26 April 2021 – UK National Grid Commits Further $150m to its Silicon Valley-based Corporate Venture and Innovation Group

The Big Ones

1

In November, this column said, if demotivated, “talented people will quickly cut the cord”.

This was in response to US-listed cable group Comcast’s decision to limit its successful corporate venturing unit, as GCV reported at the time.

Almost six months on and the team has broken up as feared. And the unit, which was founded in 1999 and which has more than 120 portfolio companies, has announced investments in just two companies since November when it co-led a $38m round for Zapata Computing.

Amy Banse, managing director and head of funds for Comcast Ventures, announced in September last year she would be retiring, while managing director David Zilberman left shortly afterwards to join venture capital firm Norwest Venture Partners.

Of the other managing directors, Sam Landman is now co-founder and general partner at venture capital fund Mastry while Dinesh Moorjani has left to return to angel investing and his portfolio of board seats, such as Zoox, and Rick Prostko has become managing director for North America at Ontario Teachers’​ Pension Plan’s innovation platform.

Others who appeared to have cut their ties with Comcast directly are Gil Beyda, whose LinkedIn page states he has stopped being a managing director at Comcast and returned to a managing partner position at Genacast Ventures, and Daniel Gulati, who became the founding partner at Forecast Fund in May 2020 and whose LinkedIn profile reveals he left Comcast last year. Comcast, however, effectively retained their talents, as a spokesperson said Forecast Fund was set up within Comcast Ventures while Genacast was established with Comcast support.

The upshot is that only Andrew Cleland is left directly as an MD at Comcast Ventures, though other experienced people within the group include Sam Schwartz, executive vice-president and chief business development officer for Comcast.

A similar but smaller exodus has occurred at the principal level. Chris Hill departed in December to become a strategic adviser at Retina AI, Andre Iguodala left his venture partner role at Comcast’s Catalyst fund and Morgan Polotan joined B Capital Group as a principal.

This has left Sheena Jindal, Min-Sik Jun and Adam Spivack as principals and the operations team, such as Arjun Kapur and Madura Wijewardena, under managing director and chief financial officer Kim Armor.

Comcast’s spokesman said by email: “Comcast Ventures was just repositioned to be within the strategic development group at Comcast Cable and continues to operate as a fund and as Comcast Ventures. It just went from one department to another. We issued a statement on this and here is what we said which has not changed: ‘Comcast Ventures has been a valuable innovation pipeline, providing insight into adjacent industries and investment opportunities.

‘We are aligning our approach to venture investing more closely with our business units and repositioning Comcast Ventures and its fund under the strategic business development team at Comcast Cable.

‘Our business development teams across the company continue to invest in new technology and businesses, which we believe will yield more strategic opportunities and benefits for Comcast and the companies in which we invest. We will continue to support our existing portfolio companies through investment and strategic partnership.’”

Comcast has aligned its corporate venturing activities – it also runs Sky Ventures in the UK under James McClurg and Mike Martin, and NBCUniversal’s growth team under Don Mathis – around its broader entrepreneurial activities, which include Danielle Cohn’s Lift Labs accelerator, now on its fourth cohort managed by Techstars.

Since its launch, 32 companies from around the world have completed the Lift Labs accelerator programme and 75% have secured pilots or agreements with a division or business unit of Comcast NBCUniversal.

Another insider left at one of the corporate venturing divisions of Comcast privately said they were also looking at their governance and compensation, and whether to leave.

Comcast had been a top quartile venture investor – the enterprise value of Gulati’s portfolio alone while at Comcast Ventures was more than $4bn, he said – but has to now rebuild just as the parent’s strategy has to.

Comcast had risen to the status of a Fortune 50 company in the past generation by riding the wave of pay television in the US. But this peaked in 2012 with 90% of people subscribing to one bundle or another.

Now, cable’s cords are being cut and the range of options people have to consume media has grown.

At a time when the cable and media industry is undergoing disruption, therefore, having fresh eyes and direction for Comcast Ventures might yet end up a blessing if it brings a growth mindset and new resources. The alternative is a narrow focus on trying to protect a cash cow slowly being undermined in the way print media has been by the internet.

2

UK-listed utility National Grid has committed a further $150m to its Silicon Valley-based corporate venture and innovation group.

It is smart timing beyond being so-called Earth week – a series of events around the world focused on climate and sustainability, including GCV’s Earth Day webinar on carbon capture and hydrogen on 22nd.

National Grid is sponsor of the United Nations’ COP26 climate conference – the biggest convening of global environmental policy and industry leaders since the 2015 Paris Agreement – expected in early November in the UK and will include the 10th GCV Symposium gala dinner at St Paul’s cathedral.

Since its launch less than three years ago, National Grid Partners (NGP) has put $227m into 29 startups at the intersection of energy and information technology.

Now, the rest of the world is catching up to the opportunities in the field, including tech company Apple’s $200m committed last week to the Restore Fund for carbon removal through forestry innovation, and so National Grid is committing more to its pace of investment.

Its most recent deals include $7.5m invested into seed-stage, US-based companies Pathr, a spatial intelligence platform to generate anonymous location data in real time as people work around buildings, and AccuKnox, a Stanford Research Institute spinout whose KubeArmor technology provides a kubernetes platform for security, compliance and governance in public and private clouds.

Lisa Lambert, chief technology and innovation officer of National Grid and the founder and president of NGP as well as chairwoman of the Global Energy Council, said: “Earth Week is a perfect time to announce this vote of confidence from our senior leadership.

“We are investing in and deploying technologies across National Grid’s networks to enhance resilience and reliability, while more easily integrating renewable energy.”

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“Funky Chunk” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0