Greylock and MLT are trying to diversify tech’s wealth cycle

Greylock Partners has teamed up with Management Leadership for Tomorrow to address issues of diversity and inclusion in the technology industry.

“Our view is this has to be a comprehensive approach,” MLT Founder and CEO John Rice told TechCrunch. “This is not just a coding program, mentor program, fellowship program. There are plenty of great ones. They’re important. But what we’re saying is you have to work on all these levers and take a long-term view. Our view is we can really move the needle exponentially to grow minority participation in the highest leverage areas of the tech ecosystem.”

For starters, the multifaceted partnership will enable Greylock to tap into MLT’s network of around 8,000 Black, Latinx and Indigenous professionals and connect them with potential roles at the firm’s portfolio companies. Additionally, Greylock and MLT will work together to support retention at those companies, as well as help MLT professionals pursue careers in venture capital.

“Being at Greylock and seeing the tech ecosystem over the last 20 years — it’s become pretty clear that, at no surprise to us, modern technology is one of the greatest opportunities for wealth creation,” Greylock Partner David Sze told TechCrunch. “Has been one of the greatest creators for wealth and is likely to be so in the future — in the foreseeable future.”

But the greatest financial returns accrue to founders, early employees and investors. That creates this network where those early employees and alumni from top companies like Facebook or Google then go on to become founders of the next generation of startups in the wealth creation cycle, Sze said.

“And the cycle repeats itself,” Sze said.

Then, VCs are eager to back teams with people who used to work at those high-growth companies, he said.

“That’s just how the Valley works,” Sze said. “It’s a social network in and of itself. [ … ] But the issue is that Black and Latinx and Native American people really largely have been left out of tech startups and venture capital and those networks. And as a result, it actually is a compounding factor.”

For those folks in the system, it compounds in their favor but that means for those left out, it becomes harder to figure out how to break into it, Sze said.

“And look, VCs and tech startups — we just have to be honest that we’ve been really bad at getting this right,” Sze said. “Historically, I mean, we’ve let the system sort of evolve without much top down oversight in regards of diversity and inclusion and we just really need to change that.”

That’s a key reason why Greylock and MLT are partnering to try to get more Black, Latinx and Indigenous people in these tech startups. And it’s not that there is a pipeline problem because there is plenty of available talent, Sze said. But he said that if there is a pipeline problem, “the problem is actually on our side.”

“It’s not on the talent side,” Sze said. “There is plenty of talent out there. It’s that the networks and systems that have existed and grown over time in the Valley have not been conducive to allowing the inclusion of that group.”

Greylock’s partners also donated $5 million to anchor MLT’s first-ever impact fund, which allows MLT to be a limited partner in Greylock’s latest fund, a $1 billion fund.

“We have a long history with our LPs,” Sze said. “We do not let new LPs in very often and we’re super excited to have them involved because we think it’s a force multiplier.”

The hope with this partnership is that it’ll spur ideas for other collaborations with VC funds, Sze said. For Rice, he hopes that other leaders in tech will take note and get on board with moving the needle.

“Leaders need to be at this time, at this critical juncture, be much better informed about why we are where we are,” Rice said. “[ … ] Leaders not only need to be well-informed but also be willing to hold themselves accountable to be more informed. And that doesn’t require them to be experts on the history of racism. It requires them to understand like they understand, you know, AI and bitcoin and things like that. Understand this stuff.”

Leadership, Rice said, also looks like committing to a comprehensive approach with the same level of rigor that venture capitalists apply to how they invest in companies, and that tech companies apply to their growth.

“If we don’t have that same level of rigor in our approach and we just think that we can move the needle with random acts of diversity, then we’re done. We’re not going to move the needle. It’s going to require, you know, a comprehensive approach.”

Papa raises $18 million to expand its business connecting older adults with virtual and in-person companions

The Miami-based startup Papa has raised an additional $18 million as it looks to expand its business connecting elderly Americans and families with physical and virtual companions, which the company calls “pals.”

The company’s services are already available in 17 states and Papa is going to expand to another four states in the next few months, according to chief executive Andrew Parker.

Parker launched the business after reaching out on Facebook to find someone who could serve as a pal for his own grandfather in Florida.

After realizing that there was a need among elderly residents across the state for companionship and assistance that differed from the kind of in-person care that would typically be provided by a caregiver, Parker launched the service. The kinds of companionship Papa’s employees offer range from helping with everyday tasks — including transportation, light household chores, advising with health benefits and doctor’s appointments, and grocery delivery — to just conversation.

With the social isolation brought on by responses to the COVID-19 pandemic there are even more reasons for the company’s service, Parker said. Roughly half of adults consider themselves lonely, and social isolation increases the risk of death by 29%, according to statistics provided by the company.

“We created Papa with the singular goal of supporting older adults and their families throughout the aging journey,” said Parker, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has unfortunately only intensified circumstances leading to loneliness and isolation, and we’re honored to be able to offer solutions to help families during this difficult time.” 

Papa’s pals go through a stringent vetting process, according to Parker, and only about 8% of all applicants become pals.

These pals get paid an hourly rate of around $15 per hour and have the opportunity to receive bonuses and other incentives, and are now available for virtual and in-person sessions with the older adults they’re matched with.

“We have about 20,000 potential Papa pals apply a month,” said Parker. In the company’s early days it only accepted college students to work as pals, but now the company is accepting a broader range of potential employees, with assistants ranging from 18 to 45 years old. The average age, Parker said, is 29.

Papa monitors and manages all virtual interactions between the company’s employees and their charges, flagging issues that may be raised in discussions, like depression and potential problems getting access to food or medications. The monitoring is designed to ensure that meal plans, therapists or medication can be made available to the company’s charges, said Parker.

Now that there’s $18 million more in financing for the company to work with, thanks to new lead investor Comcast Ventures and other backers — including Canaan, Initialized Capital, Sound Ventures, Pivotal Ventures, the founders of Flatiron Health and their investment group Operator Partners, along with Behance founder, Scott Belsky — Papa is focused on developing new products and expanding the scope of its services.

The company has raised $31 million to date and expects to be operating in all 50 states by January 2021. The company’s companion services are available to members through health plans and as an employer benefit.

“Papa is enabling a growing number of older Americans to age at home, while reducing the cost of care for health plans and creating meaningful jobs for companion care professionals,” said Fatima Husain, principal at Comcast Ventures, in a statement. “

A meeting room of one’s own: Three VCs discuss breaking out of big firms to start their own gigs

One of the more salient trends in the tech world — arguably the engine that propels it — has been the recurring theme of people who hone talents at bigger companies and then strike out on their own to found their own startups.

(Some, like Max Levchin, even hire entrepreneurial types intentionally to help perpetuate this cycle and get more proactive teams in place.)

It turns out that trend doesn’t just apply to companies, but also to the investors who back them. At Disrupt we talked with three venture capitalists who have followed that path: Making their names and cutting their teeth at major firms, and now building their own “startup” funds on their own steam.

On the macro level, the whole world has been living through a challenging time this year. But as we’ve seen time and again the wheels have continued to turn in the tech world.

IPOs are returning, products are being rolled out, people are buying a lot online and using the internet to stay connected, there has been a lot of M&A and promising startups are getting funded.

Indeed, if entrepreneurs and their innovations are the engine of the tech world, money is the fuel, and that is the opportunity that Dayna Grayson (formerly of NEA, now founder at Construct Capital), Renata Quintini (formerly at Lux Capital, now founder at Renegade Partners) and Lo Toney (formerly GV, now founder at Plexo Capital) have zeroed in to address.

Grayson said that part of the reason for striking out to start Construct Capital with co-founder Rachel Holt was what they saw as an opportunity to create a firm that specifically funded startups tackling the industrial sector:

“Half the U.S. economy’s GDP, half the GDP of this country, hasn’t really been digitized,” she said. “[Firms] haven’t been tech enabled. They’ve been way under invested … The time is now to build with early stage entrepreneurs.”

While Construct is focusing on a sector, Renegade was founded to focus on something else: The stage of development for a startup, and specific the Series B, which the firm refers to as “supercritical,” essential in terms of getting team and strategy right after a startup is no longer just starting out, but before and leading to scaled growth.

“We saw through our boards over and over again companies that figured out how to scale their organizations, put in the processes,” said Quintini, who co-founded Renegade with Roseanne Wincek. “On the people side, they actually went further and captured a lot more market cap and market share faster. Once we saw this opportunity, we could not let it go.”

She compares the current imperative to really focus on how to build and scale companies at the “supercritical” stage to the focus on early stage funding that typified an earlier period in the development of the startup ecosystem 15 years ago. “You could get a million dollars and be in business, a lot more people could, and you had less time to figure out what really resonated with customers,” she said. “That really gave rise to today.”

Toney has taken yet another approach, focusing not on sector, nor stage, but using capital to help germinate a whole new demographic of founders, the premise being that funding a more diverse and inclusive mix of founders is not just good for creating a more level playing field, but also for the good of more well-rounded products that speak to a wider population of users.

“I was having a great time at GV, but I just saw this opportunity as being one that was too hard to resist,” said Toney of founding Plexo, which invests not just in startups but in funds that are following a similar investment principle to his. Investing in both funds and founders is something GV did as well, but the added ability to turn that into investing with a social imperative was important. “To have this byproduct of increasing diversity and inclusion in the ecosystem [is something] I’m super passionate about,” he said. 

We are living through a time when the tech world seems to be awash in capital. One of the byproducts of having so many successful tech companies has been limited partners rushing in to back more VCs in hopes of also getting some of the spoils: Many firms are closing funds in record times, oversubscribed and that’s having a knock-on effect not just in terms of startups getting funded, but VCs themselves also multiplying with increasing frequency. All three said that the fact that they all identify as more than just “another new VC”, with specific purposes, also makes it easier for them to get themselves noticed to get involved in good deals.

Grayson said that the challenge of starting a firm in the midst of a global pandemic turned out to be a piece of good fortune in disguise in an industry that thrives on the concept of “disruption” (as we at TechCrunch know all too well … ).

“We were really lucky that we started investing in a COVID world,” she said. “So many things have been up ended. And I think, you know, software adoption and technology adoption have been moved up 10-20 years in industry. [And] the way that we work together really has changed.” She also said that they’ve found themselves almost looking for companies “created in a COVID environment,” which indeed would qualify as a battle-tested business model.

In terms of raising funds themselves, Toney also recalled the period when we saw a real surge of VCs emerging to fund companies at the seed stage and the growth of “solo capitalists” around that.

“I think what’s really interesting about solo capitalists is [how] they take their understanding of operations, and a deep network of other technologists, both from big companies as well as entrepreneurs, and … leverage access to all that deal flow by going out and actually raising capital from other sources, whether that be high net worth individuals or family offices or even institutions,” he said.

Investment tech won’t solve systemic wealth gaps, but it’s a good start

Robinhood founder Vlad Tenev recently sparked controversy when he told the New York Times that lower participation in equity markets by younger Americans “ultimately contributed to the sort of the massive inequalities that we’re seeing in society.”

In his 2015 book “The Economics of Inequality,” Thomas Piketty argues that when the growth rate of invested capital outpaces the growth of GDP (and the average per-capita earnings), income inequality will increase. Where Vlad Tenev missed the mark is neglecting to note that while participation in equity markets is key to building wealth, a prerequisite to investment is having capital to invest in the first place.

Structural changes (including access to affordable health care, job training, higher wages, expanding infrastructure, and other public policy initiatives) are necessary to combat systemic inequality. But innovations in fintech can supplement these policies by providing tools that can give people access to wealth-building investment opportunities at the individual level. While these advancements aren’t a substitute for the macro forces necessary to bring societal change, they can help provide one opportunity to remove barriers individuals have faced.

The age of fintech and the millennial investor

Despite recent controversy around the zero-commission stock trading revenue model, fintech investment apps have given retail investors unprecedented access to the stock market. This is especially true for younger investors, who lag behind other generations in terms of expected wealth.

Popular fintech apps like Acorns, Public and Robinhood have created a niche for millennials and Gen Z retail investors looking to begin investing in the stock market. From January to April, Robinhood alone has acquired more than three million funded accounts, with an average age of 31.

Similar trends are emerging in other asset classes that have traditionally not been accessible to retail investors. For example, according to EY, real estate crowdfunding investments have doubled to more than $8 billion since 2016. Commercial real estate in the U.S. was valued at around $16 trillion in 2018. That’s about half the size of the U.S. stock market during the same time period.

Real estate is a critical asset class for wealth building: Approximately 90% of millionaires have made their money from investments in real estate. This can partly be explained by the fact that the asset class is so siloed: Historically, only wealthy investors could access these opportunities.

A few fintech companies have emerged in the real estate space in attempts to widen access to the asset class, but to-date none have truly opened up the market to the everyday investor.

Lowering the cost of participation

So what does this mean? If everyone can access real estate investment opportunities, can they all become millionaires? Probably not. But if circumstances allow anyone to access the tools and educational resources to achieve financial stability, then acquiring wealth becomes much more plausible.

Financial literacy and access are key components in the establishment of stable financial footing. Also important is eliminating many of the costs associated with being in the lower earning brackets — often referred to as the “poverty tax.”

An industry-wide push toward commission-free trading is a prime example of fintech removing these costs of participation. A $10 trade fee on a $100,000 trade is nominal, yet that $10 becomes significant for a share purchase of $100; you would need a 20% gain just to cover your transaction costs. Yet the zero-commission and fractional share models haven’t seen widespread adoption in real estate investment markets.

Of all traditional asset classes, real estate remains one of the costliest to participate. The adoption of zero-commission and low-cost share models have the greatest potential to echo what is happening in the stock market: Opening doors to everyday investors.

What’s next?

It’s only a matter of time before we see the junction of real estate and fintech take shape.

This is one area where technology can make a material difference. According to a study from the University of California, Berkeley, fintech solutions like algorithmic lending reduce some of the barriers that have made it difficult, historically, to purchase a home.

The study found that leading fintech products don’t completely solve the problem, given the deeper underlying systemic issues. However, they do reduce rate disparities by more than a third.

As these companies open up new investment opportunities and reduce the buy-in costs, we will hopefully see a greater share of wealth being accumulated by those who create the value that underlies equity investments: everyday Americans.

Based on the history of limited access and the current absence of investment opportunities, it’s a fair argument that exposure to new wealth-building tools and financial literacy — in a tech-powered, millennial-friendly way — can help solve the barrier-to-entry problem and open up access to more stable investments.

With over 24 million users across Stash, Acorns and Robinhood — many of them overlapping — there’s no shortage of interest in tech-enabled investing. The average Acorns investor, for instance, is 29 years old and makes $50,000 a year — a far cry from the accredited investor’s minimum salary of $200,000.

Don’t be surprised to see these new investors seek out holdings in alternative assets like real estate, energy and more. It’s all about access, quality of offerings, education and user experience.

Fintech founders often like to overstate the level of social good their products can bring. We, as two real estate fintech founders, believe that we can help individuals on a person-by-person micro level, but larger structural change outside of tech is also necessary if we want to see real, widespread improvement. It goes without saying that tech alone won’t change deeply embedded structures, but it sure can open a lot of doors.

Correction: A previous version of this article had said that Robinhood has added six million first-time investors since the pandemic hit. A spokesperson contacted us to say “Robinhood added 3 million funded accounts from January to April.”

As it adds Jeremy Milken to the partnership, Watertower Ventures nears $50 million close for its new fund

Derek Norton and Jeremy Milken have known each other for twenty years. Over their longtime personal and professional relationship, the two Los Angeles-based serial entrepreneurs have invested in each other’s companies and investment firms, but never worked together until now.

Milken is taking the plunge into institutional investing, joining Norton as a partner in Watertower Ventures just as the firm prepares to close on a $50 million new fund.

It’s an auspicious time for both Los Angeles-based businessmen, as the LA venture community sees a wave of technology talent relocating from New York and San Francisco in the newly remote work culture created by the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I see two things happen. One people look at the effects of where the market’s going. We’re seeing a lot more companies that are starting up now as a result of a [the pandemic],” said Norton. “New company formation is happening faster than before covid. [And] a lot of venture capitalists that have relocated to LA. They’ve moved down to LA for lifestyle reasons and they’re saying that they don’t need to go back to San Francisco.”

For Milken, the opportunity to get into venture now is a function of the company creation and acceleration of digital adoption that Norton referenced. “The pandemic is accelerating change in the marketplace. Things that might have taken a decade are taking two years now,” Milken said.

These opportunities are creating an opening for Watertower Ventures in markets far beyond the Hollywood hills. The firm, whose original thesis focused on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, is now cutting checks on investments in Texas and Utah, and spending much less time looking for companies in the Bay Area.

Derek Norton, founder, Watertower Ventures: Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

Norton’s latest fund is the only the most recent act in a career that has seen the investor traverse the financial services digital media and the early days of the internet. Norton built Digital Boardwalk, a pioneering internet service provider and the second commercial partner for the trailblazing browser service, Netscape.

Later, at Jeffries Technologies, and the $120 million Entertainment Media Ventures seed and early stage venture capital fund, Norton was intimately involved in bringing tech to market and focusing on early stage investments. With that in mind, the Watertower Ventures group, which launched in 2017 with a small, $5 million fund, is a return to those roots.

The plan, even at the time, was always to raise a larger fund. After founding and running the boutique investment banking business at Watertower Group, Norton knew he had to raise a starter fund to prove the thesis he was working on.

That thesis was to provide a bridge between early stage companies and large technology companies using the network that Norton has built in the Southern California tech and entertainment community over decades.

“We want to take our contacts at Google, Apple, Facebook, Disney, Microsoft, Cisco, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and other companies we believe should have a relationship with our portfolio companies, and help the CEOs and management teams more effectively do business development,” Norton told SoCal Tech when he closed his first fund in 2017. “We want to connect them to the right person at those companies to create a commercial relationship. That has a really large impact on early stage companies, who typically don’t have a deep network of relationships, and the ability to get to those type of people. It’s because of our advisory business that we have those relationships, and that’s also why those relationships stay fresh and active, versus people who aren’t in those businesses. It’s almost a full time job to maintain that, and that’s where our value-add is.”

Milken, who has spent his professional career in entrepreneurship, was ready to try investing, and was intimately familiar with Watertower and its portfolio, as an investor in the firm’s first $5 million fund.

“Two years ago we started having those conversations,” said Norton in an interview. “As Jeremy exited his business in September it created the opportunity to go out and raise together as the evolution of our partnership.”

Jeremy Milken, general partner, Watertower Ventures. Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

With the new capital coming in, Norton expects to back some 30 to 35 companies, he said. And, in a testament to the first fund’s performance, which has it in the top decile of venture funds for its vintage, Norton said he was able to raise the capital amidst the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 70 percent of the existing portfolio has been marked up, according to Norton.

Even though limited partners, the investors who back venture funds, were reluctant to commit capital to new firms in March and April, fundraising returned with a vengeance in June and July, according to Norton. The paper performance likely was enough to woo additional limited partners and individual investors including TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer, the former head of streaming at Disney.

Mayer’s presence in the firm’s investor base is a testament to the firm’s pitch to founders. “We view fundraising as a massive distraction for these early stage companies from their business. We try to deliver that network that’s ours to those founders,” said Norton.

“I think we’re in a unique position starting with a fresh fund here,” says Norton. “Uncertainty creates opportunity and people are bringing solutions. We haven’t noticed any slowdown whatsoever, we’re working with twenty five companies per week. Since the inception of the fund, we haven’t seen deal flow at this level.”

Funding in an uncertain market: using venture debt to bridge the gap

While a handful of tech companies like Zoom and Shopify are enjoying massive gains as a result of COVID-19, that’s obviously not the case for most. Weaker demand, slower sales cycles, and customer insistence on pricing concessions and payment deferrals have conspired to cloud the outlook for many tech companies’ growth.

Compounding these challenges, a lot of tech companies are struggling to raise capital just when they need it most. The data so far suggests that investors, particularly those focused on earlier stage financings, are taking a more cautious approach to new deals and valuations while they wait to see how individual companies perform and which way the economy will go. With the outcome of their planned equity financings uncertain, some tech companies are revisiting their funding strategies and exploring alternative sources of capital to fuel their continued growth.

Forecasting growth in a pandemic: a difficult job just got harder

For certain businesses, COVID-19’s impact on revenue was immediate. For others, the effects of slower economic activity and tighter budgets surfaced more gradually with deals in the funnel before the pandemic closing in April and May. Either way, in the second half of 2020, technology CFOs face a common challenge: How do you accurately forecast sales when there’s very little consensus around key issues such as when business activity will return to pre-COVID levels and what the long-term effects of the crisis might be?

Unfortunately, navigating this uncertainty is just as daunting a challenge for investors. These days, equity investors’ assessment of a company’s growth potential, and the value they are willing to pay for that growth, aren’t just impacted by their view of the company itself. Equally important is their assumptions about when the economy will recover and what the new normal might look like. This uncertainty can lead to situations where companies and their potential investors have materially different views on valuation.

Longer funding cycles, more investor-friendly deals

While the full impact of COVID was felt too late to have a material impact on Q1 deal volumes, recently released data from Pitchbook and the NVCA suggest that 2020 will see a significant decrease in the number of companies funded, possibly by as much 30 percent compared to 2019 among early stage companies. And, while it often takes several months to see evidence of broad trends in investment terms, anecdotal evidence indicates investors are seeking to mitigate risk by demanding additional protective provisions.

How to approach your IPO stock

Companies like Uber, Lyft, Beyond Meat, Peloton, Slack, Zoom and Pinterest all made public market debuts in 2019, creating wealth and liquidity for many of the 2019 IPO class of founders.

This year, stockholders have seen anxiety-inducing volatility in their holdings, leading many to realize that they need to rethink their approach to their concentrated post-IPO stock position.

In this guide, I’ll walk through a framework of how to think about post-IPO or concentrated stock holdings objectively. While this is written specific to public company stock, many of the same fundamental concepts apply to private stock and the decision whether or not to sell. Some risks should be understood if you are relying on one stock to achieve all of your financial goals since that subjects you to having “too many eggs in one basket.” Many shareholders in the 2019 IPO class have experienced this risk over the last few months and are reevaluating their situations.

Nevertheless, following my advice may be challenging since we all have heard of someone who made it big by swinging for the fences. The key is understanding the true success rate and risks involved with this approach; it is all too common to hear others share their standout victories, while more common failures are rarely mentioned.

What do I do now?

Usually, I advocate for reducing concentrated positions in IPO stock upon lockup expiration, or via scheduled selling for more significant positions; however, for those that have not sold, it is clear that the unexpected macroeconomic downturn has materially increased the volatility of some high-valuation company share prices. If you find yourself in this position here are a few items to consider:

  1. What is your time horizon? Are your investments intended for the long term or the short term?
  2. What are your liquidity needs? Do you need to raise cash to pay for taxes or upcoming expenses? Do you need cash in the upcoming 1-2 years?
  3. What other assets do you have?
  4. How does this impact your financial plan? Can you tolerate possible further declines?

It is not comfortable to be in this position, and decisions at this juncture can be critical in achieving long-term goals. I suggest you find an advisor to talk to if you are unsure what the best choice is. Below we review some considerations that can help build more confidence in your decision.

What’s the plan?

The decision of what to do with your stock should start at a higher level. Where does this stock fit into your investment strategy, and where does your investment strategy fit into achieving your long-term goals?

Your goals should drive your investment strategy, and your investment strategy should drive the decisions regarding your stock, not the other way around. With the proper goals set, you can use the investment portfolio, and the company stock(s) within it, as tools to achieve your goals.

For example, a goal could be to work ten more years, then partially retire and do some consulting. Defining goals helps you make objective decisions on how to best manage concentrated stock positions. There is a trade-off between maximizing the potential return in your investment portfolio, by maximizing risk with concentrated portfolios, and minimizing the risk of a catastrophic loss, by having a well-diversified portfolio. This decision is unique to each individual. The best way to maximize the odds of achieving your goals is different from the best route to maximizing your portfolio’s return possibilities.

FOMO

In these discussions, there is always an immense fear of missing out. What if this stock becomes a multibagger over time? It’s easy to look to the Zuckerbergs and Bezos of the world, who have amassed great wealth through holding concentrated stock, and think that holding a concentrated stock for the long term is the way to go.

There is also no doubt some public stocks have been runaway financial home runs, like investing in Apple or Amazon. If you had invested in those stocks since the beginning, you could have earned a 40,000% or 100,000% return. However, a rational, evidence-based decision process presents a very different picture. A statistical analysis on how IPOs and concentrated portfolios have fared in the past is covered in part two of this three-part series.

Concentration involves risks you may not have considered. In part two, I will walk you through critical considerations when maintaining a high concentration of company stock and things to consider from a big-picture perspective. I also dive into the benefits of diversification, taking it beyond the basics to show you the advantages of having a more balanced portfolio.

Growth capital investor Kennet raises $250M fund, backed by Edmond de Rothschild

Venture capital is “not the only fruit” for entrepreneurs, as the often quieter ‘Growth Capital’ can also see great returns for entrepreneurs who prefer to retain a lot of ownership and control but are also willing to bootstrap over a longer period in order to reach revenues and profits. With the COVID-19 pandemic pushing millions of people online, tech investors of all classes are now reaping the dividends in this accelerated, Coronavirus-powered transition to digital.

Thus it is that Kennet Partners, a leading European technology growth equity investor, has raised $250m (€223m) for its fifth fund, ‘Kennet V’, in partnership with Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity, the Private Equity division of the Edmond de Rothschild Group.

Kennet is perhaps best know for its involvement in companies such as Receipt Bank, Spatial Networks and its exist from Vlocity, IntelePeer, and MedeAnalytics. It’s also invested in Eloomi, Codility, Nuxeo and Rimilia. In raising this new fund, Kennet says it exceeded its target and secured new investors from across Europe and Asia.

The Kennet V fund has already started to deploy the capital into new investments in B2B, SaaS across the UK, Europe and the US.

Typically, Kennet invests in the first external funding that companies receive and is used to finance sales and marketing expansion, particularly internationally. It’s cumulative assets managed are approximately $1 billion.

Hillel Zidel, managing director, Kennet Partners, told me by phone that: “We were fortunate in that most of the capital was raised just before Covid hit. But we were still able to bring additional investors in. Had we been designing a fund for now, then this would have been it, because people have rushed towards technology out of necessity. So this has brought forward digitization but at least five years.”

Johnny El-Hachem, CEO, Edmond de Rothschild Private Equity said in a statement: “We partnered with Kennet, because we liked the dynamism of the team coupled with their strategy of financing businesses providing mission-critical technology solutions. The COVID crisis has underscored the importance of many of these tools to business continuity.”

Africa Roundup: DHL invests in MallforAfrica, Zipline launches in US, Novastar raises $200M

Events in May offered support to the thesis that Africa can incubate tech with global application.

Two startups that developed their business models on the continent — MallforAfrica and Zipline — were tapped by international interests.

DHL acquired a minority stake in Link Commerce, a turn-key e-commerce company that grew out of MallforAfrica.com — a Nigerian digital-retail startup.

Link Commerce offers a white-label solution for doing online-sales in emerging markets.

Retailers can plug into the company’s platform to create a web-based storefront that manages payments and logistics.

Nigerian Chris Folayan founded MallforAfrica in 2011 to bridge a gap in supply and demand for the continent’s consumer markets. While living in the U.S., Folayan noted a common practice among Africans — that of giving lists of goods to family members abroad to buy and bring home.

With MallforAfrica Folayan aimed to allow people on the continent to purchase goods from global retailers directly online.

The e-commerce site went on to onboard over 250 global retailers and now employs 30 people at order processing facilities in Oregon and the UK.

Folayan has elevated Link Commerce now as the lead company above MallforAfrica.com. He and DHL plan to extend the platform to emerging markets around the world and offer it to companies who want to wrap an online stores, payments and logistics solution around their core business

“Right now the focus is on Africa…but we’re taking this global,” Folayan said.

Another startup developed in Africa, Zipline, was tapped by U.S. healthcare provider Novant for drone delivery of critical medical supplies in the fight against COVID-19.

The two announced a partnership whereby Zipline’s drones will make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s North Carolina emergency drone fulfillment center and the non-profit’s medical center in Huntersville — where frontline healthcare workers are treating coronavirus patients.

Zipline and Novant are touting the arrangement as the first authorized long-range drone logistics delivery flight program in the U.S. The activity has gained approvals by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and North Carolina’s Department of Transportation.

The story behind the Novant, Zipline UAV collaboration has a twist: the capabilities for the U.S. operation were developed primarily in Africa. Zipline has a test facility in the San Francisco area, but spent several years configuring its drone delivery model in Rwanda and Ghana.

Image Credits: Novant Health

Co-founded in 2014 by Americans Keller Rinaudo,  Keenan Wyrobek and Will Hetzler, Zipline designs its own UAVs, launch systems and logistics software for distribution of critical medical supplies.

The company turned to East Africa in 2016, entering a partnership with the government of Rwanda to test and deploy its drone service in that country. Zipline went live with UAV distribution of life-saving medical supplies in Rwanda in late 2016, claiming the first national drone-delivery program at scale in the world.

The company expanded to Ghana in 2016, where in addition to delivering blood and vaccines by drone, it now distributes COVID-19-related medication and lab samples.

In addition to partner Novant Health, Zipline has caught the attention of big logistics providers, such as UPS — which has supported (and studied) the startup’s African operations back to 2016.

The presidents of Rwanda and Ghana  — Paul Kagame and Nana Akufo-Addo — were instrumental in supporting Zipline’s partnerships in their countries. Other nations on the continent, such as Kenya,  South Africa and Zambia, continue to advance commercial drone testing and novel approaches to regulating the sector.

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos-based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck .

On demand mobility powered by electric and solar is coming to Africa.

Vaya Africa, a ride-hail mobility venture founded by Zimbabwean mogul Strive Masiyiwa, launched an electric taxi service and charging network in Zimbabwe this week with plans to expand across the continent.

The South Africa-headquartered company is using Nissan Leaf EVs and has developed its own solar-powered charging stations. Vaya is finalizing partnerships to take its electric taxi services on the road to countries that could include Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa and Zambia, Vaya Mobility CEO Dorothy Zimuto told TechCrunch.

The initiative comes as Africa’s on-demand mobility market has been in full swing for several years, with startups, investors and the larger ride-hail players aiming to bring movement of people and goods to digital platforms.

Uber and Bolt have been operating in Africa’s major economies since 2015, where there are also a number of local app-based taxi startups. Over the last year, there’s been some movement on the continent toward developing EVs for ride-hail and delivery use, primarily around motorcycles.

Beyond environmental benefits, Vaya highlights economic gains for passengers and drivers of shifting to electric in Africa’s taxi markets, where fuel costs compared to personal income is generally high for drivers.

Using solar panels to power the charging station network also helps Vaya’s new EV program overcome some of challenges in Africa’s electricity grid.

Vaya is exploring EV options for other on-demand transit applications — from min-buses to Tuk Tuk taxis.

In more downbeat news in May, Africa-focused tech talent accelerator Andela had layoffs and salary reductions as a result of the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis, CEO Jeremy Johnson confirmed to TechCrunch.

The compensation and staff reductions of 135 bring Andela’s headcount down to 1,199 employees. None of Andela’s engineers were included in the layoffs.

Backed by $181 million in VC from investors that include the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the startup’s client-base is comprised of more than 200 global companies that pay for the African developers Andela selects to work on projects.

There’s been a drop in the demand for Andela’s services, according to Johnson.

More Africa-related stories @TechCrunch  

African tech around the ‘net

With an ex-Uber exec as its new CEO, digital mental health service Mindstrong raises $100 million

Daniel Graf has had a long career in the tech industry. From founding his own startup in the mid-2000s to working at Google, then Twitter, and finally Uber, the tech business has made him extremely wealthy.

But after leaving Uber, he wasn’t necessarily interested in working at another business… At least, not until he spent an afternoon in the spring of 2019 with an old friend, General Catalyst managing director Hemant Taneja, walking in San Francisco’s South Park neighborhood and hearing Taneja talk about a new startup called Mindstrong Health.

Taneja told Graf that by the fall of that year, he’d be working at Mindstrong… and Taneja was right.

“I was intrigued by healthtech previously,” said Graf.  “The problem always was…and  it sounds a little too money oriented.. but if there’s no clear visibility around who pays who in a startup, the startup isn’t going to work,” and that was always his issue with healthcare businesses. 

NEW YORK, NY – MAY 21: Daniel Graf accepts a Webby award for Google Maps for Iphone at the 17th Annual Webby Awards at Cipriani Wall Street on May 21, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for The Webby Awards)

With Mindstrong, which announced today that it has raised $100 million in new financing, the issue of who pays is clear.

So Graf joined the company in November as chief executive, taking over from Paul Dagum, who remains with Mindstrong as its chief scientific officer.

“Daniel joined the company as it was moving from pure R&D into being something commercially available,” said Taneja, in an email. “In healthcare, it’s increasingly important to understand how to build for the consumer and that’s where Daniel’s experience and background comes in. Paul remains a core part of the team because none of this happens without the science.”

The company, which has developed a digital platform for providing therapy to patients with severe mental illnesses ranging from schizophrenia to obsessive compulsive disorders, is looking to tackle a problem that costs the American healthcare system $20 billion per month, Graf said.

Unlike companies like Headspace and Calm that have focused on the mental wellness market for the mass consumer, Mindstrong is focused on people with severe mental health conditions, said Graf. That means people who are either bipolar, schizophrenic or have major depressive disorder.

It’s a much larger population than most Americans think and they face a critical problem in their ability to receive adequate care, Graf said.

“1 in 5 adults experience mental illness, 1 in 25 experience serious mental illness, and the pandemic is making these numbers worse. Meanwhile, more than 60% of US counties don’t have a single practicing psychiatrist,” said Joe Lonsdale, the founder of 8VC, and investor in the latest Mindstrong Health round, in a statement.  

Dagum, Mindstrong Health’s founder has been working on the issue of how to provide better access and monitor for indications of potential episodes of distress since 2013. The company’s technology provides a range of monitoring and measurement tools using digital biomarkers that are currently being validated through clinical trials, according to Graf.

“We’re passively measuring the usage of the phone and the timing of the keyboard strokes to measure how [a patient] is doing,” Graf said. These smartphone interactions can provide data around mental acuity and emotional valence, according to Graf — and can provide signs that someone might be having problems.

The company also provides access to therapists via phone and video consultations or text-based asynchronous communications, based on user preference.

“Think of us more as a virtual hospital… our care pathways are super complex for this population,” said Graf. “We’re not aware of other startups working with this population. These folks, the best you get right now is the county mental health.”

Mindstrong’s Series C raise included participation from new and existing investors, including General Catalyst, ARCH Ventures, Optum Ventures, Foresite Capital, 8VC, What If Ventures and Bezos Expeditions, along with other, undisclosed investors.  

And while mental health is the company’s current focus, the platform for care delivery that the company is building has broader implications for the industry, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 epidemic, according to General Catalyst managing director, Taneja.

“I expect that we’ll see discoveries in biomarker tech like Mindstrong’s that could be applied horizontally across almost any area of healthcare,” Taneja said in an email. “Because healthcare is so broad and varied, going vertical like Mindstrong is makes a lot of sense. There’s opportunity to become a successful and very impactful company by staying narrowly focused and solving some really hard problems for even a smaller part of the overall population.”