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Wonder Ventures Launches $31 Million Fund Focused Exclusively on LA Startups
After hitting the jackpot with hometown bets like shopping app Honey, Los Angeles venture capital firm Wonder Ventures is doubling down with a new early-stage fund focused exclusively on L.A. startups.
Santa Monica-based Wonder has raised $31 million for its new venture fund, founder and managing partner Dustin Rosen told dot.LA. The new fund is double the size of the $15 million pre-seed fund that Wonder raised in 2018, and like that one it will target fledgling L.A.-based startups that Rosen believes are too easily overlooked by larger VCs.
“The L.A. ecosystem is really mature as far as a place to build technology companies, and more capital than ever is coming into L.A. to fund our companies as they grow and scale toward an IPO,” Rosen said, noting that Wonder already deploys more than 90% of its capital in Southern California-based ventures. “We still believe that the earliest stage is underfunded—pre-traction and pre-seed. That stage is the hardest time to raise and get elite investors, and that explicitly is what Wonder does.”
Rosen pointed to an eclectic group of more than 60 L.A.-based founders and tech executives who have invested in its latest fund, including those from current and former Wonder portfolio companies like Clutter, Tala, and Honey. Other investors from local startup success stories like Snap, GoodRx, and Dollar Shave Club also pitched in.
Fom left to right: Valentina Rodriguez, senior investor; Dustin Rosen, managing partner; and Taylor Bolhack, head of platform and community for Wonder Ventures. Courtesy of Wonder Ventures
Among the first companies to be funded by the new vehicle is RealAppeal, a Santa Monica-based startup that finds savings in homeowners’ property tax assessment bills through an appeals process. Rosen said he filed his own appeal on the company’s website as its founders made their pitch to him on the phone. “I hope to save thousands of dollars,” he noted.
Among Wonder’s most successful investments to date has been Honey, the ecommerce rewards app that PayPal acquired for $4 billion in 2019. The VC’s initial early-stage investment in the Arts District-based startup returned an exit worth more than Wonder’s entire $5 million first fund, according to Rosen.
The firm’s largest portfolio holding today is WhatNot, the Marina del Rey-based livestream auction marketplace that raised more than $220 million in venture capital last year on the way to reaching a unicorn valuation of $1.5 billion. That investment has proven even more lucrative than its bet on Honey; Rosen noted that the current value of Wonder’s stake in WhatNot is “worth more than the entire [$15 million] second fund.”
In addition to launching the new fund, Wonder has made two new hires to help oversee its portfolio of nearly 80 companies. Valentina Rodriguez, formerly an analyst and trader with Morgan Stanley, has joined the venture firm as a senior investor, while Taylor Bolhack, previously with Santa Monica-based micromobility operator Bird, has been named head of platform and community.
Wonder Ventures isn’t the only L.A-based VC firm targeting local seed and pre-seed startups. After five years with San Francisco-based Crosslink Capital, investor Joe Guzel has launched a fintech-focused early-stage fund with McLain Southworth called Haven Ventures, Guzel told the LA Venture podcast this week.
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When Los Angeles launched its micromobility pilot in 2019, it had big dreams for improving transportation equity for all Angelenos.
Three years later, less than 3,000 people make use of micromobility programs aimed at helping poorer sections of the city, despite stringent requirements on companies to provide these options and programs to help raise awareness. At issue, experts said, is a patchwork of rules and regulations between municipalities that can be a logistical headache for riders, infrastructure that doesn’t offer much protection for scooter and bike riders in these areas and a public outreach campaign that has failed to gain traction.
“It's a big challenge because when you drive your car, for example, people don't pay attention to municipal boundaries. They just want to get from point A to point B in the most seamless way possible,” said Will Sowers, director of public affairs at Wheels.
Wheels Director of Public Affairs Will Sowers.
Image courtesy of Wheels
While each city has its own equity requirements, the city of L.A. established its current program in 2021. Any operator deploying vehicles in special operation zones (including Venice, Hollywood and Downtown) is required to deploy 20% of its fleet in equity zones. There is no trip fee for rides that begin or end in these zones. The city also requires operators to offer a low-income option for riders, attend meetings with neighborhood councils and other local stakeholders, provide a non-credit-card and non-smartphone option for payment and partner with a community-based organization.
But those efforts haven't made as much an impact as the city might have hoped.
As of October 2021 there were 2,915 active users enrolled in low-income programs across all operators, according to information provided by L.A.’s Department of Transportation. That’s just 17 more riders than the city reported a year and a half earlier–in a report which also noted that 85% of users did not know that equity programs were available.
Riders in L.A.’s underserved neighborhoods use micromobility differently than those in more affluent areas, according to Sowers. While a rider in Venice might ride to the beach or to a restaurant, riders in underserved areas often use e-scooters as a way to get from a transit stop to work and vice versa.
“We've even seen examples of people using our device as a courier,” he added, “where they may — with one of many delivery apps — grab a short shift.”
Wheels Plan to Go Further
Wheels is trying something different. The company has made an effort to design its scooter for the way that lower-income riders use them, and is one of the few scooter companies able to thread the requirements of multiple municipalities in L.A.
It currently boasts it has the most interconnected micromobilty network in the L.A. metro region, with permits to operate in the city of L.A., Santa Monica, Culver City and West Hollywood, as well as plans to launch in Glendale.
Practically speaking, that means a user could ride a Wheels device between municipalities to get to work or school without worrying about landing in a no-parking zone (Beverly Hills, for instance, is geofenced and off-limits for scooter riding and parking).
Wheels was founded in 2018 in West Hollywood by Jonathan and Joshua Viner, who previously co-founded pet-walking startup Wag. The company’s scooters are designed for traveling longer distances. While a typical standup scooter goes one mile per ride, a Wheels seated mini-bike goes about one and a half miles. Along with its app-based service, the company also offers monthly rentals.
So far, the company has raised $96.3M in funding..
As part of its “Wheels for All” program, riders in all four municipalities who use state or federal benefits can ride at a steep discount. Currently, Wheels devices are $1.10 to unlock and then $0.39 per minute to ride. But underserved riders get unlimited rides of 30 minutes or less, paying only the unlocking fee.
The program is also more expansive than L.A. requires. In addition to low-income riders, people with disabilities and older adults who the city designates as “underserved populations,” Wheels program is also available for unhoused people.
To qualify, applicants fill out a form online and provide proof of enrollment in a state or federal program.
In comparison, its competitor Lime offers rides for $0.50 to unlock plus $0.07 per minute plus tax through its Lime Access program; Bird offers 50% off rides for low-income Angelenos through its Community Pricing program.
Although Wheels has the most interconnected equity program, enrollment is low. Only about 1,000 riders are signed up across the greater L.A. area. The program has provided just over 23,000 rides in the last year.
Sowers said this is an issue his company is doing its best to address. He added that he frequently talks to social service workers and organizations to help spread the word. Many, he said, are initially skeptical of recommending micromobility options to their clients.
One such person called him after seeing someone with a disability riding a Wheels device:
“They called me and were like, ‘That makes sense to me. It makes sense that someone can sit down and potentially have an accessibility challenge, but still be able to ride your device’.”
Berkeley professor and co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center Dr. Susan A. Shaheen told dot.LA over email that Wheels’ approach to equity has potential.
“It could provide a more affordable alternative to private vehicle use, particularly during these times of high gas prices,” she said.
Image courtesy of Wheels
No Equity Without Infrastructure
Another challenge that Wheels, like its competitors, deals with is infrastructure. California law bans e-scooters from operating on sidewalks. But not everyone is comfortable riding an e-scooter or e-bike in the street, especially where there are no bike lanes and little infrastructure to keep riders safe. That’s especially true in many low-income neighborhoods.
“If you want to prioritize equity, you need to build infrastructure for micromobility in the places that are the most dangerous to use micromobility, which is in the least-invested communities,” said Michael Schneider, founder of advocacy group Streets For All. He added that providing equity means building interconnected cycling infrastructure throughout the city, especially along L.A.’s high injury network.
The city has said it's trying to address the disparity.
Los Angeles has brought in $4 million over two fiscal years through its micromobility permit program, according to the city’s Department of Transportation. It’s using some of that money to fund a redesign of the 7th Street corridor, including protected bike lanes, after data showed that this segment of Downtown was one of the busiest for e-scooters and e-bikes, Public Information Director Colin Sweeney said via email.
In the future, Sowers sees the potential for L.A. to use that funding, along with the data it collects from operators, to build better infrastructure in underserved areas.
“If someone in a transit desert is riding one of our devices, and I give the city good data and say, ‘Hey, I've got tons of rides in this neighborhood, but there's no protected bike lanes,’ then that creates a reason for the city to build that.”
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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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