This Student-Run VC Firm Is Funding Big Ideas from SoCal's 'Crescent' of High-Profile Schools
College kids have hatched some of the biggest ideas throughout tech history, sometimes before they even finish school. But students who aren't as lucky as Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates usually have to backburner big ideas to focus on earning a degree and getting a job. Only then can they hope that their ideas will someday see the light of day.
California Crescent Fund, a new student-run venture capital firm that exclusively funds student startups based in Southern California, wants to offer young founders the option to turn their ideas into reality while they're still in school.
Based in Costa Mesa, Crescent, which refers to the arc of schools curving south from UC Santa Barbara to UC San Diego, is run primarily by six student or recent graduate co-founders — or "managing partners" — and a network of student "university partners" in engineering-heavy schools including UC Irvine, USC, UCLA, UCSD and the Claremont Colleges.
University partners keep an ear to the ground at their respective schools in hopes of finding the most promising startup ideas, which they then pass along to the folks at Crescent. Candidates who are deemed worthy receive a $40,000 check. Since the managing partners began fundraising in December 2020, they've raised $200,000 of soft-circle capital and added one company, Lolly, to their portfolio. Now, they're aiming to raise a total of $1 million in the next six months.
"A lot of these early-stage venture firms are trying to find the best deals" through accelerators, summer programs and scout networks, said Prerit Seth, a co-founder who graduated this year from UCI with a degree in economics and now works as an associate product manager at Citrix. "Having students directly on campus closes that gap." Investors typically spend at most a day or two with startup founders, he points out, but "the student partners on our campuses have known some of their peers for a long time."
Student venture funds are nothing new. The University of Michigan's Wolverine Venture Fund, the country's first student-run VC fund, was founded in 1997. Since then, groups like Contrary Capital, Dorm Room Fund, A-Level Capital and Rough Draft Ventures have sprung up to tap the student creator market. But by and large, said Seth, those funds are focused on Ivy League universities and a handful of Bay Area schools.
All but one of Crescent's co-founders went to Southern California schools, where they observed the wealth of engineering talent —and dearth of startup funding relative to the Bay Area — first-hand. So in the fall of 2019, Keyan Kazemian, a junior majoring in computer engineering at UCI, pitched the idea for Crescent to fellow junior Praneet Sah, who was on the same campus studying computer science and helming the school's Hedge Fund Society. Together they assembled the rest of the team and set out to secure funding from angel investors, institutions and high-net-worth individuals in the region.
"There is not a lot of capital available for the Southern California area," said Sah. "The bridge to that capital is different. We're trying to be that bridge."
Sah said the region's student startup ecosystem is bursting with so many ideas that the fund sees a dozen startups from their target schools every month. "Some with super-interesting ideas, some with straight-up weird ideas," he said.
So far, Crescent has invested in only one company: Lolly, a Gen Z video dating app described as TikTok meets Tinder, which went live in December 2020 and closed a $1.1 million seed round in January with help from the fund's $40,000 investment. A Crescent student partner at the Claremont Colleges named Zach Friedman knew Lolly co-founder Marc Baghadjian and his partners for years and introduced them to the Crescent team in late 2020.
"The thing about the fund that's so amazing is that they know who you are from third grade, because they went to high school, to middle school with you," said Baghadjian. "They know you better than any professional venture capitalist would know. Because they're my demographic and my age, and they get my product, they can give me better feedback than any adult would."
Like Lolly, many of the other consumer startups founded by younger generations are also geared toward youth, like the L.A.-based PearPop, which lets users bid for screen time with their favorite TikTok stars, and Poparazzi, a photo-sharing platform that lets users post photos to their friends' profiles. Funding from a student venture capital fund can help boost the product, and the profile, of youth-led startups, making them more visible to traditional investors. It also allows youth to drive their own tech trends, rather than let older investors dictate them.
According to L.A. Tech Week co-organizer Michelle Fang, student venture capital programs like Crescent are "empowering my generation to accelerate the bubbling tech scene here in Los Angeles beyond traditional means."
"Gen Z is among the first to adopt new products and drive internet trends, from Social Media 3.0 to crypto, and on," she added. Student VCs are "the perfect alignment to empower this same generation to invest in what they know best."
Crescent is currently accepting applications from students online, and though they see a lot of A.I., blockchain and biomedical startups, Seth said the fund is "industry agnostic—we're just trying to understand the trends." And to ensure the fund's perspective on tech remains student-focused, the co-founders, all of whom graduated this year, are preparing to hand over the keys to the fund to the next batch of Southern California students.
Lead art by Ian Hurley.
Editor 's note: This story has been updated to clarify the name of the Claremont Colleges.
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Pejman Nozad, a founding managing partner at Pear VC, joins this episode of LA Venture to discuss Pear VC's current initiatives, including its accelerator and fellowships. He's seen as one of the most successful angel investors in the area, and for good reason: he has made more than 300 investments in his lifetime.
"I'm a child of revolution and war and difficult times," said Nozad of his upbringing in Iran during the revolution.
Nozad went to college before dropping out. That's when his brother told him about his dream to go to America. After his brother was denied a visa multiple times, Nozad went himself to the embassy and got lucky; the woman in charge of the process liked him enough to approve him.
"When you're in [your] early twenties, you don't analyze much of the future. And then your risk-takers. I came to America in 1992 with $700 and I didn't speak any word of English," said Nozad.
Nozad went from working at a carwash, then a yogurt shop, to a (now famous) Persian rug store in Palo Alto. Many of his clients happened to be CEOs and venture capitalists; Nozad wanted to be part of that community.
"I was very lucky because I had access to people who normally nobody can see them, but I was hanging out with them at Sunday barbecues while selling carpets," said Nozad.
In his early days as an investor, Nozad bet on companies that included Dropbox and DoorDash. He said he took inspiration as a venture capitalist in lessons he learned from his time playing professional soccer in Iran.
"In soccer, you can score minute one, or you can score at minute 90. Both of them [are] one goal and you can win the game. So, when you go to fundraise, don't get disappointed if you hear a lot of nos, because the yes could be the last meeting after the whole two months," he said.
dot.LA Engagement Intern Joshua Letona contributed to this post.
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In a year upended by crisis after crisis — the ongoing pandemic, the climate emergency, an insurrection in the capital — tech startup financing is not just bouncing back but altogether booming, and Los Angeles-based angel investors are a big part of that equation.
Angels usually take a stake in an emerging business using their own funds, before institutional investors are willing to throw more substantial resources behind an idea. Often, they start off as entrepreneurs or engineers themselves.
We surveyed dozens of prominent L.A. investors to find out who they believe to be the top angels in the city, as part of dot.LA's third VC sentiment survey. Then, we tallied the votes. dot.LA had to throw out a couple of top names because one angel no longer lived in Los Angeles and the other didn't appear to be actively investing.
For more from the latest survey, read about who to watch among L.A.'s hottest ecommerce startups.
The investors below are listed based on the number of votes they received. We deferred to alphabetical order when there was a tie. Without further ado, here are Los Angeles' top angels, according to their peers.
List tops this list despite maintaining a low profile compared to the five angels below. He's an early-stage investor whose portfolio includes mobile shopping startup Tapcart, glasses and contacts company Lensabl, as well as Brainbase, Candy Club, Citruslabs and other LA-based firms, per AngelList. His investments range between $25,000 and $100,000, according to his Signal investing page. List is also listed as the chief creative officer at brand studio Gazoozle, per Crunchbase. The agency mentions Uber, TBS and other big names as clients on its website.
When dot.LA reached out for more information about him and his recent investments, List responded via LinkedIn: "im all good man, i dont do any press. thanks though!" Thanks, indeed!
But Paul Bricault, co-founder and managing director of Amplify, who has several co-investments with him, said List really has a discerning eye. "While we have also passed on some things he has sent our way, they are always worth a hard look which is rare."
McInerney got his start as a software engineer at Apple and Sony. His L.A. investments include RentSpree, a tenant screening startup that just announced an $8 million series A; and Bird, the love-it-or-hate-it scooter rental service. Beyond the city, he's a backer of Notion, Segment and Dapper Labs. His exits include Lettuce, which sold to Intuit; and Shopflick, which sold to Popsugar.
Rascoff co-founded Zillow, Hotwire.com, real estate platform Pacaso, startup studio 75 & Sunny and this website, dot.LA. He's a former director of TripAdvisor and Zulily, and is a board member of the controversial data-mining company Palantir. When pressed on whether being a co-founder of dot.LA could have artificially boosted his vote count, Rascoff disagreed:
"I am just a really prolific L.A. based investor," he said. "I think we (75 & Sunny) did like 41 deals last year, of which 25 were in L.A., so that's why. I'm also an investor in many L.A. based venture funds (Crosscut, m13, Upfront, and others) so that helps me have a lot of connectivity to the L.A. tech community, which I'm sure boosts my vote count!"
Lee co-founded LegalZoom, ShoeDazzle and The Honest Company (of Jessica Alba fame), which went public in May and is now valued north of $894 million. "We have been fairly active this past year with 16 investments in total so far, and 8 of them in Los Angeles now," said Lee.
His LA-based investments include The NFT Company, guided breathing app Breathwrk and fantasy sports company Grin Gaming. Lee's exits include the infamous MoviePass (RIP), which sold to Helios and Matheson Analytics; Tapiture, which was bought by Playboy; and Stamped, which was snapped up by Yahoo, per Crunchbase.
O'Neill co-founded boutique candy brand Sugarfina. She also sat on the board of fintech company Happy Money and most recently cofounded early-stage investment fund Pure Imagination Brands in Santa Monica with her partner, Josh Resnick, who also made this list. Previously, O'Neill led marketing for Barbie at Mattel.
Resnick worked as a producer at Activision, the Santa Monica game publisher, before launching his own studio — Pandemic Studios — with backing from his former employer. Pandemic is known for developing Star Wars: Battlefront and later on was acquired by Electronic Arts with another studio in a combined $860 million deal. Resnick also cofounded Sugarfina and Pure Imagination Brands. The investor tells dot.LA that he's "done around a dozen deals so far this year with another 4 in the pipeline currently."
Of the deals he has closed in 2021 to date, he says eight were based in Los Angeles. His investment portfolio includes Culver City-based digital pharmacy Honeybee Health and virtual reality training platform Vantage Point.
Lead art by Candice Navi.
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Harri is dot.LA's senior finance reporter. She previously worked for Gizmodo, Fast Company, VentureBeat and Flipboard. Find her on Twitter and send tips on L.A. startups and venture capital to firstname.lastname@example.org.