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The biggest exit for this L.A. venture firm may wind up being . . . canned water

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Earlier this week, Science Inc, the 10-year-old, L.A.-based incubator and venture firm, rolled out a blank-check company onto the Nasdaq, raising $270 million for what firm founders Peter Pham and Mike Jones say will be used to take public a company in the mobile, entertainment or direct-to-consumer service space — or maybe one that combines all three.

If they have one of their own portfolio companies in mind to take public, they wouldn’t say in conversation yesterday. Science would have some interesting candidates from which to choose if so. It helped incubate the amateur esports platform PlayVS after Pham met its founder, Delane Parnell, on a dance floor at a South by Southwest festival. It’s also an investor in Bird, the micro-mobility company that is reportedly working with Credit Suisse to strike a deal with a blank-check company. And it helped create and grow Liquid Death, a company with a tongue-in-cheek marketing strategy that’s selling mountain water in aluminum cans — a lot of it, says Pham.

Indeed, we spent much of our time with the duo talking about how to create a powerful consumer brand in 2021 when so many are vying for attention over the same, saturated platforms. More from that talk follows, edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: You have this new blank-check company. You’re about to start talking with potential targets. Will you consider a company that you’ve incubated or else funded at Science?

MJ: No. So the SPAC is an independent entity. We think that there’s a universe of well over 100 companies that would fit the credentials of what we’re looking for within the stack. Some of those companies, we may or may not have investment exposure [to them], but the process of analysis is independent of the Science portfolio.

TC: So you wouldn’t rule it out.

MJ: We have independent directors. So there’s a different process that would go through if we were looking at a company in the portfolio. But right now we’re just aggregating the right universe of potential targets. And then we’ll go through a formal process on it.

TC: What are the metrics you want to see? You are specialists, including in direct-to-consumer companies. Do the companies that you’re targeting have to be profitable?

MJ: When we look at the different, potential companies that we’re interested in, we’re not saying that they have to have some specific level of profitability or specific level of revenue . . . We don’t expose the the core metrics and revenue drivers that we think make for successful companies within sectors. But we’re a super data-focused team. We’re very much on the forefront of next-generation Gen Z and millennial-oriented marketing. And there are very specific things we look for that we think may build breakout brands.

TC: Both of you know the social media space. There are new social media plays that are gaining a lot of attention, such as Clubhouse. Back to your core business at Science, are there any investments in those areas in that area that you’re looking at?

PP: A decade ago is when YouTube became a platform for marketing. Then six of seven years ago, Instagram [became a platform for marketing]. And then Snapchat came along, and then all of a sudden Instagram stories [emerged], and then TikTok and now another platform, which is Clubhouse. There’s always something new coming around the corner.

You can’t take your eye off of Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, but Clubhouse is real. It’s almost radio, but it’s participatory. If you go to South by Southwest, it’s almost like SWSX panels around the clock. There’s this really interesting dynamic where you could be in crowd, raise your hand, and if they pull you up on stage, now you’re part of the panel. That’s why a lot of people are there — for the chance of getting discovered [and] the chance of letting their voice be heard by a larger audience.

TC: What makes you think its growth is sustainable?

PP: The moment marketers join a platform [you know]. When real marketers, people who are selling classes on how to make money, how to have real estate, how to make money [selling] real estate, that type of marketing — when [they show up], it’s an arbitrage. It’s basically very smart people who make a lot of money realizing for that every minute they spend doing this, it’s more valuable in terms of ROI, customer acquisition cost, and revenue, than spending time on this other thing that everyone else is on.

TC: How do your portfolio companies use these platforms in 2021? You are investors in Liquid Death. You helped incubate MeUndies, a subscription underwear company that raised saw $40 million late last year. You were involved in the early days of Dollar Shave Club. How do you break through the noise with things like water, underwear and razors?

PP: Platforms are always just a springboard. You can’t rely on these places long term because the rules of the game change, the feed changes. Ten years ago, when we launched Dollar Shave Club, we had on the homepage an autoplay of this YouTube video that was just about driving customers to buy something. At the time, no one thought about posting YouTube videos to get somebody to buy something. MeUndies [used] Instagram. Who would imagine subscription underwear? But every month, there’s a holiday — Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day. What if there was something interesting and fun that you could wear?

With Liquid Death, it’s still very much [focused on] Instagram and now probably TikTok. But in all cases, the brand has to be worthy for somebody to talk about what’s interesting about it and even to defend it.

Mike underplays our data side, but we measure incessantly everything that’s happening in terms of the each one of our businesses, including their social reach, their engagements, business retention, how often customers are coming back, how much revenue we’re generating from each individual, what piece of marketing is worth. All of these tie into this complex engine that [helps us determine], is there a business behind this thing? Can it grow on its own without a reliance on Facebook? With most companies, if you don’t understand how to build your own community, your own brand, and your own audience, ultimately the winner on the back end is Google or Facebook.

TC: How do you build that community?

I’ve handed out 4,000 cans personally. In the early days of Liquid Death, I just remember handing it to a bunch of teenagers, and six out of 10 would take a photo and Snap it to their friend. It was just this instant moment I kept seeing over and over, and I just knew, this is gonna work. If you noticed in March and April and May how boring your Instagram feed was, [it was] because everyone was staying home and there was nothing to do. But we [had this insight to] give somebody a piece of content.

TC: Liquid Death is now available in some stores, including 7-Elevens. Are people buying the water online? What percentage of them buy it through a subscription?

PP: One third of our customers who buy online [at the site] buy merchandise. They’re buying $24 hats, $45 hoodies — we’re selling out merch constantly. It’s the brand, it’s a lifestyle. Mike Cessario, the CEO, says he’s building something that’s like your favorite band. The product lets you be a fan of the thing [including] because it’s not a piece of plastic that’s going to go the ocean [like other water bottles]. It’s not sugar. It’s not alcohol that might result in a drunk driving incident.

It’s flair. It’s a reason to say hi to somebody. It’s an icebreaker. It’s fun. It’s irreverent. It’s dumb. It’s funny. It’s everything to everybody, but something worthy to talk about, something to look at.

The trajectory we’re on is hard to measure; you have to see it, and when you see it over and over, it’s obvious.

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

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Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

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Microsoft gets a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former executive at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, according to a company announcement released Monday.

More to come…

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Autonomous drone maker Skydio raises $170M led by Andreessen Horowitz

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Skydio has raised $170 million in a Series D funding round led by Andreessen Horowitz’s Growth Fund. That pushes it into unicorn territory, with $340 million in total funding and a post-money valuation north of $1 billion. Skydio’s fresh capital comes on the heels of its expansion last year into the enterprise market, and it intends to use the considerable pile of cash to help it expand globally and accelerate product development.

In July of last year, Skydio announced its $100 million Series C financing, and also debuted the X2, its first dedicated enterprise drone. The company also launched a suite of software for commercial and enterprise customers, its first departure from the consumer drone market where it had been focused prior to that raise since its founding in 2014.

Skydio’s debut drone, the R1, received a lot of accolades and praise for its autonomous capabilities. Unlike other consumer drones at the time, including from recreational drone maker DJI, the R1 could track a target and film them while avoiding obstacles without any human intervention required. Skydio then released the Skydio 2 in 2019, its second drone, cutting off more than half the price while improving on it its autonomous tracking and video capabilities.

Late last year, Skydio brought on additional senior talent to help it address enterprise and government customers, including a software development lead who had experience at Tesla and 3D printing company Carbon. Skydio also hired two Samsara executives at the same time to work on product and engineering. Samsara provides a platform for managing cloud-based fleet operations for large enterprises.

The applications of Skydio’s technology for commercial, public sector and enterprise organizations are many and varied. Already, the company works with public utilities, fire departments, construction firms and more to do work including remote inspection, emergency response, urban planning and more. Skydio’s U.S. pedigree also puts it in prime position to capitalize on the growing interest in applications from the defense sector.

a16z previously led Skydio’s Series A round. Other investors who participated in this Series D include Lines Capital, Next47, IVP and UP.Partners.

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Space startup Gitai raises $17.1M to help build the robotic workforce of commercial space

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Japanese space startup Gitai has raised a $17.1 million funding round, a Series B financing for the robotics startup. This new funding will be used for hiring, as well as funding the development and execution of an on-orbit demonstration mission for the company’s robotic technology, which will show its efficacy in performing in-space satellite servicing work. That mission is currently set to take place in 2023.

Gitai will also be staffing up in the U.S., specifically, as it seeks to expand its stateside presence in a bid to attract more business from that market.

“We are proceeding well in the Japanese market, and we’ve already contracted missions from Japanese companies, but we haven’t expanded to the U.S. market yet,” explained Gitai founder and CEO Sho Nakanose in an interview. So we would like to get missions from U.S. commercial space companies, as a subcontractor first. We’re especially interested in on-orbit servicing, and we would like to provide general-purpose robotic solutions for an orbital service provider in the U.S.”

Nakanose told me that Gitai has plenty of experience under its belt developing robots which are specifically able to install hardware on satellites on-orbit, which could potentially be useful for upgrading existing satellites and constellations with new capabilities, for changing out batteries to keep satellites operational beyond their service life, or for repairing satellites if they should malfunction.

Gitai’s focus isn’t exclusively on extra-vehicular activity in the vacuum of space, however. It’s also performing a demonstration mission of its technical capabilities in partnership with Nanoracks using the Bishop Airlock, which is the first permanent commercial addition to the International Space Station. Gitai’s robot, codenamed S1, is an arm–style robot not unlike industrial robots here on Earth, and it’ll be showing off a number of its capabilities, including operating a control panel and changing out cables.

Long-term, Gitai’s goal is to create a robotic workforce that can assist with establishing bases and colonies on the Moon and Mars, as well as in orbit. With NASA’s plans to build a more permanent research presence on orbit at the Moon, as well as on the surface, with the eventual goal of reaching Mars, and private companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin looking ahead to more permanent colonies on Mars, as well as large in-space habitats hosting humans as well as commercial activity, Nakanose suggests that there’s going to be ample need for low-cost, efficient robotic labor – particularly in environments that are inhospitable to human life.

Nakanose told me that he actually got started with Gitai after the loss of his mother – an unfortunate passing he said he firmly believes could have been avoided with the aid of robotic intervention. He began developing robots that could expand and augment human capability, and then researched what was likely the most useful and needed application of this technology from a commercial perspective. That research led Nakanose to conclude that space was the best long-term opportunity for a new robotics startup, and Gitai was born.

This funding was led by SPARX Innovation for the Future Co. Ltd, and includes funding form DcI Venture Growth Fund, the Dai-ichi Life Insurance Company, and EP-GB (Epson’s venture investment arm).

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