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The Hand That Feeds Us

When we talk about changing venture capital, there are a couple of areas that get the bulk of attention:

  • Changing how we think about what we invest in (ex. Founders Fund - “flying cars instead of 140 characters”, Obvious Ventures - “world positive” companies)
  • Changing how the firm itself is managed (ex. Rothenberg Ventures - “millennial firm”, Rubicon - hybrid angel/venture fund)

Another area I’ve been mulling over is changing who funds VCs, and whether single-LP models can lead to more innovation in the funding landscape.

Kapor Capital and Omidyar Network, for example, are single-LP funds that focus on both social impact and financial returns. Kapor clearly defines itself as the venture investment arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact; Omidyar goes as far as to call themselves a “philanthropic investment firm”.

Bloomberg Beta is an offshoot of Bloomberg, its sole LP. While corporate venture firms are not new, Bloomberg Beta explicitly states they do not make strategic fintech investments for Bloomberg. They’ve also funded companies with longer or less traditional paths to exit, including ThinkUp and Quibb.

Outside of venture capital, Breakout Labs, funded by the Thiel Foundation, makes grants to promising early-stage companies in the sciences. Unlike a foundation, Breakout Labs only funds for-profit businesses, and terms include a royalty stream and equity.

And Monkey Inferno is an incubator created by Michael and Xochi Birch, cofounders of Bebo. With just two funders, Monkey Inferno’s product team has the flexibility to explore what they’re most passionate about.

What do the financial returns look like on models like these? I have no idea. And maybe that’s the point. Every traditional venture firm worries about delivering a healthy IRR to their LPs. With a single LP who’s willing to be patient and experiment, investors can be more flexible with what they fund.

In that sense, tech wealth has an unprecedented chance to bring us back to the original intent of philanthropy: to provide society with the freedom to take risks, which is where penicillin, the Red Cross, our 9-1-1 system, and many other of today’s can’t-live-withouts (that weren’t venture-backable) began.

(Side note: this direction also overlaps with the institutionalization of angel investing. Tyler Winklevoss recently spoke about the benefits of not running Winklevoss Capital as a traditional venture fund, including the ability to invest in experimental non-corporate structures like Bitcoin.)