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Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos-backed fund invests in a global geothermal energy project developer

Posted by on Mar 3, 2019 in Alphabet, Bill Gates, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, dandelion energy, electricity, Energy, geothermal energy, jack ma, Japan, jeff bezos, spokesperson, steel, TC, United States | 0 comments

Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the investment firm financed by billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Jack Ma that invests in companies developing technologies to decarbonize society, is investing $12.5 million in a geothermal project development company called Baseload Capital.

Baseload Capital is a project investment firm that provides capital to develop geothermal energy power plants using technology developed by its Swedish parent company, Climeon.

Like the spinoff from Google’s parent company, Alphabet, Dandelion Energy, which recently raised $16 million in a new round of financing, Climeon builds standardized machines to tap geothermal energy. But Dandelion is targeting consumers with its technology to provide home heating, while Climeon turns geothermal energy into electricty.

The company’s modules — which stand around two meters cubed, produce 150 kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to power roughly 250 European households, according to a company spokesperson.

Climeon, which was founded back in 2011, formed Baseload Capital about a year ago to invest in special purpose vehicles to build the power plants that use Climeon’s technology. Baseload takes an equity stake in these companies and provides debt financing for them.

Through its investment into Baseload Capital, Breakthrough Energy Ventures will help finance and develop these small-scale power plants globally (Baseload has already formed special purpose vehicles that are developing projects in Japan).

Climeon and Baseload Capital focus on three primary industries — geothermal, shipping and heavy industry. “We sell our machines to the [maritime industry] where we turn the waste heat from the engines into electricity (Virgin Voyages has bought several systems), to industries such as steel where they also have a lot of waste heat and then to companies that develop and operate geothermal power plants,” a Climeon spokesperson wrote in an email. “This could be a newly formed SPV or an existing energy company. In the U.S., for example, our modules will be used in an existing geothermal site.”

The company’s pitch is that it’s modular units make it easy to scale up or decommission plants. Modules list for EUR350,000 and customers also spend EUR5,000 per-module, per-year on Climeon’s power plant management software.

So far, the company says it has an order backlog of roughly $88 million.

The investment in Baseload Capital is Breakthrough Energy’s second foray into the geothermal industry. Last year, the company backed Fervo Energy, which uses proven technologies to help speed the development of geothermal energy at a cost of 5 to 7 cents per kilowatt hour.

“We believe that a baseload resource such as low temperature geothermal heat power has the potential to transform the energy landscape. Baseload Capital, together with Climeon’s innovative technology, has the potential to deliver GHG-free electricity at large scale, economically and efficiently,” said Carmichael Roberts of Breakthrough Energy Ventures, in a statement.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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With $90 million in funding, the Ginkgo spinoff Motif joins the fight for the future of food

Posted by on Feb 26, 2019 in Amazon Web Services, bEYOND meat, Bill Gates, biotechnology, Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Chief Operating Officer, Co-founder, Food, food and drink, Ginkgo Bioworks, head, Impossible foods, jack ma, Jason Kelly, jeff bezos, John Doerr, manufacturing, Marc Benioff, Masayoshi Son, meat, meat substitutes, meg whitman, michael bloomberg, monsanto, partner, protein, Reid Hoffman, richard branson, TC, Tyson Foods, Vinod Khosla, web services | 0 comments

Continuing its quest to become the Amazon Web Services for biomanufacturing, <a href=”http://ginkgobioworks.com/”>Ginkgo Bioworks has launched a new spinoff called Motif Ingredients with $90 million in funding to develop proteins that can serve as meat and dairy replacements.

It’s the second spinout for Ginkgo since late 2017 when the company partnered with Bayer to launch Joyn Bio, a startup researching and developing bacteria that could improve crop yields.

Now, with Motif, Ginkgo is tackling the wild world of protein replacements for the food and beverage industry through the spinoff of Motif Ingredients.

It’s a move that’s likely going to send shockwaves through several of the alternative meat and dairy companies that were using Ginkgo as their manufacturing partner in their quest to reduce the demand for animal husbandry — a leading contributor to global warming — through the development of protein replacements.

“To help feed the world and meet consumers’ evolving food preferences, traditional and complementary nutritional sources need to co-exist. As a global dairy nutrition company, we see plant- and fermentation-produced nutrition as complementary to animal protein, and in particular cows’ milk,” said Judith Swales, the Chief Operating Officer, for the Global Consumer and Foodservice Business, of Fonterra, an investor in Ginkgo’s new spinout.

To ensure the success of its new endeavor Ginkgo has raised $90 million in financing from industry insiders like Fonterra and the global food processing and trading firm Louis Dreyfus Co., while also tapping the pool of deep-pocketed investors behind Breakthrough Energy Ventures, the climate focused investment fund financed by a global gaggle of billionaires including Marc Benioff, Jeff Bezos, Michael Bloomberg, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Reid Hoffman, John Doerr, Vinod Khosla, Jack Ma, Neil Shen, Masayoshi Son, and Meg Whitman.

Leading Ginkgo’s latest spinout is a longtime veteran of the food and beverage industry, Jonathan McIntyre, the former head of research and development at another biotechnology startup focused on agriculture — Indigo Ag.

McIntyre, who left Indigo just two years after being named the company’s head of research and development, previously had stints at Monsanto, Nutrasweet, and PepsiCo (in both its beverage and snack divisions).

“There’s an opportunity to produce proteins,” says McIntyre. “Right now as population grows the protein supply is going to be challenged. Motif gives the ability to create proteins and make products from low cost available genetic material.”

Photo: paylessimages/iStock

Ginkgo, which will have a minority stake in the new company, will provide engineering and design work to Motif and provide some initial research and development work on roughly six to nine product lines.

That push, with the financing, and Ginkgo’s backing as the manufacturer of new proteins for Motif Ingredients should put the company in a comfortable position to achieve McIntyre’s goals of bringing his company’s first products into the market within the next two years. All Motif has to pay is cost plus slight overhead for the Ginkgo ingredients.

“We started putting Motif together around February or March of 2018,” says Ginkgo co-founder Jason Kelly of the company’s plans. “The germination of the business had its inception earlier though, from interacting with companies in the food and beverage scene. When we talked to these companies the strong sense we got was if there had been a trusted provider of outsourced protein development they would have loved to work with us.”

The demand from consumers for alternative sources of protein and dairy — that have the same flavor profiles as traditional dairy and meats — has reached an inflection point over the past few years. Certainly venture capital interest into the industry has soared along with the appetite from traditional protein purveyors like Danone, Tyson Foods, and others to take a bite out of the market.

Some industry insiders think it was Danone’s 2016 acquisition of WhiteWave in a $12.5 billion deal that was the signal which brought venture investors and food giants alike flocking to startups that were developing meat and dairy substitutes. The success of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods has only served to prove that a growing market exists for these substitutes.

At the same time, solving the problem of protein for a growing global population is critical if the world is going to reverse course on climate change. Agriculture and animal husbandry are huge contributors to the climate crisis and ones for which no solution has made it to market.

Investors think cultured proteins — fermented in tanks like brewing beer — could be an answer.

Photograph: David Parry/EPA

“Innovative or disruptive solutions are key to responding to changing consumer demand and to addressing the challenge of feeding a growing world population sustainably,” said Kristen Eshak Weldon, Head of Food Innovation & Downstream Strategy at Louis Dreyfus Company (LDC), a leading merchant and processor of agricultural goods. “In this sense, we are excited to partner with Motif, convinced that its next-generation ingredients will play a vital role.”

Breakthrough Energy Ventures certainly thinks so.

The investment firm has been busy placing bets across a number of different biologically based solutions to reduce the emissions associated with agriculture and cultivation. Pivot Bio is a startup competing with Ginkgo’s own Joyn Bio to create nitrogen fixing techniques for agriculture. And earlier this month, the firm invested as part of a $33 million round for Sustainable Bioproducts, which is using a proprietary bacteria found in a remote corner of Yellowstone National Park to make its own protein substitute.

For all of these companies, the goal is nothing less than providing a commercially viable technology to combat some of the causes of climate change in a way that’s appealing to the average consumer.

“Sustainability and accessible nutrition are among the biggest challenges facing the food industry today. Consumers are demanding mindful food options, but there’s a reigning myth that healthy and plant-based foods must come at a higher price, or cannot taste or function like the animal-based foods they aim to replicate,” said McIntyre, in a statement. “Biotechnology and fermentation is our answer, and Motif will be key to propelling the next food revolution with affordable, sustainable and accessible ingredients that meet the standards of chefs, food developers, and visionary brands.”


Source: The Tech Crunch

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How students are founding, funding and joining startups

Posted by on Feb 6, 2019 in Accel, Accel Scholars, Alumni Ventures Group, Amanda Bradford, Artificial Intelligence, Bill Gates, boston, coinbase, Column, CRM, CrunchBase, distributed systems, Dorm Room Fund, Drew Houston, Dropbox, editor-in-chief, Energy, entrepreneurship, Facebook, Finance, FiscalNote, Forward, General Catalyst, Graduate Fund, greylock, harvard, Jeremy Liew, Kleiner Perkins, lightspeed, Mark Zuckerberg, MIT, Pear Ventures, peter boyce, Pinterest, Private Equity, Series A, stanford, Start-Up Chile, Startup company, Startups, TC, TechStars, True Ventures, Ubiquity6, uc-berkeley, United States, upenn, Venture Capital, venture capital Firms, Warby Parker, Y Combinator | 0 comments

There has never been a better time to start, join or fund a startup as a student. 

Young founders who want to start companies while still in school have an increasing number of resources to tap into that exist just for them. Students that want to learn how to build companies can apply to an increasing number of fast-track programs that allow them to gain valuable early stage operating experience. The energy around student entrepreneurship today is incredible. I’ve been immersed in this community as an investor and adviser for some time now, and to say the least, I’m continually blown away by what the next generation of innovators are dreaming up (from Analytical Space’s global data relay service for satellites to Brooklinen’s reinvention of the luxury bed).

Bill Gates in 1973

First, let’s look at student founders and why they’re important. Student entrepreneurs have long been an important foundation of the startup ecosystem. Many students wrestle with how best to learn while in school —some students learn best through lectures, while more entrepreneurial students like author Julian Docks find it best to leave the classroom altogether and build a business instead.

Indeed, some of our most iconic founders are Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, both student entrepreneurs who launched their startups at Harvard and then dropped out to build their companies into major tech giants. A sample of the current generation of marquee companies founded on college campuses include Snap at Stanford ($29B valuation at IPO), Warby Parker at Wharton (~$2B valuation), Rent The Runway at HBS (~$1B valuation), and Brex at Stanford (~$1B valuation).

Some of today’s most celebrated tech leaders built their first ventures while in school — even if some student startups fail, the critical first-time founder experience is an invaluable education in how to build great companies. Perhaps the best example of this that I could find is Drew Houston at Dropbox (~$9B valuation at IPO), who previously founded an edtech startup at MIT that, in his words, provided a: “great introduction to the wild world of starting companies.”

Student founders are everywhere, but the highest concentration of venture-backed student founders can be found at just 5 universities. Based on venture fund portfolio data from the last six years, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn, and UC Berkeley have produced the highest number of student-founded companies that went on to raise $1 million or more in seed capital. Some prospective students will even enroll in a university specifically for its reputation of churning out great entrepreneurs. This is not to say that great companies are not being built out of other universities, nor does it mean students can’t find resources outside a select number of schools. As you can see later in this essay, there are a number of new ways students all around the country can tap into the startup ecosystem. For further reading, PitchBook produces an excellent report each year that tracks where all entrepreneurs earned their undergraduate degrees.

Student founders have a number of new media resources to turn to. New email newsletters focused on student entrepreneurship like Justine and Olivia Moore’s Accelerated and Kyle Robertson’s StartU offer new channels for young founders to reach large audiences. Justine and Olivia, the minds behind Accelerated, have a lot of street cred— they launched Stanford’s on-campus incubator Cardinal Ventures before landing as investors at CRV.

StartU goes above and beyond to be a resource to founders they profile by helping to connect them with investors (they’re active at 12 universities), and run a podcast hosted by their Editor-in-Chief Johnny Hammond that is top notch. My bet is that traditional media will point a larger spotlight at student entrepreneurship going forward.

New pools of capital are also available that are specifically for student founders. There are four categories that I call special attention to:

  • University-affiliated accelerator programs
  • University-affiliated angel networks
  • Professional venture funds investing at specific universities
  • Professional venture funds investing through student scouts

While it is difficult to estimate exactly how much capital has been deployed by each, there is no denying that there has been an explosion in the number of programs that address the pre-seed phase. A sample of the programs available at the Top 5 universities listed above are in the graphic below — listing every resource at every university would be difficult as there are so many.

One alumni-centric fund to highlight is the Alumni Ventures Group, which pools LP capital from alumni at specific universities, then launches individual venture funds that invest in founders connected to those universities (e.g. students, alumni, professors, etc.). Through this model, they’ve deployed more than $200M per year! Another highlight has been student scout programs — which vary in the degree of autonomy and capital invested — but essentially empower students to identify and fund high-potential student-founded companies for their parent venture funds. On campuses with a large concentration of student founders, it is not uncommon to find student scouts from as many as 12 different venture funds actively sourcing deals (as is made clear from David Tao’s analysis at UC Berkeley).

Investment Team at Rough Draft Ventures

In my opinion, the two institutions that have the most expansive line of sight into the student entrepreneurship landscape are First Round’s Dorm Room Fund and General Catalyst’s Rough Draft VenturesSince 2012, these two funds have operated a nationwide network of student scouts that have invested $20K — $25K checks into companies founded by student entrepreneurs at 40+ universities. “Scout” is a loose term and doesn’t do it justice — the student investors at these two funds are almost entirely autonomous, have built their own platform services to support portfolio companies, and have launched programs to incubate companies built by female founders and founders of color. Another student-run fund worth noting that has reach beyond a single region is Contrary Capital, which raised $2.2M last year. They do a particularly great job of reaching founders at a diverse set of schools — their network of student scouts are active at 45 universities and have spoken with 3,000 founders per year since getting started. Contrary is also testing out what they describe as a “YC for university-based founders”. In their first cohort, 100% of their companies raised a pre-seed round after Contrary’s demo day. Another even more recently launched organization is The MBA Fund, which caters to founders from the business schools at Harvard, Wharton, and Stanford. While super exciting, these two funds only launched very recently and manage portfolios that are not large enough for analysis just yet.

Over the last few months, I’ve collected and cross-referenced publicly available data from both Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures to assess the state of student entrepreneurship in the United States. Companies were pulled from each fund’s portfolio page, then checked against Crunchbase for amount raised, accelerator participation, and other metrics. If you’d like to sift through the data yourself, feel free to ping me — my email can be found at the end of this article. To be clear, this does not represent the full scope of investment activity at either fund — many companies in the portfolios of both funds remain confidential and unlisted for good reasons (e.g. startups working in stealth). In fact, the In addition, data for early stage companies is notoriously variable in quality, even with Crunchbase. You should read these insights as directional only, given the debatable confidence interval. Still, the data is still interesting and give good indicators for the health of student entrepreneurship today.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures have invested in 230+ student-founded companies that have gone on to raise nearly $1 billion in follow on capital. These funds have invested in a diverse range of companies, from govtech (e.g. mark43, raised $77M+ and FiscalNote, raised $50M+) to space tech (e.g. Capella Space, raised ~$34M). Several portfolio companies have had successful exits, such as crypto startup Distributed Systems (acquired by Coinbase) and social networking startup tbh (acquired by Facebook). While it is too early to evaluate the success of these funds on a returns basis (both were launched just 6 years ago), we can get a sense of success by evaluating the rates by which portfolio companies raise additional capital. Taken together, 34% of DRF and RDV companies in our data set have raised $1 million or more in seed capital. For a rough comparison, CB Insights cites that 40% of YC companies and 48% of Techstars companies successfully raise follow on capital (defined as anything above $750K). Certainly within the ballpark!

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures companies in our data set have an 11–12% rate of survivorship to Series A. As a benchmark, a previous partner at Y Combinator shared that 20% of their accelerator companies raise Series A capital (YC declined to share the official figure, but it’s likely a stat that is increasing given their new Series A support programs. For further reading, check out YC’s reflection on what they’ve learned about helping their companies raise Series A funding). In any case, DRF and RDV’s numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, as the average age of their portfolio companies is very low and raising Series A rounds generally takes time. Ultimately, it is clear that DRF and RDV are active in the earlier (and riskier) phases of the startup journey.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures send 18–25% of their portfolio companies to Y Combinator or Techstars. Given YC’s 1.5% acceptance rate as reported in Fortune, this is quite significant! Internally, these two funds offer founders an opportunity to participate in mock interviews with YC and Techstars alumni, as well as tap into their communities for peer support (e.g. advice on pitch decks and application content). As a result, Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures regularly send cohorts of founders to these prestigious accelerator programs. Based on our data set, 17–20% of DRF and RDV companies that attend one of these accelerators end up raising Series A venture financing.

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures don’t invest in the same companies. When we take a deeper look at one specific ecosystem where these two funds have been equally active over the last several years — Boston — we actually see that the degree of investment overlap for companies that have raised $1M+ seed rounds sits at 26%. This suggests that these funds are either a) seeing different dealflow or b) have widely different investment decision-making.

Source: Crunchbase

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures should not just be measured by a returns-basis today, as it’s too early. I hypothesize that DRF and RDV are actually encouraging more entrepreneurial activity in the ecosystem (more students decide to start companies while in school) as well as improving long-term founder outcomes amongst students they touch (portfolio founders build bigger and more successful companies later in their careers). As more students start companies, there’s likely a positive feedback loop where there’s increasing peer pressure to start a company or lean on friends for founder support (e.g. feedback, advice, etc).Both of these subjects warrant additional study, but it’s likely too early to conduct these analyses today.

Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures have impressive alumni that you will want to track. 1 in 4 alumni partners are founders, and 29% of these founder alumni have raised $1M+ seed rounds for their companies. These include Anjney Midha’s augmented reality startup Ubiquity6 (raised $37M+), Shubham Goel’s investor-focused CRM startup Affinity (raised $13M+), Bruno Faviero’s AI security software startup Synapse (raised $6M+), Amanda Bradford’s dating app The League (raised $2M+), and Dillon Chen’s blockchain startup Commonwealth Labs (raised $1.7M). It makes sense to me that alumni from these communities that decide to start companies have an advantage over their peers — they know what good companies look like and they can tap into powerful networks of young talent / experienced investors.

Beyond Dorm Room Fund and Rough Draft Ventures, some venture capital firms focus on incubation for student-founded startups. Credit should first be given to Lightspeed for producing the amazing Summer Fellows bootcamp experience for promising student founders — after all, Pinterest was built there! Jeremy Liew gives a good overview of the program through his sit-down interview with Afterbox’s Zack Banack. Based on a study they conducted last year, 40% of Lightspeed Summer Fellows alumni are currently active founders. Pear Ventures also has an impressive summer incubator program where 85% of its companies successfully complete a fundraise. Index Ventures is the latest to build an incubator program for student founders, and even accepts founders who want to work on an idea part-time while completing a summer internship.

Let’s now look at students who want to join a startup before founding one. Venture funds have historically looked to tap students for talent, and are expanding the engagement lifecycle. The longest running programs include Kleiner Perkins’<strong class=”m_1196721721246259147gmail-markup–strong m_1196721721246259147gmail-markup–p-strong”> KP Fellows and True Ventures’ TEC Fellows, which focus on placing the next generation’s most promising product managers, engineers, and designers into the portfolio companies of their parent venture funds.

There’s also the secretive Greylock X, a referral-based hand-picked group of the best student engineers in Silicon Valley (among their impressive alumni are founders like Yasyf Mohamedali and Joe Kahn, the folks behind First Round-backed Karuna Health). As these programs have matured, these firms have recognized the long-run value of engaging the alumni of their programs.

More and more alumni are “coming back” to the parent funds as entrepreneurs, like KP Fellow Dylan Field of Figma (and is also hosting a KP Fellow, closing a full circle loop!). Based on their latest data, 10% of KP Fellows alumni are founders — that’s a lot given the fact that their community has grown to 500! This helps explain why Kleiner Perkins has created a structured path to receive $100K in seed funding to companies founded by KP Fellow alumni. It looks like venture funds are beginning to invest in student programs as part of their larger platform strategy, which can have a real impact over the long term (for further reading, see this analysis of platform strategy outcomes by USV’s Bethany Crystal).

KP Fellows in San Francisco

Venture funds are doubling down on student talent engagement — in just the last 18 months, 4 funds have launched student programs. It’s encouraging to see new funds follow in the footsteps of First Round, General Catalyst, Kleiner Perkins, Greylock, and Lightspeed. In 2017, Accel launched their Accel Scholars program to engage top talent at UC Berkeley and Stanford. In 2018, we saw 8VC Fellows, NEA Next, and Floodgate Insiders all launch, targeting elite universities outside of Silicon Valley. Y Combinator implemented Early Decision, which allows student founders to apply one batch early to help with academic scheduling. Most recently, at the start of 2019, First Round launched the Graduate Fund (staffed by Dorm Room Fund alumni) to invest in founders who are recent graduates or young alumni.

Given more time, I’d love to study the rates by which student founders start another company following investments from student scout funds, as well as whether or not they’re more successful in those ventures. In any case, this is an escalation in the number of venture funds that have started to get serious about engaging students — both for talent and dealflow.

Student entrepreneurship 2.0 is here. There are more structured paths to success for students interested in starting or joining a startup. Founders have more opportunities to garner press, seek advice, raise capital, and more. Venture funds are increasingly leveraging students to help improve the three F’s — finding, funding, and fixing. In my personal view, I believe it is becoming more and more important for venture funds to gain mindshare amongst the next generation of founders and operators early, while still in school.

I can’t wait to see what’s next for student entrepreneurship in 2019. If you’re interested in digging in deeper (I’m human — I’m sure I haven’t covered everything related to student entrepreneurship here) or learning more about how you can start or join a startup while still in school, shoot me a note at sxu@dormroomfund.comA massive thanks to Phin Barnes, Rei Wang, Chauncey Hamilton, Peter Boyce, Natalie Bartlett, Denali Tietjen, Eric Tarczynski, Will Robbins, Jasmine Kriston, Alicia Lau, Johnny Hammond, Bruno Faviero, Athena Kan, Shohini Gupta, Alex Immerman, Albert Dong, Phillip Hua-Bon-Hoa, and Trevor Sookraj for your incredible encouragement, support, and insight during the writing of this essay.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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Rebuilding employee philanthropy from the bottom up

Posted by on Aug 26, 2018 in Bill Gates, Bright Funds, Cisco, Cloud, Contently, Enterprise, eventbrite, fundraising, GitHub, giving, Jan Koum, Marc Benioff, Mark Zuckerberg, nicholas woodman, Philanthropy, SaaS, Startups, vmware, Wealthfront, WhatsApp | 0 comments

In tech circles, it would be easy to assume that the world of high-impact charitable giving is a rich man’s game where deals are inked at exclusive black tie galas over fancy hors d’oeuvre. Both Mark Zuckerberg and Marc Benioff have donated to SF hospitals that now bear their names. Gordon Moore has given away $5B – including $600M to Caltech – which was the largest donation to a university at the time. And of course, Bill Gates has already donated $27B to every cause imaginable (and co-founded The Giving Pledge, a consortium of billionaires pledging to donate most of their net worth to charity by the end of their lifetime.)

For Bill, that means he has about $90B left to give.

For the average working American, this world of concierge giving is out of reach, both in check size, and the army of consultants, lawyers and PR strategists that come with it. It seems that in order to do good, you must first do well. Very well.

Bright Funds is looking to change that. Founded in 2012, this SF-based startup is looking to democratize concierge giving to every individual so they “can give with the same effectiveness as Bill and Melinda Gates.” They are doing to philanthropy what Vanguard and Wealthfront have done for asset management for retail investors.

In particular, they are looking to unlock dollars from the underutilized corporate benefit of matching funds for donations, which according to Bright Funds is offered by over 60% of medium to large enterprises, but only used by 13% of employees at these companies. The need for such a service is clear — these programs are cumbersome, transactional, and often offline. Make a donation, submit a receipt, and wait for it to churn through the bureaucratic machine of accounting and finance before matching funds show up weeks later.

Bright Funds is looking to make your company’s matching funds benefit as accessible and important to you as your free lunches or massages. Plus, Bright Funds charges companies per seat, along with a transaction fee to cover the cost of payment processing, sparing employees any expense.

It’s a model that is working. According to Bright Fund’s CEO Ty Walrod, Bright Funds customers see on average a 40% year-over-year increase in funds donated through the platform. More importantly, Bright Funds not only transforms an employee’s relationship to personal philanthropy, but also to the company they work for.

Grassroots Giving

This model of bottoms-up giving is a welcome change from the big foundation model which has recently been rocked by scandal. The Silicon Valley Community Foundation was the go-to foundation for The Who’s Who of Silicon Valley elite. It rode the latest tech boom to become the largest community foundation in eleven short years with generous stock donations from donors like Mark Zuckerberg ($1.8 billion), GoPro’s Nicholas Woodman ($500 million), and WhatsApp co-founder Jan Koum ($566 million). Today, at $13.5 billion, it surpasses the 80+ year old Ford Foundation in endowment size.

However, earlier this year, their star fundraiser Mari Ellen Loijens (credited with raising $8.3B of the $13.5B) was accused of repeatedly bullying and sexually harassing coworkers, allegations that the Foundation had “known about for years” but failed to act upon. In 2017, a similar case occurred when USC’s star fundraiser David Carrera  stepped down on charges of sexual harassment after leading the university’s historic $6 billion fundraising campaign.

While large foundations and endowments do important work, their structure relies too much on whale hunting for big checks, giving an inordinate amount of power to the hands of a small group of talented fund raisers.

This stands in contrast to Bright Funds’ ethos — to lead a grassroots movement in empowering individual employees to make their dollar of giving count.

Rebuilding charitable giving for the platform age

Bright Funds is the latest iteration of a lineup of workplace giving platforms. MicroEdge and Cybergrants paved the way in the 80s and 90s by digitizing the giving experience, but was mainly on-premise, and lacked a focus on user experience. Benevity and YourCause arrived in 2007 to bring workplace giving to the cloud, but they were still not turnkey solutions that could be easily implemented.

Bright Funds started as a consumer platform, and has retained that heritage in its approach to product design, aiming to reduce friction for both employee and company adoption. This is why many of their first customers were midsized tech startups with limited resources and looking for a turnkey solution, including Eventbrite, Box, Github, and Contently . They are now finding their way upmarket into larger, more established enterprises like Cisco, VMWare, Campbell’s Soup Company, and Sunpower.

Bright Funds approach to product has brought a number of innovations to this space.

The first is the concept of a cause-focused “fund.” Similar to a mutual fund or ETF, these funds are portfolios of nonprofits curated by subject-matter experts tailored to a specific cause area (e.g. conservation, education, poverty, etc.). This solves one of the chief concerns of any donor — is my dollar being put to good use towards the causes I care about? Passionate about conservation? Invest with Jim Leape from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, who brings over three decades of conservation experience in choosing the six nonprofits in Bright Fund’s conservation portfolio. This same expertise is available across a number of cause areas.

Additionally, funds can also be created by companies or employees. This has proven to be an important rallying point for emergency relief during natural disasters, where employees at companies can collectively assemble a list of nonprofits to donate to. In 2017, Cisco employees donated $1.8 million (including company matching) through Bright Funds to Hurricanes Harvey, Maria, and Irma as well as the central Mexico earthquakes, the current flooding in India and many more.

The second key feature of their product is the impact timeline, a central news feed to understand where your dollars are going across all your cause areas. This transforms giving from a black box transaction to an ongoing dialogue between you and your charities.

Lastly, Bright Funds wants to take away all the administrative burden that might come with giving and volunteering — everything from tracking your volunteer opportunities and hours, to one-click tax reporting across all your charitable donations. In short, no more shoeboxes of receipts to process through in April.

Doing good & doing well

Although Bright Funds is focused on transforming the individual giving experience, it’s paying customer at the end of the day is the enterprise.

And although it is philanthropic in nature, Bright Funds is not exempt from the procurement gauntlet that every enterprise software startup faces — what’s in it for the customer? What impact does workplace giving and volunteering have on culture and the bottom line?

To this end, there is evidence to show that corporate social responsibility has a an impact on recruiting the next generation of workers. A study by Horizon Media found that 81% of millennials expect their companies to be good corporate citizens. A separate 2015 study found that 62% of millennials said they’d take a pay cut to work for a company that’s socially responsible.

Box, one of Bright Fund’s early customers, has seen this impact on recruiting firsthand (disclosure: Box is one of my former employers). Like most tech companies competing for talent in the Valley, Box used to give out lucrative bonuses for candidate referrals. They recently switched to giving out $500 in Bright Funds gift credit. Instead of seeing employee referrals dip, Box saw referrals “skyrocket,” according to Box.org Executive Director Bryan Breckenridge. This program has now become “one of the most cherished cultural traditions at Box,” he said.

Additionally, like any corporate benefit, there should be metrics tied to employee retention. Benevity released a study of 2 million employees across 118 companies on their platform that showed a 57% reduction in turnover for employees engaged in corporate giving or volunteering efforts. VMware, one of Bright Fund’s customers, has seen an astonishing 82% of their 22,000 employees participate in their Citizen Philanthropy program of giving and volunteering, according to VMware Foundation Director Jessa Chin. Their full-time voluntary turnover rate (8%) is well below the software industry average of 13.2%.

Towards a Brighter Future

Bright Funds still has a lot of work to do. CEO Walrod says that one of his top priorities is to expand the platform beyond US charities, finding ways to evaluate and incorporate international nonprofits.

They have also not given up their dream of becoming a truly consumer platform, perhaps one day competing in the world of donor-advised funds, which today is largely dominated by big names like Fidelity and Schwab who house over $85B of assets. In the short term, Walrod wants to make every Bright Funds account similar to a 401K account. It goes wherever you work, and is a lasting record of the causes you care about, and the time and resources you’ve invested in them.

Whether the impetus is altruism around giving or something more utilitarian like retention, companies are increasingly realizing that their employees represent a charitable force that can be harnessed for the greater good. Bright Funds has more work to do like any startup, but it is empowering the next set of donors who can give with the same effectiveness as Gates, and one day, at the same scale as him as well.


Source: The Tech Crunch

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