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Main article: Bill Gates

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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



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.



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.



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.


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

— 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.



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.



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.



Code.org is bringing computer education to Alaska Airlines’ in-flight entertainment

17:00 | 30 January

Code.org has partnered with Alaska Airlines to offer free educational videos on how computers and the Internet work, Code.org CEO Hadi Partovi wrote in a blog post.. The video series, which stars Microsoft founder Bill Gates and other industry leaders, will be available beginning in April on Alaska Airlines flights.

“Whether you use a PC, a smartphone, a wearable device, a connected home appliance, or a self-driving car, the same principles explain how all these computing devices function,” says Bill Gates. “In the 21st century, these computer science ideas are part of digital literacy that every student and adult can benefit from.”

The series entails short lessons on binary and data, circuits and logic, CPU, memory, input and output, and hardware and software. The series is designed to be easy for everyone to understand, Partovi wrote.

In addition to making them available on airlines, Code.org will integrate the videos into its middle and high school curriculum. They will also be available on Khan Academy, a startup that offers computer science education, and tools for parents and teachers.

“With hubs up and down the “Tech Coast”, we’re both witnessing and leveraging the innovations that we see occurring every day in our own backyard,” says David Scotland, Manager of Inflight Entertainment & Connectivity at Alaska Airlines. “Code.org’s new series is an entertaining and approachable way for us all to gain a basic awareness of how computers work. We’re pleased to offer over 40 million guests the opportunity to view Code.org’s new video series inflight through our partnership.”

Featured Image: Getty Images



Ginkgo Bioworks secures $275 million in Series D, valuing the company at over $1 billion

15:00 | 14 December

Boston biotech startup Ginkgo Bioworks has announced the raise of $275 million in Series D funding to build out its Bioworks3 production facility.

The funding comes from previous investors Viking Global, Y Combinator’s Continuity Fund, Cascade Investment, Bill Gates, as well as new investor, General Atlantic.

The company previously raised over $154 million, bringing the total up to $429 million in the three years since launching out of Y Combinator. The new raise now puts Ginkgo’s valuation at over $1 billion, according to sources.

Ginkgo started out using yeasts to create products for the flavor, fragrance and food industries and has produced probiotics in conjunction with DARPA to help U.S. soldiers stave off stomach bugs they might pick up overseas.  including creating bacteria that can decrease farmers’ reliance on chemical fertilizers and “living medicines” to cure the body of disease.

Last year, Ginkgo raised $100 million in a joint venture with pharma company Bayer to create bacteria that can decrease farmers’ reliance on chemical fertilizers by focusing on nitrogen fixation.

The new funding will be used to branch out into even more markets this next year, Ginkgo Bioworks co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly told TechCrunch.

“There are just more and more consumer goods being impacted by biotech,” Kelly said, listing off Bolt Threads and Impossible Foods as two startups doing well in the space.

But rather than honing in on one material, Ginkgo is a sort of the backbone, work in partnership with these types of companies. Ginkgo designs and ships the bugs, the companies do the rest. Right now, the biggest deals the company are coming from agriculture and pharmaceuticals.

Kelly also mentioned the possibility of going public soon. Keep in mind, the company didn’t just pop out of YC a few years back. It was founded in 2009 and already had about 15 people on the team when it entered the accelerator in 2014. An IPO would seem to be a logical next step after raising all that cash and growing to where it has.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense for us to sell the company or seek an acquisition just because of the breadth of markets,” Kelly said. “For us this is a standalone new industry. More of an organism design industry.”

It’s exciting to see so much happening in this new biotech space, particularly with startups. Synthetic tech companies raised more than $1 billion last year and might just go beyond that by the end of 2017 — we were already at the half a billion dollars mark in July.

It will be interesting to see what Ginkgo does with its new Bioworks3 foundry over the next few months. That production facility officially begins operations today.



Zuck and Bezos back seed stage scout fund Village Global

03:12 | 26 September

Product Hunt’s first employee Erik Torenberg is ready to fund fresh new startups, not just reveal them to the world. Today is the soft launch of Village Global, a seed and pre-seed early stage venture capital fund looking to connect entrepreneurs to cash as well as all-star mentors. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman, Google’s Eric Schmidt, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates are amongst the LPs putting money and advisorship into Village Global.

Village Global partner Erik Torenberg

Torenberg declined to comment on this article, as VCs can’t legally discuss ongoing fundraising legally due to SEC rules. While the firm doesn’t list how big its fund plans to be, TechCrunch has discovered an SEC regulatory filing from June showing Village Global was targeting a $50 million fundraise. It’s unclear how much exactly it will pull in, though, as fundraising is ongoing .

So why are luminaries like former NYC mayor Mike Bloomberg, VMWare founder Diane Greene, or Disney CEO Bob Iger willing to get involved, especially when most are already outrageously wealthy? “These innovators haven’t lost their love of the startup game” Village Global wrote in its launch post. “In fact, they have a lot of wisdom to share about their entrepreneurial journeys, and insight to gain from interacting with the next generation of innovators.”

These tech titans may trust Village Global because of Torenberg’s grass-roots affiliation with that next generation through his work at Product Hunt. He could help CEOs far-removed from the startup trenches glean learnings about budding tech trends and business practices from Village Global’s portfolio founders.

The Village Global team also includes Ben Casnocha, who co-authored entrepreneurship strategy book The Startup Of You with Hoffman before becoming his chief of staff at LinkedIn. Other partners at Village Global include former IAC biz dev exec, 500 Startups head of investor relations, and Queensbridge partner Adam Corey; Chegg chief business officer and Harvard Business School entrepreneur-in-residence Anne Dwane; and SuccessFactors VP and Canaan partner Ross Fubini.

Focusing on very early stage startups could allow Village Global to make an impact without raising an exceptionally huge fund, or offering expansive service arms like Andreessen Horowitz or GV (formerly Google Ventures) do in recruiting, design, and other areas. Instead, Village Global could dangle access to its network of famous advisors, roping in founders with its star power.

“Networks are known for speed and adaptability. These are good attributes for founders” Village Global writes. The firm says it’s geography and vertical agnostic, and will do follow-on rounds, giving it plenty of flexibility to find who’s building the future.

Village Global’s opportunity lies in keeping its ear to the street and sniffing out high potential founders and startups before more established funds and angel investors do. At this moment, a small investment can equal a substantial equity stake.

“One of the unique ways we operate is that we entrust successful angel investors and inspirational founders with capital to invest on behalf of Village” the firm explains. “Village network leaders— representing different backgrounds, ethnicities, genders, geographies, and sectors — have proximity to founders, including those who might go underestimated.”

Rather than having all deal flow and decision making go through its small core team, Village Global will develop a wider scouting network of the kind of people founders already look to for advice and first checks. These “network leaders” include YouTube’s VR lead Erin Teague, Quora vice president Sarah Smith, Dropbox’s first employee Aston Motes, and board director for Target, Hilton and [TechCrunch parent company] Verizon Mel Healey.

It’s a model that acknowledges that startup returns are binary — they either become failures or huge successes with little in between that’s meaningful to investors. By being generous with how it distributes rights to the returns on its investments to scouts, Village Global could gain access to these breakout deals that can pay back an entire fund.

With so many post-exit founders and wealthy individuals flooding into the early-stage investment field, competition is fierce. But if Village Global can cast a wide net, and reel in future unicorns with the promise of being mentored by tech heroes, it could see a strong community of startups cluster around it.



As a relieved Tampa assesses its future, one of its millionaires plants a flag for VC and tech

17:10 | 13 September

While Tampa Bay residents are beginning the process of removing the sandbags from their homes and getting back to the business of daily living in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, the city’s multi-millionaire real estate developer, Jeff Vinik, is busy with plans of his own.

Last year, Vinik and Bill Gates’ Cascadia fund jointly acquired a swath of waterfront property in Tampa Bay.The two intend to turn the $3 billion parcel of real estate into a model of intentional urban development. And an integral part of that, Vinik tells me, is bringing technology investment and entrepreneurship to the city.

We’ve heard this song before at TechCrunch, with a seeming endless stream of cities from Coeur D’Alene, to Charlottesville, Va., to New Orleans planting a flag for technology development and business incubation. What’s different is that Vinik is putting his capital behind these projects.

These days, the conversation has taken on a new dimension: Amazon has announced that it plans to build a second headquarters outside of Seattle somewhere in North America. That’s leading a lot of people to speculate about where it might choose, and thus which city might be the lucky recipient of a huge tech boost from one of the biggest companies in the space right now. Tampa could potentially be another addition to that list.

And Vinik could help make that happen. Essentially Vinik wants to link the big corporations who are looking for new sustainable technologies to complete the real estate development project he’s financing with the startup companies that he’d help back. It’s all part of a broader effort to bring the tech industry to Tampa Bay by finding out what technologies companies in Tampa Bay need.

The first step in the process was to bring in DreamIt Ventures in to serve as the in-house accelerator program for a cohort of companies that will work hand-in-hand with the developers on the project Vinik and Gates are financing.

Vinik tells me he’ll commit 20 percent of the $50 million Dreamit is hoping to raise for its third fund and will be looking to commit an additional 20 percent to another $50 million to $100 million fund he hopes to raise to woo companies down to Florida.

“We have every raw material in this region to actually boom over the next couple of decades,” Vinik says of his slice of Eastern Gulf real estate. “Tampa Bay to Orlando will be the next region.”

The problem Vinik says, is brain drain and a lack of opportunity for a more entrepreneurially minded Floridian. And he sees the solution in the kinds of communities that have sprung up in places like Austin, Chicago, Detroit, and even Denver.

“After all of that … just from listening… I realized that one of the first things we do is set up an innovation hub,” Vinik says.

For DreamIt, the move to Tampa fits with the firm’s continuing evolution away from the typical accelerator approach used by firms like 500 Startups and Y Combinator. By partnering with the Vinik project, and focusing on urban tech that can be deployed in the new community that’s being developed, DreamIt’s approach begins to look more like Techstars, which has accelerators focused on geographies, industries, and accelerating corporate innovation.

While the firm has no particular background in urban tech, what it does have is a model that aligns well with startups at varying stages of growth, according to Andrew Ackerman, the New York-based partner who’s heading up Dreamit’s new urban tech initiative.

Traditionally, Dreamit has focused on education and healthcare, but the firm’s approach is to partner with large corporates that can become either channels for startups to bring their technology to market, or buyers of the technologies and services themselves.

That’s a model for success in any industry, according to Ackerman.

For his part, Vinik is hoping that Tampa will become a more permanent home for Dreamit and its program. “Dreamit is a cricital part of this,” he tells me.

Vinik, also the owner of the local hockey team and a former manager of Fidelity Investments’ Magellan Fund, is looking to commit a not insignificant portion of his wealth to the next Dreamit fund and establish another, later-stage fund, to invest in tech companies around the region.

“We’ve been dating this year, and there’s a good chance that we get married in 2018 — and that would mean two cohorts per year,” Vinik says.

Not even a hurricane could ruffle the commitment, in part because Dreamit does much of its early mentoring remotely.

The firm has already chosen the first nine startups that are participating in the Tampa Bay accelerator program, and they held their first meeting on Monday as Irma bore down on the city.

In a remote video conference, the leaders of Bignay, Cityzenith, Ecomedes, Energy Intelligence, Flower Turbines, Knowify, Lotik, Raxar, and Twist Homes (I’ll describe what the companies do in a minute) got their first taste of what the Dreamit program would entail.

Dreamit Ventures urban tech meetup

Part of the pitch from Dreamit, and draw for startups, is the program’s focus on getting its companies in front of companies as a part of the incubation process. For this cohort that means working with companies including COOKFox Architects, Skanska, Suffolk Construction, which are all working on the Water Street Tampa development. Other partners include Newmark Grubb Knight Frank, Odin Properties, and others.

This is all part of Vinik’s and Gates’ Cascadia Investments larger $3 billion revitalization plan that covers 53 acres and will have 5,000 new homes, 2.5 million square feet of office space and come in a built environment of 9 million total square feet.

Here’s that full list and a brief description of the startups in this first Dreamit cohort (and I have to say that a few of these don’t sound half bad… or all bad).

  • Gi Fly is the maker of a folding electric bicycle
  • Cityzenith integrates with all sorts of sensor data and architecture and project design software to give developers and building managers a comprehensive view of multi-building projects or facilities around the world.
  • Ecomedes is a data management platform for sustainable purchasing.
  • Energy Intelligence is a power generator attached to a smart speed bump (kind of like this).
  • Flower Turbines is a micro wind turbine manufacturer.
  • Knowify is a bid tracking and invoice management software as a service for commercial subcontractors.
  • Lotik is pitching a water management and services sensor network.
  • Raxar sells a visual assessment and quality assurance software for large infrastructure developments.
  • Twist Home is slling a super light bulb kitted out with wireless speakers, wifi repeaters and sensors to monitor a building’s internal environment.
Featured Image: Antoine Gady/Flickr UNDER A CC BY-ND 2.0 LICENSE


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