My Start-up Portfolio

My wife Lisa and I are active “angel” investors and advisers.  We have invested in 17 different companies since 2003, and we have 13 active investments in biotechnology (4), hardware (3), software (5), and space (1). Our first two investments were disasters. DreamBox Learning gave us a slight return. And we had nice wins in Azuqua and AppSheet. I have also advised several different start-ups.

Biotechnology

www.blazebioscience.com (2015) TumorPaint™, for cancer surgery; pursuing FDA approval for pediatric brain cancer first. Blaze discovered a small protein from the venom of the Israeli Death Stalker Scorpion that sticks to cancer cells. They added a molecule that glows green under near-infrared light, and they have a surgical microscope + light source that enables the surgeon (pediatric brain cancer, breast cancer, lung cancer, …) to see the tight margins on large tumor masses AND identify the little metastases that would escape CT PET scans. FDA grants Fast Track designation to BLZ-100, 4/7/2020.

www.cyrusbio.com (2015) started out as a SaaS version of Baker’s Rosetta protein modeling/design software. They have shifted recently to redesigning 3 already-approved FDA drugs that treat relatively obscure diseases. These particular drugs have high immunogenicity, and so cannot be effective/tolerated for very long. Cyrus believes they can redesign these existing drugs to maintain their effectiveness while simultaneously vastly reducing their immunogenicity. $8M funding round, 7/27/2017.

www.lumenbioscience.com (2019) is able to produce complex proteins in Spirulina. Their first aim is a pill that travelers can consume prophylactically with meals to avoid sickness from E coli, Campylobacter, C Diff, and Norovirus. They produce 5 different camelid VHH antibodies in the Spirulina, and these either attack these organisms or bind to their poisons, plus lysins to attack the organisms. Spirulina is GRAS by the FDA. And Lumen got lucky: you just grind up the dried spirulina, and the husks protect these delicate proteins from stomach acids and enzymes, so they survive into the intestine where they do their work. $16M Series B, 9/1/2020.

www.twinstrandbio.com (2019) has a clever patented technology that reduces the error rate in PCR + gene sequencing from 1 in 100 base pairs to 1 in 10M base pairs. Many applications, most importantly in testing blood for trace amounts of markers for serious diseases (especially cancer). $16M Series A, 1/7/2020. Foundation Medicine licenses TSB patent families, 11/18/2020.

Hardware

www.directedmachines.com (2018) autonomous electric farm tractor, <$20K, mowing, trimming, grading, and hauling. Computer vision and ML are very important to accurate navigation and safety. See the videos.

www.glowforge.com (2014) makes a cloud software 3D laser cutter. Launch press release, 4/23/2018.

www.onetrack.ai (2019) improves safety, accuracy, and efficiency of forklifts in large warehouses. Founder/CEO is Northwestern BS CS’17. Lots of computer vision/ML code. Hardware mounts on forklift, two cameras (up/down), cellphone guts, provides real-time tracking (surprisingly rare: a 1M sf warehouse can employ 60-80 forklifts). Integrates with existing Warehouse Management Systems software.

Software

www.adlightning.com (2020) scans publisher websites (NYPost, Slate, etc.) for bad ads and provides bad ad blocking service. “Bad” is slow to load, spammy, and/or malware.

www.dreambox.com (2006) offers K-8 online Math learning. I co-founded SchoolSoft in 2006, we launched as DreamBox Learning in 2009, and sold it to Reed Hastings in 2010. The Rise Fund bought DreamBox in 2018. I have a very tiny stake now.

www.floreotech.com (2021) provides Virtual Reality therapy to kids with autism.

www.lockstep.com (2019) automates email handling for cloud-based ERP accounts receivable/accounts payable systems, verifies company contact/billing information, eventually provides high-quality credit worthiness reports. There are several possible “network effect” over time. $10M Series A, 2/3/2021.

www.ondema.com (2021) provides custom machine shop scheduling; optimize people, machines, and jobs; either stand-alone, or augmenting existing ERP systems (which have no or poor scheduling abilities); potential to provide more ERP services over time.

Space

www.stoke-space.com (2020) is a young space start-up in Seattle founded by Blue Origin & SpaceX alumni. See fully reusable rockets, $9.1M seed funding, 2/25/2021.

Successful Exits

Our 2013 investment in www.azuqua.com (automating data flows between disparate cloud services) was realized in early 2019, acquired by Okta. Our 2014 investment in www.appsheet.com (put a spreadsheet in the cloud, push a button, get a mobile app) was a big winner in early 2020, acquired by Google.

I started DreamBox Learning in 2006, sold it at a loss to Reed Hasting in 2010, kept a financial interest, and I made a follow-on investment several years later. When The Rise Fund acquired DreamBox in 2018, I realized a modest return over that 12-year span.

Advising Start-ups

I was an advisor to Albert.io (2014-2020), SignalSense (2014-2015, acquired by Splunk), and UIEvolution (2002-2005, acquired by Square Enix). I was also a director of non-profit GroundSpring.org (2003-2004, acquired by Network for Good).

I look at 50-80 start-ups in any one year, and though I rarely write a check, I do try to provide frank feedback and guidance.

Early Disasters

TeachFirst (2003-2009) was my first angel investment, and I lost 120% (we had to do Chapter 7 bankruptcy liquidation, and employees sued the board for wages deferred before I invested). Vizrea (2005-2009) was my second angel investment, and I lost 90% (a too-early mobile phone photo sharing application).

Author: benslivka

17 start-ups, software, hardware, biotech, space, neurodiversity, learning, free markets, food, wine, cycling, walking, Seattle, Microsoft, Northwestern University, Garfield HS, DreamBox Learning, IBM, Amazon.

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