Is It A Computer Or A Car?

In the spring of 2014, I walked across the street from our apartment building to our parking garage to get our car and drive somewhere. I can’t recall where I was headed that morning. But as I walked into the garage, I saw two EV charging kiosks had been installed in our parking garage. I turned around and ran back to our apartment building, went back upstairs to our apartment, and told The Gotham Gal that we were getting a Tesla. I had long wanted an EV but the “how do we charge it in the city” problem had been the blocker. Now that was solved.

Maybe a month later, the Tesla arrived and I drove it into the parking garage to show the garage attendant how to drive and charge the car. He sat behind the wheel while I described the features of the car and when I was done he said to me “Mr. Wilson, they have combined an iPhone with a car!

I love that story because never a truer word has been spoken.

I was thinking about that when I was recently describing how my new Rivian Truck handles off-road driving. It isn’t four-wheel drive, it isn’t all-wheel drive, it is any-wheel drive. There are four electric motors, one on each wheel, and depending on how the truck is performing, different amounts of power are delivered to each and every wheel. The software determines which wheels need what power and supplies it to that wheel in real-time.

Is the Tesla a car or a computer? Neither and a bit of both. Is the Rivian a truck or a computer? Neither and a bit of both.

When you rethink a system, like a car or a truck, as a computer first and foremost, amazing things become possible. Like over-the-air software upgrades which continue to add new features to our Tesla eight years after I drove it into the parking garage for the first time.

We have seen this story play out across many devices in our lives; phones, TVs, watches, thermostats, smoke alarms, light switches, etc, etc. It is an enormous shift in how things are designed and made and it is playing out right in front of us.

#VC & Technology

Demand Response

At USV, our climate thesis is about both mitigating and adapting to the climate crisis. One way we can adapt to the climate crisis is by building a more resilient energy supply system. Demand Response is one of many approaches that will be necessary to do that.

Demand Response is when consumers of energy voluntarily cut back on energy consumption in reaction to peak demand situations. There are many different ways this is done, and energy companies will often offer economic incentives for their customers to do this.

A great example of this is what happened in the recent heat wave in California in early September. Our portfolio company Leap aggregates energy consumption devices across a partner network via their API tools. They recently wrote a blog post about how their demand response network performed in California during the early September heat wave.

Leap aggregated 21,152 energy consumption devices (smart thermostats, EV chargers, etc) across 24 participating partners in California.

As Leap wrote in that blog post:

On September 6th, the California power grid peak demand hit 52,061 MW, a new all-time record for CAISO. Demand-side reductions were instrumental to preventing rolling blackouts as extreme temperatures caused demand for electricity to spike across the state.

Leap’s network of 21,152 devices was able to curtail about 115MW of that demand at peak. That is about 0.22% of the total peak demand in California and represents the equivalent of a small traditional power plant or large solar farm that would cost tens of millions of dollars to construct.

Leap’s network is not the only Demand Response network operating in California. There are many of them and the total amount of demand curtailed by Demand Response networks was certainly a big factor in avoiding brownouts during the recent heat wave.

If you have smart energy devices in your home or office, you should look into how to connect them to a demand response network. Helping to curtail energy consumption during peak demand situations will be an important part of adapting to the climate crisis.

#climate crisis

Changing Public Perception

Nuclear power (both fission and fusion) has the potential to provide much of the energy the world needs without the damaging effects of carbon emissions which are warming our planet.

And yet nuclear power is politically unpopular in many parts of the world and that has led to a massive underinvestment in nuclear power over the last fifty years. It will take a much different attitude about nuclear power among the public before nuclear power can remerge as a major source of energy for the world.

That is but one example of very promising technologies that suffer from negative public opinion.

Web3, which will usher in a different way of engaging with web services also suffers from a negative public perception. And yet a web3 that allows users to control their data with web services that will need our permission to use it offers a radically better model for the web as we know it.

Vaccines, which are one of the most important public health innovations of the last hundred years also suffer from negative public perception. Way too many people don’t trust vaccines and don’t avail themselves of them.

So what can those of us in the business of creating and bringing these important technologies to market do to reverse these negative opinions?

I believe that getting these technologies into market and showing people their benefits is the very best thing we can do.

For nuclear, that means smaller, safer, and more “personal” nuclear power. There are pacemakers that have nuclear batteries in them. Why not put way more nuclear powered devices into our lives and show that the benefits massively outweigh the risks?

For web3, that means shipping applications that mainstream users will use and see the benefits of controlling and provisioning their data. I think gaming and social applications are likely to be the first mainstream web3 applications because not everyone is a trader or investor. Mainstream means our parents and our children.

For vaccines, it means better and more effective vaccines. It means easier delivery (like nasal sprays). And it means less side effects. It’s hard to be enthusiastic about a wellness benefit that makes you feel like shit for a day or two.

All of these industries have large public policy organizations and spend lots of money on changing public perception. I’m absolutely in favor of that.

But there is nothing better than putting amazing technology in the hands of ordinary people and changing their lives for the better. That moves public perception more powerfully than anything else.

#climate crisis#crypto#health care#Politics

Regenerative Finance (ReFi)

I’ve always been interested in tapping into the “crowd” to fund things that need to happen and that our current institutions can’t figure out how to support. Our investment in Kickstarter back in 2009 is an excellent example of that. In the last thirteen years, Kickstarter has helped direct $6.2bn towards creative work that would not have been funded by the legacy institutions that support creative work. That has led to all sorts of interesting projects which are too numerous to mention here.

Our interest in web3 which started back in 2011 was also grounded in the idea that new forms of funding are necessary to finance innovation and creative work. I am not sure if anyone has tracked how much funding the web3 sector has directed towards new projects over the last decade, but I am certain it is in the tens of billions, if not more. And the vast majority of this funding has come from individuals, not institutions.

As we turn our attention toward climate and the existential threat of a warming planet, these ideas are top of mine for me. And that is why Regenerative Finance (aka ReFI) is so interesting to me. ReFi is an idea, like DeFi, based on a set of web3 technologies and economics, that suggests that efforts to combat climate change can and will be funded by the crowd.

Here’s a great example:

My friends Gordon and Courtney built the New Atlantis DAO to create open public datasets about the evolving ocean climate and funding mechanisms to support work that moves the data in the right direction. If you click on the tweet I posted above, you can learn more about that.

But that is just one of many different ReFi projects that are being started right now.

USV is invested in the Toucan Protocol which is building the web3 infrastructure to bring carbon offsets on-chain and to allow them to be traded/invested/etc using DeFi protocols. There has been some negative press about Toucan, but that reporting misunderstands what Toucan is doing and why it is so important.

It is ironic that many in the environmental justice and climate movements are so anti web3. Because web3 presents a set of tools, technologies, and economics that can and is being used to bring badly needed innovation, innovators, and funds to the fight.

It is my hope that ReFi is the movement that brings all of these folks together and aligns us all to fight the good fight, the necessary fight and that we win this fight.

#climate crisis#crypto

Face To Face

As we all prepare for the fall back to school/back to work season, I thought I’d touch on a topic that has been top of mind for me for the last six months.

The covid pandemic taught many of us that we can be productive and our companies can succeed in a fully remote work environment. But just because you can does not mean you should.

In the venture capital business, this has meant making investments in teams we don’t meet face to face. For founders, this has meant raising rounds from their offices instead of getting on planes.

As the pandemic has eased and offices have gradually reopened over the last year, we are meeting more founders face to face. But we have not gone back to a world where we meet every team we back in person. I don’t think we will ever go fully back to that world.

But even if the way we work has changed permanently, it does not mean that it has changed for the better. I believe that all change has positive and negative impacts. We can meet more founders than we used to. And founders can meet more investors. That is good. But matches are now being made over video and that is not always great.

We know that humans are better to each other in person. We know that in-person interaction is more meaningful, we are more present, and we connect in more fundamental ways.

So I believe that we must work in the coming years to get out of our offices (or homes) and see each other in person more often.

That means we should run fundraising processes that include meeting in person. We can do the initial screens (on both sides) over zoom, but the final selection process should include face-to-face meetings whenever possible. And board meetings should be done in person at least a few times a year. And those in-person meetings should include some social time in addition to business.

For companies, this means hiring should include a face-to-face meeting. Teams should meet in person regularly. Going to the office should be a regular occurrence for those that live near one.

It is time to get back to the office, at least some of the time. It will make for better business. And I also think it will make us happier at work.

#entrepreneurship#management#VC & Technology

Deep Dives

We like to do a lot of deep dives at USV. We pick areas that we think will present interesting investment opportunities over the next five to ten years and then spend time researching them. We like to talk to lots of experts, academics, investors, entrepreneurs, and industry. We generally spend a few months on these deep dives and then present them to the rest of the team so that everyone at USV will be somewhat fluent in the topic area and can flag interesting things that fit what is interesting to us.

Deep dives are not so much about areas we’ve been investing in, although we sometimes do that to refresh a thesis. Deep dives are generally about new areas that are just starting to percolate and appear interesting to us.

This summer all of the USV partners picked one or two (in one case three) areas to do deep dives on. As the market has cooled down, we’ve found the time to take on some primary research.

I’ve been looking into nuclear reactors and batteries with the lens of how small is possible. Could we make a nuclear reactor or battery that fits in our home? Could we make a nuclear reactor or battery that we carry with us like a phone?

I know these ideas seem preposterous but that’s exactly the kind of questions we like to ask ourselves. Often we find out that the idea is as nutty as it seems but we bump into something else along the way that is even more interesting.

So if you know something about my research topic or know someone who does send me an email. I’m all ears.

#VC & Technology

Going From One Hundred To Four

Joe Hovde wrote a blog post about AVC last week. He analyzed all of the blog posts on AVC to find trends and other interesting tidbits.

He charted the number of posts a month I have written here over the last nineteen years.

He observed:

he treated the blog similarly to a twitter account before Twitter blew up, and then settled in to a daily posting habit for the next 15 years, slowing down a bit in the last 2.

He is correct, AVC was like Twitter in the early days with upwards of four posts a day, which helped me see the value of Twitter when it launched in 2006. Post Twitter, I moved to posting daily for a decade, and then I have gradually slowed the pace to a post a week in the last few years.

Joe also shows how the topics have changed over the years:

While that is directionally correct, I am not sure the TD-IF methodology he uses is that insightful. I think an analysis of the post categories I used during these eras would be more useful. But he is 100% correct that my interests have evolved over the years and my writing has reflected that.

I enjoyed reading Joe’s post. It is a trip down memory lane for the nineteen years that I’ve been writing AVC. Thanks for doing this Joe.

#Weblogs

The Merge

In about a month, an important moment will happen in the world of crypto/web3. The Ethereum blockchain will move from a proof of work consensus mechanism to a proof of stake consensus mechanism. This event is known as “The Merge” in Ethereum land.

There are many reasons why this is an important moment for the world of crypto/web3, but to my mind the most important reasons are:

1/ The Merge reduces the carbon footprint of the Ethereum blockchain very significantly. No longer will miners be required to run large energy-intensive compute facilities to secure the Ethereum blockchain. There are many people out there who have serious concerns about web3 over environmental reasons. We can argue about that and have, but The Merge takes the concern off the table for the largest and most used smart contract blockchain. This is a big deal.

2/ The supply/demand balance of the Ethereum token will change dramatically. In a proof of work system, miners spend significant sums of money to run large energy-intensive compute facilities to secure the chain. They are rewarded with tokens (in Ethereum’s case, these are Ethereum tokens) and they must sell most of these tokens to pay their electric bills and hardware costs. In a proof of stake system, validators stake significant amounts of the base token (in Ethereum’s case, these are Ethereum tokens) and risk losing them if a bad transaction is validated. There is very little cost associated with staking so the tokens that are earned from staking are mostly held/re-staked instead of sold. I have seen a lot of estimates of how this shift will play out and my take is that Ethereum will move from a system that has roughly $20mm a day of structural outflows to a system that has roughly a half a million dollars a day of structural inflows. This shift in supply/demand will likely result in a very different dynamic for ETH/USDC, ETH/USD, and ETC/BTC (and other ETH pairs too) going forward.

3/ Proof of Stake systems (of which they are many in the market already like Solana, Avalanche, etc) are considered more secure because the likelihood of a 51% attack is much lower. I don’t plan to lay out the argument here, but suffice it to say that Ethereum is moving to a consensus mechanism that many consider to be more resistant to attack, making it even more secure than it has been.

There are some interesting side effects of this event. The current Ethereum proof of work blockchain will not go away. This chain, which many are calling ETH POW, could develop a community around it and live on and provide value to developers and others. This has already happened in the Bitcoin community a few times and once before in the Ethereum community. Holders of ETH at the time of The Merge will receive ETH POW tokens as a result of this fork. These ETH POW tokens could be worthless in time or worth a lot in time. There is really no way to know how ETH POW will develop.

The Merge is probably the most important change that a large scaled blockchain has ever undergone. It is not without risk and there is a chance that things will not go smoothly. The Ethereum core developers have been working on this effort for many years and have deployed many testnets and they are confident they can pull this off next month. The crypto/web3 world will be watching closely and I am rooting for them. I think this is a very important moment for the sector and that it will be very positive if things work as planned.

Disclosure: My family and USV have large holdings in ETH and other crypto assets and may continue to add to them in the coming weeks, months, and years.

#blockchain#crypto#Web3

Bridge Loans

When fundraising gets tougher for startups, the existing investors (insiders) will often provide a bridge loan to the company to extend the runway for getting another round done. There is more of this sort of thing happening in today’s fundraising market and I thought I’d share some of the things I have learned about setting up bridge loans.

First, bridge loans are a bridge to something else. Most commonly they are a bridge to a round of financing with new investors (outsiders). They can also be a bridge to the sale of the company. Occasionally, but not often, they can be a bridge to getting cash flow positive. If none of those things is going to happen in a relatively short period of time, then it is a bridge to nowhere and you really want to avoid that. A bridge to another bridge is never a good thing and should be avoided at all costs.

An alternative to a bridge is an “insider round” where the existing investors provide sufficient capital to fund the business for eighteen to twenty-four months. That is a real round of financing and it is not a bridge. While that can sometimes be the right answer for a startup, I strongly prefer bringing new investors/new capital into a company in every financing round. New investors strengthen the investor syndicate which makes the company more resilient. New investors bring new ideas, new experiences, and new sources of funding to the business. New investors in every round are a very good thing and I like to try for that whenever possible.

So let’s say your company really wants to bring new investors into the business with another round, but it is taking longer. But you and your investors are confident that the new round will happen. Then a bridge is a good idea.

Here is how I like to structure a bridge:

  • All material existing investors should participate, ideally “pro-rata”, meaning the investors participate based on their respective ownership interests. When you have an existing investor that owns a large percentage of the business and they won’t or can’t participate, you have a problem. You can get a bridge done in these circumstances but it will be painful because nobody likes to “carry” a large existing investor who can’t support the business.
  • The ideal structure is a convertible note, with nominal interest, and a discount upon conversion into the next round of financing.
  • I like the discounts to be based on the amount of time the bridge note is outstanding. This creates an incentive to get the round done quickly, which is what everyone wants in this situation. It is also easier to explain the discount to the new investors in the next round when the discount is small if the bridge has not been outstanding for long. And it is understandable if the discount is larger when the bridge has been outstanding for a longer time period.
  • I like to start with a 5% discount and cap the discount at 25%. The ideal discount is between 10% and 20% and so the time frame for the various discounts should be set with that in mind.
  • A very important consideration in structuring a bridge loan is what happens if the company is sold when the note is outstanding. If the bridge documents do not specify anything in this situation, the noteholders will only get their money back, plus interest, in a sale. That is not really appropriate given that they are providing the capital to get the company to a sale, and so I like a premium to be paid in the event of a sale. I like somewhere between 2x and 3x depending on the circumstances.

When it is time for a bridge, the lead investor, which is typically the investor with the largest capital invested and largest ownership, should “step up”, suggest terms, and work with the investor syndicate to come together and provide a bridge loan. That kind of leadership is very important when fundraising gets harder. The startups that have strong leads will do a lot better in tough times and this is a really good example of why that is.

#entrepreneurship#VC & Technology

Innovation Indicators

Tech:NYC is the industry association for NY’s tech sector. They play a number of important roles and one of them is to educate and inform about the impact of the tech sector in NY. To that end, they launched a valuable resource last month called Innovation Indicators.

Innovation Indicators is a dashboard that shows the latest data on the impact of the tech sector on the NY economy. Here is some of the data you will find there:

Innovation Indicators will be updated regularly and will be a valuable resource to entrepreneurs, academics, policymakers, journalists, and anyone else who is interested in the development and growth of the tech sector in NY.

#economics#NYC