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Main article: Bill Gates

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Village Global’s accelerator introduces founders to Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, Eric Schmidt and more

22:32 | 2 November

Village Global is leveraging its network of tech luminaries to support the next generation of entrepreneurs.

The $100 million early-stage venture capital firm, which counts Microsoft’s Bill Gates, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman and many other high-profile techies as limited partners (LPs), quietly announced on Friday that the accelerator it piloted earlier this year would become a permanent fixture.

Called Network Catalyst, Village provides formation-stage startups with $150,000 and three-months of programming in exchange for 7 percent equity. Its key offering, however, is access to its impressive roster of LPs.

To formally announce Network Catalyst, Village brought none other than Bill Gates to San Francisco for a fireside chat with Eventbrite CEO Julia Hartz . During the hour-long talk, Gaves handed out candid advice on building a successful company, insights on philanthropy and predictions on the future of technology. He later met individually with Village’s portfolio founders.

“I have a fairly hardcore view that there should be a very large sacrifice made during those early years,” Gates said. “In those early years, you need to have a team that’s pretty maniacal about the company.”

During the Q&A session, Gates regurgitated one of his great anecdotes. In the early days of Microsoft, he would memorize his employee’s license plates so he knew when they were coming and going, quietly noting who was working the longest hours. He admitted, to no one’s surprise, that he struggled with work-life balance.

“I think you can over worship the idea of working extremely hard,” he said. “For my particular makeup, it’s really true I didn’t believe in weekends or vacations … Once I got in my 30s,’ I could hardly imagine how I’d done that because by then something natural thing inside of me kicked in and I loved weekends and my girlfriend liked vacations and that turned out to be a great thing.”

Gates has been an active investor in Village since it emerged one year ago. VMWare founder Diane Greene, Disney CEO Bob Iger, Spanx CEO Sara Blakely are also on the firm’s long list of LPs.

Village is led by four general partners: Erik Torenberg, Product Hunt’s first employee; LinkedIn’s former chief of staff Ben Casnocha; Chegg’s former chief business officer Anne Dwane; and former Canaan partner Ross Fubini. They initially filed to raise a $50 million fund in mid-2017 but ultimately closed on $100 million in March for their debut effort. The firm relies heavily on scouts — angel investors and others knowledgeable of the startup world — to source deals. The scouts, in return, earn a portion of the firm’s returns.

Former Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt.

An accelerator program has been part of Village’s plan since the beginning.

Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann, Fidelity CEO Abby Johnson, Hoffman, Iger, Blakely and Schmidt all worked with Network Catalyst’s debut cohort of founders. Village co-founder Anne Dwane said Hoffman and former Twitter CEO Ev Williams have signed on to work with the next cohort.

“It is about contacts, not content,” Dwane told TechCrunch. “The most important thing is who you can meet to help you take your business forward.”

San Francisco-based VeriSIM, a startup building AI-enabled biosimulation models, was among the debut class of companies that participated in Network Catalyst. Jo Varshney, the company’s founder and CEO, said the accelerator’s personalization and customization set it apart from competing options.

“It seemed like I had a team of people working alongside me even though I’m a solo founder,” Varshney told TechCrunch.

After completing the Network Catalyst program, Schmidt introduced Varshney to a number of investors. She quickly closed a $1.5 million seed round.

“One year in and I already have a one-on-one meeting with Bill Gates,” she added.”

Applications for the accelerator close on Dec. 7 with programming kicking off Jan. 14. Village plans to enroll at least 12 companies across industries.

 


0

JUST’s plant-based eggs are coming to a grocery store near you

02:31 | 7 September

Vegans, rejoice! JUST’s sustainable egg alternative is set to arrive in stores this fall.

The vegan foods company, formerly known as Hampton Creek, will sell the egg-free and dairy-free “egg” in certain grocery store chains across the U.S. 

JUST co-founder and CEO Josh Tetrick, whose company was valued at $1.1 billion last year, says fans of JUST have long-awaited this day.

“Launching JUST Egg is a major milestone and we’re excited for it to become a favorite part of families’ meals far into the future,” Tetrick said in a statement. “Fans of JUST have been looking forward to this moment for some time and we’re eager to hear customers’ feedback when they try it at home or in their favorite restaurants.”

JUST’s “egg” product is among its growing line of vegan foods. It also carries salad dressing, cookie dough and mayo, most of which you can buy on Amazon and in grocery stores. The company also runs a clean meat lab, where it’s competing against Impossible Foods, Memphis Meats and other startups to conquer the lab-grown meat market.

If you’re unfamiliar with JUST, you may remember Hampton Creek. The company ditched its former name in 2017 after major scandals and poor business decisions led it down a bad, bad road.

Founded in 2011, JUST was a VC darling, raising capital from Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff and Khosla Ventures, among others. But in 2016, reports emerged that employees were buying products off the shelves to increase sales figures, a move that resulted in an SEC investigation.

The company went on to lose several executives amid other reports it was blasting through $10 million per month. The final blow, however, was last July, when every member of the company’s board stepped down, except for CEO Josh Tetrick, who remains at the helm.

After a couple of months, Tetrick hit the ground running again with new board members and patents signaling a new direction for JUST.

JUST Egg will be available in Hy-Vee, Fresh Thyme, Gelson’s, Nugget, Mollie Stone’s, New Seasons, Lunardi’s, Mariano’s, Haggen, Metropolitan Market, Acme Fresh Markets and others.

 


0

Rebuilding employee philanthropy from the bottom up

18:44 | 26 August

In tech circles, it would be easy to assume that the world of high-impact charitable giving is a rich man’s game where deals are inked at exclusive black tie galas over fancy hors d’oeuvre. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Benioff have donated to SF hospitals that now bear their names. Gordon Moore has given away $5B – including $600M to Caltech – which was the largest donation to a university at the time. And of course, Bill Gates has already donated $27B to every cause imaginable (and co-founded The Giving Pledge, a consortium of billionaires pledging to donate most of their net worth to charity by the end of their lifetime.)

For Bill, that means he has about $90B left to give.

For the average working American, this world of concierge giving is out of reach, both in check size, and the army of consultants, lawyers and PR strategists that come with it. It seems that in order to do good, you must first do well. Very well.

Bright Funds is looking to change that. Founded in 2012, this SF-based startup is looking to democratize concierge giving to every individual so they “can give with the same effectiveness as Bill and Melinda Gates.” They are doing to philanthropy what Vanguard and Wealthfront have done for asset management for retail investors.

In particular, they are looking to unlock dollars from the underutilized corporate benefit of matching funds for donations, which according to Bright Funds is offered by over 60% of medium to large enterprises, but only used by 13% of employees at these companies. The need for such a service is clear — these programs are cumbersome, transactional, and often offline. Make a donation, submit a receipt, and wait for it to churn through the bureaucratic machine of accounting and finance before matching funds show up weeks later.

Bright Funds is looking to make your company’s matching funds benefit as accessible and important to you as your free lunches or massages. Plus, Bright Funds charges companies per seat, along with a transaction fee to cover the cost of payment processing, sparing employees any expense.

It’s a model that is working. According to Bright Fund’s CEO Ty Walrod, Bright Funds customers see on average a 40% year-over-year increase in funds donated through the platform. More importantly, Bright Funds not only transforms an employee’s relationship to personal philanthropy, but also to the company they work for.

Grassroots Giving

This model of bottoms-up giving is a welcome change from the big foundation model which has recently been rocked by scandal. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation was the go-to foundation for The Who’s Who of Silicon Valley elite. It rode the latest tech boom to become the largest community foundation in eleven short years with generous stock donations from donors like Mark Zuckerberg ($1.8 billion), GoPro’s Nicholas Woodman ($500 million), and WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum ($566 million). Today, at $13.5 billion, it surpasses the 80+ year old Ford Foundation in endowment size.

However, earlier this year, their star fundraiser Mari Ellen Loijens (credited with raising $8.3B of the $13.5B) was accused of repeatedly bullying and sexually harassing coworkers, allegations that the Foundation had “known about for years” but failed to act upon. In 2017, a similar case occurred when USC’s star fundraiser David Carrera  stepped down on charges of sexual harassment after leading the university’s historic $6 billion fundraising campaign.

While large foundations and endowments do important work, their structure relies too much on whale hunting for big checks, giving an inordinate amount of power to the hands of a small group of talented fund raisers.

This stands in contrast to Bright Funds’ ethos — to lead a grassroots movement in empowering individual employees to make their dollar of giving count.

Rebuilding charitable giving for the platform age

Bright Funds is the latest iteration of a lineup of workplace giving platforms. MicroEdge and Cybergrants paved the way in the 80s and 90s by digitizing the giving experience, but was mainly on-premise, and lacked a focus on user experience. Benevity and YourCause arrived in 2007 to bring workplace giving to the cloud, but they were still not turnkey solutions that could be easily implemented.

Bright Funds started as a consumer platform, and has retained that heritage in its approach to product design, aiming to reduce friction for both employee and company adoption. This is why many of their first customers were midsized tech startups with limited resources and looking for a turnkey solution, including Eventbrite, Box, Github, and Contently . They are now finding their way upmarket into larger, more established enterprises like Cisco, VMWare, Campbell’s Soup Company, and Sunpower.

Bright Funds approach to product has brought a number of innovations to this space.

The first is the concept of a cause-focused “fund.” Similar to a mutual fund or ETF, these funds are portfolios of nonprofits curated by subject-matter experts tailored to a specific cause area (e.g. conservation, education, poverty, etc.). This solves one of the chief concerns of any donor — is my dollar being put to good use towards the causes I care about? Passionate about conservation? Invest with Jim Leape from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who brings over three decades of conservation experience in choosing the six nonprofits in Bright Fund’s conservation portfolio. This same expertise is available across a number of cause areas.

Additionally, funds can also be created by companies or employees. This has proven to be an important rallying point for emergency relief during natural disasters, where employees at companies can collectively assemble a list of nonprofits to donate to. In 2017, Cisco employees donated $1.8 million (including company matching) through Bright Funds to Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma as well as the central Mexico earthquakes, the current flooding in India and many more.

The second key feature of their product is the impact timeline, a central news feed to understand where your dollars are going across all your cause areas. This transforms giving from a black box transaction to an ongoing dialogue between you and your charities.

Lastly, Bright Funds wants to take away all the administrative burden that might come with giving and volunteering — everything from tracking your volunteer opportunities and hours, to one-click tax reporting across all your charitable donations. In short, no more shoeboxes of receipts to process through in April.

Doing good & doing well

Although Bright Funds is focused on transforming the individual giving experience, it’s paying customer at the end of the day is the enterprise.

And although it is philanthropic in nature, Bright Funds is not exempt from the procurement gauntlet that every enterprise software startup faces — what’s in it for the customer? What impact does workplace giving and volunteering have on culture and the bottom line?

To this end, there is evidence to show that corporate social responsibility has a an impact on recruiting the next generation of workers. A study by Horizon Media found that 81% of millennials expect their companies to be good corporate citizens. A separate 2015 study found that 62% of millennials said they’d take a pay cut to work for a company that’s socially responsible.

Box, one of Bright Fund’s early customers, has seen this impact on recruiting firsthand (disclosure: Box is one of my former employers). Like most tech companies competing for talent in the Valley, Box used to give out lucrative bonuses for candidate referrals. They recently switched to giving out $500 in Bright Funds gift credit. Instead of seeing employee referrals dip, Box saw referrals “skyrocket,” according to Box.org Executive Director Bryan Breckenridge. This program has now become “one of the most cherished cultural traditions at Box,” he said.

Additionally, like any corporate benefit, there should be metrics tied to employee retention. Benevity released a study of 2 million employees across 118 companies on their platform that showed a 57% reduction in turnover for employees engaged in corporate giving or volunteering efforts. VMware, one of Bright Fund’s customers, has seen an astonishing 82% of their 22,000 employees participate in their Citizen Philanthropy program of giving and volunteering, according to VMware Foundation Director Jessa Chin. Their full-time voluntary turnover rate (8%) is well below the software industry average of 13.2%.

Towards a Brighter Future

Bright Funds still has a lot of work to do. CEO Walrod says that one of his top priorities is to expand the platform beyond US charities, finding ways to evaluate and incorporate international nonprofits.

They have also not given up their dream of becoming a truly consumer platform, perhaps one day competing in the world of donor-advised funds, which today is largely dominated by big names like Fidelity and Schwab who house over $85B of assets. In the short term, Walrod wants to make every Bright Funds account similar to a 401K account. It goes wherever you work, and is a lasting record of the causes you care about, and the time and resources you’ve invested in them.

Whether the impetus is altruism around giving or something more utilitarian like retention, companies are increasingly realizing that their employees represent a charitable force that can be harnessed for the greater good. Bright Funds has more work to do like any startup, but it is empowering the next set of donors who can give with the same effectiveness as Gates, and one day, at the same scale as him as well.

 


0

Apeel Sciences is combating food waste with plant-derived second peels

19:47 | 10 August

In a world bursting with abundances like self-driving cars and robotic personal assistants, you would think that basic needs like sustainable food sourcing and distribution would be a problem of the past. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), every year roughly a third — 1.3 billion tons — of food grown for consumption is lost or wasted. In industrialized countries like the U.S., this results in a loss of $680 billion per year, and in countries without standardized infrastructure (such as proper cooling systems), this results in a loss of $310 billion per year.

Among the billions of tons of food lost per year, the largest percentage is in vital, nutrient-rich foods like fruits and vegetables and roots and tubers (such as potatoes and carrots), each seeing about 45 percent wasted annually.

There are many factors responsible for food waste, including poorly regulated “Best By” and “Sell By” dates in the U.S. that tempt fickle customers into wasting otherwise good food, and unreliable or non-existent cooling distribution systems in less-industrialized countries.

But an underlying cause of both of these issues, especially for easily spoiled foods, is the inherent shelf life of the food itself. And that’s where Apeel Sciences steps in.

The California-based startup is combating food waste by using plant-derived materials from food itself to create an extra protective barrier to prolong its life and stave off spoilage — essentially, creating a second peel. To create it, farmers just add water to Apeel’s protective powder and apply it to produce as a spray or wash.

For founder and CEO James Rogers, who was working on a PhD in materials engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara when he was inspired to create Apeel Sciences, the solution to the problem of quickly spoiled food could be found by looking to a problem science had already solved: rust.

“Factors that cause spoilage are water loss and oxidation,” Rogers told TechCrunch. “[This] reminded me instantly of my undergraduate days at Carnegie Mellon as a metallurgist studying steel. Steel is perishable as well. It’s perishable because it rusts — it reacts with oxygen in the environment — and [that] limits its use. [But metallurgists] designed a little oxide barrier that would physically protect the surface of that steel, [creating] stainless steel.

Rogers says he began to wonder if a similar method could be used to protect produce from spoiling effects as well.

“Could we create a thin barrier along the outside of fresh produce and in doing that lower the perishability and perhaps make a dent in the hunger problem?”

Apeel was officially founded in 2012 with a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for $100,000 to help reduce post-harvest food waste in developing countries that lacked refrigeration infrastructure. To combat this issue, Apeel set up self-service and hybrid distribution systems for farmers in countries like Kenya and Uganda to help protect their produce during its journey from farm to consumer, without the need for refrigeration.

While the company still has a foothold in Africa and Southern Asia, it has also started partnerships with farmers in the U.S. as well, and in May and June of this year introduced the first Apeel produce — avocados — to U.S. retailers Costco and Harps Food Stores.

Because Apeel produce is not genetically modified (but instead plant-derived), they need no special labeling at grocers, but Rogers said the produce wears its scientific design on its sleeve nevertheless.

“We’re not doing anything at the DNA level, there’s no genetic modification, but we want to be really upfront with consumers and actually have them look for the label because by identifying that label they’re going to know that bringing that produce home with them [they’ll have] higher-quality, longer-lasting produce that they’ll be less likely to throw away.”

According to Apeel, since its avocados were introduced to Harps Food Stores, the retailer has seen a 65 percent increase in margin and a 10 percent lift in sales across the avocado category.

With these successes under its belt, Apeel also announced in July the closing of a $70 million funding round led by Viking Global Investors, with Andreessen Horowitz, Upfront Ventures and S2G Ventures participating.

Rogers told TechCrunch that the capital will help the company continue its research and development of new methods to fight food waste, including Apeel sprays for produce like stone fruit and asparagus, and continue to learn from solutions found in nature, “Our [mission] at its core is looking at natural ecosystems to determine and identify what materials it’s using to solve problems and how we might be able to extract and isolate those materials to solve other problems for humanity.”

 


0

The erosion of Web 2.0

15:37 | 5 June

It seems quaint to imagine now but the original vision for the web was not an information superhighway. Instead, it was a newspaper that fed us only the news we wanted. This was the central thesis brought forward in the late 1990s and prophesied by thinkers like Bill Gates – who expected a beautiful, customized “road ahead” – and Clifford Stoll who saw only snake oil. At the time, it was the most compelling use of the Internet those thinkers thought possible. This concept – that we were to be coddled by a hive brain designed to show us exactly what we needed to know when we needed to know it – continued apace until it was supplanted by the concept of User Generated Content – UGC – a related movement that tore down gatekeepers and all but destroyed propriety in the online world.

That was the arc of Web 2.0: the move from one-to-one conversations in Usenet or IRC and into the global newspaper. Further, this created a million one-to-many conversations targeted at tailor-made audiences of fans, supporters, and, more often, trolls. This change gave us what we have today: a broken prism that refracts humanity into none of the colors except black or white. UGC, that once-great idea that anyone could be as popular as a rock star, fell away to an unmonetizable free-for-all that forced brands and advertisers to rethink how they reached audiences. After all, on a UGC site it’s not a lot of fun for Procter & Gamble to have Downy Fabric Softener advertised next to someone’s racist rant against Muslims in a Starbucks .

Still the Valley took these concepts and built monetized cesspools of self-expression. Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and Twitter are the biggest beneficiaries of outrage culture and the eyeballs brought in by its continuous refreshment feed their further growth. These sites are Web 2.0 at its darkest epitome, a quiver of arrows that strikes at our deepest, most cherished institutions and bleeds us of kindness and forethought.

So when advertisers faced either the direct monetization of random hate speech or the erosion of customer privacy, they choose the latter. Facebook created lookalike audiences that let advertisers sell to a certain subset of humanity on a deeply granular level, a move that delivered us the same shoe advertisement constantly, from site to site, until we were all sure we had gone mad. In the guise of saving our sanity further we invited always-on microphones into our homes that could watch our listening and browsing habits and sell to us against them. We gave up our very DNA to companies like Ancestry and 23andMe, a decision that mankind may soon regret. We shared everything with everyone in the grand hope that our evolution into homo ligarus – the networked man – would lead us to become homo deus.

This didn’t happen.

And so the pendulum swings back. The GDPR, as toothless as it is, is a wake up call to every spammer that ever slammed your email or followed you around the web. Further, Apple’s upcoming cookie control software in Safari should make those omnipresent ads disappear, forcing the advertiser to sell to an undifferentiated mob rather than a single person. This is obviously cold comfort in an era defined by both the reification of the Internet as a font for all knowledge (correct or incorrect) and the genesis of an web-based political cobra that whips back to bite its handlers with regularity. But it’s a start.

We are currently in an interstitial period of technology, a cake baked of the hearty camaraderie and “Fuck the system” punk rock Gen X but frosted with millennial pragmatism and desire for the artisanal. As we move out of the era of UGC and Web 2.0 we will see the old ways cast aside, the old models broken, and the old invasions of privacy inverted. While I won’t go as far to say that blockchain will save us all, pervasive encryption and full data control will pave the way toward true control of our personal lives as well as the beginnings of a research-based minimum income. We should be able to sell our opinions, our thoughts, and even our DNA to the highest bidder and once the rapacious Web 2.0 vultures are all shooed away, we will find ourselves in an interesting new world.

As a technoutopianist I’m sure that were are heading in the right direction. We are, however, taking turns that none of us could have imagined in the era of Clinton and the fax machine and there are still more turns to come. Luckily, however, we are coming out of our last major skid.

 

Photo by George Fitzmaurice on Unsplash

 


0

Here is where CEOs of heavily funded startups went to school

20:10 | 26 May

CEOs of funded startups tend to be a well-educated bunch, at least when it comes to university degrees.

Yes, it’s true college dropouts like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates can still do well. But Crunchbase data shows that most startup chief executives have an advanced degree, commonly from a well-known and prestigious university.

Earlier this month, Crunchbase News looked at U.S. universities with strong track records for graduating future CEOs of funded companies. This unearthed some findings that, while interesting, were not especially surprising. Stanford and Harvard topped the list, and graduates of top-ranked business schools were particularly well-represented.

In this next installment of our CEO series, we narrowed the data set. Specifically, we looked at CEOs of U.S. companies funded in the past three years that have raised at least $100 million in total venture financing. Our intent was to see whether educational backgrounds of unicorn and near-unicorn leaders differ markedly from the broad startup CEO population.

Sort of, but not really

Here’s the broad takeaway of our analysis: Most CEOs of well-funded startups do have degrees from prestigious universities, and there are a lot of Harvard and Stanford grads. However, chief executives of the companies in our current data set are, educationally speaking, a pretty diverse bunch with degrees from multiple continents and all regions of the U.S.

In total, our data set includes 193 private U.S. companies that raised $100 million or more and closed a VC round in the past three years. In the chart below, we look at the universities most commonly attended by their CEOs:1

The rankings aren’t hugely different from the broader population of funded U.S. startups. In that data set, we also found Harvard and Stanford vying for the top slots, followed mostly by Ivy League schools and major research universities.

For heavily funded startups, we also found a high proportion of business school degrees. All of the University of Pennsylvania alum on the list attended its Wharton School of Business. More than half of Harvard-affiliated grads attended its business school. MBAs were a popular credential among other schools on the list that offer the degree.

Where the most heavily funded startup CEOs studied

When it comes to the most heavily funded startups, the degree mix gets quirkier. That makes sense, given that we looked at just 20 companies.

In the chart below, we look at alumni affiliations for CEOs of these companies, all of which have raised hundreds of millions or billions in venture and growth financing:

One surprise finding from the U.S. startup data set was the prevalence of Canadian university grads. Three CEOs on the list are alums of the University of Waterloo . Others attended multiple well-known universities. The list also offers fresh proof that it’s not necessary to graduate from college to raise billions. WeWork CEO Adam Neumann just finished his degree last year, 15 years after he started. That didn’t stop the co-working giant from securing more than $7 billion in venture and growth financing.

  1. Several CEOs attended more than one university on the list.

 


0

These schools graduate the most funded startup CEOs

21:16 | 12 May

There is no degree required to be a CEO of a venture-backed company. But it likely helps to graduate from Harvard, Stanford or one of about a dozen other prominent universities that churn out a high number of top startup executives.

That is the central conclusion from our latest graduation season data crunch. For this exercise, Crunchbase News took a look at top U.S. university affiliations for CEOs of startups that raised $1 million or more in the past year.

In many ways, the findings weren’t too different from what we unearthed almost a year ago, looking at the university backgrounds of funded startup founders. However, there were a few twists. Here are some key findings:

Harvard fares better in its rivalry with Stanford when it comes to educating future CEOs than founders. The two universities essentially tied for first place in the CEO alum ranking. (Stanford was well ahead for founders.)

Business schools are big. While MBA programs may be seeing fewer applicants, the degree remains quite popular among startup CEOs.  At Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, more than half of the CEOs on our list graduated as business school alum.

University affiliation is influential but not determinative for CEOs. The 20 schools featured on our list graduated CEOs of more than 800 global startups that raised $1M or more in roughly the past year, a minority of the total.
Below, we flesh out the findings in more detail.

Where startup CEOs went to school

First, let’s start with school rankings. There aren’t many big surprises here. Harvard and Stanford far outpace any other institutions on the CEO list. Each counts close to 150 known alum among chief executives of startups that raised $1 million or more over the past year.

MIT, University of Pennsylvania, and Columbia round out the top five. Ivy League schools and large research universities constitute most of the remaining institutions on our list of about twenty with a strong track record for graduating CEOs. The numbers are laid out in the chart below:

Traditional MBA popular with startup CEOs

Yes, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. And Steve Jobs ditched college after a semester. But they are the exceptions in CEO-land.

The typical path for the leader of a venture-backed company is a bit more staid. Degrees from prestigious universities abound. And MBA degrees, particularly from top-ranked programs, are a pretty popular credential.

Top business schools enroll only a small percentage of students at their respective universities. However, these institutions produce a disproportionately large share of CEOs. Wharton School of Business degrees, for instance, accounted for the majority of CEO alumni from the University of Pennsylvania . Harvard Business School also graduated more than half of the Harvard-affiliated CEOs. And at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management, the share was nearly half.

CEO alumni background is really quite varied

While the educational backgrounds of startup CEOs do show a lot of overlap, there is also plenty of room for variance. About 3,000 U.S. startups and nearly 5,000 global startups with listed CEOs raised $1 million or more since last May. In both cases, those startups were largely led by people who didn’t attend a school on the list above.

Admittedly, the math for this is a bit fuzzy. A big chunk of CEO profiles in Crunchbase (probably more than a third) don’t include a university affiliation. Even taking this into account, however, it looks like more than half of the U.S. CEOs were not graduates of schools on the short list. Meanwhile, for non-U.S. CEOs, only a small number attended a school on the list.

So, with that, some words of inspiration for graduates: If your goal is to be a funded startup CEO, the surest path is probably to launch a startup. Degrees matter, but they’re not determinative.

 


0

Gemini’s Tyler Winklevoss informs Bill Gates that actually he can short bitcoin

20:38 | 8 May

While plenty of the scathing criticism aimed at the cryptocurrency world is well deserved, sometimes a jab fails to land. In the midst of the mostly grossly-worded slew of insults that the institutionally rich lobbed at the bitcoin crowd over the weekend, Bill Gates may have landed the furthest from the mark.

“Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are “kind of a pure ‘greater fool theory’ type of investment, Gates told CNBC on Monday. “I would short it if there was an easy way to do it.”

It wasn’t clear if Gates was aware that there is indeed a way to short bitcoin and that he finds it cumbersome or if he just doesn’t really follow this whole crazy cryptocurrency thing at all. Still, that didn’t keep singular Winklevii Tyler Winklevoss from weighing in with what is, dare we say, almost an own.

Dear

there is an easy way to short bitcoin. You can short
, the
Bitcoin (USD) Futures contract, and put your money where your mouth is! cc
https://t.co/4JIhF5vWsZ

— Tyler Winklevoss (@tylerwinklevoss)

As Winklevoss noted, last year, the Chicago-based CBOE and CME launched their respective bitcoin futures markets, enabling short selling for bitcoin. Technically, there are other ways too, though the process might be a bit less straightforward than it would be with a more traditional asset. Maybe that’s what Gates meant all along.

Winklevoss, a noted bitcoin bull, runs the Gemini exchange together with his brother Cameron. The pair have been working on getting their plans for cryptocurrency ETFs off the ground after regulatory setbacks last year.

 


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DFS Lab is helping the developing world bootstrap itself with fintech

20:07 | 10 April

Entrepreneurs have it rough in Africa, India, Pakistan — places where VC cash doesn’t fall from the sky and necessary infrastructure like reliable banking and broadband can be hard to come by. But companies grow and thrive nevertheless in these rugged environments, and DFS Lab is an incubator focused on connecting them with the resources they need to go global.

The company was founded, and funded, on the back of a $4.8 million grant from the Gates Foundation, which of course is deeply concerned with tech-based solutions for well-being all over the world. Its name, Digital Financial Services Lab, indicates its area of focus: fintech. And anyone can tell you that sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most interesting places in the world for that.

This week DFS Lab is announcing a handful of new investments — modest ones on the scale companies are used to in Silicon Valley, but the money is only a small part of the equation. Investment comes at the end of a longer process, the most valuable of which may be the week-long sprint DFS Lab does on the ground, helping solidify ideas into products, or niche products into products at scale.

The relative lack of VCs and angel investors puts early-stage companies at risk and can discourage the most motivated entrepreneur, so the program is aimed at getting them over the hump and connected to a network of peers.

The latest round puts a total of $200,000 into four startups, each touching on a different aspect of a region or vertical’s financial needs. All, however, are largely driven by the massive growth of mobile money in Africa over the last decade and the more recent, ongoing transition to modern smartphones and the app/data landscape familiar to the U.S. and Europe.

  • Nala aims to move p2p payments away from the antiquated but widely used USSD system (more on this later) to a Venmo-like app interface that integrates multiple native mobile currencies like M-Pesa into a single tool.
  • Cherehani connects female entrepreneurs with financial resources; the idea is to provide both much-needed credit and financial literacy at as early an age as possible. (They have a chatbot too, naturally.)
  • Nobuntu is a platform through which South Africans can open and contribute to pension plans via mobile money, simply and with low overhead costs.

The fourth company is choosing to remain in stealth mode for now, but you see the general theme here.

For one reason or another there are major gaps in everyday services that many of us take for granted — the ability to prove one’s identity, for example, is critical but commonly absent. I talked with Paul Damalie, founder of a DFS-funded company called Inclusive that helps address that particular shortcoming.

Basic ID verification can be difficult when you remove many of the things we take for granted. So when, for example, someone wanted to get a loan, a savings account, or some other basic financial service, “Originally you’d have to literally walk into the bank to do it,” Damalie said. Needless to say that isn’t always convenient, and banks as well as users want better options.

“We’ve been collecting existing databases and building a layer of rich access around it,” he continued. “Now we can use facial recognition to check those details. Once you have the ID, you need to check it with the government records” — which Inclusive also does. A range of other data creates a confidence score in the person’s identity, helping avoid identity fraud.

Another opportunity arises not from these gaps but from the unique ways in which the African ecosystem has evolved. USSD, which I mentioned before, is probably unknown to many of our readers — it certainly was to me. But it’s become a standard tool used regularly by millions for important tasks in Africa; if you want to work in that market, you have to deal with USSD one way or another.

The problem is that, as you might guess from Nala trying to deprecate it, USSD is a technology dating back to the ’90s, a text-based interface that’s rudimentary but, much like SMS, universally accepted and intelligible. The importance of cross-platform compatibility in mobile markets as fragmented as these can’t be overstated.

So bridging the gap between USSD and a “traditional” (as we might call it) payment app is a unique opportunity, and one a company called Hover (also in the DFS Lab portfolio) is addressing. Its tech acts as a sort of translation layer between USSD and smartphone app interfaces, allowing for modern app design but also deep back-compatibility. It’s an opportunity specific to this time and this area of the world, but nevertheless one that may end up touching millions.

And from the narrowness of its vision that DFS Lab derives its effectiveness.

“They’re one of the most specialized accelerators in the world,” said Damalie. “It goes beyond just funding — it involves having the right kind of network: access to partners, data, sources across the continent. They had context-relevant fellows, people who had very specific challenges.”

“The grant was useful and let us build a proof of concept, and of course the Gates Foundation gives us credibility. But they were taking bets on us as individuals.”

Although DFS Lab has heretofore been funded by the Gates infusion, that well will run dry soon. Jake Kendall, DFS Lab’s executive director, indicated that the plan is to move towards a more traditional investor fund. They already focus on profitability and the potential for growth to the continental stage or beyond; this isn’t a charity but tactical investment in such a way that social good is a necessary byproduct.

“The best way to have a global impact is to be self-sustaining,” he said.

 


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Is venture capital ready for companies with no founders?

17:30 | 4 April

Initial coin offerings (ICOs) — a funding mechanism based on the technology behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin — are a hot new way to launch a startup and they’re forcing investors to look at the startup process anew.

Venture firms like mine understand that ICOs can reinvent how entrepreneurs bring innovations to life, but no one is quite sure how this will play out.

The tech community is so perplexed by the swelling interest in ICOs, notable firms that traditionally compete to invest in the early stages of a company are trying to figure it out together, and often end up co-investing in the ICOs.

Until recently, investors in Silicon Valley were obsessed with finding founders who have a great sense of purpose and a vision for a product or service. All the great companies have been driven by visionary founders, from Bill Hewlett and David Packard, to Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. So early-stage investors spend all their time looking for great founders and helping them build a company behind their instincts and leadership. This has been the model for 50 years.

In many ways, that model has been beneficial to the economy. We’ve built a lot of companies that have had an astounding impact on our lives and employed massive numbers of people. But the model has also created problems. The most formidable companies have accreted tremendous resources and power and are responsible for making profound decisions that affect whole industries and billions of people. Ultimately, all that power now lies in the judgment of a very few people — founders such as Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Google’s Larry Page.

But all this could be about to change. Just like the origins of cryptocurrency were in deep dissatisfaction with hyper-scaled banks, initial coin offerings are in response in part to the lack of transparency and misalignment of interests between companies and consumers.

ICOs won’t just break traditional company models – they may also temper the concentration of power brought on by traditional company models. For instance, a company’s ICO could be set up to encourage responsible innovation that benefits society, and ICO-backed collectives owned and operated by billions of people worldwide could challenge tech monopolies and spread wealth beyond the richest 1 percent.

But first, we have to make ICOs work in an acceptable, repeatable way. Right now, the ICO frenzy seems like a whirlwind of experimentation, and none of the outcomes have had much commercial impact.

ICOs are based on blockchain technology. A key component of blockchain is that it allows two entities (or people) to exchange value without a central authority (like a stock exchange or bank) executing the transaction. The transactions are tracked and carried out in software that runs on computers distributed all over the world. This mechanism is great for issuing a kind of software-based stock called tokens.

These tokens can be embedded with software instructions that dictate the rules of that investment. A token doesn’t have to be a passive share of a company like traditional stock. It might instead include a promise to deliver a service or product, which is similar to the way fundraising campaigns work on Kickstarter. Tokens can govern themselves and track every transaction, so no central stock exchange is necessary and no nation’s government can easily regulate the instruments.

An ICO company might, for instance, decide it will reveal financial information weekly — or annually, or never –depending on how management wants to run the company. Investors get to see those rules and decide whether they like the idea of investing in such a company.

Unlike today’s startups, an ICO can be a completely decentralized way of founding and running an enterprise. A person or collective could set up an ICO and program it with all the parameters that govern the entity – what it will do, how it will operate, and so on – and start a company that builds itself. That’s a more sophisticated version of how Wikipedia became the biggest encyclopedia on the planet: it set up rules for writing and editing, and then the community took over.

Can this work in real life? Pavel Durov, the Russian founder of popular messaging app Telegram, got global press coverage for his $1.7 billion pre-ICO sale to create a cryptocurrency that would become a way for Telegram users to make payments anywhere in the world. But keep in mind that Durov is using his ICO to raise millions for a global project that so far has no product. If he’s successful, the resulting cryptocurrency can become a platform for apps and financial transactions. But whatever this becomes, the rules embedded in the ICO will operate it – not Durov.

Pavel Durov, Telegram CEO

Imagine services or applications built on blockchain that no company or person can dominate. A collective version of Facebook could make users and developers feel more in control, and less subject to Facebook’s whims. You could set your own rules on how much privacy to give up, or how much you’d get paid by every person who listens to the music you post. I’m convinced that at some point, someone will set up a blockchain social network that gets all the rules right and becomes an attractive alternative to Facebook.

As a long-time investor in startups, though, I have concerns about ICOs that I can’t yet resolve. Getting consensus among a large group is harder and slower than a powerful leader issuing orders. Social good is wonderful, but it won’t get anywhere unless the entity can execute and build great products and services – hard to do without a structure and dedicated staff.

The decentralized nature of ICO enterprises seems to often lead to chaos. One company, Tezos, raised $232 million in a 2017 ICO, but now seems to be falling apart. The founding team is fighting among themselves, the ICO participants can’t get access to the tokens they bought, and at least four class-action lawsuits have been filed, most charging Tezos with violating security laws and defrauding those who joined the ICO.

Then again, some run-of-the-mill venture-backed startups end up in similar messes.

I am keen to see early success with the ICO model because I believe it will benefit society. Entrepreneurs in small towns who have crazy ideas would typically find it impossible to even get a meeting with a top-tier VC. ICOs give them a way to get funded by a broader range of individual investors, and that should help spread wealth to more people in more places.

Blockchain today, as many have said, seems a lot like the internet in the early-1990s, when the internet’s rules were evolving and few people understood what it could be used for. Like the internet, blockchain is a free protocol on which all sorts of new products and services will ride. It’s going to drive massive innovation, and as investors, it’s our job to support that innovation and bring it to market. Now we have to figure out how to best do that.

As I orient myself to ICO-based opportunities, I’ve come to realize there are some important questions we have to ask of these new ICO ventures. Is there economic alignment between the company and its investors or token holders? Is the crypto-token model essential for the technology under consideration, or is someone just taking advantage of the cryptocurrency frenzy? Is an ICO raising the right amount of money – or raising a crazy amount of money that will never pay off?

I also think it’s more important than ever to ask if the ICO’s rules are aligned with society’s core values instead of with the motivations of a founder.

And then, odd as it can seem, VCs need to retrain themselves to assess blockchain-based algorithms in the way we’ve long assessed founders. After all, the next time we find ourselves considering an investment in a company that might change the world, we might be examining blockchain code and reading a governing white paper. There won’t even be a founder to talk to.

 


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