Accion Systems wins Unicorn Idol Competition at Fortune Brainstorm Conference

I am proud of all of our portfolio companies at TechU Angels. The founding teams work day and night to build long term, sustainable enterprises that will make a serious impact. As investors, although we can’t take any of the credit, we are in the fortunate position to have a front row seat.

One of our portfolio companies in particular – Accion Systems – seems to be on a very high trajectory. I am proud to share that Natalya Brikner, the founder of Accion was invited to pitch at the Fortune Brainstorm Conference – Unicorn Idol Competition last week, and of the 5 invited companies, came out the winner.

While I’ve long ago learned first-hand that a company’s success isn’t crowned in a competition, I am still extremely excited about the prospects for Accion and can’t be anything but proud. If you aren’t familiar with what they do, I would take the time to read up about them. A quick Google search yields this.

Update: If you’d like to view a video of the event, you may do so using the following link.

MIT Sloan Finance Conference NYC

Today I had the opportunity to attend the MIT Sloan Finance Conference in NYC at the Mandarin Oriental for a full day conference. I also had the opportunity to attend the prior one which took place two years ago. In stark difference, a big part of this year’s panel discussions focused on innovation, and more specifically with financial technologies, highlighting those coming from MIT Sloan faculty. The focus of the previous event was more on financial engineering and risk management. It’s amazing to see how the world of finance has evolved in the past couple of years. Clearly a big impact being felt by all the progress made in tech and entrepreneurship. Also, the previous conference was taking place in the shadows of the 2008 financial crisis. Hopefully this is a sign that we are passed that crisis.

I’m pretty fortunate to have attended an institution that’s been at the forefront of managing and leading the advancement in tech and innovation. #mitsloan

Note: picture above is of Bob Merton, current MIT Sloan professor, Nobel laureate, and inventor of the Black Scholes model.

TechU Angels in the news

We received some coverage in the news earlier today. Greg Huang of Xconomy wrote a nice writeup of TechU Angels here. Many thanks to my advisors at TechU and to all the wonderful startups who have agreed to partner with us.

The next wave in Venture Capital investment

If the last five to seven years of tech innovation will come to be known as the period of advances in social media and wireless connectivity (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Snapchat, and others), I believe the next period will be known for something much more meaningful. Many are calling the Internet of Things as the next significant wave in tech, but I believe that Artificial Intelligence (or “AI”) will play a bigger part in what’s to come and will usher in a fundamental shift that has the potential to cause the greatest positive disruption and impact to the lives of regular people.

What will be the ultimate impact and what can we expect?

A more productive workforce where everything but the most essential of functions will be outsourced to automated platforms who will be able to complete tasks with similar (or better) efficiency and at a fraction of the cost of low to medium skilled workers.

What types of employees will be most effected by this change?

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here’s a few functions which stand to be eliminated or significantly reduced; secretaries, taxi cab/limousine drivers, call in center/switchboard operators, factory/assembly line workers, and may even extend to educators. Again, there are probably another 1000 roles which are similar to these which I did not include.

At TechU Angels we have already invested in a company which we expect will play a significant role in this new era. At this stage, it is in stealth mode and we have agreed not to disclose it, but we hope to and will with time. We continue to look for opportunities in the AI space, and I believe will roll the dice when we find an opportunity which fits our criteria.

One such company that is actively playing a role in this space is x.ai which publicly launched several months ago and garnered much attention (note: We are not investors). I have been using this platform to book meetings and their automated secretary Amy Ingram has personally saved me a lot of time in handling a function which needs to be done, takes a lot of time, and which doesn’t require much skill. In my opinion, she has also done a job on par with, or better than any physical person that I could have hired for the role.

Over time, I expect this platform to expand into more difficult tasks, like booking restaurants, arranging work related travel, paying my bills, and more typical secretarial functions like picking up phone calls, having a conversation with the initiator, and routing (or taking a message when appropriate) a call to the appropriate channel. If you haven’t checked out them out yet, I recommend you do, and definitely sign up and take their platform for a test-drive.

In the long run (maybe 5 years or less even), you will likely see platforms like x.ai cutting into the number of secretaries in the workforce, Google self driving cars replacing cab drivers, and natural language processing platforms removing (or significantly reducing) call service operators from the workforce. Best of all, you’ll be able to accomplish all of this at a fraction of the cost, at a higher satisfaction rate over time, and potentially with much less grief and attitude.

We can expect the long term impact to be pretty significant and to create a significant gap between the have’s and have not’s, and ultimately those with higher education and skills will have a more acute, apparent advantage than those who don’t.

It will be interesting to see how this unfold over the next few years.

On Connecting with TechU Angels

One of our goals when building our web and media presence at TechU Angels, was to build a platform that was easy to navigate, is informative, and enables entrepreneurs to understand our process and how to best contact us. We believe in transparency, and try to provide that along every step of the way. We have hopefully been able to achieve that with our new site which was finalized over the last few months.

I invite everyone to check it out and provide us with feedback (both good and bad) using the comments below or by emailing me. Our URL can be found here: www.techuangels.com

On a high level, we recommend that founders interested in connecting with our team, take the opportunity to first read about us and then learn more about our process. If you are a startup founder, and have questions, you can always reach out via our general email address – info@techuangels.com. Someone will get back to you, we always do. When you are ready to engage us in learning more about your startup, we encourage you to fill out our form as a next step:

https://www.techuangels.com/startups/

This form is pretty important, and we do take it very seriously. Therefore we encourage you to take it seriously as it serves as a first impression, and allows us to get to know you and your strategic goals and company better.

Our investment in Accion Systems

We closed out our very last investment of 2014 in the final moments. I am proud to announce our investment in Accion Systems, and we are excited to be partnering with Natalya Brikner and Louis Perna, two of the leading budding aerospace entrepreneurs working on building the next generation of propulsion systems for small satellites.

You can learn more about Accion Systems on their website at www.accion-systems.com.

Other investors in the round include FF Science Founders Fund, RRE Ventures, Founder Collective, and several other prominent angels.

Hope to be in touch soon with more investment news and other updates.

Our third investment

Back in late November, TechU Angels made our third investment. Although we are very excited about the opportunity, we have decided, in concert with the founding team, to keep our participation unannounced for the time being due to competitive and other commercial considerations. What we can tell you is that the team comprises perhaps the world’s leading experts in natural language processing and artificial intelligence, and they are building an application which already has commercial players in the automotive space salivating.

Looking forward to sharing more when the time is ripe. I think you’ll be as excited about it as we are when we do.

Investment in LedgerX

I’m happy to announce that back in early November 2014, TechU Angels invested in LedgerX.

Overall, we have been very high on the cryptocurrency space for some time now and have been actively looking for opportunities to support. LedgerX is not just another cryptocurrency or trading platform, but at the forefront of bringing global legitimacy for BTC as a regulated financial instrument. The team is building an options and futures trading platform backed by BTC, and is working with the appropriate authorities and channels to obtain the blessing of the appropriate US financial regulatory bodies. Yes, a very big challenge, but one that we are very confident they will be able to meet head-on.

The team is led by former MIT alumni and Goldman Sachs high frequency traders who are greatly experienced in the options and futures markets and who bring a depth of knowledge and relationships within the field which are unparalleled.

The round was led by Lightspeed Ventures, and included returning investors Google Ventures and SV Angel.

If you’d like to learn more about them, I’d recommend you review their coverage in the WSJ announcing the round (link here), their public comments on the NY State Department of Financial Services Proposed Virtual Currency Regulatory Framework (link here), and other press from around the web (more here). It’s clear to our team that Paul, Juthica, Ethan and the rest of the team are building a disruptive force, and will be well positioned to take advantage of a strong first mover advantage. We are excited to partner with them during this exciting period.

Our first investment – Hydration Labs, Inc.

It’s been a while since I’ve shared any updates and I know that it’s been due for some time. I’ll try to be more consistent going forward, so here goes…

Back in May 2014, I attended the TechStars demo day in Boston. There were some great companies there, but one which really happened to catch my eye. That startup was Hydration Labs, Inc., and the CEO was Sean Grundy, together with founders Frank Lee and Eliza Becton.

Sean and team are working on disrupting beverage delivery for offices (a $3B+ annual market) by introducing a specialized filtration machine called the Bevi.

The Bevi creates drinks which are customizable, taste great, are environmentally responsible, and actually save customers a TON of money – all at the point-of-sale. Their early beta testers include some of the largest corporate offices in the Boston region, and the inbound demand and feedback has thus far been INCREDIBLE.

I can’t get into too many details at this stage, but they have some really grand plans. Their next product iteration should really set them apart. One of the factors that really got us excited about the opportunity is the fact that none of the founders are industry insiders. We like that they bring a fresh perspective and have a strong focus on what users require and demand. This is a stale industry led by incumbents who have had up till now little incentive to be creative or actually listen to what customers want.

The team’s focus on user experience and design is truly inspiring and evident when viewing a machine for the first time. We also liked that Sean and Frank are fellow alumni of MIT Sloan. Given our team’s background at TechU, we feel a strong sense of responsibility to give back, and we can’t think of a better way than with partnering with MIT founded companies.

After several meetings my partners and I decided to pull the trigger back in late October.

Thank you to Sean and team for bringing us as your partners, and we are looking forward to joining you on this exciting journey.

On Launching TechU Angels

After a year of planning, in February of 2014 I very quietly launched TechU Angels LLC, a seed and venture investment firm, together with Aaron, Alexander, Lisa, Tony, Eddie and Gautam – all friends that I met through my time at MIT. This group of global all-star angel investors, entrepreneurs, and operators came together because we were all frustrated with the current state of seed funding and felt that true support for entrepreneurs in the early stages was not completely where it needed to be.

From the very beginning we realized that the current angel capital models were broken, and we decided to push the envelope and do things a bit differently, because that is what startups and entrepreneurs need in this current environment. We realized that to best support our startups, we needed to be and act like a startup ourselves. That means continually iterating and innovating at every step.

How are we different from a traditional angel investment group or firm?

  • Global nature – given the advances of technology and video conferencing in general, we don’t believe it makes sense to have an angel group focused on a specific city or region (like most are today). The world is global and so are we. You can find our partners in the thriving startup ecosystems of Boston, San Francisco, New York, Tel Aviv, Singapore, and Mumbai.
  • More efficient due diligence process – although discussions may stretch over a period of time, once we decide we are in on a deal, we aim very strictly to keep our due diligence process to less than 3 weeks. We think that is fair for the entrepreneurs and also for our time. We don’t think 3 to 6 months is right or makes business sense and we hope other angel firms move away from that model.
  • Open and honest feedback, each and every time – we say what we think and feel about your startup because we know that is what will help you in the long run. If we decide not to invest, it’s only fair that we are clear and open about how we feel. There is no point in having you run after us for weeks (or months) if you can be making better use of your time finding folks who are more aligned with what you’re trying to create. If we can share feedback along the way that helps, why not. We want you to succeed regardless.
  • Using technology to make things easier – we may be the only angel investment firm in the world to develop our own due diligence and deal evaluation platform all directly in house. We have built proprietary technology which helps us evaluate deals faster, and more efficiently than others in the space and we think that will give us an added advantage.
  • Ability to invest across stages – we think it’s pretty poor business sense to invest in the seed stage of a firm, but not join the Series A (or B) rounds for those startups that are on a tear. This is called pro-rata rights and we intend to acquire it whenever possible and make good use of our long-term ability to support our startups over several stages. We are building our follow on investment capabilities and we are particularly fortunate to get guidance in this area from late stage investors like Dr. Henry Kressel, a veteran tech investor and MD at Warburg Pincus who serves as one of our advisors.

Over this period (since February), we’ve reviewed and met with over 200 startups and we’re glad to announce that we recently completed our first two investments in Hydration Labs, Inc. (“Refresh”) and ledgerX. You can read more about them on our Investments page and see the fantastic news they’ve garnered from publications like the Wall Street Journal, Dow Jones, International Financial Times and others on our News page.

We were the lead investors in the Refresh round and co-invested with Lightspeed Ventures, Google Ventures, and SV Angels in the ledgerX deal.

We are especially proud that our first two investments came from the MIT ecosystem given our strong ties to the Institute and what MIT has meant to us professionally and personally in our lives. We expect MIT to be the primary (though not sole) focus of where we find good opportunities.

Since many of you will ask, I will share this information here. For those startups who wish to get in touch with us, the best way to get started is by filling out a very brief form at the following link. We try to be as efficient as possible and aim to respond super fast.

Finally, I started this blog a few weeks back with the intention of maintaining it as the one source of news and updates about our work and firm. If you’d like to stay on top of what’s happening with us, please click on the menu bar (up top) and add your email as a subscriber to this blog. I promise not to send clutter.

Thank you for being a part of our journey.