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What Are LA’s Hottest Startups of 2022? See Who VCs Picked in dot.LA’s Annual Survey
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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“If you get the chance, make sure to test drive a Toyota.”
I’m walking down a row of booths at Electrify Expo at the Long Beach Convention Center on a hot June day. I thank the red-shirted brand ambassador and scurry towards the nearest e-scooter.
Sorry, Toyota. I’m not here for the cars.
Electrify Expo—the biggest outdoor electric vehicle festival in the U.S.—took place this past weekend and e-scooters, e-bikes and other micro EVs took center stage.
At an event focused on electrification, more than half of the companies represented were in the micromobility space. And there’s a good reason for that.
According to industry leaders, electrification means significant room for growth in the market as American consumers emerge from the dark years of the pandemic and seek out more active and eco-friendly modes of transportation.
Only 6% of bikes sold in the U.S. are e-bikes, compared to a rate of 17% in Europe and 50% in the Netherlands, said Claudia Wasko, vice president and general manager of Bosch eBike Systems, at the event’s Industry Day.
“Last year, 2021, in Europe, almost 6 million e-bikes have been sold; just in Germany, 2 million e-bikes have been sold. And in the US, not even 1 million. But this shows us the huge potential we still have,” she said.
Industry speakers also praised European countries for their adoption of comprehensive micromobility infrastructure.
“If you drive around Los Angeles… you'd have a tough time being on an electric bike or an electric scooter or even one of our mopeds, that can hit speeds of 60 miles an hour,” said Joseph Constanty, director of global strategy at Niu. “You still feel out of place when a huge Ford Ranger F-150 comes riding up right next to you and you're dwarfed by it. It's an infrastructure problem.”
Companies are banking on a cultural shift as Americans get out of their cars and onto an e-bike, moped or e-scooter.
Jesse Lapin, chief operating officer of Magnum Bikes, suggested that it’s less of a shift and more of a return. Americans ride their bikes as children and then abandon them in the garage as soon as they turn 16. However, driving itself might be going out of style; millennials are driving less than their elders and Gen Z is in no rush to get in the driver’s seat (of a car). And who can blame them? Gas prices have hit record highs with no sign of relief on the horizon.
What are they gonna do, take the bus? JackRabbit Mobility is hoping they take a micro e-bike instead, with a 24 pound, 20 mile-per-hour device marketed to college students and other casual riders. But why stop with one? Lapin sees the future American garage filled with not one, but two e-bikes as the market diversifies.
“E-bikes truly are the best way to communicate and to connect people with other people, people with places, people with views. It's the best way to visit national parks; it's the best way to get out there and connect with yourself,” he said.
And there’s one other advantage to micromobility: It’s hella fun. And with a looming recession and two years and counting into a pandemic, American adults with disposable income just want eco-friendly toys that go zoom. Or at least that’s what the industry is banking on.
It’s true: When I’m flying around the test track on an e-bike and I hit the throttle, getting that coveted 28-miles-per-hour, I feel like a kid again.
Provide a mode of transportation that you can charge from the comfort of your one-bedroom apartment, one that’s fun, good for the environment and lets you fly past stopped rush hour traffic on Venice Boulevard?
Cars could never.
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On a Zoom call last week, Gene Nubla was explaining the name and origin story he gave “Nicky Nickels,” his Bored Ape NFT who will be a character in a forthcoming novel.
Nubla’s Bored Ape Yacht Club #6717 wears a leather vest and orange beanie hat, but the cartoon ape’s most distinctive feature is the silver coins covering his eyes. The 39-year-old Nubla—an associate vice president for a flower delivery service—imagined his Bored Ape as a member of a biker gang called the “Apes of Anarchy” who died during a botched cargo heist. Loved ones sometimes place silver dollars over the eyes of the dead during funerals, but Nicky’s family used plain old nickels, Nubla told dot.LA. That somehow barred the ape from properly entering the afterlife, rendering him undead.
It may not be the best ghost story to come out of Los Angeles, but Nicky will soon haunt the pages of a book written by bestselling author Neil Strauss, who has penned autobiographies for the likes of Marilyn Manson and Jenna Jameson. Nubla has licensed Nicky to an NFT storytelling project called Jenkins the Valet, which is backed by Creative Artists Agency and will see Strauss cobble together stories from various Bored Ape holders.
Nubla’s Bored Ape Yacht Club #6717, which he affectionately named "Nicky Nickels."Photo courtesy of Gene Nubla
“This goes into the philosophy of Web3—like, I can participate as an owner now,” said Nubla. “I'm in the door now, versus on the outside looking in and just watching the movies [and] paying the ticket.”
These days, there are scores of artists, startups and entertainment companies—as well as ordinary NFT holders—who are parlaying non-fungible tokens into commercialized intellectual property. Santa Monica-based Universal Music Group, one of the world’s largest record labels, has created a “metaverse group” consisting of four Bored Apes who ostensibly make music, while crypto exchange Coinbase is using Bored Apes as characters for a film trilogy. Talent agencies like WME and United Talent Agency, meanwhile, have added Bored Apes and other NFT characters to their client rosters.
These creative works are possible because blockchain firms like Yuga Labs, the company behind Bored Ape Yacht Club, have attached broad commercialization rights to NFTs, which are unique digital assets verified using blockchain technology. Granting those rights could boost the value of NFT collections by making them more culturally relevant, according to experts, though it remains to be seen whether such projects can appeal to audiences beyond NFT adopters.
A lot of legal questions remain, too, as actor and producer Seth Green just learned the hard way. Green is developing a hybrid live-action/animated comedy called “White Horse Tavern,” in which the creator’s own Bored Ape—whom Green affectionately named “Fred”—comes to life as a friendly neighborhood bartender. The project was almost sabotaged last month when a scammer duped Green in an online phishing scheme—stealing four of his NFTs, including Fred. Since Bored Ape NFTs come with a license to commercialize the art, Green may have momentarily lost the rights to produce the show (Fred has since returned home safely). The drama turned Green into a poster child for how sketchy the world of NFTs can still be—the “Wild West” of digital assets, as some observers have put it.
Ready for Primetime?
Jeremy Goldman, a Los Angeles attorney who leads the blockchain group at law firm Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz, credits companies like Yuga Labs for generating immense value for their NFT collections. The problem, as he sees it, are the collections’ relatively brief terms and conditions that don’t spell out what happens in certain situations, like when an NFT is stolen. That has the risk of killing projects and productions if investors or distributors are uncertain of the consequences.
“All of these NFT projects, including Bored Ape Yacht Club, are highly experimental and in some ways were never meant for primetime,” Goldman told dot.LA. “A lot of questions about the license are sort of unanswered.”
That hasn’t stopped some entertainment tech firms from sticking NFT avatars in their stories. L.A.-based Invisible Universe is developing an animated parody called “The R3al Metaverse,” which will include characters from five NFT collections. (Disclosure: dot.LA co-founder and executive chairman Spencer Rascoff is an investor in Invisible Universe).
Promotional art for the "The R3al Metaverse."Photo courtesy of Invisible Universe
The startup bought three NFTs and secured licenses for two more that fit well with the story, CEO Tricia Biggio told dot.LA. Just to be sure, Invisible Universe approached the creators behind the NFT projects, as well. While those organizations had varying views on using the IP, they all saw the value of Invisible Universe’s project, she noted.
“It was funny—some of them would be like, ‘Well, you actually don't have to run it by us,’” Biggio said.
In “The R3al Metaverse,” NFTs who live in the digital world come over to the real one after they’re cast in a reality TV show and move in together. The parody pokes fun at the debate around the value of NFTs, as well: In one episode, the characters stare at a painting and are confused by its lack of “real-world application” besides being a wall decoration. (“Like zero utility,” one observes, according to a storyboard of the scene.) Invisible Universe will release around 40 episodes of the program on social media platforms starting in late July, with each episode running between 45 and 90 seconds.
Who will watch a show about NFTs—which, for all of their recent hype, are still owned by just a tiny fraction of the population? Biggio said that the audience for “The R3al Metaverse” will primarily be holders of its featured NFT communities: Bored Ape Yacht Club, Cool Cats, Doodles, World of Women and Robotos, which collectively have roughly 50,000 tokens in circulation. That said, Biggio believes the show can build an audience outside the not-yet-mainstream NFT market and, in turn, boost the value of those collections.
“Because we aren't gating the content, we have a unique opportunity to onroad people into the Web3 space who enjoy the content, fall in love with the characters and want to be a part of the collaborative storytelling experience,” Biggio said.
‘A Unique Opportunity To Create Wealth’
At their most basic level, NFTs—like artwork at large—generate much of their value from their scarcity and cultural relevance. Yet companies like Yuga Labs have popularized the idea of giving NFT holders commercial rights as well, allowing Bored Ape holders to put their ape’s face on a t-shirt or other merchandise and sell it. That not only makes the NFT itself more lucrative, but may well make the entire collection more valuable as Bored Apes are plastered on storefronts or featured in films.
“By giving broad IP rights—either making them public domain or granting commercial rights to holders—you're increasing the chances, potentially, that these items are going to get out there and go viral and become culturally relevant, and therefore sought after,” said Goldman, the attorney.
Bill Starkov, a real estate developer who lives near Calabasas, “right by the Kardashians,” in his words, is the founder of another primate-inspired NFT project, Apocalyptic Apes. (The collection’s zombified primates look like scarier versions of Bored Apes.) Starkov said his team gave NFT holders the right to do “whatever you want” with the artwork—so long as they don’t use the Apocalyptic Apes brand name. “We have to make sure they use it properly enough and it's used to promote our project and our brand in a good way,” he explained.
Apocalyptic Apes have been featured on the shorts of mixed martial arts fighters. Photo courtesy of Bill Starkov
Apocalyptic Ape holders have placed their simians on hot sauce bottles, exercise equipment and sunglasses, he noted, while on the entertainment side, a car-racing game, comic books and movies depicting the apes are all in the works, too. Starkov, who goes by Fity.Eth online, has also partnered with Nicky Diamonds, the owner of clothing company Diamond Supply, on licensing deals with Ape holders to create merchandise. Those deals are generating tens of thousands of dollars for ape holders who collaborated with Diamond, he said.
“One thing that people are sleeping on is the understanding of IP rights,” Starkov said of some people in the NFT community. “They think it's a quick flip, but it's not. It's something long-term. It's something that's here to stay. It's a unique opportunity to create wealth.”
Nubla is among the NFT holders who have taken advantage of those IP rights. Speaking through an augmented reality filter on his computer that made him look like Nicky Nickels, Nubla said he’s earned some cash by allowing artists to make works based on his Bored Ape, including one artist who sells lapel pins bearing NFT art. A street painting of Nicky also adorns the side of a brick building in Brooklyn—part of a mural by the graffiti artist Masnah, who was paid for his work by NFT holders.
"Nicky Nickels" was featured in a Brooklyn street painting. Photo courtesy of Gene Nubla
When the Florida-based startup Tally Labs launched the Jenkins the Valet project last June, Nubla was one of the 69 lucky people to randomly mint a rare “Yacht” NFT. That allowed him to license his Bored Ape as a character in Strauss’ novel and receive a share of the book’s royalties. Nubla debated selling the Yacht NFT as its value reached six figures, but ultimately decided to keep it and build out Nicky’s IP “just to see where it goes.”
Nubla does see some risk in NFT collections decentralizing their IP; he noted that there isn’t much stopping another Bored Ape holder from using their NFT to promote ideas or views that others may disagree with or find offensive. But like a lot of people involved in the space, he’s enamored with the idea of Web3—a decentralized vision for the internet that runs on blockchain-powered applications.
“It'd be nice to be able to benefit off the royalties of anything that comes off this,” Nubla said of the Strauss novel, which is coming out this summer. “But I'm doing it mainly just for the vibes.”
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Christian Hetrick is dot.LA's Entertainment Tech Reporter. He was formerly a business reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and reported on New Jersey politics for the Observer and the Press of Atlantic City.