Two former members of Google’s skunkworks division have launched a biomanufacturing company

Biomanufacturing technologies — taking modified versions of existing organisms and bending them to the will of humans — has moved from the world of science fiction to becoming a new reality. Across the startup landscape companies are launching to make synthetic spider silk, or make leather substitutes, or meat substitutes, or novel chemicals and pharmaceuticals. […]

Biomanufacturing technologies — taking modified versions of existing organisms and bending them to the will of humans — has moved from the world of science fiction to becoming a new reality.

Across the startup landscape companies are launching to make synthetic spider silk, or make leather substitutes, or meat substitutes, or novel chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

What all of these companies have in common is that they need to be able to rapidly experiment with different organisms and processes for cultivating them to make their visions work at a commercial scale — and that’s where Culture Biosciences comes in.

The company was founded by two Chapel Hill, N.C. natives and Duke alums Matthew Ball and Will Patrick. The two met in college at Duke and worked together in Google’s famous skunkworks division (then known as Google X).

Will Patrick, co-founder, Culture Biosciences

After leaving Google, Patrick, the company’s chief executive, wound up at MIT’s Media Lab where he was exposed to the work that companies like Gingko Bioworks was doing around biomanufacturing and became convinced that it would be transformational by human society.

“I was becoming incredibly inspired by all of that,” says Patrick. “What I was noticing was that the problem and the bottleneck in the industry was moving from industrial design to scale-up.”

The solution to that bottleneck rested in making the fermentation process more precise and more controlled, Patrick thought.

Think of biomanufacturing as a process similar to brewing beer. Organisms are sitting in a soup of goo, eating some things and excreting other things and all of that needs to be controlled. It’s one thing to be able to control the growth and extraction of goo in a test tube, quite another to do it at the scale of a hundred-gallon sized tanks.

“There are these really challenging aspects of operating bioreactors, sampling, and testing and getting data,” said Patrick . “We have been able to create this infrastructure that we can scale out.”

The company has built its own hardware — including customized robotics, sensors, and networks for its bioreactors, which, at 250 milliliters, are roughly the size of coke cans.

“That was the problem we were solving with Culture Biosciences,” says Patrick. “We do cloud fermentation.” 

The company, which just raised $5.5 million from investors including Refactor Capital, and Verily, the life sciences division of Google parent company, Alphabet, already has 50 bioreactors and is going to be scaling up to 100 really rapidly.

“What we’re helping [customers] with is making their R&D much more high throughput,” says Patrick.

Those customers include companies like Geltor, the manufacturer of a collagen replacement; Modern Meadow, the company that’s looking to make a leather replacement; and Pivot Bio, which makes supplements for agriculture to replace chemical fertilizers.

Verily and Refactor aren’t the only two investors to be impressed by Culture’s technology. Section 32, the investment shop founded by Google Ventures’ former chief executive Bill Maris, Y Combinator, BoxGroup, Shana Fisher from Third Kind Venture Capital, and Data Collective are also investors in the company.

Culture Biosciences actually shares office space with Verily, working from that company’s shared office space in South San Francisco, which was built to house startup companies in the life sciences space.

With Culture, the biomanufacturing industry and the investors who are supporting it seem to be learning one of the critical lessons from the last wave of big bets on biology — in biofuels.

That first wave in the 2000s there were lots of lessons that were learned.” says Patrick. “You have to think with the end in mind. What can those systems actually deliver from a technical perspective? Replicate those large scale environments as much as you can in your small scale lab… Not having to compete with oil really helps.”

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Up to $818 million deal between J&J and Locus Biosciences points to a new path for CRISPR therapies

The up to $818 million deal between Locus Biosciences and Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a division of Johnson & Johnson) that was announced yesterday points toward a new path for CRISPR gene editing technologies and (potentially) the whole field of microbiome-targeted therapies. Based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Locus is commercializing research initially developed by scientists at […]

The up to $818 million deal between Locus Biosciences and Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a division of Johnson & Johnson) that was announced yesterday points toward a new path for CRISPR gene editing technologies and (potentially) the whole field of microbiome-targeted therapies.

Based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Locus is commercializing research initially developed by scientists at North Carolina State University that focused on Cas3 proteins, which devour DNA Pac-Man-style, rather than edit it like the more well-known Cas9-based CRISPR technologies being used by companies like Caribou Biosciences, Editas Medicine, Synthego, Intellia Therapeutics, CRISPR Therapeutics and Beam Therapeutics.

While the Cas9 CRISPR technologies can edit targeted DNA — either deleting specific genetic material or replacing it with different genetic code — Cas3 simply removes DNA strains. “Its purpose is the destruction of invading DNA,” says Locus chief executive, Paul Garofolo.

The exclusive deal between Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Locus gives Janssen the exclusive license to develop, manufacture and commercialize CRISPR-Cas3-enhanced products targeting bacterial pathogens for the potential treatment of respiratory and other organ infections.

Under the terms of the deal, Locus is getting $20 million in upfront payments and could receive up to $798 million in potential future development and commercial milestone payments and any royalties on potential product sales.

A former executive at Valiant Pharmaceuticals and Paytheon, Garofolo was first introduced to the technology that would form the core of Locus as an executive in residence at North Carolina State University. It was there that he met Dr. Chase Beisel and Rodolphe Barrangou, whose research into Cas3 proteins would eventually be productized by Locus.

The company spun out of NC State in 2015 and raised its first cash from the North Carolina Biotech Center a year later.

Locus is already commercializing a version of its technology with bacteriophages designed to target e coli bacteria to treat urinary tract infections. The company is on target to begin its first clinical trials in the third quarter of the year.

The focus on bacterial infection and removing harmful bacteria while ensuring that the rest of a patient’s microbiome is intact is a huge step forward for treating diseases that scientists believe could be linked to bacterial health in a body, according to Garofolo.

“Most microbiome companies are about adding probiotics to your body,” says Garofolo, representing a thesis that introducing “good” bacteria to the body can offset any harmful pathogens that have infected it.

“Things you’re exposed to are creating the groundwork for an infection or disease, or exacerbating an existing disease,” says Garofolo. And while he believes that the microbiome is the next big field for scientific discovery, the approach of adding probiotics to a system seems less targeted and effective to him.

Already, Garofolo has managed to convince investors of his approach. In addition to the initial outside investment from the North Carolina Biotech Center, Locus has attracted $25 million in financing from investors, including Artis Ventures and the venture capital arm of the Chinese internet giant, Tencent.

Meanwhile, investors have spent millions backing alternative approaches to improving human health through the manipulation of the microbiome.

Companies like Second Genome, Viome and Ubiome are all using approaches that identify bacteria in the human body and try to regulate the production of that bacteria through diet and probiotic pills. It’s an approach that allows these companies to skirt the more stringent requirements the Food and Drug Administration has put in place for drugs.

That doesn’t mean that extensive amounts of research haven’t gone into the development of these probiotics. Seed, a Los Angeles-based startup that launched last year, has recruited as its chief scientist George Reid, the leading scientist on microbial health and the microbiome.

Founded by Raja Dhir, a graduate from the University of Southern California and a leading researcher on microbiotics in his own right, and Ara Katz, the former chief marketing officer of BeachMint and an MIT Media Lab fellow, Seed focuses on developing probiotic treatments using well-established research.

“Foundational to our approach is that it’s not which microbes are present in your gut… It’s based on looking at what specific microbes can do to a healthy individual to improve that status of health independent of what is already present,” Dhir said in an interview around the company’s launch last June. “It’s a little bit less exciting from a tech perspective, but it’s hardcore grounded in basic science… The question is, does this have changes and effects in validated bio-makers in a controlled and placebo setting?”

Dhir said that a basic understanding of how different bacteria can influence health is necessary before getting into the benefits of personalization.

These things can dance between drugs and nutrition,” Dhir said. “Probacteria are an additional lever that people should pull… like diet and exercise and cessation of smoking… In every correspondence we always have been and need to be clear that this should never be seen as a replacement of therapies.”

By contrast, the tools that Locus is developing are very much therapies with potentially far-reaching implications for illnesses, from irritable bowel syndrome to gastrointestinal cancers and even neurological disorders.

“The science [around the microbiome] is early, but it is very well-known that a potentially deadly pathogen should be removed from your body,” Garofolo said.

Up to $818 million deal between J&J and Locus Biosciences points to a new path for CRISPR therapies

The up to $818 million deal between Locus Biosciences and Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a division of Johnson & Johnson) that was announced yesterday points toward a new path for CRISPR gene editing technologies and (potentially) the whole field of microbiome-targeted therapies. Based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Locus is commercializing research initially developed by scientists at […]

The up to $818 million deal between Locus Biosciences and Janssen Pharmaceuticals (a division of Johnson & Johnson) that was announced yesterday points toward a new path for CRISPR gene editing technologies and (potentially) the whole field of microbiome-targeted therapies.

Based in Research Triangle Park, N.C., Locus is commercializing research initially developed by scientists at North Carolina State University that focused on Cas3 proteins, which devour DNA Pac-Man-style, rather than edit it like the more well-known Cas9-based CRISPR technologies being used by companies like Caribou Biosciences, Editas Medicine, Synthego, Intellia Therapeutics, CRISPR Therapeutics and Beam Therapeutics.

While the Cas9 CRISPR technologies can edit targeted DNA — either deleting specific genetic material or replacing it with different genetic code — Cas3 simply removes DNA strains. “Its purpose is the destruction of invading DNA,” says Locus chief executive, Paul Garofolo.

The exclusive deal between Janssen Pharmaceuticals and Locus gives Janssen the exclusive license to develop, manufacture and commercialize CRISPR-Cas3-enhanced products targeting bacterial pathogens for the potential treatment of respiratory and other organ infections.

Under the terms of the deal, Locus is getting $20 million in upfront payments and could receive up to $798 million in potential future development and commercial milestone payments and any royalties on potential product sales.

A former executive at Valiant Pharmaceuticals and Paytheon, Garofolo was first introduced to the technology that would form the core of Locus as an executive in residence at North Carolina State University. It was there that he met Dr. Chase Beisel and Rodolphe Barrangou, whose research into Cas3 proteins would eventually be productized by Locus.

The company spun out of NC State in 2015 and raised its first cash from the North Carolina Biotech Center a year later.

Locus is already commercializing a version of its technology with bacteriophages designed to target e coli bacteria to treat urinary tract infections. The company is on target to begin its first clinical trials in the third quarter of the year.

The focus on bacterial infection and removing harmful bacteria while ensuring that the rest of a patient’s microbiome is intact is a huge step forward for treating diseases that scientists believe could be linked to bacterial health in a body, according to Garofolo.

“Most microbiome companies are about adding probiotics to your body,” says Garofolo, representing a thesis that introducing “good” bacteria to the body can offset any harmful pathogens that have infected it.

“Things you’re exposed to are creating the groundwork for an infection or disease, or exacerbating an existing disease,” says Garofolo. And while he believes that the microbiome is the next big field for scientific discovery, the approach of adding probiotics to a system seems less targeted and effective to him.

Already, Garofolo has managed to convince investors of his approach. In addition to the initial outside investment from the North Carolina Biotech Center, Locus has attracted $25 million in financing from investors, including Artis Ventures and the venture capital arm of the Chinese internet giant, Tencent.

Meanwhile, investors have spent millions backing alternative approaches to improving human health through the manipulation of the microbiome.

Companies like Second Genome, Viome and Ubiome are all using approaches that identify bacteria in the human body and try to regulate the production of that bacteria through diet and probiotic pills. It’s an approach that allows these companies to skirt the more stringent requirements the Food and Drug Administration has put in place for drugs.

That doesn’t mean that extensive amounts of research haven’t gone into the development of these probiotics. Seed, a Los Angeles-based startup that launched last year, has recruited as its chief scientist George Reid, the leading scientist on microbial health and the microbiome.

Founded by Raja Dhir, a graduate from the University of Southern California and a leading researcher on microbiotics in his own right, and Ara Katz, the former chief marketing officer of BeachMint and an MIT Media Lab fellow, Seed focuses on developing probiotic treatments using well-established research.

“Foundational to our approach is that it’s not which microbes are present in your gut… It’s based on looking at what specific microbes can do to a healthy individual to improve that status of health independent of what is already present,” Dhir said in an interview around the company’s launch last June. “It’s a little bit less exciting from a tech perspective, but it’s hardcore grounded in basic science… The question is, does this have changes and effects in validated bio-makers in a controlled and placebo setting?”

Dhir said that a basic understanding of how different bacteria can influence health is necessary before getting into the benefits of personalization.

These things can dance between drugs and nutrition,” Dhir said. “Probacteria are an additional lever that people should pull… like diet and exercise and cessation of smoking… In every correspondence we always have been and need to be clear that this should never be seen as a replacement of therapies.”

By contrast, the tools that Locus is developing are very much therapies with potentially far-reaching implications for illnesses, from irritable bowel syndrome to gastrointestinal cancers and even neurological disorders.

“The science [around the microbiome] is early, but it is very well-known that a potentially deadly pathogen should be removed from your body,” Garofolo said.

Foxconn or Foxgone? Tariffs, Wisconsin and iPhone fires

First some notes on SoftBank’s rumored expansion into China and its weird fund math, then Foxconn and then quick notes on tech depression, Huawei and more. TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like […]

First some notes on SoftBank’s rumored expansion into China and its weird fund math, then Foxconn and then quick notes on tech depression, Huawei and more.

TechCrunch is experimenting with new content forms. This is a rough draft of something new — provide your feedback directly to the author (Danny at danny@techcrunch.com) if you like or hate something here.

SoftBank has fund visions (and a Vision Fund) for China? That, and more money

Kane Wu at Reuters reported overnight that SoftBank is looking to open an office and hire an investment team in China, which Wu says will be based in Shanghai. That’s following the fund’s recent global expansion with new targeted offices in Saudi Arabia and India.

When I saw this, I sort of did a double-take: SoftBank doesn’t have a presence in China? The fund has reportedly been seeking investments in some of China’s leading unicorn stars, including controversial face recognition startup SenseTime, and leading edtech startup Zuoyebang (作业帮, which literally translates as “school assignment help”). (Hat-tips to Selina Wang at Bloomberg, who seems to just be sitting in Vision Fund partner meetings). And of course, it dumped a pretty penny into WeWork China, where it was part of a $500 million syndicate, and is a huge investor in Didi.

It’s sort of obvious that SoftBank would expand to China. What will be interesting though is to see how the fund structures itself long-term. As far as I know, the Vision Fund is a singular “fund” that invests worldwide (send me an email if I am wrong on this count). China has a thicket of regulations on funds and companies, which is one of several reasons we see specifically China-focused vehicles (such as Lightspeed and Lightspeed China or Sequoia and Sequoia China). If the Vision Fund continues to be a unified fund, that would be a notable strategy shift that might be cloned by other trans-Pacific funds.

Aside: SoftBank Vision Fund math is complicated

Rajeev Misra, board director of SoftBank Group and CEO of SoftBank Investment Advisors. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

When it first closed the Vision Fund, SoftBank explained they had raised just over $93 billion in committed capital or, more precisely, around $93.15-$93.2 billion, according to the initial investor presentations and its annual Form D filings. In those docs, SoftBank said that the fund was financed with $28 billion from SoftBank and $65 billion from third-party investors.

On top of the $93 billion raised for the Vision Fund, SoftBank detailed that it had committed $4.5 billion of its own capital to a separate “Delta Fund,” which was used to alleviate conflicts around SoftBank’s Didi investment. Thus, SoftBank’s total VC funding aggregates to around $97.7 billion.

To add a complication, SoftBank later shifted $1.6 billion of the Vision Fund’s previously disclosed $65 billion in third-party capital over to the Delta Fund. In current disclosures, SoftBank shows $91.7 billion of committed capital for the Vision Fund ($28.1 billion from SoftBank and $63.6 billion from third-party investors). For the Delta Fund, SoftBank shows $6 billion in committed capital ($4.5 billion SoftBank contribution and $1.6 billion from third-party investors).

Here is where it gets even more complicated. In its latest filings, SoftBank also notes that it completed the interim closing of an additional $5 billion for the Vision Fund in mid-October, “intended for the installment of an incentive scheme for operations of SoftBank Vision Fund.” That additional cash would bring Vision Fund’s total committed capital to $96.7 billion, and $102.7 billion together with the Delta Fund.

While it wouldn’t be included in the committed equity capital total, SoftBank is also rumored to be raising a $4 billion credit facility to help finance additional acquisitions.

So, it’s probably best to say that the Vision Fund — as constituted right now — is $97 billion or $96.7 billion with precision, assuming this $5 billion reaches a final close.

SoftBank IPO

We have, of course, covered SoftBank quite obsessively, particularly its debt situation (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4 and Part 5). What we haven’t covered more recently are the latest developments in SoftBank’s IPO, which is slated for December 19th and expected to bring in a haul of $21 billion. More to come on that front in the coming days.

Foxconn or Foxgone?

U.S. President Donald Trump and Foxconn Chairman Terry Gou. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

The South China Morning Post reported yesterday that Foxconn is investigating expanding its factories to Vietnam in order to avoid tariffs. Makes sense, and I have some calls this week and next trying to suss out how much hardware supply chains have really changed in response to the trade conflict.

That decision though isn’t just about the trade conflict, but also about the quickly increasing wages of Chinese laborers, as well as political interference from Beijing. The Trump administration’s trade policies are just the excuse Foxconn needs to (at least partially) extricate itself from China, while saving face in the process.

What’s interesting is that Foxconn is also dealing with a massive brush fire in Wisconsin, where it received one of the largest economic development incentives ever offered by an American government, a whopping $3 billion package that was expected to drive manufacturing employment in the state.

Overnight, Republicans in the state legislature passed a bill that would place large restrictions on incoming Democratic governor Tony Evers. Jessie Opoien for the (Madison) Cap Times:

Under the bill, legislators would have increased influence over the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, and the WEDC board, not the governor, would appoint the job creation agency’s CEO. However, the governor’s power to appoint a CEO would be restored in September 2019.

That is the agency that provided the Foxconn funding, which has become a political football in Wisconsin politics. Republicans are trying to protect one of the major economic legacies of outgoing governor Scott Walker, as well as what they believe is the future direction of manufacturing work in the state. Democrats smell a boondoggle in the making.

If that wasn’t all, rumored skimpy sales for iPhones is putting enormous pressure on Foxconn’s bottom line. Debby Wu at Bloomberg reported two weeks ago that:

The contract manufacturer aims to cut 20 billion yuan ($2.9 billion) from expenses in 2019 as it faces “a very difficult and competitive year,” according to an internal document obtained by Bloomberg. The company’s spending in the past 12 months is about NT$206 billion ($6.7 billion).

Foxconn is a very dynamic organization that has weathered repeated crises over the years. It is pretty much unique in what it does today: very few other companies can scale up and down hundreds of thousands of workers to meet iPhone and other device demands with such alacrity.

But, the fundamentals of the mobile device market have apparently changed dramatically this year, and Foxconn is likely to be the company most harmed as the assembler of those devices. That could destroy not just the Chinese dream of leading in manufacturing, but also the Vietnam and Wisconsin dreams as well.

Also: If you haven’t read it, this poetry by a Foxconn worker who committed suicide really resonated with me. Foxconn’s suicide problem is well-documented, but we often don’t hear from the individuals themselves.

Quick bites

Which big tech companies are most depressed?

Blind, the anonymous enterprise chatting app that has taken the tech world by storm, published survey results asking tech employees “I believe I am depressed.” Roughly 40 percent of employees responded yes. Interestingly, there wasn’t too much variation between companies. Amazon had the highest rate at 43 percent and Apple had the lowest rate at 30 percent. It’s an informal survey, probably without high scientific validation, but it is a reminder for all of us in the community that mental health and burnout is very real in the startup and tech ecosystems and we should be vigilant in helping each other when times are rough.

More bad news for Huawei as British Telecom bans its equipment

This is one of those stories that we are just going to keep hearing about. After bans in Australia and New Zealand, British Telecom has announced they will not just ban Huawei’s 5G equipment, but also its 3G and 4G equipment. Britain, like Aus/NZ, Canada and the U.S., is part of the Five Eyes intelligence network, and national security officials have been leading the crusade against Huawei infrastructure. What’s interesting is not just the rapidity of the bans, but also that the bans haven’t (from what I have seen) migrated outside the Five Eyes community yet.

Pendo commits to hometown of Raleigh

Raleigh skyline. Photo by James Willamor used under Creative Commons via Flickr.

Pendo is a digital product management platform that has had quite a bit of success with customers and has raised more than $100 million in VC funding, most recently a Series D from Sapphire. The company announced that they have received a grant from home state North Carolina’s economic development department to grow in the Raleigh region. Pendo is committing $34.5 million to its headquarters (with the potential of creating 590 jobs), while the state will offer around $8.8 million in potential reimbursements over the next 12 years.

Given what I wrote yesterday about Wes McKinney leaving NYC and heading to Nashville and the work Chattanooga is doing to aid startups, it’s great to see other hotspots like Raleigh, NC invest to build out their ecosystems in a compelling way.

Todd Olson, CEO of Pendo, explained to me by email that, “Office rents in our downtown are a fraction of the cost of operating in other cities, and the cost of living is appealing to our employees. They can afford to buy a house here. In some markets around the country, that is becoming more difficult. It’s also just a nice place to live and work.”

Creative work is increasingly going to have to find a lower-cost home.

What’s next

I am still obsessing about next-gen semiconductors. If you have thoughts there, give me a ring: danny@techcrunch.com.

Thoughts on articles

The LP Anti-Portfolio – Great short read. Lindel Eakman, former managing director at UTIMCO, the University of Texas/Texas A&M endowment, gives a list of funds that he passed on that he now regrets. Unfortunately, this is pretty rare coming from an LP, albeit a former one. It would be great to get more public discussion on which funds were missed and why by LP investors.

Hopefully more reading time tomorrow.

Reading docket

What I’m reading (or at least, trying to read)

  • Huge long list of articles on next-gen semiconductors. More to come shortly.

VCs say Silicon Valley isn’t the gold mine it used to be

In the days leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018, The Economist published the cover story, ‘Why Startups Are Leaving Silicon Valley.’ The author outlined reasons why the Valley has “peaked.” Venture capital investors are deploying capital outside the Bay Area more than ever before. High-profile entrepreneurs and investors, Peter Thiel, for example, have left. Rising […]

In the days leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018, The Economist published the cover story, ‘Why Startups Are Leaving Silicon Valley.’

The author outlined reasons why the Valley has “peaked.” Venture capital investors are deploying capital outside the Bay Area more than ever before. High-profile entrepreneurs and investors, Peter Thiel, for example, have left. Rising rents are making it impossible for new blood to make a living, let alone build businesses. And according to a recent survey, 46 percent of Bay Area residents want to get the hell out, an increase from 34 percent two years ago.

Needless to say, the future of Silicon Valley was top of mind on stage at Disrupt.

“It’s hard to make a difference in San Francisco as a single entrepreneur,” said J.D. Vance, the author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and a managing partner at Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, which backs seed-stage companies based outside Silicon Valley. “It’s not as a hard to make a difference as a successful entrepreneur in Columbus, Ohio.”

In conversation with Vance, Revolution CEO Steve Case said he’s noticed a “mega-trend” emerging. Founders from cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit or Portland are opting to stay in their hometowns instead of moving to U.S. innovation hubs like San Francisco.

“The sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

“We are seeing the beginnings of a slowing of what has been a brain drain the last 20 years,” Case said. “It’s not just watching where the capital flows, it’s watching where the talent flows. And the sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

Farewell, San Francisco

“It’s too expensive to live here,” said Aileen Lee, the founder of seed-stage VC firm Cowboy Ventures, amid a conversation with leading venture capitalists Spark Capital general partner Megan Quinn and Benchmark general partner Sarah Tavel .

“I know that there are a lot of people in the Bay Area that are trying to work on that problem and I hope that they are successful,” Lee added. “It’s an amazing place to live and we’ve made it really challenging for people to live here and not worry about making ends meet.”

One of Cowboy’s portfolio companies opted to relocate from Silicon Valley to Colorado when it came time to scale their business. That kind of move would’ve historically been seen as a failure. Today, it may be a sign of strong business acumen.

Quinn said that of all 28 of Spark’s growth-stage portfolio companies, Raleigh, North Carolina-based Pendo has the easiest time recruiting folks locally and from the Bay Area.

She advises her Bay Area-based late-stage companies to open a second office outside of the Valley where lower-cost talent is available.

“We often say go to [flySFO.com], draw a three-hour circle around San Francisco where they have direct flights, find a city that has a university and open up a second office as quickly as possible,” Quinn said.

Still, all three firms invest in a lot of companies based in San Francisco. Of Benchmark’s 10 most recent investments, for example, eight were based in SF, according to Crunchbase.

“I used to believe really strongly if you wanted to build a multi-billion dollar company you had to be based here,” Tavel said. “I’ve stopped giving that soap speech.”

Underestimated talent

A lot of Bay Area VCs have been blind to the droves of tech talent located outside the region. Believe it or not, there are great engineers in America’s small- and medium-sized markets too.

At Disrupt, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton announced the firm would launch an accelerator to further amplify companies led by underestimated founders. The program will have cohorts based in four cities; San Francisco was noticeably absent from that list.

Instead, the firm, which invests in underrepresented founders and recently raised a $36 million fund, will work with companies in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, London and one more city, which will be determined by a public vote. Aniyia Williams, the founder of Tinsel and Black & Brown Founders, will spearhead the Philadelphia effort.

“For us, it’s about closing that wealth gap to address inequity in tech,” Williams said. “There needs to be more active participation from everyone.”

Hamilton added that for her, the tech talent in LA and London is undeniable.

“There is a lot of money and a lot of investors … it reminds me of three years ago in Silicon Valley,” Hamilton said.

Silicon Valley vs. China

Silicon Valley’s demise may not be just as a result of increased costs of living or investors overlooking talent in other geographies. It may be because of heightened competition abroad.

Doug Leone, an early- and growth-stage investor at Sequoia Capital, said at Disrupt that he’s noticed a very different work ethic in China.

Chinese entrepreneurs, he explained, are more ruthless than their American counterparts and they’re putting in a whole lot more hours.

“I’ve had dinner in China until after 10 p.m. and people go to work after 10 p.m.,” Leone recalled.

“We don’t see that in the U.S. I’m not saying the U.S. founders oughta do that but those are the differences. They are similar in character. They are similar in dreams. They are similar in how they want to change the world. They are ultra-driven … The Chinese founders have a half other gear because I think they are a little more desperate.”

Much of this, however, has been said before and still, somehow, Silicon Valley remained the place to be for investors and startup entrepreneurs.

The reality is, those engaged in tech culture are always anxiously awaiting for the bubble to pop, the market to crash and for “peak Valley” to finally arrive.

Maybe, just maybe, Silicon Valley is forever.

Here’s more of our coverage of Disrupt 2018.

VCs say Silicon Valley isn’t the gold mine it used to be

In the days leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018, The Economist published the cover story, ‘Why Startups Are Leaving Silicon Valley.’ The author outlined reasons why the Valley has “peaked.” Venture capital investors are deploying capital outside the Bay Area more than ever before. High-profile entrepreneurs and investors, Peter Thiel, for example, have left. Rising […]

In the days leading up to TechCrunch Disrupt SF 2018, The Economist published the cover story, ‘Why Startups Are Leaving Silicon Valley.’

The author outlined reasons why the Valley has “peaked.” Venture capital investors are deploying capital outside the Bay Area more than ever before. High-profile entrepreneurs and investors, Peter Thiel, for example, have left. Rising rents are making it impossible for new blood to make a living, let alone build businesses. And according to a recent survey, 46 percent of Bay Area residents want to get the hell out, an increase from 34 percent two years ago.

Needless to say, the future of Silicon Valley was top of mind on stage at Disrupt.

“It’s hard to make a difference in San Francisco as a single entrepreneur,” said J.D. Vance, the author of ‘Hillbilly Elegy’ and a managing partner at Revolution’s Rise of the Rest Fund, which backs seed-stage companies based outside Silicon Valley. “It’s not as a hard to make a difference as a successful entrepreneur in Columbus, Ohio.”

In conversation with Vance, Revolution CEO Steve Case said he’s noticed a “mega-trend” emerging. Founders from cities like Pittsburgh, Detroit or Portland are opting to stay in their hometowns instead of moving to U.S. innovation hubs like San Francisco.

“The sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

“We are seeing the beginnings of a slowing of what has been a brain drain the last 20 years,” Case said. “It’s not just watching where the capital flows, it’s watching where the talent flows. And the sense that you have to be here or you can’t play is going to start diminishing.”

Farewell, San Francisco

“It’s too expensive to live here,” said Aileen Lee, the founder of seed-stage VC firm Cowboy Ventures, amid a conversation with leading venture capitalists Spark Capital general partner Megan Quinn and Benchmark general partner Sarah Tavel .

“I know that there are a lot of people in the Bay Area that are trying to work on that problem and I hope that they are successful,” Lee added. “It’s an amazing place to live and we’ve made it really challenging for people to live here and not worry about making ends meet.”

One of Cowboy’s portfolio companies opted to relocate from Silicon Valley to Colorado when it came time to scale their business. That kind of move would’ve historically been seen as a failure. Today, it may be a sign of strong business acumen.

Quinn said that of all 28 of Spark’s growth-stage portfolio companies, Raleigh, North Carolina-based Pendo has the easiest time recruiting folks locally and from the Bay Area.

She advises her Bay Area-based late-stage companies to open a second office outside of the Valley where lower-cost talent is available.

“We often say go to [flySFO.com], draw a three-hour circle around San Francisco where they have direct flights, find a city that has a university and open up a second office as quickly as possible,” Quinn said.

Still, all three firms invest in a lot of companies based in San Francisco. Of Benchmark’s 10 most recent investments, for example, eight were based in SF, according to Crunchbase.

“I used to believe really strongly if you wanted to build a multi-billion dollar company you had to be based here,” Tavel said. “I’ve stopped giving that soap speech.”

Underestimated talent

A lot of Bay Area VCs have been blind to the droves of tech talent located outside the region. Believe it or not, there are great engineers in America’s small- and medium-sized markets too.

At Disrupt, Backstage Capital founder Arlan Hamilton announced the firm would launch an accelerator to further amplify companies led by underestimated founders. The program will have cohorts based in four cities; San Francisco was noticeably absent from that list.

Instead, the firm, which invests in underrepresented founders and recently raised a $36 million fund, will work with companies in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, London and one more city, which will be determined by a public vote. Aniyia Williams, the founder of Tinsel and Black & Brown Founders, will spearhead the Philadelphia effort.

“For us, it’s about closing that wealth gap to address inequity in tech,” Williams said. “There needs to be more active participation from everyone.”

Hamilton added that for her, the tech talent in LA and London is undeniable.

“There is a lot of money and a lot of investors … it reminds me of three years ago in Silicon Valley,” Hamilton said.

Silicon Valley vs. China

Silicon Valley’s demise may not be just as a result of increased costs of living or investors overlooking talent in other geographies. It may be because of heightened competition abroad.

Doug Leone, an early- and growth-stage investor at Sequoia Capital, said at Disrupt that he’s noticed a very different work ethic in China.

Chinese entrepreneurs, he explained, are more ruthless than their American counterparts and they’re putting in a whole lot more hours.

“I’ve had dinner in China until after 10 p.m. and people go to work after 10 p.m.,” Leone recalled.

“We don’t see that in the U.S. I’m not saying the U.S. founders oughta do that but those are the differences. They are similar in character. They are similar in dreams. They are similar in how they want to change the world. They are ultra-driven … The Chinese founders have a half other gear because I think they are a little more desperate.”

Much of this, however, has been said before and still, somehow, Silicon Valley remained the place to be for investors and startup entrepreneurs.

The reality is, those engaged in tech culture are always anxiously awaiting for the bubble to pop, the market to crash and for “peak Valley” to finally arrive.

Maybe, just maybe, Silicon Valley is forever.

Here’s more of our coverage of Disrupt 2018.

African experiments with drone technologies could leapfrog decades of infrastructure neglect

Jake Bright Contributor Jake Bright is a writer and author in New York City. He is co-author of The Next Africa. More posts by this contributor Harley-Davidson is opening a Silicon Valley R&D center to power EV production With a $10 million round, Nigeria’s Paga plans global expansion Samantha Stein Contributor More posts by this […]

A drone revolution is coming to sub-Saharan Africa.

Countries across the continent are experimenting with this 21st century technology as a way to leapfrog decades of neglect of 20th century infrastructure.

Over the last two years, San Francisco-based startup Zipline launched a national UAV delivery program in East Africa; South Africa passed commercial drone legislation to train and license pilots; and Malawi even opened a Drone Test Corridor to African and its global partners. 

In Rwanda, the country’s government became one of the first adopters of performance-based regulations for all drones earlier this year. The country’s progressive UAV programs drew special attention from the White House and two U.S. Secretaries of Transportation.

Some experts believe Africa’s drone space could contribute to UAV development in the U.S. and elsewhere around the globe.

“The fact that [global drone] companies can operate in Africa and showcase amazing use cases…is a big benefit,” said Lisa Ellsman, co-executive director of the Commercial Drone Alliance.

Test in Africa

It’s clear that the UAV programs in Malawi and Rwanda are getting attention from international drone companies.

Opened in 2017, Malawi’s Drone Test Corridor has been accepting global applications. The program is managed by the country’s Civil Aviation Authority in partnership with UNICEF.

The primary purpose is to test UAV’s for humanitarian purposes, but the program “was designed to provide a controlled platform for… governments…and other partners…to explore how UAV’s can help deliver services,” according to Michael Scheibenreif, UNICEF’s drone lead in Malawi.

That decision to include the private sector opened the launch pads for commercial drones. Swedish firm GLOBEHE has tested using the corridor and reps from Chinese e-commerce company JD have toured the site. Other companies to test in Malawi’s corridor include Belgian UAV air traffic systems company Unifly and U.S. delivery drone manufacturer Vayu, according to Scheibenreif.

Though the government of Rwanda is most visible for its Zipline partnership, it shaping a national testing program for multiple drone actors. 

“We don’t want to limit ourselves with just one operator,” said Claudette Irere, Director General of the Ministry of Information Technology and Communications (MiTEC).

“When we started with Zipline it was more of a pilot to see if this could work,” she said. “As we’ve gotten more interest and have grown the program…this gives us an opportunity to open up to other drone operators, and give space to our local UAV operators.”

Irere said Rwanda has been approached by 16 drone operators, “some of them big names”—but could not reveal them due to temporary NDAs. She also highlighted Charis UAS, a Rwandan drone company, that’s used the country’s test program, and is now operating commercially in and outside of Rwanda.

UAV Policy

Africa’s commercial drone history is largely compressed to a handful of projects and countries within the last 5-7 years. Several governments have jumped out ahead on UAV policy.

In 2016, South Africa passed drone legislation regulating the sector under the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. The guidelines set training requirements for commercial drone pilots to receive Remote Pilot Licenses (RPLs) for Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems. At the end of 2017 South Africa had registered 686 RPLs and 663 drone aircraft systems, according to a recent State of Drone Report.

Over the last year and a half Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania have issued or updated drone regulatory guidelines and announced future UAV initiatives.  

In 2018, Rwanda extended its leadership role on drone policy when it adopted performance-based regulations for all drones—claiming to be the first country in the world to do so.

So what does this mean?

“In performance-based regulation the government states this is our safety threshold and you companies tell us the combination of technologies and operational mitigations you’re going to use to meet it,” said Timothy Reuter, Civil Drones Project Head at the World Economic Forum.

Lisa Ellsman, shared a similar interpretation.

“Rather than the government saying ‘you have to use this kind of technology to stop your drone,’ they would say, ‘your drone needs to be able to stop in so many seconds,’” she said.

This gives the drone operators flexibility to build drones around performance targets, vs. “prescriptively requiring a certain type of technology,” according to Ellsman.

Rwanda is still working out the implementation of its performance-based regulations, according to MiTEC’s Claudette Irere. They’ve entered a partnership with the World Economic Forum to further build out best practices. Rwanda will also soon release an online portal for global drone operators to apply to test there.

As for Rwanda being first to release performance-based regulations, that’s disputable. “Many States around the world have been developing and implementing performance-based regulations for unmanned aircraft,” said Leslie Cary, Program Manager for the International Civil Aviation Authority’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft System. “ICAO has not monitored all of these States to determine which was first,” she added.

Other governments have done bits and pieces of Rwanda’s drone policy, according to Timothy Reuter, the head of the civil drones project at the World Economic Forum. “But as currently written in Rwanda, it’s the broadest implementation of performance based regulations in the world.”

Commercial Use Cases

As the UAV programs across Africa mature, there are a handful of strong examples and several projects to watch.

With Zipline as the most robust and visible drone use case in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While the startup’s primary focus is delivery of critical medical supplies, execs repeatedly underscore that Zipline is a for-profit venture backed by $41 million in VC.

The San Francisco-based robotics company — that also manufactures its own UAVs — was one of the earliest drone partners of the government of Rwanda.

Zipline demonstration

The alliance also brought UPS and the UPS Foundation into the mix, who supports Zipline with financial and logistical support.

After several test rounds, Zipline went live with the program in October, becoming the world’s first national drone delivery program at scale.

“We’ve since completed over 6000 deliveries and logged 500,000 flight kilometers,” Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek told TechCrunch. “We’re planning to go live in Tanzania soon and talking to some other African countries.”  

In May Zipline was accepted into the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP). Out of 149 applicants, the Africa focused startup was one of 10 selected to participate in a drone pilot in the U.S.– to operate beyond visual line of sight medical delivery services in North Carolina.    

In a non-delivery commercial use case, South Africa’s Rocketmine has built out a UAV survey business in 5 countries. The company looks to book $2 million in revenue in 2018 for its “aerial data solutions” services in mining, agriculture, forestry, and civil engineering.

“We have over 50 aircraft now, compared to 15 a couple years ago,” Rocketmine CEO Christopher Clark told TechCrunch. “We operate in South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and moved into Mexico.”

Rocketmine doesn’t plan to enter delivery services, but is looking to expand into the surveillance and security market. “After the survey market that’s probably the biggest request we get from our customers,” said Clark.

More African use cases are likely to come from the Lake Victoria Challenge — a mission specific drone operator challenge set in Tanzania’s Mwanza testing corridor. WeRobotics has also opened FlyingLabs in Kenya, Tanzania, and Benin. And the government of Zambia is reportedly working with Sony’s Aerosense on a drone delivery pilot program.

Africa and Global UAV

With Europe, Asia, and the U.S. rapidly developing drone regulations and testing (or already operating) delivery programs (see JD.com in China), Africa may not take the sole position as the leader in global UAV development — but these pilot projects in the particularly challenging environments these geographies (and economies) represent will shape the development of the drone industry. 

The continent’s test programs — and Rwanda’s performance-based drone regulations in particular — could advance beyond visual line of sight UAV technology at a quicker pace. This could set the stage for faster development of automated drone fleets for remote internet access, commercial and medical delivery, and even give Africa a lead in testing flying autonomous taxis.

“With drones, Africa is willing to take more bold steps more quickly because the benefits are there and the countries have been willing to move in a more agile manner around regulation,” said the WEF’s Reuter.

“There’s an opportunity for Africa to maintain its leadership in this space,” he said. “But the countries need to be willing to take calculated risk to enable technology companies to deploy their solutions there.”

Reuter also underscored the potential for “drone companies that originate in Africa increasingly developing services.”

There’s a case to be made this is already happening with Zipline. Though founded in California, the startup honed its UAVs and delivery model in Rwanda.

“We’re absolutely leveraging our experience built in Africa as we now test through the UAS IPP program to deliver in the U.S.,” said Zipline co-founder Keenan Wyrobek.

Porter Road was to herd the meat industry in a new direction

Down a two lane road on the outskirts of Princeton, Ky., next to a cemetery and past the Light of Truth Church is the Porter Road Butcher Meat Co. facility — a staging ground for what the Nashville-based startup Porter Road hopes will be a revolution in the American meatpacking industry. For the company’s co-founders, […]

Down a two lane road on the outskirts of Princeton, Ky., next to a cemetery and past the Light of Truth Church is the Porter Road Butcher Meat Co. facility — a staging ground for what the Nashville-based startup Porter Road hopes will be a revolution in the American meatpacking industry.

For the company’s co-founders, James Peisker and Chris Carter, the refashioning of the meat business in America is the next step in a nearly decade-long journey since the former chefs first met working in the restaurant of Nashville’s historic Hermitage Hotel. 

The two men started their butcher business, selling locally sourced meat from the East Nashville Farmer’s Market in 2010 and eventually moved to a storefront in the same neighborhood a year later.

“We ended up going around and raising funds and opened the brick and mortar shop in 2011,” Peisker said. “Chris worked a job at a friend of ours’ deli in the morning and I worked at a restaurant at night.”

But from the beginning the two men had bigger ambitions, and as the business became increasingly successful, they began thinking about how to bring their approach to the meat industry to the entire country.

“What we see the future is is being able to reach as many people as we can in the country and offer them the best quality most sustainably raised products,” said Carter in an interview. 

As they began building the business in earnest, the two men realized that there was a critical part of the process over which they had no control — the meat processing itself.

“I would love to be Omaha Steaks,” said Carter. “But I would love to bring change to the system that Omaha Steaks buys into.” To do that meant not just sourcing from sustainable farms, but making sure that their slaughterhouse and processing facility was operating to standards that the two co-founders set for themselves.

“They put up the curtain to hide what’s happening,” said Peisker of the meat industry — although the dirty side of industrial animal husbandry is well known. “99% of the meat is coming from these really disgusting places where the animals are near death and kept alive with injections… Tyson can say they get their chickens from family farm but] they sell the farmers feed, and chicks… small family farms are raising these animals but are doing it in a way that harms the animal. And our beef is born in the same matter. It’s how they spend the end of their lives. They’re force fed chickenshit, chicken feathers, scrap and harvested in a manner that’s doing 60,000 head a day.”

Peisker and Carter envision a different path, one that’s decentralizing the commodity meat industry. Instead of industrial farms producing thousands of head, smaller sustainable farms could raise livestock in the hundreds. Those sustainably raised animals could then be sent to local processing plants and slaughtered in facilities that are better for workers and (more) humane for animals.

“One of the first things we did was to take away the electric prod sticks and cattle paddles,” said Peisker. Ultimately the men recognize that there’s only so much that can be done to make the industry operate more efficiently and humanely, but every little bit helps.

The alternative is continuing to operate at scales that are toxic for the entire country. For example, earlier this month a jury in North Carolina awarded residents near a Smithfield Farms hog farm $470 million to address their complaints about the stench and the industrial pollution coming from the farm.

In all, industrial animal farms operated by just four companies produce 80% of the meat U.S. consumers eat. And the environmental impact of these industrial farms is well understood.

For Ryan Darnell, a managing partner of Max Ventures (and childhood friend of Carter’s), the Porter Road business makes good business sense beyond its social and environmental benefits.

“In this category there’s roughly $55 billion of revenue tied up in the traditional supply chain,” Darnell wrote in an email. “Porter Road isn’t just selling meat online. They are rearchitecting the back-end system to eliminate a lot of the things we don’t like (and aren’t good for us). They are building an entirely new meat company from the ground up.”

Companies like CrowdCow and ButcherBox offer organic meat for sale, but Darnell said that the vertical integration that Porter Road has built makes it a fundamentally different company from those startups.

“Most of the competitors in this space have a digital storefront (for distribution) and buy out of the existing supply chain. A few will try to backwards integrate, but it’s difficult to learn how to accurately evaluate farmers and implement best practices in a processing facility,” Darnell wrote.

All of this attention to detail in the process is also reflected in the price of Porter Road’s meats (they aren’t cheap). But the notion for Peisker is that people can eat fewer, higher quality meat meals with Porter Road products (which may also be better for the environment too).

You should eat less meat but better meat,” said Peisker. “There’s a movement across the country of people who want flavor back in their food…. And people who want to make a choice with their dollar about what they buy.”

Porter Road’s evolution — which culminated in the company launching an online presence in 2017 — is coming at a time when shifting consumption patterns are changing the ways Americans shop and eat.

The Amazon acquisition of Whole Foods has changed the organic market as the once-mighty grocery chain becomes more incorporated into the Seattle e-commerce giant’s commercial operations. That’s opened the doors for direct to consumer competitors to come in — including companies like Thrive Market, Crowd Cow and Porter Road.

“Whole Foods, post-Amazon is just another grocery store now,” said Peisker. 

And Americans continue to love organic foods. Sales of organic food products hit a record $45.2 billion in 2017, according to the Organic Trade Association. While growth slowed to 6.7% from 9% in 2016, the overall numbers are still surpassing the anemic 1% growth of the U.S. food business overall, according to the report.

Porter Road’s founders say those numbers are reflected in its own business. “We get busier every day,” said Carter. Over the summer the company was averaging 60 boxes shipped per-day with roughly 5-8 pounds of meat in a box.

With the boost from the $3.7 million in venture funding it received earlier in the year backed by investors including Max Ventures, Slow Ventures, BoxGroup, Tribeca Venture Partners, Collaborative Fund, and Great Oaks VC, Porter Road is hoping to expand its operations.

“Our plan is to build,” Carter said. “We’ve built this amazing model in this location. We have a year or two before we see ourselves busting at the seams here. And we will move to communities across the country.”

The co-founders of Porter Road see opportunities to open a similar processing facility to the one already operating in Princeton — and ideally will be able to build a network of abattoirs around the country. “If we can make a better life for the animals that go into our food system and better food for consumers why wouldn’t we do it?” said Peisker.