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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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04:00 AM | January 23, 2023
Two leaders of Culver City-based mobile gaming outfit Jam City recently defected to start their own venture, a metaverse gaming studio by the name of Plai Labs.
Pronounced “play,” the Web3 gaming company is led by Jam City’s co-founders Chris DeWolfe and Aber Whitcomb.
DeWolfe previously held the role of CEO at Jam City, and Whitcomb was CTO. The two were responsible for kickstarting the rise of social networking when they launched MySpace together back in 2003, and ran the company for about six years before selling it to News Corp. for $580 million. Now, their latest venture is bringing together all the buzzwords the tech investing community loves to hear – Web3, generative AI, blockchain, gaming and NFTs.
The parting of ways with Jam City was amicable, both sides said. “As standalone businesses, each company is better positioned with enhanced flexibility to pursue avenues of growth,” Jam City’s new CEO Josh Yguado said in an email. “Chris is a serial entrepreneur who has been at the forefront of every evolution of the web, and I look forward to seeing how he and Aber shape Web3 with Plai Labs.”
In an interview with dot.LA, CEO DeWolfe said Plai Labs is the fourth startup he’s founded with Whitcomb, but the first that’s focused exclusively on Web3.
The company’s first product is a metaverse called Massina, which is home to its first blockchain game, “Champions Ascension.” The game, currently being built by a team of 50 people, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). With elements that remind of Activision Blizzard’s hit “World of Warcraft,” the game allows players to choose a variety of character classes and the ability to battle it out in a large-scale colosseum arena, go on quests, build and compete in custom dungeons and trade digital items.
What makes “Champions Ascension'' unique is that players can choose to own their characters in the form of an NFT. Plai Labs sold its first NFT batch in February 2022, and early adopters who bought the NFTs were granted access to a beta version of the game last September.
Referred to as “Champions,” the NFTs are currently selling on Opensea for as much as 55 ETH (over $90,000), but on average they mint for around .7 ETH (around $1,150). There’s also an NFT collection of pets for your Champion, which are cute alien-looking creatures that have their own unique skills and traits.
Right now, you have to own an NFT to participate in the game. Plai plans to offer more Champions in an auction next week with additional plans to open the platform up to players who are interested in experiencing the world without owning an NFT, spokesman Josh Brooks told dot.LA.
In addition, DeWolfe told dot.LA that the plan is for Plai to build out an artificial intelligence backed by generative AI (like ChatGPT or Midjourney) that allows users to create and upload their own digital assets to the game. “For example, their own dungeon crawling [and] their own characters within the games,” DeWolfe explained. “We kind of see our mission as reinventing social from the ground up… Instead of having this massive group of people creating content every day, it's a bit like MySpace, or like Roblox, where your community is creating content.”
Plai Labs is backed by Andreessen Horowitz (a16z), which led a $32 million seed round that closed Jan. 13. In a blog post, a16z investors Andrew Chen, Robin Guo and Arianna Simpson said they invested in the company because they “believe that the future of social networks begins with games.”
DeWolfe told dot.LA, “the investment from a16z validates our vision and validates everything that we've been working on for the last year and a half.”
Though it’s still early days for Plai and “Champions Ascension,” the Discord set up for early-adopting NFT buyers has over 230 users and the game’s YouTube page has nearly 7,900 subscribers.
“It's a big, audacious project but people are loving it. The retention for the folks that are in the world is off the charts,” DeWolfe said. “The folks that are in the world are also owners and the floor price of all the NFTs has gone up by 30%, versus the rest of the NFT world [where] there wasn't any real utility with those entities.”
DeWolfe drew a distinction between Plai Labs’ NFTs, which have a clear utility, and other NFT projects that have seen their worth wildly fluctuate because they don’t generate value from a specific use case.
That said, the gaming community remains divided on blockchain games, partly because it’s still a developing genre. Attempts by big studios like Square Enix, EA or Ubisoft to create play-to-earn games on the blockchain have been met with derision and dismissed as a cash-grab.
To that end, DeWolfe said he believes that his and Whitcomb’s track record of building quality titles at Jam City like “Cookie Jam” and “Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery,” along with their expertise in creating communities online will allow Plai Labs to sprint where others have stumbled. “Along the way we’ve learned a lot about social, gaming and Web3,” DeWolfe said. “It was always our thesis from the very beginning that Web3 had to deliver something that the previous web didn't, which was utility, ownership and portability.”
Editor’s note: Jam City and CEO Josh Yguado are investors in dot.LA.
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Samson Amore is a reporter for dot.LA. He holds a degree in journalism from Emerson College. Send tips or pitches to email@example.com and find him on Twitter @Samsonamore.
04:00 AM | January 30, 2023
Courtesy of Fisker
Last week in the dot.LA newsletter I wrote about Tesla’s decision to slash prices by as much as 20% on their vehicles and how the decision might impact Southern California’s EV startups. I called the price cuts a “tough pill to swallow” for Fisker in particular since they would make many of Tesla’s price points more competitive with Fisker’s first production model, The Ocean.
The Ocean is currently undergoing homologation, but Henrik Fisker, the company’s CEO, confirmed to dot.LA that the company hopes the process to be completed at the end of February. From there, it could take several weeks to ship the SUVs from Austria to the United States.
The earliest versions of the car arriving on U.S. soil will be the launch edition—“Ocean One,” which carries a price tag of $68,889. Tesla’s Model Y SUV, for comparison, is now $53,490 for the base model even before the rebates of up to $7,500 offered from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). Fisker is planning to release a “Sport” version of the Ocean that will retail for $37,499, but that trim isn’t expected until late in 2023.
As I pointed out in the newsletter, online forums, especially reddit, were rife with users claiming that they had or would cancel their Fisker Ocean reservations in light of the Tesla price cuts. But Henrik Fisker said the company hasn’t noticed any decline. “Everyone sees cancellations, but at this point we have not seen an overall reduction in our reservations,” he said. The CEO also claimed the company had new intention to reduce pricing at this point due to strong demand. “I don't think we need to do it because we have sold out until pretty much mid ‘24,” he said.
However, even if Fisker’s total reservation numbers haven’t been impacted by Tesla’s price cuts, Jessica Caldwell, executive director of insights at Edmunds, says it’s still a “David versus Goliath” narrative, especially in light of Tesla’s better-than-expected Q4 earnings last week. Adding that, “I think selling a $70,000 limited production SUV isn't particularly going to keep Tesla up at night. ”Fisker’s best shot at success, according to Caldwell? Getting its cheaper versions of the Ocean to the market as quickly as possible. At less than $40,000, Fisker’s electric SUV with 250 miles of range would be a game changer for the industry. Likewise, the company’s second vehicle, the Pear, is still on track for 2024 production at a price point of just $29,900, according to Henrik Fisker.
In addition to the extremely low MSRP, that platform will be manufactured by Foxconn in Ohio, meaning it will be eligible for some–if not all–of the $7,500 cash back from the IRA. For comparison, Tesla’s base level Model 3 is still priced at $43,990 even after the price cuts.
That said, Henrik Fisker is reluctant to expound on how the company is going to hit such an ambitious price point with the Pear, equating the trade secrets to Coca-Cola’s recipe. “If you're in the car industry–and you can ask any expert–you pretty much start out with a couple thousand components that should be in a car,” said Fisker. “Nobody's really questioning that, because that's how you have to build a car. We went in and questioned a lot of that.”
However the drama of Fisker’s future unfolds, it seems Los Angeles will remain the backdrop for now. “I think it’s one of the best places on Earth to live,” said Fisker. “I've lived in many countries in Europe and I just love LA. I also think Los Angeles is really a place where anything is possible and people take risks.”
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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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