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Breaking Boundaries to Fund A Better Future with Calibrate Ventures’ Kevin Dunalp

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Every solution starts with an idea. Consumers needed more home security, so the founders of Ring came up with the smart doorbell. Home owners had trouble finding time to complete recurring tasks like vacuuming, so Roomba automated the vacuum. But despite those great ideas, every founder needs some help along the way. Or more specifically, they often need financial backing to scale a business, and they need someone to believe in them when others won’t. 

“We often joke that our best investments are the ones that nobody else likes. We’re investors in Dollar Shave Club and I was told that was stupid. It was acquired for a billion dollars. With Ring, people laughed at me and they’re like, ‘You invested in a doorbell business?’ A lot of times the ones that aren’t necessarily obvious are really the best opportunities. So it was digging in and understanding if this does work, is it going to be really valuable?”

Kevin Dunlap is Co-founder and Managing Partner of Calibrate Ventures, a VC firm focused on funding early-stage A.I. and automation companies. Every year Kevin and his partners sift through hundreds of companies looking to take the next step in their entrepreneurial journey. But what separates the companies that receive funding from the ones that never make it past the pitch stage? And what trends is he seeing within the automation and A.I. space? On this episode of IT Visionaries, Kevin explains Calibrate process for picking companies to partner with and what questions start-ups should be answering before they step up to pitch to VCs. Enjoy this episode.

Intro Quote

We often joke that our best investments are the ones that nobody else likes. Right. We’ve had, you know We’re investors in Dollar Shave Club and I was told that was stupid. It was acquired for a billion dollars. With Ring, And people laughed at me and ‘They’re like, you invested in a doorbell business? It’s like, well, yeah, no, there’s, there’s an opportunity here about a broader network and connect to people. And so A lot of times the ones that aren’t necessarily obvious are really the best opportunities. And So it was kind of digging in and understanding if this does work, is it, is it going to be really valuable?

Main Takeaways

  • It’s All About Data: Data capturing and data labeling remains the two most important factors to developing functional A.I. solutions. When data is not effectively captured and/or labeled, the algorithm cannot effectively decipher what it needs to in real time. An example of this involves self-driving cars that need to not only be able to recognize the distance of a truck in front of them, but what kind of truck is in front of the vehicle, and all the other road conditions that could impact a drive.
  • Honesty Gets you Far: Everyone wants to impress in their pitch to a VC, after all, the ability for them to fund a business could make or break a company. But one of the leading things that separates good pitches from great ones is the ability to admit where there is a gap in your business and how funding will help you close that gap. Going into a pitch meeting with all the answers is an early red flag and raises more questions than answers.
  • Building a Better Tomorrow: With a growing labor shortage in tough skills and technical skills, companies and government programs must invest in STEM and STEAM programs to ensure that we are funding future generations of innovations, but also opening up more geographical regions as well. This also means that investors want to see how owners recruit talent to an organization, but also their strategy for training and retraining individuals to fit the needs of the business.

For a more in-depth look at this episode, check out the article below.


Article 

Every solution starts with an idea. Consumers needed more home security, so the founders of Ring came up with the smart doorbell. Home owners had trouble finding time to complete recurring tasks like vacuuming, so Roomba automated the vacuum. But despite those great ideas, every founder needs some help along the way. Or more specifically, they often need financial backing to scale a business, and they need someone to believe in them when others won’t. 

“We often joke that our best investments are the ones that nobody else likes. We’re investors in Dollar Shave Club and I was told that was stupid. It was acquired for a billion dollars. With Ring, people laughed at me and they’re like, ‘You invested in a doorbell business?’ A lot of times the ones that aren’t necessarily obvious are really the best opportunities. So it was digging in and understanding if this does work, is it going to be really valuable?”

Kevin Dunlap is Co-founder and Managing Partner of Calibrate Ventures, a VC firm focused on funding early-stage A.I. and automation companies. Every year Kevin and his partners sift through hundreds of companies looking to take the next step in their entrepreneurial journey. But what separates the companies that receive funding from the ones that never make it past the pitch stage? And what trends is he seeing within the automation and A.I. space? On this episode of IT Visionaries, Kevin explains Calibrate process for picking companies to partner with and what questions start-ups should be answering before they step up to pitch to VCs. Enjoy this episode

With more than 20 years of experience investing in technology companies, and a passion for A.I. in the robotics space, Dunlap has a unique perspective on the industry. Over the years he’s realized a few things that may be surprising. For example, he’s seen that A.I. software, is more important to farmers than robots, and  that synthetic data is the missing link in finally getting autonomous vehicles on the road. These two revelations are just a few of the reasons why he decided to start Calibrate Ventures.

 “When we started seeing the advancements around artificial intelligence, machine learning, computer vision, robotics, we really set up and formed Calibrate to take advantage of those opportunities,” he said. “We also realized that that same core technology can be applied in lots of different verticals. When you see our thesis of actually investing in companies, it’s got a core thesis around machine learning and computer vision or A.I. and taking that and applying it to different verticals that haven’t had that benefit of digitalization in the past.”

Dunlap elaborated and said that A.I. for his company oftentimes means the implementation of computer vision, and how the data actually helps machines make predictions about how a physical piece of equipment could operate in the actual world. 

But being a venture capitalist is a tough gig, especially when it requires saying no to a lot of companies that might be on the precipice of a technological breakthrough., This which can lead to a lot of tough discussions with your partners.

“To be a venture investor, you have to be an optimist,” Dunlap candidly said. “You’ve got to have the belief that something can be developed and people are going to want it, and the value associated with that. I try coming into everything with a completely open mind. My mentor had this concept of intellectual honesty, where, we may not agree on something, but he’d always come back the next day and say, ‘Well, why did you think a certain thing? Or why do you think that’s a good idea?’ We still may not agree, but it was at least that seeking of knowledge and understanding. And I think that’s a trait that the venture investor has to have.” 

Ultimately, though, the role of a VC is to be a champion for the company you invest in. To provide guidance, resources, and assistance along the way. But while those are important function straits of the job, Dunlap said every good investment foundation is built off honesty, and that is it’s something Calibrate they evaluates early on during the pitch process.

“When we start digging down and we start asking questions about the behavior of the software, what it can actually understand and when you start getting answers that are, ‘Oh yeah, we figured it out,.’ itIt’s probably not totally true,” Dunlap said. “Frankly, that’s fine. If we’ve got a little bit of technology advancement that we need, we’re okay with that. We’re willing to take some of that risk. But pushing on some of those finer points around the tech and the answers that we get back, usually if everything’s solved, it’s a red flag, but if the founder is completely honest and says, there’s areas that I want to focus on, I think those are much more honest conversations, and typically those are the founders that we want to work with.”

To hear more from Dunlap, and the companies Calibrate Ventures is investing in, check out the full episode of IT Visionaries!


To hear the entire discussion, tune into IT Visionaries here

Episode 303