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Reality star and entrepreneur Kim Kardashian joined the ranks of celebrity tech investors last week when she launched the private equity fund Skky Partners alongside Carlyle Group veteran Jay Sammons. The firm will leverage Kardashian’s branding know-how to help launch and grow the next generation of companies in media, hospitality, luxury, digital and ecommerce, along with Sammons’ experience steering brands like Supreme, Beats by Dre, Vogue, McDonald’s China and Moncler. Kim’s “mom-ager” Kris Jenner is also on board the project as a partner.
Obviously, a lot of startups are desperate for attention and oxygen, and celebrities love free products and need things to discuss on talk shows. So collaborations between tech and gadget companies and notable influencers are nothing new. Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas has been a long-time fixture at CES, where he has promoted his own brand of wearable devices, 3D printers and robots. Rapper Chamillionaire of “Ridin’ Dirty” fame has been angel investing for over a decade, and has made enough smart bets in companies like Maker Studios, Cruise and Lyft that he’s since started his own companies and was named the first “entrepreneur in residence” at Upfront Ventures.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen these relationships expand in depth and complexity. Obviously, a celebrity brings their personal brand to a company, and that can help expand its visibility. Traditionally, this might have been arranged along the lines of an endorsement deal; the celebrity agrees to post a few complimentary Instagrams or tweets, maybe shows up to a product launch or two, poses for a billboard and moves on with their lives. But increasingly, stars are asking for not just a fee for their endorsement, but a chunk of ownership in the company itself, and in exchange, they’re providing additional layers of support.
“For every dollar that someone might get paid in an endorsement deal, they can drive $10 worth of enterprise value,” Plus Capital founder and managing partner Adam Lilling said. His company specializes in connecting early-stage companies with celebrities and influencer-slash-investors. “So why aren’t they taking a piece of the upside vs. taking cash? Celebrities are very entrepreneurial. They build their own brand up. The idea of ‘blue people on another planet’ becoming ‘Avatar’ just like disappearing photos becoming Snapchat; they both take imagination and execution and entrepreneurship to make it happen.”
This can mean simply advice or suggestions for the management team, or collaborations around new product launches or announcements, but increasingly it also means the nuts and bolts kind of work that would traditionally be associated with real institutional investors.
“Celebrities partnering with VCs can be an incredible combination when done correctly,” Octane AI co-founder, investor and “Business Envy Podcast” co-host Ben Parr said. “A celebrity can attract deal flow that others can’t, while providing their portfolio companies with an instant audience and very important connections. In my experience, everyone responds when a celebrity introduces you to someone. VCs bring the financial rigor, tech network and institutional knowledge a celebrity may lack.”
Beyond just insight from someone who has already worked with the public and built an audience of their own, having a celebrity investor on board also indicates a level of commitment to the product, as well as authenticity, that a simple endorsement fails to truly communicate.
A number of celebrities recently invested in the Pearpop platform and marketplace, which connects individual creators and brands for collaborative projects and campaigns. It’s a bit like Cameo, but instead of making personal videos for your friends, you hire influencers to collaborate with you, to help grow your own personal audience or expand your company’s footprint. Creators on the service run the gamut from the traditional (such as musicians and craftspeople) to the more unconventional (such as clowns).
The company added $16 million in financing in April, spread out over two rounds, and already claims to have attracted 10,000 creators to the platform. “Stranger Things” star Noah Schnapp, Lil Nas X, Jake Paul, Paris Hilton and Ashton Kutcher’s Sound Ventures have all put funds into the company. As influencers, their very presence speaks to a level of awareness of issues that face the creators and personalities likely to use the platform; having them back the company itself improves the product.
“Celebrities are enjoying being venture capitalists,” said Adam Struck, founder and managing partner of Santa Monica’s Struck Capital. “VC is the coolest game on the planet. You’re seeing all these celebrities not only create funds to take advantage of their status, but post-retirement, actually calling themselves venture capitalists. A good example is The Chainsmokers; they started off endorsing different companies, investing here and there, but now they’re full-throttle venture capitalists. It’s definitely taking it up a notch.”
We’ve also seen the rise of so-called “influencer investors” like Canadian teen Josh Richards. After building a large following on TikTok, YouTube and Instagram, Richards followed a conventional path to fame, signing with Warner Records in 2020 and recording his own particular blend of Lil Dicky-inspired hip-hop. In 2021 Richards launched the $15 million Animal Capital venture fund with former Goldman Sachs banker Marshall Sandman and fellow TikTok stars Griffin Johnson and Noah Beck. Animal Capital pitches itself to founders and investors as a source for 100 million engaged users, by which they mean tapping Richards’ massive fanbase. These fans can be leveraged as customers, of course, but they’re also just a helpful source of audience information and data.
“A celebrity must put in the work to be a good VC, however,” Parr said. “They can’t just let a VC borrow their brand and do nothing else. The best-performing celebrity investors call their portfolio companies, make intros and ask thoughtful questions about the businesses they’re evaluating.”
The list of stars and notables from other industries coming into the tech world continues to grow, and now includes Snoop Dogg, Serena Williams, Jay-Z, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, and Sofia Vergara. DiCaprio actually took a stake in Struck Capital in 2020, and actively participates in finding new investments and mentoring founders.
“From [DiCaprio’s] team, we’re seeing a lot more activity than just writing and posting the tweet,” Struck said. “They’re helping us with business development, connecting the dots and leveraging the platform.”
At first, this group leaned heavily male, as a lot of famous women were focusing funds on industries outside of the technology space. (Two of the most famous women celebrity-slash-entrepreneurs – Rihanna and Gwyneth Paltrow – had their greatest success in the beauty and wellness space, inspiring an entire generation of Fenty and GOOP wannabes.) But this early lead has (slowly) started to erode. According to Money UK, as of March 2021, 10 of the 30 most prolific celebrity investors were female.
Kardashian has a fairly lengthy resume at this point as a businesswoman and entrepreneur. Obviously, her family is a reality TV powerhouse. Their latest series, “The Kardashians,” had one of the largest Hulu premieres in history, and a recent report from Samba TV confirms it’s one of the key shows driving new sign-ups for Disney’s streamer. Her shapewear label Skims recently doubled its valuation – now clocking in at $3.2 billion – after raising $240 million in new funding over the summer. She recently relaunched and expanded her make-up brand KKW as a complete line of skincare products, known as SKKN. (The name change also reflects her recent divorce from rapper Kanye West and subsequent change of initials.)
So when Kardashian and Sammons indicate that Skky Partners will leverage their “complementary expertise,” it may not simply be boilerplate business-speak, but a real outline of their working relationship. And if history is any guide, it could be poised to pay off; Ashton Kutcher turned a $30 million fund into $250 million in just six years as an investor thanks to early gambles on Uber and Airbnb. His firm, Sound Ventures, is among the largest celebrity-driven VC groups, with 175 investments across sectors including health, media, entertainment, and security. (Sound’s 2021 investments include the email platform Superhuman and NFT exchange OpenSea.)
“The idea that [Kim Kardashian] would move into private equity is smart because she’s a person of scale,” Lilling said. “As the company gets its escape velocity, you’re able to put gas on a fire. A celebrity…can help when there’s actually a customer base or a user base or awareness. They can help take it to the next level.”It’s worth noting that Kardashian was also one of the many celebrities who dipped a toe into cryptocurrency recently, and has lived to regret it. She’s one of three celebrities being sued by investors for allegedly making misleading promotional statements. So just like a real VC, she’s already had some bumps in the road, from which to learn.
According to a Forbes report last April, both the viewership and dollars behind women’s sports at a collegiate and professional level are growing.
In 2022, the first 32 games of the NCAA tournament had record attendance levels, breaking records set back in 2004, and largely driven by the new and rapidly growing women’s NCAA tournament. WNBA openers this year saw a 21% spike in attendance, with some teams including the LA Sparks reporting triple-digit ticket sales growth, about 121% over 2022’s total. In 2023, the average size of an LA Sparks crowd swelled to 10,396 people, up from 4,701 people.
Women make up half the population, but “also 50% of the folks that are walking into the stadium at Dodger Stadium, or your NFL fans are just about 50% women,” noted Erin Storck, a panelist and senior analyst at Los Angeles-based Elysian Park Ventures.
Storck added that in heterosexual households, women generally manage most of the family’s money, giving them huge purchasing power, a potential advantage for female-run leagues. “There's an untapped revenue opportunity,” she noted.
In the soccer world, Los Angeles-based women’s soccer team Angel City FC has put in the work to become a household name, not just in LA County but across the nation. At an LA Tech Week panel hosted by Athlete Strategies about investing in sports, Angel City head of strategy and chief of staff Kari Fleischauer said that years before launching the women’s National Women’s Soccer League team, Angel City FC was pounding the pavement letting people know about the excitement ladies soccer can bring. She noted community is key, and that fostering a sense of engagement and safety at the team’s home venue, BMO stadium (formerly Banc of California Stadium), is one reason fans keep coming back.
Adding free metro rides to BMO stadium and private rooms for nursing fans to breastfeed or fans on the spectrum to avoid sensory overload, were just some of the ways ACFC tried to include its community in the concept of its stadium, Fleischauer said. She noted, though, that roughly 46% of Angel City fans are “straight white dudes hanging out with their bros.”
“Particularly [on] the woman's side, I'd like to think we do a better job of making sure that there's spaces for everyone,” Fleischauer told the audience. “One thing we realize is accessibility is a huge thing.”
L.A. Tech Week has brought venture capitalists, founders and entrepreneurs from around the world to the California coast. With so many tech nerds in one place, it's easy to laugh, joke and reminisce about the future of tech in SoCal.
Here's what people are saying about the fifth day of L.A. Tech Week on social:
#LATechWeek has been on 🔥🔥🔥. Yes the events are super cool at amazing venues. But, I’m blown away by the people. I’ve met so many founders building generative AI companies from the ground up. I’m so bullish on LA right now🥳. LA is for builders #longLA
Thanks @rpnickson 📸 pic.twitter.com/B6rT2jJYIs
— Dr. Kelly O'Brien (@Kvo2013) June 8, 2023
Successful LatinxVC Avanza Summit 2023 in LA! It’s been an amazing few days near the beach w great company. Thank you to our panelists & participants.
Huge thanks to our incredible sponsors SVB, Chavez Family Foundation, Annenberg Foundation, PledgeLA, Fenwick & West, Countsy! pic.twitter.com/oVuGIgFurk
— LatinxVC (@LatinxVCs) June 9, 2023
30+ gaming startups presented at the A16z Speedrun Demo Day in LA yesterday. Great thanks to the @a16zGames team for an awesome day of events! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/DKq8IFo5QZ
— Grace Zhou (@graceminzhou) June 9, 2023
📣🤩 What’s the buzz? It’s #LATechWeek from @TechstarsLA & @TechstarsHealth joint demo day with the #Techstar HC team where our @fyelabs founder/CEO Suvojit Ghosh mentored both cohorts! #TechStars demo day highlighted 12 amazing emerging #startups in #healthtech #innovation. 🩺 pic.twitter.com/0RXClCtfDQ
— FYELABS (@fyelabs) June 9, 2023
Another successful Coffee On Slauson in the books for #LATechWeek.
Special thanks to the good people at Pledge LA, SVB and @GundersonLaw for the ongoing support and the @findyourhilltop staff for providing the space, eats & vibes. ♻️ pic.twitter.com/51cMDoEn30
— Slauson & Co. (@SlausonAndCo) June 9, 2023
The perfect combo to start #LATechWeek Day 5: pastries, coffee, and great convos with industry founders ✨
Fireside chats with @enriquealle, @wp, and @robynpark pic.twitter.com/booYPdekVV
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Of course @designerfund has the most amazing pastries at their event. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/PjyWlGTQI4
— Jesse Pickard (@jessepickard) June 9, 2023
My favorite event from @Techweek_ has to be "Modern Storytelling & Business Building." Hosted by @STHoward #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/SV1eexMJ4k
— JonnyZeller (@JonnyZeller) June 9, 2023
And the finale of the night was courtesy of the one and only @zedd for an unforgettable end to the "City of Games" party! Hosted by @a16zGames and @100Thieves #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hliI9yLKse
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Excited to be at the @a16zGames Speedrun Demo Day! Loved the energy and excitement from the companies that pitched there. It was also great to see @Tocelot and @ndrewlee at this amazing #LATechWeek event pic.twitter.com/NfLQO5lR27
— Andy Lee | andypwlee.bit (@andypwlee) June 9, 2023
Thank you to everyone who joined the Sony Venture Fund US team at #LATechWeek for our screening of Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. Last summer, we started building a presence in LA. Today, it's exciting to host such an event with the @Sony family and the LA VC community. pic.twitter.com/wdDm6qtHdL
— Sony Innovation Fund (@Sony_Innov_Fund) June 9, 2023
Time to eat, connect and build while @remi_rodney provided the vibes. 🙏🏽#LATechWeek @BuildOnBase @developer_dao @WeAreRazorfish pic.twitter.com/QIPh1gjvoA
— Hola Metaverso-Blockchain & New Web Tech Events 🎪 (@holametaverso) June 9, 2023
@Lux_Capital at #LATechWeek advancing the impossible to inevitable, from..
..defense primes partnering with cutting edge defense tech startups, to..
..hardware x LLMs improving mental health.
From the rich and diverse LA ecosystem stems generational companies: pic.twitter.com/v5S5r8JtbU
— Shahin Farshchi (@Farshchi) June 9, 2023
LA Tech Week has been a blast! Met some amazing creators, founders and investors from all over the world! #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/AAh9JFELhe
— Chris Germano (@netslayer) June 9, 2023
Had such a blast at LA Tech Week and hosting events for @brexHQ
Top highlights were collabing with @pulley on an Emerging Managers / Founder mixer at the @poplco House, rooftop event in Venice, creator panel with @thechangj & proper Korean food with in KTown.
Exhausted is an… pic.twitter.com/mGQnSYGPdg
— Τyler Robinson (@TyyRob3) June 9, 2023
Did you have fun at @sophiaamoruso’s launch party for @trustfundvc? #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/gbrbXRQ9Xx
— Kay (@KaySnels) June 9, 2023
y00tilty in every city with @KaylaLor3n & @cryptochrisg813.
Welcome to the LA @y00tsNFT fam! #LATechWeek #3XP week. pic.twitter.com/6wWKlsTacx
— VanG0xH (@CryptoVanGoghs) June 9, 2023
Really enjoyed #LATechWeek. Here are some observations I made 👇
— s.personal.ai (Suman Kanuganti) (@SumanPersonalAI) June 9, 2023
Thank you @TheKofiAmpadu for including me in #demoday with the latest @a16ztxo cohort! It was a real full circle moment to witness the brilliance of both @ChrisLyons & @ZMuse_ & #PledgeLA very own. She’s why we’re #LongLA 🚀💕 #LAtechweek pic.twitter.com/itkKXMxQRb
— Qiana Qiana! (@Q_i_a_n_a) June 9, 2023
@upfrontvc Gaming Founders Podcast #iLOVELA #LATechWeek @Techweek_ @KatiaAmeri @mucker @fikavc @bonfire_vc @TenOne10 @WatertowerGroup @ganasvc @IAmRobRyan @john_at_stonks @eva_ho @dereknorton pic.twitter.com/LCbaGXCoW7
— Sean Goldfaden (@seangoldfaden) June 9, 2023
Hosts Kevin Zhang, Partner at @upfrontvc, and Eden Chen, CEO of @pragmaplatform, interviewed two special guests from @raidbaseinc Stephen Lim, Co-Founder & Product Director, and Trevor Romleski, Co-Founder & Game Director. 🎙 #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/hxHEAoELZ6
— Tech Week (@Techweek_) June 9, 2023
Kicking off @a16zGames @100Thieves City of Games party at #LATechWeek 🔥🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/zQcZedG15f
— Jon Lai (@Tocelot) June 9, 2023
Yesterday at @socinnovation I got to have this AWESOME conversation with @iamwill — musician, producer, technology entrepreneur, and Founder & CEO of https://t.co/D60y1e2JOu #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/KBxK6rXyTG
— Anna Barber (@annawbarber) June 9, 2023
I absolutely love this game. Proud moment for the team @investwithatlas. #LATechWeek pic.twitter.com/fPZvKXU7TC
— Tobias Francis (@TobiasFrancis) June 9, 2023
Had a blast at LA Tech Week this year with @brexHQ
From hosting & moderating my first creator panel featuring @BlakeMichael14, to a fun rooftop night in Venice, and to attending some amazing events such as Watertower’s emerging manager panel and a VC/founder tennis tournament pic.twitter.com/udjfmLHE0L
— Jonathan Chang (@thechangj) June 8, 2023
At Lowercarbon Capital’s LA Tech Week event Thursday, the synergy between the region’s aerospace industry and greentech startups was clear.
The event sponsored by Lowercarbon, Climate Draft (and the defunct Silicon Valley Bank’s Climate Technology & Sustainability team) brought together a handful of local startups in Hawthorne not far from LAX, and many of the companies shared DNA with arguably the region’s most famous tech resident: SpaceX.
Here’s a look at the greentech startups that pitched during the Tech Week event, and how they think what they’re building could help solve the climate crisis.
Arbor: Based in El Segundo, this year-old startup is working to convert organic waste into energy and fresh water. At the same time, it also uses biomass carbon removal and storage to remove carbon from the atmosphere and sequester it in an attempt to avoid further damaging the earth’s ozone layer. At the Tech Week event Thursday, Arbor CEO Brad Hartwig told a stunned crowd that Arbor aims to remove about five billion tons of organic waste from landfills and turn that into about 6 PWh, or a quarter of the global electricity need, each year. Hartwig is an alumni of SpaceX; he was a manufacturing engineer on the Crew Dragon engines from 2016-2018 and later a flight test engineer at Kitty Hawk.
Antora: Sunnyvale-based Antora Energy was founded in 2017, making it one of the oldest companies on the pitching block during the event. Backed by investors including the National Science Foundation and Los Angeles-based Overture VC, Antora has raised roughly $57 million to date, most recently a $50 million round last February. Chief operating officer Justin Briggs said Antora’s goal is to modernize and popularize thermal energy storage using ultra-hot carbon. Massive heated carbon blocks can give off thermal energy, which Antora’s proprietary batteries then absorb and store as energy. It’s an ambitious goal, but one the world needs at scale to green its energy footprint. According to Briggs, “the biggest challenge is how can we turn back variable intermittent renewable electricity into something that's reliable and on demand, so we can use it to provide energy to everything we need.”
Arc: Hosting the panel was Arc, an electric boating company that’s gained surprising momentum, moving from design to delivering its first e-boats in just two years of existence. Founded in 2021, the company’s already 70 employees strong and has already sold some of its first e-boats to customers willing to pay the luxury price tag, CTO Ryan Cook said Thursday. Cook said that to meet the power needs of a battery-powered speedboat, the Arc team designed the vehicle around the battery pack with the goal of it being competitive with gas boats when compared to range and cost of gas. But on the pricing side, it’s not cheap. Arc’s flagship vessel, the Arc One is expected to cost roughly $300,000. During the panel, Cook compared the boat to being “like an early Tesla Roadster.” To date Arc Boats has raised just over $35 million, according to PitchBook, from investors including Kevin Durant, Will Smith and Sean “Diddy” Combs.
Clarity Technology: Carbon removal startup Clarity is based in LA and was founded by Yale graduate and CEO Glen Meyerowitz last year. Clarity is working to make “gigaton solutions for gigaton problems.” Their aim? To remove up to 2,000 billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere through direct air capture, a process which uses massive fans to move chemicals that capture CO2. But the challenge, Meyerowitz noted in his speech, is doing this at scale in a way that makes an actual dent in the planet’s emissions while also efficiently using the electricity needed to do so. Meyerowitz spent nearly five years working as an engineer for SpaceX in Texas, and added he’s looking to transfer those learnings into Clarity.
Parallel Systems: Based in Downtown LA’s Arts District, this startup is building zero-emission rail vehicles that are capable of long-haul journeys otherwise done by a trucking company. The estimated $700 billion trucking industry, Parallel Systems CEO Matt Soule said, is ripe for an overhaul and could benefit from moving some of its goods off-road to electric railcars. According to Soule, Parallel’s electric battery-powered rail vehicles use 25% of the energy a semi truck uses, and at a competitive cost. Funded in part by a February 2022 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Parallel Systems has raised about $57 million to date. Its most recent venture funding round was a $49 million Series A led by Santa Monica-based VC Anthos Capital. Local VCs including Riot Ventures and Santa Monica-based Embark Ventures are also backers of Parallel.
Terra Talent: Unlike the rest of the startups pitching at the Tech Week event, Terra Talent was focused on building teams rather than technology. Founder Dolly Singh worked at SpaceX, Oculus and Citadel as a headhunter, and now runs Terra, a talent and advisory firm that helps companies recruit top talent in the greentech space. But, she said, she’s concerned that all the work these startups are doing won’t matter unless we very quickly turn around the current trendlines. “Earth will shake us off like and she will do just fine in 10,000 years,” she said. “It’s our way of living, everything we love is actually here on earth… there’s nothing I love on Mars,” adding that she’s hopeful the startups that pitched during the event will be instrumental in making sure the planet stays habitable for a little while longer.