It Started With the Rockefellers. Now It’s Taking on Crypto.
In the 1930s, Laurence Rockefeller began investing his oil-anointed inheritance in technology and aviation companies. Several decades later, in 1969, the grandson of John D. Rockefeller brought his siblings together to found Venrock, the family’s official venture capital arm. (“Venture” plus “Rockefeller” equals “Venrock.”) Today, long after multiplying its fortunes through prescient bets on then-upstarts, such as Intel and Apple, the firm is embarking on a new frontier: cryptocurrency.
David Pakman, a Venrock partner, dropped by Fortune’s offices to share news of a partnership the firm just struck. Venrock is teaming up with CoinFund, a Brooklyn-based cryptocurrency investor group, to help entrepreneurs build businesses based on blockchains, the hot distributed ledger technology that first came to prominence with the development of Bitcoin a decade ago. Pakman spoke to Fortune’s Jen Wieczner and Robert Hackett about the joint venture on the latest episode of Balancing The Ledger, a new show about the intersection of money and technology.
“We wanted to partner with this team that has been making investments and actually helping to architect a number of different crypto economies and crypto token-based projects,” Pakman said.
Venrock and CoinFund first met through their mutual investment in YouNow, a live video-streaming app maker that last year became, perhaps, the second well-established startup to pivot to crypto. In the fall, Fortune broke news that YouNow had decided to host an “initial coin offering,” or ICO, whose virtual tokens would form the basis of a new, and untested, business model.
Pakman, who counts investments in Nest and Dollar Shave Club among his plaudits, says he is not interested in short term profits, despite the speculation-driven volatility associated with cryptocurrencies. “There are a lot of crypto traders in the market. There are a lot of cryptocurrency hedge funds. This is different,” said Pakman, describing the collaboration. “In fact, to us, it looks a little bit more like venture capital.”
Founded three years ago, CoinFund has backed a number of prominent blockchain projects. This week it added CoinList, an AngelList spinout that aims to help companies undertake regulation-compliant ICOs, to its portfolio. One of CoinFund’s most prominent clients is Kik, the chat app maker, which last year became the first well-established startup to pull a crypto-pivot, preceding YouNow. In recent months, Telegram has attracted the most attention for its ongoing multibillion-dollar ICO.
Jake Brukhman, a CoinFund cofounder, said on a separate call with Fortune that he was excited to bolster New York’s crypto scene with the old-meets-new partnership. “We’ll be working closely with them to help mentor, advise, and support teams in the space,” said. “We’re trying to cultivate a unique synergy between teams as we see more experienced founders and more traditional tech startups taking up blockchain.”
Like many blockchain proponents, Pakman and Brukhman see tremendous opportunity in the potential for the technology to disintermediate middlemen. “Gatekeepers tend to charge rent or toll on users,” Pakman said on the show. “The benefit of the advent of crypto is that we have fewer gatekeepers.”
“Venture capital itself is effectively a gatekeeper industry and I’d actually like to see that undone,” Pakman said. “I don’t believe that a small group of people should make the decisions about which projects can raise some money and get off the ground.”