-lasting and are “here to stay.”

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
When the first individual in the U.K. — a 90-year-old woman — received the vaccine. A turning point hopefully for the entire world.

Extra Crunch roundup: Antitrust jitters, SPAC odyssey, white-hot IPOs, more

Some time ago, I gave up on the idea of finding a thread that connects each story in the weekly Extra Crunch roundup; there are no unified theories of technology news.

The stories that left the deepest impression were related to two news pegs that dominated the week — Visa and Plaid calling off their $5.3 billion acquisition agreement, and sizzling-hot IPOs for Affirm and Poshmark.

Watching Plaid and Visa sing “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off” in harmony after the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit to block their deal wasn’t shocking. But I was surprised to find myself editing an interview Alex Wilhelm conducted with Plaid CEO Zach Perret the next day in which the executive said growing the company on its own is “once again” the correct strategy.


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In an analysis for Extra Crunch, Managing Editor Danny Crichton suggested that federal regulators’ new interest in antitrust enforcement will affect valuations going forward. For example, Procter & Gamble and women’s beauty D2C brand Billie also called off their planned merger last week after the Federal Trade Commission raised objections in December.

Given the FTC’s moves last year to prevent Billie and Harry’s from being acquired, “it seems clear that U.S. antitrust authorities want broad competition for consumers in household goods,” Danny concluded, and I suspect that applies to Plaid as well.

In December, C3.ai, Doordash and Airbnb burst into the public markets to much acclaim. This week, used clothing marketplace Poshmark saw a 140% pop in its first day of trading and consumer-financing company Affirm “priced its IPO above its raised range at $49 per share,” reported Alex.

In a post titled “A theory about the current IPO market”, he identified eight key ingredients for brewing a debut with a big first-day pop, which includes “exist in a climate of near-zero interest rates” and “keep companies private longer.” Truly, words to live by!

Come back next week for more coverage of the public markets in The Exchange, an interview with Bustle CEO Bryan Goldberg where he shares his plans for taking the company public, a comprehensive post that will unpack the regulatory hurdles facing D2C consumer brands, and much more.

If you live in the U.S., enjoy your MLK Day holiday weekend, and wherever you are: Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor, TechCrunch
@yourprotagonist

I’m taking the credit/blame for this headline https://t.co/2KYLsTxeHq

— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) January 12, 2021

 

Rapid growth in 2020 reveals OKR software market’s untapped potential

After spending much of the week covering 2021’s frothy IPO market, Alex Wilhelm devoted this morning’s column to studying the OKR-focused software sector.

Measuring objectives and key results are core to every enterprise, perhaps more so these days since knowledge workers began working remotely in greater numbers last year.

A sign of the times: This week, enterprise orchestration SaaS platform Gtmhub announced that it raised a $30 million Series B.

To get a sense of how large the TAM is for OKR, Alex reached out to several companies and asked them to share new and historical growth metrics:

  • Gthmhub
  • Perdoo
  • WorkBoard
  • Ally.io
  • Koan
  • WeekDone

“Some OKR-focused startups didn’t get back to us, and some leaders wanted to share the best stuff off the record, which we grant at times for candor amongst startup executives,” he wrote.

5 consumer hardware VCs share their 2021 investment strategies

For our latest investor survey, Matt Burns interviewed five VCs who actively fund consumer electronics startups:

  • Hans Tung, managing partner, GGV Capital
  • Dayna Grayson, co-founder and general partner, Construct Capital
  • Cyril Ebersweiler, general partner, SOSV
  • Bilal Zuberi, partner, Lux Capital
  • Rob Coneybeer, managing director, Shasta Ventures

“Consumer hardware has always been a tough market to crack, but the COVID-19 crisis made it even harder,” says Matt, noting that the pandemic fueled wide interest in fitness startups like Mirror, Peloton and Tonal.

Bonus: Many VCs listed the founders, investors and companies that are taking the lead in consumer hardware innovation.

A theory about the current IPO market

Digital generated image of abstract multi colored curve chart on white background.

Image Credits: Getty Images/Andriy Onufriyenko

If you’re looking for insight into “why everything feels so damn silly this year” in the public markets, a post Alex wrote Thursday afternoon might offer some perspective.

As someone who pays close attention to late-stage venture markets, he’s identified eight factors that are pushing debuts for unicorns like Affirm and Poshmark into the stratosphere.

TL;DR? “Lots of demand, little supply, boom goes the price.”

Poshmark prices IPO above range as public markets continue to YOLO startups

Clothing resale marketplace Poshmark closed up more than 140% on its first trading day yesterday.

In Thursday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex noted that Poshmark boosted its valuation by selling 6.6 million shares at its IPO price, scooping up $277.2 million in the process.

Poshmark’s surge in trading is good news for its employees and stockholders, but it reflects poorly on “the venture-focused money people who we suppose know what they are talking about when it comes to equity in private companies,” he says.

Will startup valuations change given rising antitrust concerns?

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Image Credits: monsitj/Getty Images

This week, Visa announced it would drop its planned acquisition of Plaid after the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit to block it last fall.

Last week, Procter & Gamble called off its purchase of Billie, a women’s beauty products startup — in December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission sued to block that deal, too.

Once upon a time, the U.S. government took an arm’s-length approach to enforcing antitrust laws, but the tide has turned, says Managing Editor Danny Crichton.

Going forward, “antitrust won’t kill acquisitions in general, but it could prevent the buyers with the highest reserve prices from entering the fray.”

Dear Sophie: What’s the new minimum salary required for H-1B visa applicants?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I’m a grad student currently working on F-1 STEM OPT. The company I work for has indicated it will sponsor me for an H-1B visa this year.

I hear the random H-1B lottery will be replaced with a new system that selects H-1B candidates based on their salaries.

How will this new process work?

— Positive in Palo Alto

Venture capitalists react to Visa-Plaid deal meltdown

A homemade chocolate cookie with a bite and crumbs on a white background

Image Credits: Ana Maria Serrano/Getty Images

After news broke that Visa’s $5.3 billion purchase of API startup Plaid fell apart, Alex Wilhelm and Ron Miller interviewed several investors to get their reactions:

  • Anshu Sharma, co-founder and CEO, SkyflowAPI
  • Amy Cheetham, principal, Costanoa Ventures
  • Sheel Mohnot, co-founder, Better Tomorrow Ventures
  • Lucas Timberlake, partner, Fintech Ventures
  • Nico Berardi, founder and general partner, ANIMO Ventures
  • Allen Miller, VC, Oak HC/FT
  • Sri Muppidi, VC, Sierra Ventures
  • Christian Lassonde, VC, Impression Ventures

Plaid CEO touts new ‘clarity’ after failed Visa acquisition

Zach Perret, chief executive officer and co-founder of Plaid Technologies Inc., speaks during the Silicon Slopes Tech Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah, U.S., on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. The summit brings together the leading minds in the tech industry for two-days of keynote speakers, breakout sessions, and networking opportunities. Photographer: George Frey/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Image Credits: George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Alex Wilhelm interviewed Plaid CEO Zach Perret after the Visa acquisition was called off to learn more about his mindset and the company’s short-term plans.

Perret, who noted that the last few years have been a “roller coaster,” said the Visa deal was the right decision at the time, but going it alone is “once again” Plaid’s best way forward.

2021: A SPAC odyssey

In Tuesday’s edition of The Exchange, Alex Wilhelm took a closer look at blank-check offerings for digital asset marketplace Bakkt and personal finance platform SoFi.

To create a detailed analysis of the investor presentations for both offerings, he tried to answer two questions:

  1. Are special purpose acquisition companies a path to public markets for “potentially promising companies that lacked obvious, near-term growth stories?”
  2. Given the number of unicorns and the limited number of companies that can IPO at any given time, “maybe SPACS would help close the liquidity gap?”

Flexible VC: A new model for startups targeting profitability

12 ‘flexible VCs’ who operate where equity meets revenue share

Spotlit Multi Colored Coil Toy in the Dark.

Image Credits: MirageC/Getty Images

Growth-stage startups in search of funding have a new option: “flexible VC” investors.

An amalgam of revenue-based investment and traditional VC, investors who fall into this category let entrepreneurs “access immediate risk capital while preserving exit, growth trajectory and ownership optionality.”

In a comprehensive explainer, fund managers David Teten and Jamie Finney present different investment structures so founders can get a clear sense of how flexible VC compares to other venture capital models. In a follow-up post, they share a list of a dozen active investors who offer funding via these nontraditional routes.

These 5 VCs have high hopes for cannabis in 2021

Marijuana leaf on a yellow background.

Image Credits: Anton Petrus (opens in a new window)/Getty Images

For some consumers, “cannabis has always been essential,” writes Matt Burns, but once local governments allowed dispensaries to remain open during the pandemic, it signaled a shift in the regulatory environment and investors took notice.

Matt asked five VCs about where they think the industry is heading in 2021 and what advice they’re offering their portfolio companies:

This VC introduced Palantir’s first business hire to its earliest engineer, then his business took off

You might not know yet of XYZ Venture Capital, a four-year-old, San Francisco-based seed-stage venture firm, but many veterans of Palantir are surely aware of it. XYZ says it has already backed 22 startups whose founders came out of the data analysis company, including most notably, Anduril, Lucky Palmer’s defense tech startup. In fact, the founder of XYZ, Ross Fubini, says his firm wrote Anduril its first check.

It all dates back to a key introduction. Fubini is a Carnegie Mellon grad who cofounded an enterprise company, CubeTree, that a dozen years later, sold to SuccessFactors, which was itself acquired by SAP the next year, in 2011.

Then, like a lot of founders, he started writing checks.

First, Fubini linked up with Mitch Kapor, another software mogul turned investor and a friend of Fubini who bought him into his venture firm and taught him the ropes. During his one year spent with the outfit, Fubini says, he wrote seed checks into the digital care company Omada Health, the optimization platform Optimizely (acquired this fall), and LendUp, the payday loan company that was split into two businesses back in 2018.

From Kapor Capital, it was onto Canaan Partners as a venture partner and, just three years later, to Village Global, the early-stage venture firm that was founded in 2017 with the backing of prominent founders like Bill Gates and Reid Hoffman. (Fubini helped cofound the outfit with a handful of others.) At the same time, Fubini began raising his own pool of capital under the brand XYZ Ventures, eventually launching a $70 million fund.

Now he’s turning the enterprise into a bigger organization.

For starters, this year, XYZ closed its second fund with $80 million in capital commitments from what Fubini says is predominately institutional investors, and it has been investing actively. Fubini says the firm has already written checks to 30 different startups that range in size from $500,000 to $4 million in exchange for 12% to 20% ownership.

He also brought aboard a partner: Chauncey Kerr Hamilton, who spent more than five years as a partner operations manager with First Round and was looking for a new challenge when a mutual friend introduced her to Fubini. “I kept hearing about Ross from founders and other investors and we met for coffee, then we kept meeting week after week,” she says of their earlier conversations.

Hamilton says she realized over time that “we’re kindred spirits.” But she has also pushed Fubini to be more public for the sake of XYZ’s portfolio companies.

As a former projects editor at Wired before leaping into venture capital, she half-kiddingly refers to the “mystique” of XYZ Ventures, but she also wondered if it might be easier for founders to discuss their lead investor if they could point to more than Fubini’s LinkedIn page.

Certainly, it makes sense as XYZ widens its aperture beyond Palantir, which was itself long known for keeping a low profile and where Fubini’s relationship began when he introduced Palantir’s first business hire to its first engineer. The first, a personal friend, is today Palantir’s chief operating officer, Shyam Sankar; the second, Akash (“Aki”) Jain, a former colleague of Fubini, is now the company’s president.

“It’s the highest value thing I’ve done,” Fubini says of bringing the two together, which led to an early and lasting advisor role at the company, where he helped develop senior talent and work through challenges (and received advisor shares in return).

Indeed, he has since become a first call for some who spin out of the company. In addition to Anduril —  cofounded by former Palantir execs Matt Grimm, Trae Stephens, and Brian Schimpf — XYZ has more recently backed the the San Diego-based financial planning platform Mosaic (cofounder Bijan Moallemi, a former finance exec at Palantir).

It also wrote the first check for Saltbox, an Atlanta-based startup that’s building co-working units for founders needing warehouse space. Saltbox’s founder, Tyler Scriven, previously spent more than seven years as a chief of staff at Palantir.

Fubini and Hamilton stress that while a meaningful portion of XYZ’s capital has flowed into the “Palantir diaspora,” the company has other areas of interest, too, mostly enterprise related.

XYZ is very focused, for example, on fintech, betting on Bond Technologies, a company that helps brands and banks integrate their offerings. It has insure-tech investments, like the brokerage Newfront Insurance. And it is focused on security and counts among its portfolio companies, a now highly valued outfit that poorly handled a sexual harassment situation but seems to have survived it.

XYZ even made a direct-to-consumer bet recently, though Fubini and Hamilton aren’t talking about it just yet.

Mostly, they say, they’re focused on “trends we believe are exploding,” says Hamilton. Think video, she says. Think fintech infrastructure, she adds. “For fintech that’s building a new bank, we think three companies will replace the crappy software” that supports them, says Fubini.

As for how they wins deals against VCs when it comes to founders to whom they aren’t already connected in some way, Fubini says it’s not so complicated. Being “bizarrely honest” has proved helpful, he says. But also, he says, “If you’re good, and you work goddamn hard, you start seeing more stuff.”

African fintech startup Chipper Cash raises $30M backed by Jeff Bezos

African cross-border fintech startup Chipper Cash has raised a $30 million Series B funding round led by Ribbit Capital with participation of Bezos Expeditions — the personal VC fund of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.

Chipper Cash was founded in San Francisco in 2018 by Ugandan Ham Serunjogi and Ghanaian Maijid Moujaled. The company offers mobile-based, no fee, P2P payment services in seven countries: Ghana, Uganda, Nigeria, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa and Kenya.

Parallel to its P2P app, the startup also runs Chipper Checkout — a merchant-focused, fee-based payment product that generates the revenue to support Chipper Cash’s free mobile-money business. The company has scaled to 3 million users on its platform and processes an average of 80,000 transactions daily. In June 2020, Chipper Cash reached a monthly payments value of $100 million, according to CEO Ham Serunjogi .

As part of the Series B raise, the startup plans to expand its products and geographic scope. On the product side, that entails offering more business payment solutions, crypto-currency trading options, and investment services.

“We’ll always be a P2P financial transfer platform at our core. But we’ve had demand from our users to offer other value services…like purchasing cryptocurrency assets and making investments in stocks,” Serunjogi told TechCrunch on a call.

Image Credits: Chipper Cash

Chipper Cash has added beta dropdowns on its website and app to buy and sell Bitcoin and invest in U.S. stocks from Africa — the latter through a partnership with U.S. financial services company DriveWealth.

“We’ll launch [the stock product] in Nigeria first so Nigerians have the option to buy fractional stocks — Tesla shares, Apple shares or Amazon shares and others — through our app. We’ll expand into other countries thereafter,” said Serunjogi.

On the business financial services side, the startup plans to offer more API payments solutions. “We’ve been getting a lot of requests from people on our P2P platform, who also have business enterprises, to be able to collect payments for sale of goods,” explained Serunjogi.

Chipper Cash also plans to use its Series B financing for additional country expansion, which the company will announce by the end of 2021.

Jeff Bezos’s backing of Chipper Cash follows a recent string of events that has elevated the visibility of Africa’s startup scene. Over the past decade, the continent’s tech ecosystem has been one of the fastest growing in the world by year year-over-year expansion in venture capital and startup formation, concentrated in countries such as Nigeria, Kenya, and South Africa.

Africa Top VC Markets 2019

Image Credits: TechCrunch/Bryce Durbin

Bringing Africa’s large unbanked population and underbanked consumers and SMEs online has factored prominently. Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

As such, fintech has become Africa’s highest-funded tech sector, receiving the bulk of an estimated $2 billion in VC that went to startups in 2019. Even with the rapid venture funding growth over the last decade, Africa’s tech scene had been performance light, with only one known unicorn (e-commerce venture Jumia) a handful of exits, and no major public share offerings. That changed last year.

In April 2019, Jumia — backed by investors including Goldman Sachs and Mastercard — went public in an NYSE IPO. Later in the year, Nigerian fintech company Interswitch achieved unicorn status after a $200 million investment by Visa.

This year, Network International purchased East African payments startup DPO for $288 million and in August WorldRemit acquired Africa focused remittance company Sendwave for $500 million.

One of the more significant liquidity events in African tech occurred last month, when Stripe acquired Nigerian payment gateway startup Paystack for a reported $200 million.

In an email to TechCrunch, a spokesperson for Bezos Expeditions confirmed the fund’s investment in Chipper Cash, but declined to comment on further plans to back African startups. Per Crunchbase data, the investment would be the first in Africa for the fund. It’s worth noting Bezos Expeditions is not connected to Jeff Bezo’s hallmark business venture, Amazon.

For Chipper Cash, the $30 million Series B raise caps an event-filled two years for the San Francisco-based payments company and founders Ham Serunjogi and Maijid Moujaled. The two came to America for academics, met in Iowa while studying at Grinnell College and ventured out to Silicon Valley for stints in big tech: Facebook for Serunjogi and Flickr and Yahoo! for Moujaled.

Chipper Cash founders Ham Serunjogi (R) and Maijid Moujaled; Image Credits: Chipper Cash

The startup call beckoned and after launching Chipper Cash in 2018, the duo convinced 500 Startups and Liquid 2 Ventures — co-founded by American football legend Joe Montana — to back their company with seed funds. The startup expanded into Nigeria and Southern Africa in 2019, entered a payments partnership with Visa in April and raised a $13.8 million Series A in June.

Chipper Cash founder Ham Serunjogi believes the backing of his company by a notable tech figure, such as Jeff Bezos (the world’s richest person), has benefits beyond his venture.

“It’s a big deal when a world class investor like Bezos or Ribbit goes out of their sweet spot to a new area where they previously haven’t done investments,” he said. “Ultimately, the winner of those things happening is the African tech ecosystem overall, as it will bring more investment from firms of that caliber to African startups.”

This fintech-focused VC firm just closed a $75 million debut fund; backers “came out of the woodwork”

It’s no secret that a massive digital transformation is happening within financial services companies and amid the growing number of non-financial outfits that are also adding financial products to their offerings.

Still, Sheel Mohnot, who was formerly a general partner at the fintech fund of 500 Startups, and Jake Gibson, co-founder of personal finance startup NerdWallet, were a little taken aback by investor interest in their fintech-focused early-stage venture firm, Better Tomorrow Ventures, or BTV.

The outfit just closed its debut fund with $75 million in capital commitments, exceeding their original $60 million target, and even one of their earliest investors, Michael Kim of Cendana Capital, expresses surprise. “Remarkably, they raised a lot of it during Covid,” says Kim.

We talked yesterday with the pair, who have already invested in 13 startups with the fund’s capital and, they say, led nine of those deals.

TC: The good news is you’re focused on fintech. The bad news is that fintech valuations are going through the roof. How do you compete?

SM: It’s true. Everybody decided that what we’ve been talking about all along is in line with their beliefs too, after exits like Plaid and Credit Karma. Everybody became a fintech investor. And you’re right that that has led to an increase in valuations. To some extent that’s good, though. It’s meant that one of our companies has already had a pretty massive markup in part because of this phenomenon.

I also think we’re finding we’re able to win deals at better prices because we’re both founders. [Mohnot sold a company, FeeFinders, to Groupon 2012]. And all we do is fintech. So we tend to understand better what founders are building than generalist investors.

JG: I do think [these things] resonate in that we’ve been able to pay prices that we think make sense and to get the ownership we want. This isn’t the 4 on 16 game that others are playing (where VCs invest $4 million at a pre-money valuation and so own 20% of the company). I think all but one or two of our investments involve repeat founders who see the value of working with partners like us.

TC: How much ownership are you targeting for that first check — 10%?

JG: Right, 10%, though we’re really shooting for 12%.

TC: And will you turn to [special purpose vehicles] to maintain your stake if certain companies begin to gain traction?

JG: Yes, I’ve done quite a bit of SPVs in the past. I’ve invested in 90 companies as an angel investor and I think we’ve probably deployed more than $40 million between the two of us over the last five years leading up to BTV, including SPVs on top of angel investments. [Editor’s note: some of those earlier deals include Chipper Cash, Albert, Clear Cover, and Hippo.]

TC: What companies are in BTV’s portfolio? 

SM: None have been announced.

TC: Not one?!

SM: Nobody announces their seed rounds anymore. When I started my company, I wanted as much coverage as possible. I thought that was great for the company. Now founders don’t feel that way, with very few wanting to announce.

TC: But there are benefits to recruiting and getting on the radar or later-stage investors. Why eschew it altogether?

JG: Competition to some extent. They don’t want people to know what they’re working on because once you see a competitive seed round, you see a lot of other startups pop up to do the same thing. I also just think there’s not as much upside anymore to announcing, so most founders, when you’re seeing their seed round, it’s because they’re about to raise their Series A. The data you’re seeing in Pitchbook is typically six months [behind].

TC: Who are your investors?

SM: We have founders of fintech unicorns. We have a couple of fintech venture funds, fintech-focused GPs from later-stage funds, a few insurance companies, and Wall Street people who help us keep track on that side of the market, as well.

JG: We’re also backed by kind of a who’s who of fund of funds that back emerging managers: Cendana, Industry Ventures, Vintage [Investment Partners], Invesco.

TC: Did you know a lot of these investors before the pandemic shut down everything?

JG: Some, but we had to sell a lot of them cold over Zoom. We held a first close last December — that capital was from Cendana and individuals. We’d started conversations with other institutions at that point but everyone said it would take a while and that institutions won’t come until you raise your second fund, so we didn’t have high hopes that we’d get a lot of them on board.

In fact, when March and April hit, we figured we’d have to raise a smaller fund. But then things re-opened, people got back to work, and we were able to close institutions we’d started conversations with. Then people came out of the woodwork, because tech got hot fast but especially fintech, with all the IPO and M&A activity.  People said, ‘We want fintech exposure now, and we want to invest in a fintech-focused fund, and you’re the only game in town.’

TC: What do you need to see to write a check?

JG: Our thesis is that everything is fintech, so we invest across the board: payments, lending, banking, real estate, insurance, b2b, consumer — anything that’s ostensibly fintech. We think a lot of companies that aren’t typically fintech today will look like fintech later, with more and more tech platforms that get into financial services. We’re investing at the pre-seed and seed stage but also meeting with founders at the idea stage, sometimes to talk them out of starting another neobank. [Laughs.]

TC: Do you? Every time I wonder how many neobanks make sense in this world, an investor tells me that if only their startup can get .00001% of the market, they’ll have a multibillion company on their hands.

JG: No. Most will never figure out how to get profitable. A lot of investors like to argue that with neobanks, you lose money on every trade but you make it up in volume. Yet very few have a path to getting to positive economics. You need huge scale to get to profitability, and that means you have to spend a ton of venture capital on marketing. More, a lot are going after audiences that are already over-served by traditional financial products.

SM: The same is true for “Plaid for X” type companies. After the announcement of Plaid’s exit — or what we all thought was Plaid’s exit — we looked at five companies, many of them hitting on the same ideas and duking it out for the same customers.

TC: Will the fact that the DOJ is suing to block Plaid’s sale to Visa, citing Visa’s monopoly power, have a chilling effect?

JG: We haven’t seen that. A lot of people are discounting that complaint and thinking it will get out of this in the end via SPAC. The company was doing north of $100 million in revenue, and given where these businesses trade, Plaid could go public and see an amazingly successful outcome.

It’s not just Plaid, by the way. There are now 40 SPACs that are focused on fintech alone. Just think about the outcomes that have to happen in the next two years.

Mirror founder Brynn Putnam on life with Lululemon — and whether or not she sold too soon

Brynn Putnam has a lot to feel great about. A Harvard grad and former professional ballet dancer who opened the first of what have become three high-intensity fitness studios in New York, she then launched a second business in 2016 when — while pregnant with her son — she was exercising at home and couldn’t find a natural way watch a class on her laptop or phone. Her big idea: to install mirrored screens in users’ homes that are roughly eight square feet and through which they can exercise to all manner of streamed and on-demand exercise classes, paying a monthly subscription of just $39 per month.

If you’ve followed the home fitness craze, you already know these Mirrors quickly took off with celebrities, who gushed about the product on social media. Putnam’s company also attracted roughly $75 million in venture funding across several fast rounds. Indeed, by the end of last year, people had bought  “tens of thousands” of Mirrors, according to Putnam, and she was beginning to envision Mirrors as content portals that might feature fashion, enable doctors’ visits, and bring both kids’ classes and therapy into users’ homes. As she told The Atlantic back in January, “We view ourselves as the third screen in people’s homes.”

Then, in June, the company revealed it had sold for $500 million in cash — including a $50 million earn-out — to the athleisure company Lululemon. For Putnam, the deal was too compelling, allowing her to secure the future of her company, which continues to run as a subsidiary. Investors might have liked it, too, given that it meant a fast return on their investment, not to mention that Mirror had steep competition, including from Peloton, a growing giant in the home fitness market.

The deal seems to be clicking. Just today, Lululemon announced that it is installing Mirrors in 18 of its now 506 U.S. locations, including in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Lulemon hasn’t started selling products directly through Mirror yet, but “shoppable content” is “certainly on our radar” too, says Putnam. Meanwhile, Mirror’s revenues, expected earlier this year to reach $100 million, are now on target to surpass $150 million in revenue, she says.

Still, as the pandemic has raged on, it’s easy to wonder what the young company might have grown into given the amount of time that people and their children are spending at home and in front of their screens. Late last week, we put the question to Putnam, who continues to manage a team of 125 people. Our chat, lightly edited, follows. You can listen to the full conversation here.

TC: People who follow the company know why you started Mirror, but how, exactly, did you start Mirror?

BP: In the case of Mirror, I had this concept for the product, and then really, the first step was buying a Raspberry Pi, a piece of one-way glass, and an Android tablet, and assembling it in my in my kitchen to see if this idea in my mind would be able to work and come to life.

TC: Did you take any coding classes? People might not imagine that a former ballet performer with a chain of fitness studios would put something together like that in her kitchen.

BP: No, I’ve been very fortunate to have a husband who has a bit of a development background. And so he helped me to put the first little bit of code into the Mirror and just really ensure that the concept I had in my mind could be brought to life. And then from there, obviously, over time, we hired a team.

TC: Are they manufactured in the States? In China? How did you start figuring out how to put those pieces together?

BP: I had heard a lot of hardware horror stories about teams working with design agencies to design these beautiful products and who, by the time they actually got to manufacturing, found out that something wasn’t feasible about their design when it came to commercialization or just running out of money in the process. So I actually went backwards. I drew a sketch on a napkin and did a small set of bullets of the things that I thought were really just crucial to make the product a success. And then I went to find factories in China that were familiar with digital signage, working with large pieces of glass, large mirrors, learned about their systems and processes, and then brought it back to the U.S. to a local manufacturer here on the East Coast to refine into a prototype. And then we eventually moved to Mexico when we were ready to scale.

TC: The mirror is about $1,500 dollars. How did you go about winning the trust of consumers that would lead them to make such a sizable investment?

BP: When you’re when you’re building an innovation product, you can’t really compete on specs and features like you do with phones or laptops. So you’re really building building a brand, which means that you’re telling stories. And in our case, we spent a lot of time, from the very early days, really imagining the life of our members and figuring out how to craft that story and tell that story.

And then we were fortunate early on to have members fall in love with the product. And then they started to tell our story for us. So once you have that customer flywheel that starts to kick in, your job becomes much easier.

TC: You had actors, celebrities, designers, and social media influencers talking about their Mirrors. Was it just a matter of sending it off to a few people who started getting online and sharing [their enthusiasm for the product] with their followers? Was it that simple?

BP: We knew that we wanted to make big bets early on to make the Mirror brand seem larger and more established than it was, because it’s a premium product in a new category. And we wanted people to trust in us and the brand. And so we did things like out-of-home advertisements quite early, we moved into television quite early, and we also did some very strategic early celebrity placements. But the way in which the celebrity placements grew and expanded was very much not intended and was just kind of a fascinating early example of the network effects of the product. One celebrity would get it and then another would see it in their home. Or they would see it in their stylist’s home or their agent’s home. And it spread through that community very, very quickly in one of the earliest examples of member love for us.

TC: How did you convince early adopters that your business had staying power, and were investors persuaded as quickly?

BP: Trying to assure customers that they wouldn’t invest in this Mirror, and then the company would go out of business in a few years and they would be they’d be left with a piece of hardware but no access to the content or the community that they’d fallen in love with was very important. It was one of the factors in deciding to partner with Lululemon and have the incredible brand stability and love of such a premium global brand.

In terms of fundraising, I think we were we were really fortunate to have a product that once you saw it, you got it and fell in love with it in a market that was clearly big and growing, with a really good competitive data point in Peloton.

TC: Who started that conversation with Lululemon? Were you talking to Peloton and other potential acquirers?

BP: I’ve been really fortunate to actually work with Lululemon for my entire fitness career. There was a team of Lululemon educators here in New York who were the very first clients of my studio business, and frankly, in many ways were responsible for helping that business to grow and thrive and to give me confidence as a first-time small business owner. Then we reconnected with Lululemon about a year before the acquisition as an investor; they made a small minority investment in the company. And we began to work together on various projects . . .From there, really, the partnership just grew. Mirror was not for sale. We were not looking for an acquirer. But it’s really your responsibility as a founder to always be weighing your vision, your responsibility to your team and your responsibility to your shareholders. And so when the opportunity presented itself — before COVID actually — it felt like really just too good an opportunity to pass up.

TC: But you also you had ambitions of turning this into a much broader content portal where you would maybe have doctor visits and other things, which I would think won’t happen now.

BP: The vision for Mirror very much remains the same and we’re excited to continue to expand the types of content that we offer via the Mirror platform, really with an eye toward any type of immersive experience that makes you a better version of yourself. So I think you will see a broader range of content from us in the coming years.

TC: You’ve mention in the past as a selling point that Mirror is a product that’s used by families. Is there children’s programming or is that coming soon?

BP I think one of the things that surprised us but delighted us about Mirror has been the number of households that have over two members. More than 65% of our households have over two members, which means that you’re often getting younger members of the household involved. I do think that is a function of both the versatility of the platform and the fact that multiple people can participate in more content. At the same time, we’ve actually seen the number of users under 20 grow about 5x during the COVID months as young adults have returned home to be with their their families or teenagers have started doing remote schooling. So we’ve leaned into that with what we call “family fun” content that’s designed to be performed by the whole family together.

TC: Do you see a secondary market for refurbished Mirrors in the future? Will there be a second version, if there isn’t already?

BP: We’ll obviously continue to to refine the hardware over time, but the real focus of the business is through improving the content, community and experience, and so for us — unlike Apple, where the goal is to really release a new model every year and continue to have folks upgrade the hardware — we focus on providing updates via the software and the content, so that we’re continuing to add value onto the baseline experience.

TC: What can people look forward to on this front?

BP: We’re taking a major step toward  building a connected community through our community feature set launching this holiday, including a community feature that enables members to see and communicate with each other and their instructor; face offs that allow members to compete head-to-head against another member of the community and earn points as you hit your target heart rate zones; and friending, so you can find and follow your friends in the Mirror community to share your favorite workouts, join programs together and cheer each other on.

TC: Are you still selling Mirrors to hotels and businesses outside of Lululemon?

BP: We do have B2B relationships. You can find mirrors in hotels, small gyms, buildings, residences, and then obviously direct-to-consumer through the Mirror website, the Lululemon website, and both of our [offline] stores.

TC: When you look at Peloton now and how its stock has completely exploded this year,  do you think ever that you should have hung on a little longer? Do you ever think ‘maybe I sold too soon?’

I’ve woken up every day really for my entire career kind of focused on the same mission but trying to solve the problem and achieve my vision and in different ways. Which is: I really believe that confidence in your own skin is the foundation of a good and happy life. And fitness is an incredible tool for building that confidence that carries over into your personal relationships, your work performance, your friendships. And so for me, that’s always really been the North Star, which is, ‘How do we get more Mirrors into more homes and provide more access to to that self confidence?’ So I spend very little time comparing to competitors and much more time focused on our members’ needs and how to meet them.

Long concerned about climate change, VC Steve Westly is feeling electrified

A former controller and CFO of the state of California, Steve Westly is passionate about government. The onetime eBay exec and early Tesla board member has also been a proponent of clean energy for roughly 30 years, so he’s feeling optimistic right now, with former U.S. VP Joe Biden amassing a growing number of electoral votes and widening his leading Donald Trump as he inches toward an election win.

We talked earlier today with Westly, who founded the venture firm The Westly Group 13 years ago and which is currently raising up to $250 million for a fourth fund, according to SEC paperwork filed earlier this week. We wanted to know whether he thinks Biden will be able to achieve any part of his climate plan in the likely scenario that Republicans continue to control the Senate. We also wondered what he makes of VCs leaving California, and where he sees the most opportunities right now. We kicked off our conversation with the news of the day. Our chat has been edited lightly for length.

TC: As we talk, Joe Biden looks to be on the cusp of winning the U.S. presidential election while Donald Trump continues to tweet about taking his claims about a rigged election to the Supreme Court. Are you concerned about that rhetoric, given that Republicans don’t seem to be pushing back against it?

SW: You have to be worried about such things, but I think most people are looking at the big picture. This is not going to be a 270 to 268 [electoral college] vote. Biden might get 290 to 306 [electoral votes]. It’s a decisive difference. He also received more than 4 million more [popular] votes than Trump. The people have spoken, and they’ve spoken loudly.

There are rules in most states that say if you aren’t within a percent or half a percent — i think [Biden has a] 1.6% [advantage] in Nevada and 1.4% [lead in] Arizona right now — there won’t be a recount. I think his lead in Pennsylvania will rise to 100,000, so the window [for a Trump win] is diminishing pretty quickly.

I am also seeing more Republican officials, like Senator Bob Toomey of Pennsylvania, saying that ‘we count the votes, we follow the rules, what the president is doing is irresponsible, and it’s time to move on.’

TC: Has the Westly Group’s mandate has changed over time? When the firm was first formed, it was one of the only pure ‘cleantech’ venture firms.

SW: Sustainable energy has become the new hot thing and it makes me laugh because I’ve been involved in energy for 30 years [including in government roles]. I wrote two books on the future of energy in the ‘80s, so I’ve been at this a bit.

Our thesis continues to be that there are revolutions occurring in smart energy, mobility and smart buildings, and they are being driven by renewable energy, which costs less than carbon-based fuels in virtually every part of the world today, from the U.S. to India to Africa. That’s not a political statement; it’s a fact.

Fully 70% of new energy coming online now is sustainable, so people are smart to pay attention to that. Because costs are going down and the cost of storage is going down precipitously — the cost of lithium ion batteries came down so much that we reached an inflection point in 2018, and the cost of a kilowatt per hour costs less than $150 now  — everybody is going electric.

Carmakers haven’t wanted to say this publicly because it freaks out shareholders, but we’re headed toward a world where the majority of energy will be sustainable in the near future and most of the cars will be electric, and that will happen a lot faster than people think.

Buildings play a key role, too, because they’ve historically been dumb; now they’re digitized buildings with power storage, and soon every home, building, hospital, and university [will run off digitized energy] and you‘ll see arbitrage happening continuously between buildings, homes, and vehicles, where people won’t pay a penny for electricity or gasoline every again. A decade ago when I said this, people thought I was nuts, but now California requires that all newly constructed homes must have solar panels.

TC: What does all this lost revenue mean for PG&E, the company that powers most of Northern California and whose infrastructure is already crumbling and causing wildfires?

They should follow the lead of smart utilities like Duke [a Westly Group investor] and European companies that are moving beyond traditional revenue streams to new revenue streams. Every utility today has a menu, and if yours only features electricity ions and gas molecules, that’s not a good menu. It’s like saying we have soup and meat, period. These companies should have a special menu for residential customers and a different menu for commercial and industrial customers and they should be thinking about installing power walls and putting solar on roofs; they should be thinking long-term contracts, like even financing electric vehicles.

TC: PG&E is in a bad spot, but California may be, too, as a lot of people leave the Bay Area, citing taxes, among other reasons. Are you worried about a broader movement out of the state and what it could mean?

SW: This is the big question of the next 10 years. California is about to face a wall of debt. We’ve gone from a surplus to what could be a $40 billion deficit in a very short period [because of COVID-19].

This year will be covered a little because there’s still an active IPO market [as capital gains are taxed the same as income, making the state heavily dependent on the stock market]. But there are 12.6 million Americans out of work, and a disproportionate number of them are in California, so likely a Democrat-controlled legislature will try and start to pass a series of taxes.

Prop 15 [which would have taxed properties based on their current market value rather than purchase price and would have increased property taxes on commercial properties] failed, so this will be an ongoing issue. Still, if we continue to raise taxes, we run the risk of losing entrepreneurs to other states. I know firsthand many friends who have moved to Austin. We need to have a balanced approach to managing out expenses without pushing people off to other states.

TC: Any bright ideas on that front?

SW: I was the CFO of California, and your option beside taxing more is spending less. Those are the choices.

Longer term, we need a major overhaul of the tax system so we aren’t aren’t so dependent on capital gains, which is a roller coaster system where when you hit a trough in the market, you have to go and lay off a bunch of teachers, then try to hire them back when the economy is better.

TC: It’s looking like Joe Biden is going to win the election, but there’s also a strong chance that he’ll be working with a Republican-controlled Senate. Meanwhile, climate change was not in the top five concerns for voters of either party. Does this can get kicked down the road again?

No, it just means they’ll have to work together and that he’ll have to go directly to the issues that are most popular to get them through.

Trump had no clue that sustainable energy is immensely popular today and that some of the states that used to block green initiatives — including Texas, North Dakota, and South Dakota — are increasingly becoming wind and solar powers, such that their senators who used to say, ‘natural gas forever’ are also saying that solar and wind are employing more and more people in their states.

TC: What do you see as first steps?

SW: Biden will bring the U.S. back into the Paris climate agreement. You’ll also see him at the front of this global movement toward the electrification of everything, and there will be support for EVs and support for sustainable energy.

You’ll also see some sort of penalties or restrictions on carbon-based fuels because of the increased data we have that carbon in the atmosphere is causing public health problems, reducing air quality and that large insurance companies are having to pay for [these things]. Now that Munich Re and others say, ‘We pretty much know what the cost is, and we’re charging you back,’ the government can use that data to charge carbon producers appropriately.

TC: Traditional energy companies– the biggest carbon emitters — say they’ve resolved to address this problem. Do you think that’s mostly optics?

SW: A lot is optics, but it’s also a realization that you either change your business model or you go down with the ship. You don’t want to take the Kodak approach. You want to be Apple and reinvent yourself.

VC Seth Bannon on how a Biden administration might best support climate startups

It’s too soon to know who will win the U.S. election tomorrow. Tomorrow may even be too soon to know who wins the election. But it’s always a good time to talk with investors about how they’re thinking about the future, and some can’t help but ponder the possibilities if Joe Biden wins the race.

Among these are venture capitalists who are focused on climate change and who are excited by the prospect of a president who sees climate change as an existential threat, especially after the work of the Trump administration, which has officially reversed, rolled back, or revoked 70 environmental rules and regulations over the last four years.

Seth Bannon, whose seed-stage venture firm Fifty Years is focused on impact investing, is among those willing to ponder a President Biden and how his administration could most effectively boost climate tech while simultaneously dealing with COVID-19 and the economy. We had a quick chat about it earlier today.

TC: Joe Biden has a detailed climate plan. What do you think of it?

SB: The overarching way the Biden campaign has said his administration would approach climate change is pretty fantastic. It would invest heavily in R&D so we have great technological climate solutions, then use the scale of government to get technologies into the world. It wants to invest $400 billion in better, cheaper batteries for electrification, $300 billion for cleaner power plants — it’s a very exciting way of going about it. It’s a modern economic job creation plan, and as a Silicon Valley builder, it’s exactly what you’d want to see. It’s not simply about passing more regulations, saying ‘you can’t do this or that.’ It’s predominately about building solutions that will get us out of this mess.

TC: If you were to talk directly with his team, what are some pieces of advice you might offer, based on the plan and what you see in your day-to-day work?

SB: It calls for the creation of an ARPA-C, a new federal agency for low-carbon energy technologies that would be modeled after two agencies that exist: DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and ARPA-E, for Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy.

I would advise that they give that budget 10x DARPA’s budget, because the scale of this threat is 10x the threat we face from any foreign adversary.

I’d also model the way it works with startups after the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, where companies can apply for small grants — say $125,000 to $250,000 — and if they meet milestones and show the government data, maybe they’re given $1.5 million more. It would be a fantastic accelerant in the space and would make a huge amount of money available to companies investing in pure R&D to figure out carbon capture and using biology to decarbonize industries, using biology to move us away from animal agriculture — all these unsolved technological problems, and government money can be catalyst for getting these things off the ground.

Even more impactful would be if the government said to XYZ startup, ‘Here’s $250,000, and if you meet milestones, we’ll give you $3 million, and if you meet more milestones, we’ll buy your tech.’ Risk is technical, but there’s market risk, too. If the government says, ‘We’ll be your first customer,’ it could go a long way in getting the private market more interested.

TC: If Biden were to be elected, he’d obviously have to prioritize controlling this pandemic and getting Americans back to work. Practically speaking, what would he have time left to tackle and in what order?

SB: It should be an all-of-the-above approach. The exciting thing about climate tech is that there are a lot of different approaches to decarbonizing many industries and removing what’s in the environment. We have [in our portfolio] companies that decarbonizing food, fashion, data storage, transportation, chemicals, mining. Each component of the global economy only contributes 5% to 10% max [to greenhouse gas emissions], so we have to focus on decarbonizing a whole bunch of industries. If I had to choose a few to start, I’d say food, transportation, and energy.

TC: And if Trump gets re-elected? 

SB: If Trump gets reelected, there’s no movement on climate tech, which is unfortunate. If you look at European countries, even conservative factions are starting to realize that investing in climate tech helps you to be more competitive. Even if you don’t believe in it, a lot of sustainability companies are building better products, more cheaply, period. But this administration just doesn’t see it that way and if he gets re-elected, a lot of the regulations we have on the books will continue to get torn away.

TC: You worked briefly in politics, as an operations director for Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont and an organizer for Obama presidential campaign. How are you feeling about tomorrow?

SB: As we sail into things, I feel pretty good. It’s not over until it’s over, but I feel pretty optimistic about where we are. I think the country is ready to heal.

Former Facebook and Pinterest exec Tim Kendall traces “extractive business models” to VCs

Last month, former Facebook and Pinterest executive Tim Kendall told Congress during a House hearing on the dangers of social media that Facebook made its products so addictive because its ad-driven business model relies on people paying attention to its product longer every day. He said much the same in the Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” in which Kendall — along with numerous other prominent early employees of big tech companies — warns of the threat that Facebook and others pose to modern society.

Kendall — who today runs Moment, an app that helps users monitor device habits and reinforces positive screen-time behavior — isn’t done campaigning against his former employer yet. On Friday morning, we talked with him about the FTC inching closer to filing an antitrust lawsuit against Facebook for its market power in social networking; what he thinks of the DOJ’s separate antitrust lawsuit against Google, filed last Tuesday; and how venture capital contributed to the “unnatural” ways the companies have commanded our attention — and advertisers’ dollars along with it.

Our conversation has been excerpted. You can hear the full conversation here.

TC: Like everyone else, you wrestle with addiction to the apps on your phone. At what point did you decide that you wanted to take a more public role in helping to identify the problem and potentially help solve it.

TK:  I’ve always been interested in willpower, and the various things that weaken it. I have addiction in various parts of my family and extended family, and I’ve seen up close substance abuse, drug abuse. And as I started to look at this problem, it felt really similar. It’s the same shape and size as being addicted to drugs or having a behavioral addiction to food or shopping. But it didn’t seem like anyone was treating this with the same gravity.

TC: What has been the reaction of your colleagues to you turning the tables on this industry?

TK: It has evolved in the sense that, at the beginning of this, I was kinder to Facebook. When I started talking publicly about my work with Moment, I said, ‘Look, I think that those folks are focused on the right issues. And I think they’re going to solve the problem.’ And I was out there throughout 2018, saying that. Now I’ve gotten a lot more vocal [about the fact that] I don’t think they’re doing enough. And I don’t think it’s happening quickly enough. I think they’re absolutely negligent. And I think the negligence is really about not fully and accurately understanding what their platforms are doing to individuals and what their platforms are doing to society. I just do not think they have their arms around it in a complete way.

Is that deliberate? Is that because they’re delusional? I don’t know. But I know that the impact is very serious. And they are not aligned with the rest of us in terms of how severe and significant that impact is.

I think everyone within Facebook has confirmation bias, probably in the same way that I have confirmation bias. I am picking out the family at the restaurant that’s not looking at each other and staring at their phones and thinking, ‘Look at Facebook, it’s ruining families.’ That’s my confirmation bias. I think their confirmation bias is ‘There’s so much good that Facebook has done and is doing for the world.’ I can’t dispute that, and I suspect that the leaders there are looking to those cases more often and dismissing the severity of the cases that we talk about, [including] arguably tipping the election in 2016, propagating conspiracy theories, propagating misinformation.

TC: Do you think that Facebook has to be regulated the FTC?

TK: I think that something has to change. What I would really like to see is the leaders of government all over the world, the consumers that really care about this issue, and then the leaders of the company get together and maybe at the start it’s just a discussion about where we are. But if we could just agree on the common set of facts of the situation that we’re in, and the impact that these platforms are having on our world, if we could just get some alignment in a non-adversarial dynamic, I believe that there is a path whereby [all three can] come together and say, ‘Look, this doesn’t work. The business model is incongruent with the long-term well-being of society, and therefore —  not unlike how fossil fuels are incongruent with the long-term prospects for Earth, we need to have a reckoning and then create and a path out of it.’

Strict regulation that’s adversarial, I’m not sure is going to solve the problem. And it’s just going to be a drawn-out battle whereby more individuals are going to get sick [from addiction to their phones], and [companies like Facebook are] going to continue to wreak havoc on society.

TC: If this antitrust action is not necessarily the answer, what potentially could be on the regulatory front, assuming these three are not going to come together on their own?

TK: Congress and the Senate are looking really closely at Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that allows — and has allowed since it got put in place in 1996 — platforms like Google and Facebook to operate in a very different way than your traditional media company does, in that they’re not liable for the content that shows up on their network.

That seemed like a great idea in 1996. And it did foster a lot of innovation because these bulletin board and portal-ike services were able to grow unabated as they didn’t have to deal with the liability issues on every piece of content that got posted on their platform. But you fast forward to today, it sure seems like one of the ways that we could solve misinformation and conspiracy theories and this tribalism that seems to take root by virtue of the social networks.

If you rewind five or 10 years ago, the issue that really plagued Facebook and to a lesser extent, Google, was privacy. And the government threatened Facebook again and again and again, and it never did anything about it. And finally, in 2019, it assessed a $5 billion fine and then ongoing penalties beyond that  for issues around privacy. And it’s interesting. It’s been a year since those were put in place, and we haven’t had any issues around privacy with Facebook.

TC: You were tasked with developing Facebook’s ad-driven business and coming up with a way for Pinterest to monetize its users. As someone who understands advertising as well as you do, what do you think about this case that the DOJ has brought against Google. What’s your hot take?

TK: If you’re trying to start an online business, and you want to monetize that business through advertising, it’s not impossible, but it is an incredibly steep uphill battle.

Pinterest ultimately broke through when I was president of Pinterest and working on their revenue business. But the dominance of both Google and Facebook within advertising makes it really difficult for new entrants. The advertisers don’t want to buy from you because they basically can get to anyone they want in a very effective way through Google and Facebook. And so what do they need Pinterest for? What do they need Snap for? Why do they need XYZZ startup tomorrow?

That’s on the advertising side. On the search side, Google has been stifling competition for years, and I mean that less in terms of allowing new entrants into search — although the government may be asserting that. I actually mean it in terms of content providers and publishers. They’ve been stifling Yelp for years. They’ve been basically trying to create these universal search boxes that provide the same local information that Yelp does. [Yelp] shows up organically  when I search for sandwich shops in downtown San Mateo, but then [Google puts] their own stuff above it and push it down to create a wedge to hurt Yelp’s business so that [Google] can support and build up their own local business. That’s anti-competitive.

TC: Along with running Moment, you’ve been talking with startups that are addressing some of the issues we’re seeing right now, including startups that tell you if a news outlet is left- and right-leaning so you’re aware of any biases ahead of time. Would you ever raise a fund? We’re starting to see these solo GPs raise pretty enormous first-time funds and people seemingly just as happily entrust their money to you.

TK. I think traditional venture capital, with traditional limited partners, and the typical timeframe of seven years from when the money goes in and the money needs to come out, created some of the problems that we have today. I think that companies are put in a position, once they take traditional venture capital, to do unnatural things and grow in unnatural ways. Absolutely the social networks that took venture capital felt the pressure at the board level from traditional venture capitalists to grow the user base faster and monetize it more quickly. And all those things led to this extractive business model that we’re looking at today with a critical eye and saying, ‘Oh, whoops, maybe this business model is creating an outcome that we don’t really like.’

If I ever took outside money to do more serious professional-grade investing, I would only take it from wealthy individuals and there would be an explicit term that basically said, ‘There’s no time horizon. You don’t get your money back in seven to 10 years necessarily.’ I think that’s the criteria you need to have if you’re really going to do investing in a way that doesn’t contribute to the problems and misaligned incentives that we’re dealing with today.

Yale may have just turned institutional investing on its head with a new diversity edict

It could be the long-awaited turning point in the world of venture capital and beyond. Yale, whose $32 billion endowment has been led since 1985 by the legendary investor David Swensen, just let its 70 U.S. money managers across a variety of asset classes know that for the school, diversity has now moved front and center.

According to the WSJ, Swensen has told the firms that from here on out, they will be measured annually on their progress in increasing the diversity of their investment staff, from hiring to training to mentoring to their retention of women and minorities.

Those that show little improvement may see the prestigious university pull its money, Swensen tells the outlet.

It’s hard to overstate the move’s significance. Though Yale’s endowment saw atypically poor performance last year, Swensen, at 66, is among the most highly regarded money managers in the world, growing Yale’s endowment from $1 billion when he joined as a 31-year-old former grad student of the school, to the second-largest school endowment in the country after Harvard, which currently manages $40 billion.

Credited for developing the so-called Yale Model, which is short on public equities and long on commitments to venture shops, private equity funds, hedge funds, and international investments, Swensen has inspired legions of other endowment managers, many of whom worked for him previously, including the current endowment heads of Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania.

It isn’t a stretch to imagine these managers and many others will again follow Swensen’s decision, one that was inspired by the growing diversity with Yale itself. Should such metrics become standard, they could dramatically change the stubbornly intractable world of money management, which remains mostly white and mostly male.

Indeed, while the dearth of woman and minorities within the ranks of venture firms may not be news to readers, a 2019 study commissioned by the Knight Foundation and cited by the WSJ underscores how big an issue it remains across asset classes. Women- and minority-owned firms held less than 1% of assets managed by mutual funds, hedge funds, private-equity funds and real-estate funds in 2017, even though their performance was on a par with such firms.

As for why Swensen didn’t write this letter much sooner to universe of fund managers backed by Yale, Swensen tells that WSJ that he has long talked about diversity with them but that he held off on asking for systematic changes owing to a belief, in part, that there were not enough diverse candidates entering into asset management.

Inspired by the Black Lives Movement that gained momentum this spring, he decided it was time to take the leap anyway.

As for that perceived pipeline concern, fund managers will have to figure it out. For his part, according to the WSJ, Swensen offered a suggestion to those same U.S. managers. He proposed that they forget the similar resumes for which they’ve long looked and consider recruiting directly from college campuses.

10 Zurich-area investors on Switzerland’s 2020 startup outlook

European entrepreneurs who want to launch startups could do worse than Switzerland.

In a report analyzing Europe’s general economic health, cost of doing business, business environment and labor force quality, analysts looked for highly educated populations, strong economies, healthy business environments and relatively low costs for conducting business. Switzerland ended up ranking third out of 31 European nations, according to Nimblefins. (Germany and the UK came out first and second, respectively).

According to official estimates, the number of new Swiss startups has skyrocketed by 700% since 1996. Zurich tends to take the lion’s share, as the city’s embrace of startups has jump-started development, although Geneva and Lausanne are also hotspots.

As well as traditional software engineering startups, Switzerland’s largest city boasts a startup culture that emphasizes life sciences, mechanical engineering and robotics. Compared to other European countries, Switzerland has a low regulatory burden and a well-educated, highly qualified workforce. Google’s largest R&D center outside of the United States is in Zurich.

But it’s also one of the more expensive places to start a business, due to its high cost of living, salary expectations and relatively small labor market. Native startups will need 25,000 Swiss Francs to open an LLC and 50,000 more to incorporate. While they can withdraw those funds from the business the next day, local founders must still secure decent backing to even begin the work.

This means Switzerland has gained a reputation as a place to startup — and a place to relocate, which is something quite different. It’s one reason why the region is home to many fintech businesses born elsewhere that need proximity to a large banking ecosystem, as well as the blockchain/crypto crowd, which have found a highly amenable regulatory environment in Zug, right next door to Zurich. Zurich/Zug’s “Crypto Valley” is a global blockchain hotspot and is home to, among others, the Ethereum Foundation.

Lawyers and accountants tend to err on the conservative side, leading to a low failure rate of businesses but less “moonshot innovation,” shall we say.

But in recent years, corporate docs are being drawn up in English to facilitate communication both inside Switzerland’s various language regions and foreign capital, and investment documentation is modeled after the U.S.

Ten years ago startups were unusual. Today, pitch competitions, incubators, accelerators, VCs and angel groups proliferate.

The country’s Federal Commission for Technology and Innovation (KTI) supports CTI-Startup and CTI-Invest, providing startups with investment and support. Venture Kick was launched in 2007 with the vision to double the number of spin-offs from Swiss universities and draws from a jury of more than 150 leading startup experts in Switzerland. It grants up to CHF 130,000 per company. Fundraising platforms such as Investiere have boosted the angel community support of early funding rounds.

Swiss companies, like almost all European companies, tend to raise lower early-stage rounds than U.S. ones. A CHF 1-2 million Series A or a CHF 5 million Series B investment is common. This has meant smaller exits, and thus less development for the ecosystem.

These are the investors we interviewed:

 

Jasmin Heimann, partner, Ringier Digital Ventures

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
Consumer-facing startups with first revenues.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
AirConsole — a cloud-gaming platform where you don’t need a console and can play with all your friends and family.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
I really wish that the business case for social and ecological startups will finally be proven (kind of like Oatly showed with the Blackstone investment). I also think that femtech is a hyped category but funding as well as renown exits are still missing.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
I am looking for easy, scalable solutions with a great team.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
I think the whole scooter/mobility space is super hyped but also super capital intensive so I think to compete in this market at this stage is hard. I also think that the whole edtech space is an important area of investment, but there are already quite a lot of players and it oftentimes requires cooperation with governments and schools, which makes it much more difficult to operate in. Lastly, I don’t get why people still start fitness startups as I feel like the market has reached its limits.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
Switzerland makes — maximum — half of our investments. We are also interested in Germany and Austria as well as the Nordics.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Zurich and Lausanne are for sure the most exciting cities, just because they host great engineering universities. Berne is still lagging behind but I am hoping to see some more startups emerging from there, especially in the medtech industry.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Overall, Switzerland is a great market for a startup to be in — although small, buying power is huge! So investors should always keep this in mind when thinking about coming to Switzerland. The startup scene is pretty small and well connected, so it helps to get access through somebody already familiar with the space. Unfortunately for us, typical B2C cases are rather scarce.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
I think it is hard to make any kind of predictions. But on the one hand, I could see this happening. On the other hand, I also think that the magic of cities is that there are serendipity moments where you can find your co-founder at a random networking dinner or come across an idea for a new venture while talking to a stranger. These moments will most likely be much harder to encounter now and in the next couple of months.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
I think travel is a big question mark still. The same goes for luxury goods, as people are more worried about the economic situation they are in. On the other hand, remote work has seen a surge in investments. Also sustainability will hopefully be put back on the agenda.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Not much. I think we allocated a bit more for the existing portfolio but otherwise we continue to look at and discuss the best cases. The biggest worries are the uncertainties about [what] the future might look like and the related planning. We tell them to first and foremost secure cash flow.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Totally! Some portfolio companies have really profited from the crisis, especially our subscription-based models that offer a variety of different options to spend time at home. The challenge now is to keep up the momentum after the lockdown.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
What gives me hope is to see that people find ways to still work together — the amount of online events, office hours, etc. is incredible. I see the pandemic also as a big opportunity to make changes in the way we worked and the way things were without ever questioning them.

 

Katrin Siebenbuerger Hacki, founder, Medows

Political strategist turned tech investor Bradley Tusk on SPACs as a tool for VCs

Bradley Tusk has become known in recent years for being involved in what’s about to get hot, from his early days advising Uber, to writing one of the first checks to the insurance startup Lemonade, to pushing forward the idea that we should be using the smart devices in our pockets to vote.

Indeed, because he’s often at the vanguard, it wasn’t hugely surprising when Tusk, like a growing number of other investors, formed a $300 million SPAC or special acquisition company, one that he and a partner plan to use to target a business in the leisure, gaming, or hospitality industry, according to a regulatory filing.

Because Tusk — a former political operative who ran the successful third mayoral campaign for Mike Bloomberg —  seems adept at seeing around corners, we called him up late last week to ask whether SPACs are here to stay, how a Biden administration might impact the startup investing landscape, and how worried (or not) big tech should be about this election. You can hear the full conversation here. Owing to length, we are featuring solely the part of our conversation that centered on SPACs.

TC: Lemonade went public this summer and its shares, priced at $29, now trade at $70. 

BT: They are down today last I checked. When you only check once in a blue moon, you’re like, ‘Hey, look at how great this is,’ whereas if, like me, you check me every day, you’re like, ‘It lost 4%, where’s my money?’

We got really lucky; Lemonade was our second deal that we did out of our first fund, and the fact that it IPO’d within four years of the company’s founding is pretty amazing.

TC: Is it amazing? I wonder what it says about the common complaint that the traditional IPO process is bad — is it just an excuse?

BT: [CEO] Daniel Schrieber was very clear that he and [cofounder] Shai Wininger had a strategy from day one to go public as quickly as they possibly could, because in his view, an IPO is supposed to represent kind of the the beginning. It’s the ‘Okay, we’ve proven that there’s product market fit, we’ve proven that there’s customer demand; now let’s see what we can really do with this thing.’ And it’s supposed to be about hope and promise and future and excitement. And if you’ve been a private company for 10 years, and you’re worth tens of billions of dollars and your growth is already starting to flatten out a little bit, it’s just much less exciting for public investors.

The question now for everyone in our business is what happens with Airbnb in a few weeks or whenever they are [staging an IPO]. Will that pixie dust be there, or will they have been around so long that the market is kind of indifferent?

TC: Is that why we’re seeing so many SPACs? Some of that pixie dust is gone. No one knows when the IPO window might shut. Let’s get some of these companies out into the public market while we still can?

BT: No, I don’t I don’t think so. I think SPACs have become a way to raise a lot of money very quickly. It took me two years to raise $37 million for my first venture fund, and three months was the entire process for me to raise $300 million for my SPAC. So it’s a mechanism that is highly efficient and right now is so popular with public market investors that there is just a lot of opportunity, and people are grabbing it. In fact, now you’re hearing about people who are planning SPACs having to pull [them] back because there’s a ton of competition right now.

At the end of the day, the fundamentals still rule. If you take a really bad company public through a SPAC, maybe the excitement of the SPAC gets you an early pop. But if the company has neither good unit economics nor high growth, there’s no real reason to believe it will be successful. And especially for the people in the SPAC, where they have to hold on to it for a little while, by the time the lockup ends, the world has probably figured out that this is not the greatest IPO of all time. You can’t put lipstick on a pig.

TC: You say you raised the SPAC very quickly. How is the investor profile different than that of a typical venture fund investor?

BT:  The investors for this SPAC — at least when I did the roadshow, and I think I did 28 meetings over a couple of days — is mainly hedge funds and people who don’t really invest in venture at all, so there was no overlap between my [venture fund] LP base and the people who invested in our SPAC that I’m aware of. These are public market investors who are used to moving very quickly. There’s a lot more liquidity in a SPAC. We have two years to acquire something, but ultimately, it’s a public property, so investors can come in and out as they see fit.

TC: So it’s mostly hedge funds that are getting paid management fees to deploy their capital in this comparatively safe way and that are getting interest on the money invested, too, while it’s sitting around in a trust while [the SPAC managers] look for a target company.

BT: Why it kind of does make sense for [them to back] VCs is they are basically making the bet to say: does this person running the SPAC have enough deal flow, enough of a public profile, enough going on that they are going to come across the right target? And venture investors in many ways fit that profile because we just look at so many companies before deploying capital.

TC: Do you have to demonstrate some kind of public markets expertise in order to convince some of these investors that you know what it takes to take a company public and grow it in the public markets?

BT: I guess. We raised the money, so I guess I passed the test. But I did spend a little under two years on Wall Street; I created the lottery privatization group of Lehman Brothers. And my partner [in the SPAC], Christian Goode, has a lot of experience with big gaming companies. But overall, I think that if you are a venture investor with a ton of deal flow and a good track record but very little or no public market experience, I don’t know that that would disqualify you from being able to rate a SPAC.

Pear hosted its invite-only demo day online year; here’s what you might have missed

Pear, the eight-year-old, Palo Alto, Calif.-based seed-stage venture firm that has, from its outset, attracted the attention of VCs who think the firm has an eye for nascent talent, staged its seventh annual demo day earlier this week, and while it was virtual, one of the startups has already signed a term sheet from a top-tier venture firm.

To give the rest of you a sneak peak, here’s a bit about all of the startups that presented, in broad strokes:


  1. ) AccessBell

What it does: Video conferencing platform for enterprise workflows

Website: accessbell.com

Founders: Martin Aguinis (CEO), Josh Payne (COO), Kamil Ali (CTO)

The pitch: Video has emerged as one of the prominent ways for enterprises to communicate internally and externally with their customers and partners. Current video conferencing tools like Zoom and WebEx are great for standalone video but they have their own ecosystems and don’t integrate into thousands of enterprise workflows. That means that API tools that do integrate, like Agora and Twilio, still require manual work from developer teams to customize and maintain. AccessBell is aiming to provide the scalability and reliability of Zoom, as well as the customizability and integrations of Twilio, in a low code integration and no code extensible customization platform.

It’s a big market the team is chasing, one that’s expected to grow to $8.6 billion by 2027. The cost right now for users who want to test out AccessBell is $27 per host per month.


2.) FarmRaise

What it does: Unlock financial opportunities for farmers to create sustainable farms and improve their livelihoods.

Website: farmraise.com

Founders: Jayce Hafner (CEO), Sami Tellatin (COO), Albert Abedi (Product)

The pitch: Over half of American farms don’t have the tools or bandwidth they need to identify ways to improve their farms and become profitable. The startup’s API links to farmers’ bank accounts, where its algorithm assesses financials to provide a “farm read,” scoring the farms’ financial health. It then regularly monitors farm data to continuously provide clean financials and recommendations on how to improve its customers’ farms, as well as to connect farmers with capital in order to improve their score. (It might suggest that a farm invest in certain sustainability practices, for example.)

Eventually, the idea is to also use the granular insights it’s garnering and sell these to hedge funds, state governments, and other outfits that want a better handle on what’s coming — be it around food security or climate changes.


3.) Sequel

What it does: Re-engineering life’s essential products – starting with tampons.

Website: thesequelisbetter.com

Founders: Greta Meyer (CEO),  Amanda Calabrese (COO)

The pitch: Founded by student athletes from Stanford, Sequel argues that seven out of 10 women don’t trust tampons, which were first designed in 1931 (by a man). New brands like Lola have catchy brands and new material, but they perform even worse than legacy products. Sequel has focused instead on fluid mechanics and specifically on slowing flow rates so a tampon wont leak before it’s full whether they’re in the “boardroom” or the “stadium.” The company says it has already filed patents and secured manufacturing partners and that it expects that the product will be available for consumers to buy directly from its website, as well as in other stores, next year.


4.) Interface Bio

What it does: Unlocking the therapeutic potential of the microbiome with a high-throughput pipeline for characterizing microbes, metabolites, and therapeutic response, based on years of research at Stanford.

Founders: Will Van Treuren, Hannah Wastyk

The pitch: The microbiome plays a major role in a wide range of human diseases, including heart disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and cancer. In fact, Interface’s founders — both of whom are PhDs —  say that microbiome-influenced diseases are responsible for four of the top 10 causes of death in the United States. So how do they better size on the opportunity to identify therapeutics by harnessing the microbiome? Well, they say they’ll do it via a “high-speed pipeline for characterizing metabolites and their immune phenotypes,” which they’ll create by developing the world’s largest database of microbiome-mediated chemistry, which the startup will then screen for potential metabolites that can lead to new therapies.


5.) Gryps

What it does: Gryps is tackling construction information silos to create a common information layer that gives building and facility owners quick, enriched and permanent access to document-centric information.

Website: gryps.io

Founders: Dareen Salama, Amir Tasbihi

The pitch: The vast size and complexity of the construction industry has resulted in all kinds of software and services that address various aspects of the construction processes, resulting in data and documents being spread across many siloed tools. Gryps says it picks up where all the construction-centered tools leave off: Taking delivery of the projects at the end of a construction job and providing all the information that facility owners need to operate, renovate, or build future projects through a platform that ingests data from various construction tools, mines the embedded information, then provides operational access through owner-centered workflows. 


6.) Expedock

What it does: Automation infrastructure for supply chain businesses, starting with AI-Powered Freight Forwarder solutions.

Website: expedock.com

Founders: King Alandy Dy (CEO), Jeff Tan (COO), Rui Aguiar (CTO)

The pitch: Freight Forwarders take care of all the logistics of shipping containers including financials, approvals and paper work for all the local entities on both sides of the sender and receiver geographies, but communications with these local entities are often done through unstructured data, including forms, documents, and emails and can subsequently eat up to 60% of operational expenses. Expedock is looking to transform the freight forwarding industry by digitizing and automating the processing and inputting of unstructured data into various local partner and governmental systems, including via a “huan in the loop” AI software service.


7.) Illume

What it does: A new way to share praise

Website: illumenotes.com

Founders: Sohale Sizar (CEO), Phil Armour (Engineering), Maxine Stern (Design)

The pitch: The process of thanking people is full of friction. Paper cards have to be purchased, signed, passed around; greetings on Facebook only mean so much. Using Illume, teams and individuals can download its app or come together on Slack and create a customized, private, and also shareable note. The nascent startup says one card typically has 10 contributors; it charging enterprises $3 per user per month, ostensibly so sales teams, among others, can use them.


8.) Quansa

What it does: Quansa improves Latin American workers’ financial lives via employer-based financial care

Website: quansa.io

Founders: Gonzalo Blanco, Mafalda Barros

The pitch: Fully 40% of employees across Latin America have missed work in the past 12 months due to financial problems. Quansa wants to help them get on the right track financially with the help of employers that use its software to link their employees’ payroll data with banks, fintechs and other financial institutions.

There is strength in numbers, says the firm. By funneling more customers to lenders through their employers, for example, these employees should ultimately be able to access to cheaper car loans, among other things.


9.) SpotlightAI

What it does: Spotlight turns sensitive customer information from a burden to an asset by using NLP techniques to identify, anonymize, and manage access to PII and other sensitive business data.

Website: hellospotlight.com

Founder: Austin Osborne (CEO)

The pitch: Data privacy legislation like GDPR and CCPA is creating an era where companies can no longer use their customer data to run their business due to the risks of fines, lawsuits, and negative media coverage. These lawsuits relating to misuse of personal data can reach billions of dollars and take years to settle. Spotlight’s software plugs into existing data storage engines via APIs and operates as a middleware within a company’s network. With advanced NLP and OCR techniques, it says it’s able to detect sensitive information in unstructured data, perform multiple types of anonymization, and provide a deep access control layer.


10.) Bennu

What it does: Bennu closes the loop on management communication

Website: bennu.io

Founder: Brenda Jin (CEO)

The pitch: Today’s work communication is done through forms, email, Slack, and docs; the timelines are unnatural.  Bennu is trying to solve the problem with communication loops that use integrations and smart topic suggestions to help employees prepare for substantive management conversations in seconds, not hours. 


11.) Playbook

What it does: Playbook automates the people coordination in your repeatable workflows with a simple system to create, execute and track any process with your team, customers, and more.

Website: startplaybook.com

Founders: Alkarim Lalani (CEO), Blaise Bradley (CTO)

The pitch: Whether you’re collecting time cards from 20 hourly workers every week, or managing 30 customer onboardings – you’re coordinating repetitive workflows across people over email and tracking it over spreadsheets. Playbook says it coordinates workflows between people at scale by taking programming concepts such as variables and conditional logic that let its customers model any workflow, and all packaged in an interface that enables anyone to build out their workflows in minutes.


12.) June Motherhood

What it does: Community-based care for life’s most important transitions.

Website: junemotherhood.com

Founders: Tina Beilinson (CEO), Julia Cole (COO), Sophia Richter (CPO)

The pitch: June is a digital health company focused on maternal health, with community at the core. Like a Livongo for diabetes management, June combines the latest research around shared appointments, peer-to-peer support and cognitive behavioral therapy to improve outcomes and lower costs, including through weekly programs and social networks that encourage peer-to-peer support. 


13.) Wagr

What it does: Challenge anyone to a friendly bet.

Website: wagr.us

Founders: Mario Malavé (CEO), Eliana Eskinazi (CPO)

The pitch: Wagr will allow sports fans to bet with peers in a social, fair, and simple way. Sending a bet requires just three steps, too: pick a team, set an amount, and send away. Wagr sets the right odds and handles the money.

Users can challenge friends, start groups, track leaderboards, and see what others are betting on, so they feel connected even if they aren’t together in the stadium. Customers pay a commission when they use the platform to find them a match, but bets against friends are free. The plan is to go live in Tennessee first and expand outward from there.


14.) Federato

What it does: Intelligence for a new era of risk

Website: federato.ai

Founders: Will Ross (CEO), William Steenbergen (CTO)

The pitch: Insurance companies are struggling to manage their accumulation of risk as natural catastrophes continue to grow in volume and severity. Reinsurance is no longer a reliable backstop, with some of the largest insurers taking $600 million-plus single-quarter losses net of reinsurance. 

Federato is building an underwriter workflow that uses dynamic optimization across the portfolio to steer underwriters to a better portfolio balance. The software lets actuaries and portfolio analysts drive high-level risk analysis into the hands of underwriters on the front lines to help them understand the “next best action” at a given point in time.


15.) rePurpose Global

What it does: A plastic credit platform to help consumer brands of any size go plastic neutral

Website: business.repurpose.global

Founders: Svanika Balasubramanian (CEO), Aditya Siroya (CIO), Peter Wang Hjemdahl (CMO

The pitch: Consumers worldwide are demanding businesses to take action on eliminating plastic waste, 3.8 million pounds of which are leaked into the environment every few minutes. Yet even as brands try, alternatives are often too expensive or worse for the environment. Through this startup, a brand can commit to the removal of a certain amount of plastic, which will then be removed by the startup’s loal watse management partners and recycled on the brand’s behalf (with rePurpose verifying that the process adheres to certain standards). The startup says it can keep a healthy margin while also running this plastic credit market, and that its ultimate vision is to our vision is to become a “one-stop shop for companies to create social, economic, and environmental impact.”


16.) Ladder

What it does: A professional community platform for the next generation

Website: ladder.io

Founders: Akshaya Dinesh (CEO), Andrew Tan

The pitch: LinkedIn sucks, everyone hates it. Ladder (which may have a trademark infringement battle ahead of it) is building a platform around community instead of networks. The idea is that users will opt in to join communities with like-minded individuals in their respective industries and roles of interest. Once engaged, they can participate in AMAs with industry experts, share opportunities, and have 1:1 conversations.

The longer term ‘moat’ is the data it collects from users, from which it thinks it can generate more revenue per user than LinkedIn. (By the way, this is the startup that has already signed a term sheet with a firm whose team was watching the demo day live on Tuesday.)


Exporta

How it works: Exporta is building a B2B wholesale marketplace connecting suppliers in Latin America with buyers in North America.

Website: exporta.io

Founders: Pierre Thys (CEO), Robert Monaco (President)

The pitch: The U.S. now imports more each year from Latin America than from China, but LatAm sourcing remains fragmented and manual. Exporta builds on-the-ground relationships to bring LatAm suppliers onto a tech-enabled platform that matches them to U.S. buyers looking for faster turnaround times and more transparent manufacturing relationships.


Via

What it does: Via helps companies build their own teams in new countries as simply as if they were in their HQ.

Website: via.work

Founders:  Maite Diez-Canedo, Itziar Diez-Canedo

The pitch: Setting up a team in a new country is very complex. Companies need local entities, contracts, payroll, benefits, accounting, tax, compliance…and the list goes on. Via enables companies to build their own teams in new countries quickly and compliantly by leveraging  local entities to legally employ teams on their behalf, and integrate local contracts, payroll, and benefits in one platform. By plugging into the local hiring ecosystem, Via does all the heavy lifting for its customers, even promising to stand up a team in 48 hours and at less expense than traditional alternatives. (It’s charging $600 per employee per month in Canada and Mexico, where it says it has already launched.)

As investors and founders mature, Vienna emerges as a European startup hub

According to Austrian Startup Monitor, entrepreneurs have founded more than 2,200 startups in Austria since 2008, with the number of tech companies growing 12% per year since then, significantly faster than the 3% growth rate for traditional companies.

Home to roughly 50% of Austria’s startups, Vienna has a plethora of VC, corporate and university investors. Top VCs include 3TS Capital Partners, AC & Friends, Cudos Capital, FSP Ventures, Hansmen Group, i4g Investment, i5invest, LilO Ventures, next.march, primeCROWD, Speedinvest and Venionaire Capital, among others.

The local ecosystem benefits from several initiatives, including the Social Impact Awards, Vienna Startup Awards, Design Week, Climate KIC Stage, Innovation Incubation Center and INiTS Accelerator. The well-run Pioneers Festival contributed massively to the ecosystem for several years after a certain TechCrunch editor-at-large gave the organizers an excuse to expand on a simple TechCrunch meetup. But the festival was shuttered last year after its sale to a local accelerator meant that the event itself ran out of steam. Perhaps it was just as well, given this year’s pandemic.

State support for startups is also there. The Austrian government created a comprehensive startup program in 2016 to make the country more attractive to startups setting up there.

Standout exits include fitness app maker Runtastic, acquired by Adidas for $240 million in 2015, as well as listings marketplace Shpock, which was acquired by Norwegian publishing conglomerate Schibsted in 2015. Other notable startups originally from Vienna include mySugr, wikifolio, kompany and Codeship.

There have been jitters on the way, however. The Austrian Private Equity and Venture Capital Organization’s 2019 report found that Austria’s startups saw €237.6 million invested in 2018, but, this number fell 8.2% to €218 million in 2019; the number of deals exceeding €500,000 also dipped by 8.7%. Foreign funding also slowed in 2019 after a few years of a bull run — between 40% and 63% of deals sized €0.25-€1.99 million were significantly funded by foreign investors in 2018.

Despite the decline, local investors have started to pick up the slack, boosting the number of funding rounds over €5 million to 12 deals in 2019 from 11 in 2018. In both years, all but one of those deals drew a substantial part of the funding round from foreign investors.

We expect more to emerge from Vienna’s tech scene in the future. The Pioneers Festival (RIP) proved that Vienna is a fascinating bridge between Western European capital and entrepreneurial culture, and East European entrepreneurs and talent, which it will no doubt continue to benefit from in years to come. But — just as will happen with Lisbon this year and the loss of Web Summit — the loss of a major conference in Vienna to shine a light on the city and ecosystem, combined with the pandemic, may have cooling effects for the next couple of years.


Notable Vienna startups:

  • Newsadoo: Uses artificial intelligence to personalize news.
  • Cashpresso: Links customers, merchants and banks to offer consumer financing options.
  • Jobrocker: An online job search portal that connects applicants’ CVs with job openings.
  • Storyblok: A headless content management system.
  • Byrd: First-mile shipping service that allows customers to ship items hassle-free.
  • Music Traveler: A marketplace that centralizes spaces with musical instruments and equipment.
  • PAYUCA: Provides flexible access to parking spaces in private office and residential buildings.
  • Refurbed: Fast-growing marketplace for refurbished electronics, across the German-speaking world.
  • Presono: A web platform for creating, managing and showing presentations in companies.
  • Blockpit: Develops software for portfolio tracking, tax calculation and compliance reporting of transactions for cryptocurrencies and crypto assets.
  • Robo Wunderkind: A robot for kids to build and program.
  • Medicus: Converts health data with their cryptic numbers and medical language into an easy-to-understand visual experience.
  • Cybershoes: VR accessory that allows you to walk through your favorite VR games.

Here’s who we interviewed:

Eva Arh, principal, Capital 300

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
B2B software, robotics, no/low-code automation, AI-enabled vertical solutions, e-health, companies enabling others to hire and engage talent remotely.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
Lokalise.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Companies that enable others to manage and automate billing even further (e.g., per API call), next-gen video conferencing, solutions guiding women through menopause, providing solutions that help companies to offer mental health services to distributed teams, bringing cloud kitchens to the next level (not running central kitchens).

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
As always, ambitious, smart, hard-working teams eager to build a category leader in a huge market.

What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Concerned about solutions that leverage behavioral data to influence people for the sake of optimizing profit, overload of sales and marketing tech, overload of chatbot providers. [It is] hard to compete with players that have benefited from huge network effects such as food delivery.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We focus on German-speaking areas and Central Eastern Europe. Opportunistically we would also invest outside of the region, still in Europe.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
Austria — no specific industry focus within software. However, well-positioned in the biotech space, CEE — given the strong presence of IT outsourcing companies, the region is well-positioned to build solutions in the business-process automation, dev tool space. Storyblok (our portfolio). Others to watch: Anyline, Adverity, Bitpanda, PlanRadar, Refurbed.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
Regarding Vienna — we are seeing the first generation of entrepreneurs building global companies. Their and their team experience will be at utmost value creating a new wave of tech companies that compete on a global level.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
Yes, we already see this — exciting companies coming out of small cities in Poland, Germany, etc. and companies going remote.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Telemedicine, online education has been accelerated. We see a shift that otherwise would have taken years, especially in the relatively conservative German-speaking area. As mentioned previously, mental health solutions, hiring and employing remotely are some of the opportunities highlighted by COVID-19. Companies that are heavily exposed are those that have been serving the long tail of companies, small merchants, and local businesses that were closed down or experienced much less traffic in past months and hence are extremely sensitive around their cost base, discontinuing services that are not 110% essential.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
We have always been very selective and focused, partnering up three to four times a year. We continue at the same pace. The companies that perform well despite COVID-19 are still in a strong position for attracting external capital. Of course, we help our portfolio to secure a runway and have a discussion how/whether the situation has impacted their offering/GTM. Some companies have to rethink their value proposition, some rethink their target groups either to make up for slower sales cycles or on the other hand to leverage and benefit from the current situation.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Yes, we see that Lokalise is growing heavily with the current customer base as their customers expand to new markets, likely to make up for slower revenue growth in their existing markets. We see that Nethone (fraud prevention) is able to double down on e-commerce. Online fraud and online transactions are skyrocketing as people spend much more time online. (On the other hand, their airline customers of course show a different trajectory.)

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.
It is inspiring to see how founders go through the current situation, act instead of reacting, especially in those countries where there is less government support incentives in place. Personally, I am also happy to see that people use the work from home time to rethink and introduce healthier habits.

Any other thoughts you want to share with TechCrunch readers?
As the world has gone online and the location matters much less, there is an opportunity to distribute the created value and wealth more evenly — be it a company founded in a “non-tech-hub” location or be it talent hired remotely.

Why are VCs launching SPACs? Amish Jani of FirstMark shares his firm’s rationale

It’s happening slowly but surely. With every passing week, more venture firms are beginning to announce SPACs. The veritable blitz of SPACs formed by investor Chamath Palihapitiya notwithstanding, we’ve now seen a SPAC (or plans for a SPAC) revealed by Ribbit Capital, Lux Capital, the travel-focused venture firm Thayer Ventures, Tusk Ventures’s founder Bradley Tusk, the SoftBank Vision Fund, and FirstMark Capital, among others. Indeed, while many firms say they’re still in the information-gathering phase of what could become a sweeping new trend, others are diving in headfirst.

To better understand what’s happening out there, we talked on Friday with Amish Jani, the cofounder of FirstMark Capital in New York and the president of a new $360 million tech-focused blank-check company organized by Jani and his partner, Rick Heitzmann. We wanted to know why a venture firm that has historically focused on early-stage, privately held companies would be interested in public market investing, how Jani and Heitzmann will manage the regulatory requirements, and whether the firm may encounter conflicts of interest, among other things.

If you’re curious about starting a SPAC or investing in one or just want to understand how they relate to venture firms, we hope it’s useful reading. Our chat has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: Why SPACs right now? Is it fair to say it’s a shortcut to a hot public market, in a time when no one quite knows when the markets could shift?

AJ: There are a couple of different threads that are coming together. I think the first one is the the possibility that [SPACs] works and really well. [Our portfolio company] DraftKings [reverse-merged into a SPAC] and did a [private investment in public equity deal]; it was a fairly complicated transaction and they used this to go public and the stock has done incredibly well.

In parallel, [privately held companies] over the last five or six years could raise large sums of capital, and that was pushing out the the timeline [to going public] fairly substantially. [Now there are] tens of billions of dollars in value sitting in the private markets and [at the same time] an opportunity to go public and build trust with public shareholders and leverage the early tailwinds of growth.

TC: DraftKings was valued at $3 billion when it came out and it’s now valued at $17 billion, so it has performed really, really well. What makes an ideal target for a SPAC versus a traditional IPO? Does having a consumer-facing business help get public market investors excited? That seems the case.

AJ: It comes down to the nature and the growth characteristics and the sustainability of the business. The early businesses that are going out, as you point out, tend to be consumer based, but I think there’s as good an opportunity for enterprise software companies to use the SPAC to go public.

SPAC [targets] are very similar to what you would want in a traditional IPO: companies with large markets, extremely strong management teams, operating profiles that are attractive, and long term margin profiles that are sustainable, and to be able to articulate [all of that] and have the governance and infrastructure to operate in a public context. You need to be able to do that across any of these products that you use to get public.

TC: DraftKings CEO Jason Robins is an advisor on your SPAC. Why jump into sponsoring one of these yourselves?

AJ: When he was initially approached, we were, like most folks, pretty skeptical. But as the conversations evolved, and we began to understand the amount of customization and flexibility [a SPAC can offer], it felt very familiar. [Also] the whole point of backing entrepreneurs is they do things differently. They’re disruptive, they like to try different formats, and really innovate, and when we saw through the SPAC and the [actual merger] this complex transaction where you’re going through an M&A and raising capital alongside that and it’s all happening between an entrepreneur and a trusted partner, and they’ve coming to terms before even having to talk about all of these things very publicly, that felt like a really interesting avenue to create innovation.

For us, we’re lead partners and directors in the companies that we’re involved with; we start at the early stages at the seed [round] and Series A and work with these entrepreneurs for over a decade, and if we can step in with this product and innovate on behalf of our entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs in tech more broadly, we think there’s a really great opportunity to push forward the process for how companies get public.

TC: You raised $360 million for your SPAC. Who are its investors? Are the same institutional investors who invest in your venture fund? Are these hedge funds that are looking to deploy money and also potentially get their money out faster?

AJ: I think a bit of a misconception is this idea that most investors in the public markets want to be hot money or fast money. You know, there are a lot of investors that are interested in being part of a company’s journey and who’ve been frustrated because they’ve been frozen out of being able to access these companies as they’ve stayed private longe. So our investors are some are our [limited partners], but the vast majority are long-only funds, alternative investment managers, and people who are really excited about technology asa long term disrupter and want to be aligned with this next generation of iconic companies.

TC: How big a transaction are you looking to make with what you’ve raised?

AJ: The targets that we’re looking for are going to look very similar to the kind of dilution that a great company would take going public —  think of that 15%, plus or minus, around that envelope. As you do the math on that, you’re looking at a company that’s somewhere around $3 billion in value.  We’re going to have conversations with a lot of different folks who we know well, but that’s that’s generally what we’re looking for.

TC: Can you talk about your “promote,” meaning how the economics are going to work for your team?

AJ: Ours [terms] are very standard to the typical SPAC. We have 20% of the original founders shares. And that’s a very traditional structure as you think about venture funds and private equity firms and hedge funds: 20% is is very typical.

TC: It sounds like your SPAC might be one in a series.

AJ: Well, one step at a time. The job is to do this really well and focus on this task. And then we’ll see based on the reaction that we’re getting as we talk to targets and how the world evolves whether we do a second or third one.

TC: How involved would you be with the management of the merged company and if the answer is very, does that limit the number of companies that might want to reverse-merge into your SPAC?

AJ: The management teams of the companies that we will target will continue to run their businesses. When we talk about active involvement, it’s very much consistent with how we operate as a venture firm, [meaning] we’re a strong partner to the entrepreneur, we are a sounding board, we help them accelerate their businesses, we give them access to resources, and we leverage the FirstMark platform. When you go through the [merger], you look at what the existing board looks like, you look at our board and what we bring to bear there, and then you decide what makes the most sense going forward. And I think that’s going to be the approach that we take.

TC: Chamath Palihapitiya tweeted yesterday about a day when there could be so many VCs with SPACs that two board members from the same portfolio company might approach it to take it public. Does that sound like a plausible scenario and if so, what would you do?

AJ: That’s a really provocative and interesting idea and you could take that further and say, maybe they’ll form a syndicate of SPACs. The way I think about it is that competition is a good thing. It’s a great thing for entrepreneurship, it’s a good thing overall.

The market is actually really broad. I think there’s something like 700-plus private unicorns that are out there. And while there are a lot of headlines around the SPAC, if you think about technology-focused people with deep tech backgrounds, that pool gets very, very limited, very quickly. So we’re pretty excited about the ability to go have these conversations.

You can listen in on more of this conversation, including around liquidation issues and whether FirstMark will target its own portfolio companies or a broader group or targets, here.

Venture capital gets less diverse in 2020

Welcome back to The TechCrunch Exchange, a weekly startups-and-markets newsletter. It’s broadly based on the daily column that appears on Extra Crunch, but free, and made for your weekend reading. You can subscribe here.


First, a big congrats on making it through the week. If you live in the United States, you just endured one of the wildest news weeks ever. Rapid-fire headlines and nigh-panic have been our lot since last Friday when the president announced he was COVID-19 positive. We’re all very tired. You get points for just surviving.

Second, I wanted to bring you something uplifting this weekend, as you deserve it. Sadly, that’s not what we’re going to talk about.

On Friday, The Exchange covered new data concerning the venture capital results of female founders during the third quarter. The data set was U.S.-focused, but we can presume that it is illustrative of global trends. Regardless of that nuance, the data was depressing.

In the third quarter, U.S.-based female founders and co-founders raised 136 rounds worth $434 million, per PitchBook data. That was a handful more rounds than Q2 2020, but far fewer dollars. And it was down across the board compared to Q3 2019. Even more, as we noted in the piece, the aggregate venture capital world did very well.

Here’s some PwC data making that point, and a bit more from my old employer Crunchbase. What matters is that female founders are doing worse when VCs are super active. This will only perpetuate inequalities and inequities in the startup market.

Speaking of which, here’s some more bad news. Vern Howard Jr., the co-founder and CEO of Hallo, a startup that has raised nearly $2 million, according to Crunchbase, compiled some data on Black founders’ VC performance in Q3. Here’s what he set out to do:

[W]e wanted to put hard numbers behind the promises of so many venture capitalists and create a benchmark for how we can track the investment into black founders over time. So our team pulled a list from Crunchbase of all the startups globally with a total funding amount of $500,000 — $20,000,000 and who raised a round between July 1 and October 1. There were over 1383 companies here and our team went through one by one, to see how many Black founders there were.

There were 31.

Now, you could open up the funding bands to include both smaller and larger funding events, but regardless of the data boundaries, the resulting number — just 2.2% of the total — is a disgrace.

Market Notes

Various and Sundry

  • Continuing our coverage of the savings and investing boom that fintech startups around the world have been riding this year, Freetrade, a British Robinhood if you will, told The Exchange that it crossed £1 billion in September order volume. That’s not bad!
  • Freetrade also recently launched a paid version of its service, as the payment-for-order-flow method of generating revenue that Robinhood is growing on the back of is not allowed across the pond.
  • Sticking to the fintech world, Yotta Savings is a startup that provides a savings option to its users, with the added chance of winning a big monetary prize for having stored their money with the startup. Folks have been whispering in my ear about the company for a bit, but I’ve held off writing about it until now as it was not clear to me if the model was merely a gimmick, or something that would actually attract customers.
  • Well, Yotta grew from 8,000 accounts to more than 30,000 in the past few weeks and has reached the $100 million deposit mark. So, I guess we now care.
  • Coinbase lost one in 20 employees to its new strategy of standing neutral during political times on anything that its CEO deems as unrelated to its core mission, which, as a for-profit company with tectonic financial backing, is making money.
  • On the same topic, Can from The Margins made a salient point that “no politics is a political stance.” Correct, and it is a very conservative one at that.
  • Even more, Coinbase’s CEO made noise about how his company will “work to create an environment where everyone is welcome and can do their best work, regardless of background, sexual orientation, race, gender, age, etc.” Whether he likes it or not, this is a political stance, and one that has nothing to do with the company’s stated core mission. And a political fight earned it — namely, equal access to the workplace.
  • I’ll toss in a plug for this piece on the matter from a VC that TechCrunch published, and these thoughts from a tech denizen on how to guarantee that your company lands on the wrong side of history on essentially everything.
  • Wrapping our grab-bag this week, Ping Identity bought ShoCard. Ping is now a public company, so normally its deals would land outside our wheelhouse. But we care in this case because TechCrunch has covered ShoCard (2015: “ShoCard Is A Digital Identity Card On The Blockchain”), and because the startup does crypto-related work.
  • Seeing a public company snap up a blockchain startup for real money, on purpose and out loud, doesn’t happen every day. More here if you want to read about the deal.

Wrapping, this newsletter is a lot of fun and I appreciate your reading it. It is, also, a work in progress. So feel free to hit respond to it and let me know what you want to see more of. Or hit respond and send me a cute pic of your pet. Either is fine by me.

Chat soon,

Alex

Helsinki rides the Slush wave toward a booming startup future

In September 2020, Helsinki’s City Council approved plans for an expansion of the existing “Maria 01 Campus,” a former downtown hospital complex. Even before it starts spreading its acreage, the facility is already home to 120 startups and 12 venture capital funds. The campus is owned by the biggest startup conference in the Nordics, Slush, the City of Helsinki and Helsinki Enterprise Agency and is slated to become one of the largest, if not — possibly — the largest tech startup campus in Europe, at 70,000 square meters (or 75,3473 square feet) by 2023.

The scale of the project speaks to the confidence and ambition of the Helsinki startup ecosystem, which has grown immeasurably over the last 10-15 years.

The fact that Slush, a conference, is involved is no accident. The event is a nonprofit created by the university. This has enabled it to scale to one of Europe’s largest tech events (pre-COVID) at over 20,000 attendees. Its success has also led to traditionally conservative Finns embracing entrepreneurship. The entire city gets involved, and thousands of university students volunteer for the good of the city and the ecosystem. The collegiate nature of the Slush experience has reflected how Helsinki has grabbed the opportunities of tech with both hands.

Born of Aalto University and its student society for entrepreneurship, AaltoES, Slush originally started as a tech meetup. Indeed, I went to some of the first ones. But with the 2010’s success of local startup Rovio, creator of Angry Birds, as well as Supercell, creator of Clash of Clans, the event took off. It helped that Peter Vesterbacka (previously a pioneer at HP Bazaar Labs) was a tireless promoter of Slush and egged it on from being a meetup into a full-blown conference that could attract the biggest names in tech.

Slush’s ability to attract VCs to a Northern European country in the middle of winter was impressive. The city rolled out the red carpet. That meant inbound VC exploded. According to the Finnish Venture Capital Association (FVCA), VC investment into Finland grew almost five times to €188 million between 2014 and 2018. Finland is now a European leader in terms of venture capital (says the FVCA) as a percentage of GDP, and foreign VC investments grew by 58% between 2017-18.

VC has grown leaps and bounds in the city itself. Crunchbase lists 54 venture funds of various guises in Helsinki. They include Conor Venture Partners, Inventure, VNT Management, Icebreaker.vc, Superhero Capital, Evli Growth Partners, OpenOcean, Loudspring, Norsepower Oy, Tesi, NordicNinja VC and Maki.vc.

Slush has even seen ex-employees go on to found big startups. Food delivery startup Wolt, co-founded by Miki Kuusi an early CEO of Slush, has raised $160 million. Other big startup companies from Helsinki’s ecosystem include Smartly, Singa, Giosg, ZenRobotics and Blok. And let’s not forget it produced MySQL and CRF Health back in the day. In 2018, Small Giant Games, was acquired by Zynga in a deal worth up to $700 million.

Startup Genome marks out Helsinki as one of the top global ecosystems. For 2020, it valued the Helsinki startup ecosystem at $5.8 billion, with total early-stage funding of $511 million, higher than the global average for emerging ecosystems.

Helsinki has around 250 gaming enterprises and 30 of them exceed $1 million in annual sales. In 2017 Finland was the first EU country to publish a national AI strategy and the University of Helsinki created a free AI education program that saw approximately 90,000 people from 80 different countries enroll in the first four months.

Over the whole country, nearly 300,000 Finns work in tech, an enormous amount when you consider the population of Helsinki is 1.3 million.

According to analysts Tracxn top startups include:

  • Canatu (transparent conductive films and touch sensors using carbon nanomaterial): Raised $74 million.
  • Kiosked (smart native advertising technology): Raised $64 million.
  • ICEYE (developer of SAR microsatellite for earth observation applications): Raised $152 million.
  • Varjo (provider of head-mounted display with resolution matching a human eye): Raised $100 million.

To learn more about Finland’s startup ecosystem, we spoke to these investors:

Pirkka Palomaki, partner, Maki.vc

What trends are you most excited about investing in, generally?
We are a generalist but are keen on deep tech and brand-driven companies both in B2C and B2B. We have been tracking closely new materials-based innovations, as well as breakthrough innovations in quantum computing. Breakthroughs happen also elsewhere and [we] have invested in B2B SaaS as well as one cloud-native massive multiplayer game company.

What’s your latest, most exciting investment?
One the latest investments is in a Swedish company called Carbon Cloud. They make it easy to discover your climate footprint and show it to the world — they can be found, for example, on the side of Oatly’s packaging. Carbon dioxide impact of consumer goods should be as visible as the nutrition values in food.

Are there startups that you wish you would see in the industry but don’t? What are some overlooked opportunities right now?
Femtech. There’s still quite little competition, but tremendous amount of work to do. Our team is keen to see more solutions on reproductive health, but also going beyond to solutions e.g., in syncing female’s personal cycle with optimal nutrition or training.

What are you looking for in your next investment, in general?
The team is always in the center and we are looking for entrepreneurs that are rewriting the future in global markets.

Which areas are either oversaturated or would be too hard to compete in at this point for a new startup? What other types of products/services are you wary or concerned about?
Free-to-play games is a tough and competitive market. There will likely be new winners, but also even greater number of companies that don’t make it compared to many other industries.

How much are you focused on investing in your local ecosystem versus other startup hubs (or everywhere) in general? More than 50%? Less?
We have a global mandate, but the Nordics is our home and where we have done most of our investments.

Which industries in your city and region seem well-positioned to thrive, or not, long term? What are companies you are excited about (your portfolio or not), which founders?
There are several, but the first on the top of mind is sustainability and new materials. Spinnova is a great example providing the textile industry with the most sustainable fibre in the world, produced with minimal harm to the environment, at a reasonable cost. With the stretch and strength qualities of cotton and the insulation of lamb’s wool, it can suit apparel, footwear, accessories, [and] home textiles to name a few applications. I’m also looking forward to seeing a great ecosystem and several startups being built around quantum computing. There are already a number of promising quantum technology companies, such as the Finnish IQM that builds world-class quantum computers and Bluefors that specialize in cryogen-free dilution refrigerator systems for quantum computing.

How should investors in other cities think about the overall investment climate and opportunities in your city?
There is strong supporting ecosystem in Finland for startups, strong engineering history and great culture of getting things done.

Do you expect to see a surge in more founders coming from geographies outside major cities in the years to come, with startup hubs losing people due to the pandemic and lingering concerns, plus the attraction of remote work?
The beauty of the startup ecosystem is that is built on innovation. We will most likely see more distributed organizations in the future, but I believe the major hubs will maintain their attractiveness in the future as well.

Which industry segments that you invest in look weaker or more exposed to potential shifts in consumer and business behavior because of COVID-19? What are the opportunities startups may be able to tap into during these unprecedented times?
Travel and hospitality has naturally taken a big hit. It will take time for the industry to fully recover and I would expect innovations in the domain in the future, whether it is in virtual travel or creating confidence in worry-free travel in the future.

How has COVID-19 impacted your investment strategy? What are the biggest worries of the founders in your portfolio? What is your advice to startups in your portfolio right now?
Extending the runway has been a general rule for many and making the company stronger and more competitive when things start picking up again.

Are you seeing “green shoots” regarding revenue growth, retention or other momentum in your portfolio as they adapt to the pandemic?
Customer support agents have been strained during the pandemic. Our portfolio company Ultimate.ai has been well-positioned to scale the customer support with their virtual agents while maintaining or even improving customer experience. I’ve been super happy to see them grow and expand rapidly.

What is a moment that has given you hope in the last month or so? This can be professional, personal or a mix of the two.

Allbirds CEO Joey Zwillinger on the startup’s $100 million round, profitability, and SPAC mania

As people spend less time out in the world and more time daydreaming about when a vaccine will arrive, lifestyle shoes are only gaining traction.

One obvious beneficiary is Allbirds, the San Francisco-based maker of comfortable, sustainable kicks that launched in 2016 and quickly became a favorite in Silicon Valley circles before taking off elsewhere.

Though the company saw its business slow this year because of the pandemic, its products are now available to purchase in 35 countries and its 20 brick-and-mortar stores are sprinkled throughout the U.S. and Europe, with another outpost in Tokyo and several shops in China.

Investors clearly see room for more growth. Allbirds just closed on $100 million in Series E funding at roughly the same $1.6 billion valuation it was assigned after closing on $27 million in Series D funding earlier this year, and blank-check companies have been calling, says cofounder and CEO Joey Zwillinger. He talked with us earlier this week in a chat that has been edited for length and clarity.

TC: Your shoes are sold worldwide. What are your biggest markets?

JZ: The biggest market by far is the U.S., and the same day that we started here in 2016, we also launched in New Zealand, so that’s been very good to us over the last four years, too. But we’ve seen growth in Japan and Korea and China and Canada and Australia. We have a network of warehouses globally that lets us reach 2.5 billion people [who], if they were so inclined, could get their product in three days. We’re proud of the infrastructure we’ve set up.

TC: We’ve all worn shoes a lot less than we might have expected in 2020. How has that impacted your business?

JZ: We’re growing but definitely not at the same pace we would be had the pandemic not occurred. We’re predominantly digital in terms of how we reach people, but stores are important for us. And we had to switch [those] off completely and lost a portion of our sales for a long time.

TC: Did you have to lay off your retail employees?

JZ: A large portion of our retail force was unable to work, but we were luckily able to keep them fully paid for four months, plus [some received] government benefits if they got that. And now all of our 20 stores are up and running again in a way that’s totally safe and everyone feels really comfortable.

We also donated shoes to frontline workers — 10,000 pairs or around a million dollars’ worth.

TC: What does Allbirds have up its sleeve, in terms of new offerings?

JZ: We just launched our native mobile app, and through it we’re able to give our more loyal fans exclusives. It’s a really cool experience that blends technology with fashion. You can try on shoes in a virtual mirror; you’re given information [about different looks] that you wouldn’t have otherwise.

We also launched wool-based weather-proofed running shoes in April that have blown away our expectations but [were fast discovered by] people who haven’t really been running for 10 to 15 years and are running again [because of gym closures]. It’s a super high-stakes category and one that’s hard to break into because people buy on repeat. But we spent two years making it. It’s not like we launched it because of the pandemic. It’s a shoe for 5K to 10K distances — it’s not a marathon shoe or a trail shoe — and that we’ve been able to clearly articulate that speaks to its success, I think.

TC: What about clothing?

We launched underwear and socks last year in a small launch. We developed a textile that hasn’t been used before — it’s a blend of tree fiber and merino wool because our view is that nature can unlock magic. Underwear is typically synthetic — it’s made from plastics — or cotton, which isn’t a great material for a whole bunch of reasons. [Meanwhile] ours is phenomenal for temperature control; it also feels like cashmere.

TC: Patagonia really advertises its social and environmental values. Do you see Allbirds evolving in a similar way, with a growing spate of offerings?

JZ: I’m incredibly humbled by [the comparison]. Given their environmental stewardship of the retail sector, we hope we’re compared to them. But they are much more of an outdoor brand — not a competitor so to speak. And we’d love to share more of the retail world with them so we can do our environmental thing together.

TC: You just raised funding. Are you profitable and, if not, is profitability in sight?

JZ: We’ve been profitable for most of our existence. Having some discipline as we grow is good. We’re not close to the profitability that we’ll eventually have, but we’re still a small company in investment mode. After we emerge from the pandemic, we’ll enter a ramping-up phase.

TC: Everyone and their brother is raising money for a blank-check company, or SPAC, which can make it a lot faster for a private company to go public. Have you been approached, and might this option interest you?

JZ: Yes and no. Yes we’ve been approached, and no, we’re [not interested]. We want to build a great company and being public might be something that helps enable that for a whole bunch of reasons. But we want to do it at the right time, in a way that helps the business grow in the most durable and sustainable fashion. Just jumping at the opportunity of a SPAC without doing the rigorous prep the way we want to, we’re not super focused on that

Crista Galli Ventures outs ‘evergreen’ fund to back European health tech startups at seed and Series A

Crista Galli Ventures, an early-stage health tech fund in Europe, is officially launching today. The firm offers “patient capital” — with only a single LP (the Danish family office IPQ Capital) — and promises to provide portfolio companies with deep healthcare expertise and the extra runway needed to get over regulatory and efficacy hurdles and to the next stage.

Companies already backed by Crista Galli Ventures (CGV) include Skin Analytics, which is using AI to improve diagnosis of skin cancer; Quibim, which is applying AI to the field of radiomics; and Ampersand Health, which is developing digital therapies for patients with inflammatory conditions such as Crohn’s disease, to name just three out of 15.

Led by consultant radiologist Dr. Fiona Pathiraja, and with offices in London and Copenhagen, CGV operates as an “evergreen” fund, meaning it doesn’t follow traditional five-year VC fundraising cycles. Initially, the VC firm has $65 million in deployable — so called — patient capital.

“We like to invest across the broad areas of deep tech, digital health and personalised healthcare,” Pathiraja tells TechCrunch. “We prefer technology solutions that make the lives of patients easier and better and, in some cases, that help support people’s health before they become patients. Part of our remit is also for tech solutions within the healthcare industry that improve efficiency and productivity of providers.”

Alongside the main fund, CGV is also unveiling Crista Galli LABS, which, in part, aims for greater diversity in health tech by backing founders from underrepresented backgrounds at the pre-seed stage. In addition to pre-seed investment, startups accepted into the program have access to mentoring and coaching from the CGV team.

“When I was in hospital, there were people from all backgrounds there and this was the norm… [but] this really wasn’t my experience when I started investing,” explains Pathiraja. “I am struck by how homogeneous both founder teams and investment teams can be. Whilst our core investment focus is seed and Series A, Crista Galli LABS invests smaller ticket sizes in outstanding pre-seed founders and ensures that at least 50% of these are from under-represented backgrounds. This means those who are female, BAME, LGBT to start with.”

Extra Crunch Friday roundup: Edtech funding surges, Poland VC survey, inside Shift’s SPAC plan, more

I live in San Francisco, but I work an East Coast schedule to get a jump on the news day. So I’d already been at my desk for a couple of hours on Wednesday morning when I looked up and saw this:

What color is the sky this morning pic.twitter.com/nt5dZp5wWc

— Walter Thompson (@YourProtagonist) September 9, 2020

As unsettling as it was to see the natural environment so transformed, I still got my work done. This is not to boast: I have a desk job and a working air filter. (People who make deliveries in the toxic air or are homeschooling their children while working from home during a global pandemic, however, impress the hell out of me.)

Not coincidentally, two of the Extra Crunch stories that ran since our Tuesday newsletter tie directly into what’s going on outside my window:

As this guest post predicted, a suboptimal attempt I made to track a delayed package using interactive voice response (IVR) indeed poisoned my customer experience, and;

Sheltering in place to avoid the novel coronavirus — and wildfire smoke — is fueling growth in the video-game industry, perhaps one factor in Unity Software Inc.’s plan to go public ahead of competitor Epic Games. In a two-part series, we looked at how the company has expanded beyond games and shared a detailed financial breakdown.

We covered a lot of ground this week, so scroll down or visit the recently redesigned Extra Crunch home page. If you’d like to receive this roundup via email each Tuesday and Friday, please click here.

Thanks very much for reading Extra Crunch; I hope you have a relaxing and safe weekend.

Walter Thompson
Senior Editor
@yourprotagonist


Bear and bull cases for Unity’s IPO

In a two-part series that ran on TechCrunch and Extra Crunch, former media columnist Eric Peckham returned to share his analysis of Unity Software Inc.’s S-1 filing.

Part one is a deep dive that explains how the company has grown beyond gaming to develop multiple revenue streams and where it’s headed.

For part two on Extra Crunch, he studied the company’s numbers to offer some context for its approximately $11 billion valuation.


10 Poland-based investors discuss trends, opportunities and the road ahead

The Palace of Culture and Science is standing reminder of communism in Warsaw, Masovian Voivodeship, Poland.

Image Credits: Edwin Remsberg (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

As we’ve covered previously, the COVID-19 pandemic is making the world a lot smaller.

Investors who focus on their own backyards still have an advantage, but the ability to set up a quick coffee meeting with a promising investor is no longer one of them.

Even though some VCs are cutting first checks after Zoom calls, regional investors’ personal networks are still a trump card. Tourists will always rely on guide books, however, which is why we continue to survey investors around the world.

A Dealroom report issued this summer determined that 97 VC funds backed more than 1,600 funding rounds in Poland last year. With over 2,400 early- and late-stage startups and 400,000 engineers in the country, it’s easy to see why foreign investors are taking notice.

Editor-at-large Mike Butcher reached out to several investors who focus on Warsaw and Poland in general to learn more about the startups fueling their interest across fintech, gaming, security and other sectors:

  • Bryony Cooper, managing partner, Arkley Brinc VC
  • Anna Wnuk-Błażejczyk, investor relations manager, Experior.vc
  • Rafał Roszak, investment director, YouNick Mint
  • Michal Mroczkowski, partner, Market One Capital
  • Marcus Erken, partner, Sunfish Partners
  • Borys Musielak, partner, SMOK Ventures
  • Mathias Åsberg, partner, Nextgrid
  • Kuba Dudek, SpeedUp Venture Capital Group
  • Marcin Laczynski, partner, Next Road Ventures
  • Michał Rokosz, partner, Inovo Venture Partners

We’ll run the conclusion of his survey next Tuesday.


Brands that hyper-personalize will win the next decade

Customer Relationship Management and Leader Concepts on Whiteboard

Image Credits: cnythzl (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

Even for fledgling startups, creating a robust customer service channel — or at least one that doesn’t annoy people — is a reliable way to keep users in the sales funnel.

Using AI and automation is fine, but now that consumers have grown used to asking phones and smart speakers to predict the weather and read recipe instructions, their expectations are higher than ever.

If you’re trying to figure out what people want from hyper-personalized customer experiences and how you can operationalize AI to give them what they’re after, start here.


VCs pour funding into edtech startups as COVID-19 shakes up the market

For today’s edition of The Exchange, Natasha Mascarenhas joined Alex Wilhelm to examine how the pandemic-fueled surge of interest in edtech is manifesting on the funding front.

The numbers suggest that funding will far surpass the sector’s high-water mark set in 2018, so the duo studied the numbers through August 31, which included a number of mega-rounds that exceeded $100 million.

“Now the challenge for the sector will be keeping its growth alive in 2021, showing investors that their 2020 bets were not merely wagers made during a single, overheated year,” they conclude.


How to respond to a data breach

Digital Binary Code on Red Background. Cybercrime Concept

Image Credits: WhataWin (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

The odds are low that someone’s going to enter my home and steal my belongings. I still lock my door when I leave the house, however, and my valuables are insured. I’m an optimist, not a fool.

Similarly: Is your startup’s cybersecurity strategy based on optimism, or do you have an actual response plan in case of a data breach?

Security reporter Zack Whittaker has seen some shambolic reactions to security lapses, which is why he turned in a post-mortem about a corporation that got it right.

“Once in a while, a company’s response almost makes up for the daily deluge of hypocrisy, obfuscation and downright lies,” says Zack.


Shift’s George Arison shares 6 tips for taking your company public via a SPAC

Number 6 By Railroad Tracks During Sunset

Image Credits: Eric Burger/EyeEm (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

There’s a lot of buzz about special purpose acquisition companies these days.

Used-car marketplace Shift announced its SPAC in June 2020, and is on track to complete the process in the next few months, so co-founder/co-CEO George Arison wrote an Extra Crunch guest post to share what he has learned.

Step one: “If you go the SPAC route, you’ll need to become an expert at financial engineering.”


Dear Sophie: What is a J-1 visa and how can we use it?

Image Credits: Sophie Alcorn

Dear Sophie:

I am a software engineer and have been looking at job postings in the U.S. I’ve heard from my friends about J-1 Visa Training or J-1 Research.

What is a J-1 status? What are the requirements to qualify? Do I need to find a U.S. employer willing to sponsor me before I apply for one? Can I get a visa? How long could I stay?

— Determined in Delhi


As direct listing looms, Palantir insiders are accelerating stock sales

While we count down to the September 23 premiere of NYSE: PLTR, Danny Crichton looked at the “robust secondary market” that has allowed some investors to acquire shares early.

“Given the number of people involved and the number of shares bought and sold over the past 18 months, we can get some insight regarding how insiders perceive Palantir’s value,” he writes.


Use ‘productive paranoia’ to build cybersecurity culture at your startup

Vector illustration of padlocks and keys in a repeating pattern against a blue background.

Image Credits: JakeOlimb / Getty Images

Zack Whittaker interviewed Bugcrowd CTO, founder and chairman Casey Ellis about the best practices he recommends for creating a startup culture that takes security seriously.

“It’s an everyone problem,” said Ellis, who encouraged founders to promote the notion of “productive paranoia.”

Now that the threat envelope includes everyone from marketing to engineering, employees need to “internalize the fact that bad stuff can and does happen if you do it wrong,” Ellis said.

Dawn Capital closes another $400M fund to focus on B2B software

Dawn Capital, the London-based VC that focuses on B2B software, has closed its fourth and largest fund: $400 million that it plans to use to continue investing in early stage startups. Oversubscribed and closed (all remotely) within six months of launching in the midst of a global health pandemic, the news underscores how VCs — and their investors — continue to see opportunity in the region, despite the many uncertainties that hang over us right now.

“European founders are doing really well, with lots of good stories in our portfolio already, and they’re just getting better,” said Haakon Overli, Dawn’s co-founder and a general partner, in an interview.

Overli believes we’re in the beginning of a big wave in Europe, where we will see not just more promising B2B startups emerge, but more of them scale within Europe rather than decamp to the US, or sell early to a bigger rival.

Dawn’s focus is currently on four main areas: data and analytics, security, fintech and “the future of work” — all categories that have seen a significant fillip in recent months as companies are forced to rethink how they operate — with significantly more employees working remotely — and are investing in updated systems to do so. Dawn estimates that the B2B software market in Europe is currently worth some $1 trillion.

To date, Dawn has invested in some 40 companies, and some of the notable names in its portfolio include data analytics startup Collibra, IZettle (which was acquired by PayPal) and machine learning company Dataiku. Last year, it closed a $125 million “opportunities” fund to make growth-stage, later investments but this current fund will bring it back to focus on smaller investments of between $5 million and $20 million. Considering that this a $400 million fund, that likely means a sizeable volume of startups entering Dawn’s portfolio, setting the VC up to remain a steady and strong player in Europe for years to come.

“Innovation thrives on instability. System-wide shocks drive change that startups can exploit ruthlessly, while incumbents are incapable of adjusting,” said Dawn cofounder and GP Norman Fiore, in a statement. “Historically, these shocks were either financial, technological or societal. In 2020, we’ve had all three at once: technology shock as the cloud came into its own, financial shock which will force society to do more with less, and a fundamental change to the way our working society is organised. We can’t wait to see where our entrepreneurs take us as we invest Dawn IV and greatly appreciate the support of all our investors in making this a successful fundraise.”

Do Ventures launches $50 million fund for Vietnamese startups, backed by Naver, Vertex and other notable LPs

Vy Le and Dzung Nguyen, the founders and general partners of Do Ventures, an investment firm focused on early-stage Vietnamese startups

Vy Le and Dzung Nguyen, the founders and general partners of Do Ventures, an investment firm focused on early-stage Vietnamese startups

New investment firm Do Ventures announced today the first closing of its fund for Vietnamese startups, which is backed by several of Asia’s most notable institutional investors. Called Do Ventures Fund I, the investment vehicle has hit more than half of its $50 million target, with limited partners including Korean internet giant Naver; Sea, whose businesses include Garena and Shopee; Singapore-based venture capital firm Vertex Holdings; and Korean app developer Woowa Brothers.

Do Ventures was founded by general partners Nguyen Manh Dung, former CEO of CyberAgent Ventures Vietnam and Thailand, and Vy Hoang Uyen Le, previously a general partner at ESP Capital. Its first fund will focus on early-stage companies and invest in seed to Series B rounds.

Both of its founders have a long track record of working with Vietnamese startups. Nguyen was an early investor in companies including Tiki.vn, one of Vietnam’s largest online marketplaces; food delivery platform Foody.vn; and digital marketing company CleverAds. Before she became an investor, Le was a serial entrepreneur and served as chief executive officer at fashion e-commerce company Chon.vn and VinEcom, the e-commerce project launched by Vietnamese real estate conglomerate Vingroup.

In an email, Le told TechCrunch that Do Ventures Fund I is industry agnostic, but will structure its investments into two tiers. The first will consist of B2C platforms, including education, healthcare and social commerce, that serve younger users, and are addressing changes in consumer behavior caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The second tier will include B2B platforms that can provide services for companies in the first tier, and allow them to expand regionally with SaaS solutions for data and e-commerce services.

Do Ventures’ founders say that between 2016 and 2019, the amount of startup funding in Vietnam grew eight-fold to $861 million last year. But there are still only a few funds that focus specifically on the country, which means early-stage Vietnamese startups often run into funding gaps.

One of the firm’s goals is to help founders weather the impact of COVID-19, so their companies can continue growing in spite of the pandemic.

“We hope tech startups can enable traditional businesses to digitize faster and better adapt to the new normal,” Le said. “For consumers, we hope tech startups can transform customer experience in all aspects of daily life, and bring more accessibility to consumers in remote areas.”

The firm will take a hands-on approach to its investments, helping companies develop new business models. Do Ventures plans to set up an automatic reporting system that collects data about how its portfolio companies are performing, which its general partners say will enable them support startups’ operations, including product development, business organization, supply chain development, and overseas expansion.

Almost everything you need to know about SPACs

Feeling as if you should better understand special purpose acquisition vehicles – or SPACS — than you do? You aren’t alone.

Like most casual observers, you’re probably already aware that Paul Ryan now has a SPAC, as does baseball executive Billy Beane and Silicon Valley stalwart Kevin Hartz. You probably know, too, that entrepreneur Chamath Palihapitiya seemed to kick off the craze around SPACS — blank-check companies that are formed for the purpose of merging or acquiring other companies — in 2017 when he raised $600 million for a SPAC. Called Social Capital Hedosophia Holdings, it was ultimately used to take a 49% stake in the British spaceflight company Virgin Galactic.

But how do SPACS come together in the first place, how they work exactly, and should you be thinking of launching one? We talked this week with a number of people who are right now focused on almost nothing but SPACs to get our questions — and maybe yours, too — answered.

First, why are these things suddenly spreading like weeds?

Kevin Hartz — who we spoke with after his $200 million blank-check company made its stock market debut on Tuesday — said their popularity ties in part to “Sarbanes Oxley and the difficulty in taking a company public the traditional route.”

Troy Steckenrider, an operator who has partnered with Hartz on his newly public company, said the growing popularity of SPACs also ties to a “shift in the quality of the sponsor teams,” meaning that more people like Hartz are shepherding these vehicles versus “people who might not be able to raise a traditional fund historically.”

Indeed, according to the investment bank Jefferies, 76% of last year’s SPACs were sponsored by industry executives who “typically have public company experience or have sold their prior business and are seeking new opportunities,” up from 65% in 2018 and 32% in 2017.

Don’t forget, too, that there are whole lot of companies that have raised tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in venture capital and whose IPO plans may have been derailed or slowed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some need a relatively frictionless way to get out the door, and there are plenty of investors who would like to give them that push.

How does one start the process of creating a SPAC?

The process is really no different than a traditional IPO, explains Chris Weekes, a managing director in the capital markets group at the investment bank Cowen. “There’s a roadshow that will incorporate one-on-one meetings between institutional investors and the SPAC’s management team” to drum up interest in the offering.

At the end of it, institutional investors like mutual funds, private equity funds, and family offices buy into the offering, along with a smaller percentage of retail investors.

Who can form a SPAC?

Basically anyone who wants to create one and who can persuade shareholders to buy its shares.

These SPACs all seem to sell their shares at $10 apiece. Why?

Easier accounting? Tradition? It’s not entirely clear, though Weekes says $10 has “always been the unit price” for SPACs and continues to be, with the very occasional exception, such as with Bill Ackman’s Pershing Square Capital Management.

Last month it launched a $4 billion SPAC that sold units for $20 each.

Have SPACS changed structurally over the years?

Funny you should ask! This gets a little more technical, but when buying a unit of a SPAC, institutional investors typically get a share of common stock and a warrant or a fraction of a warrant. A warrant is security that entitles the holder to buy the underlying stock of the issuing company at a fixed price at a later date; warrants are used as deal sweeteners to keep investors involved with a company.)

Earlier in time, when a SPAC announced the company it planned to buy, institutional investors in the SPAC — who had to sign NDA-type agreements — would vote yes to the deal if they wanted to keep their money in, and no to the deal if they wanted to redeem their shares and get out. But sometimes investors would team up and threaten to torpedo the deal if they weren’t given founder shares or other preferential treatment. (“There was a bit of bullying in the marketplace,” says Weekes.)

Regulators have since separated the right to vote and the right to redeem one’s shares, meaning investors today can vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and still redeem their capital, making the voting process more perfunctory and enabling most deals to go through as planned.

Does that mean SPACs are more safe? They haven’t had the best reputation historically.

They’ve “already gone through their junk phase,” suspects Albert Vanderlaan, an attorney in the tech companies group of Orrick, the global law firm. “In the ’90s, these were considered a pretty junky situation,” he says. “They were abused by foreign investors. In the early 2000s, they were still pretty disfavored.” Things could turn on a dime again, he suggests, but over the last couple of years, the players have changed for the better, which is making a big difference.

How much of the money raised does a management team like Hartz and Steckenrider keep?

The rough rule of thumb is 2% of the SPAC value, plus $2 million, says Steckenrider. The 2% roughly covers the initial underwriting fee; the $2 million then covers the operating expenses of the SPAC, from the initial cost to launch it to legal preparation, accounting, and NYSE or NASDAQ filing fees. It’s also “provides the reserves for the ongoing due diligence process,” he says.

Is this money like the carry that VCs receive, and do a SPAC’s managers receive it no matter how the SPAC performs?

Yes and yes.

Here’s how Hartz explains it: “On a $200 million SPAC, there’s a $50 million ‘promote’ that is earned at $10 a share if the transaction consummates at $10 a share,” which, again, is always the traditional size of a SPAC. “But if that company doesn’t perform and, say, drops in half over a year or 18-month period, then the shares are still worth $25 million.”

Hartz calls “egregious,” though he and Steckenrider formed their SPAC in exactly the same way, rather than structure it differently.  

Says Steckrider, “We ultimately decided to go with a plain-vanilla structure [because] as a first-time spec sponsor, we wanted to make sure that the investment community had as as easy as a time as possible understanding our SPAC. We do expect to renegotiate these economics when we go and do the [merger] transaction with the partner company,” he adds.

From a mechanics standpoint, what happens right after SPAC has raised its capital?

The money is moved into a blind trust until the management team decides which company or companies it wants to acquire. Share prices don’t really move much during this period as no investors know (or should know, at least) what the target company will be yet.

Does a $200 million SPAC look to acquire a company that’s valued at around the same amount?

No. According to law firm Vinson & Elkins, there’s no maximum size of a target company — only a minimum size (roughly 80% of the funds in the SPAC trust).

In fact, it’s typical for a SPAC to combine with a company that’s two to four times its IPO proceeds in order to reduce the dilutive impact of the founder shares and warrants.

In the case of Hartz’s and Steckenrider’s SPAC (it’s called “one”), they are looking to find a company “that’s approximately four to six times the size of our vehicle of $200 million,” says Harzt, “so that puts us around in the billion dollar range.”

Where does the rest of the money come from if the partner company is many times larger than the SPAC itself?

It comes from PIPE deals, which, like SPACs, have been around forever and come into and out of fashion. These are literally “private investments in public equities” and they get tacked onto SPACs once management has decided on the company with which it wants to merge.

It’s here that institutional investors get different treatment than retail investors, which is why some industry observers are wary of SPACs.

Specifically, a SPAC’s institutional investors — along with maybe new institutional investors that aren’t part of the SPAC — are told before the rest of the world what the acquisition target is under confidentiality agreements so that they can decide if they want to provide further financing for the deal via a PIPE transaction.

The information asymmetry seems unfair. Then again, they’re restricted not only from sharing information but also from trading the shares for a minimum of four months from the time that the initial business combination is made public. Retail investors, who’ve been left in the dark, can trade their shares any time.

How long does a SPAC have to get all of this done?

It varies, but the standard seems to be around two years.

What do you call that phase of the deal after the partner company has been identified and agrees to merge, but before the actual combination?

That’s called De-SPACing and during this stage of things, the SPAC has to obtain shareholder approval through that vote we talked about, followed by a review and commenting by the SEC.

Toward the end of this stretch — which can take 12 to 18 weeks — bankers aretaking out the new operating team and, in the style of a traditional roadshow, getting the story out to analysts who cover the segment so when the combined new company is revealed, it receives the kind of support that keeps public shareholders interested in a company.

Will we see more people from the venture world like Palihapitiya and Hartz start SPACs?

So far, says Weekes, he’s seeing less interest from VCs in sponsoring SPACs and more interest from them in selling their portfolio companies to a SPAC. As he notes, “Most venture firms are typically a little earlier stage investors and are private market investors, but there’s an uptick of interest across the board, from PE firms, hedge funds, long-only mutual funds.”

That might change if Hartz has anything to do with it. “We’re actually out in the Valley, speaking with all the funds and just looking to educate the venture funds,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of requests in. We think we’re going to convert [famed VC] Bill Gurley from being a direct listings champion to the SPAC champion very soon.”

In the meantime, Hartz says his SPAC doesn’t have a specific target in mind yet. But he does takes issue with the word “target,” preferring instead “partner” company.

“A target sounds like we’re trying to assassinate somebody.”

Lightspeed raises $275 million fund for India

Lightspeed India Partners on Tuesday announced it has closed $275 million from LPs for its third fund as the top American venture firm looks to ramp up its investments in the world’s second-largest internet market.

The new fund, its biggest for India, will enable Lightspeed India Partners to make early stage bets on more than two dozen startups in the region, said Hemant Mohapatra, a partner at the firm, in an interview with TechCrunch.

The announcement comes as the firm, which began investing in India in 2007, has made two high-profile partial exits in the past year from budget-lodging startup Oyo and edtech giant Byju’s that together delivered cash returns of more than $900 million.

Some of its other major bets including backing business-to-business marketplace Udaan, which was valued at more than $2.75 billion last year, local social media platform ShareChat, which is in advanced stages of discussions to raise capital at more than $1 billion valuation, and SaaS startups DarwinBox, Yellow Messenger, and OkCredit.

The firm, which has six partners in the region, closed its first dedicated fund for India, of $135 million, in 2015. In 2018, it closed its second fund for the region, which was $175 million in size. But the venture firm has invested more than $750 million to date.

The Indian arm, which typically invests at early stages of a startup, continues to work with its global mothership for writing bigger checks to support some portfolio startups at later phases. (More than 80% of its investments have been committed to firms at Seed or Series A stages in India.)

“That’s one of the strongest points of differentiation we have. There are not many venture firms that have such a global presence. Our synergy with the global fund will continue,” said Mohapatra. (Lightspeed also has a big presence in China. Last year, its China arm announced a $560 million fund.)

Lightspeed partners in India. From left: Bejul Somaia, Akshay Bhushan, Harsha Kumar, Dev Khare, Vaibhav Agrawal, and Hemant Mohapatra. (Photo credit: Lightspeed)

Lightspeed, which earlier this year closed a $4 billion fund globally, is one of the handful of American venture firms that aggressively scouts for deals in India. Sequoia, its global peer, announced two venture funds, of $1.35 billion in size, last month for India and Southeast Asia. 11 of its early-stage bets have grown to become unicorns in the last 14 years in this region.

Mohapatra said the Indian startup ecosystem has matured in recent years, demonstrating high-scale growth and delivering big outcomes. It’s also seeing more exits than ever before. Earlier this month, Byju’s acquired WhiteHat Jr., an 18-month-old startup that teaches coding to children, for $300 million in an all-cash deal.

Indian startups raised more than $14.5 billion last year — a record for the local community. The coronavirus has decelerated the funding spree in India, like in any other market.

Mohapatra said a fraction of the firm’s portfolio startups has been disrupted by the virus, but noted that most startups are marching ahead unfazed and some have accelerated in recent months.

“Lightspeed believes this is when the best entrepreneurs and companies of the future will emerge. Strong founders are utilizing the tailwinds of India’s digital ecosystem growth to build out a new future and Lightspeed is strongly committed to backing these founders,” the firm said in a statement.

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.”

Alexis Ohanian is leaving Initialized Capital

Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is leaving Initialized Capital, the investment firm he co-founded in 2011 with Garry Tan, as first reported by Axios and confirmed by TechCrunch. The move comes weeks after Ohanian publicly stepped down from the Reddit board of directors, with Y Combinator president Michael Seibel taking his spot.

Ohanian launched Initialized Capital back in 2011 with a $7 million investment vehicle. Since then, the San Francisco-based firm has grown immensely and made early-stage bets in companies like Flexport, Instacart, Cruise, Coinbase and Codecademy. Most recently, it closed a $225 million investment vehicle in 2018, its fourth fund to date.

Ohanian is leaving Initialized Capital to work on “a new project that will support a generation of founders in tech and beyond,” the firm said in a statement to TechCrunch. According to the Axios story, Ohanian is leaving Initialized to work more closely on pre-seed efforts. On its website, Initialized details that many teams it talks to already have launched products and have a plan to earn revenue.

“We understand that products and business models evolve, but it’s good to see in a very concrete way how teams are able to ship products and work together,” the firm wrote. If Ohanian raises a pre-seed fund, it will be interesting to see how he changes this methodology.

Ohanian did not directly respond to a request for comment.

It’s worth mentioning that partner departures in venture capital are rarely crystal clear break-ups. As Initialized confirmed, Ohanian will remain involved in the firm’s existing investment vehicles and portfolio companies due to legal ties. It is unclear if Ohanian will remain on any board he is on. Ro, a company in which Ohanian has a board seat, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

One big question is whether Ohanian’s departure would trigger a key-man clause in the firm’s limited partnership agreement. “Key-man” clauses, which are typical in limited partner agreements, require that certain designated people (typically the main partners in a firm) must stay continuously employed at a firm and be active investors. When a key-man clause is triggered, limited partners often have a variety of tools, ranging from control over new hiring to outright ending the investing at a fund, in order to protect their investment in a fund.

In this case, it would be surprising if Alexis Ohanian wasn’t a key man, as he is one of the leading general partners and a founder of the firm.

Ohanian stepped away from being involved in the day to day of Reddit in 2018, and recently left his board seat at the company following protests against police brutality. The co-founder urged Reddit to fill the seat with a Black board member. Reddit ultimately selected Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel to fill the position.

Tan, the other founding partner of Initialized, helped YC grow in its early days and helped build the famed accelerator’s internal software system and late-stage funding program. “[Tan] will continue to lead Initialized Capital into the future, finding and funding great entrepreneurs as he has done for nearly a decade,” the firm wrote in a statement to TechCrunch. “Garry and Alexis remain committed to each other as long-standing friends and business partners. The firm fully supports Alexis in his future pursuits.”

Initialized Capital currently has $500 million assets under management and has backed over 200 companies to date.

Additional reporting by Danny Crichton.

Masayoshi Son resigns from board of Alibaba; defends SoftBank Group’s investment strategy

SoftBank Group founder Masayoshi Son said on Thursday he is leaving the board of Jack Ma’s Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group today, a month after Ma left the board of Son’s technology group.

Son said he sees the move as “graduating” from Alibaba Group’s board, his most successful investment to date, as he swiftly moved to defend the Japanese group’s investment strategy, which has been the subject of scrutiny and public mockery in recent quarters.

Son said his conglomerate’s holding has recovered to the pre-coronavirus outbreak levels. The firm has benefited from the rising value of Alibaba Group and its stake in Sprint, following the telecom operator’s merger with T-Mobile. Son said his firm has seen an internet rate of return (or IRR, a popular metric used by VC funds to demonstrate their performance) of 25%.

In a shareholder meeting today, he said he was worried that many people think that SoftBank is “finished” and are calling it “SoftPunku,” a colloquial used in Japan which means a broken thing. All combined, SoftBank’s shareholder value now stands at $218 billion, he said.

Son insisted that he was leaving the board of Alibaba Group, a position he has held since 2005, on good terms and that there hadn’t been any disagreements between him and Ma.

Son’s move follows Jack Ma, who co-founded Alibaba Group, leaving the board of SoftBank last month after assuming the position for 13 years. Son famously invested $20 million in Alibaba 20 years ago. Early this year, SoftBank still owned shares worth $100 billion in Alibaba.

A range of SoftBank’s recent investments has spooked the investment world. The firm, known for writing big checks, has publicly stated that its investment in ride-hailing giant Uber, office space manager WeWork, and a range of other startups has not provided the return it had hoped.

Several of these firms, including Oyo, a budget-lodging Indian startup, has moreover been hit hard by the pandemic.

Son, who has raised $20 billion by selling T-Mobile stake, said after factoring in other of his recent deals SoftBank had accumulated $35 billion or 80% of the total planned unloading of investments.

Lo Toney has some ideas about how to (really) bring VC into the 21st century

Last week, we suggested that for a truly diverse venture industry, the limited partners who provide investing capital to VCs — institutions like universities and hospital systems — need to start incorporating diversity mandates into their work. Say a venture firm wanted to secure a commitment from the University of Texas System; it would first need to agree, in writing, to pour a certain percentage of its capital into startups founded by underrepresented groups.

Given how fragmented the world of institutional investing is, the idea might sound impracticable. But Lo Toney, one of a small but growing number of black VCs in Silicon Valley, suggests it might actually be inevitable. He points, for example, to pension funds like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, which manages the assets of 1.6 million employees, many of whom “look like me,” says Toney. Imagine what might happen if they started asking more questions about who is managing their money.

Not that Toney is waiting on this development. He doesn’t need to. As a former partner at Comcast Ventures, then GV, Toney was able to secure Alphabet as the anchor investor in his own investment firm, Plexo Capital, whose debut vehicle has been funding venture outfits, as well as making direct startup investments.

Now, with renewed attention being paid to the lack of people of color throughout the startup industry, Plexo has LPs knocking on its door again, and Toney’s plans for that second fund involve not just helping his current fund managers but helping more investors of color form venture firms of their own.

It’s an extension of work that’s already in progress. Plexo, which closed its debut fund last year with $42.5 million — including from the Ford Foundation, Intel, Cisco Systems, the Royal Bank of Canada, and Hampton University — already has stakes in 20 funds, including Precursor Ventures, Ingressive Capital, Kindred Ventures, Equal Ventures, Boldstart Ventures, and Work-Bench.

Most are run exclusively or in part by people of color. “We have enough reports from the Harvard’s and the McKinsey’s of the world to show us that diversity at all levels matters,” says Toney. “We see better performance from companies with diverse boards, public companies with diverse management teams; when there are diverse managers, we see better performance.”

With his second fund, he’s hoping to turn the dial even further. More specifically, he says, Plexo aims to “develop a Y Combinator of sorts” that enables “a great investor” to transition into “a great fund manager.”

Part of the idea is to institutionalize the work that Plexo already does in an ad-hoc way around helping managers to prepare marketing materials, pitch their strategy to both high-net-worth individuals and institutions, and manage LP communications after that base of investors has been established. And those are just three aspects of the many elements of fund management with which Plexo can help, he says.

Plexo is also exploring “putting a strategy in place [to] help a lot of these younger GPs with working capital, to be able to incur the expenses that it takes to start a fund, [given that] it can take, on average, a million dollars.” (That’s taking into account no salary during the fundraising process, travel expenses, service providers, and the money that a general partner typically has to kick in to the fund.)

It’s a model that Plexo thinks it can use to move things along faster than were it solely investing in individual companies. Still, Plexo can’t do it alone. Neither can its friends and allies, including Elliott Robinson of Bessemer Venture Partners, Frederik Groce of Storm Ventures and Sydney Sykes of the retail startup Dolls Kill, all of whom separately steer a young organization called BLCK VC that works to connect and advance black venture investors.

Toney remains especially concerned over the few people of color at bigger and later-stage venture firms — investors who might otherwise have the networks and know-how to support black entrepreneurs as their startups mature.

It’s a valid worry. According to a 2018 report in The Information, there were just seven black decision-makers at the 102 venture firms with more than $250 million under management, and those numbers are relatively unchanged today. The dearth is particularly glaring for black investors who are women.

The industry could, slowly, over time, grow more inclusive of underrepresented groups. But it would happen faster if institutions that accept federal funding or else manage the money of public employees decided to focus more on the issue. In fact, it’s conceivable that the constituents of these institutions — including donors and employees through their pension fund contributions — might eventually insist on it.

“There’s often not really a collective realization of the power and influence that one can have within our asset class to actually affect change,” says Toney. “I suspect — and I don’t know this, and I’m not part of any initiatives — that we’ll see more of these [pension] funds take a stance, and that [this shift] will come from the bottom up, from their employee base.”

It might not take much to get the ball rolling. “They could put the pressure on our industry even simply asking questions [including]: ‘How many black partners do you have?’ ‘How many women do you have?’ ‘What does the composition of your portfolio look like?’”

“Even just asking those questions as a first step — that in and of itself would affect change,” he says, “because who wants to look bad when answering those questions?”

Steve Case and Clara Sieg on how the COVID-19 crisis differs from the dot-com bust

Steve Case and Clara Sieg of Revolution recently spoke on TechCrunch’s new series, Extra Crunch Live. Throughout the hour-long chat, we touched on numerous subjects, including how diverse founders can take advantage during this downturn and how remote work may lead to growth outside Silicon Valley. The pair have a unique vantage point, with Steve Case, co-founder and former CEO of AOL turned VC, and Clara Sieg, a Stanford-educated VC heading up Revolution’s Silicon Valley office.

Together, Case and Sieg laid out how the current crisis is different from the dot-com bust of the late nineties. Because of the differences, their outlook is bullish on the tech sector’s ability to pull through.

And for everyone who couldn’t join us live, the full video replay is embedded below. (You can get access here if you need it.)

Case said that during the run-up to the dot-com bust, it was a different environment.

“When we got started at AOL, which was back in 1985, the Internet didn’t exist yet,” Case said. “I think 3% of people were online or online an hour a week. And it took us a decade to get going. By the year 2000, which is sort of the peak of AOL’s success, we had about half of all the U.S. internet traffic, and the market value soared. That’s when suddenly, when any company with a dot-com name was getting funded. Many were going public without even having much in the way of revenues. That’s not we’re dealing with now.”

Venture partner Sieg agreed, pointing to the number of funds currently available in the venture capital asset class. Unlike twenty years ago when valuations were based on unsubstantiated future growth, the current crisis happened during a period of steady expansion. Because of this, funds and startups are in a better position to make it to the other side of this pandemic, she said.

Sieg pointed to one of Revolution Venture’s portfolio companies, Mint House, which aims to build a better temporary housing experience for business travelers. The company raised $15 million in May 2019, and according to Sieg, it focused on being capital-efficient from the start instead of chasing growth for its own sake. She said the company went from almost 90% occupancy to zero overnight and yet now, after a slight pivot, it’s back to a 60-65% occupancy rate by moving quickly to providing housing to healthcare workers.

The company’s strong balance sheet gave it room to pivot, she said.

And yet there are challenges. Sieg pointed out that for the first time in Revolution’s history, the firm’s funds are investing without meeting founder teams in person. It’s a longer process than the old way, she said, though noted that it levels the playing field for founders outside of the traditional circle. Investors have more time on their hands now, so she encourages founders to be persistent and keep reaching out for virtual meetings.

“I think it is important to take advantage of this time where you have people sitting around with more availability on their calendars and more willingness to engage,” Sieg said. “The nice thing about removing some of the in-person components is there’s a stronger focus on market opportunity, product and company, and the real metrics that [founders] can show. Removing some of that person-to-person noise and just focusing on the business means that a lot of these biases are going to be overcome.”

The pair said they believe some companies will have a strong tailwind coming out of this crisis. Case and Sieg pointed to trends that are rapidly accelerating: e-commerce, telehealth and direct-to-consumer companies. In this new environment, Case said location will matter more than ever. While he points out there are many smart people in Silicon Valley, there’s a reason why, for example, Monsanto is in St. Louis. “Some of the smartest people around healthtech are in Minneapolis where UnitedHealth is, or Rochester, Minnesota where Mayo is, or with MD Anderson in Texas or in Ohio with Cleveland Clinic or Johns Hopkins in Baltimore.”

“There are also specific categories that resonate now more than ever,” Sieg said. “We’re investors in a company called Bright Cellars that ships wine to your house. Obviously, people are staying at home, and they’re drinking a lot more. And [Bright Cellars] has been positively impacted by [stay-at-home orders] from a revenue perspective. There’s a company like Bloomscape, which is in Detroit, Michigan, and they’ve had their challenges with keeping their supply chain up and running, but they managed to do so. People are finding a lot of comfort in gardening and taking care of plants because it is something that can be done at home and feel like you’re engaged with something that’s alive, and you see the progression when you’re stuck at home.”

Steve Case is looking at founders who are managing today, but also imagining for the future. One example is Clear, he said, which fast-tracked the development of a flight pass for healthcare workers. And now, when people start flying again, the company will return to its strong core business while having additional momentum around this new business that provides passes to hospitals and arenas. This wouldn’t have happened if it was not for this crisis, Case said.

“I think [the COVID-19 crisis] is one of those shake-the-snowglobe moments where things are being reassessed,” Case said, “and one of the areas I think it’s going to accelerate is what I’ve called the ‘third wave of the internet.’”

Case explained he wrote about this new phase a few years ago in his book, aptly titled “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future.” According to Case’s thesis, the first wave was when AOL and other providers were introducing and onboarding users to the Internet. The second wave was when apps and software could be created using existing infrastructure. And now, according to this thought, the internet is meeting the real world with new solutions. The current crisis is accelerating the development of telehealth, smart cities, and industries in regulated sectors.

“Perseverance is going to matter more,” Case said. “The tough problems don’t lend themselves to overnight successes. It’s going to be a slog, and kind of like AOL of a 10-year in the making overnight success.”

The dot-com bust upended a lot of startups, and the COVID-19 crisis will do the same though with different results.

“The third wave of the Internet is when the Internet meets the real world, Steve Case said. “It’s things like health care, food, smart cities, and many other areas that haven’t changed much in the first and second waves that are going to change a lot in the third wave. We believe it’s going to be a different playbook.”


Igloo raises $8.2M to bring insurance to more people in Southeast Asia

Singapore-based Igloo, formerly known as Axinan, has raised $8.2 million as the insurance-tech startup looks to broaden its foothold in half a dozen Southeast Asian markets and Australia.

InVent, a corporate venture capital arm of telecommunications firm Intouch Holdings, led Igloo’s extended Series A round, the startup told TechCrunch. Existing investors Openspace Ventures, a venture capital fund that invests in Southeast Asia, and Linear Capital, a Shanghai-based early-stage venture capital firm focusing on tech-driven startups, participated in this round, which makes four-year-old Igloo’s to-date raise to $16 million. It raised about $1 million in its Seed financing round.

Igloo — founded by Wei Zhu, who previously served as Chief Technology Officer at Grab — works with e-commerce and travel firms such as Lazada, RedDoorz, and Shopee in Southeast Asia to offer their customers insurance products that provide protection on electronics, and coverage on accidents and travel.

The startup, which also operates in Vietnam, Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, and Malaysia, said more than 15 million users have benefitted from its insurance products to date, and in the last one year it has processed more than 50 million transactions.

Igloo, which rebranded from Axinan this month, said insurance products are proving especially useful to — and popular among — people during the coronavirus outbreak.

Raunak Mehta, Chief Commercial Officer at Igloo, told TechCrunch that the startup has seen a surge in transactions and customer acquisitions in the last 45 days. “While some travel related business have seen a dip, the larger e-commerce business continues to see a surge,” he added.

“With COVID-19 impacting every facet of personal life and business, digitisation can help the world adjust to the new normal. This is especially apparent in insurance, where we can tap on digital channels for distribution and also for creating awareness,” said Zhu.

“We see that digital insurance is on the rise in Southeast Asia, and we believe that Igloo, with our digital-first approach and expansion of our product portfolio into personal health, accident and other related products can help fill those gaps and address consumers’ needs for personal well-being,” he added.

He said the digital insurance penetration remains low in Southeast Asia, and Igloo sees massive opportunity in the space. According to one estimate (PDF), Southeast Asia’s digital insurance market is currently valued at $2 billion and is expected to grow to $8 billion by 2025.

The startup, which competes with a handful of startups including Singapore Life and Saphron, will use the fresh capital to expand its business development and engineering teams and broaden its presence in the half-dozen markets. It is already engaging with telecom operators, banks, non-banking financial firms, and travel agencies, it said.

6 investment trends that could emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic

Rocio Wu
Contributor

Rocio Wu is a venture partner at F-Prime Capital who focuses on early-stage investments in software/applied AI, fintech and frontier tech investments.

While some U.S. investors might have taken comfort from China’s rebound, we still find ourselves in the early innings of this period of uncertainty.

Some epidemiologists have estimated that COVID-19 cases will peak in April, but PitchBook reports that dealmaking was down -26% in March, compared to February’s weekly average. The decline is likely to continue in coming weeks — many of the deals that closed last month were initiated before the pandemic, and there is a lag between when deals are made and when they are announced.

However, there’s still hope. A recent report concluded that because valuations are lower and there’s less competition for deals, “the best-performing vintages tend to be those that invest at the nadir of a downturn and into the early stage of recovery.” There are countless examples from the 2008 recession, including many highly valued VC-backed businesses such as WhatsApp, Venmo, Groupon, Uber, Slack and Square. Other early-stage VCs seem to have arrived at a similar conclusion.

Also, early-stage investing seems more resilient. During the last recession, angel and seed activity increased 34% as interest in the stage boomed during a period of prolonged growth.

Furthermore, there is still capital to be deployed in categories that interested investors before the pandemic, which may set the new order in a post-COVID-19 world. According to data provider Preqin Ltd., VC dry powder rose for a seventh consecutive year to roughly $276 billion in 2019, and another $21 billion were raised last quarter. And looking at the deals on the early-stage side that were made year to date, especially in March, the vertical categories that garnered the most funding were enterprise SaaS, fintech, life sciences, healthcare IT, edtech and cybersecurity.

Image Credits: PitchBook

That said, if VCs have the capital to deploy and are able to overcome the obstacle of “having never met in person,” here are six investment trends that could emerge when the pandemic is over.

1. Future of work: promoting intimacy and trust

It’s ‘bullshit’ that VCs are open for business right now (but that could change in a month)

Earlier today, to get a sense of what’s happening in the land of venture capital, the law firm Fenwick & West hosted a virtual roundtable discussion with New York investors Hadley Harris, a founding general partner with Eniac Ventures; Brad Svrluga, a co-founder and general partner of Primary Ventures; and Ellie Wheeler, a partner with Greylock.

Each investor is experiencing the coronavirus-driven lockdown in unique ways, unsurprisingly. Their professional experiences are very much in sync, however, and founders should know the bottom line is that they aren’t making brand-new bets at this very moment.

On the personal front, Wheeler is expecting her first child. Harris is enjoying lunch with his wife every day. Svrluga said that he hasn’t had so many consecutive meals with his kids in more than a decade. (He described this as a treat.)

Professionally, things have been more of a struggle. First, all have been swamped in recent weeks, trying to assess which of their startups are the most at risk, which are worth salvaging and which may be encountering unexpected opportunity — and how to address each of these scenarios.

They are so busy, in fact, that none is writing checks right now to founders who might be trying to reach them for the first time. Indeed, Harris takes issue with investors who’ve said throughout this crisis that they are still very open to pitches. “I’ve seen a lot of VCs talking about being open for business, and I’ve been pretty outspoken on Twitter that I think that’s largely bullshit and sends the wrong message to entrepreneurs.

“We’re completely swamped right now in terms of bandwidth” because of the work required by existing portfolio companies. Bandwidth, he added, “is our biggest constraint, not money.”

What happens when bandwidth is no longer such an issue? It’s worth noting that none thinks that meeting founders exclusively remotely is natural or normal or conducive to deal-making — not at their firms, in any case.

Wheeler noted that while “some accelerators and seed funds that are prolific have been doing this in some way, shape or form for a bit,” for “a lot of firms,” it’s just awkward to contemplate funding someone they have never met in person.

“The first part of the diligence process is the same, that’s not hard,” said Wheeler. “It’s meeting the team, visiting [the startup’s workspace], meeting our team. How do you do that [online]?” she asked. “How do you mimic what you pick up from spending time together [both] casually and formally? I don’t think people have figured that out,” she said, adding, “The longer this goes on, we’ll have to.”

As for what to pitch them anyway, each is far less interested in sectors that aren’t highly relevant to this new world. Harris said, for example, that now is not the time to float your new idea for a brick-and-mortar business. Wheeler separately observed that many people have discovered in recent weeks that “distributed teams and remote work are actually more viable and sustainable than people thought they were,” suggesting that related software is of continued interest to Greylock.

Svrluga said Primary Ventures is paying attention to software that enables more seamless remote work, too.  Telecommuting “has been a culture-positive event for the 18 people at my firm,” he said.

Naturally, the three were asked — by Fenwick attorney Evan Bienstock, who moderated the discussion — about downsizing, which each had noted was a nearly inescapable part of lengthening a startup’s runway right now. (“It sucks,” said Svrluga. “People are losing their jobs. But to continue to run teams with the same organizational structure as 60 days ago, [which was] the most favorable environment for building industries, you can’t do it.”)

Their uniform advice for management teams that have to cut is to cut deeply to prevent from having to do it a second time.

Though no one wants to part ways with the people who they’ve brought aboard, “no CEO has ever told me, ‘Dammit, we cut too far,’ ” said Svrluga, who has been through two downturns in his career. In contrast, “at least 30%” of the CEOs he has known admitted to not going far enough to insulate their business while also keeping its culture intact.

The “second cut hurts way more,” added Wheeler. “It’s the second [layoff] that really throws people.”

If you’re wondering what’s next, the VCs all said that they’ll be receptive to new ideas after working through layoffs and burn rates and projected runways, along with the new stimulus package that they’re trying to find a way to make work for their startups.

As for how soon that might be, Wheeler and Svrluga suggested the world might look less upside down in a month. They proposed that four or so more weeks should also give founders more needed time to adjust some of their expectations.

Harris seemed to agree. “It will probably be a gradual thing . . . I’m not sure what next week holds, but feel free to ping me in a month and I’ll let [founders] know if I think it’s opening up.”

‘A perfect storm for first time managers,’ say VCs with their own shops

Until very recently, it had begun to seem like anyone with a thick enough checkbook and some key contacts in the startup world could not only fund companies as an angel investor but even put himself or herself in business as a fund manager.

It helped that the world of venture fundamentally changed and opened up as information about its inner workings flowed more freely. It didn’t hurt, either, that many billions of dollars poured into Silicon Valley from outfits and individuals around the globe who sought out stakes in fast-growing, privately held companies — and who needed help in securing those positions.

Of course, it’s never really been as easy or straightforward as it looks from the outside. While the last decade has seen many new fund managers pick up traction, much of the capital flooding into the industry has accrued to a small number of more established players that have grown exponentially in terms of assets under management. In fact, talk with anyone who has raised a first-time fund and you’re likely to hear that the fundraising process is neither glamorous nor lucrative and that it’s paved with very short phone conversations. And that’s in a bull market.

What happens in what’s suddenly among the worst economic environments the world has seen? First and foremost, managers who’ve struck out on their own suggest putting any plans on the back burner. “I would love to be positive, and I’m an optimist, but I would have to say that now is probably one of the toughest times” to get a fund off the ground, says Aydin Senkut, who founded the firm Felicis Ventures in 2006 and just closed its seventh fund.

“It’s a perfect storm for first-time managers,” adds Charles Hudson, who launched his own venture shop, Precursor Ventures, in 2015.

Hitting pause doesn’t mean giving up, suggests Eva Ho, cofounder of the three-year-old, seed-stage L.A.-based outfit Fika Ventures, which last year closed its second fund with $76 million. She says not to get “too dismayed” by the challenges.

Still, it’s good to understand what a first-time manager is up against right now, and what can be learned more broadly about how to proceed when the time is right.

Know it’s hard, even in the best times

As a starting point, it’s good to recognize that it’s far harder to assemble a first fund than anyone who hasn’t done it might imagine.

Hudson knew he wanted to leave his last job as a general partner with SoftTech VC when the firm — since renamed Uncork Capital — amassed enough capital that it no longer made sense for it to issue very small checks to nascent startups. “I remember feeling like, Gosh, I’ve reached a point where the business model for our fund is getting in the way of me investing in the kind of companies that naturally speak to me,” which is largely pre-product startups.

Hudson suggests he miscalculated when it came to approaching investors with his initial idea to create a single GP fund that largely backs ideas that are too early for other VCs. “We had a pretty big LP based [at SoftTech] but what I didn’t realize is the LP base that’s interested in someone who is on fund three or four is very different than the LP base that’s interested in backing a brand new manager.”

Hudson says he spent a “bunch of time talking to fund of funds, university endowments — people who were just not right for me until someone pulled me aside and just said, ‘Hey, you’re talking to the wrong people. You need to find some family offices. You need to find some friends of Charles. You need to find people who are going to back you because they think this is a good idea and who aren’t quite so orthodox in terms of what they want to see in terms partner composition and all that.’”

Collectively, it took “300 to 400 LP conversations” and two years to close his first fund with $15 million. (It’s now raising its third pre-seed fund).

Ho says it took less time for Fika to close its first fund but that she and her partners talked with 600 people in order to close their $41 million debut effort, adding that she felt like a “used car salesman” by the end of the process.

Part of the challenge was her network, she says. “I wasn’t connected to a lot of high-net-worth individuals or endowments or foundations. That was a whole network that was new to me, and they didn’t know who the heck I was, so there’s a lot of proving to do.” A proof-of-concept fund instilled confidence in some of these investors, though Ho notes you have to be able to live off its economics, which can be miserly.

She also says that as someone who’d worked at Google and helped found the location data company Factual, she underestimated the work involved in running a small fund. “I thought, ‘Well, I’ve started these companies and run these big teams. How how different could it be?” But “learning the motions and learning what it’s really like to run the funds and to administer a fund and all responsibilities and liabilities that come with it . . . it made me really stop and think, ‘Do I want to do this for 20 to 30 years, and if so, what’s the team I want to do it with?’”

Investors will offer you funky deals; avoid these if you can

First-time managers often look to close on a big anchor investor as a positive indicator to other backers, and some LPs will take advantage of their real or perceived desperation to lock something down. Yet seizing certain opportunities can actually send the wrong signal, depending on the scenario.

In Hudson’s case, an LP offered him two options: either a typical LP agreement wherein the outfit would write a small check, or an option wherein it would make a “significant investment that would have been 40% of our first fund,” says Hudson.

Unsurprisingly, the latter offer came with a lot of strings. Namely, the LP said it wanted to have a “deeper relationship” with Hudson, which he took to mean it wanted a share of Precursor’s profits beyond what it would receive as a typical investor in the fund.

“It was very hard to say no to that deal, because I didn’t get close to raising the amount of money that I would have gotten if I’d said yes for another year,” says Hudson. He still thinks it was the right move, however. “I was just like, how do I have a conversation with any other LP about this in the future if I’ve already made the decision to give this away?”

Fika similarly received an offer that would have made up 25 percent of the outfit’s debut fund, but the investor wanted a piece of the management company. It was “really hard to turn down because we had nothing else,” recalls Ho. But she says that other funds Fika was talking with made the decision simpler. “They were like, ‘If you sign on to those terms, we’re out.” The team decided that taking a shortcut that could damage them longer term wasn’t worth it.

Your LPs have questions, but you should question LPs, too

More so than most first-time managers, Senkut started off with certain financial advantages, having been the first product manager at Google and enjoying the fruits of its IPO before leaving the outfit in 2005 along with many other Googleaires, as they were dubbed at the time.

It allowed him to start putting money to work immediately. Still, as he tells it, it was “not a friendly time a decade ago” to raise outside capital, with most solo general partners spinning out of other venture funds —  not search engines. As an outsider, to crack into the venture industry, he largely tried to shadow angel investor Ron Conway, working checks into some of the same deals that Conway was backing.

“If you want to get into the movie industry, you need to be in hit movies,” says Senkut. “If you want to get into the investing industry, you need to be in hits. And the best way to get into hits is to say, ‘Okay. Who has an extraordinary number of hits, who’s likely getting the best deal flow,’ because the more successful you are, the better companies you’re going to see, the better the companies that find you.”

Senkut has developed an enviable track record over time, including stakes in Credit Karma, which was just gobbled up by Intuit, and Plaid, sold in January to Visa. Those kinds of exits may give him more confidence than managers earlier in their careers might muster. Still, Senkut also says it’s very important for anyone raising a fund to not just answer LPs’ questions but to also ask the right questions of them.

He says, for example, that with Felicis’s newest fund, the team asked many managers outright about how many assets they have under management, how much of those assets are dedicated to venture and private equity, and how much of their allotment to each was already taken.

Felicis did this so it doesn’t find itself in a position of making a capital call that an investor can’t meet, especially given that in recent years, many institutional investors have been writing out checks to VCs at a faster pace than ever been before and have, in many cases, too much of their capital in the venture industry at this point.

In fact, Felicis added new managers who “had room” while cutting back some existing LPs “that we respected . .. because if you ask the right questions, it becomes clear whether they’re already 20% over-allocated [to the asset class] and there’s no possible way [they are] even going to be able to invest if they want to.”

It’s smart thinking and, when the market eventually eases up again, and new funds can again capture the attention of investors, certainly something to keep in mind.

Investors tell Indian startups to ‘prepare for the worst’ as Covid-19 uncertainty continues

Just three months after capping what was the best year for Indian startups, having raised a record $14.5 billion in 2019, they are beginning to struggle to raise new capital as prominent investors urge them to “prepare for the worst”, cut spending and warn that it could be challenging to secure additional money for the next few months.

In an open letter to startup founders in India, ten global and local private equity and venture capitalist firms including Accel, Lightspeed, Sequoia Capital, and Matrix Partners cautioned that the current changes to the macro environment could make it difficult for a startup to close their next fundraising deal.

The firms, which included Kalaari Capital, SAIF Partners, and Nexus Venture Partners — some of the prominent names in India to back early-stage startups — asked founders to be prepared to not see their startups’ jump in the coming rounds and have a 12-18 month runway with what they raise.

“Assumptions from bull market financings or even from a few weeks ago do not apply. Many investors will move away from thinking about ‘growth at all costs’ to ‘reasonable growth with a path to profitability.’ Adjust your business plan and messaging accordingly,” they added.

Signs are beginning to emerge that investors are losing appetite to invest in the current scenario.

Indian startups participated in 79 deals to raise $496 million in March, down from $2.86 billion that they raised across 104 deals in February and $1.24 billion they raised from 93 deals in January this year, research firm Tracxn told TechCrunch. In March last year, Indian startups had raised $2.1 billion across 153 deals, the firm said.

New Delhi ordered a complete nation-wide lockdown for its 1.3 billion people for three weeks earlier this month in a bid to curtail the spread of COVID-19.

The lockdown, as you can imagine, has severely disrupted businesses of many startups, several founders told TechCrunch.

Vivekananda Hallekere, co-founder and chief executive of mobility firm Bounce, said he is prepared for a 90-day slowdown in the business.

Founder of a Bangalore-based startup, which was in advanced stages to raise more than $100 million, said investors have called off the deal for now. He requested anonymity.

Food delivery firm Zomato, which raised $150 million in January, said it would secure an additional $450 million by the end of the month. Two months later, that money is yet to arrive.

Many startups are already beginning to cut salaries of their employees and let go of some people to survive an environment that aforementioned VC firms have described as “uncharted territory.”

Travel and hotel booking service Ixigo said it had cut the pay of its top management team by 60% and rest of the employees by up to 30%. MakeMyTrip, the giant in this category, also cut salaries of its top management team.

Beauty products and cosmetics retailer Nykaa on Tuesday suspended operations and informed its partners that it would not be able to pay their dues on time.

Investors cautioned startup founders to not take a “wait and watch” approach and assume that there will be a delay in their “receivables,” customers would likely ask for price cuts for services, and contracts would not close at the last minute.

“Through the lockdown most businesses could see revenues going down to almost zero and even post that the recovery curve may be a ‘U’ shaped one vs a ‘V’ shaped one,” they said.

The Station: Bird and Lime layoffs, pivots in a COVID-19 era and a $2.2 trillion deal

Hello folks, welcome back (or hi for the first time) to The Station, a weekly newsletter dedicated to the all the ways people and packages move around this world. I’m your host, Kirsten Korosec, senior transportation reporter at TechCrunch.

I also have started to publish a shorter version of the newsletter on TechCrunch . That’s what you’re reading now. For the whole enchilada — which comes out every Saturday — you can subscribe to the newsletter by heading over here, and clicking “The Station.” It’s free!

Before I get into the thick of things, how is everyone doing? This isn’t a rhetorical question; I’m being earnest. I want to hear from you (note my email below). Maybe you’re a startup founder, a safety driver at an autonomous vehicle developer, a venture capitalist, engineer or gig economy worker. I’m interested in how you are doing, what you’re doing to cope and how you’re getting around in your respective cities.

Please reach out and email me at kirsten.korosec@techcrunch.com to share thoughts, opinions or tips or send a direct message to @kirstenkorosec.

Micromobbin’

the station scooter1a

It was a rough week for micromobility amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Bird laid off about 30% of its employees due to the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus.

In a memo obtained by TechCrunch, Bird CEO Travis VanderZanden said:

The unprecedented COVID-19 crisis has forced our leadership team and the board of directors to make many extremely difficult and painful decisions relating to some of your teammates. As you know, we’ve had to pause many markets around the world and drastically cut spending. Due to the financial and operational impact of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, we are saying goodbye to about 30% of our team.

The fallout from COVID-19 isn’t limited to Bird. Lime is also reportedly considering laying off up to 70 people in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Meanwhile, Wheels deployed e-bikes with self-cleaning handlebars and brake levers to help reduce the risk of spreading the virus. NanoSeptic’s technology, which is powered by light, uses mineral nano-crystals to create an oxidation reaction that is stronger than bleach, according to the company’s website. NanoSeptic then implements that technology into skins and mats to turn anything from a mousepad to door handles to handlebars into self-cleaning surfaces.

The upshot to all of this: COVID-19 is turning shared mobility on its head. That means lay offs will continue. It also means companies like Wheels will try to innovate or pivot in hopes of staying alive.

While some companies pulled scooters off city streets, others changed how they marketed services. Some turned efforts to gig economy workers delivering food. Others, like shared electric moped service Revel, are focusing on healthcare workers.

Revel is now letting healthcare workers in New York rent its mopeds for free. To qualify, they just need to upload their employee ID. For now, the free rides for healthcare workers is limited to Brooklyn, Queens and a new service area from upper Manhattan down to 65th street. Revel expanded the area to include hospitals in one of the epicenters of the disease.

Revel is still renting its mopeds to the rest of us out there, although they encourage people to only use them for essential trips. As you might guess, ridership is down significantly. The company says it has stepped up efforts of disinfecting and cleaning the mopeds and helmets. Revel also operates in Austin, New York City, Oakland, and Washington. It has suspended service in Miami per local regulations.

Megan Rose Dickey (with a cameo from Kirsten Korosec)

Deal of the week

money the station

Typically, I would highlight a large funding round for a startup in the “deal of the week” section. This week, I have broadened my definition.

On Friday, the House of Representatives passed a historic stimulus package known as the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security or “CARES” act. President Donald Trump signed it hours later. The CARES act contains an unprecedented $2.2 trillion in total financial relief for businesses, public institutions and individuals hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

TechCrunch has just started what will be a multi-day dive into the 880-page document. And in the coming weeks, I will highlight anything related or relevant to the transportation industry or startups here.

I’ll focus today on three items: airlines, public transit and small business loans.

U.S. airlines are receiving $58 billion. It breaks down to about $25 billion in loans for commercial carriers, $25 billion in payroll grants to cover the 750,000 employees who work in the industry.  Cargo carriers will receive $4 billion in loans and $4 billion in grants. These loans come with some strings attached. Airlines will have to agree not to lay off workers through the end of September. The package forbids stock buybacks and issuing dividends to shareholders for a year after paying off one of the loans.

Public transit has been allocated $24.9 billion. The CARES Act provides almost three times the FY 2020 appropriations for this category, according to the American Public Transportation Association. The funds are distributed through a formula that puts $13.79 billion to urban, $2 billion to rural, $7.51 billion towards state of good repair and $1.71 billion for high-density state transit. APTA notes that these funds are for operating expenses to prevent, prepare for, and respond to COVID-19 beginning on January 20, 2020.

Amtrak received an additional $1 billion in grants, that directs $492 million of those funds towards the northeast corridor. The remaining goes to the national network.

Small business loans are a critical piece of the bill, and an area where many startups may be focused. There is a lot to unpack here, but in basic terms the act provides $350 billion in loans that will be administered by the Small Business Administration to businesses with 500 or fewer employees. These loans are meant to cover an eligible borrower’s payroll, rent, utilities expenses and mortgage interest for up to eight weeks. If the borrower maintains its workforce, some of the loan may be forgiven.

Venture-backed startups seeking relief may run into problems qualifying. It all comes down to how employees are counted. Normally, SBA looks at a company’s affiliates to determine if they qualify. So, a startup owned by a private equity firm is considered affiliated with the other companies in that firm’s portfolio, which could push employment numbers far beyond 500. That rule also seems to apply to venture-backed startups, in which more than 50% of voting stock is held by the VC.

The guidance on this is still spotty. But Fenwick & West, a Silicon Valley law firm, said in recent explainer that the rule has the “potential to be problematic for startups because the SBA affiliation rules are highly complex and could cause lenders to group together several otherwise unaffiliated portfolio companies of a single venture capital firm in determining whether a borrower has no more than 500 employees.”

One final note: The SBA has waived these affiliation rules for borrowers in the food services and food supply chain industry. It’s unclear what that might mean for those food automation startups or companies building autonomous vehicles for food delivery.

More deal$

COVID-19 has taken over, but deals are still happening. Here’s a rundown of some of partnerships, acquisitions and fundraising round that got our attention.

  • Lilium, the Munich-based startup that is designing and building vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft and aspires to run in its own taxi fleet, has raised $240 million in a funding round led by Tencent. This is being couched as an inside round with only existing investors, a list that included participation from previous backers such as Atomico, Freigeist and LGT. The valuation is not being disclosed. But sources tell us that it’s between $750 million and $1 billion.
  • Wunder Mobility acquired Australia-based car rental technology provider KEAZ. (Financial terms weren’t disclosed, but as part of the deal KEAZ founder and CTO Tim Bos is joining Wunder Mobility) KEAZ developed a mobile app and back-end management tool that lets rental agencies, car dealerships, and corporations provide shared access to vehicles.
  • Cazoo, a startup that buys used cars and then sells them online and delivers to them your door, raised $116 million funding. The round was led by DMG Ventures with General Catalyst, CNP (Groupe Frère), Mubadala Capital, Octopus Ventures, Eight Roads Ventures and Stride.VC also participating.
  • Helm.ai came out of stealth with an announcement that it has raised $13 million in a seed round that includes investment from A.Capital Ventures, Amplo, Binnacle Partners, Sound Ventures, Fontinalis Partners and SV Angel. Helm.ai says it developed software for autonomous vehicles that can skip traditional steps of simulation, on-road testing and annotated data set — all tools that are used to train and improve the so-called “brain” of the self-driving vehicle.
  • RoadSync, a digital payment platform for the transportation industry, raised a $5.7 million in a Series A led by Base10 Partners with participation from repeat investor Hyde Park Venture Partners and Companyon Ventures. The company developed cloud-based software that lets businesses invoice and accept payments from truck drivers, carriers and brokers. Their platform is in use at over 400 locations nationwide with over 50,000 unique transactions monthly, according to RoadSync.
  • Self-driving truck startup TuSimple is partnering with automotive supplier ZF to develop and produce autonomous vehicle technology, such as sensors, on a commercial scale. The partnership, slated to begin in April, will cover China, Europe and North America.

A final word

Remember, the weekly newsletter features even more mobility news and insights. I’ll leave ya’ll with this one chart from Inrix. The company has launched a U.S. traffic synopsis that it plans to publish every Monday. The chart shows traffic from the week of March 14 to March 20. The upshot: COVID-19 reduced traffic by 30% nationwide.

inrix traffic drop from covid

Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian on how to survive these crazy days (and what to learn from them)

Garry Tan and Alexis Ohanian founded Initialized Capital roughly nine years ago and they’ve closed four funds since, including most recently in late 2018.

That $225 million vehicle is roughly twice the size of their previous fund, but because of the coronavirus, the firm, and its portfolio companies — some of which include Opendoor, Instacart and Coinbase — could be facing a tougher road in 2020. Certainly, that’s true of nearly ever other venture firm and startup right now.

To get a sense of where the team is currently, what it’s telling its founders, whether it thinks the abrupt downturn might change founders’ behavior, as well as whether either thinks big tech should be broken up, we talked with the two last night about these issues and more. It was a fun conversation that you can check out here, beginning around the 23 minute mark. In the meantime, you can find highlights from our conversation right here. Among the many things we covered:

We first talked about how much runway startups need right now that the U.S. is largely closed for business.

Tan offered that because returning to normalcy could “well be six to nine months,” partly because the U.S. isn’t informally containing the virus and there’s not yet a vaccine for it. To “make sure you have the cash to last to the other side,” he said, founders need to think in terms of 18 months. “It’s a lot,” said Tan, “but that’s sort of what’s necessary, and that’s what we’ve been advising our portfolio companies.

The duo also talked about  how to actually squeeze 18 months of runway out of startup that hasn’t freshly raised a round.

Ohanian said to “renegotiate everything,” from office space to venture debt agreements. He also noted there are “obvious things that you get cut early, around like non-essential marketing,” saying, “I’m as bummed as the next person to not be able to go to Cannes Lions this year, but I think we all agree like these are very reasonable things to be cutting at times like this.”

Because Ohanian is fairly vocal on Twitter about U.S. efforts to contain the coronavirus and to help healthcare workers, we spent some time on this, too. 

Ohanian said that, “Like a lot of Americans, I’m pretty frustrated by the situation right now. I mean, I live in Florida, which I think is going to see some really staggering numbers [of sickened residents] here in the next couple of weeks [because of its] elderly population and . . .a governor that’s that’s taking too long to do the things we need to do to keep them safe.”

He added that he remains inspire by the “ingenuity and the resilience” of its citizens, including founders who’ve begun adapting to these new situations, including the Initialized portfolio companies Flexport, the logistics startup, and Ro, the tele-health startup that originally focused on men’s wellness.

Through a new initiative announced earlier this week, Flexport is “literally raising millions of dollars in donations to bring medical supplies to the Bay Area and to those healthcare workers,” noted Ohanian.

Ro is meanwhile offering a free Covid-19 assessment to anyone who wants to take it and if he or she is deemed at enough risk, Ro will connect that individual with a physician or RN. That medical professional can’t administer an FDA-approved test, Ohanian acknowledged, but it’s better than nothing, he suggested. “This is not a salve. This is not a magic wand at all. What hopefully this can do is give people more information quicker about the decisions they should be making about their own safety and the safety of people they might come in contact with.”

Naturally, we had to ask how a founder lands a check from Initialized, and whether the firm needs to see a product or momentum first.

On this front, Tan was clear that “no traction is fine,” explaining that the firm funded Around, a two-year-old, Redwood City, Ca.-based videoconferencing startup that this month announced $5.2 million in seed funding, with “a demo that kind of honestly barely worked” but whose approach to solving a particular problem really resonated with the team.

Tan also pointed to Instacart, the grocery delivery company that’s “doing insanely well right now,” as housebound Americans steer clear of grocery stores.

“When I met [founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta,” said Tan, “it was the early days of the iPhone app platform” and “everyone else was pitching that idea” at the same time. But where most ‘demoware’ is “jerky” or “not properly threaded,” Mehta’s “scrolled really smoothly and the images were properly threaded and I could see that he was a craftsman,” says Tan. As important to him, “Apoorva is not a person who accepts ‘no.’ He takes a no and turns it into a yes.” (Both Tan and Ohanian emphasized here that good salesmanship, meaning solid storytelling, can accomplish a lot.)

As for what’s happening day to day, we asked both if they’re spending time in board meetings, poring over financials and trying to figure out how keep the startups in their portfolio going during this downturn. They suggested they’d already done this before Covid-19 took hold in the U.S.

Said Tan, “Not to put other VCs on blast, but often they don’t actually keep track of the runway of their companies quite so closely. For us, we have quarterly reviews, [so] the day all this stuff happened, we immediately knew who we needed to spend time with. We’d started talking about this in February. I wore my first N95 mask to our retreat in Cabo San Lucas [early last month] and and people at the airport thought I was a little bit nuts, but it was already in our mind that [the virus] might come over here. So when we did our last portfolio review in February, we were already mindful of anyone who has short runway [because we wanted] to make sure we had that conversation.”

Added Tan, “There are some boards that I’m on where I was telling them this was going to happen, and they just didn’t believe me. But for a few teams, they were able to put the right things into place and start their fundraise a little bit earlier.”

Before we let them go, we asked if they had thoughts about the tech giants — on which we’re suddenly more reliant on ever  — being broken up, and whether they should be.

Ohanian, who famously cofounded the social media giant Reddit, declined to say much on this front, other than that Initialized has backed “companies that thrive in part because they’re giving everyone else a chance to compete with Amazon. So I don’t know if that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what else would.”

For his part, Tan said he “probably” doesn’t want the government to intervene with big tech, but he’s concerned about their rise (and rise).  Said Tan, “What I want is our startups to be successful, and when they become successful, that they arm thousands of small businesses, medium-size businesses, and the retailers that could not possibly to hire an engineer to actually survive. . . because otherwise, Amazon’s going to run the table. 

We also asked if they worry big tech companies are more hesitant to shop, given the regulatory scrutiny they have been under. 

Tan suggested that Initialized hasn’t counted on M&A activity for its exits for some time.  “What’s weird about startups [[is that back] in 2008 when we came up, M&A was a much bigger part of what people talked about. These days, everything we fund, we want to fund it for the IPO.”

The reality, he continued is that none of the tech giants are acquisitive because they “sort of don’t know what to do with the cash. [There’s] definitely a Peter Thiel-ism that I totally believe, which is that Google is sitting on a cash hoard, and when you sit on a cash hoard, it means, ‘I don’t know what else to do. There are not projects that have a positive net IRR that I can put that money into. I could not hire people to go work on a thing that could make more money.’

Said Tan, “If anything, these companies have sort of become giant babysitting places for very, very smart tech people.”

Not last, we talked about their hopes for what comes next.

Ohanian is choosing to remain optimistic on a lot of fronts right now, he suggested, and that’s unsurprisingly true of his work. As he told us, “One of the fortunate parts about doing early-stage investing is also that this [frightening moment] is a time when founders are going to come solving real problems. I actually expect the next two years to be opportunities for some really great and hopefully impactful companies to get formed. “In the wake of all this,  [founders] can not just solve really important business leads; they can also do some good in the process.”

Before we parted ways, we also talked about founders and whether some had blown it by not taking their companies public while the window was still open.

Both Tan and Ohanian seemed to defend founders who’ve chosen to stay private longer in recent years while ceding that staying private isn’t good for employees or investors or the founders themselves. Indeed, “a lot of it comes back to governance,” said Ohanian, with both he and Tan expressing equal parts dismay over activist investors and the perpetual shareholder rights that founders have been demanding to protect themselves from said activist investors. (Ohanian called such voting rights an “ugly hack.”)

Both sang the praises of Long Term Stock Exchange — the stock exchange created by entrepreneur Eric Ries — and what it hopes to accomplish, which is to make it safer to go public without worrying about activist investors by rewarding longer-term shareholders who believe in a company.

Worth noting: LTSE, as it’s known, is an Initialized portfolio company.

Photo: Tim Daw for Initialized Capital

Former Slack exec April Underwood has joined Obvious Ventures as a venture partner

April Underwood, who until early last year was Slack’s chief product officer, has joined Obvious Ventures as a venture partner, she announced on Twitter today.

Underwood said that as part of the firm’s team, she will “invest in great companies seeking to solve the big problems facing humanity: our climate, human health and wellness, and how we work.” Of Obvious’s focus on “backing company with world positive impact,” she said its mission “couldn’t possibly feel more needed than it does in this particular moment.”

For Underwood, the role is one of several that she is currently juggling. She founded a startup advisory outfit called Wise Owl last year. She is also a cofounder of #Angels, an organization that focuses on investing in female founders and to which Underwood remains very committed, she said today, tweeting that her focus on “getting more women on the cap tables of successful startups will continue unabated.”

Underwood is now among a growing number of  #Angels cofounders — powerful women at Twitter who introduced the initiative in 2015 — to be investing on pretty much a full-time basis.

In addition to Underwood, who spent nearly five years as a director of product at Twitter before joining Slack, #Angels was founded by Jana Messerschmidt, who is now a partner with Lightspeed Venture Partners; Jessica Verrilli, who is now a general partner with GV; and Katie Stanton Jacobs, who recently closed her own first venture fund with $25 million in capital commitments under the brand Moxie Ventures.

Another #Angels founder Vijaya Gadde, was and remains the General Counsel at Twitter. Meanwhile, Chloe Sladden, a former VP of Media at Twitter, last year cofounded a seed-stage startup making collaborative parenting tools called Honeycomb Labs.

Underwood, who also sits on the board of Zillow, was in charge of much of Slack’s strategy and product decisions during her nearly four years with the company.

Underwood is now one of three venture partners who are working with Obvious Ventures .

The others include serial entrepreneur, investor and advisor Julie Hanna, and Di-Ann Eisnor, who was previously the Director of Urban Systems at Google’s Area 120.

Obvious Ventures — cofounded very notably by Twitter cofounder Ev Williams —  closed its third fund with roughly $270 million in capital commitments earlier this year.

Did African startups raise $496M, $1B or $2B in 2019?

Five years ago, it was hard to come by any numbers for annual VC investment in Africa. These days the challenge is choosing which number to follow.

That’s the case for three venture funding studies for Africa that turned up varied results.

The numbers and variance

Investment stats released by media outlet Disrupt Africa, data-base WeeTracker and Africa focused fund Partech have left some people scratching their heads.

From high to low, Partech pegged total 2019 VC for African startups at $2 billion, compared to WeeTracker’s $1.3 billion estimate and Disrupt Africa’s $496 million.

That’s a fairly substantial spread of $1.5 billion between the assessments. The variance filtered down to country VC valuations, though it was a little less sharp.

Africa VC markets 2019Partech and WeeTracker shared the same top-three countries for 2019 VC investment in Africa — Nigeria, Kenya, and Egypt — but with hundred-million dollar differences.

Disrupt Africa came up with a different lead market for startup investment on the continent — Kenya — though its $149 million estimate for the East African country was some $500 million lower than Partech and WeeTracker’s VC leader, Nigeria.

So what accounts for the big deviations? TechCrunch spoke to each organization (and reviewed the reports) and found the contrasting stats derive from different methodologies — namely defining what constitutes a startup and an African startup.

Partech’s larger overall VC valuation for the continent comes from broader parameters for companies and quantifying investment.

“We do not limit the definition of startups by age of the incorporation or size of funds raised,” Partech General Partner Tidjane Deme told TechCrunch.

This led the fund, for example, to include Visa’s $200 million investment in Nigerian financial-services company Interswitch . The corporate round was certainly tech-related, though few would classify Interswitch — which launched in 2002, acquires companies, and has a venture fund — as a startup.

Partech’s higher annual VC value for Africa’s startups could also connect to tallying confidential investment data.

“We…collect and analyze undisclosed deals, accessing more detailed information thanks to our relationships within the ecosystem,” the fund’s report disclosed.

WeeTracker’s methodology also included data on undisclosed startup investments and opened up the count to funding sources beyond VC.

“Debt/loans, grants/awards/prizes/non-equity assistance, crowdfunding, [and] ICOs are included,” WeeTracker clarified in a methodology note.

Disrupt Africa used a more conservative approach across companies and investment. “We are a bit more narrow on what we consider a startup to be,” the site’s co-founder Tom Jackson told TechCrunch.

“In the clearest scenario, an African startup would be headquartered in Africa, founded by an African, and have Africa as its primary market,” Disrupt Africa’s report stated  — though Jackson noted all these factors don’t always align.

“Disrupt Africa tackles this issue on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Partech was more liberal in its definition of an African startup, including investment for tech-companies that count Africa as their primary market, but not insisting they be incorporated or operate HQs on the continent.

Andela FoundersThat opened up inclusion of large 2019 rounds to Africa focused, New York headquartered tech-talent accelerator Andela and investment to Opera’s verticals, such as OPay in Nigeria.

In addition to following a more conservative definition of African startup, Disrupt Africa’s report was more particular to early-stage ventures. The site’s report primarily counted investment for companies founded within the last five year and excluded “spin-offs of corporates or any other large entity…that [has]…developed past the point of being a startup.”

Commonalities across reports

For all the differences on annual VC counts for Africa, there were some common threads across WeeTracker, Partech, and Disrupt Africa’s investment reports.

The first was the rise of Nigeria — which has Africa’s largest population and economy — as the top destination for startup VC investment on the continent.

The second was the prominence of fintech as the most funded startup sector across Africa, gaining 54% of all VC in Partech’s report and $678 million of the $1.3 billion to startups in WeeTracker’s study.

VC inequality

An unfortunate commonality in each report was the preponderance of startup investment going to English speaking Africa. No francophone country made it into the the top five in any of the three reports. Only Senegal registered on Partech’s country-list, with a small $16 million in VC in 2019.

The Dakar Angel Network launched last year to bridge the resource gap for startups in French-speaking African countries.

Final sum

There may not be a right or wrong stat for annual investment to African startups, just three reports with different methodologies that capture unique snapshots.

Partech and WeeTracker offer a broader view of multiple types of financial support going to tech companies operating in Africa. Disrupt Africa’s assessment is more specific to a standard definition of VC going to startups originating and operating in Africa.

Three reports with varying numbers on the continent’s startup investment is a definite upgrade to what was available not so long ago: little to no formal data on VC in Africa.

Tuesday Capital teams up with design powerhouse Frog to grab startups’ attention — and keep it

In a day and age when everyone seems to have their own seed-stage venture fund, it’s hard to stand out. But Tuesday Capital, the San Francisco-based outfit formerly known as CrunchFund, thinks it has found a way. Today, the firm announced a new partner in Frog, the renowned design firm whose past clients include the headset maker Oculus, among countless others.

The partnership dates back nearly four years. It was then that Tuesday’s cofounder and managing partner Pat Gallagher was introduced to FrogVentures, the design firm’s investment incubator.

P.J. Gunsagar, the CEO of one of Tuesday’s portfolio companies, KidAptive, had hired Frog to help this company–an online adaptive learning program for children — design a portal that parents could use to see how their children were progressing. Wowed with what they came up — Gunsager believes it helped KidAptive land its Series B round — he suggested that Gallager meet with Ethan Imboden, a former designer and the Frog division’s head.

It was apparently a match. In fact, soon after the two connected, Tuesday rebranded from CrunchFund. “They helped us with our own branding and to navigate around a lot of confusion” tied to the venture firm’s earliest connection to both TechCrunch and Crunchbase. (All three companies were cofounded by entrepreneur and investor Michael Arrington, who has since moved on to form Arrington XRP Capital.)

Says Gallagher, “We were incredibly impressed with the quality of the marketing folks and the technologists and the branding folks,” whose suggestion tied to the belief that Tuesday is the most productive day of the week.

Before long, Gallagher and Imboden were sharing their networks and their deal flow. Now, out of that organic collaboration, the new partnership has been more formally imagined.

How it will work exactly: early-stage ventures will be eligible to receive investment from Tuesday Capital to engage Frog, giving the startups the option of covering the cost of their design projects with equity. Ostensibly, by making it easier for partners to access Frog’s services — which include brand, product, go-to-market strategies, digital product and connected hardware design — they’ll get to market faster and be stronger when they get there.

To cement the deal, Tuesday purchased a share of FrogVentures’s venture portfolio — it now owns stakes formerly owned by Frog in eight companies — and Frog committed to become one of the largest limited partners in Tuesday’s current (fourth) fund so that it continues to get upside from those companies and future Tuesday startups with which it consults. Imboden is also now a venture partner with Tuesday, sitting in all all of the firm’s partner calls and “integrating himself into our workflow,” says Gallagher. “When we talk about new investments, he’s now part of those conversations.”

Considering Frog’s past client list, that could prove a powerful perspective for Tuesday to have around the table.

Of course, Tuesday still has to battle its way to get the attention of top founders who are getting pulled in all directions by investors, both new and old. But the firm, typically writes initial checks of between $250,000 and $500,000, suddenly has a a lot more to offer. “We’ve always tried to be additive to investor syndicates. We help with PR and media and content services.” Now, it can provide access to Frog, too.

It could certainly tip more deals in its direction. “If you need access to design services, if you need to talk with an industrial designer for a couple of hours, if you want an all-day seminar [alongside other portfolio companies]” Frog, with its vested interest in Tuesday, will be there, he says.

Photo, courtesy of Frog.

Nigeria is becoming Africa’s unofficial tech capital

Africa has one of the world’s fastest growing tech markets and Nigeria is becoming its unofficial capital.

While the West African nation is commonly associated with negative cliches around corruption and terrorism — which persist as serious problems, and influenced the Trump administration’s recent restrictions on Nigerian immigration to the U.S.

Even so, there’s more to the country than Boko Haram or fictitious princes with inheritances.

Nigeria has become a magnet for VC, a hotbed for startup formation and a strategic entry point for Silicon Valley. As a frontier market, there is certainly a volatility to the country’s political and economic trajectory. The nation teeters back and forth between its stereotypical basket-case status and getting its act together to become Africa’s unrivaled superpower.

The upside of that pendulum is why — despite its problems — so much American, Chinese and African tech capital is gravitating to Nigeria.

Demographics

“Whatever you think of Africa, you can’t ignore the numbers,” Africa’s richest man Aliko Dangote told me in 2015, noting that demographics are creating an imperative for global businesses to enter the continent.

Kleiner Perkins has already blown through much of the $600 million it raised last year

Kleiner Perkins, one of the most storied franchises in venture capital, has already invested much of the $600 million it raised last year and is now going back out to the market to raise its 19th fund, according to multiple sources.

The firm, which underwent a significant restructuring over the last two years, went on an investment tear over the course of 2019 as new partners went out to build up a new portfolio for the firm — almost of a whole cloth.

A spokesperson for KPCB declined to comment on the firm’s fundraising plans citing SEC regulations.

The quick turnaround for KPCB is indicative of a broader industry trend, which has investors pulling the trigger on term sheets for new startups in days rather than weeks.

Speaking onstage at the Upfront Summit, an event at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. organized by the Los Angeles-based venture firm Upfront Ventures as a showcase for technology and investment talent in Southern California, venture investor Josh Kopelman spoke to the heightened pace of dealmaking at his own firm.

The founder of First Round Ventures said that the average time from first contact with a startup to drawing up a term sheet has collapsed from 90 days in 2004 to 9 days today.

Josh Kopelman of First Round Capital: we can look at every company we’ve ever funded, and learned that the time from first email/contact to term sheet has shrunk from 90 days in 2004 to just 9 today.

— Dan Primack (@danprimack) January 29, 2020

 

“This could also be due to changes in the competitive landscape … and there may be changes with First Round Capital itself,” says one investor. “It may have been once upon a time that they were looking at really early raw stuff… But, today, First Round is not really in the first round anymore. Companies are raising some angel money or Y Combinator money.”

At KPCB, the once-troubled firm has been buoyed by recent exits in companies like Beyond Meat, a deal spearheaded by the firm’s former partner Amol Deshpande (who now serves as the chief executive of Farmers Business Network) and Slack.

And its new partners are clearly angling to make names for themselves.

“KP used to be a small team doing hands-on company building. We’re moving away from being this institution with multiple products and really just focusing on early-stage venture capital,” Kleiner Perkins  partner Ilya Fushman said when the firm announced its last fund.

Kleiner Perkins partner Ilya Fushman

“We went out to market to LPs. We got a lot of interest. We were significantly oversubscribed,” Fushman said of the firm’s raise at the time.

In some ways, it’s likely the kind of rejuvenation that John Doerr was hoping for when he approached Social + Capital’s Chamath Palihapitiya about “acquiring” that upstart firm back in 2015.

At the time, as Fortune reported, Palihapitiya and the other Social + Capital partners, Ted Maidenberg and Mamoon Hamid would have become partners in the venture firm under the terms of the proposed deal.

Instead, Social + Capital walked away, the firm eventually imploded and Hamid joined Kleiner Perkins two years later.

The new Kleiner Perkins is a much more streamlined operation. Gone are the sidecar and thematic funds that were a hallmark of earlier strategies and gone too are the superstars brought in by Mary Meeker to manage Kleiner Perkins’ growth equity investments. Meeker absconded with much of that late stage investment team to form Bond — and subsequently raised hundreds of millions of dollars herself.

Those strategies have been replaced by a clutch of young investors and seasoned Kleiner veterans including Ted Schlein who has long been an expert in enterprise software and security.

“Maybe at this point they think they can raise based on the whole story about Mamoon taking over and a few years from now they won’t be able to raise on that story and will have to raise on the results,” says one investor with knowledge of the industry. “Mamoon is a pretty legit, good investor. But the legacy of the firm is going to be tough to overcome.”

All of these changes are not necessarily sitting well with limited partners.

“LPs are not really happy about what’s going on,” says one investor with knowledge of the venture space. “Everybody thinks valuations are too high since 2011 and people are thinking there’s going to be a recession. LPs think funds are coming back to market too fast and they’re being greedy and there’s not enough vintage diversification but LPs … feel almost obligated that they have to do these things… Investing in Sequoia is like that saying that you don’t get fired for buying IBM .”

LA tech industry mourns Kobe Bryant

The Los Angeles startup community is joining the rest of the world in mourning the death of NBA superstar, entrepreneur and investor Kobe Bryant who was killed in a helicopter crash in Calabasas, Calif., shortly before 10 a.m. on Sunday.

Reports indicate that Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant, and seven other passengers were on board a helicopter traveling to Bryant’s basketball training facility Mamba Academy. There were no survivors.

The 41 year-old NBA All-Star, Olympic medalist, Oscar winner and father of four was most famous for his achievements on the basketball court, but had established himself as an entrepreneur and investor whose reach extended far beyond the Los Angeles area that he called home.

“Kobe was loved in Los Angeles,” wrote Mark Suster, managing partner of the Los Angeles-based venture capital firm Upfront Ventures, in a private message to TechCrunch. “He not only played at the peak of his sport but everything he did was quality from film, to books to philanthropy. It’s truly a sad day in LA.”

Bryant launched his venture career with partner and serial entrepreneur Jeff Stibel back in 2013, according to Crunchbase. The pair made a mix of early- and late-stage investments in Los Angeles-based companies like LegalZoom, Scopely, Art of Sport, The Honest Company, RingDNA, FocusMotion, DyshApp and Represent.

Last year, the investment firm expanded with a $1.7 billion investment vehicle that was launched in partnership with the private equity fund, Permira, according to a report in USA Today.

“We are mourning this terrible loss and still searching for the words,” wrote Mattias Metternich, co-founder of Bryant’s grooming startup, Art of Sport, in an email. “As a founding partner to [Art of Sport] he was woven into the very fabric of our company and its vision and DNA. As a mentor we drew on his wisdom, passion and drive everyday… In the short term our thoughts and hearts are with him, Gianna and his surviving family.”

Jessica Alba, the co-founder of The Honest Company, took to Twitter earlier in the day to share her own reaction to the news. And Scopely’s official Twitter account shared a reaction, as well.

An all-time legend, and our friend and supporter. Our thoughts are with all of the families affected by the tragic accident today. You will be missed, @kobebryant. pic.twitter.com/FzhNl5ndau

Scopely (@scopely) January 26, 2020

During his time with the Los Angeles Lakers, the MVP and 18-time All-Star set records and helped architect runs to five national championships. Together with Shaquille O’Neal, Bryant helped make the Lakers the dominant team in the NBA in the early 2000s.

“Kobe was the rare combination of God-given talent on-and-off the court with a competitive athlete mindset that was unrivaled to the point it was called the ‘mamba mentality’. Whatever he put his focus turned into excellence, whether it was an NBA championship, an Oscar, entering the VC game or — most importantly — fatherhood,” wrote Upfront Ventures general partner Kobie Fuller. “This loss is shocking and puts into perspective how precious our moments on this earth really are. My heart goes out to the Bryant family during this incredibly difficult time.”

While Bryant’s sports career was storied, and his post-sports career in media and investing successful, his legacy is complicated by a sexual assault allegation in 2003, which was later settled and for which Bryant apologized, but did not admit guilt.

Catalyst Fund gets $15M from JP Morgan, UK Aid to back 30 EM fintech startups

The Catalyst Fund has gained $15 million in new support from JP Morgan and UK Aid and will back 30 fintech startups in Africa, Asia, and Latin America over the next three years.

The Boston based accelerator provides mentorship and non-equity funding to early-stage tech ventures focused on driving financial inclusion in emerging and frontier markets.

That means connecting people who may not have access to basic financial services — like a bank account, credit or lending options — to those products.

Catalyst Fund will choose an annual cohort of 10 fintech startups in five designated countries: Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, India and Mexico. Those selected will gain grant-funds and go through a six-month accelerator program. The details of that and how to apply are found here.

“We’re offering grants of up to $100,000 to early-stage companies, plus venture building support…and really…putting these companies on a path to product market fit,” Catalyst Fund Director Maelis Carraro told TechCrunch.

Program participants gain exposure to the fund’s investor networks and investor advisory committee, that include Accion and 500 Startups. With the $15 million Catalyst Fund will also make some additions to its network of global partners that support the accelerator program. Names will be forthcoming, but Carraro, was able to disclose that India’s Yes Bank and University of Cambridge are among them.

Catalyst fund has already accelerated 25 startups through its program. Companies, such as African payments venture ChipperCash and SokoWatch — an East African B2B e-commerce startup for informal retailers — have gone on to raise seven-figure rounds and expand to new markets.

Those are kinds of business moves Catalyst Fund aims to spur with its program. The accelerator was founded in 2016, backed by JP Morgan and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Catalyst Fund is now supported and managed by Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and global tech consulting firm BFA.

African fintech startups have dominated the accelerator’s companies, comprising 56% of the portfolio into 2019.

That trend continued with Catalyst Fund’s most recent cohort, where five of six fintech ventures — Pesakit, Kwara, Cowrywise, Meerkat and Spoon — are African and one, agtech credit startup Farmart, operates in India.

The draw to Africa is because the continent demonstrates some of the greatest need for Catalyst Fund’s financial inclusion mission.

By several estimates, Africa is home to the largest share of the world’s unbanked population and has a sizable number of underbanked consumers and SMEs.

Roughly 66% of Sub-Saharan Africa’s 1 billion people don’t have a bank account, according to World Bank data.

Collectively, these numbers have led to the bulk of Africa’s VC funding going to thousands of fintech startups attempting to scale payment solutions on the continent.

Digital finance in Africa has also caught the attention of notable outside names. Twitter/Square CEO Jack Dorsey recently took an interest in Africa’s cryptocurrency potential and Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs has invested in fintech startups on the continent.

This lends to the question of JP Morgan’s interests vis-a-vis Catalyst Fund and Africa’s financial sector.

For now, JP Morgan doesn’t have plans to invest directly in Africa startups and is taking a long-view in its support of the accelerator, according to Colleen Briggs — JP Morgan’s Head of Community Innovation

“We find financial health and financial inclusion is a…cornerstone for inclusive growth…For us if you care about a stable economy, you have to start with financial inclusion,” said Briggs, who also oversees the Catalyst Fund.

This take aligns with JP Morgan’s 2019 announcement of a $125 million, philanthropic, five-year global commitment to improve financial health in the U.S. and globally.

More recently, JP Morgan Chase posted some of the strongest financial results on Wall Street, with Q4 profits of $2.9 billion. It’ll be worth following if the company shifts its income-generating prowess to business and venture funding activities in Catalyst Fund markets such as Nigeria, India and Mexico.

Deep tech VCs on what they view as some of the most impactful young startups right now

During this week’s Democratic debate, there was a lot of talk, unsurprisingly, about ensuring the future of this country’s children and grandchildren. Climate change was of particular interest to billionaire Tom Steyer, who said repeatedly that addressing it would be his top priority were he elected U.S. president.

As it happens, earlier the same day, we’d spent time on the phone with two venture capitalists who think of almost nothing else every day. The reason: they both invest in so-called deep tech, and they meet routinely with startups whose central focus is on making the world habitable for generations of people to come — as well as trying to produce outsize financial returns, of course.

The two VCs with whom we talked know each other well. Siraj Khaliq is a partner at the global venture firm Atomico, where he tries to find world-changing startups that are enabled by machine learning, AI, and computer vision. He has strong experience in the area, having cofounded The Climate Corporation back in 2006, a company that helps farmers optimize crop yield and that was acquired by Monsanto in 2013 for roughly $1 billion.

Seth Bannon is meanwhile a founding partner of Fifty Years, a nearly five-year-old, San Francisco-based seed-stage fund whose stated ambition is backing founders who want to solve the world’s biggest problems. The investors’ interests overlap so much that Khaliq is also one of Fifty Years’s investors.

From both, we wanted to know which companies or trends are capturing their imagination and, in some cases, their investment dollars. Following are excerpts from our extended conversation earlier this week. (We thought it was interesting; hopefully you will, too.)

TC: Seth, how would you describe what you’re looking to fund at your firm?

SB: There’s a Winston Churchill essay [penned nearly 100 years ago] called “Fifty Years Hence” that describes what we do. He predicts genomic engineering, synthetic biology, growing meat without animals, nuclear power, satellite telephony.  Churchill also notes that because tech changes so quickly that it’s important that technologists take a principled approach to their work. [Inspired by him] we’re backing founders who can make a ton of money while doing good and focusing on health, disease, the climate crisis . . .

TC: What does that mean exactly? Are you investing in software?

SB: We’re not so enthusiastic about pure software because it’s been so abstracted away that it’s become a commodity. High school students can now build an app, which is great, but it also means that competitive pressures are very high. There are a thousand funds focused on software seed investing. Fortunately, you can now launch a synthetic biology startup with seed funding, and that wasn’t possible 10 years ago. There are a lot of infrastructural advancements happening that makes [deep tech investing even with smaller checks] interesting.

TC: Siraj, you also invest exclusively on frontier, or deep tech, at Atomico . What’s your approach to funding startups?

SK: We do Series A [deals] onward and don’t do seed stage. We primarily focus on Europe. But there’s lot of common thinking between us and Seth. As a fund, we’re looking for big problems that change the world, sometimes at companies that won’t necessarily be big in five years but if you look out 10 years could be necessary for humanity. So we’re trying to anticipate all of these big trends and focus on three or four theses a year and talk as much as we can with academics and other experts to understand what’s going on. Founders then know we have an informed view.

Last year, we focused on synthetic biology, which is a becoming so broad a category that it’s time to start subdividing it. We were also doing AI-based drug discovery and quantum computing and we started to spend some time on energy as well. We also [continued an earlier focus on ] the future of manufacturing and industry. We see a number of trends that make [the latter] attractive, especially in Europe where manufacturing hasn’t yet been digitized.

TC: Seth, you mentioned synthetic biology infrastructure. Can you elaborate on what you’re seeing that’s interesting on this front?

SB: You’ve maybe heard of directed evolution, technology that allows biologists to use the power of evolution to get microbes or other biological machines to do what they want them to do that would have been impossible before. [Editor’s note: here, Bannon talked a bit about Frances Arnold, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was awarded the prize in 2018 for developing the technique.]

So we’re excited to back [related] startups. One, Solugen, enzymatically makes industrial chemicals [by combining genetically modified enzymes with organic compounds, like plant sugars]. Hydrogen peroxide is a $6 billion dollar industry, and it’s currently made through a petroleum-based process in seven-football-field-long production plants that sometimes explode and kill people.

TC: Is this then akin to Zymergen, which develops molecules in order to create unique specialty materials?

SB: Zymergen mainly works as a kind of consultant to help companies engineer strains that they want. Solugen is a vertically integrated chemicals company, so it [creates its formulations], then sells directly into industry.

TC: How does this relate to new architectures?

SB: The way to think about it is that there’s a bunch of application-level companies, but as synthetic biology companies start to take off, there’s a bunch of emerging infrastructure layer companies. One of these is Ansa Biotechnologies, which has a fully enzymatic process or writing DNA. Like Twist, which went public, they make DNA using a chemical process [to sell to clients in the biotechnology industry. [Editor’s note: More on the competition in this emerging space here.]

Also, if you look at plant-based alternatives to meat, they’re more sustainable but also far more expensive than traditional beef. Why is that? Well plant-based chicken is more expensive because the processing infrastructure being used is more than 10 years behind real chicken processing, where you’ll see robot arms that cut up chicken so efficiently that it looks like a Tesla factory.

[Alternative meat] companies are basically using these extruders built in the ’70s because the industry has been so small, and that’s because there’s been a lot of skepticism from the investment community in these companies. Or there was. The performance of Beyond Meat’s IPO ended it. Now there’s a rush of founders and dollars into that space, and whenever you have a space where the core infrastructure has been neglected, there’s opportunity. A former mechanical engineer with Boeing has started a company, Rebellyous Foods, to basically build the AWS for the plant-based food industry, for example. She’s using [the machines she’s building] to sell plant-based chicken nuggets, [but that’s the longer-term plan].

TC: Siraj, you say last year you started to spend time on energy. What’s interesting to you as it relates to energy?

SK: There’s been some improvement in how we capture emissions, but [carbon emissions] are still very deleterious to our health and the planet’s health, and there are a few areas to think about [to address the problem]. Helping people measure and control their consumption is one approach, but also we think about how to produce new energy, which is a shift we [meaning mankind] need to undertake. The challenge [in making that shift] is often [capital expenditures]. It’s hard for venture investors to back companies that are [building nuclear reactors], which makes government grants the best choice for early innovation oftentimes. There is one company, Seaborg, that has figured out a clever reactor. It’s not a portfolio company but it’s [compelling].

SB: We also really like what Seaborg is doing. These [fourth generation] nuclear companies have a whole host of approaches that allow for smaller, safer reactors that you wouldn’t mind having in your backyard. But Siraj put his finger on it: as an early-stage deep tech investor, we have to consider the capital plan of a company, and if it needs to raise billions of dollars, early investors will get really diluted, so early-stage venture just isn’t the best fit.

TC: There are other areas you like, though, because costs have fallen so much.

SB: Yes. Satellite telephony used to be one of those areas. Some of the satellites in space right now cost $350 million [to launch] and took three to four years to build, which would be really hard for any early-stage investor to fund. But now, a new generation of companies is building satellites for one-tenth of the cost in months, not years. That’s a game changer. They can iterate faster. They can build a better product. They don’t have to raise equity to build and launch either; they can raise from a debt financier [from whom they can] borrow money and pay it back over time. That model isn’t available to a company like Uber or Lyft, because those companies can’t say, ‘X is going to cost us Y dollars and it will pay back Z over time.’

TC: What of concerns that all these cheap satellites are going to clog up the sky pretty quickly?

SB: It’s a real concern. Most [of today’s satellites] are low earth satellites, and the closer to the earth they are, the brighter they are; they reflect the sun more, the more satellites we’re seeing instead of stars. I do think it’s incumbent on all of these companies to think about how they are contributing to the future of humanity. But [when you can transmit more information from satellites], the stability of governments improves, too, so maybe the developed world needs to sacrifice a bit. I think that’s a reasonable tradeoff. If on the other hand, we’re putting up satellites to help people buy more crap . . .

TC: It’s like the argument for self-driving cars in a way. Life becomes more efficient, but they’ll require far more energy generation, for example. There are always second-order consequences.

SK: But think of how many how many people are killed in driving accidents, versus terrorist attacks. Humans have many great qualities, but being able to drive a lethal machine consistently isn’t one of them. So when we take that into perspective, it’s really important that we build autonomous vehicles.

You [voice] a legitimate concern, and often when there are step changes, there are discontinuities along the way that lead to side effects that aren’t great. That comes down to several things. First, infrastructure will have to keep up. We’ll also have to create regulations that don’t lead to the worst outcomes. One our investments, Lilium in Munich, has built an entirely electric air taxi service that’s built on vertical takeoff. It’s nimble. It’s quiet enough to operate in city environments.

On roads, cars are constrained by 2D terrain and buildings, but [in the air] if you can do dynamic air traffic control, it opens up far much efficient transport. If you can get from downtown London to Heathrow [airport] in five minutes versus 50 minutes in a Tesla? That’s far more energy efficient.

Trucks VC general partner Reilly Brennan is coming to TC Sessions: Mobility

The future of transportation industry is bursting at the seams with startups aiming to bring everything from flying cars and autonomous vehicles to delivery bots and even more efficient freight to roads.

One investor who is right at the center of this is Reilly Brennan, founding general partner of Trucks VC, a seed-stage venture capital fund for entrepreneurs changing the future of transportation.

TechCrunch is excited to announce that Brennan will join us on stage for TC Sessions: Mobility.

In case you missed last year’s event, TC Sessions: Mobility is a one-day conference that brings together the best and brightest engineers, investors, founders and technologists to talk about transportation and what is coming on the horizon. The event will be held May 14, 2020 in the California Theater in San Jose, Calif.

Brennan is known as much for his popular FoT newsletter as his investments, which include May Mobility, Nauto, nuTonomy, Joby Aviation, Skip and Roadster.

Stay tuned to see who we’ll announce next.

And … $250 Early-Bird tickets are now on sale — save $100 on tickets before prices go up on April 9; book today.

Students, you can grab your tickets for just $50 here.

Indian tech startups raised a record $14.5B in 2019

Indian tech startups have never had it so good.

Local tech startups in the nation raised $14.5 billion in 2019, beating their previous best of $10.5 billion last year, according to research firm Tracxn .

Tech startups in India this year participated in 1,185 financing rounds — 459 of those were Series A or later rounds — from 817 investors.

Early stage startups — those participating in angel or pre-Series A financing round — raised $6.9 billion this year, easily surpassing last year’s $3.3 billion figure, according to a report by venture debt firm InnoVen Capital.

According to InnoVen’s report, early stage startups that have typically struggled to attract investors saw a 22% year-over-year increase in the number of financing deals they took part in this year. Cumulatively, at $2.6 million, their valuation also increased by 15% from last year.

Also in 2019, 128 startups in India got acquired, four got publicly listed, and nine became unicorns. This year, Indian tech startups also attracted a record number of international investors, according to Tracxn.

This year’s fundraise further moves the nation’s burgeoning startup space on a path of steady growth.

Since 2016, when tech startups accumulated just $4.3 billion — down from $7.9 billion the year before — flow of capital has increased significantly in the ecosystem. In 2017, Indian startups raised $10.4 billion, per Tracxn.

“The decade has seen an impressive 25x growth from a tiny $550 million in 2010 to $14.5 billion in 2019 in terms of the total funding raised by the startups,” said Tracxn.

What’s equally promising about Indian startups is the challenges they are beginning to tackle today, said Dev Khare, a partner at VC fund Lightspeed Venture Partners, in a recent interview to TechCrunch.

In 2014 and 2015, startups were largely focused on building e-commerce solutions and replicating ideas that worked in Western markets. But today, they are tackling a wide-range of categories and opportunities and building some solutions that have not been attempted in any other market, he said.

Tracxn’s analysis found that lodging startups raised about $1.7 billion this year — thanks to Oyo alone bagging $1.5 billion, followed by logistics startups such as Elastic Run, Delhivery, and Ecom Express that secured $641 million.

176 horizontal marketplaces, more than 150 education learning apps, over 160 fintech startups, over 120 trucking marketplaces, 82 ride-hailing services, 42 insurance platforms, 33 used car listing providers, and 13 startups that are helping businesses and individuals access working capital secured funding this year. Fintech startups alone raised $3.2 billion this year, more than startups operating in any other category, Tracxn told TechCrunch.

The investors

Sequoia Capital, with more than 50 investments — or co-investments — was the most active venture capital fund for Indian tech startups this year. (Rajan Anandan, former executive in charge of Google’s business in India and Southeast Asia, joined Sequoia Capital India as a managing director in April.) Accel, Tiger Global Management, Blume Ventures, and Chiratae Ventures were the other top four VCs.

Steadview Capital, with nine investments in startups including ride-hailing service Ola, education app Unacademy, and fintech startup BharatPe, led the way among private equity funds. General Atlantic, which invested in NoBroker and recently turned profitable edtech startup Byju’s, invested in four startups. FMO, Sabre Partners India, and CDC Group each invested in three startups.

Venture Catalysts, with over 40 investments including in HomeCapital and Blowhorn, was the top accelerator or incubator in India this year. Y Combinator, with over 25 investments, Sequoia Capital’s Surge, Axilor Ventures, and Techstars were also very active this year.

Indian tech startups also attracted a number of direct investments from top corporates and banks this year. Goldman Sachs, which earlier this month invested in fintech startup ZestMoney, overall made eight investments this year. Among others, Facebook made its first investment in an Indian startup — social-commerce firm Meesho and Twitter led a $100 million financing round in local social networking app ShareChat.

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, from Sequoia to Benchmark to Accel, are investing more and more dollars overseas, as more globally-minded unicorns crop up across Europe.

As Forbes recently noted, U.S. VCS are “bonkers for European startups,” with “more money … flowing into European tech than ever.” Seems like a great time to sit down with U.S. and European investors to get a better sense of what’s happening here. Conveniently, we’re gathering top venture capitalists at our annual European conference, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, next week.

For starters, we’ll have Forward Partners managing partner Nic Brisbourne, Target Global partner Malin Holmberg and DocSend founder Russ Heddleston together to provide exclusive fundraising advice to entrepreneurs. They’ll sit down with me for 45 minutes to shed light on the biggest challenges founders face while raising VC, how to perfectly crap your pitch and how to know if an investor is interested in your upstart.

Sequoia’s Andrew Reed, who’s worked on the firm’s investments in Bird, Figma, Front, Loom, Rappi, UiPath and more, will join us, too. From Index Ventures, a noted U.S. and U.K. investor, we’ll welcome principal Hannah Seal. From Atomico, a European venture capital firm, partner Sophia Bendz, partner Siraj Khaliq, partner Hiro Tamura and partner Niall Wass will all be in attendance. And from SoftBank, we’ll hear from SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado and SoftBank Investment Advisors partner David Thevenon.

Roxanne Varza will give an update on Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus based in Paris. Varza first unveiled Station F at TechCrunch Disrupt back in December 2016; naturally, we’re excited to see what she has to stay this time.

As for others making the trip to Berlin from the U.S., we’ve got Joyance Partners investment partner Holly Jacobus and Accomplice partner Ash Egan on deck. The rest of the line-up includes some of Europe’s top VCs, including Accel partner Andrei Brasoveanu, Blossom Capital partner Louise Dahlborn Samet, Balderon Capital partner Suranga Chandratillake and principal Colin Hanna, Luminous Ventures founding partner Isabel Fox, Amadeus Capital Partners partner Volker Hirsch, Point Nine Capital partner Christoph Janz, dynamics.vs partner Tanja Kufner, Northzone partner Paul Murphy, Ada Ventures founding partner Matt Penneycard and Dawn Capital partner Evgenia Plotnikova.

Read the entire Disrupt Berlin agenda here. Tickets to the show are still available!

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, from Sequoia to Benchmark to Accel, are investing more and more dollars overseas, as more globally-minded unicorns crop up across Europe.

As Forbes recently noted, U.S. VCS are “bonkers for European startups,” with “more money … flowing into European tech than ever.” Seems like a great time to sit down with U.S. and European investors to get a better sense of what’s happening here. Conveniently, we’re gathering top venture capitalists at our annual European conference, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, next week.

For starters, we’ll have Forward Partners managing partner Nic Brisbourne, Target Global partner Malin Holmberg and DocSend founder Russ Heddleston together to provide exclusive fundraising advice to entrepreneurs. They’ll sit down with me for 45 minutes to shed light on the biggest challenges founders face while raising VC, how to perfectly crap your pitch and how to know if an investor is interested in your upstart.

Sequoia’s Andrew Reed, who’s worked on the firm’s investments in Bird, Figma, Front, Loom, Rappi, UiPath and more, will join us, too. From Index Ventures, a noted U.S. and U.K. investor, we’ll welcome principal Hannah Seal. From Atomico, a European venture capital firm, partner Sophia Bendz, partner Siraj Khaliq, partner Hiro Tamura and partner Niall Wass will all be in attendance. And from SoftBank, we’ll hear from SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado and SoftBank Investment Advisors partner David Thevenon.

Roxanne Varza will give an update on Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus based in Paris. Varza first unveiled Station F at TechCrunch Disrupt back in December 2016; naturally, we’re excited to see what she has to stay this time.

As for others making the trip to Berlin from the U.S., we’ve got Joyance Partners investment partner Holly Jacobus and Accomplice partner Ash Egan on deck. The rest of the line-up includes some of Europe’s top VCs, including Accel partner Andrei Brasoveanu, Blossom Capital partner Louise Dahlborn Samet, Balderon Capital partner Suranga Chandratillake and principal Colin Hanna, Luminous Ventures founding partner Isabel Fox, Amadeus Capital Partners partner Volker Hirsch, Point Nine Capital partner Christoph Janz, dynamics.vs partner Tanja Kufner, Northzone partner Paul Murphy, Ada Ventures founding partner Matt Penneycard and Dawn Capital partner Evgenia Plotnikova.

Read the entire Disrupt Berlin agenda here. Tickets to the show are still available!

Meet Europe’s top VCs at Disrupt Berlin

Silicon Valley’s top venture capital firms, from Sequoia to Benchmark to Accel, are investing more and more dollars overseas, as more globally-minded unicorns crop up across Europe.

As Forbes recently noted, U.S. VCS are “bonkers for European startups,” with “more money … flowing into European tech than ever.” Seems like a great time to sit down with U.S. and European investors to get a better sense of what’s happening here. Conveniently, we’re gathering top venture capitalists at our annual European conference, TechCrunch Disrupt Berlin, next week.

For starters, we’ll have Forward Partners managing partner Nic Brisbourne, Target Global partner Malin Holmberg and DocSend founder Russ Heddleston together to provide exclusive fundraising advice to entrepreneurs. They’ll sit down with me for 45 minutes to shed light on the biggest challenges founders face while raising VC, how to perfectly crap your pitch and how to know if an investor is interested in your upstart.

Sequoia’s Andrew Reed, who’s worked on the firm’s investments in Bird, Figma, Front, Loom, Rappi, UiPath and more, will join us, too. From Index Ventures, a noted U.S. and U.K. investor, we’ll welcome principal Hannah Seal. From Atomico, a European venture capital firm, partner Sophia Bendz, partner Siraj Khaliq, partner Hiro Tamura and partner Niall Wass will all be in attendance. And from SoftBank, we’ll hear from SoftBank Vision Fund investment director Carolina Brochado and SoftBank Investment Advisors partner David Thevenon.

Roxanne Varza will give an update on Station F, the world’s biggest startup campus based in Paris. Varza first unveiled Station F at TechCrunch Disrupt back in December 2016; naturally, we’re excited to see what she has to stay this time.

As for others making the trip to Berlin from the U.S., we’ve got Joyance Partners investment partner Holly Jacobus and Accomplice partner Ash Egan on deck. The rest of the line-up includes some of Europe’s top VCs, including Accel partner Andrei Brasoveanu, Blossom Capital partner Louise Dahlborn Samet, Balderon Capital partner Suranga Chandratillake and principal Colin Hanna, Luminous Ventures founding partner Isabel Fox, Amadeus Capital Partners partner Volker Hirsch, Point Nine Capital partner Christoph Janz, dynamics.vs partner Tanja Kufner, Northzone partner Paul Murphy, Ada Ventures founding partner Matt Penneycard and Dawn Capital partner Evgenia Plotnikova.

Read the entire Disrupt Berlin agenda here. Tickets to the show are still available!

Don Valentine, who founded Sequoia Capital, has died at age 87

Sequoia Capital founder Don Valentine passed way at his home in Woodside, Ca., today at age 87 of natural causes.

Sequoia posted a tribute to Valentine shortly afterward, calling him “one of a generation of leaders who forged Silicon Valley.”

A native of New York, Valentine majored in chemistry at Fordham University before joining Raytheon in South California, then moving north to the Bay Area to work at Fairchild Semiconductor, where over the years, Valentine began investing his own small checks into technology companies that he was meeting. According to Sequoia Capital, he soon attracted the attention of an early mutual fund group, Capital Group, which staked Valentine, allowing him to form a $3 million venture fund in 1974. Among his first bets from that pool of capital: Atari and Apple. He later led the firm into numerous other high-flyers, including Cisco Systems.

Valentine continue to lead Sequoia until handing over the reins well before retirement age to Doug Leone and Michael Moritz, though he continued attending partner meetings for another 10 years. The partners have said they were happy for his continued advice and guidance — not that they always agreed with him.

In 2017, in keeping with the firm’s focus on succession and ensuring smooth transitions, partner Roelof Botha was made U.S. head of the firm working under Leone, who oversees the firm’s global operations with Neil Shen, the founder and managing partner of Sequoia Capital China. (Moritz stepped away for health reasons in 2012, though he has continued to remain actively involved in the firm.)

Leone issued a statement this afternoon about Valentine’s passing, writing: “We are deeply saddened to share that Don Valentine passed away on October 25, 2019. Don’s life is woven into the fabric of Silicon Valley. He shaped Sequoia and left his imprint not just on those of us who had the privilege to work with him or the many philanthropic institutions that invested with Sequoia, but also on the founders and leaders of some of the most significant technology companies of the later part of the twentieth century. Our thoughts are with Don’s wife, Rachel, with his family, and with all those inspired by his pioneering vision and indelible impact.”

Valentine chose the name Sequoia because it “conveyed the longevity and strength of the tallest of redwoods,” according to the firm’s tribute today to Valentine. The partners note, too, the “humility of someone who refrained from putting his own name on our business.”

Valentine is survived by his wife; three children; and seven grandchildren, according to Sequoia.

Valentine joined TechCrunch at a Disrupt event back in 2013. He appeared along with another pioneer of the venture industry, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers cofounder Tom Perkins . Perkins passed away in June 2016 at age 84.