Alumni Ventures Group is the most active venture fund you’ve never heard of

Alumni Ventures Group’s (AVG) limited partners aren’t endowment or pension funds. Its typical LP is a heart surgeon in Des Moines, Iowa.

The firm has both an unorthodox model of fundraising and dealmaking. Across 25 micro funds, AVG is raising and investing upwards of $200 million per year for and in tech startups.

Tucked away in Boston, far from the limelight of Silicon Valley, few seem to be paying attention to AVG. There are a few reasons why, and those seem to be working to the firm’s advantage.

Today, AVG is announcing a close of roughly $30 million for three additional funds: Green D Ventures, Chestnut Street Ventures and Purple Arch Ventures, which represent capital committed by Dartmouth, the University of Pennsylvania and Northwestern alums, respectively.

“People don’t really know what to make of us”

AVG walks and talks like a venture fund, but a peek under the hood reveals its unconventional fundraising mechanisms.

Rather than collecting $5 million minimum investments from institutional LPs, AVG takes $50,000 directly from individual alums of prestigious universities. The firm pools the capital and creates university-specific venture funds for graduates of Duke, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and several other colleges. 

“People don’t really know what to make of us because we’re so different,” said Michael Collins, AVG’s founder and chief executive officer.

Collins started AVG to make venture capital more accessible to individual people. He’s been a VC since 1986, formerly of TA Associates, and had grown tired of the hubris that runs rampant in the industry. In 2014, he started a $1.5 million fund for alums of his alma mater, Dartmouth. Since then, AVG has grown into 25 funds, each of which fundraise annually and are seeing substantial growth over their previous raises.

“What we observed is VC is a really good asset class but it’s really designed for institutional investors,” Collins (pictured below) said. “It’s really hard for individual people to put together a smart, simple portfolio unless they do it themselves. That’s why we created AVG.”

AVG and its team of 40 investment professionals make 150 to 200 investments per year of roughly $1 million each in U.S. startups across industries. In the second quarter of 2018, PitchBook listed the firm as the second most active global investor, ranked below only Plug and Play Tech Center and above the likes of Kleiner Perkins, NEA and Accel. 

Unlike the Kleiners, NEAs and Accels of the world, AVG never leads investments. Collins says they just “tuck themselves into” a deal with a great lead investor. They don’t take board seats; Collins says he doesn’t see any value in more than one VC on a company board. And they don’t try to negotiate deal terms.

Though unusual, all of this works to their advantage. Founders appreciate the easy capital and access to AVG’s network, and other VC firms don’t view AVG as a threat, making it easier for the firm to get in on great deals.

“We are low friction, we are small and we have a hell of a Rolodex,” Collins said.

VC doesn’t have to be a star business

Despite a deal flow that’s unmatched by many VC firms, AVG manages to fly under the radar — and the firm is totally OK with that.

“A lot of VC is a bit of a star business where people try to build their own individual brand,” Collins said. “They get out there; they like publicity; they blog; they speak at conferences; they want to be known as the person to bring great deals to. We don’t lead. We work in the background. We just don’t feel the need to put the energy into PR.”

“Most VC returns are really achieved through investing in great companies as opposed to changing the trajectory of a company because you’re on the board,” he added. “If you’re a seed investor in Airbnb or Google, you were really great to be an early investor in that company, not because you sat on the board and you’re brilliance created Google’s success.”

AVG has completed 115 investments in the last 12 months. It’s investing out of 10-year funds, so at just four years in, it has some more waiting to do before it’ll see the full outcomes of its investments. Still, Collins says 65 of their portfolio companies have had liquidity events so far, including Jump, which sold to Uber in April, and Whistle, acquired by Mars Petcare a few years back.

“I hope that we can be a catalyst to bring more people into this asset class,” he concluded.

“I am a big believer that it’s really important that America continues to lead in entrepreneurship and I think the more people that own this asset class the better.”

Jane.VC, a new fund for female entrepreneurs, wants founders to cold email them

Want to pitch a venture capitalist? You’ll need a “warm introduction” first. At least that’s what most in the business will advise.

Find a person, typically a man, who made the VC you’re interested in pitching a whole bunch of money at some point and have them introduce you. Why? Because VCs love people who’ve made them money; naturally, they’ll be willing to hear you out if you’ve got at least one money maker on your side.

There’s a big problem with that cycle. Not all entrepreneurs are friendly with millionaires and not all entrepreneurs, especially those based outside Silicon Valley or from underrepresented backgrounds, have anyone in their network to provide them that coveted intro.

Jane.VC, a new venture fund based out of Cleveland and London wants entrepreneurs to cold email them. Send them your pitch, no wealthy or successful intermediary necessary. The fund, which has so far raised $2 million to invest between $25,000 and $150,000 in early-stage female-founded companies across industries, is scrapping the opaque, inaccessible model of VC that’s been less than favorable toward women.

“We like to say that Jane.VC is venture for every woman,” the firm’s co-founder Jennifer Neundorfer told TechCrunch.

Neundorfer, who previously founded and led an accelerator for Midwest startups called Flashstarts after stints at 21st Century Fox and YouTube, partnered with her former Stanford business school classmate Maren Bannon, the former chief executive officer and co-founder of LittleLane. So far, they’ve backed insurtech company Proformex and Hatch Apps, an enterprise software startup that makes it easier for companies to create and distribute mobile and web apps.

“We are going to shoot them straight”

Jane.VC, like many members of the next generation of venture capital funds, is bucking the idea that the best founders can only be found in Silicon Valley. Instead, the firm is going global and operating under the philosophy that a system of radical transparency and honesty will pay off.

“Let’s be efficient with an entrepreneur’s time and say no if it’s not a hit,” Neundorfer said. “I’ve been on the opposite end of that coaching. So many entrepreneurs think a VC is interested and they aren’t. An entrepreneur’s time is so valuable and we want to protect that. We are going to shoot them straight.”

Though Jane.VC plans to invest across the globe, the firm isn’t turning its back on Bay Area founders. Neundorfer and Bannon will leverage their Silicon Valley network and work with an investment committee of nine women based throughout the U.S. to source deals. 

“We are women that have raised money and have been through the ups and downs of raising money in what is a very male-dominated world,” Neundorfer added. “We believe that investing in women is not only the right thing to do but that you can make a lot of money doing it.”

Blockchain media startup Civil is issuing full refunds to all buyers of its cryptocurrency

Many doubted The Civil Media Company‘s ambitious plan to sell $8 million worth of its cryptocurrency, called CVL. 

The skeptics, as it turns out, were right. Civil’s initial coin offering, meant to fund the company’s effort to create a new economy for journalism using the blockchain, failed to attract sufficient interest. The company announced today that it would provide refunds to all CVL token buyers by October 29.

Civil’s goal was to sell 34 million CVL tokens for between $8 million and $24 million. The sale began on September 18 and concluded yesterday. Ultimately, 1,012 buyers purchased $1,435,491 worth of CVL tokens. A spokesperson for Civil told TechCrunch an additional 1,738 buyers successfully registered for the sale, but never completed their transaction.

Civil isn’t giving up. The company says “a new, much simpler token sale is in the works,” details of which will be shared soon. Once those new tokens are distributed, Civil will launch three new features: a blockchain-publishing plugin for WordPress, a community governance application called The Civil Registry and a developer tool for non-blockchain developers to build apps on Civil.

ConsenSys, a blockchain venture studio that invested $5 million in Civil last fall, has agreed to purchase $3.5 million worth of those new tokens. The purchase is not an equity; all capital from the token sale is committed to the Civil Foundation, an independent nonprofit initially funded by Civil that funds grants to the newsrooms in Civil’s network.

In a blog post today, Civil chief executive officer Matthew Iles wrote that the token sale failure was a disappointment but not a shock. Days prior, he’d authored a separate post where he admitted things weren’t looking good.

“This isn’t how we saw this going,” Iles wrote. “The numbers will show clearly enough that we are not where we wanted to be at this point in the sale when we started out. But one thing we want to say at the top is that until the clock strikes midnight on Monday, we are still working nonstop on the goal of making our soft cap of $8 million.”

A recent Wall Street Journal report claimed Civil had reached out to The New York Times, The Washington Post, Dow Jones and Axios, among others, but failed to incite interest in its token.

Separate from its token sale, Civil has inked strategic partnerships with media companies like the Associated Press and Forbes, both of which confirmed to TechCrunch today that the failed token sale doesn’t impact their partnerships with Civil. 

Forbes became the first major media brand to test Civil’s technology when it announced earlier this month that it would experiment with publishing content to the Civil platform. As for the AP, it granted the newsrooms in Civil’s network licenses to its content. 

Civil, of course, isn’t the only blockchain startup targeting journalism. Nwzer, Userfeeds, Factmata and Po.et, which was founded by Jarrod Dicker, a former vice president at The Washington Post, are all trying their hand at bringing the new technology to the content industry.

Which, if any, will actually find success in the complicated space, is the question.

AllTrails gets $75M to keep hikers happy

The app for hiking enthusiasts just secured a big round of capital that will help it map more trails worldwide.

AllTrails has raised $75 million, led by Spectrum Equity, which has taken a majority stake in the company in the process. Founded in 2010, AllTrails raised a small amount of capital years ago from investors, including 2020 Ventures and 500 Startups. It was also part of AngelPad’s inaugural accelerator class. This is its first sizeable round of equity financing.

AllTrails provides what it calls an “outdoors platform” that includes crowdsourced reviews of trails from its community of 9 million avid hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners in more than 100 countries. It also provides detailed trail maps and other content tailor-made for outdoorsy folk. The company says its app has been downloaded more than 12 million times.

AllTrails was founded by Russell Cook, who has since left to launch another fitness tech startup called FitOn. The company is now led by Jade Van Doren, who joined as CEO in September 2015.

“I grew up camping in the Sierras with my grandfather and backpacking up there,” Cook told TechCrunch. “I looked around the space and it felt like there was a lot of room to build something meaningful that would help people find places to get outdoors and feel safe once they are out there.”

“I got really excited about doing that and we’ve made a lot of progress toward those goals,” he added. “I enjoy waking up in the morning and knowing what we are building is helping people live healthier and more active lifestyles.”

Cook said the business is cash flow positive and wasn’t seeking a venture capital infusion when Spectrum approached. He says their expertise in the consumer space — the firm also has investments in Ancestry, WeddingWire and several others — will be a big value-add for AllTrails.

In addition to expanding overseas, the company will use the capital to hire aggressively.

As part of the deal, Spectrum’s Ben Spero and Matt Neidlinger will join AllTrails’ board of directors.

Walmart continues M&A spree with acquisition of lingerie retailer Bare Necessities

Walmart continues to beef up its portfolio of digital brands, announcing on Friday that it had acquired Bare Necessities, an online retailer of lingerie, swimwear, hosiery and other intimates.

Walmart declined to disclose the terms of the deal.

The lingerie company, founded in 1998, will operate independently of Walmart. Over time, the e-commerce giant says it will make Bare Necessities’ products available on Walmart.com, as well as on Jet.com, which Walmart acquired for more than $3 billion in 2016 to bolster its e-commerce business.

Walmart has long been one of the most active acquirers of startups and hasn’t slowed down in 2018. Just last week, the company announced it would purchase women’s plus-sized clothing brand ELOQUII. Before that, it paid $225 million for a grocery delivery service called Cornershop and earlier this year, it completed its $16 billion acquisition of Flipkart — its largest M&A play yet.

ModCloth, Bonobos and Moosejaw are other Walmart-owned brands, all of which were acquired in 2017.

In a statement, Walmart said Bare Necessities fit into its broader acquisition strategy, “which includes digital brands that offer unique products customers can’t find anywhere else.”

As part of the deal, Bare Necessities co-founder and chief executive officer Noah Wrubel will continue to run the company alongside chief operating officer Bill Richardson. Wrubel will also take charge of the intimates category for both Walmart.com and Jet.com. Bare Necessities’ 170 employees will continue to run the business out of Edison, N.J., where the company is headquartered.

The global lingerie market is expected to bring in upwards of $60 billion in revenue by 2024, driven in large part by tech-enabled direct-to-consumer businesses’ e-commerce sales.

With $50M in fresh funding, Allbirds will open new stores in the US, UK and Asia

The quintessential venture capitalist’s uniform consists of a pair of designer jeans, a Patagonia fleece vest and $95 wool sneakers.

The company behind the shoes, Allbirds, entered the unicorn club this morning with the announcement of a $50 million Series C from late-stage players T. Rowe Price, which led the round, Tiger Global and Fidelity Investments. The 3-year-old startup founded by Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown has raised $75 million to date, including a $17.5 million Series B last year. Its backed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Scooter Braun, Maveron, Lerer Hippeau and Elephant, the venture capital firm led by Warby Parker founder Andrew Hunt.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting the round values Allbirds at $1.4 billion. The company would not confirm that figure to TechCrunch.

Like Warby Parker, San Francisco-based Allbirds began as a direct-to-consumer online retailer but has since expanded to brick-and-mortar, opening stores in San Francisco and New York. It currently ships to locations across the U.S., New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Next week, the company plans to open its first storefront in the U.K. in London’s Covent Garden neighborhood. It will begin shipping throughout the U.K. In 2019.

Using its latest investment, Allbirds will double down on its brick-and-mortar business. In addition to the U.K., the company says it will open even more locations in the U.S., as well as open doors in Asia in the coming months. Tiger Global, which has backed Allbirds since its Series B, may be of help. The firm has offices in Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as partners across Asia.

Allbirds makes eco-friendly wool shoes for men, women and kids via its kid’s line, aptly named Smallbirds. The shoes are made out of sustainable materials, including merino wool, a fabric made from eucalyptus fiber that the company has dubbed “Tree” and “SweetFoam,” a shoe sole made from sugarcane-based, carbon-negative foam rubber.

“Climate change is the problem of our generation and the private sector has a responsibility to combat it,” Zwillinger, Allbirds’ chief executive officer, said in a statement. “This injection of capital will help us bring our sustainable products to more people around the globe, demonstrating that comfort, design and sustainability don’t have to live exclusive of each other.”

It’s been quite the year for venture investment in … shoes. Rothy’s, which makes sustainable ballet flats for women, has raised $7 million and launched a sneaker. Atoms, a maker of minimalist shoes, brought in $560,000 in seed funding from LinkedIn’s ex-head of growth Aatif Awan and Shrug Capital. And GOAT, the operator of an online sneaker marketplace, nabbed a $60 million Series C in February.

YC-grad Papa raises $2.4M for its ‘grandkids-on-demand’ service

One of the latest additions to the on-demand economy is Papa, a mobile app that connects college students with adults over 60 in need of support and companionship.

The recent graduate of Y Combinator’s accelerator program has raised a $2.4 million round of funding to expand its service throughout Florida and to five additional states next year, beginning with Pennsylvania. Initialized Capital led the round, with participation from Sound Ventures.

Headquartered in Miami, the startup was founded last year by chief executive officer Andrew Parker. The idea came to him while he was juggling a full-time job at a startup and caring for his grandfather, who had early onset dementia.

“I’ve always been a connector of humans,” Parker, the former vice president of health systems at telehealth company MDLIVE, told TechCrunch. “I’ve always naturally felt comfortable with all walks of life and all age groups and have just felt human connection is really critical.”

Seniors can request a “Papa Pal” using the company’s mobile app, desktop site or by phone. The pals can pick them up and take them out for an activity or have them over to play a game, complete household chores, teach them how to use social media and other technology or simply to chat. A senior is matched with a student, who must complete a “rigorous” background check, in as little as 30 seconds.

Parker says there are 600 students working with Papa an average of 25 hours per month.

“We’ve been fortunate that this is something the students really want to be part of,” he said. “They aren’t doing this for a couple extra dollars. They are doing this to help the community.”

The service costs seniors $20 per hour, $12 of which is paid to the students and $8 is returned to Papa. It’s not a subscription-based service, but seniors can pay for a premium option that lets them choose between three Papa Pals instead of being randomly paired with one of the several hundred options. The students do not provide any personal care, like bathing or grooming. And they are not a pick-up and drop-off service, like Uber or Lyft.

“We believe the Papa team has found a unique way to combat loneliness and depression in older adults,” said Alexis Ohanian, co-founder and managing partner of Initialized Capital, in a statement. “The experience that Papa Pals bring their members make it seem like they are part of a family.”

In addition to expanding to new markets, Papa is in the process of partnering with insurance companies with a goal of allowing seniors to pay for some of its services through their Medicare plans.

“Loneliness is a crisis. It’s a disease. It’s killing people prematurely,” Parker said. “We are providing a really massive impact to these people’s lives.”

Shasta Ventures is doubling down on security startups with 3 new hires

Early-stage venture capital firm Shasta Ventures has brought on three new faces to beef up its enterprise software and security portfolio amid a big push to “go deeper” into cybersecurity, per Shasta’s managing director Doug Pepper.

Balaji Yelamanchili (above left), the former general manager and executive vice president of Symantec’s enterprise security business unit, joins as a venture partner on the firm’s enterprise software team. He was previously a senior vice president at Oracle and Dell EMC. Pepper says Yelamanchili will be sourcing investments and may take board seats in “certain cases.”

The firm has also tapped Salesforce’s former chief information security officer Izak Mutlu (above center) as an executive-in-residence, a role in which he’ll advise Shasta portfolio companies. Mutlu spent 11 years at the cloud computing company managing IT security and compliance.

InterWest board partner Drew Harman, the final new hire, has joined as a board partner and will work closely with the chief executive officers of Shasta’s startups. Harman has worked in enterprise software for 25 years across a number of roles. He is currently on the boards of the cloud-based monetization platform Aria, enterprise content marketing startup NewsCred, customer retention software provider Totango and others.

There’s no area today that’s more important than cybersecurity,” Pepper told TechCrunch. “The business of venture has gotten increasingly competitive and it demands more focus than ever before. We aren’t looking for generalists, we are looking for domain experts.”

Shasta’s security investments include email authentication service Valimail, which raised a $25 million Series B in May. Airspace Systems, a startup that built “kinetic capture” technologies that can identify offending unmanned aircrafts and take them down, raised a $20 million round with participation from Shasta in March. And four-year-old Stealth Security, a startup that defends companies from automated bot attacks, secured an $8 million investment from Shasta in February.

The Menlo Park-based firm filed to raise $300 million for its fifth flagship VC fund in 2016. A year later, it announced a specialty vehicle geared toward augmented and virtual reality app development. With more than $1 billion under management, the firm also backs consumer, IoT, robotics and space-tech companies across the U.S.

In the last year, Shasta has promoted Nikhil Basu Trivedi, Nitin Chopra and Jacob Mullins from associate to partner, as well as added two new associates, Natalie Sandman and Rachel Star.

SoftBank is considering taking a majority stake in WeWork

SoftBank may soon own up to 50 percent of WeWork, a well-funded provider of co-working spaces headquartered in New York, according to a new report from The Wall Street Journal.

SoftBank is reportedly weighing an investment between $15 billion and $20 billion, which would come from its $92 billion Vision Fund, a super-sized venture fund led by Japanese entrepreneur and investor Masayoshi Son.

WeWork declined to comment.

SoftBank already owns some 20 percent of WeWork. The firm invested $4.4 billion in the company in August 2017, $1.4 billion of which was set aside to help WeWork expand in China, Japan and Southeast Asia.

This August, WeWork raised another $1 billion from SoftBank in convertible debt. At the same time, WeWork disclosed financials to a handful of media outlets, sharing that its revenue had doubled to $763.8 million in the first half of 2018 as losses increased to $723 million.

SoftBank, for its part, seems to have a hankering for real estate tech. Not only has it become a key stakeholder in WeWork, but it has deployed significant amounts of capital to Opendoor, Compass, Katerra and others.

Last month, the Vision Fund backed Opendoor, a platform for buying and selling homes, with $400 million. The same day, it led a $400 million round for Compass, valuing the real estate brokerage startup at $4.4 billion. As for Katerra, SoftBank poured $865 million into the construction tech business in January.

WeWork, founded in 2010 by Adam Neumann and Miguel McKelvey, has raised nearly $5 billion in a combination of debt and equity funding to date. It was valued at $20 billion in 2017, though reports earlier this summer estimated its valuation would fall somewhere between $35 billion and $40 billion with additional capital from SoftBank. A $40 billion valuation would make it the second most valuable VC-backed company in the U.S. behind only Uber.

WeWork has more than 268,000 members across 287 locations in 23 countries.

Jennifer Garner’s baby food company Once Upon a Farm raises $20M Series B

CAVU Venture Partners has led the $20 million Series B for Once Upon a Farm, which sells organic, cold-pressed baby food in 8,500 grocery stores in the U.S.

The Berkeley-based startup was originally founded in 2015 by serial entrepreneurs Cassandra Curtis and Ari Raz. Today, it lists actress Jennifer Garner and former General Mills president John Foraker as co-founders, too.

Both Garner and Foraker — who was the chief executive officer of the popular organic mac & cheese brand Annie’s Homegrown for more than a decade — joined the company in September 2017. Foraker had been an angel investor in Once Upon a Farm and, after conversations with Garner, decided to accept the role of CEO. Garner, widely known for her roles in Alias, 13 Going on 30 and the upcoming HBO original series Camping, was already somewhat of a Once Upon a Farm evangelist when she signed on as chief brand officer a little over a year ago.

“I am proud of the innovative business that we have built,” Garner said in a statement. “It is incredibly exciting to see so many families embracing our products. This latest round of funding allows us to continue to help busy parents give their children the most nutritious foods possible and make life a little bit easier for families across the country.”

Foraker told TechCrunch that since he and Garner joined, the business has grown 10x. Last fall, the company’s products were for sale in 300 stores; today, as mentioned, they are available in more than 8,000.

“Because she has global celebrity, the power of that, she can really help us get the message out and help lots of moms and dads find [Once Upon a Farm],” Foraker said.

Once Upon a Farm sells smoothies and applesauce for kids up to age 12 directly to consumers through its online marketplace and in stores. Pouches of its signature baby food, smoothies and applesauce are $2.99 each.

As part of the deal, CAVU’s co-founder and managing partner Brett Thomas, along with CAVU investor Jared Jacobs, will join the company’s board. S2G Ventures and Beechwood Capital also participated in the round for the startup, which raised a $4 million Series A in June 2017.

The company plans to use the funds to expand its direct to consumer business, partner with more U.S. grocers and build out a wider assortment of baby products.

“You can buy fresh pet food now in almost 20,000 stores in the U.S.,” Foraker said. “We think fresh baby food has a long way to go.”