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Worried about a slowdown? It already happened in 2016, says one new venture study

In today’s market, it’s hard to make sense of what’s what. Deals have grown incestuous for the first time, with outfits like GV investing alongside Uber last week — just months after its parent company, Alphabet, was at Uber’s throat. A $10 million-plus round of seed funding is no longer a joke. Venture firms continue to raise record-breaking amounts of money, despite what feels like creeping uncertainty about how much longer this go-go market can continue.

Unsurprisingly, there’s been some talk lately about deal flow and the possibility that some of the most well-regarded early-stage investors in the industry have quietly applied the brakes. Yet new analysis out of Wing, the 7.5-year-old, Silicon Valley venture firm co-founded by veteran VCs Peter Wagner and Gaurav Garg, draws a conclusion that might surprise nervous industry watchers. After tracking the investment activity of what Wing considers to be the 21 leading venture firms, it discovered that a pullback already happened . . . in 2016. In fact, Wagner, who oversaw the analysis, tells us there’s been so sign of a slowdown since then.

We caught up with Wagner last week to learn more about Wing’s findings — and what might be causing some confusion in the industry right now.

TC: First, why do this kind of study right now?

PW: There’s been a lot of analysts and reporters and LPs and VCs asking us about our investment pace really, and I think it owes to talk of Benchmark and Union Square Ventures slowing down, so we thought we’d look at some parameters and see what’s going on.

TC: Why not just refer to industry-wide statistics? It seems like there are plenty of these.

PW: They’re kind of swamped with the data of less discriminating investors, though. You really want to focus on the signal, which is why we track what the 21 leading venture firms are doing, and in that analysis, we found no signs of a slowdown. We found instead that there was a peak of activity in 2013 and 2014, a pullback in 2016, and an uptick since.

And we cut it different ways. We removed international deals in China and India, because they have their own rhythm and can get frothy. We moved seed deals, given there’s been some major schizophrenia among venture firms who waded into seed deals, then pulled out. Even still, 2017 saw an increase in deals over 2016, which was the lowest year in terms of deal activity since 2010.

TC: These were first-time investments?

PW: Yes, and the reason is that follow-on rounds are dictated more by the operational needs of companies. Some could be running out of cash, for example, so it’s non-discretionary. If you want to look at sentiment, you have to look at first-time investments in isolation.

TC: Do you have 2018 data?

PW: We have partial data, of course, and we’ve annualized it to “predict” that 2018 numbers will be close to 2017. That is, if you buy the idea of projecting out, which I don’t really. Also, because you’re looking at a smaller batch of numbers, you’re on thin ice statistically. But for now, at least, we’re seeing a level of activity that was higher than 2016.

TC: You can see why things might be ticking along now: the tech IPO market, SoftBank’s massive Vision Fund, big tech companies getting bigger, which keeps the wheels turning. What happened in 2016? Uncertainly about the U.S. presidential election? Bill Gurley’s warnings that a reckoning was coming?

PW: I really don’t know that it was down so much versus that prior years were up. It was a more a reversion to the mean. The 2016 number still represents a pretty decent and sustainable pace for this industry.

TC: Based on your findings, would you guess a downturn is closer than further away? It seems inevitable, but I’ve thought this for the last three years.

PW: It’s a known unknown. We know there will be a change but we don’t know when or how deep it will be.

TC: Could things have possibly changed, given that everything is impacted by tech, that software is, in fact, eating the world? That’s obviously the bull case.

PW: It’s pretty darn mainstream, whether via digital transformation or just the massive disruption of massive industries buy digitally native competitors. I don’t know, is the answer. But it’s true. Tech isn’t a sideshow anymore.

Midwest rising

Emerging venture capital firms in smaller American cities from Indianapolis to Princeton, NJ are attracting increasingly larger funding as investors see opportunities for returns beyond the coastal confines of the nation’s largest cities and the innovation epicenter of Silicon Valley.

For the last four years, AOL co-founder Steve Case has been criss-crossing the country preaching a gospel of economic renewal for American cities driven by startup investment and technology-based entrepreneurialism. With Case those journeys culminated in the creation of a fund called Rise of the Rest — a $150 million vehicle raised by some of tech’s highest-profile names.

Investors like Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Eric Schmidt, the chairman of Google’s parent company, Alphabet; Jim Bryer, the former head of the National Venture Capital Association and an early investor in Facebook; Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers partner John Doerr; and Facebook’s former President Sean Parker; came together with the family offices of some of America’s wealthiest people to back the fund.

As Schmidt told The Times, “There is a large selection of relatively undervalued businesses in the heartland between the coasts, some of which can scale quickly.”

Steve Case (Revolution LLC) at TechCrunch Disrupt NY 2017

Case and his partner JD Vance (the author of Hillbilly Elegy) are only two of the would-be pioneers that are bringing the venture investment model to the Midwest. In fact, it has been about four years since Mark Kvamme and Chris Olsen left the West Coast and Silicon Valley to launch Drive Capital — the venture capital firm they founded in Columbus, Ohio.

In that time the firm has managed to raise over half a billion dollars to invest in startups based primarily in the Midwest, and has spurred an investment revolution in areas of the country that are more synonymous with tractors than with technological innovation. 

But the Midwestern investment scene isn’t just defined by Valley transplants coming in. Some of the entrepreneurs behind the region’s home-grown success stories, like Indianapolis’ ExactTarget, have launched funds of their own to plant an entirely new crop of tech companies in the Midwest.

Homegrown Heroes

These are funds like High Alpha, which just closed its second $85 million fund, High Alpha Capital II, and raised another $16.5 million for a companion venture studio that ideates and incubates startups.

High Alpha doesn’t exclusively invest in the Midwest, but the bulk of its commitments are definitely falling outside of the typical geographies where most investors spend their time, according to High Alpha managing partner Scott Dorsey, the former chief executive of Indianapolis-based ExactTarget (which Salesforce acquired in 2013).*

For its venture studio, the firms was able to bring back Emergence Capital, the San Francisco-based software as a service investor, and woo new investor Foundry Capital, a Boulder, Colo.-based firm co-founded by the legendary investor Brad Feld. Both Feld and Gordon Ritter, the founder of Emergence Capital will take seats on the High Alpha Studios board.

High Alpha investments have been made in Atlanta, Chicago, Des Moines, Minneapolis, Seattle and Toronto, says Dorsey. “You have a big economic advantage where these companies don’t have to raise nearly as much money,” Dorsey says, echoing the sentiment from Schmidt. “The neat thing also is they see that there’s not just one technology company in town and if it doesn’t work out you’re packing up and moving and seeing an actual ecosystem.”

Dorsey and the High Alpha team focus their investments on marketing and automation software — an area that can run the gamut from drone use in agricultural applications to a software service that monitors company spending on business software so that the procurement process can be more efficient.

While the venture arm is one way that the firm is seeding a new generation of technology companies across the Midwest and around the country, the venture studio is focused on building businesses in Indianapolis itself, Dorsey says.

Through the studio, Dorsey and his partners have plans to start eight to 10 new software as a service businesses, and High Alpha is tapping local talent to do it. For instance, Dorsey’s former colleague Scott McCorkle, who ran the marketing cloud business for Salesforce, is now working on a company that High Alpha is incubating. 

“We are always building that stable of entrepreneurs,” Dorsey says. 

Initiatives in states like Indiana are also helping to encourage a more entrepreneurial and tech focused mindset, according to Dorsey. Like other states, Indiana is now mandating computer science classes for every grade from K-12 in public schools. The state also has created a $250 million fund-of-funds to invest in venture funds that will commit capital to companies that will bring jobs to the state. Finally, Indiana has passed a law to forego collecting sales tax on software as a service companies that are developing and selling products and services in the state.

Look Homeward (Investment) Angel

State incentives aside, there are structural reasons for the moves in the Midwest. The companies require less capital to scale compared to companies on the coasts, thanks to rising real estate prices and the intense competition for talent. Indigenous venture investors are springing up thanks to earlier bets on technology companies coming from the region.

U.S. land grant colleges, which may well be the most underappreciated heroes of American economic growth, are increasingly becoming startup hubs. With new companies emerging from Ann Arbor, Mich., Columbus, Ohio and Madison, Wis.

At the end of the day. The world is flat and entrepreneurs are everywhere and with technology it’s possible to start a company anywhere,” says Deven Parekh, the managing director of the multi-billion dollar growth equity investment firm Insight Venture Partners. “The West Coast is not necessarily the optimal place to start a company. The cost structure is prohibitive and there’s lots of turnover.”

For some firms, the revelation of abounding opportunities in states where the wind goes sweeping through the plains isn’t all that new. Growth capital firms like Edison Partners, the Princeton, N.J.-based investor which just closed on its tenth fund with $300 million has long been an investor in far-flung geographies. Only a minority of the firm’s investments fall inside the North Atlantic corridor of Boston and New York, according to partner Chris Sugden.

The rapid growth of VC deals in NY Metro, Midwest, and LA compared to stable growth in New England.

“Two-thirds of our investments are outside of New York or Boston [and] we haven’t participated in the Valley,” Sugden says. “My fear of being a tourist is overpriced deals like overpriced restaurants with not good quality food.”

For the 30 years it has been in business, Edison has backed companies outside of the traditional investment lanes for tech investors. “These ecosystems have been in place for a long time. The challenge for them has always been scale,” Sugden says.

“What’s happening right now is an interesting theme,” he added. “People leaving the Valley and leaving New York to go back to the South and go back to the Southeast. There’s a little bit more excitement and energy in these off of coast towns.”

And exits are beginning to follow this exodus. ExactTarget planted a flag in Indianapolis’s tech ecosystem (and the recent public offering for PluralSight was another big win for the city), while Groupon did the same in Chicago. Now a new generation of entrepreneurs is getting its first taste of Valley returns. These are people like Bill Smith, whose Birmingham, Ala.-based grocery delivery business Shipt was acquired by Target for $550 million late last year.

For Sugden, the four critical components an emerging tech ecosystem need to take flight are an educational hub to produce talent, an urban center to capture it, capital to sustain it, and government and traditional industry support to accelerate it.

“I’ve seen first-hand the incredible entrepreneurs trying to build great businesses outside of Silicon Valley,” said Vance, in a statement announcing the Rise of the Rest fund last year. “They often possess all the ingredients for success, but struggle to find enough investment capital to break through and have a positive impact on their region.”

*This sentence was updated to reflect the fact that Mr. Dorsey was the chief executive of ExactTarget, which Salesforce acquired in 2013.

‘Underwater Pokéball’ snatches up soft-bodied deep dwellers

Creatures that live in the depths of the oceans are often extremely fragile, making their collection a difficult affair. A new polyhedral sample-collection mechanism acts like an “underwater Pokéball,” allowing scientists to catch ’em all without destroying their soft, squishy bodies in the process.

The ball is technically a dodecahedron that closes softly around the creature in front of it. It’s not exactly revolutionary, except in that it is extremely simple mechanically — at depths of thousands of feet, the importance of this can’t be overstated — and non-destructive.

Sampling is often done via a tube with moving caps on both ends into which the creature must be guided and trapped, or a vacuum tube that sucks it in, which as you can imagine is at best unpleasant for the target and at worst, lethal.

The rotary actuated dodecahedron, or RAD, has five 3D-printed “petals” with a complex-looking but mechanically simple framework that allows them to close up simultaneously from force applied at a single point near the rear panel.

“I was building microrobots by hand in graduate school, which was very painstaking and tedious work,” explained creator Zhi Ern Teoh, of Harvard’s Wyss Institute, “and I wondered if there was a way to fold a flat surface into a three-dimensional shape using a motor instead.”

The answer is yes, obviously, since he made it; the details are published in Science Robotics. Inspired by origami and papercraft, Teoh and his colleagues applied their design knowledge to creating not just a fold-up polyhedron (you can cut one out of any sheet of paper) but a mechanism that would perform that folding process in one smooth movement. The result is the network of hinged arms around the polyhedron tuned to push lightly and evenly and seal it up.

In testing, the RAD successfully captured some moon jellies in a pool, then at around 2,000 feet below the ocean surface was able to snag squid, octopus and wild jellies and release them again with no harm done. They didn’t capture the octopus on camera, but apparently it was curious about the device.

Because of the RAD’s design, it would work just as well miles below the surface, the researchers said, though they haven’t had a chance to test that yet.

“The RAD sampler design is perfect for the difficult environment of the deep ocean because its controls are very simple, so there are fewer elements that can break,” Teoh said.

There’s also no barrier to building a larger one, or a similar device that would work in space, he pointed out. As for current applications like sampling of ocean creatures, the setup could easily be enhanced with cameras and other tools or sensors.

“In the future, we can capture an animal, collect lots of data about it like its size, material properties, and even its genome, and then let it go,” said co-author David Gruber, from CUNY. “Almost like an underwater alien abduction.”

Senate wants emergency alerts to go out through Netflix, Spotify, etc.

An emergency alert goes out, trying to let you know about incoming bad news — a missile, a tsunami or something else terrifying. Your phone starts shouting… but it’s downstairs. A warning ticker pops on TVs, if you’re watching cable… but you’ve got your eyes glued to Netflix, or Hulu, or some other online streaming service.

Should these services, with their ever-increasing ownership of our screen time, be prepped to broadcast these warnings?

Senators in Hawaii and South Dakota think so, having just introduced a bill (the “Reliable Emergency Alert Distribution Improvement,” or READI, act) that would “explore” broadcasting alerts to “online streaming services, such as Netflix and Spotify,” amongst other changes to the Emergency Alert System.

“Hawaii? Wasn’t that the state that had a very public false alarm with its emergency alert system?”

Yep! But it seems that in investigating what went wrong, the state found plenty of long-lived shortcomings in the existing, aging alert system.

Some of the other things the bill touches on:

  • Users on many phones can currently disable federal alerts; they want to get rid of that option
  • Building a better system for reporting false alarms and figuring out what happened
  • Updating the system to better prevent false alarms, and to better retract them when they do happen

The idea of sending emergency alerts to Netflix etc. seems a bit obvious at this point — hell, I was mulling over it right here on TechCrunch back in 2011, and it seemed a bit obvious even back then.

With that said, I still have the same hesitations I had at the time. After the recent false alarms and ensuing panic, it’s clear that any such system needs to be rock solid from a security standpoint — one missed bug or exploit and half the country is freaking out about non-existent incoming missiles when all they wanted to do was watch Orange Is the New Black. If it can be done right, though, it seems like a reasonable idea.

Hyundai teams up with Amazon to offer virtual showroom

Next time you’re grabbing a new charging cord on Amazon, you might be tempted to grab a new Hyundai as well. Hyundai announced today a partnership with Amazon to create a digital showroom to allow customers to compare pricing and reviews, book a test drive and find a dealer in their area to purchase the car (no, you can’t order them directly from Amazon — yet.)

“The car industry is changing, and customer demands and expectations around a frictionless, efficient and transparent experience are key drivers,” Dean Evans, Hyundai Motor America CMO, said in a statement.

The digital showroom will be incorporated into Amazon’s Vehicle section, which Amazon launched in 2016 for customers to browse automobile makes and models, from Tesla cars to vehicles from Toyota. But, while some of these vehicle profiles are lacking in detailed pictures or model information, Hyundai has created a more robust experience.

On its own unique landing page, Hyundai highlights the brand’s features, such as its compatibility with Alexa and its Shopper Assurance program, and creates a selection of Hyundai vehicles for you based on your preferences and buying habits. From there, you can select a model you’d like to look at and explore it in typical Amazon style — flipping between different product pictures, colors and customer reviews.

After you’re happy with your selection, you can either schedule a test-drive — where you have the option for the car to pick you up in your driveway — or go directly to a dealer near you to sign the paperwork.

With the average industry price of $36,270 for a new car in 2018, according to Kelly Blue Book, maybe it’s a good thing there’s no Dash button for these vehicles just yet.

The Galaxy Note 9 is leaking out all over the place

The Galaxy Note 9 won’t be announced until August. You wouldn’t know it by reading the internet, however. Every nook and cranny of the upcoming phablet has been bared for the world, in a series of leaks over the past several weeks.

Sure, not all of them will pan out, but plenty have come from leakers with established track records, and enough of the details line up so as to paint a wholly believable portrait of the phone we’ll finally get an official look at early next month.

And then there’s this:

That’s a picture of Samsung CEO DJ Koh using what appears to be the Note 9 at a media event. The differences are subtle, but they’re there in the camera housing, which is among a few small visible changes to the upcoming device. Like, good on DJ Koh for using the company’s products, S Pen and all, but even by Samsung’s traditionally leaky standards, that’s a little silly.

Maybe Samsung doesn’t mind. Maybe it’s just happy to have everyone talking about the Note 9, while it’s hard at work on that folding phone we’ve heard so much about.

The above camera housing is in line with another recent post from perennial leaker, EVLeaks, which shows off a full front and back render of the upcoming handset:

S Pen? pic.twitter.com/xizmWw9J2W

— Evan Blass (@evleaks) July 17, 2018

There’s also an S Pen, with a yellow coat of paint that’s in line with the image the company sent out with the invite to the August event. The fingerprint sensor has been moved below the camera there, rather than next to it as it was on the Note 8. That was a clear mistake, and Samsung fixed it for the S9. Logic follows that they would do the same on the new Note.

That, in turn, appears to confirm this photo of an actual unit from Slashleaks, which bears an extremely effective “No photo allowed/Do not leak info” sticker. At least Samsung tried, I guess.

#Samsung#GalaxyNote9 – Samsung Galaxy Note 9 live images leaked https://t.co/WEgJIsWtEy pic.twitter.com/kMwHm7kpBc

— /LEAKS (@Slashleaks) July 17, 2018

More (but not that much more, from the looks of it) will be revealed on August 9.