Urban Innovation Fund, VMG Catalyst among female-led firms raising new funds

Venture capital firms continue to raise new funds, at what seems like lightning speed. Two firms stuck out in recent days, including Urban Innovation Fund, which closed with commitments of $101 million for its Fund III and $20 million Opportunity Fund, and VMG Catalyst‘s $400 million Fund II.

Both firms are led by women, Clara Brenner and Julie Lein at Urban Innovation Fund, and Brooke Kiley over at VMG. What was unique about these two was the narrow focus each fund had. As the name suggests, Urban Innovation Fund invests in companies building technology to shape the future of cities, while VMG targets commerce.

Prior to starting Urban Innovation Fund, Brenner was in commercial real estate development and met Lein, who was doing political polling and consulting, at business school at MIT. In their first two years they founded and ran the largest women’s event on MIT’s campus at the time.

They each kept trying to recruit the other into starting a company in their respective industries before coming together around a love of startups and the urban tech space. The firm invests in companies working on issues of livability, sustainability or economic vitality and often have a lot of regulatory and political challenges.

Having such a narrow thesis and other unique characteristics is something Brenner believes was beneficial when the fund was raising its third installment earlier this year.

“I think it’s a combination of we look different, we invest with a very different strategy and we have a strong track record,” she told TechCrunch. “That meant the round came together much more quickly than we were expecting. We were shocked by how fast it went.”

Urban Innovation Fund is a 100% woman-owned firm and 77% of the companies it backs have had a woman or a person of color on the founding team.

According to the Cambridge benchmarks, Urban Innovation Fund is a top 1% performing fund and has invested in companies like electric vehicle charging software company Electriphi, which was acquired by Ford in 2021, ESG asset management company Ethic, which has $2 billion in assets under management, and small business lend platform Jeeves, which was valued at $2.1 billion earlier this year.

Brenner and Lein set out to raise $80 million in January and ended up meeting their hard cap of $101 million, with 95% of its new capital coming from institutional investors. Not a bad problem to have, but Brenner said they have a great base of limited partners from previous funds and had to turn away investors.

That’s how the $20 million Opportunity Fund, Urban Innovation Fund’s first in this category, came about. Previously, the firm was utilizing special purpose vehicles to invest in a single deal, and had raised a bunch of them in the last few years to do later-stage investing in breakout companies from its portfolio.

“Now that we have our new opportunity fund, we don’t need to do SPVs anymore,” Brenner said. “We can do all of our late-stage follow-on investing through the new vehicle.”

Urban Innovation Fund just activated the third fund in July, so it is in diligence with a few new startups, but has not made any investments yet. Average check size for previous funds was around $1 million, and the new fund will enable that to grow to $1.5 million. The fund is looking to either lead or be a large second check in about 30 seed-stage rounds.

VMG Catalyst

Over at VMG Catalyst, Brooke Kiley, founding partner, was in venture capital since graduating from Wharton, starting out at Insight Partners. She told TechCrunch via email that she had “always had a passion for entrepreneurship and the idea of working side-by-side with startups seemed like a dream career.”

Kiley left Insight in March 2020 to join VMG Catalyst. The firm’s first fund was worth $250 million, and it recently closed on a $400 million Fund II. VMG typically leads Series A and Series B rounds that are between $8 million and $50 million in size. It has made 22 investments to date, and its thesis revolves around commerce enablement software and marketplaces.

Its second fund is 60% larger than its first, and most of the growth came from existing limited partners, she said.

Within the second fund, the company has made three investments within the vertical supply chain, a category she said the firm was “particularly excited about.” Among them was Milk Moovement, providing supply chain tools for the dairy industry.

“We believe that innovative software and sophisticated supply chains will define the next generation of leading brands and retailers,” Kiley said. “We have a unique vantage point into the consumer industry through VMG’s history as CPG investors, and this allows us to invest with conviction and speed, serving as committed strategic partners in today’s fast-moving, competitive landscape.”

Even more new funds

As we’ve previously reported, venture capital firms have more dry powder than ever before, and the past few weeks have been no exception:


Ford acquires Electriphi as it prepares to woo EV fleet customers

Ford has two electric vehicles in the pipeline —  the E-Transit cargo van and F-150 Lighting Pro —aimed at commercial customers. Now, the automaker is rounding out its future EV commercial business with the acquisition of battery management and fleet monitoring software startup Electriphi.

Terms of the acquisition weren’t disclosed. Ford is betting that the software developed by the three-year-old San Francisco startup will help it capture more than $1 billion in revenue just from charging by 2030. Ford Pro has financial ambitions beyond charging. The business unit said it expects to generate $45 billion in revenue from hardware and adjacent and new services by 2025 — up from $27 billion in 2019.

Electriphi, along with its 30-person team, will be folded into the newly minted Ford Pro business unit, which is focused on providing services to commercial customers of its electric Transit van and F-150 Lightning Pro pickup truck. Ford will start shipping E-Transit to customers later this year. The F-150 Lightning Pro, a commercial variant of the all-electric Lightning pickup truck, is expected to come to market in spring 2022.

“As commercial customers add electric vehicles to their fleets, they want depot charging options to make sure they’re powered up and ready to go to work every day,” said Ford Pro CEO Ted Cannis. “With Electriphi’s existing advanced technology IP in the Ford Pro electric vehicles and services portfolio, we will enhance the experience for commercial customers and be a single-source solution for fleet-depot charging.”

Electriphi launched in 2018 when it became obvious that upcoming state and federal mandates would drive heavy duty vehicles and mid-sized commercial fleets towards electrification, co-founder and CEO Muffi Ghadiali told TechCrunch in a recent interview. The company has focused on segments deploying commercial electric vehicles in the U.S. and internationally, a list that includes school buses and transit buses.

“If you just think about what’s going to happen in the next 10 years — it’s a massive transformation in mobility for energy and software,”  Ghadiali said. “The stakes are incredibly high and time is running out.” He noted fleet operators are nervous about that upcoming mandates that will require moving to zero-emissions vehicles by the end of the decade. “To turn over your entire fleet in 10 years, you have to start now; they’re going, ‘I have to make sure that my fleet operations don’t skip a heartbeat, while this transition is happening.'”

Ford first approached Electriphi in early 2021. The startup had raised just $4.2 million at a valuation of about $11 million prior to the deal with autoomaker.

While Ford’s focus is building out the software for its E-Transit and Lightning Pro, it is possible that it will also continue to serve Electriphi’s customer base.

“Interestingly, as it turns out, the underlying Ford platform is used across many different vehicle types as well as school buses,” Ghadiali said. “So it’s hard to say which segments we won’t still be in because they are you know they are very relevant to what we do. Of course, our focus will be the large volume that the Ford is going to ship in the next year.”

Electric charging gets more juice as Soros Fund Management makes a bet on Amply Power

Even as oil companies are getting crushed by the collapse of demand for energy in the wake of international shutdowns responding to the global pandemic, investors representing one of the world’s savviest financiers are placing a small bet on electric charging as the future of transportation.

Soros Fund Management, the financial investment vehicle led by famed investor George Soros, is placing a small, $13.2 million bet, alongside Siemens and a host of other investors into the Los Angeles-based electric charging startup, Amply Power.

To be quite honest I never would have thought in a million years that Soros would jump into our industry so early in its development,” said Vic Shao, Amply’s founder, chairman and chief executive.

And despite the collapse in fossil fuel energy prices, Shao said that Amply’s value proposition still makes sense.

“Raw electric energy is half the price on average as fossil fuels,” Shao said. “As economics go by, solar will continue to get cheaper and wind too. The lowest price of extracting a barrel of oil right now is $20… and then you need to add processing and distilling.”

Shao is the former chief executive of Green Charge, a distributed energy storage company acquired by the world’s largest international energy supplier, ENGIE.

Amply has more than its fair share of competitors vying to give the electric vehicle fleet management charging market a jolt. Companies like Electriphi, EVConnnect, GreenLots, and GreenFlux are all offering somewhat similar services.

The company said it would use the money to expand its team and customer deployments to compete with its market adversaries. Right now Amply is managing charging operations for customers including: East Contra Costa County’s Tri Delta Transit, and an electric school bus fleet demonstration in New York City with Logan Bus.

AMPLY is the preferred partner of BYD and a subsidiary of Hawaiian Electric Company, Pacific Current, the company said.

Amply makes its money by owning and operating charging infrastructure and setting up fixed price agreements with its customers. “There are a lot of vendors out there selling hardware or selling software fleet management in software product but at the end customer owns the risk. They have to implement these tools and make it work for their fleet… or vendors,” said Shao. 

Despite slowdowns, Shao said that his business is relatively recession proof, because of its availability to government funds and the status of public transportation as a vital part of a city’s infrastructure.

“It’s really really helpful for the business to have a stable subscription revenue base that will fit the people who will pay you,” said Shao. “Ridershp is down and routes are getting cut… but transit agencies and school districts are not about to go out of business… what has slowed down a bit for us are our customers in the private sector.”

Joining Siemens and Soros in the new financing are previous seed round investors, including Congruent Ventures, PeopleFund, and Obvious Ventures.