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Enterprise investor Jason Green on SPAC hopefuls versus startups bound for traditional IPOs

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Jason Green has a pretty solid reputation as venture capitalists go. The enterprise-focused firm the cofounded 17 years ago, Emergence Capital, has backed Saleforce, Box, and Zoom, among many other companies, and even while every firm is now investing in software-as-a-service startups, his remains a go-to for many top founders selling business products and services.

To learn more about the trends impacting Green’s slice of the investing universe, we talked with him late last week about everything from SPACs to valuations to how the firm differentiates itself from the many rivals with which it’s now competing. Below are some outtakes edited lightly for length.

TC: What do you make of the assessment that SPACs for companies that aren’t generating enough revenue to go public the traditional route?

JG: Well, yeah, it’ll be really interesting. This has been quite a year for SPACs, right? I can’t remember the number, but it’s been something like $50 billion of capital raised this year in SPACs, and all of those have to put that money to work within the next 12 to 18 months or they give it back. So there’s this incredible pent-up demand to find opportunities for those SPACs to convert into companies. And the companies that are at top of the charts, the ones that are the high growth and profitable companies, will probably do a traditional IPO, I would imagine.

So [SPAC candidates are] going to be companies that are growing fast enough to be attractive as a potential public company but not top of the charts. So I do think [sponsors are] going to target companies that are probably either growing slightly slower than the top-quartile public companies but slightly profitable, or companies that are growing faster but still burning a lot of cash and might actually scare all the traditional IPO investors.

TC: Are you having conversations with CEOs about whether or not they should pursue this avenue?

JG:  We just started having those conversations now. There are several companies in the portfolio that will probably be public companies in the next year or two, so it’s definitely an alternative to consider. I would say there’s nothing impending I see in the portfolio. With most entrepreneurs, there’s a little bit of this dream of going public the traditional way, where SPACs tend to be a little bit less exciting from that perspective. So for a company that maybe is thinking about another private round before going public, it’s like a private-plus round. I would say it’s a tweener, so the companies that are considering it are probably ones that are not quite ready to go public yet.

TC: A lot of the SPAC fundraising has seemed like a reaction to uncertainty around when the public window might close. With the election behind us, do you think there’s less uncertainty?

JG: I don’t think risk and uncertainty has decreased since the election.There’s still uncertainty right now politically. The pandemic has reemerged in a significant way, even though we have some really good announcements recently regarding vaccines or potential vaccines. So there’s just a lot there’s a lot of potential directions things could head in.

It’s an environment generally where the public markets tend to gravitate more toward higher-quality opportunities, so fewer companies but higher quality,  and that’s where I think SPACs could play a role. I’d say first half of next year, I could easily see SPACs being the more likely go-to-market for a public company, then the latter half of next year, once the vaccines have kicked in and people feel like we’re returning to somewhat normal, I could see the traditional IPO coming back.

TC: When we sat down in person about a year ago, you said Emergence looks at maybe 1,000 deals a year, does deep due diligence on 25, and funds just a handful or so of these startups every year. How has that changed in 2020?

JG: I would say that over the last five years, we’ve made almost a total transition. Now we’re very much a data-driven, thesis-driven outbound firm, where we’re reaching out to entrepreneurs soon after they’ve started their companies or gotten seed financing. The last three investments that we made were all relationships that [date back] a year to 18 months before we started engaging in the actual financing process with them. I think that’s what’s required to build a relationship and the conviction, because financings are happening so fast.

I think we’re going to actually do more investments this year than we maybe ever done in the history of the firm, which is amazing to me [considering] COVID. I think we’ve really honed our ability to build this pipeline and have conviction, and then in this market environment, Zoom is actually helping expand the landscape that we’re willing to invest in. We’re probably seeing 50% to 100% more companies and trying to whittle them down over time and really focus on the 20 to 25 that we want to dig deep on as a team.

TC: For founders trying to understand your thinking, what’s interesting to you right now?

JG: We tend to focus on three major themes at any one time as a firm, and one we’ve termed ‘coaching networks’. This is this intersection between AI and machine learning and human interaction. Companies like [the sales engagement platform] SalesLoft or [the knowledge management system] Guru or Drishti [which sells video analytics for manual factory assembly lines] fall into this category, where it’s really intelligent software going deep into a specific functional area and unleashing data in a way that’s never been available before.

The second [theme] is going deep into more specific industry verticals. Veeva was the best example of this early on with with healthcare and life sciences, but we now have one called p44 in the transportation space that’s doing incredibly well. Doximity is in the healthcare space and going deep like a LinkedIn for physicians, with some remote health capabilities, as well. And then [lending company] Blend, which is in the financial services area. These companies are taking cloud software and just going deep into the most important problems of their industries.

The third them [centers around] remote work. Zoom, which has obviously has been [among our] best investments is almost as a platform, just like Salesforce became a platform after many years. We just funded a company called ClassEDU, which is a Zoom-specific offering for the education market. Snowflake is becoming a platform. So another opportunity is is not just trying to come up with another collaboration tool, but really going deep into a specific use case or vertical.

TC: What’s a company you’ve missed in recent years and were any lessons learned?

JG: We have our hall of shame. [Laughs.] I do think it’s dangerous to assume that things would have turned out the same if if we had been investors in the company. I believe the kinds of investors you put around the table make a difference in terms of the outcome of your company, so I try not beat myself up too much on the missed opportunities because maybe they found a better fit or a better investor for them to be successful.

But Rob Bernshteyn of Coupa is one where I knew Rob from SuccessFactors [where he was a product marketing VP], and I just always respected and liked him. And we always chasing it on valuation. And I think I think we probably turned it down at an $80 million or $100 million dollar valuation [and it’s valued at] $20 billion today. That can keep you up at night.

Sometimes, in the moment, there are some risks and concerns about the business and there are other people who are willing to be more aggressive and so you lose out on some of those opportunities. The beautiful thing about our business is that it’s not a zero-sum game.

Lyron Foster is a Hawaii based African American Musician, Author, Actor, Blogger, Filmmaker, Philanthropist and Multinational Serial Tech Entrepreneur.

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Elon Musk is donating $100M to find the best carbon capture technology

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Elon Musk said Thursday via a tweet that he will donate $100 million toward a prize for the best carbon capture technology.

Musk, who recently surpassed Amazon’s Jeff Bezos to become the world’s richest person, didn’t provide any more details except to add in an accompanying tweet the “details will come next week.” It’s unclear if this is a contribution to another organization that is putting together a prize such as the Xprize or if this is another Musk-led production.

The broad definition of carbon capture and storage is as the name implies. Waste carbon dioxide emitted at a refinery or factory is captured at the source and then stored in an aim to remove the potential harmful byproduct from the environment and mitigate climate change. It’s not a new pursuit and numerous companies have popped up over the past two decades with varying means of achieving the same end goal.

The high upfront cost to carbon capture and storage or sequestration (CCS) has been a primary hurdle for the technology. However, there are companies that have found promise in carbon capture and utilization — a cousin to CCS in which the collected emissions are then converted to other more valuable uses.

For instance, LanzaTech has developed technology that captures waste gas emissions and uses bacteria to turn it into useable ethanol fuel. A bioreactor is used to convert into liquids captured and compressed waste emissions from a steel mill or factory or any other emissions-producing enterprises. The core technology of LanzaTech is a bacteria that likes to eat these dirty gas streams. As the bacteria eats the emissions it essentially ferments them and emits ethanol. The ethanol can then be turned into various products. LanzaTech is spinning off businesses that specialize in a different product. The company has created a spin-off called LanzaJet and is working on other possible products such as converting ethanol to ethylene, which is used to make polyethylene for bottles and PEP for fibers used to make clothes.

Other examples include Climeworks and Carbon Engineering.

Climeworks, a Swiss startup, specializes in direct air capture. Direct air capture uses filters to grab carbon dioxide from the air. The emissions are then either stored or sold for other uses, including fertilizer or even to add bubbles found in soda-type drinks. Carbon Engineering is a Canadian company that removes carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and processes it for use in enhanced oil recovery or even to create new synthetic fuels.

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Chinese esports player VSPN closes $60M Series B+ round to boost its international strategy

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eSports “total solutions provider” VSPN (Versus Programming Network) has closed a $60 million Series B+ funding round, joined by Prospect Avenue Capital (PAC), Guotai Junan International, and Nan Fung Group.

VSPN facilitates esports competitions in China, which is a massive industry and has expanded into related areas such as esports venues. It is the principal tournament organizer and broadcaster for a number of top competitions, partnering with more than 70% of China’s eSports tournaments.

The “B+” funding round comes only three months after the company raised around $100 million in a Series B funding round, led by Tencent Holdings.

This funding round will, among other things, be used to branch out VSPN’s overseas esports services.

Dino Ying, Founder, and CEO of VSPN said in a statement: “The esports industry is through its nascent phase and is entering a new era. In this coming year, we at VSPN look forward to showcasing diversified esports products and content… and we are counting the days until the pandemic is over.”

Ming Liao, the co-founder of PAC, commented: “As a one-of-its-kind company in the capital market, VSPN is renowned for its financial management; these credentials will be strong foundations for VSPN’s future development.”

Xuan Zhao, Head of Private Equity at Guotai Junan International said: “We at Guotai Junan International are very optimistic of VSPN’s sharp market insight as well as their team’s exceptional business model.”

Meng Gao, Managing Director at Nan Fung Group’s CEO’s Office said: “Nan Fung is honored to be a part of this round of investment for VSPN in strengthening their current business model and promoting the rapid development of emerging services and the esports streaming ecosystem.”

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Google’s parent firm is shutting down Loon connectivity project

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Google’s parent firm Alphabet is done exploring with the idea of using giant balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

The firm said on Thursday evening that it was winding down Loon after failing to find a sustainable business model and willing partners. The demise of Loon comes a year after Android-maker ended Google Station, its other major connectivity effort. Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.

That said, Alphabet’s move is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from the government of Kenya to launch first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services in Kenya — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.

Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — otherwise, the two firms are going to have to answer some difficult feasibility questions of their own in the future.

“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” said Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.

“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The blog post, which makes no mention of what will happen to Loon’s existing operations in Kenya, characterised Loon’s connectivity effort as successful. “The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.

More to follow…

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