Founders Fund: Eyeing Life Beyond Consumer Web Startups


I recently grabbed coffee with Justin Fishner-Wolfson, a personable principal at Founders Fund in San Francisco. He had some interesting things to say about the new media scene in San Francisco (there may be up to 20 startups in the city’s South Park district alone, including Twitter), and why what’s piquing his partners’ interest these days has less and less to do with that world.

Most notably, Fishner-Wolfson told me that Founders Fund has pretty much made all of the bets it plans to make on consumer Web companies out of its current fund and that it turned its sights some time ago to other opportunities.

“We still see every consumer deal out there. I’d be shocked if there was a deal we haven’t seen, or else know about. But the signal to noise ratio is much, much lower [than in past years],” he says. “We consider that we’ve made our investments [including in Slide, Facebook, Rapleaf, and a long list of others]. I’d be surprised if we made many more in the near future. I think we’d rather see how [our related portfolio companies] do at this point.”

Fishner-Wolfson — who is himself on the boards of three consumer Web startups, including the online jewelry rental startup Adorn and SGN, a company building “social games” across various mobile and Web platforms —  says he’s personally become more interested these days in “biocomputational stuff.”

That “stuff,” he says, seizes on two trends — the faster collection and processing of genomic data and cloud computing, which has led to blessedly variable costs. “I’m into the algorithmic piece,” says Fishner-Wolfson, who has an MS in computer science from Stanford, and says Founders Fund has already backed three “very early-stage” companies in the space, though the firm isn’t ready to disclose what they are. (When I asked Fishner-Wolfson about examples of companies that might fall into the biocomputation sector, he pointed me to Numerate and Gene Security Network.)

In addition to personalized medicine, the firm has also begun looking, to a lesser degree,  at clean tech — “things around the edges, especially now that valuations have come down,” he says.

As Alex underscored in a report yesterday, yet another area of interest for Founders Fund is, yes, rockets. In fact, Fishner-Wolfson guided the fund’s diligence process in the space adventure startup SpaceX, touted (by SpaceX) as the first to develop a liquid-fueled rocket to get to the Earth’s orbit.

SpaceX, based in the L.A. County town of Hawthorne, has already raised $112 million since 2002, according to regulatory filings, and it looks to be in the process of raising another $60 million, including from Founders Fund, an original backer, and Draper Fisher Jurvetson, which is leading the round.

Of course, SpaceX’s CEO is Elon Musk, who also founded the company. And in an interesting aside that might concern the U.S. government, Musk may be spending more time at SpaceX than Tesla Motors, the fledgling electric car company in Northern California where Musk is also CEO and that just received $465 million in federal loads to accelerate the production of its all-electric sedan, the Model S.

“Elon is more involved with SpaceX, but the press cares more about Tesla, especially with GM and electric cars in the news constantly,” says Fishner-Wolfson. “At least,” he adds, “[Musk’s time is divided] half and half.”

No wonder Steve Jurvetson told Alex yesterday that SpaceX’s investors aren’t terribly concerned that Musk is running two companies at the same time.

“Steve Jobs has blazed a role model trail in how to do that [operate two companies at once] when you have good teams in place,” Jurvetson said. “My suspicion is that over time, Musk will tend to focus on one [company] over the other.”