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What Are LA’s Hottest Startups of 2022? See Who VCs Picked in dot.LA’s Annual Survey
05:00 AM | January 31, 2022
In Los Angeles—like the startup environment at large—venture funding and valuations skyrocketed in 2021, even as the coronavirus pandemic continued to surge and supply chain issues rattled the economy. The result was a startup ecosystem that continued to build on its momentum, with no shortage of companies raising private capital at billion-dollar-plus unicorn valuations.
In order to gauge the local startup scene and who’s leading the proverbial pack, we asked more than 30 leading L.A.-based investors for their take on the hottest firms in the region. They responded with more than two dozen venture-backed companies; three startups, in particular, rose above the rest as repeat nominees, while we've organized the rest by their amount of capital raised as of January, according to data from PitchBook. (We also asked VCs not to pick any of their own portfolio companies, and vetted the list to ensure they stuck to that rule.)
Without further ado, here are the 26 L.A. startups that VCs have their eyes on in 2022.
Whatnot was the name most often on the minds of L.A. venture investors—understandably, given its prolific fundraising year. Whatnot raised some $220 million across three separate funding rounds in 2021, on the way to a $1.5 billion valuation.
The Marina del Rey-based livestream shopping platform was founded by former GOAT product manager Logan Head and ex-Googler Grant LaFontaine. The startup made its name by providing a live auction platform for buying and selling collectables like rare Pokémon cards, and has since expanded into sports memorabilia, sneakers and apparel.
Boulevard’s backers include Santa Monica-based early-stage VC firm Bonfire Ventures, which focuses on B2B software startups. The Downtown-based company fits nicely within that thesis; Boulevard builds booking and payment software for salons and spas. The firm has worked with prominent brands such as Toni & Guy and HeyDay.
GOAT launched in 2015 as a marketplace to help sneakerheads authenticate used Air Jordans and other collectible shoes. It has since grown at a prolific rate, expanding into apparel and accessories and exceeding $2 billion in merchandise sales in 2020. The startup sealed a $195 million funding round last summer that more than doubled its valuation, to $3.7 billion.
The Best of the Rest
Nielsen competitor VideoAmp gathers data on who's watching what across streaming services, traditional TV and social apps like YouTube. The company positions itself as an alternative to so-called "legacy" systems like Nielsen, which it says are "fragmented, riddled with complexity and inaccurate." In addition to venture funding, its total funding figure includes more than $165 million in debt financing.
Seizing on the NFT craze, Mythical Games is building a platform that powers the growing realm of “play-to-earn games.” Backed by NBA legend Michael Jordan and Andreessen Horowitz, the Sherman Oaks-based startup’s partners include game publishers Abstraction, Creative Mobile and CCG Lab.
FloQast founder Michael Whitmire says he got a “no” from more than 100 investors in the process of raising a seed round. Today, the accounting software company is considered a unicorn.
Nacelle produces docuseries, books, comedy albums and podcasts. The media company’s efforts include the Netflix travel series “Down To Earth with Zac Efron.”
A platform for virtual concerts, Wave has hosted performances by artists including Justin Bieber, Tinashe and The Weeknd. The company says it has raised $66 million to date from the likes of Warner Music and Tencent.
Sherman Oaks-based Papaya looks to make it easier to pay “any” bill—from hospital bills to parking tickets—via its mobile app.
Based in Marina del Rey, LeaseLock says it’s on a mission to eliminate security deposits for apartment renters.
Emotive sells text message-focused marketing tools to ecommerce firms like underwear brand Parade and men's grooming company Beardbrand.
Based in Long Beach, Dray says its mission is to “modernize the logistics and trucking industry.” Its partners include Danish shipping company Maersk and toy maker Mattel.
Coco makes small pink robots on wheels (you may have seen them around town) that deliver food via a remote pilot. Its investors include Y Combinator and Silicon Valley Bank.
HiveWatch develops physical security software. Its investors include former Twitter executive Dick Costollo and NBA star Steph Curry’s Penny Jar Capital.
Whatnot competitor Popshop is betting that live-shopping is the future of ecommerce. The West Hollywood-based firm focuses on collectables such as trading cards and anime merchandise.
Founded by former SpaceX engineer Karan Talati, First Resonance runs a software platform for makers of electric cars and aerospace technology. Its clients include Santa Cruz-based air taxi company Joby Aviation and Alameda-based rocket company Astra.
Founded by Crowdstrike and Microsoft alums, Open Raven aims to protect user data. The cybersecurity firm’s investors include Kleiner Perkins and Upfront Ventures.
When an actor faces the camera and speaks directly to the audience, it’s known as “breaking the fourth wall.” Named after the trope, Venice-based Fourthwall offers a website builder that’s designed for content creators.
The Non Fungible Token Company creates NFTs for musicians under the name Unblocked. Its investors include Jay Z’s Marcy Venture Partners and Shawn Mendez.
Backed by Mayo Clinic Ventures, Safe Health develops telehealth software and offers tools for enterprises to launch their own health care apps.
Intro’s app lets you book video calls with experts—from celebrity stylists, to astrologists, to investors.
With the tagline “Land the package, not the plane,” DASH Systems is a Hawthorne-based shipping company that builds hardware and software for automated airdrops.
With a focus on sustainability, Ettitude is a direct-to-consumer brand that sells bedding, bathroom textiles and sleepwear.
Along similar lines as Unblocked, Afterparty creates NFTs for artists and content creators such as Clay Perry and Tropix.
Heart to Heart is an audio-focused dating app that “lets you listen to the story behind the pictures in a profile.” Precursor Ventures led the pre-seed funding round.
Frigg makes hair and beauty products that contain cannabinoids such as CBD. The Valley Village-based company raised an undisclosed seed round in August.
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08:00 AM | October 21, 2022
Anasofia Gomez spends her early mornings filming herself journaling, picking up coffee and getting ready for the day. By 9 a.m., she’s ready to start her full-time job as a social media marketer.
The Los Angeles-based creator is just one of the 53% of non-professional creators in the United States who maintain a full-time job while also creating monetized content. Colloquially speaking, Gomez is considered a micro-influencer—creators with followers that range from 1,000 to 100,000.
Gomez treats her content creation as a second job: she starts her day at 6 a.m. just to film her content, which often features her outfits and local recommendations, and ends her days at 11 p.m. by posting her daily video. This level of dedication has earned Gomez almost 38,000 TikTok followers and partnerships with brands like perfume company Dossier and FitOn—a fitness app.
Jon Davids, the CEO of influencer marketing company Influicity, says brands often partner with micro-influencers to create a larger volume of content. Similar to their partnerships with normal influencers, companies will send micro-influencers free products in exchange for a promotional video. Depending on the influencer, some companies will pay over $200 per video.
The difference, of course, is that since companies can pay micro-influencers less, they’ll get more content for their money. For example, he says a mega-influencer may charge $5,000 for one video, while companies can take that same budget and work with roughly 30 micro-influencers.
“You can get lots and lots and lots of content without paying massive amounts of money for it,” Davids says. “And, frankly, the supply is just there.”
But Gomez says the money is often inconsistent. A month-long deal can briefly boost her income, but that doesn’t guarantee a partnership for the upcoming months. The inconsistency isn’t without its benefits, however. Gomez says that since she doesn’t rely on these partnerships for income, she can be more particular about what companies she works with.
Gomez has even turned her micro-influencing, work-life balance into content. Her series documenting her attempts to make the most of her time outside of work has taken off. Gomez’s first video about her “promise to get off the couch and seize life” has over 10 thousand likes. As such, she’s since maintained a series of videos focused on how she uses her time outside of work.
In fact, the “5 to 9” trend, which features people showing off their detailed routines before and after work, often with homemade meals and elaborate skincare routines, can get creators thousands of views. Other micro-influencers highlight content specifically about their careers: lawyers translate legal jargon, nurses discuss their work hours and teachers share their classroom management strategies. Which is to say, for many non-professional creators, quitting their full-time job would likely alter their content and potentially alienate their audience.
To that end, Davids says, these niche communities, such as influencers who make content about engineering or waste management, are often where micro-influencers thrive.
“The micro-influencers that we have today really didn't exist five or six years ago,” Davids says. “People who had very, very small audiences on social weren’t doing it to have any kind of professional presence—they were just kind of creating content for their friends and family.”
Which is why, Davids adds, amateur content creators can actively engage their followers on a more personable level than many mega-influencers.
Nonetheless, Gomez has thought about pursuing content creation full-time. But, she finds that she enjoys the security her traditional job provides compared to the lack of financial consistency from her influencing endeavors.
“You just never know what the future is with social,” Gomez says. “I think you really do have to be in a really good place [financially] to be able to say, ‘I'm going to quit my job and just do content creation.’” Amen.
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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.
05:00 AM | November 01, 2022
Located roughly a hundred miles east of San Diego, the Salton Sea is California’s largest landlocked body of water, for now.
Measuring 5 miles across and 35 miles long in its current form, the lake was created by diverting water from the Colorado River into the region for agricultural purposes. Once a vacation destination renowned for its wildlife and wetlands, a series of environmental mishaps and mismanagement have left the lake toxically salty, shrinking and often malodorous. Conditions have gotten so bad that Palm Springs Life Magazine called the region’s transformation “the biggest environmental disaster in California history” in March of 2020.
But against this unlikely backdrop, new life—or at least new industry—is scrambling to set up shop in the region. The Salton Sea, it turns out, is rich with lithium, an element that has taken center stage in the world’s transition to clean energy and its ever-growing demand for batteries. From smartphones to electric vehicles, there’s a pretty good chance that the last battery you used had lithium ions inside. Prices for the metal reached an all time high in September, and futures are up more than 400% since the start of 2021. With Biden’s new economic policy outlined in the Inflation Reduction Act, there are strong financial incentives to move battery production back to North America.
If that’s going to happen the Salton Sea could very well become the lithium capital of North America, or to paraphrase Governor Gavin Newsom, the region could become the “Saudi Arabia of lithium,” and the players are already starting to assemble.
Currently, there are three companies attempting to set up plants in the Salton Sea for direct lithium extraction: EnergySource Minerals, Controlled Thermal Resources and BHE Renewables, a branch of Berkshire Hathaway. All three companies have similar business strategies from a high level, all of which involve geothermal power plants. These plants, which are common in many parts of the world, draw hot, salty water from deep in the ground to create steam which drives a turbine to produce electricity. What makes the Salton Sea so special is that its geothermal brines just happen to contain lithium.
In a 2017 study, researchers from the U.S. DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy analyzed more than 2,000 samples of geothermal fluid from U.S. sources and found that only 1% had significant lithium concentration. This rare confluence of geothermal activity and lithium presence provides an opportunity for companies to generate electricity and mine lithium simultaneously.
Beyond their marriage of geothermal energy and lithium extraction, the three companies begin to diverge.
According to former dot.LA engagement editor Luis Gomez — whose newsletter Lithium Valle, is essential reading on this topic — EnergySource seems to be out in front early.
“They claim to have the technology that’s patented, they claim to have done the research, they claim to have the funding, and they claim they're ready to go and start production,” says Gomez. “They are kind of considered the canary in the coal mine.”
According to a report from the United States Department of Energy, EnergySource plans to eventually scale production up to over 20,000 metric tons of lithium hydroxide per year using its proprietary Integrated Lithium Adsorption Desorption technology.
Construction on the plant was slated to start earlier this year, but has been delayed. EnergySource has said publicly that lithium production might begin in the second quarter of 2024, but it’s unclear whether this date will also be pushed back. The company has a long history of operating in the region, having run the John L. Featherstone geothermal plant since 2012. The new venture into lithium would leverage that same plant, but without more details about how their proprietary technology works, there’s not much to do but wait and see.
One potential problem facing all three lithium extraction companies is that the Salton Sea geothermal brines are not the same as the brines in evaporation ponds similar to those in Argentina, Chile and Bolivia, where more than half of the world’s lithium is produced. Specifically, the deep geothermal brines in the Salton Sea contain more silica and transition elements, which may complicate the chemistry of purifying the lithium. Still, many researchers are extremely bullish on the prospect of tapping into these reserves. Alex Grant, The Principal at Jade Cove, a research organization focusing on direct lithium extraction technologies, says that much of the skepticism surrounding the technology can be attributed to competing financial interests that are trying to squash the nascent tech’s potential in favor of an established method.
Lithium Mines in the Atacama Salt Flats, Chile from an altitude of 15km via Google Earth. The facility is about 10km wide.
For its part, BHE Renewables, operating as CalEnergy, runs a fleet of 10 geothermal plants in the Imperial Valley. The company had previously announced its intent to set up a direct lithium extraction demonstration plant sometime before the end of 2022 to assess the viability of lithium extraction. If that pilot program goes well, the company could build a commercial-scale facility as early as 2026 with a projected annual capacity of 90,000 metric tons of lithium.
Obviously, having the backing of Berkshire Hathaway comes with advantages and capital. Add into the equation another $15 million in DoE grant money obtained last winter, and BHE appears to be well positioned as a major player in the long term.
Finally, there’s Controlled Thermal Resources. As the only company not already operating a geothermal business in the region, CTR is something of an outsider and dark horse. By 2024, the company hopes to build both a geothermal energy plant and a direct lithium extraction plant to operate in parallel, projecting a capacity to extract 300,000 metric tons of lithium carbonate equivalent annually by 2030. As dot.LA previously reported, Controlled Thermal Resources has partnered with Statevolt, a company that intends to build a $4 billion gigafactory nearby that will run on power from CTR’s geothermal plant and make batteries from the lithium it extracts. It’s a beautiful closed-loop business model. But again, all of this relies on the direct lithium extraction technology, and details are scant.
According to Gomez, despite the typically cut-throat nature of the energy industry, the relationship between the three upstarts in the Salton Sea is often surprisingly cooperative at the moment.
“They want the others to succeed because it kind of gives them the confidence that their technology is also eventually going to succeed,” he says. “It gives confidence to investors.”
Which is all to say, there may well be space for all three companies if the technology is as solid as they claim. If that’s the case, the Salton Sea and its surrounding region may have yet another miraculous transformation up its sleeve.
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David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.
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