Abacus raises $2 million to help startups and investors manage tokenized liquidity programs

For the crypto market to become attractive to institutional investors, companies and their investors need to ensure that tokenized securities — digital assets subject to federal security regulations — can be as easily tracked and traded and exchanged as traditional stock shares.

Abacus, a young company that passed through Y Combinator this past summer, thinks its technology can make it so.

According to the picture painted by Abacus founder and CEO Pradyuman Vig, Abacus can both automate compliance for tokenized security transactions and keep track of the chain of custody of private securities, making it simple for the SEC, among other parties, to audit the entire history of these securities transactions. Indeed, using the blockchain and its proprietary software, Vig says that Abacus can facilitate the issuance, administration and settlement of tokenized financial instruments on the blockchain through smart contracts that it keeps track of via an on-chain storage layer.

The company’s goal, ultimately, is to make it easier to buy and sell private securities, as well as to make the process far more transparent. If it works, it could be a big deal, too. Consider that traditionally, funds and companies have experienced liquidity events either when they get acquired or sold or go public (or get liquidated). Meanwhile, because so much money has poured into the private market over the last decade, companies have pushed off all of these types of events for longer periods of time. That shift has given rise to secondary sales as we know them today, but Abacus thinks it can help usher in yet another way for startups and funds to exit their holdings: through secondary markets for tokenized securities.

Right now, of course, the mere idea of a secondary market for tokenized securities feels like a very distant possibility. As TC columnist Jon Evans noted over the weekend, Bitcoin — priced at $19,000 apiece at this time last year — is now trading at $3,500, and other cryptocurrencies have cratered even more dramatically. What’s left of the crypto space right now, writes Evans, is a “giant casino of penny stocks, with little to no utility outside of financial speculation.”

It could be a painfully long period before that changes, but true believers in digital assets are covering their bases in the meantime, and betting on Abacus is seemingly one way to do that. In fact, the company just closed on $2 million in funding, including $1 million from serial entrepreneur and investor Justin Kan. Other investors in the round include YC and Coinbase, which has been plain about its ambitions to some day offer crypto securities trading, and that last month took another step toward that end when it launched over-the-counter trading for institutional customers that allows them to direct trades between each other.

Coinbase, perhaps unsurprisingly, is also among Abacus’s first “exchange” partners, or it will be, once it goes live with a new offering that will first be made to customers outside the U.S. that allows them to trade hundreds of tokens directly from their wallets. Vig says that Abacus also is working with a Chicago-based exchange called OpenFinance, which is about to begin trading its first security token. And Abacus has partnered with AirSwap, a New York-based peer-to-peer trading platform.

Presumably, the technology that Abacus is developing is of burgeoning interest to all of these parties, but one assumes that investors are also putting stock — no pun intended — in Vig and his co-founder, Ian Macalinao. The young software engineers originally met in 2012 through the Texas Academy of Mathematics, a college entrance residential program for gifted high school students. After they headed off to different colleges — they graduated from Purdue and the University of Texas, respectively — they came together to form an analytics platform, and, more recently, to create Abacus.

It’s still a very small operation. The two have just two other employees as of this writing. Vig insists that Abacus doesn’t need an army of engineers, though. “We’re programmatic and automatic, so if we got a lot of interest, we could spin out new issuances pretty quickly,” he says. “It’s all API-based, so four people doesn’t seem like much but we’ve accomplished a lot.”

They’re already seeing some revenue, too, they say, including from SpaceFund, a new, Texas-based venture capital firm focused on using blockchain technology to fund “frontier enabling” space startups by selling its own security tokens to accredited investors to fund them. (The idea is that these same investors will be able to sell their SpaceFund tokens to other investors as their value rises.) As far out as it all sounds, SpaceFund is paying Abacus a subscription fee, after paying a set-up fee. And Vig expects such fees to add up over time as it attracts more customers, even if it’s too nascent to know what to charge just yet.

“We don’t have a formula yet for our SaaS Model,” says Vig. “It depends on the number of people involved in a particular offering, and how complicated compliance is.”

Of course, what it really depends on is whether and when enough startups and investors gravitate toward tokenized securities. If it happens sooner rather than later, Abacus will be ready and waiting.

Pictured above, left to right: Abacus founders Pradyuman Vig and Ian Macalinao.

California says all city buses have to be emission free by 2040

On the heels of a dire government report published last month about climate change and its devastating impacts, many cities and states are scrambling to find ways to curb the greenhouse gas emissions that threaten their air quality, not to mention their economies.

As is often the case, California is leading the charge, yesterday becoming the first state to mandate that mass transit agencies purchase fully electric buses only beginning in 2029, and that public transit routes be populated by electric buses alone by 2040.

The new rule will is expected to require the production and purchase of more than 14,000 new zero-emission buses.

Mary Nichols, chair of the California Air and Resource Board (CARB) that voted unanimously to make California the first state with such a commitment, told the outlet Trucks.com earlier this month that California has “to push standards that are more progressive” than the federal government because of the state’s chronic air pollution, which is linked to asthma and heart disease, among other things.

The move is reportedly the result of several years of CARB’s work with industry and public-health groups, and it flies in the face of moves by the Trump administration to push for lower fuel efficiency standards and to instead promote the use of fossil fuels.

Indeed, the Trump administration has questioned from the outset how much the U.S. is responsible for cutting back emissions, and the newest government report seemingly didn’t alter anything for the President. Asked last month about the government’s findings that, unchecked, global warming will have catastrophic implications for the U.S. economy, he said, “I don’t believe it.” He added: “People like myself, we have very high levels of intelligence but we’re not necessarily such believers.”

Instead of wait on the administration to change its mind, California’s new Innovative Clean Transit rule will force California’s public bus lines — many of which currently run on natural gas or diesel fuel — to shift to either electric power or hydrogen fuel cells.

The move could be a boon for electric bus companies like Proterra, a 14-year-old, Burlingame, Ca., company that has raised roughly half a billion dollars from investors to build its zero-emission, battery-electric buses. It could also potentially help the publicly traded Chinese automaker giant BYD, which, as TC has reported, has been on a partnership spree with cities across China to electrify their public transportation systems and is now extending its footprint across the globe.

The new ruling is not the only line of attack that California is adopting. As The Hill notes, earlier this year, California also voted to become the first state to mandate new homes be retrofitted with solar panels. In September, Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill that will require the state to transition to a 100 percent renewable energy electric grid by 2045.

CARB has also worked to advise the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which last month announced what it called its Cleaner Trucks Initiative. EPA officials say that via the initiative, the agency plans to revise truck pollution standards in a way that lowers their nitrogen oxide emissions while also doing away with requirements that the industry has complained are financially onerous.

As reported by the L.A. Times, despite the announcement, no one yet knows if the EPA is planning more stringent emissions limits or anything as strict as the 90 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide pollution that CARB has said is needed to clean smog to health standards.

L.A. gets more moolah, thanks to Calibrate Ventures and its new, $80 million fund

Two years ago, a couple of VCs from Shea Ventures, a 50-year-old, L.A. -based investment firm, banded together to create a Pasadena, Ca.-based early stage venture firm called Calibrate Ventures.

Investors clearly like what they’re building. Firm founders Kevin Dunlap and Jason Schoettler are today announcing that they have closed their debut effort with $80 million in capital commitments, including from Shea Ventures itself and from Foundry Group, the Boulder, Co.-based venture outfit that began dedicated a portion of its own capital to investing in other early-stage venture funds in 2016. (Both Foundry and the Bay Area-based venture firm True Ventures have been frequent syndicate partners of both Dunlap and Schoettler, including during the 15 years the two spent with Shea.)

So what is Calibrate funding, exactly? Well, it has five portfolio companies so far. Three of these are bets on robotics companies, including the Bedford, Ma.-based flexible robot company Soft Robotics. It has also written checks to two software startups, including Broadly, an Oakland, Ca.-based mobile-first chat platform for local businesses. Dunlap says both fit into the firm’s mission of funding companies that augment today’s labor markets, or that enhance human productivity, or that simply offer cheaper, better services, like Dollar Shave Club, which he had backed while at Shea, or the home security company Ring, on whose board Dunlap had sat until the company sold for $1 billion to Amazon earlier this year.

As for the company’s obvious interest in robotics companies specifically, Dunlap says it’s far from a new area of fascination. In fact, Dunlap spent a year as an engineer with Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. He and Schoettler have also been making related bets for years, including investing in Sphero (in their capacity as investors at Shea) and, more recently, under the Calibrate banner, Built Robotics, which retrofits construction equipment with the same sensor technology used in autonomous vehicles. As for what interests them specifically, says Dunlap, a company has to have a “subscription or service component to it. We don’t want to be investing in toy robot or a single-use robot and hoping that someone will want to buy version two or three later on.”

Either way, don’t expect to see the firm write too many checks. As Dunlap explains it, the firm, which is investing across the U.S., only plans to make 15 investments altogether with this new fund, investing between $3 million and $6 million into companies that are already seeing early revenue and that might be raising Series A rounds of between $10 million and $20 million.

“It’s important that the two of us do the work and spend time with all the times, and it’s important for us to do the work afterward, too,” Dunlap says, including referring Calibrate’s portfolio companies to potential future investors.

Thankfully, he says, unlike in years long past, that’s not the problem it once was for an L.A.-based firm. “Things have really matured here over the last five or six years,” he says. “Talent has been more of an issue in recent years than funding.” And nature seems to be solving for this, too. “You’re definitely starting to see more people moving here for the better weather and the cost of living. You’re also starting to see people leaving Dollar Shave Club and Snap and Honest Company and, over time, Ring.”

The duo area also bringing plenty of lessons learned to the table, they say, including the importance of “alignment, ad not just with founders but with other investment partners,” says Dunlap. It helps startups navigate around having “too much structure” involved in their financing rounds. It also keeps valuations “appropriate,” he says.

By the way, asked if he is seeing valuations soften at all with the zigs and zags of the public market, Dunlap says he isn’t, not in his part of the world, anyway. “When you’re talking about seed rounds around a concept or an idea, valuations can creep up, and those valuations may be coming down a bit right now.” When you’re instead “having a discussion with a company that has early revenue and metrics that you can point to, I’m not seeing any difference at all.”

Pictured, left to right: Kevin Dunlap and Jason Schoettler. Courtesy of Calibrate Ventures.

Report: Slack is prepping an IPO for next year, with Goldman Sachs as its lead underwriter

Slack, the workplace messaging company, has hired investment bank Goldman Sachs to lead its IPO next year, according to a Reuters report. Reuters’ sources say the company is hoping to nab a valuation of “well over $10 billion.”

The WSJ reported back in September that Slack was “actively preparing” for an IPO in the first half of next year, with an eye toward going public as early as the first quarter. It said, too, that the company thought it could achieve a valuation well in excess of the $7.1 billion that it was last assigned by private market investors.

Slack, which is based in San Francisco and Vancouver, revealed back in May that it had 8 million daily active users. At the time, it said that 3 million of its users were also, crucially, paid users.

In August, when the company announced its most recent funding round of $427 million, it told the New York Times that it still had eight million daily users, though it noted that it had just half that number in the summer of 2017.

Slack’s investors include SoftBank Group’s Vision Fund, Dragoneer Investment Group, General Atlantic, T. Rowe Price Associates, Wellington Management, Baillie Gifford, and Sands Capital, with much earlier investment coming from Accel Partners and Andreessen Horowitz (a16z).

In fact, when Accel and a16z funded Slack, it was technically a different company, one called Tiny Speck, and it worked long and hard on an online, multiplayer game called “Glitch” that failed to gain enough user traction to be continued.

It was only in the process of unwinding the company that it occurred to founder Stewart Butterfield that the messaging infrastructure he had created to privately communicate with Tiny Speck’s engineers and other employees might be an even more promising idea to pursue.

Butterfield had discussions with these early investors about returning their capital as he prepared to change course. As Accel’s Andrew Braccia told us several years ago, “We had a discussion about, ‘Should I return the money.'” But, said Braccia, “I told Stewart, ‘If you want to continue to be an entrepreneur and build something, then I’m with you.'”

It was a smart move on the part of Braccia, who spent nine years at Yahoo as a VP before joining Accel and met Butterfield there after Butterfield, with cofounder Caterina Fake, had sold their photo-sharing business Flickr to the company.

It was also a giant leap of faith, based on Butterfield’s potential alone. “I don’t think we understood how valuable, important, or fast it would grow,” Braccia admitted during that sit-down several years ago. “We just knew the use case was really strong at Tiny Speck and that if it was strong there, perhaps it could be strong other places, too.”

Slack’s thousands of customers include Airbnb, Time, Samsung, and Oracle, and it has reason to think it will be well-received in the market, judging by its popularity with those users and the performance of numerous other subscription-based enterprise software companies to go public in 2018, including Dropbox, Zuora, and DocuSign.

That said, the market may well be shifting, judging by the recent performance of the U.S. stock markets. Stocks dropped sharply today, capping what has been a stomach-churning week for Wall Street. In fact, a disappointing jobs report and strained U.S-China trade tensions appeared largely responsible for sending the Dow Jones Industrial Average to such a low point that it erased its gains for the year.

And Uber is going with . . . Bird (looks like)

Five months ago, the Bay Area-based electric scooter rental company Lime joined forces with the ride-hailing giant Uber, which both invested in the company as part of a $335 million round and said it was going to promote Lime in its mobile app.

It’s looking now like that may have been a mistake for Lime. Though Lime presumably shared information with its investor, Uber is now on the cusp of acquiring Lime’s fiercest rival Bird, according to several sources, none of whom quite knows at what price as of this writing.

What we’re hearing at the moment: talk in the neighborhood of $2 billion. That’s the valuation that Bird was assigned in the spring by investors when it raised its most recent round of $300 million, and it’s the same valuation that was being discussed recently by investors who contemplated giving the company an extension of that last round.

It’s also a price tag that could potentially double if the deal is an all-equity offering and Uber, currently valued at roughly $60 billion, is able to go public at a $120 billion valuation. Crazy as it sounds today, bankers have reportedly suggested is possible.

A request to Bird for comment from this afternoon has not been returned as of this writing, though the company has repeatedly said publicly and to employees that it is not for sale.

The Information had reported on Friday that Uber has held talks recently with both Bird and Lime.

Altogether, Bird, founded just 19 months ago, has raised $415 million. Its backers include Goldcrest Capital, Tusk Ventures, Craft Ventures (the investment firm of serial founder David Sacks), Index Ventures, Valor Venture Partners, and Sequoia Capital, which led the company’s most recent round.

If Uber chooses Bird over Lime, few industry observers will be surprised, given that the two have always seemed similar culturally. Before founding Bird, founder Travis VanderZanden worked for Lyft as its COO, and was later sued by the company for allegedly breaking a confidentiality agreement after he left to join Uber as its VP of Global Driver Growth.

From the outside, at least, VanderZanden — who later settled with Lyft for undisclosed terms — seemed a man after the heart of Uber’s original and highly hard-charging CEO, Travis Kalanick, whose tenure at the company ended in June of last year over its many cultural missteps. (Kalanick was later replaced by current CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.) Even the way that Bird launched was highly reminiscent of Uber, barreling into numerous cities without first securing their explicit approval.

That strategy backfired in some places, including San Francisco, which later forced Bird, Lime, and every other scooter company that dumped its hardware on the city’s streets to remove their many scooters and apply for permits first. The city then gave out permits to just two companies, neither of which was Lime or Bird. Still, by then, Bird had already generated “cool” cred with users that it may still enjoy to a greater extent than Lime, which launched at nearly the same time but began life with electric bikes and only layered in electric scooters after watching Bird’s rise.

A months-old deal with Uber may not have helped Lime as much as the company expected, either. It was back in July that Lime joined forces with the ride-hailing giant, which invested in Lime as part of a $335 million round and planned to promote Lime in its mobile app as part of the deal. According to Bloomberg, Uber also planned to plaster its logo on Lime’s scooters.

The deal looked to potentially be the first step toward a permanent tie-up, based on a particular precedent. To wit, Uber had struck a similar arrangement with the electric bike company JUMP bikes before spending $200 million to acquire the company in the spring. Yet while Uber has been featuring Lime within its own heavily downloaded app, the company hasn’t made a major push to promote Lime — which has raised $467 million altogether — otherwise.

As one source familiar with Uber said about whether its intentions all along were to collect data from Lime or otherwise use its pact as leverage against it, “I could see Travis Kalanick doing that. I don’t think it fit’s Dara’s [modus operandi], but you never know.”

What does clearly fit into Khosrowshahi mandate is finding ways for Uber to thrive, especially as its zooms inexorably toward its IPO. On this front, Bird may be able to scoot the company along faster. Though Bird and Lime compete neck-and-neck, largely using scooters from the same China-based manufacturing company, Bird’s first-mover advantage, plus VanderZanden’s history with the company, appear to be enough to seal the deal in this case — at least as of tonight.

Whether either company can help Uber reach a far richer valuation than it already enjoys is another question altogether.

There’s definitely reason to worry about Brexit, says Accel’s London team

Longtime Accel partners Philippe Botteri, Sonali De Rycker, Luciana Lixandru and Harry Nelis took the stage at Disrupt Berlin earlier today, and unlike many London-based investors, who have downplayed how much Brexit could hurt their local economy, the team was frank about their sundry concerns over what happens if the U.K. leaves the European Union as is currently scheduled to happen, beginning March 29, 2019.

Though they reiterated that no one can know for certain what Brexit’s impact might be, Botteri raised a handful of things that have the firm worried, beginning with “immigration and hiring talent and the movement of talent,” which could be meaningfully hampered by Brexit. “Even companies that don’t move their headquarters to London will often at some point begin to build a team,” he noted, questioning whether that will continue to happen.

There’s also the nontrivial issue of what happens to fintech companies, which have been thriving in London as a gateway between the U.S. and Europe and that have easily operated across all of Europe. Asked Botteri, “What about that?” post Brexit.

Others of the teams’ concerns center on data resiliency and subsidies. Regarding the first, Botteri noted that “more and more” of Accel’s portfolio companies are “dependent on the use and leverage of data, and obviously,” he continued, “where the data is stored is very critical. You have laws in the EU. If the U.K. is out [that bloc], then does it mean that every company will need to have a separate data center in the U.K. or manage data differently?” As for subsidies, Botteri observed that U.K. startups have received meaningful R&D support from the European Union, and well as the U.K., and wondered aloud how a split will impact startups.

Botteri then offered on a personal note that, “It’s not just startups. I’m not a U.K. citizen. I’d love to know at some point what’s going to happen to my visa,” he said with an uncomfortable laugh.

The partners didn’t talk about Brexit alone. Instead, among other topics covered in the discussion were the downstream effects of having a player like SoftBank’s Vision Fund in the market, and whether the secondary market is picking up in Europe as many regional companies — like their U.S. counterparts — linger ever longer as privately held companies.

Of SoftBank and the $100 billion that it’s currently plugging into startups around the world, Nelis initially answered generally, saying that it’s a “great trend for there to be more money for the European ecosystem. More money means more opportunities for great companies to be funded.”

He later added that he does think SoftBank’s appearance on the investing scene “changes the dynamic in the market. SoftBank is later-stage oriented and competing with other later-stage funds, so [what’s happening] is these [later-stage] funds are [trying to reach startups] a little bit earlier. So there’s this chain effect, where everyone needs to go earlier [stage] in order to accommodate this big amount of money.”

As for the biggest backer of SoftBank Vision Fund, Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, who has been tied by U.S. officials to the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the association is not prompting questions from founders regarding who, exactly is funding venture capital firms. Not yet, said De Rycker.

In part, she suggested, founders don’t have the time to give it as much thought as they perhaps should.

“The world right now is in such a race, it’s moving so fast . . . that I fear to say that for some of these questions, it matters at the core expense of some of these questions around where is the money coming from and what it means for your direction and who you are accountable to.” If a startup can “go forward without asking too many questions right now, why wouldn’t you, especially if you can get a lot of capital at a very high price?”

Before the foursome exited the stage, the partners touched on the secondary market, saying that though there is one, it’s not quite as evolved as in the U.S., where secondaries have become a routine way for venture capitalists to exit all or part of their investments.

“Primarily in Europe,” said Nelis, “secondaries are used to providing liquidity to founders. We’re very long-term investors, where we’re involved eight, nine, 10 years with our companies,” with Accel’s main objective being to “build big, valuable businesses, and to exit these companies when the founders do.”

If founders take a “little bit of money off the table” so they can “go and build a big company, rather than sell it halfway through the process,” he added, “that’s a good thing.”

Asked how soon is too soon to do that, the firm declined to comment directly. Instead, Botteri said that it hasn’t noticed any changes on this front over the last five years.

Jina Choi, the head of the SEC’s San Francisco office, is leaving the agency

Silicon Valley companies that operate in the gray might be heaving a small sigh of relief today. Yesterday, afternoon, the Securities & Exchange Commission announced that Jina Choi, the head of its San Francisco office, is retiring after 16 years with the agency.

The release about Choi’s move is glowing, though it doesn’t offer an explanation of why Choi is leaving or what her next move may be. We’ve reached out to learn more. In the meantime, it’s worth noting that many federal employees are eventually lured into higher paying jobs in the private sector.

Choi was appointed to lead the SEC’s Bay Area office in 2013, and with a staff of 130 attorneys, accountants, investigators, and compliance examiners, it has brought enforcements against numerous high-fliers, including, most recently, Tesla’s Elon Musk, who was made to step down as chairman of the company for a period of at least three years after he was accused of fraud for tweeting that he had secured company for the car company when he had not.

As part of that same settlement, Musk had to pay a $20 million fine; Tesla promised to put in place a system for monitoring Musk’s statements to the public about the company; and Tesla agreed to pay a separate $20 million fine and to appoint two independent directors to the board. It has since appointed longtime board member Robyn Denholm as new chair to replace Musk.

In September, we had talked with Choi on stage at our San Francisco Disrupt show about another of the agency’s most famous cases to date: Theranos, the blood-testing company that was recently dissolved but was charged with massive civil fraud by the SEC back in March.

It was a case that the SEC spent nearly two years building, and when we talked with Choi about what took so long, she explained the resource-intensive nature of the SEC’s work in some detail. She also made note of the surprising number of regions that the SEC’s Bay Area office covers, including Portland, Seattle, Idaho, Montana, and Alaska.

The agency has not yet announced who will replace Choi.

Meanwhile, the SEC yesterday also settled charges against boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and music producer DJ Khaled for failing to disclose payments they received for promoting investments in ICOs, though the case was pursued by the agency’s New York office.

Mayweather agreed to pay $300,000 in disgorgement, a $300,000 penalty, and $14,775 in what’s called prejudgment interest. Khaled agreed to pay $50,000 in disgorgement, a $100,000 penalty, and $2,725 in prejudgment interest.

As the FDA moves to ban most flavored e-cigs sold in stores, Juul pushes back harder on copycats

Love Juul or hate it, you can probably appreciate why the e-cigarette company is frustrated.

It has grown like gangbusters since the first Juul vaporizer was introduced in 2015, leaving competitors — including traditional tobacco companies with their own e-cigarettes — gagging on its smoke. Yet now, a meaningful percentage of that business is being threatened by FDA Commission Scott Gottlieb, who is so concerned about Juul’s soaring popularity with high school and middle school students that last week, he said he’s looking to have flavored e-cigs made available only in “age-restricted, in-person locations and, if sold online, under heightened practices for age verification.”

Even limited to selling more of its menthol-, tobacco- and mint-flavored nicotine cartridges, one imagines that Juul — which also sells mango, cucumber, and fruit-flavored liquids — will be just fine as a business concern.

As cofounder and CTO Adam Bowen recently told this editor of the opportunity in front of his company: “We’re 75 percent of the e-cigarette market, which sounds like a lot, but we’re only 4 to 5 percent of the U.S. cigarette market . . .So we’re really just getting started here, and we’ve just scratched the surface outside of the U.S., where 95 percent of smokers live.”

Juul clearly doesn’t want to take any chances, however. Just two months after filing a lawsuit aimed at stopping 30 entities in China from selling counterfeit Juul products on eBay, and a filing a separate complaint with the United States International Trade Commission (ITC), claiming that 18 organizations are infringing on Juul’s many patents, Juul has filed a new patent-infringement complaint with the ITC and again, it’s looking to block sales of competing e-cigarette devices and nicotine cartridges made mostly in China.

As Bloomberg notes, the company also fired mirror lawsuits in eight district courts around the U.S., accusing companies of infringing on its patents.

What happens next remains to be seen, pending any investigation the ITC may conduct. The biggest questions for the agency will seemingly be whether these competing and often flavored products may more easily fall into the hands of underage smokers, or whether Juul is instead trying to box out a growing field of competitors and knockoffs while busy trying to deal with the FDA. Likely, it will find both to be true.

In the meantime, Juul’s customers are also preparing themselves for the changes ahead, seemingly. As one longtime smoker turned Juul enthusiast told the New York Times this week, she has been stocking up on Juul’s mango cartridges at her corner smoke shop, while also accepting that she may have to adjust to a more traditional flavor profile.

“I’ll switch to Juul’s tobacco flavor,” she told the outlet. “I can get around this. Just like the kids will — they can always find a way.”

You can check out the list of companies that Juul is newly going after here.

Move over Le Creuset? A new cookware startup founded by and for millennials is getting down to business

Sometimes, it’s hard to imagine a product or industry that a new e-commerce startup hasn’t tried to remake already, from slippers to mattresses, from luggage to lipstick.

Yet two childhood friends in New York have seemingly struck on a fresh idea: taking on the stodgy and often expensive world of cookware, where one’s options out of college are usually limited to a few pieces of Calphalon or Farberware or, in the best-case scenario, some Le Creuset, the premium French cookware manufacturer founded back in 1925 and known for its vibrant colors, including Marseille, Cerise, and Soleil.

In fact, what the pair are building with their 10-month-old startup, Great Jones, appears to be a Le Creuset for the next generation: a handful of cookware items, including a cast-iron Dutch oven, that come in an array of colorful, if comparatively more muted, tones. Think Broccoli and Mustard.

The cookware is also more affordable than Le Crueset, which charges upward of $300 for a similar Dutch oven, compared with $145 for Great Jones’s new product. In fact, Great Jones’s full collection, which also includes a stainless steel stock pot, a stainless sauce pot, a stainless deep saute and a ceramic nonstick skillet, retails for $395.

Cookware is a smart sector to chase. According to the market consultancy IBIS World, the so-called “kitchen and cookware stores” industry has been growing steadily, reaching revenue of $17 billion last year.

One of the big question questions for Great Jones will be whether its offerings hold up, and whether its customers find them compelling enough to recommend to others.  After all, the old adage tends to hold up that you get what you pay for. And most new products take off because of favorable word of mouth, not merely because they’re Instagrammable.

Great Jones’s 28-year-old founders — Sierra Tishgart, previously a food editor at New York Magazine, and Maddy Moelis, who worked in customer insights and product management at a variety of e-commerce companies, including Warby Parker and Zola — seem to have thought these things through. Indeed, in a recent Forbes profile, they say they conducted extensive interviews with chefs and cookbook authors in their network in order to establish, for example, how to design a comfortable handle.

They also smartly made certain that their introductory offerings come in a range of metals. As even so-so cooks know, stainless steel is ideal for browning and braising; durable nonstick coatings make preparing delicate foods, including eggs and pancakes, less nightmarish.

In the meantime, Great Jones has easily captured the press’s imagination with what they are cooking up — a sign, perhaps, that the industry is ready for a refresh. In addition to Forbes, Great Jones also received recent coverage in the New York Times and Vogue — valuable real estate that most months-old startups can only dream of landing.

Great Jones has also raised outside funding already, including $2.75 million that it closed on last month led by venture capital firm General Catalyst, with participation from numerous individual investors.

Now, the company just needs to convince its target demographic that it should ditch the older, established brands that may not feel particularly modern but are known to be durable, easy to clean, dishwasher safe, and not insanely heavy (among the other things that keep people from throwing their pots in the garbage).

Great Jones also has plenty of newer competition to elbow out of the way if it’s going to succeed.

As the Times piece about the company notes, just a few of the other startups that are suddenly chasing the same opportunity include Potluck, a five-month-old, New York-based startup that sells a $270 “essentials bundle” that features 22 pieces, including utensils; Misen, a four-year-old, Brooklyn-based startup that sells cookware and chefs knives; and Milo, a year-old, L.A.-based startup that’s solely focused on Dutch ovens, to start.

According to Crunchbase, Misen has raised $2 million, including through a crowdfunding campaign; Milo has raised an undisclosed amount of seed funding.

Feeling left out of a hot market? This new outfit has a fund with shares of 30 top ‘unicorns’ to sell you

When Equidate, a venture-backed secondaries marketplace based in San Francisco, closed its most recent round of funding with $50 million four months ago, it was hardly a surprising bet on the part of its backers. As startups linger ever longer as private companies, more people are looking to lock up shares wherever they can find them.

Investors have plenty of platforms from which to choose. In addition to Equidate, other companies that match investors with “pre-IPO” company shares include EquityZen, SharesPost, and Seedrs. Still, individual investors have mostly been relegated to choosing this or that company on a piecemeal basis as shares have become available. Among few exceptions to this rule include investors in venture funds like 137 Ventures, whose express aim is creating a portfolio of secondary shares that have been acquired from earlier investors, founders, and employees, or in Industry Ventures, which has been buying up later-stage secondary shares since its founding in 2000. (Investing in SoftBank’s Vision Fund, which is piecing together a portfolio of unicorn companies, might be another option for people with enough access, though it comes with certain strings attached.

No wonder Equidate thinks there’s a better way, And with the financial wind at its back, it just began testing out its theory. How? By spinning off a new asset management business whose sole purpose is to acquire shares in the “top” private companies that are currently valued at more than a billion dollars but that still trade privately.

It isn’t going to buy 5 or 20 or 100 stakes. Instead, the portfolio will maintain positions in exactly 30 companies, and these will be adjusted on a quarterly basis, led by the person leading this new spin-off: Ziad Makkawi, a longtime investment advisor who recently spent two years as CEO of Qatar First Bank.

As Equidate founder and President Sohail Prasad see it, his company is already spending time learning an awful lot about Palantir and Stripe and WeWork and Pinterest. It tracks bid and ask activity, along with how pricing and valuations are reflected by both new transactions and time decay. To underscore how much data is coursing through Equidate, he says that company now sees $1 billion in transaction volume on its platform annually.

After a point, he and the rest of Equidate’s management concluded that it made sense to create an index to track the health of these companies in a way that makes it easier to understand their performance relative to their peers (it rolled this out yesterday). It also decided to create a product around the index. Enter its new fund and accompanying asset management firm.

“We’re excited,” says Prasad. “This is going to let people buy for the first time a basket of all of these companies, which are vetted and that are already in their growth stages and in, really, in previous years, would have been public already.”

It’s easy to see other investors getting excited about a kind of exchange traded fund filled with unicorns, too. But first things first. The new fund is still being raised, sounds like. It’s looking to close with between $50 million and $100 million in capital. It’s also worth noting that although SEC Chairman Jay Clayton has said he’d like the agency to allow more retail investors a shot at companies that have been out of their reach, Equidate’s new spin-off, Equiam, will still only accept checks from accredited investors, and they need to invest at least $250,000 .

There’s also the prickly question of whether the companies that investors want most are accessible to Equiam. Unsurprisingly, Prasad, argues that it’s not an issue. “Because we’ll be a larger fund, we’ll be able to buy blocks of preferred stock where traditionally a person might not have access. We do have access at this scale.”

As for what Equiam is charging in management fees, the fund is “incredibly low cost,” says Prasad. Investors will have to decide whether they agree, but those who write the fund a $1 million or bigger check will pay a 1.5 percent management fee. Investors who come in at between $250,000 and $1 million will pay a 2.5 percent management fee.

If you’re curious about to learn more, you can learn more by checking out Equiam’s site here.