Two years ago, we talked with Lior Susan, the founder of now six-year-old Eclipse Ventures in Palo Alto, Ca. At the time, the outfit believed that the next big thing wasn’t another social network but instead the remaking of old-line industries through full tech stacks — including hardware, software and data — capable of bring them into the 21st century.
Fast forward, and nothing has changed, not inside of Eclipse anyway. While the world has gone through a dramatic transformation owing to the coronavirus pandemic — never has the U.S.’s crumbling infrastructure been so apparent to so many – Eclipse is backing exactly the same kinds of companies that it always has and with the same size fund. Indeed, after closing its second and third funds with $500 million, the firm quietly closed its fourth vehicle earlier this month with $500 million in capital commitments from predominantly endowments.
This morning, we talked with Susan about Eclipse’s focus on revitalizing old industries that remain largely untouched by tech, and why the pitch of Lior and the rest of Eclipse’s team has never been more powerful. Excerpts from that conversation follow, edited lightly for length and clarity.
TC: Because of where Eclipse focuses, you were long aware of the coming supply chain crises that the pandemic brought to the fore. Have your priorities changed at all as an investor? Did you have a to-do list going into 2020 and has that changed?
LS: Not really. We’ve been saying from inception that the infrastructure that we are living in is 50 to 60 years old across the board. We’ve been all of this time in those social software and fintech, new ideas and consumer trends. But we don’t live in the internet, we actually live in the physical world. And the physical world is not [receiving investment] at all. But much of that innovation can be applied to the world in which we are living, and what we want to do is bring that $65 trillion backstage economy into the digital age.
TC: In this go-go market, not a lot of funds are raising the same amounts as they have previously. Why did you choose to do so?
LS: We have a very specific strategy. We only lead early-stage investments in around 22 companies per fund, we [want] 20% to 25% with our initial check, and we double down on companies that we think are breaking out and try to lead two or three rounds in a row. And we know how to run the spreadsheets and we know how to make an assumption [about] what is the enterprise value we need to create in order to deliver alpha returns, and [that math leads us to] $500 million.
TC: The last time we’d talked, Eclipse had also helped created and funded a company, Bright Machines, which primarily develops software for robotic systems inside of manufacturing companies. Have you launched any other companies in the last couple of years? I remember you don’t like the word ‘incubate.’
LS: We call it venture equity internally, but basically, we are very thesis oriented, so a lot of our investments start with us [circling around] an investment thesis and an area that we believe is getting really interesting. I’m right now working on a thesis around insurance in the manufacturing space [that will cover] working comp, facilities, assets . . . It [always] will start with a one-page thesis and we’ll talk inside the firm about it, and we’ll go hunt. But we don’t find what we like in a lot of cases. This is where we’re like, ‘Okay, we come from operating backgrounds. Why not roll up our sleeves and figure out how we can go and build these companies?’
You’re right that we did Bright Machines. We’ve also done Bright Insight (an IoT platform for biopharma and medtech that just raised $101 million in Series C funding led by General Catalyst), Chord (a commerce-as-a-service software for direct-to-consumer brands that just raised $18 million in Series A funding), and Metrolink (a new company that helps organizations design and manage their data flows). We’ve done [this model] a [few] times where we didn’t just invest in the company but we’re part of the founding team or we’re carving out assets. We’re trying to keep it very flexible.
TC: Interesting that you couldn’t find an insurance company focused on the manufacturing industry that you like.
LS: We have a lot of theses like that. We see a lot of horizontal business models and tech that [could work well] in the verticals where we’re playing and that we know need solutions. So, can you do a Slack for construction, or can you find the right people to build a Lemonade for manufacturing, or can you find the Shopify for industrial assets or spare parts?
TC: What size checks are you writing?
LS: I’d say $3 million to $4 million initial checks and up to $20 million or $25 million in a Series B, but you will find a lot of our companies where we invested $150 million plus over the lifetime of the company.
TC: Which company has attracted the most from Eclipse?
LS: I’d guess Cerebras [Systems, which reportedly makes the world’s largest computer chip].
TC: What do you make of what we’re hearing from the new administration in the U.S. on the infrastructure front. Do you think it’s talking about pouring money into the right verticals?
LS: I was on a call with the manufacturing task force on Monday, and I will tell you — without getting into politics at all, because that’s above my pay grade — that the current administration is going to pour hundreds of billions of dollars, if not trillions of dollars, into upgrading the infrastructure of this country. And it’s going to be semiconductors, batteries, manufacturing, industrial infrastructure as a whole . . .
[I think last year’s ventilator shortage made clear] that we’d lost 100% of the manufacturing capabilities of this country and Western countries as a whole. And I think everyone now understands that you’re going to see a massive swing of investment in infrastructure and the only way to do it is through technology, because we actually don’t have a million people here that want to [work on an assembly line]. We actually need automation lines and software and computer vision and machine learning and everything that Silicon Valley is really good at.
TC: You have insight into what’s happening on the semiconductor front through Cerebras and other bets. There’s obviously a huge chip shortage that’s impacting everyone, including the auto industry. How long will it take for supply to catch up to demand?
LS: I think we’re going to see some big changes, but it’s going to take many, many, many years. This is not software, we cannot bring everything up [to speed overnight] as you actually need fabs and cleaning rooms and assets. It’s pretty complicated.
It’s going to get worse in the next couple of quarters. It’s good for some of our companies that are working on the problem, but overall, as an economy, it’s pretty bad news.
Click-and-mortar is a better model for healthcare
Until COVID-19, healthcare was either all in-person or all virtual. Patients had to choose. Some patients chose both — an in-person health system for most things and perhaps Livongo for diabetes care or Hinge Health for back pain care.
The problem with this approach is that in-person all the time is inconvenient and a waste of time when all a clinician is doing is looking at a wound or responding to lab results. But all-virtual is not great when things are uncertain or patients need to be examined. While there are few silver linings to the horrendous COVID-19 pandemic, one is that nearly all providers and most patients have experienced virtual care and most have found it useful. This widespread adoption of virtual care, we believe, will lead to hybrid models that we call “click-and-mortar,” which combine the best elements of in-person and virtual care to deliver better outcomes more reliably and efficiently.
The uptake of virtual care in 2020 is stunning: 97% of primary care doctors provided some kind of telehealth care in 2020. Moreover, nearly 44% of Medicare beneficiaries’ primary care visits were provided by telemedicine in 2020, compared with a mere 0.1% the year before.
The notion of virtual care has become so common that Google searches for “doctor online” result in a specialized tool displaying widely available virtual care platforms, such as Teladoc, Amwell, Doctor On Demand and MDLive. Moreover, telemedicine providers like Doctor on Demand, MDLive, Galileo and Firefly have all launched “virtual primary care” services designed to deliver non-urgent longitudinal primary care virtually. While these services may meet the needs of healthier patients, the absence of a physical location for physical examinations, diagnostic tests and procedures may limit their utility.
This widespread adoption of virtual care, we believe, will lead to hybrid models that combine the best elements of in-person and virtual care to deliver better outcomes more reliably and efficiently.
Nonetheless, there are several potential advantages of virtual primary care. The ability to see patients in their homes can contribute new information about safety, social support and social determinants. In cases like behavioral health, they can decrease the stigma associated with accessing care. Virtual care platforms can more easily incorporate remote monitoring data, and virtual visits can occur as groups with teams of caregivers or other specialists simultaneously.
Furthermore, virtual visits may allow for more frequent “microvisits” to monitor how patients are progressing. They also facilitate more rapid treatment adjustments because they eliminate the need to travel to a doctor’s office. Virtual visits also have lower cost for physicians, avoiding brick-and-mortar overhead costs, and for some services offer 24/7 access, which may reduce the need to seek urgent care or emergency department care. Finally, patients may be able to gain expanded access to clinicians who match preferences based on things like ethnicity, LGBTQ orientation and gender, particularly in rural areas where options are limited.
For pure-play virtual care models to work, they need to rely on connected devices and patient cooperation. Using connected blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes, oximeters, thermometers and scales, it is possible to replicate much of the physical exam. Just like for in-person care, a virtual provider can order lab tests, although it is impossible to do a quick urinalysis or strep test virtually without the supplies on hand.
Virtual providers who work closely with health plans may have more data on cost and quality to inform referrals but perhaps less local knowledge. A possible consequence is that virtual providers may have more transactional relationships with specialists and traditional local brick-and-mortar providers.
Data have shown virtual care delivers better clinical outcomes in certain cases. Virtual care has been shown to reduce emergency department visits and antibiotic overprescribing. Chronic conditions like Type 2 diabetes are examples where virtual care has outperformed in-person care. Virtual physical therapy has generated cost savings and resulted in fewer back surgeries.
Despite these benefits of purely virtual care, we believe that ultimately the most efficacious model of primary care is a hybrid one combining virtual and in-person interaction. We think that the mix of in-person and virtual is probably 80% virtual. We also think that most visits will be triggered by clinicians reaching out to patients in response to a change in remotely monitored data, perhaps a new fever, change in sleep patterns or weight change for a patient with heart failure.
The implications of visits being mostly virtual and largely triggered by changes in data are profound. It means that offices become places for problem-solving and procedures. It means clinicians spend their days responding to signals from patients and probably have their schedules largely unfilled until the night before. It means that patients will need to adopt passively collected and remotely monitored data.
We think this model ultimately will result in more frequent, shorter, virtual interactions that happen nearly continuously over text and be supplemented by email, phone and video. We also think this approach will deliver much better clinical outcomes and more rapid improvement since both the patient and clinician have much more data on how diseases are progressing.
There are risks with this model. It requires patients with mobile phones and devices to engage and respond to clinicians and ensure their remote monitoring devices stay online. Most importantly, patients need to follow the advice of virtual providers and prompts to get in-person labs, diagnostics or care when needed. Further, clinicians will need to be trained to conduct virtual clinical examinations and to incorporate as well as respond to remote monitoring data.
The COVID-19-fueled adoption of virtual care will hopefully create the demand on the part of patients and desire on the part of clinicians to embrace our “click-and-mortar” vision for care. These models have the potential to deliver more proactive, more engaging and, we think, far better care.
Benchmark Space Systems and Starfish Space team up to advance orbital docking and refueling
Humans may not have totally mastered getting objects to space, but we’ve done a pretty good job so far. The hundreds of satellites that orbit the Earth are proof enough that ‘send stuff to space’ is firmly in humanity’s capacity. But what about refueling, repairing, or even adding capabilities to spacecraft or satellites once they’re up there?
In the past few years, a host of companies have started to turn what has long been seen as a pipe dream into a real possibility. Now, satellite servicing company Starfish Space and space mobility provider Benchmark Space Systems will be entering into a new partnership aimed at advancing these much-needed capabilities – and their first demonstration will take place next month, on space startup Orbit Fab’s Tanker 1 mission.
Orbit Fab, which was a finalist in our TechCrunch Disrupt Battlefield in 2019, will be sending up an operational fuel depot on a SpaceX Falcon 9 in June. The tanker is the first of what Orbit Fab is envisioning as a “gas station in space” – in-orbit propellant available to satellite customers who will no longer be limited in terms of their spacecraft’s active life by the amount of fuel they take up on launch.
Benchmark Space Systems and Orbit Fab already have an agreement to combine Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system and the fuel depot startup’s fluid transfer interface (imagine a refueling apparatus) into an integrated propulsion package.
This is where Starfish Space comes in. It will be testing its CEPHALOPOD rendezvous, proximity operations and docking (RPOD) software with Benchmark’s Halcyon thruster system to make sure that the refueling demonstration is as accurate as possible. The RPOD software is entirely autonomous and can give small servicing vehicles up to 8 times more maneuvering capability, the company says.
Demonstration missions like the one in June are just the beginning. Refueling capacity could not only extend the mission length of satellites and other spacecraft, it could help open the door to new types of space missions and the emerging space economy.
Dorothy is a startup that offers faster cash post-disaster
When disaster strikes, costs pile up quickly. Flood waters can wipe out the foundation of a home or building, just as much as wildfires can burn down the walls or the entire structure. For residents and business owners, rebuilding and rebuilding quickly is crucial: they ultimately need some place to live and offer services, and they often can’t afford to be shut out for extended periods of time.
Of course, the need for speed among consumers hits the brick wall that is the insurance industry and government’s timeline for dispersing post-disaster insurance claims and aid. It’s not uncommon for federal aid to take months or even years to arrive, and insurance companies can often take months as well to process claims, particularly after large disasters like hurricanes where thousands of claims arrive simultaneously.
Dorothy is a startup that is aiming to bridge the gap by offering, well, gap loans to users who already have existing private insurance or federal flood insurance policies. The idea is to extend cash as quickly as possible after qualification, and then Dorothy gets paid back when a claim is later processed. Much like other advance cash startups in other sectors, Dorothy takes a fee based on the size of the loan.
The company’s underwriting model assesses the likelihood that a claim will be approved given the details of a particular disaster and the user’s insurance policy.
Arianna Armelli and Claudio Angrigiani founded the company last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, naming it for the character from the Wizard of Oz who repeatedly said “there’s no place like home.” They met each other in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania and explored different ways to solve the challenges of disaster finance.
Armelli, for her part, had experienced these challenges firsthand in the wake of Hurricane Sandy in 2012. She was an architect, and her office in Manhattan had to be evacuated. She returned a few days later, but over time, realized that many of her friends still couldn’t return to their homes even weeks after the hurricane had passed. She volunteered with recovery efforts, and I “went house to house in the Rockaways to remove drywall from their basements,” she said.
She continued her career, spending nearly six years as an architect and urban planner, and that training drove some of her early ideas about how to improve post-disaster recovery. “I thought the answer to these problems was designing better infrastructure and long-term sustainable solutions with planning,” she said. “After six years in planning, [I] realized these were 40-year projects.”
After meeting Angrigiani, the two explored ways to make the insurance system better for end users. They began by investigating how better flood data could help insurance companies underwrite better policies and process claims faster. They realized over time though that the insurance industry was quite sclerotic, and that a third-party provider of better flood predictive data wasn’t going to have a large impact on outcomes.
As COVID bared down on the world, they then explored business interruption insurance. Using their technology for disaster prediction, they saw an opportunity to offer “a financial supplementary product for businesses,” essentially a “credit line product that is offered to commercial business owners similar to a credit card,” Armelli said. That idea eventually morphed into the company’s current product offering targeting property owners, both businesses and individuals, with the same sort of gap loan to solve immediate cash-flow problems.
Dorothy participated in the latest cohort of Urban-X and closed a pre-seed round this past February. The company has raised a $250,000 debt facility to further test out its gap loan product, and it has 25 qualified customers in its pipeline. It’s early days, but an interesting new bet on how to make insurance actually useful when people face some of the toughest moments of their lives.
It’s just one of a new crop of startups that are building new offerings in a world increasingly filled with massive disasters.
Watch Google I/O keynote live right here
After skipping a year, Google is holding a keynote for its developer conference Google I/O. While it’s going to be an all-virtual event, there should be plenty of announcements, new products and new features for Google’s ecosystem.
The conference starts at 10 AM Pacific Time (1 PM on the East Cost, 6 PM in London, 7 PM in Paris) and you can watch the live stream right here on this page.
Rumor has it that Google should give us a comprehensive preview of Android 12, the next major release of Google’s operating system. There could also be some news when it comes to Google Assistant, Home/Nest devices, Wear OS and more.
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