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From the First Row
Issue 30 | May 2023
Welcome to issue #30 of our ongoing newsletter series, From the First Row!
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First Row Partners | Highlights
🚗 First Row is proud to be a Seattle sponsor for Roadpitch, a multi-city “pitch tour” for black pre-seed tech startup founders. We have seen the characteristics and demographics of our broader network reflected in our portfolio founders. This direct correlation keeps us reaching out to new communities all the time.
Register for the June 19th (Juneteenth) event here at CoMotion’s Startup Hall at the University of Washington. In addition to having Minda serve as an event mentor, we will watch 11 pitch demos from black tech founders across the US and locally. From Seattle they head to cities like Las Vegas, Oakland, and Los Angeles.
🛠️ Our portfolio companies are hiring! Please let us know if you or anyone in your network is interested in these opportunities:
Aquifer is hiring a Unity developer.
Impacked is hiring a Software engineer
Lyric Studio / Wave AI is hiring across marketing and engineering
Prisms VR is hiring for many roles, from technical through customer experience
Snippyly is hiring founding engineers and a founding developer advocate
🔍 We hosted a workshop diving into the due diligence process for founders. For a first time founder getting their first round of funding organized, it is usually (always?) unclear what each investor means by “due diligence.” (H/T: find a founder a few steps ahead of you to be your sounding board!) We covered the purpose of due diligence and some process points that can build confidence and conviction in getting from “yes” to the check. Watch some highlights here (7-min)!
🎤 Minda spoke to a room of over 200 undergraduate women students as part of a panel at Santa Clara University for the annual Women in Finance club dinner. Alongside other women in Venture Capital from Series A and beyond, Minda answered questions about the future of early-stage investing, AI, and other aspects of her journey through entrepreneurship and investing.
First Row Partners | What we've been reading
🌉 “We have no moat, and neither does OpenAI” – Earlier this month, an internal Google document leaked that was packed with insights into the rapidly changing worlds of Open Source and Generative AI. The urgency of the letter highlights a critical component of open source that is commonly overlooked (in this case, by Google) – the ability to rapidly innovate at scale. For instance, the letter highlights how the open source community has built models that cost $100 and only have 13B parameters but exceed the performance of Google’s models that cost $10M and have 540B parameters! It’s a worthy read not only to highlight the crucial role open source plays, but also to sharpen your thinking on ways to improve LLMs beyond simply adding more parameters.
📢 Commercializing Open Source Data Systems with Astronomer & CoreDB – On the topic of Open Source, Tim Chen (of Essence VC) recently did a fantastic podcast episode with the founder of Astronomer & CoreDB, Ry Walker. Astronomer commercialized an open source data workflow tool called Appache Airflow. CoreDB is in the process of commercializing a popular open source database, Postgres, so Ryan is the perfect founder to learn from on navigating the sometimes murky world of open source commercialization. Worth a listen for founders and investors alike!
🔍 Investing’s Big Blindspot – In this slightly more meta piece, Sapient Capital zooms out to examine what the truly important traits of investing and clear thinking really is. Importantly, they highlight how various lengthy studies have shown that openness and curiosity are far more correlated to wisdom than age or intelligence. Instead, individually who are insatiably curious but also mentally flexible (remember: strong opinions, loosely held), tend to chart the fastest paths to developing the pattern-matching that sometimes murky areas like early-stage investing requires. Worth a read for founders and investors, no matter how far in your journey you are!
Venture Funding News | The Big Picture
We’ve framed our funding news to match our evolved pillars: Digital Brain (applied data science) and Human Collaboration (the Digital Brain won’t replace everything/us!).
🧠 Digital Brain | Hippocratic AI, a Palo Alto-based large language model for the health care industry, raised $50 million in seed funding co-led by General Catalyst and Andreessen Horowitz.
Platform shifts inevitably beget verticalization. In the case of LLMs, most of the differentiation discussion has been around either tailor-trained models or proprietary-data trained models. Hippocratic AI seems to be the former – they’ve built a model that has outperformed GPT-4 on 105 of 114 healthcare exams and certifications because it’s been pre-trained on trusted, evidence-based content instead of a wealth of data. You can dive deeper into their benchmarks here, but the question still remains: does a better model really pose a sustainable moat in the face of rapidly evolving LLMs?
🧠 Digital Brain | Sixfold, a New York-based generative A.I. tool for insurance underwriters, raised $6.5 million in seed funding led by Bessemer Venture Partners.
As we delve further into Generative AI’s deployment phase, we see another verticalization player in Bessemer-backed Sixfold. Sixfold focuses on AI powered tools to serve underwriters in the insurance industry, yet another old age industry that’s been ripe for disruption. The commonality between healthcare (above) and insurance is not only their historically slow rate of technology adoption, but also the fact that they are enormous industries with, in general, low tech savviness. The beauty of purpose-built LLM tools is the relative ease of adoption versus traditional SaaS, which could just be the impetus that these older industries needed for evolution. Much like above, differentiation over time remains to be seen, but it’ll be exciting to observe how adoption patterns change in these traditional industries too!
🕸️ Human Collaboration | Visual Layer, a Tel Aviv-based visual data management platform, raised $7 million in seed funding co-led by Madrona and Insight Partners.
Going narrow to go far is a tried and tested playbook, and Visual Layer seems to be doing that with visual data. Any model needs to be trained on a substantial set of data, but managing that underlying data can be challenging when we move from text to multi-modal. That’s what Visual Layer is laser focused on solving. By leveraging the open source project fastdup, Visual Layer drastically eases the process of identifying and curating visual data for training and testing purposes. Plays like this can be powerful, but it always involves treading the fine line between capability and usability. As Visual Layer expands, it’ll be interesting to see how they navigate the flurry of requests that’ll come their way!
Practice | Observing Art
🎨 Art & Critical Thinking | We see a bold line connection between the intuitive and critical thinking skills practiced in the arts and the work of evaluating innovation ideas and opportunities.
Practicing the skill of separating out your data points and observations builds the expertise to develop and articulate a point of view. We challenge you (and ourselves) to examine the composition and consider our observations, the patterns and conclusions.
Join us for our monthly 'Deals & Drinks' workshop events! We created this fun, exploratory workshop to bring a founder together with a group of investors (a mix of VCs, prospective angels, students, angels) to present their pitch. We gather our notes and use them to facilitate a conversation about how we heard the pitch, what we observed, and what open questions we still have. It is an object lesson. Much like looking at a piece of art, everyone remembers and sees things differently. Use this short form to join the email invite list.**
Please reach out to us — We can share more about our investment strategies, pipeline, and our fund portfolio.