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Madrona Venture Labs announces $11M for pre-seed AI founders


Jun 21, 2023
Madrona Venture Labs announces $11M for pre-seed AI founders


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Madrona Venture Labs (MVL), a pre-seed startup incubator-of-sorts based in Seattle, Washington that bills itself as “an enterprise AI startup studio … for founders, by founders” has secured $11 million for its fifth fund, with a focus on empowering the next generation of AI founders.

The funding round was led by sibling firm, the mighty Seattle giant Madrona Venture Group, and saw participation from a group of noteworthy tech execs committed to the success of early-stage enterprise AI founders.

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Prominent new investors in MVL include Thomas Dohmke, CEO of GitHub; Joe Beda, cofounder and former CTO of Heptio; Brent Frei, cofounder of Smartsheet and CEO of TerraClear; and Michael Hilton, former CPO of Accolade and cofounder of Concur. The fund also saw the return of previous investors such as Elissa Fink, former CMO of Tableau; Spencer Rascoff, cofounder and former CEO of Zillow; and Mike McSherry, cofounder and CEO of Xealth.


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A unique approach focused on de-risking

Madrona’s unique approach involves investors in its funds actively participating as co-builders and partners. This strategy allows founders within the Madrona network to benefit from collaboration with world-class operators, who serve as valuable advisers, direct investors and co-founding board members. The involvement of successful industry figures not only provides financial support but also brings in-depth expertise and guidance.

According to Mike Fridgen, MVL’s managing director, the venture firm is actively seeking new founders and plans to back about 12 companies with the new fund over the next several years.

In an interview with VentureBeat, Fridgen emphasized MVL’s commitment to pre-seed stage founders: “Everything we do is about helping founders de-risk and fast-track and get to the next level.”

The company also welcomed two new technology and AI partners, Larry Colagiovanni and Jay Bartot, who bring extensive experience in technology, product leadership and founding AI startups. Colagiovanni, previously the CTO and CPO of Limeade, and Bartot, formerly the CEO of MVL spinout Zeitworks, will contribute to Madrona’s history of creating data-driven AI startups by offering their expertise in building teams and executing technical vision.

Founders wanted

Madrona Venture Labs actively seeks founders with product and engineering backgrounds, emphasizing deep domain insight, expertise, passion for problem-solving, and unwavering determination. The company is committed to promoting diversity and assists founders in prioritizing diversity as they establish their initial teams.

Fridgen highlighted Madrona’s role as an anchor and partner to founders, as it provides access to its impressive network of over 150 portfolio companies and successful investors, such as Dohmke and Frei, who bring expertise and success in specific areas.

Regarding MVL’s past achievements, Fridgen said: “We’ve built over 30 companies since 2015. And those companies have gone on to raise more than $260 million and hold a combined $629 million in value.”

He discussed the evolution of MVL’s work with founders, from big data and intelligent applications to new foundation models and generative AI, aiming to unlock new capabilities that benefit consumers.

Fridgen pointed to specific examples of companies MVL has backed, such as Xembly, an automated chief of staff for knowledge workers that debuted last year, and Uplevel, focused on people-first engineering intelligence, as the kinds of successful bets that MVL will look to replicate with its new round.

Explaining how MVL works to identify investible founders, Fridgen said: “Sometimes it’s an idea we’re working on internally, and we’re out talking to people who have a great founder-idea fit, and sometimes all the stars align and they come into the company as a founder. Sometimes the founder brings us the idea.”

‘Fiery’ founders

In either case, Fridgen said, MVL is looking for “strong founder ideas” and “true insight about a customer’s problems and a true solution.” The company is location-agnostic and seeks founders from its home base in Seattle, the Bay Area, and across the U.S.

The firm says that the main questions an MVL-backed founder should seek to answer when pursuing backing are: “Is there a problem here that we now uniquely see and have a key, and an approach that is differentiated and build a true moat over time? Is there something protectable here that we can own and really be the best in the world at? That journey is never a straight line, and it takes a real commitment [by founders] to getting to the truth.”

That’s why MVL ultimately selects founders that have grit and determination, “fire” as Fridgen puts it.

Looking ahead, MVL plans to build on its core theme of intelligent applications as it embraces the generative AI movement. Recent additions to its portfolio include Charmed, an AI-assisted game development company; Augmend, focusing on collective intelligence for developers; Storia, specializing in AI-powered video production; and Finpilot, an AI copilot for finance.

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