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As it adds Jeremy Milken to the partnership, Watertower Ventures nears $50 million close for its new fund

Derek Norton and Jeremy Milken have known each other for twenty years. Over their longtime personal and professional relationship, the two Los Angeles-based serial entrepreneurs have invested in each other’s companies and investment firms, but never worked together until now.

Milken is taking the plunge into institutional investing, joining Norton as a partner in Watertower Ventures just as the firm prepares to close on a $50 million new fund.

It’s an auspicious time for both Los Angeles-based businessmen, as the LA venture community sees a wave of technology talent relocating from New York and San Francisco in the newly remote work culture created by the COVID-19 epidemic.

“I see two things happen. One people look at the effects of where the market’s going. We’re seeing a lot more companies that are starting up now as a result of a [the pandemic],” said Norton. “New company formation is happening faster than before covid. [And] a lot of venture capitalists that have relocated to LA. They’ve moved down to LA for lifestyle reasons and they’re saying that they don’t need to go back to San Francisco.”

For Milken, the opportunity to get into venture now is a function of the company creation and acceleration of digital adoption that Norton referenced. “The pandemic is accelerating change in the marketplace. Things that might have taken a decade are taking two years now,” Milken said.

These opportunities are creating an opening for Watertower Ventures in markets far beyond the Hollywood hills. The firm, whose original thesis focused on Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York, is now cutting checks on investments in Texas and Utah, and spending much less time looking for companies in the Bay Area.

Derek Norton, founder, Watertower Ventures: Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

Norton’s latest fund is the only the most recent act in a career that has seen the investor traverse the financial services digital media and the early days of the internet. Norton built Digital Boardwalk, a pioneering internet service provider and the second commercial partner for the trailblazing browser service, Netscape.

Later, at Jeffries Technologies, and the $120 million Entertainment Media Ventures seed and early stage venture capital fund, Norton was intimately involved in bringing tech to market and focusing on early stage investments. With that in mind, the Watertower Ventures group, which launched in 2017 with a small, $5 million fund, is a return to those roots.

The plan, even at the time, was always to raise a larger fund. After founding and running the boutique investment banking business at Watertower Group, Norton knew he had to raise a starter fund to prove the thesis he was working on.

That thesis was to provide a bridge between early stage companies and large technology companies using the network that Norton has built in the Southern California tech and entertainment community over decades.

“We want to take our contacts at Google, Apple, Facebook, Disney, Microsoft, Cisco, Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, and other companies we believe should have a relationship with our portfolio companies, and help the CEOs and management teams more effectively do business development,” Norton told SoCal Tech when he closed his first fund in 2017. “We want to connect them to the right person at those companies to create a commercial relationship. That has a really large impact on early stage companies, who typically don’t have a deep network of relationships, and the ability to get to those type of people. It’s because of our advisory business that we have those relationships, and that’s also why those relationships stay fresh and active, versus people who aren’t in those businesses. It’s almost a full time job to maintain that, and that’s where our value-add is.”

Milken, who has spent his professional career in entrepreneurship, was ready to try investing, and was intimately familiar with Watertower and its portfolio, as an investor in the firm’s first $5 million fund.

“Two years ago we started having those conversations,” said Norton in an interview. “As Jeremy exited his business in September it created the opportunity to go out and raise together as the evolution of our partnership.”

Jeremy Milken, general partner, Watertower Ventures. Image Credit: Watertower Ventures

With the new capital coming in, Norton expects to back some 30 to 35 companies, he said. And, in a testament to the first fund’s performance, which has it in the top decile of venture funds for its vintage, Norton said he was able to raise the capital amidst the economic uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some 70 percent of the existing portfolio has been marked up, according to Norton.

Even though limited partners, the investors who back venture funds, were reluctant to commit capital to new firms in March and April, fundraising returned with a vengeance in June and July, according to Norton. The paper performance likely was enough to woo additional limited partners and individual investors including TikTok chief executive Kevin Mayer, the former head of streaming at Disney.

Mayer’s presence in the firm’s investor base is a testament to the firm’s pitch to founders. “We view fundraising as a massive distraction for these early stage companies from their business. We try to deliver that network that’s ours to those founders,” said Norton.

“I think we’re in a unique position starting with a fresh fund here,” says Norton. “Uncertainty creates opportunity and people are bringing solutions. We haven’t noticed any slowdown whatsoever, we’re working with twenty five companies per week. Since the inception of the fund, we haven’t seen deal flow at this level.”

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Funding in an uncertain market: using venture debt to bridge the gap

While a handful of tech companies like Zoom and Shopify are enjoying massive gains as a result of COVID-19, that’s obviously not the case for most. Weaker demand, slower sales cycles, and customer insistence on pricing concessions and payment deferrals have conspired to cloud the outlook for many tech companies’ growth.

Compounding these challenges, a lot of tech companies are struggling to raise capital just when they need it most. The data so far suggests that investors, particularly those focused on earlier stage financings, are taking a more cautious approach to new deals and valuations while they wait to see how individual companies perform and which way the economy will go. With the outcome of their planned equity financings uncertain, some tech companies are revisiting their funding strategies and exploring alternative sources of capital to fuel their continued growth.

Forecasting growth in a pandemic: a difficult job just got harder

For certain businesses, COVID-19’s impact on revenue was immediate. For others, the effects of slower economic activity and tighter budgets surfaced more gradually with deals in the funnel before the pandemic closing in April and May. Either way, in the second half of 2020, technology CFOs face a common challenge: How do you accurately forecast sales when there’s very little consensus around key issues such as when business activity will return to pre-COVID levels and what the long-term effects of the crisis might be?

Unfortunately, navigating this uncertainty is just as daunting a challenge for investors. These days, equity investors’ assessment of a company’s growth potential, and the value they are willing to pay for that growth, aren’t just impacted by their view of the company itself. Equally important is their assumptions about when the economy will recover and what the new normal might look like. This uncertainty can lead to situations where companies and their potential investors have materially different views on valuation.

Longer funding cycles, more investor-friendly deals

While the full impact of COVID was felt too late to have a material impact on Q1 deal volumes, recently released data from Pitchbook and the NVCA suggest that 2020 will see a significant decrease in the number of companies funded, possibly by as much 30 percent compared to 2019 among early stage companies. And, while it often takes several months to see evidence of broad trends in investment terms, anecdotal evidence indicates investors are seeking to mitigate risk by demanding additional protective provisions.

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Novastar Ventures becomes $200M African VC fund after $108M raise

African startups have another $100 million in VC to pitch for after Novastar Ventures’ latest raise.

The Nairobi and Lagos based investment group announced it has closed $108 million in new commitments to launch its Africa Fund II, which brings Novastar’s total capital to $200 million.

With the additional resources, the firm plans to make 12 to 14 investments across the continent, according to Managing Director Steve Beck. He spoke to TechCrunch on Novastar Ventures’ plans for the new fund.

A notable update to Novastar’s VC focus is geographic scope. The firm was originally co-founded in Kenya by Beck and British investor Andrew Carruthers and built its first portfolio largely around companies based in East Africa. Novastar Ventures made 15 investments with its first fund, including companies such as Uganda and Kenya focused energy startup SolarNow and agtech venture M-Farm.

“The second fund is basically the same strategy as the first, but…the biggest difference is that we opened up a second front in West Africa — more particularly to be in and around the entrepreneurial system in Lagos,” Beck told TechCrunch on a call.

Before closing its Africa Fund II, Novastar Ventures had already made several investments in West Africa, including leading a round in Nigerian on demand motorcycle transit startup in and backing Ghanaian health company, MPharma. Novastar opened an office Lagos in 2019.

On the types of startups Novastar will target with its new fund, the focus is more on mission than industry silos, according to co-founder Steve Beck. “We’re sector agnostic. I would describe us more as a segment fund than a sector fund,” he said.

“We really try to look for businesses called breakthrough businesses, [those] that are addressing the biggest problems in the largest markets.”

That has led Novastar Ventures to invest in digital companies in education, information access, agtech, mobility and off-grid energy.

“Essentially what we’re doing is looking for those businesses that are addressing the basic needs, basic goods and services across the true mass markets of the continent,” said Beck.

On whether the firm is a dedicated impact fund, Beck said, “The way we characterize ourselves is we’re a commercial venture fund with an impact screen.”

On investment amounts and types, Novastar Ventures is fairly flexible on ticket size, from seed to later stage.

“We’re gonna…have some portfolio companies where we put to work a million dollars or less or were going to have some where we put $8 or $9 million dollars in through capital rounds. That’s…the deployment strategy,” Beck said.

Novastar Ventures maintains a close relationship with its portfolio companies, according to its co-founder.

“We’re very active investors and always take a board seat to be close to the entrepreneurs. We often are the first institutional investor that they have.”

Image Credits: TechCrunch

Startups who want to pitch to the company can reach out to fund’s founders and directors via the website or LinkedIn, according to Beck. He added that Novastar Ventures is recruiting to add another member to its investor team in 2020.

The firm’s latest raise and $200 million capital amount creates another high value fund focused on African startups.

On the high end of estimates, the continent’s tech ecosystem reached $2 billion in VC to startups in 2019, compared to less than half a billion dollar five years ago.

Other large Africa focused VC shops include TLcom Capital — which closed a $71 million fund in February —  and Partech, which doubled its Africa fund to $143 million in 2019. The venture arms of major global companies have also become more active in Africa recently, including that of Goldman Sachs and Visa.

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Introducing the term-sheet grader

When we launched in 2016, we took the unusual approach of saying we’d buy common stock in startups. We believed then, and still do, that alignment with founders was more important than covering our downside in investments that didn’t work as planned. Said differently, we wanted to enhance our upside through alignment, rather than maximizing our downside through terms.

The world has changed a lot since that time. While we are actively making investments, and still buying common stock, we know that many entrepreneurs may be trying to raise money now — and it is very hard.

Fred Destin wrote a great piece about the ugly terms that can creep into term sheets during difficult times. If you have a choice between a good term sheet and a bad one, of course, you’ll take the good one. But what if you have no choice? And how can you compare term sheets in the first place?

To this end, we developed the term-sheet grader, a simple way to compare different term sheets or help characterize whether a term sheet is good or evil.

Let me first point out that none of this has anything to do with the valuation of the round (share price), the amount of capital, the likelihood of reaching a closing, the quality of the firm or the trust you have with the individual leading the investment, all absolutely critical pieces of the puzzle. Here, we are just looking at the terms and conditions, the legal structure of the investment.

We’ve listed nine key terms below — five that have to do with economics and four that relate to control and decision-making:

  • Each key term can earn +1 for being friendly and -1 for being tough.
  • There are a few really friendly terms that have a score of +2 each.
  • Likewise, there are a few really tough ones that earn a -2.
  • The best a term sheet could score is a +11, the worst is a -11.
  • The “Industry Standard” deal scores a 0.

FWIW, the Pillar common stock standard deal earns a +8 (shown below).

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New guidance on SBA loans means most startups are still excluded from $349 billion stimulus

Under new guidance issued by the Small Business Administration it seems non-profits and faith-based groups can apply for the Paycheck Protection Program loans designed to keep small business afloat during the COVID-19 epidemic, but most venture-backed companies are still not covered.
Late Friday night, the Treasury Department updated its rules …

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Majority of top global VC investors witness growth in investment volume but decline in value in 2019, says GlobalData

Six of the top 10 global venture capital (VC)
investors showcased year-on-year (YoY) growth in the number of investments, whereas
seven of them witnessed YoY decline in the proportionate investment value in
2019, says GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

The top 10 global VC investors (by number of
investments) participated in …

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Low-value deals dominated European venture capital investments volume in Q4 2019

Europe experienced an increase in the number of low-value venture capital (VC) deals (investment <=US$10m), which also accounted for the majority share in terms of volume in the fourth quarter (Q4) of 2019, according to GlobalData, a leading data and analytics company.

The region saw an increase from 511 low-value deals with disclosed funding value (accounting for 79.6% share) worth US$1.4bn in Q4 2018 to 597 deals (accounting for 79.9% share) worth US$1.6bn in Q4 2019. The UK topped with a total of 222 deals worth US$544m, followed by France with 86 deals worth US$265.6m and Germany with 54 deals worth US$200m.

Some of the notable low value deals announced during Q4 2019 included US$10m each secured by SenSat, The Founders and LabGenius.

A total of 748 deals (with disclosed funding value) worth US$6.6bn were announced in Europe in Q4 2019 compared to 642 deals worth US$5.3bn in Q4 2018. Deals across all funding size ranges except >US$20-50m witnessed both volume and value growth in Q4 2019 compared to Q4 2018.

The region saw an increase in the volume and value of deals ranging between US$0-$1m from 151 deals worth US$73.2m in Q4 2018 to 176 deals worth US$77.2m in Q4 2019.

Some of the notable deals announced within this range included US$1m secured by Five Vectors, US$0.75m by PerfOps, and US$4m secured by UnderTheDoor.

The number of deals valued between US$1m-$5m also increased from 272 deals worth US$670.5m in Q4 2018 to 322 deals worth of US$779.8m in Q4 2019.

Some of the notable deals announced within this range included US$5m secured by Vega Holdings, US$4.9m secured by Vertical Future Limited, US$3.9m secured by Urania Therapeutics, US$3m secured by Oceano Fresco, US$2.5m secured by Augmenta and US$1.7m secured by Geowox.

Europe also witnessed an increase in the volume and value in deals ranged between US$100-$500m from seven deals worth US$963.39m in Q4 2018 to eight deals worth US$1.36bn in Q4 2019. Germany topped in this funding size with a total of four deals worth US$713m.

Some of the notable deals announced within this range included US$290m secured by Celonis, US$220.3m secured by Picnic Technologies, and US$166.9m secured by Glovo.

The region saw a decline in the number of deals ranged between US$20m-$50m from 59 deals worth US$1.79bn in Q4 2018 to 47 deals worth US$1.39bn in Q4 2019.

In funding size ranging between US$10m-$20m, there was an increase from 60 deals worth US$866.3m in Q4 2018 to 78 deals worth US$1.06bn in Q4 2019. The UK topped in this funding size with 28 deals worth US$396.5m and France stood second with 19 deals worth US$261.69m.

Some of the notable deals announced within this funding range included US$20m secured by Wayve Technologies, US$19.32m secured by Cuvva, and US$18m secured by pureLiFi.

Source: GlobalData