Strategic Investors: Profiles of investors with strategies to consider.
Nisa Amoils, named one of 30 Women in Venture Capital to Watch by Business Insider in 2018, had a different journey in mind when she began her career in the 1990s.
As a securities lawyer, she worked for several large media companies during the dot.com boom, shepherding the acquisition of such early Internet names as Citysearch, Ticketmaster and WebTV. She worked at USA Networks under Barry Diller, at Time Warner, and spent five years at NBCUniversal.
“I learned a lot being in big media, and it taught me that I had to be on the disruptive side of things,” she says. “Eventually, though, I had learned enough, and then I took the jump into entrepreneurship.”
Amoils says her front row seat during the start of the dot.com disruption served her well as she focused on investments in new technologies that emerged to challenge incumbents and inefficiencies in industries. Amoils recently has stepped up her involvement in funding female-led startups to help address the stubborn gender imbalance in both the finance and technology sectors.
She is setting up her own investment fund, which has yet to be named, and invests her own portfolio through her family office, Morden Capital. And she has just released her first book, WTF is Happening? Women Tech Founders on the Rise, that highlights current female pioneers in the technological field.
Amoils makes the case in her book that women have been outperforming men in finance and technology for years, a stance backed up by research including this 2018 study by the Boston Consulting Group that shows ROI is higher for female-led startups. Still, the percentage of private equity funding that goes to women-led startups has been stuck at about 2% for years.
She notes that there about 80 gender-focused funds operating today, along with a large number of angel investors who fund only female-founders. Yet that 2% number won’t budge.
“Why is that?” she asks. “It’s because only about five of those funds have AUM of $100 million or more. So most are pretty small and even though the female founders might get seed rounds, they might get “A Rounds,” a lot of them don’t make it through the funnel all the way till an exit.”
Blockchain, in particular, has been a focus of her VC activity both in her own portfolio and at her last position with New York-based Scout Ventures, a firm with an impressive list of exits, from 2016 to 2019.
She is a well-known investor in frontier tech at this point, having taken early positions in a number of startups, including Securitize, a Blockchain firm that has set the standard for digital securities issuance; Coinmine, a home cryptocurrency mining platform; Highcastle, a UK-based alternative investment marketplace powered by Blockchain and Visual Vocal, a virtual reality collaboration platform. She also advises Vertalo, a digital, tokenized asset management specialist, and CityBlock Capital, which offers a new option for retail investors in the form of freely tradeable, digital shares with low minimums. The firm is betting that the current wave of asset digitization will adopt Blockchain as the standard for global infrastructure.
“Whether it’s the fractionalization of real estate or of transfer agents, issuance platforms or the KYC (Know Your Customer / Anti-Money Laundering (AML) platforms, they’re all building up that infrastructure,” Amoils says.
As with Securitize, Amoils likes to target inefficiencies in financial services, in areas like issuance, treasury, trade finance, and other labor-intensive functions often requiring reams of documentation.
“So many different parties need to sign off on documents,” she says. “Supply chain is another one and Walmart’s already involved. Being able to track food from other countries and know the source of it, its age, how it was stored during the voyage, that’s huge.”
Vertalo describes its product as “Carta for Crypto,” a reference to the cap table management firm familiar to corporate treasurers and CIOs everywhere.
Dave Hendricks, CEO and co-founder of Vertalo, says he took note of Amoils at various conferences and on media outlets like CNBC and Fox Business News soon after he founded the firm in February 2017. It struck him that her particular skill set – a VC who is also a securities lawyer who is conversant in digital ledger technology – sounded like someone he needed to know.
Currently preparing for a Series A raise, Hendricks says Amoils “keeps us on message. Her knowledge across the issues we have to deal with, well, that’s a very rare Venn diagram.”
Amoils accrued this reputation the hard way: by throwing herself into it. She admits that she had very little knowledge of frontier tech – AI, Virtual Reality, Blockchain – when she began transitioning out of the law and into investing.
“At New York Angels, I started the frontier-tech committee several years ago and just started bringing in companies to events as guest speakers,” she says. “This was how I learned the technical side. So even before I was at Scout, I was interested in those disruptive areas and I just started self-learning.”
Another place she sees potential for Blockchain is in gaming, where kids learn at an early age what a “token” is. She’s currently pondering an equity investment in a gaming company that depends on distributed ledger technology, though she would not reveal the company’s name. But gaming, in general, is a great Blockchain play.
“The customer behavior is already there, so they also don’t require that much infrastructure build out like other areas of Blockchain,” she says. “The idea is to use Blockchain to eliminate platform risk and then you would be able to own non-fungible tokens and own that asset going forward through other gaming platforms, which means here is an interoperability aspect, as well.”
Investing in Women as a Part of ESG
In her book, Amoils looks at the realm of tech startups, profiling a dozen such female entrepreneurs starving for capital despite their achievements. “I decided to focus on hard-tech in part because those founders don’t get as much press as the female founders in food and fashion e-commerce and beauty,” a kind of discrimination in itself.
She was also an early investor in The Wing, a female-only co-working company that has just closed a $75 million C funding round led by Sequoia Capital and Upfront Ventures.
Kara Nortman, a partner at Upfront, marveled at the speed of The Wing’s expansion. Since its founding in 2016, it has opened workspaces in San Francisco, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Washington, DC and has some 6,000 members. Monthly members pay $215 for access.
“It’s particularly special when I get to invest in a great business that also has positive social impact and aligns with my values,” Nortman wrote on Venture Inside.
Amoils notes that in spite of the enormous boom in ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) investment strategies in the past decade, funding to female leaders and female founders continues to lag.
Among her other investments in gender-focused ESG are SheEO, which aims to make more capital available to female entrepreneurs around the world; Vbeaute, a female-founded skin-care company; and Lightwell, the software developed by Suzanne Xie’s Hullabalu.
“Most of the impact investors I’ve spoken to are looking for environmental impact,” says Amoils, who is also an advisor to the nonprofit Girls Who Invest. “They don’t really pay so much attention to gender issues. It’s really the missing ‘G.’”