April 2023 portfolio round-up

Since our last update, our portfolio companies have been hard at work. Here’s what’s happened since February 2023: 

Yan Wang of AM Batteries named “Manufacturing Champion”

Worcester Business Journal names Yan Wang, CEO and Founder of AM Batteries, the “Manufacturing Champion.” 

In this editorial, Wang shares his journey from being interested in and adept at chemistry to co-founding two companies and more.

Read on Worcester Business Journal.

Visolis partners with Ginkgo Bioworks to improve microbial strain

“We are incredibly proud of our platform that is producing carbon-negative materials and fuels,” said Deepak Dugar, founder and CEO at Visolis. “As we strive to continue improving our technology towards commercial readiness, partnering with Ginkgo to accelerate our progress just makes sense. With their large codebase of strains and pathway expertise, which can shorten strain engineering cycles, as well as their scalable foundry capabilities, we believe we can work towards bringing our process to the next level.”

Read more on the Gingko Bioworks website.

Alice Technologies secures capital to expand

In early April, Alice Technologies “announced it raised $30 million in a Series B funding round led by Vanedge Capital, with participation from Access Partners, Bouygues, Gaingels, GRIDS Capital, JLL Spark and MetaPlanet. According to CEO René Morkos, the proceeds will help fuel hiring and product development.”

Read more on TechCrunch.

Sepion featured in CalSEED mini-documentary

“Making a Better Battery, Episode 2” is a short video showcasing Sepion’s innovative membrane material that stabilizes pure lithium metal anodes during charging and discharging to allow ≈10X increase in the capacity of the anode which achieves about a 40% increase in battery energy density.

Read more on Sepion’s website.

Watch the mini-doc on CalSEED’s website.

AM Batteries teams up with Amperex Technology Limited

The two companies are working together to “develop solvent-free electrode manufacturing technology for Li-ion cell production. The joint endeavor seeks to tackle some of the most critical challenges facing the Li-ion battery production industry: heavy carbon footprint, energy consumption, and high infrastructure cost derived from the current standard solvent evaporation process used for electrode fabrication. Leveraging key expertise in dry-electrode fabrication, which AMB developed, and the world-class commercial-scale battery-manufacturing team at ATL, both groups will work together to change the industry as a whole – both in terms of cost and environmental impact.”

Read more on AMB’s website.

3E Nano closes $4 Million Series Seed funding round

“The syndicated raise was led by Energy Foundry and includes major investors MUUS Climate Partners, ACT Venture Partners, Creative Ventures, and New Climate Ventures. Additional climate impact investors participated in the round with significant contributions from Vectors Capital and VertueLab.”

Read more on Business Wire.

Today’s AI critics don’t understand the history of technology

Stop me when you know what I’m talking about: It’s a technology that will put thousands of educated, skilled workers out of a job and allow a single individual to do the work dozens, or even hundreds—completely automatically. It will make entire businesses completely change how they operate and finally buy the high-tech computer systems that they had held back from.

Is it AI? GPT-3? Or even GPT-4? No. It was VisiCalc (and then later Excel and other competitors) — visual calculators, also known as computer spreadsheets.

The advent of spreadsheets did not put office workers, actuaries, accountants, or many other impacted professions out of work. If anything, the productivity improvements made actually tracking things systematically much easier and thus more prevalent in businesses across all kinds of industries that might not have bothered previously.

The same thing happened with Photoshop and other editing software gaining the ability to automatically enhance photos or crop subjects out of backgrounds. And yet again, with random social media apps that teenagers use gaining more powerful video editing capabilities than the highest-end, most expensive editing software of yesteryear. It didn’t make editors less in demand — it helped fuel a boom in new genres of content and the advent of 24/7 streams of information/entertainment.

If anything, as we’ve discussed at Creative Ventures, manual labor is much harder to automate. Physical dexterity and manipulation are not native to computers/algorithms, and they struggle mightily in that unfamiliar territory. But even there, we’ve seen advancements in AI/robotics (especially in reinforcement learning and advanced control systems). That process is far slower than “digital” automation, but even there, we don’t expect to see mass unemployment. The advent of the shovel didn’t suddenly put manual laborers out of jobs. Neither did the excavator. And robotics won’t either.

Is this time different?

“AI is different.” That’s the most common response to those confronted with the fact that technology and productivity improvements have just not led to mass unemployment. Relative to everything else, this is a “paradigm shift.”

One of the things we’ve learned over time is human beings are very bad at predicting what happens in cases of massive change. We tend to have limited imaginations when extrapolating the impact of technology. If better technology means you need fewer people, the logical conclusion is eventually you won’t need any people. People fail to imagine that entirely new industries, specializations, and further technologies will emerge that, if anything, employ more people productively than ever.

But is AI different? It’s a pretty different technology in the sense that it’s “intelligent” (it is, after all, in the name!). There are two responses to that.

The first one is factual.

Artificial intelligence just isn’t that intelligent

Talk to any AI researcher, and they will likely tell you that “AI” is kind of not “AI.” We’ve adopted the terminology and made it interchangeable with “ML” (machine learning) to the point that it’s pointless to fight it, but it doesn’t change that AI isn’t what science fiction imagines it to be.

AI/ML today is fancy statistics. It is the combination of algorithms and statistical techniques to cleverly “fit” problems — either to predict from it (typically what people think of for AI), or replicate fitted statistical distributions (generative algorithms, like ChatGPT or Midjourney or similar). Despite Microsoft’s Sydney chatbot describing itself to the contrary and promising not to annihilate humanity if it doesn’t have to, it is really just a statistical algorithm running, fitting what a human might seem to say.

It’s been a long, philosophical debate whether human intelligence is an “emergent” phenomenon that could come out of somewhat random processes stuck together that eventually create consciousness. Some think maybe. Some think not and think that our current path with machine learning will never create true AI. Either way, everyone agrees that even if it’s possible, current “AI” isn’t true AI and isn’t really anywhere that close yet.

As such, it’s really just a tool, just like the IT tools that emerged out of the 90s. Or a shovel.

Now, that brings us to a hypothetical:

Even if artificial intelligence were intelligent

Even if our current intelligent agents were actually intelligent, it’s unlikely to just lead to mass unemployment. Now, people might step back on how much they work. After all, remember that once upon a time, we didn’t produce enough food to allow us to stop working, even on weekends. And more recently, there’s been some experiments with 4-day work weeks. Leisure time isn’t inherently a bad thing and is a luxury partly afforded us by greater productivity.

But in terms of stopping work entirely? It’s unlikely since even artificial intelligence will likely have strengths and weaknesses and is potentially quite different than humans. It starts to get thornier in terms of what intelligence is, what is humanity (or consciousness), and what requires rights or not… but at least for the economics question, it’s pretty clear that when you have different entities (whether people or countries), they self-organize to produce things more efficiently. This is why developing countries ended up specializing as they did in terms of extraction and manufacturing (putting aside whether or not this was “good” for certain countries), and rich, advanced economies specialized more in knowledge work, lower-volume advanced manufacturing, and services. The U.S. can literally do everything better than certain small, poor countries (actually, a lot of them, no offense) — but that doesn’t mean that that country just stops doing anything, participating in the world economy, or hopefully pulling itself out of poverty.

Ultimately, this latter part is pretty speculative. It simply isn’t actually where we are. But regardless, critics of today’s AI fundamentally don’t understand how technologies get integrated into society. I’d encourage them to keep a more open mind. It would have been impossible for someone born in 1900 to imagine what our lives our today. Hell, it would have been impossible for them to imagine what their lives would have been like 30, 40, or 50 years from that point. It’s worth being a bit more humble about our ability to imagine what our lives will be like in the future as well, regardless of what path this technology takes.

To pause or not to pause, that IS the question

The last several weeks have been filled with the debate surrounding whether AI labs should pause training their AI systems for a six-month moratorium in order to create more accurate, safe, interpretable, transparent, robust, aligned, trustworthy, and loyal state-of-the-art systems. 

Our take? This is wishful thinking at best, and a foolish notion at worst. 

Creating a framework for safer, robust, etc. AI is important

Wishful thinking or not, the wish is important. ChatGPT and its genre are creating a new economy that bolsters an entirely new means of creation. And that includes students cheating on their homework and exams, and fake accounts popping up everywhere. 

From professors to marketers, we are nowhere near ready for the misuse of these new technologies. But that doesn’t mean a pause will work, or even be entirely possible. 

No framework for what to pause and not to pause 

The open letter asking for a moratorium doesn’t ask for a pause on all AI development. In fact, it is unclear what a “system more powerful than ChatGPT-4” even constitutes. Does that mean all large language models are out the window? What about specific applications in certain niche markets? 

Unlike China, the U.S. doesn’t have a mechanic to deploy and enforce such abrupt changes in its governance system — whether that’s for better or for worse. It runs counter to the country’s free market philosophy. To suddenly evoke a pause on ambiguous values — such as whom AI should be loyal to — will only fuel an incredulous amount of unproductive debate. And that’s what has happened over the last few weeks.

A capitalistic society needs a capitalistic intervention

This sounds terrible, but that’s how the U.S. system works. The entire U.S. economy is moved by the creation of new opportunities which can be intervened through fiscal policies, not by sudden enforcement of debatable values.

But frankly, given that the Biden administration has already grossly exceeded its budget and Republicans are already breathing down its neck to cut spending, any new fiscal policy looks nigh impossible.  Not to mention it probably won’t help Biden win a 2024 election either. There is simply no real political motivation towards pushing this agenda.

Let’s face it: 6 months won’t be enough

Even if we were somehow able to get the moratorium going (which would be an incredible feat in itself) I cannot see a scenario in which all parties can come together to agree on a practical framework that would guide the development of a large language model.

Take autonomous vehicle public policy for example. We have been developing that framework since the early 2010s. That’s about ten years, given or take, and twenty times the length of AI policy. And while we’re close, we are still not done yet. 

Another example? The FDA still hasn’t even been able to put together a framework to evaluate AI usage for diagnostics. 

And here we are talking about the application of very powerful technologies in a much broader context that touches upon countless industries? We are going to need a lot more time than six months, and even then…

We’re going to fuck it up

And then we will use money to fix our fuck up. Just like how we trashed our global climate and now pour billions into fixing it. 

Again, the U.S. is driven by the opportunity to make money. As of now, there is no opportunity to make money by creating a safer (and all that jazz) AI. It is nice and great for society, but we are not the Nords. We are nowhere near being socialistic enough to do this for the “Goodness of the World.” It’s a sad, harsh, reality, but it’s not a false one. In fact, there is more money to be made by letting AI be unsafe, inaccurate, and unloyal state-of-the-art, so while it is politically correct to say otherwise, the action will follow the money, not the other way around. 

Then, like usual, once we fuck things up enough, we will realize that we will lose money if this keeps running — just like how hurricanes wash everything away more and more and we realize our real estate is soon going to be underwater so now we have to fix the climate. 

From there, we will see an AI security opportunity, just as we have cybersecurity. We didn’t just start the internet and realize we need cybersecurity shortly after. No, we started the internet, decided it was a wonderful thing, used it a lot, and then some people said, “Hey, let’s just move crime online.” Only after we lost a lot of money, did people start cybersecurity companies. 

This is history on repeat. The name of the game will just add the word “AI” in front of security, and then on we go again.

Why we invested in 3E Nano

Creative Ventures invested in 3E Nano’s Series Seed in late 2022. Now the news on the closing is official, and we’re thrilled to welcome 3E Nano to our portfolio. We’ve been actively deploying into companies addressing climate change, and have been looking for opportunities in the building envelope materials for quite some time. 

Here’s why we invested in 3E Nano:

Global temperature is consistently getting more extreme 

Climate change has directly affected a shift to more extreme temperatures, and its magnitude has consistently increased over the years, though our range of inhabitable and preferred temperatures have not changed. 

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) play a substantial role in controlling living environments in residential and commercial buildings. Evidently, HVAC accounts for 40% of the U.S. primary energy usage. Why? Approximately 80% of the windows in the market today have low thermal resistance (i.e. low R-value), and inefficient windows can account for up to 50% of HVAC expenses. Drafty windows are the leakage points. 

Platform technology solution, enabling new use cases previously unattainable

3E Nano is hardly the first company to aim to tackle building envelope material opportunities. What stood out to us, h however, is their fundamentally different approach based on their coating technology. Traditional thermal resistance solution, like low-E coating on glasses, is limited to be applied on, well, glasses, because it is coated at high temperature. Additionally, they’re typically part of a long and specialized flat glass production line.

3E Nano’s proprietary technology allows them to coat materials with fewer layers and at low temperatures, expanding the base materials to versatile surfaces including polymers, which would have melted if coated using a traditional approach. Added benefits are the fact that the coating could be done on intermediate materials, which can then be laminated onto the final surface of interest at different locations.

Targeting architectural polymer and window markets, with favorable regulatory policies

Despite their platform technology nature, 3E Nano is laser-focused on their initial markets: architectural polymers and windows. Given how there are several stakeholders at play, it’s crucial that the company recognizes the execution risks and is actively working toward teasing out their incentives. 

The markets are evidently massive, though what’s unique about “why now” is the regulatory landscape. We’ve seen increasing imposed fees on building codes and building emissions, as well as restrictions on building materials in relation to specific climate zones. For example, fines up to $5 million for each non-compliant building may be charged in New York City, starting in 2024. This type of policy reduces the barrier for asset owners to adopt and pay for upfront upgrade expenses. 

3E Nano is an ideal fit for what Creative Ventures invests in: market-first opportunity with strong financial incentives for their customers to adopt, backed by defensible and fundamentally unique advanced technology. We’re thrilled to support the 3E Nano team and excited for what lies ahead in their journey to revolutionize building envelope materials!

Silicon Valley Bank failed. Now what?

After predictions that the Fed would step in, that it was too big to fail, and more, Silicon Valley Bank failed.

And while bank failures have become much rarer in the modern era, the harsh reality is they still happen. The FDIC putting SVB into receivership and looking for a sale is completely routine.

Because people asked for it, I’ll get into the details.

Panicking about your money at SVB? Here’s the TLDR:

  • If you have less than $250k, you’re covered by FDIC and should have been able to access it by this afternoon.
  • If you’re above $250k, what happens next depends on what happens with SVB’s sale. Follow the instructions in the bulletin, call in, file the claim, and wait. In general, most modern bank failures have had all deposits covered. But don’t take my word for it; look through the publicly available list here.

The business of banking

Starting with the basics (and an oversimplification, at that), banks are in the business of borrowing short and lending long.

Generally speaking, banks take deposits and lend out for credit lines, mortgages, and similar “longer duration” assets that make them money above what they pay in interest for their deposits. Deposits are liabilities — as in, the bank needs to pay them back — and because deposits are short-duration, they can be demanded back at pretty much any time.

This ability to lend out money long while borrowing short is why banks play a critical role in credit and money creation. The exact details are too long for this specific post, but suffice it to say, it’s an important function with many positive societal and economic externalities.

Bank runs are a death sentence

Every bank is also going to fail if all depositors demand their money bank at once. This is a bank run.

Bank runs used to be much more common, especially in the United States where there are typically smaller, regional banks as opposed to the large universal banks that Europe and Asia generally have. This changed to some degree after 2008, but history still means we have a lot of small regional banks — like SVB.

Still, the truth remains that a bank run alongside financial panic can stop the heartbeat of even the largest banks. In fact, in the early 1900s, these two factors were incredibly common. As a result, the FDIC was created in 1933 during the Great Depression in order to restore bank confidence.

But a bank’s organs can be harvested

Obviously, the ongoing financial shock of the Great Depression caused a lot of bank failures, and a lot of normal people lost money. The panic it caused had people stuffing their cash under their mattresses.

When the FDIC was established, its goal was to protect small depositors ($2.5k back then compared to $250k now), but also ensure that the financial system avoided the moral hazard of the government always bailing out banks. Banks still needed to be careful, or else they would pocket profits from excess risk and socialize losses by having government backstops. Small depositors are not looking at this every day, but similar to the SEC’s “accredited investor” label (which really is just about having money, mostly), those with more money are assumed to be sophisticated and thus should monitor and bear risk.

Over the years, the FDIC has been revised and improved, but the overall process is this:

  1. A bank fails
  2. The FDIC takes it over (which is what happened with the creation of the Deposit Insurance National Bank of Santa Clara)
  3. Another larger bank typically takes over the assets (loans, etc.) and liabilities (deposits)

And that’s precisely what’s happening with SVB.

Why did SVB experience a bank run?

I know the public accounts, but I’m not really going to speculate too deeply given I’m sure the facts will change. What is clear, however, is that SVB lost a lot of money. This loss depleted its equity, causing its effective leverage (that is, how much more it owes than it has on hand) to increase much, much higher.

SVB was planning on raising money from public markets; everyone saw what happened, and, as happens with all bank runs, confidence in the bank was hit, everyone started pulling their money out, and failure became inevitable. Whether or not SVB was actually solvent (meaning if they actually had equity left), they quickly depleted everything from everyone pulling their money out.

Was it bad investments in mortgage-backed securities in a rising interest rate environment? Sure, that would be part of it, but I expect some other financial institution would have loaned money if the book was easy to read and fundamentally sound.

My guess is there’s still worry about further losses that buyers will need to assess and price down.

Inevitably, even without knowing precise details, the sequence of events is almost certain: SVB tried to get a credit line from a larger bank to tide over the bank run but failed, especially with uncertain levels of losses. Then they tried to sell to a large bank which failed for the same reason. Finally, after a long night of late-night conference calls, they had to call it, and the FDIC put it in receivership.

Leverage always works against it. It decreases the amount you make going up, and exponentially magnifies the amount you lose going down. Once SVB’s equity dwindled down that much, it was always extremely vulnerable to being blown over. This is a common story. Sure, the speed of collapse was fast but it was not exceptional in the history of bank runs.

Pretty much, the takeaway is this: a well-loved (in startup circles) specialist bank failed, but this is far from unheard of in the history of banks (especially in the U.S.), and fairly typical.

So what now?

If you have less than $250k, the FDIC will be enabling access to your accounts very quickly, as per their bulletin.

If you have more… well, that depends on what buyer the FDIC finds, and how much they’re willing to take on. Remember, deposits are liabilities. If the assets are seen as too badly damaged, part of the negotiation may be for a buyer to assume some liabilities, but not all of them.

Nonetheless, most modern bank takeovers have covered all deposits, and there are very, very large banking entities (again, thanks to consolidation, especially post-GFC) that exist today relative to any other time in U.S. history. It may be a week or a few weeks — especially if it takes a long time to sort through SVB’s assets — but access should be restored.

In the meantime, if you’re a startup, call in, ensure that you have enough cash to run for the short term, and go from there.

And if you’re a VC — especially if you’re a large one — you definitely should have known better. You’re a financial manager that takes risks, and this is part of the business. Fortunately, if you’re a smaller VC, you’re extremely unlikely to take a haircut anyway (but again, peruse that failed bank list).

As for instructions, do refer to the FDIC official bulletin.

3 Ways to succeed as a robotics company trying to commercialize

With inflation raging and the labor market tightening even more, it’s no surprise that the number of robotics companies has continued to grow and will do so for the foreseeable future. And while logistics has been front and center in automation technology, numerous other sectors are also adopting robotics. 

In food service, for example, Domino’s Pizza Enterprise has adopted Picnic, an automated pizza system that can assemble up to 100 pizzas an hour. RLH Corporation, which runs Red Lion Family of Hotels, introduced housekeeping robots in collaboration with Peanut Robotics

So how are these robotics companies making money as they traverse the path to commercialization? Is there really a viable path for these robotics companies to triumph in a world where software is eating up every opportunity in its wake?

1. Sell widgets

Let’s face it: selling a widget with mark-ups on a one-off basis is a bad business model for startups. Investors love recurring revenues. They want the company to monetize robotics for its lifetime usage, not a one-time installation. Recurring revenue is more predictable, which leads to lower volatility and, therefore, valuation. 

So why would any company in their right mind sell widgets?

For one, many customers do not like to pay recurring revenue to startups. In their view, they took the risk to work with an early-stage company so they might as well reap the long-term benefits. 

Most early stage startups are not able to get debt financing for their pilots. Robots are expensive, costing anywhere between $30k to $250k. Selling widgets helps with cash flow to fund the upfront cost of robots.

Or perhaps the industry demands it. One such example, the construction industry, generally gets contracted on a project basis. All hardware is either bought once or rented for a short period of time and then budgeted against the project. Field construction does not allow for recurring revenue to prosper at all. This makes selling widgets a “necessary evil” approach to go to market. 

Few hardware companies can start off without going through this process. Fewer can make this model make sense, unless their product’s lifetime is very short and behaves more like a consumable. 

2. Sell services

In an ideal world, the goal is to sell the service your robots perform, as their true value is not in the robot itself but in the work it can perform. The robot is simply an extension of your company and the service it provides, albeit automatically. 

In other words, a robotics company is a service provider. It’s the company, not the customer, that has automated the work your robots can perform. The companies I mentioned above, Picnic and Peanut, provide services in this way. Picnic performs pizza assembly, while Peanut cleans hotel bathrooms. The amount they can charge is equal to human wages multiplied by the pain of recruiting and managing them. 

And the pain is key. If it is very painful—perhaps because the job is very crucial and laborers are hard to find— then customers will be willing to pay a multiple of what they pay human workers for the stability of service. 

Now, the added benefit here is the company’s product need not be a full-on product. If a robotics company can sell a function of a robot, they can still services. 

FORT Robotics provides safety and a security layer for mobile robots, and they do this by providing a wireless e-stop button and endpoint controller. By rights, they should be selling widgets to every company building mobile robots—and they started that way before switching to long-term commercial contracts that move their revenue model to be closer to recurring revenue. Earlier this year, FORT raised $25 million from Tiger Global and Prologis.

Again, it doesn’t matter what product you sell. It only matters what the value is and whether the customer feels enough pain for you to be able to capture the value of solving those pains over the entire customer’s lifetime. If such pain exists, and you have a product for it, you can build a recurring revenue model regardless of the product itself. 

3. Sell platforms

Some companies aspire to become a platform rather than settling on vertically focused applications. 

The no-code industrial robotics programming saw a number of platform companies, such as Wandlebots and Southie Autonomy. Industrial robotics programming is complicated and costly, so these companies are building platforms that allow laymen to program robots easily and quickly, rather than engineers. 

These companies didn’t start as a platform; nobody is going to use them as such from day one. Similar to how some companies began by selling widgets before moving to sell services, however, platform companies generally start with a certain application or vertical, expand the number of applications, and become an uncontested platform of choice over time. 

Platform companies may also pick specific verticals to focus on. For example, companies like InOrbit, which helps robotics companies with mass deployment, could choose to focus on certain verticals like logistics and become a platform of choice for one such vertical before expanding to other verticals.

The key to winning the platform play is to select and win a sizable beachhead market using technologies that can be scaled effortlessly to other verticals. It is the hardest business model, but also one with the highest upside.

February 2023 portfolio round-up

This month, two of our portfolio companies shared some great news:

Rhaeos raises $11M Series A for fluid-monitoring patch

On February 16th, the company announced it raised an $11 million Series A.

“The Steele Foundation for Hope led the raise, tipping Rhaeos’ total funding over $18 million. Creative Ventures and Lateral Capital joined.

With the funds, Rhaeos is launching its patch, called FlowSense, investing in the development of further new products, developing an at-home version of the hospital monitor, and hiring engineers and specialists in payer interactions and reimbursement.”

Read more on Axios.

Alice Technologies voted one of 50 winners of Build in Digital’s Top 50 Contch Partners

Build in Digital’s competition named Alice #19 of 50 total companies. 

The competition boasts itself as “ an independent account of the very best construction technology firms operating in the built environment.”

Read more on Build in Digital’s website.

January 2023 portfolio round-up

As January comes to a close, we’re excited to share three announcements from our portfolio companies:

Exo recognized for Exo Works™

In March 2022, the company launched Exo Works™, a point-of-care ultrasound workflow solution enabling providers to spend less time on documentation and more time with patients. 

“Physicians have historically been bogged down by tedious administration work and inefficient workflows. We designed Exo Works with physicians and patients at the forefront so that exam documentation is now a breeze,” said Sandeep Akkaraju, CEO and co-founder of Exo. “The entire Exo team is honored to be recognized by the BIG Innovation Awards as we continue our mission to bring medical imaging everywhere.”

The award, presented by the Big Intelligence Group (BIG), recognizes Exo Works™ as an intelligent and intuitive solution. 

Read more on Exo’s website

Visolis closes seed round

The company’s recently closed seed round, led by BlueYard Captial, brings its total funding to $8 million. 

“Everyone fundamentally believes that biomanufacturing is going to change the world in the next 30 to 50 years. We need to be making everything using biology and using biological materials,” thinks [CEO, Deepak] Dugar. “But how do we get there? Only companies which can survive the next 5-10 years and grow business, grow revenue, and capture large parts of the marketplace will be able to be in a position where they can deliver on that vision.”

Visolis continues to use biomanufacturing to create carbon-negative materials. 

Read more on Forbes.

Creative Ventures joins Relectrify as a new investor

The company plans to use additional funding to accelerate the adoption of its technology by manufacturers of battery energy storage systems in residential, commercial & industrial and grid applications in global markets.

“Robust energy storage solutions are key to reaching net zero.” said Lisa Coca, Climate Fund partner at Toyota Ventures. “Relectrify’s unique cell-level battery control technology has the potential to unlock significant cost, lifetime, safety and resilience benefits for battery systems, whether they are repurposed EV batteries or new stationary energy storage systems. We look forward to supporting the team as they contribute to decarbonization by reinventing the battery management system and inverter technology.”

Read more on Relectrify’s website.

3 Takeaways from the 2023 JP Morgan Healthcare Conference 

Despite storms, hail, and flash flood warnings, San Francisco hosted the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference live and in person last week — and it was back and forth, rushing from one meeting to another as per usual. 

To kick off the week, our team at Creative Ventures hosted our healthcare portfolio founders in Jack London Square. We truly enjoyed grabbing an evening of their time, giving them a brief reprieve from the tireless efforts they’re putting into reducing the costs of healthcare while reflecting on the privilege it is to work with such wonderful minds. 

From right to left: Nikhil Saukhla (Rhaeos), Geoff Lucks (VenoStent), Gabriel Lopez (Synvivia), Josh Reicher (Imvaria), Tarek Ali Zaki (OncoPrecision), Alex Luce & Kulika Weizman (Creative Ventures)

Later in the week, I went on to partake in two panels; the “Finance Panel: Investment and Partnership Trends in Digital Technologies” hosted by Biotech Showcase, and the “Investor Panel” hosted by Israel Economic Mission.

From right to left: Sarah Benjamin (Israel Economic Mission to the West Coast), Kulika Weizman (Creative Ventures), Miraj Sanghvi (DigiTx Partners), Jeremy Kaufmann (Scale Venture Partners), Omer Fein (Israel Economic Mission to the West Coast)

Photo Courtesy: Omer Fein, Head of The Israel Economic And Trade Mission to The West Coast, USA

Between on- and off-panel discussions, lunches with fellow investors, and reception chats with old and new acquaintances, as well as overhearing talks from other tables in hotel lobbies, here are my top takeaways from JPM 2023:

Early-stage investments have slowed down, but the best deals are still oversubscribed

Keeping exposure bias in mind, the funding environment for seed and series A health tech companies is still quite active. Valuations have been recalibrated given the market condition, but VC firms are taking advantage of a slower deployment pace to dig into the diligence and get to know the companies. This is largely in line with the various reports that show early stage investments are more sheltered than those focusing on late stage companies. 

That said, for early-stage pre-revenue companies with less than six months of runway, it doesn’t matter what the market climate is. If you need to raise, you need to raise. There’s no waiting out the storm. 

The pressure to align stakeholder incentives is stronger during tough times

During the JPM conference, there were a lot of talks about digitizing the healthcare system. While it’s hardly a new topic, it is one example of solutions that get put on hold during a time when financial and resource budgets are tight. Providers just came out of a brutal year where 50 – 70% of the hospitals were operating at a loss in 2022.  

Our stance remains that unless the solutions fit into the workflow for operators, provide positive economic incentives for providers and payors, and result in improved patient outcomes, adoption is a roadblock that can make or break a solution’s viability.

While we don’t specialize in direct-to-consumer opportunities, we’re inclined to believe that its closely related business model of targeting employer-sponsored programs will prove rather volatile in 2023. Sure, things were going well when tech companies were at their peaks, showering their workers with perks, but things are bound to change after multiple high-volume layoffs at the end of last year. This path to market relies so heavily on how well the rest of the market performs, rather than macro trends observed in the areas of an aging population and rising healthcare costs. 

A looming healthcare system failure due to labor shortages

The global pandemic gave us a front-row seat to the strain our current healthcare systems are subject to under human resource pressures. And the fact remains, those problems are not going away. In fact, they’ve been exacerbated.

Anyone with a remote sense of self-interest witnessing what healthcare professionals went through wouldn’t wish that upon themselves.

This is the exact intersection of two of our investment theses: labor automation and reducing healthcare costs. We see it as a particularly pressing and growing market so, perhaps biasedly, it was surprising to see a lack of discussions centered around how we as a society will be tackling the issues. We can only surmise it’s because the topic falls so far outside of pharmaceutical companies’ businesses — and that’s where the money is. 

Having actively searched for companies working in the space, scattered workflow and integration are two key hurdles most solutions fail to address. Hopefully, for the sake of our sustainable access to healthcare, that does not mean it cannot be done. Our prediction is that the pressure from labor costs and availability will only aggravate in the immediate future, while the need for healthcare in an aging population will skyrocket, making it a prime market for startups to tackle.

2023 will be a recording breaking year for VC

In early February 2022, I moved back to the Bay Area, biting the Omicron bullet. In retrospect, it paled in comparison to what happened afterward: ventures fell to pieces, Ukraine was invaded, and the biggest war Europe has seen since 1945 commenced, FTX was revealed as a fraud, and SBF followed Elizabeth Holmes’ footsteps dangerously closely. Oh, and let’s not forget Musk’s Twitter takeover alongside Tesla’s valuation falling back into the atmosphere. 

Amidst all this catastrophe, VC investments and valuations plummeted — and that is precisely why 2023 is bound to be another record-breaking year.

VC is sitting on a record amount of dry powder…still.

The fuel to generate future deals continues to be robust. U.S. venture capital fundraising has set a new annual high through only three quarters of 2022. U.S.-based VC funds alone have raised $150.9 billion, surpassing 2021’s previous record, taking the 21-month fundraising total above $298.1 billion. 

2022 saw consistently lackluster deployment.

Deal activity across all segments of venture continued to decline in Q3. Some would argue that 2021 was an outlier year; in other words, a one-time spike. But that couldn’t possibly be true since there were ample bullets left to be fired — and in a shorter time frame. 

$$$$$ + A lack of deployment = inevitable sharp deployment

It’s not a simple formula. There is a lot of fresh money lying around alongside an undeniable lack of investment activities. As a result, we are waiting for an onslaught of investments to happen.

VC also cannot be infinitely “patient.” Sure, it’s easy to justify withholding investment for a while, but GPs typically charge fees based on commitment, not deployment. LPs are going to start dialing up the pressure and asking GPs to justify their fees. 

Eventually, GPs will be left with no choice but to deploy. The question remains not if but when. 

There’s the ideal world, and there’s reality. 

Ideally, VC — and, by extension, founders — would prefer the public market recovers (or at least show a strong indication of recovery) before fully deploying again. No one wants to raise at a depressed valuation if they can avoid it. 

This hinges upon The Fed slowing down interest rate hikes. As much posturing as Powell has done, the market seems to believe that rate hikes will soon come to an end, and as depressed as the equity market has been, the market is still overpricing equity based on where the raise is today. There is a lot of positive sentiment that the market will soon return, and everyone seems to be simply waiting for the time to strike. Generally speaking, there doesn’t seem to be much concern about the underlying economic fundamentals as rate hikes continue. 

Given that December only hiked at 50 bps, there is a somewhat positive outlook. I don’t believe this to be a strong enough time to put the market on the cusp of turning — at least not enough for VC to start pouring without restraint. 

What is more likely to happen is that VC will use the new year as a mental excuse to be “different” and press an imaginary “reset” button — not unlike the sudden spike in gym memberships that happens at the start of every new year. The latest 50 bps hikes have already served as a sufficient excuse for VC funds to “hedge” and start looking at deals again, as opposed to simply focusing on current portfolio companies. Come January, and through Q1, I expect to see VCs beginning to go back into the market again without deploying. 

Come late Q1/early Q2, I believe rates will begin to stabilize as the Fed faces unrelenting and increasing pressure to “soft-land.” As inflation begins to ease (and even if employment and wages do not), politics will make it increasingly difficult to continue raising rates at the same pace as in 2022. 

Now, when it comes to the public equity market, the actual hike does not matter. Instead, the key player is what the public expects the hikes will be. Based on 2022 sentiments, it is impossible to think the Fed would be able to persuade the public about its hawkish attitude as it is forced to hike more slowly and/or at a lower amount. This is likely to happen sometime in Q2…and therein lies the eventual turning point for VC. 

Q2 deals will walk so Q3 deals can run.

All indicators point to Q3 being a summer in which VCs can either take their vacations and miss out entirely or get to work and make things happen. Early conversations in Q1 will likely turn into dealmaking in Q2, prompted by a sentiment of slowed hikes which should start to push public equity (and valuation multiples) up. 

Q3 is when we expect the floodgates to open, prompting deja vu as we relive a different kind of 2021.

RIP growth at all costs and the business models that rely on it. 

To be clear, there is no expectation that deals will be done in the same fashion as they were in 2021. Wherever the rate hikes end, there’s no decrease or lessening that will happen. Rates are going to plateau and stay at that level for several years to come — or at least that will be an operating assumption of most VCs and entrepreneurs. This means we can safely assume that business models that rely on cheap money will struggle to raise, let alone do well.

Businesses that show great operating margins and the ability to become profitable quickly are more likely to do well. This includes the likes of robotics companies that have won large enterprise contracts, require minimum customer acquisition costs, and benefit from a tight labor market; medical technology companies who have a quick path to FDA approval and readily available reimbursement codes; and climate tech companies with both cost parity and performance. Political and legislative tailwinds, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, will only serve to help these companies prosper. 

There is no reason to doubt 2023 will be a mega year for venture capital. What grows out of it, however, will be companies that suit the current and foreseeable economic condition — one that is unlike the last 14 years since the Great Financial Crisis. 

The VC who found ways to invest in those companies, and those companies themselves, will be the ones to come out on top.