'They Know You Better Than Any Venture Capitalist': The California Crescent Fund Aims to Boost SoCal's Student Founders

Yasmin Tayag
Yasmin Tayag is a science editor and writer. She was previously the lead editor of the Medium Coronavirus Blog and founding editor of Future Human, a publication about science and the future. She was also a senior editor at the health website Elemental and the tech website OneZero. Before that, she was the senior science editor at Inverse. She is most interested in biology, health, the future of food, and the intersection of science with racial and social justice.
'They Know You Better Than Any Venture Capitalist': The California Crescent Fund Aims to Boost SoCal's Student Founders
Image by Ian Hurley

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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Here’s Why Streaming Looks More and More Like Cable

Lon Harris
Lon Harris is a contributor to dot.LA. His work has also appeared on ScreenJunkies, RottenTomatoes and Inside Streaming.
Here’s Why Streaming Looks More and More Like Cable
Evan Xie

The original dream of streaming was all of the content you love, easily accessible on your TV or computer at any time, at a reasonable price. Sadly, Hollywood and Silicon Valley have come together over the last decade or so to recognize that this isn’t really economically viable. Instead, the streaming marketplace is slowly transforming into something approximating Cable Television But Online.

It’s very expensive to make the kinds of shows that generate the kind of enthusiasm and excitement from global audiences that drives the growth of streaming platforms. For every international hit like “Squid Game” or “Money Heist,” Netflix produced dozens of other shows whose titles you have definitely forgotten about.

The marketplace for new TV has become so massively competitive, and the streaming landscape so oversaturated, even relatively popular shows with passionate fanbases that generate real enthusiasm and acclaim from critics often struggle to survive. Disney+ canceled Luscasfilm’s “Willow” after just one season this week, despite being based on a hit Ron Howard film and receiving an 83% critics score on Rotten Tomatoes. Amazon dropped the mystery drama “Three Pines” after one season as well this week, which starred Alfred Molina, also received positive reviews, and is based on a popular series of detective novels.

Even the new season of “The Mandalorian” is off to a sluggish start compared to its previous two Disney+ seasons, and Pedro Pascal is basically the most popular person in America right now.

Now that major players like Netflix, Disney+, and WB Discovery’s HBO Max have entered most of the big international markets, and bombarded consumers there with marketing and promotional efforts, onboarding of new subscribers inevitably has slowed. Combine that with inflation and other economic concerns, and you have a recipe for austerity and belt-tightening among the big streamers that’s virtually guaranteed to turn the smorgasbord of Peak TV into a more conservative a la carte offering. Lots of stuff you like, sure, but in smaller portions.

While Netflix once made its famed billion-dollar mega-deals with top-name creators, now it balks when writer/director Nancy Meyers (“It’s Complicated,” “The Holiday”) asks for $150 million to pay her cast of A-list actors. Her latest romantic comedy will likely move over to Warner Bros., which can open the film in theaters and hopefully recoup Scarlett Johansson and Michael Fassbender’s salaries rather than just spending the money and hoping it lingers longer in the public consciousness than “The Gray Man.”

CNET did the math last month and determined that it’s still cheaper to choose a few subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime over a conventional cable TV package by an average of about $30 per month (provided you don’t include the cost of internet service itself). But that means picking and choosing your favorite platforms, as once you start adding all the major offerings out there, the prices add up quickly. (And those are just the biggest services from major Hollywood studios and media companies, let alone smaller, more specialized offerings.) Any kind of cable replacement or live TV streaming platform makes the cost essentially comparable to an old-school cable TV package, around $100 a month or more.

So called FAST, or Free Ad-supported Streaming TV services, have become a popular alternative to paid streaming platforms, with Fox’s Tubi making its first-ever appearance on Nielsen’s monthly platform rankings just last month. (It’s now more popular than the first FAST service to appear on the chart, Paramount Global’s Pluto TV.) According to Nielsen, Tubi now accounts for around 1% of all TV viewing in the US, and its model of 24/7 themed channels supported by semi-frequent ad breaks couldn’t resemble cable television anymore if it tried.

Services like Tubi and Pluto stand to benefit significantly from the new streaming paradigm, and not just from fatigued consumers tired of paying for more content. Cast-off shows and films from bigger streamers like HBO Max often find their way to ad-supported platforms, where they can start bringing in revenue for their original studios and producers. The infamous HBO Max shows like “The Nevers” and “Westworld” that WBD controversially pulled from the HBO Max service can now be found on Tubi or The Roku Channel.

HBO Max’s recently-canceled reality dating series “FBoy Island” has also found a new home, but it’s not on any streaming platform. Season 3 will air on TV’s The CW, along with a new spinoff series called (wait for it) “FGirl Island.” So in at least some ways, “30 Rock” was right: technology really IS cyclical.

As TikTok Faces a Ban, Competitors Prepare to Woo Its User Base

Kristin Snyder

Kristin Snyder is dot.LA's 2022/23 Editorial Fellow. She previously interned with Tiger Oak Media and led the arts section for UCLA's Daily Bruin.

As TikTok Faces a Ban, Competitors Prepare to Woo Its User Base
Evan Xie

This is the web version of dot.LA’s daily newsletter. Sign up to get the latest news on Southern California’s tech, startup and venture capital scene.

Another day, another update in the unending saga that is the potential TikTok ban.

The latest: separate from the various bills proposing a ban, the Biden administration has been in talks with TikTok since September to try and find a solution. Now, having thrown its support behind Senator MarkWarner’s bill, the White House is demanding TikTok’s Chinese parent company, ByteDance, sell its stakes in the company to avoid a ban. This would be a major blow to the business, as TikTok alone is worth between $40 billion and $50 billion—a significant portion of ByteDance’s $220 billion value.

Clearly, TikTok faces an uphill battle as its CEO Shou Zi Chew prepares to testify before the House Energy and Commerce Committee next week. But other social media companies are likely looking forward to seeing their primary competitor go—and are positioning themselves as the best replacement for migrating users.


Last year, The Washington Post reported that Meta paid a consulting firm to plant negative stories about TikTok. Now, Meta is reaping the benefits of TikTok’s downfall, with its shares rising 3% after the White House told TikTok to leave ByteDance. But this initial boost means nothing if the company can’t entice creators and viewers to Instagram and Facebook. And it doesn’t look promising in that regard.

Having waffled between pushing its short-form videos, called Reels, and de-prioritizing them in the algorithm, Instagram announced last week that it would no longer offer monetary bonuses to creators making Reels. This might be because of TikTok’s imminent ban. After all, the program was initially meant to convince TikTok creators to use Instagram—an issue that won’t be as pressing if TikTok users have no choice but to find another platform.


Alternatively, Snap is doing the opposite and luring creators with an ad revenue-sharing program. First launched in 2022, creators are now actively boasting about big earnings from the program, which provides 50% of ad revenue from videos. Snapchat is clearly still trying to win over users with new tech like its OpenAI chatbot, which it launched last month. But it's best bet to woo the TikTok crowd is through its new Sounds features, which suggest audio for different lenses and will match montage videos to a song’s rhythm. Audio clips are crucial to TikTok’s platform, so focusing on integrating songs into content will likely appeal to users looking to recreate that experience.


With its short-form ad revenue-sharing program, YouTube Shorts has already lured over TikTok creators. It's even gotten major stars like Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift to promote music on Shorts. This is likely where YouTube has the best bet of taking TikTok’s audience. Since TikTok has become deeply intertwined with the music industry, Shorts might be primed to take its spot. And with its new feature that creates compiles all the videos using a specific song, Shorts is likely hoping to capture musicians looking to promote their work.


The most blatant attempt at seducing TikTok users, however, comes from Triller, which launched a portal for people to move their videos from TikTok to its platform. It’s simple, but likely the most effective tactic—and one that other short-form video platforms should try to replicate. With TikTok users worried about losing their backlog of content, this not only lets users archive but also bolsters Triller’s content offerings. The problem, of course, is that Triller isn’t nearly as well known as the other platforms also trying to capture TikTok users. Still, those who are in the know will likely find this option easier than manually re-uploading content to other sites.

It's likely that many of these platforms will see a momentary boost if the TikTok ban goes through. But all of these companies need to ensure that users coming from TikTok actually stay on their platforms. Considering that they have already been upended by one newcomer when TikTok took over, there’s good reason to believe that a new app could come in and swoop up TikTok’s user base. As of right now, it's unclear who will come out on top. But the true loser is the user who has to adhere to the everyday whims of each of these platforms.


We Asked Our Readers How They’re Using AI in a Professional Setting. Here's What They Said

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

We Asked Our Readers How They’re Using AI in a Professional Setting. Here's What They Said
Evan Xie

According to Pew Research data, 27% of Americans interact with AI on a daily basis. With the launch of Open AI’s latest language model GPT-4, we asked our readers how they use AI in a professional capacity. Here’s what they told us:

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