What is the real purpose behind SkyFund, a new Silicon Valley investment fund?
SkyFund, a new investment fund ostensibly created to kick start companies making software and add-on gadgets for drones, has been getting a lot of press lately, most notably in The New York Times. The $10 million in SkyFund comes in equal parts from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Accel Partners, and DJI, a Chinese drone manufacturer which has received funding from Accel, with initial cash infusions to start-ups expected to be $250,000.
This is a drop in the bucket in Silicon Valley, especially when SkyFund's stated aim is to launch a whole new sector of the business-to-business and consumer economy. $10 million is less than most companies get from top-tier venture capital firms in a single investment round. Accel gave DJI $75 million during its last investment round, for example, and Accel was not DJI's sole source of fresh capital at the time. $10 million is less than the annual salary of many a Silicon valley C-suite executive. And in a world where recent start-ups are valued in the billions (online marketer Zulily recently clocked in at $1.3 billion, and office messenger app Slack clocked in at $2.8 billion), $10 million is small change.
So what is Accel really up to? In my estimation, SkyFund is a $10 million, living, institutional commercial for drones in general, and DJI in particular.
In the short term, Accel is likely hoping that SkyFund will acclimate American companies to the idea of sharing their designs with a Chinese firm. Any company that gets money from SkyFund has to share its intellectual property with DJI, which is based in Shenzen, a city on the Chinese mainland just north of Hong Kong. With Chinese hackers siphoning an estimated $300 billion a year from the US economy in the form of stolen intellectual property, it's understandable that US tech companies might shy away from giving any more away, if only to save face. After putting up $75 million for a stake in DJI's success, Accel wouldn't want to turn around and find spooked Silicon Valley start-ups in other sectors suddenly wary of taking their money.
None of this can have escaped Accel partner Sameer Ghandi, whose last job was as a partner at Sequoia Capital, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm so revered that even rumor of their investment can change the perception of a new company or technology. Ghandi's commitment to the expansion of the "aerial economy" (a phrase from the SkyFund press release) has made him Accel's in-house drone cheerleader, and Accel's PR team (or whoever is behind SkyFund's PR kit) has done an excellent job of generating buzz, despite the clunkiness of some of their new terminology.
The New York Times coverage actually adopts Accel's new moniker for drones: UAVs, or "unmanned aerial vehicles." The aim of this jargon shift is no doubt to change our association with flying robots from things dispatched to kill terrorists to things that might deliver your pizza, or photograph your wedding. To my ears, UAV is no less menacing than drone. IED, another three-letter acronym dispatched from the war zones of the middle east, stands for improvised explosive device, or, in plainer language, homemade bomb. Three-letter acronyms stink of military applications. Whether "drone" or "UAV," I wouldn't want one hovering outside my bedroom window. If I were on the PR team at Accel, I'd have stuck with drone, and picked my battles elsewhere.
I'd also have avoided the name SkyFund itself. To anybody geeky enough to work in tech (or report on it), the name sounds unnervingly like Skynet, the artificial intelligence from The Terminator movies that kills off humanity using, among other things, weaponized flying robots.
Seen as an under-the-radar PR initiative to safeguard Accel's current and planned investment in drones, SkyFund is actually a pretty good deal at $10 million. A traditional ad campaign might have cost more, and a simple press release might've been beneath notice, and neither traditional method has the added possibility of actually launching a new business or two. It's also some sly PR for Accel itself, which wants to coax the founder of the next Facebook or Google into its offices. One way to do that is by providing high-grade PR services to their start-ups, in addition to infusions of cash.
SkyFund is PR for Silicon Valley, public relations 2.0. In return for your attention there is not only the promise of education and entertainment, but the air of excitement that surrounds a genuine business opportunity.
The SkyFund press release links to a video: (https://vimeo.com/128880551). In it, you see careening views of landscapes shot from high up, smiling children watching drones like newfangled balloons, wildlife, etc. The soundtrack is a piece of Lion King-esque inspirational music. There's also a lot of drones in flight (presumably filmed by other drones) interspersed with mini profiles of American businessmen talking about drone applications for media, agriculture, and sports. You can tell Accel or DJI dropped some serious cash to produce it.
Even if SkyFund is more PR than an actual investment fund, the quality of the PR is an indication that Accel is preparing for the day when the consumer and business drone market really takes off.