Venture Capital Goes xPerimental: Is the dot-com bubble repeating itself, or are we finally on the plateau of productivity?

Gartner Hype Cycle

Gartner Hype Cycle

Speak with any member of the staff of HBS’s Entrepreneurial Management Department, and he or she will describe a time when venture capitalists were like barbarians at the HBS gates www.replicabestsale.co.uk.  They would snatch HBS and Harvard students from campus either through funding Harvard startups at huge valuations, or by incenting students to work at existing startups with unbelievable options packages.  As it turned out, the startups had no sustainable business model, the options turned out to be floptions, and billions of dollars of value, which never really existed in the first place, disappeared from the U.S. economy.

With current astronomical valuations of OpenTable, Pandora, Groupon clones, and Facebook variants, many people question whether, twelve years later, the dot-com bubble may be repeating itself.

Starting Off with a Skeptic’s Hat cartier roadster replica

I admit that when I heard about the new xFund, or Experiment Fund, which is geared towards Harvard and MIT students, I was skeptical.  Have the barbarians returned to sack Harvard a second time?  The new venture capital fund, based inside the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) but fully financially independent of Harvard, aims to make small, early stage (seed or pre-seed) investments in startups.  In line with Eric Ries’s Lean methodology, these small investments allow startups to perform experiments, and learn very quickly how to adapt their products to customer needs.

The xFund sounded like a nice trick to get a leg up on an upcoming Harvard talent “land grab.”  What better location to be based than within Harvard itself to place the ultimate Trojan horse.

However, after speaking with Hugo Van Vuuren, one of the three main co-founders of the xFund, I learned that the xFund has several unique characteristics that differentiate itself from traditional VCs.

First, though the fund is currently supported by the venture capital firm NEA, the goal is for the fund to be supported by a range of top-tier VC firms cartier santos 100 replica, working in concert to provide mentorship and joint funding to the startups.  Having a coalition of VC firms also limits the ability of any individual funds to act outside of the best interests of the xFund itself, and also provides an even larger network of advisors that the startup founders can tap into.  Van Vuuren described, “We will only work with partners who will put the fund first, and who will make the companies succeed.  Luckily, we are in the position to choose partners, so we will choose people very carefully.  We are choosing people who have the company’s interests at heart.”

Another important feature of the fund is its overall mission to continue to foster an ecosystem of entrepreneurship at MIT and Harvard.  As described by Van Vuuren, “We want to be helpful to the local ecosystem. The purpose of being so local is that we want to be accessible…..  This has already been happening.  Harvard, MIT, Cambridge, Boston, the East Coast has always been a mecca for smart people coming here from around the world and starting companies that change the world.”

Nicholas Krasney, co-Founder of Tivli, which is developing the next generation of online TV streaming and is one of the first companies to be funded by the xFund, chose the xFund as a funding source due to its unique understanding and value-add to the entrepreneur.  “We chose the xFund,” Krasney described, “not only because they had a tremendous understanding of the product, but they were really willing to go to bat for us.  They were willing to pay us a lot of attention.”  Tivli is also funded by Flybridge Capital, and has also received angel funding.

The third important characteristic of the fund is that Van Vureen is not directly associated with any Venture Capital firm.  Further, the significant mentorship from the SEAS faculty provides the students with an experienced, and, more importantly, impartial sounding board.

So What?

How will the creation of the xFund impact the venture landscape at Harvard?  From the BSSE framework, the program provides a more integrated solution to entrepreneurs at Harvard, which enables current students a more seamless transition from school life to an entrepreneurial career.

Making entrepreneurship easier, however, may turn out to be a mixed blessing.  There is something to be said for the entrepreneur willing to quit school, eat ramen every night, turn a studio apartment into an office space, and never look back.  Though the xFund may foster entrepreneurship, it equally enables students the optionality to abandon the venture and just continue at Harvard – optionality which may prove too tempting for many budding entrepreneurs when times get tough. To account for this, The Experiment Fund makes a point of only funding “full-time” teams, thus requiring students to take, at the very least, a leave of absence to pursue their dream.

That being said, the fund itself, designed to fund experiments, is a great experiment in and of itself, and we at The Harbus look forward to the final result.  Will it prevent another dot-com bubble assuming one is fast approaching? Probably not.  However, at the very least, it will allow Harvard students an environment to learn and grow before the Huns invade.  At best, it is a fundamental shift in the traditional VC/Harvard University relationship, which could provide sustaining and successful value to all parties.

Details of the Fund

Though Harvard and MIT are focus of the fund for now, the xFund is open to anyone.  Consumer internet, biotech and health, and energy are currently the sector focuses of the fund.  Though the current size of the fund is not being disclosed, Van Vureen hopes that the fund will reach a sufficient size to make four to six $250K investments in 2 years.  To learn more about the fund, visit www.experimentfund.com

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February 14, 2012
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