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Lux Capital’s Deena Shakir sees space and frontier tech going mainstream right now

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Deena Shakir joined Lux Capital as a partner last year after spending seven years with Google, the last of them with GV, Google’s venture unit.

While Shakir seems to fit right in with the firm — known for its wealth of PhDs and moonshot investments — venture wasn’t something she was focused on as a career, as she told us during a lengthy interview last week. An Iraqi-American who grew up in Silicon Valley after her parents immigrated to the region, Shakir put herself through both Harvard, then Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service through a mix of merit scholarships and work and thought she might become a doctor or nab a PhD in anthropology.

Instead, an internship with the BBC saw her cover an historic White House speech, which led her to spend more than two years at the State Department, working for then Secretary Clinton. When she later headed home to be with her family, she was aware that she wanted to make an impact; she didn’t foresee making it through her investments, yet that’s what’s now happening.

If you don’t know Shakir, it’s worth listening to our conversation here at some point; in the meantime, here are some lightly edited excerpts that shine a light on where she is placing her bets and why.

TC: Lux is known for investing in rocket companies and satellites, though its website actually lists 21 different industries in its portfolio. Did the firm’s deals arise from these industries that interest the firm or because of teams that interest the firm and that happen to operate in these industries? 

DS: I actually find some of this industry categorization as problematic because if you look through the portfolio, you’ll see we love healthcare, meats, robotics, AI, food production, industrial IoT, and data meets FinTech. It really is intersectional in terms of how we approach industries; that’s the nature of how we think about investing. But in terms of how we think about where we want to make investments, we certainly have areas where historically we’ve spent a lot of time that have given us insights into where there are white spaces [such as having worked on] autonomous vehicles and having insights through that experience into the types of software platforms that could power the next generation of autonomy. So there’s definitely a lot of generational and evolutionary investing.

TC: Last week, Lux participated in the seed round a startup called Varda that is centered around manufacturing in space. What is it trying to make in space and why?

DS: There are few companies that I think would be perceived as more of a Lux fit than Varda. We pride ourselves on companies that turns science fiction into fact [including in the] space space. We were in Relativity Space; we’re in a number of satellite companies — Orbital Insight and Planet and several others.

But this is not only a space that we’re interested in, but also the founding team is one that we’ve had the chance to get to know over time and felt very strongly about. It is not an intuitive company, which is probably part of the reason why you might be asking about it, like: what exactly do they do, right? At the end of the day, it’s quite early, but they’re working on two things that we really love — manufacturing and space — abd there are some really interesting innovations that we’re just at the very beginning of understanding their application in space [including around] physical processes and the supply chain. And this team is at the forefront of taking those on.

TC: Is it going to be manufacturing carbon nanotubes in space to take to the ISS? What’s the need it’s addressing?

DK: At the end of the day, the need is around cost and supply chain. It’s still extremely expensive to launch anything into orbit — we’re talking tens of millions of dollars if not more. That’s the key problem that they want to solve. Manufacturing in space is the hypothesis here. And they have some fascinating and confidential, at this point, hypotheses as to how they will be able to do that.

TC: Is there enough later-stage funding for companies that will need a lot of capital? Lux is now managing $2.5 billion in assets, after raising $1 billion last year. But some space investors say there is not [enough to go around] partly because there haven’t yet been enough liquidity events.

DK: That’s interesting, because we got excited about what we now call frontier tech before that was really a category — certainly before it had any venture-return profile. Now, it’s becoming increasingly clear that frontier tech is no longer at the frontier. It’s becoming a key part of many large enterprises. And we’re seeing huge companies producing rockets en masse. We’re seeing private companies launch rockets into space and collaborate with NASA. We’re also seeing venture-funded companies that previously sounded like science fiction that are approaching just phenomenal valuations. So it does seem like we’re at a turning point here. If you take a look at the cap tables [of] these types of companies, you’ll see players that may not necessarily have taken those types of bets earlier on.

TC: One of your bets is Shiru, which is leveraging computational design to create enhanced proteins to help feed the world. What does it say about your interests and process?

DS: I spent a lot of time, especially at GV, with some of the alternative protein companies in our portfolio. And a big part of what I’ve done since my days in government, and certainly throughout my time at Google, has been talking to commercial partners, Fortune 500 companies, and understanding what their needs are. A big part of my role at GV was helping to plug in these large, behemoth companies with up-and-coming tech companies and help them to meet the innovation demands that they have, and that’s a large part of where my thesis came from.

I genuinely believe that there is a huge opportunity in food that enables these Fortune 500 food companies to meet the increasing demands from consumers, environmental demands, and cost demands [related to] animal-based ingredients. Shiru’s approach is an interesting one because they are taking a business model that has worked quite well in pharma . . .in enabling the production of novel IP. In this case, [it’s] novel plant-based proteins, using machine learning and computational biology and actually licensing it to these food companies so they can go on to produce their own versions of the Impossible Burger or Beyond Meat or simply replace a costly animal-based ingredient in one of their products.

TC: Another of your deals is AllStripes, which aggregates and analyzes medical records, then sells the de identified data to pharma companies to help them develop medicines. So the common thread is machine learning?

DS: Yes, so for me, it’s about machine learning AI that’s streamlining a really analog industry, whether it’s education, whether it’s finance, whether it’s food, and certainly healthcare, where I spend the majority of my time.

TC: What are some of the areas you’re digging into?

DK: Within healthcare, specifically, I am spending a lot of time looking at women’s health and within women’s health. I am looking a lot at fertility tech, and I’ve seen everything from robotic cryo storage to embryo selection to consumerized clinics for IVF. And it’s definitely an interesting market and one that’s growing, especially if you look more broadly at demographic trends in terms of women having children later in life, as well as what we’re seeing in terms of IVF rates and other countries as well.

I’m a mother of two young kids and had some pretty scary medical experiences myself with with both of their births, and that definitely inspired a look into that space as a patient, but also one where I think there’s really been underinvestment. I get really frustrated when I hear anyone talk about women’s health as niche, there is nothing niche about it. From the pure numbers perspective, [women] represents obviously half the population. But women also account for over 80% of dollars spent in healthcare and so companies that are focused on women in the healthcare space are also excellent wedges into other areas.

So outside of those areas in women’s health, I’m looking at menopause and at aging in place for anyone across the gender spectrum. Mental health is a huge one, too. I come from a family of physicians. My father is a psychiatrist. In fact, that’s the reason I grew up in the Bay Area. He came to Stanford in the ’70s for his residency in psychiatry and I’ve had a lifelong fascination with mental health. In fact, like many children of immigrants, for a hot minute I thought I was going to be a doctor myself and and even interned with VA’s psychiatry department right before going to college.

Part of why I get excited about it is because it is one of the fields in medicine that’s still so untouched by tech — certainly on the data side in terms of being slow to adopt EHRs. On the diagnostic and therapeutic side, there have been some really interesting non-pharmacological interventions for mental health, like TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), but it has been elusive to attack and, of course, it’s top of mind for many folks right now with the mental health burden on everyone at the pandemic. So we’re seeing a lot of really interesting novel approaches emerge, as well as tailwinds propelling some companies that have been around for a while in a space.

TC: Lux actually formed a $345 million health-care focused SPAC, or special purpose acquisition company, in October. Is that one of many to come and also, is the idea to perhaps back a company that Lux has funded earlier in time or an outfit it has no association with whatsoever?

DS: We believe that SPACs are really powerful for companies that have an exciting big story to tell and whose value isn’t necessarily best evaluated by looking in the rearview mirror. And given the changing nature of health care, particularly given everything the pandemic has done, it’s a particularly salient and interesting opportunity for health care.

We’ve have gotten some really interesting inbound from some of the top companies in the healthcare space. As you can imagine, it’s just a very, very interesting time for healthcare. We’re not looking at our own portfolio companies. But a number of our companies are going down that path, and we’re encouraging them to [pursue it].

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

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How fintech and serial founders drove African pre-seed investing to new heights in 2020

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When Stripe-subsidiary Paystack raised its seed round of $1.3 million in 2016, it was one of the largest disclosed rounds at that stage in Nigeria. 

At the time, seven-figure seed investments in African startups were a rarity. But over the years, those same seed-stage rounds have become more common, with some very early-stage startups even raising eight-figure sums. Nigerian fintech startup, Kuda, which bagged $10 million last year, comes to mind, for example.

Also notable amidst the growth in seven and eight-figure African seed deals have been gains in pre-seed fundraising. Typically, pre-seed rounds are raised when the startup is still in the product development phase, yet to make revenue or discover product-market fit. These investments are usually made by third-party investors (friends and family), and range between $25,000-$150,000.

But the narrative as to how much an early-stage African startup can raise as pre-seed has changed. 

Last year, African VCs who usually fund seed and Series A rounds began partaking in pre-seed rounds, and they don’t seem to be slowing down. Just a month into 2021,  Egyptian fintech startup Cassbana raised a $1 million pre-seed investment led by VC firm Disruptech in a bid to drive expansion within the country.

So why the sudden change in appetite from investors?

Andreata Muforo is a partner at TLcom Capital, a pan-African early-stage VC firm. She told TechCrunch that last year’s run of 23 pre-seed rounds (10 of which were $150,000+ deals) per Briter Bridges data, was due to the confidence investors had in the market, especially fintech.

Startups building financial infrastructure got noticed

While most African pre-seed investments in 2020 went to fintech, there were exceptions, including Egyptian edtech startup Zedny, which raised $1.2 million; Nigerian automotive tech startup Autochek Africa, which raised $3.4 million; and Nigerian talent startup TalentQL, which raised $300,000. 

Just as Paystack and Flutterwave built payment infrastructure for thousands of African businesses, these fintech startups are trying to make their mark in the sweet spots of credit and banking. 

“Fintech is compelling. But while most fintech startups play around the commodities side of fintech, it’s the companies building infrastructure around the market that got most of the pre-seed validation last year,” Muforo said. Her firm, TLcom, led the $1 million pre-seed investment in Okra.

Okra is an API fintech startup. So are Mono, OnePipe and Pngme. They are building Africa’s API infrastructure that connects bank accounts with financial institutions and third-party companies for different purposes. Within the past 18 months, Mono and Pngme raised $500,000, while OnePipe raised $950,000 in pre-seed.

It is noteworthy that while these startups are clamoring to solve Africa’s open API banking issues, three of the four deals came after Visa’s $5.3 billion acquisition of Plaid last year in January.

Although the Visa-Plaid acquisition has now been called off, it is safe to say some African investors developed FOMO, handing out sizable checks to fund “Africa’s Plaid” in the process.

Digital lenders remain one of their most important customers for fintech API startups. They can access customers’ financial accounts to understand their spending patterns and know who to loan to.

Egypt’s Shahry and Nigeria’s Evolve Credit are fintech startups building credit infrastructure for their markets. Evolve Credit connects digital lenders to those who need loan services in Nigeria via its online loan marketplace. Shahry, on the other hand, employs an AI-based credit scoring engine so users in Egypt can apply for credit. The pair also secured impressive pre-seed funding — Evolve Credit, $325,000, and Shahry, $650,000.

A recurring theme: Serial founders

Muforo points out that aside from startups building fintech infrastructure, the caliber of founders was another reason pre-seed funding peaked last year.

Adewale Yusuf, co-founder and CEO of TalentQL, a startup that hires, manages and outsources talent for Nigerian and global companies, seemed to agree. He told TechCrunch that trust between the VCs and founders involved played a major role in most pre-seed rounds last year. 

“It wasn’t surprising that a lot of investors put money in pre-seed rounds. I say this because we also saw existing founders and serial entrepreneurs coming back to the market. To me, these founders’ credibility was a major part of why those rounds were large,” he said.

A second-time founder himself, Yusuf is the co-founder of Nigerian tech media publication Techpoint Africa. His partner at TalentQL, Opeyemi Awoyemi, is also a serial entrepreneur. He co-founded Ringier One Africa Media-owned Jobberman, one of Africa’s most popular recruitment platforms.

According to Adedayo Amzat, founder of Zedcrest Capital, which is the lead investor in TalentQL’s round, the founders’ experience proved vital in closing the deal. 

He says investors are more comfortable backing experienced founders in pre-seed rounds because they have a more mature understanding of the problems they’re trying to solve. So, in essence, they tend to raise more capital.

“If you look at pre-seed sizes, experienced founders can demand a significant premium over first-time founders,” Amzat said. “Pre-seed valuation cap for first-time founders will typically be between 400K to $1 million while we frequently see up to $5 million for experienced founders.” 

It was a recurring theme last year. Yele Bademosi, who runs Microtraction, a West African early-stage VC firm, is the CEO of Bundle Africa, a Nigerian-based crypto-exchange startup that raised $450,000 in April 2020. 

Shahry co-founders Sherif ElRakabawy and Mohamed Ewis also run Egypt’s largest shopping engine and price comparison website, Yaoota.

Mono co-founder and CEO Abdulhamid Hassan was the co-founder of Nigerian fintech startup OyaPay and data science startup Voyance. Also, Etop Ikpe, the co-founder and CEO of Autochek Africa, was CEO of DealDey and Cars45.

That said, Fara Ashiru Jituboh of Okra and Akan Nelson of Evolve Credit as first-time founders got investments that most of their counterparts would only dream of. For Jituboh, her solid tech background spoke for her — boasting a senior software engineering job at Pexels and engineering consultant role at Canva before founding Okra.

“We backed Fara because she’s a strong tech founder. When you look at the core of what Okra does as a tech-heavy company, you see how important it was to make the decision,” Muforo said about backing Okra’s CEO and CTO.

Nelson also told TechCrunch that his finance background helped Evolve Credit raise its six-figure sum. The team’s bullishness on finding product-market fit and the potential of Africa’s loan marketplace was also enough to bring foreign and local VCs like Samurai Incubate, Future Africa, Ingressive Capital and Microtraction on board.

While early-stage investments in African startups haven’t reached full speed, the explosion in the number of angel investors has lowered entry barriers into early-stage investing. 

Now investors are beginning to show readiness toward African startups that have promise as they continue to search for the next Paystack. 

“More people are willing to take risks now in the market, especially angel investors. They can easily let go of $10K-$50K because of success stories like Paystack,” Yusuf said about the $200 million acquisition by U.S. payments startup Stripe

For all of its significance to the African tech ecosystem, what particularly stands out about Paystack’s exit is the return on investment made for early investors.

By the time it exited in October 2020, some angel investors had an ROI of more than 1,400% according to Jason Njoku in his blog post. Njoku, who took part in the round as an angel investor, is the CEO of IROKO, a Nigerian VOD internet company.

For Muforo, witnessing more early-stage investments is a big deal, one the African tech ecosystem should savor regardless of the round in question.

“Pre-seed or seed are just names investors and founders give. They can basically mean the same thing, in my opinion,” she said. “What I think is most important is the fact that we’re getting more early-stage capital into Africa, and startups are getting more attention from investors, which is fantastic.”

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Is anything too big to be SPAC’d?

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While many deemed 2020 the year of SPAC, short for special purpose acquisition company, 2021 may well make last year look quaint in comparison.

It’s probably not premature to be asking: is anything too big to be SPAC’d?

Just today, we saw the trading debut of the most valuable company to date go public through a merger with one of these SPACs: 35-five-year-old, Pontiac, Michigan-based United Wholesale Mortgage, which is among the biggest mortgage companies in the U.S.

Its shares slipped a bit by the end of trading, closing at $11.35 down from their starting price of $11.54, but it’s doubtful anyone involved is crying into their cocktails tonight. The outfit was valued at a whopping $16 billion when its merger with the blank-check outfit Gores Holdings IV was approved earlier this week.

Why is this interesting? Well, first, despite UWM’s size, unlike with a traditional IPO that can require 12 to 18 months of preparation, UWM’s path to going public took less than a year, beginning with Gores Holdings IV completing its IPO in late January 2020 and raising approximately $425 million in cash.

Alec Gores, the billionaire founder of of the private equity firm Gores Group, led the deal. It isn’t clear when Gores approached UWM, but the tie-up was announced back in September and ultimately included a $500 million private placement. (It’s typical to tack-on these transactions once a target company has been identified and accepts the terms of the proposed merger. Most targets are many times larger than the SPACs. In fact, according to law firm Vinson & Elkins, there’s no maximum size of a target company.)

Also notable is that UWM is a mature company, one that says it generated $1.3 billion in revenue in the third quarter of last year alone. UWM CEO Mat Ishbia, whose father started the company in 1986, said last fall that the company is “massively profitable.”

It’s a story unlike that of many other outfits to go public recently through the SPAC process. Many — Opendoor, Luminar Technologies, Virgin Galactic — are still developing businesses that need capital to keep going and which might not have found much more from private market investors. Indeed, today’s deal would seem to open up a new world of possibilities, and for companies of all sizes.

Either way, it isn’t likely to hold the record for ‘biggest SPAC deal ever’ for long. Not only is interest in SPACs as feverish as ever, billionaire investor William Ackman is still sitting on a $4 billion SPAC to which he has said he’ll throw in an additional $1 billion in cash from his hedge fund, Pershing Square Capital.

You can bet the deal will be a doozy. Reportedly, Ackerman was at one point looking to take public Airbnb with his SPAC, which began trading in July. When Airbnb passed on the proposed merger, he reportedly reached out to the privately held media conglomerate Bloomberg (which Bloomberg has said is untrue).

Because SPACs typically complete a merger with a private company in two years or less, speculation continues to run rampant about what Ackman will put together. In the meantime, there have already been 59 new SPAC offerings this year — as many as in all of 2019 — that have raised $16.8 billion, and there’s seemingly no end in sight.

Just this week, Fifth Wall Ventures, the four-year-old, L.A.-based proptech focused venture firm, registered plans to raise $250 million for a new blank-check company.

Intel Chairman Omar Ishrak, who previously ran medical device giant Medtronic, is planning to raise between $750 million and $1 billion for a blank-check firm targeting deals in the health tech sector, Bloomberg reported on Sunday.

Gores Group isn’t done, either. On Wednesday, it registered plans to raise $400 million in an IPO for its newest blank check company. It will be the outfit’s seventh to date.

There are now so many companies to go public through a SPAC exchange-traded funds are beginning to pop up, putting together baskets of SPAC deals for investors who want to hedge their bets.

The very newest fund, reported on earlier this week by the WSJ and overseen by hedge fund Morgan Creek Capital Management and  fintech company Exos Financial, will be actively managed and snap up stakes in firms that recently went public by merging with a SPAC, as well as shell companies that are still on the prowl.

It will be joining the world’s first actively managed exchange-traded fund focused on SPACs, the Calgary-based Accelerate Arbitrage Fund, which launched in April of last year.

A second ETF, the Defiance NextGen Derived SPAC ETF, emerged in October.

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Daily Crunch: Alphabet shuts down Loon

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Alphabet pulls the plug on its internet balloon company, Apple is reportedly developing a new MacBook Air and Google threatens to pull out of Australia. This is your Daily Crunch for January 22, 2021.

The big story: Alphabet shuts down Loon

Alphabet announced that it’s shutting down Loon, the project that used balloons to bring high-speed internet to more remote parts of the world.

Loon started out under Alphabet’s experimental projects group X, before spinning out as a separate company in 2018. Despite some successful deployments, it seems that Loon was never able to find a sustainable business model.

“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,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

The tech giants

Apple reportedly planning thinner and lighter MacBook Air with MagSafe charging — The plan is reportedly to release the new MacBook Air as early as late 2021 or 2022.

Google threatens to close its search engine in Australia as it lobbies against digital news code — Google is dialing up its lobbying against draft legislation intended to force it to pay news publishers.

Cloudflare introduces free digital waiting rooms for any organizations distributing COVID-19 vaccines — The goal is to help health agencies and organizations tasked with rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to maintain a fair, equitable and transparent digital queue.

Startups, funding and venture capital

‘Slow dating’ app Once is acquired by Dating Group for $18M as it seeks to expand its portfolio — Once has 9 million users on its platform, with an additional 1 million users from a spin-out app called Pickable.

MotoRefi raises $10M to keep pedal on auto refinancing growth — CEO Kevin Bennett sees the opportunity to service Americans who collectively hold $1.2 trillion in auto loans.

Backed by Vint Cerf, Emortal wants to protect your digital legacy from ‘bit-rot’ —  Emortal is a startup that wants to help you organize, protect, preserve and pass on your “digital legacy” and protect it from becoming unreadable.

Advice and analysis from Extra Crunch

How VCs invested in Asia and Europe in 2020 — The unicorns are feasting.

End-to-end operators are the next generation of consumer business — VC firm Battery has tracked seismic shifts in how consumer purchasing behavior has changed over the years.

Drupal’s journey from dorm-room project to billion-dollar exit — Twenty years ago, Drupal and Acquia founder Dries Buytaert was a college student at the University of Antwerp.

(Extra Crunch is our membership program, which helps founders and startup teams get ahead. You can sign up here.)

Everything else

UK resumes privacy oversight of adtech, warns platform audits are coming — The U.K.’s data watchdog has restarted an investigation of adtech practices that, since 2018, have been subject to scores of complaints under GDPR.

Boston Globe will consider people’s requests to have articles about them anonymized — It’s reminiscent of the EU’s “right to be forgotten,” though potentially less controversial.

The Daily Crunch is TechCrunch’s roundup of our biggest and most important stories. If you’d like to get this delivered to your inbox every day at around 3pm Pacific, you can subscribe here.

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