Z2Sixty Ventures, led by Hernando Bunuan, Founder and Managing Partner, held its inaugural annual meeting on November 1st at the University of Chicago, Booth School of Business, where the foundations for the firm were initially started during his MBA. The venture capital firm is dedicated to investing in early-stage start-ups and supporting visionary founders who are committed to building a smarter, more sustainable, and impactful society. The first annual meeting gave investors, founders and the broader community insight into what Hernando is building with his new firm.
Hernando kicked off the day by sharing his personal story about why he started Z2Sixty Ventures and how building the venture capital firm has progressed over the last two years. Hernando also emphasized the importance of his venture advisors and extensive network both in sourcing new deals and helping portfolio companies. Portfolio founders who attended the conference expressed that they chose Z2Sixty because of the value of strategic advice and critical introductions provided by the network.
Hernando noted that while the venture funding market has slowed down this year after record numbers in 2021 and 2022, we should expect more of a historical return to pre-pandemic levels in 2024.
Following the update from Hernando about the firm and the current state of VC, we heard from several game-changing companies and their founders on how they are building technologies to revolutionize their respective industries and fit within Z2Sixty’s thesis of building a smarter, more sustainable and impactful society. All the founders had profound experience in their respective fields and identified a critical problem they wanted to solve. The founders believe that with the support of Z2Sixty, they will be able to solve these pressing societal problems. Below are some of the highlights of the engaging discussions from Z2Sixty’s portfolio companies, advisors, and network:
Building a Safer Battery
Speaker: Ricky Hanna, CEO & Board Director, Ion Storage Systems
We started getting glimpses into the companies that Z2Sixty Ventures is backing. First up was Ion Storage Systems with CEO and Board Director, Ricky Hanna. Z2Sixty Ventures participated in ION’s Series A in 2022. At the event, Ricky shared his 20+ years of experience in the battery industry and how it led him to Ion as its fifth employee. He emphasized that ION's focus is on developing cleaner and more efficient batteries. According to Ricky, “the true value of their technology is really 100% better than traditional lithium-ion batteries”. Currently, Ion Storage Systems holds multiple patents, has secured contracts, and is expecting to generate revenue in the near future. Additionally, Ricky talked about the recent strategic partnership with Saint-Gobain, a global leader in ceramic materials. They will provide ceramic powder over a multi-year period. With 40 active partners, Ion Storage Systems is well-positioned to revolutionize the energy storage industry.
Making AI Chips More Energy Efficient
Speaker: Charlie Buchbinder, CEO & Co-Founder, ReConceive AI
Next up was Charlie Buchbinder, CEO and Co-Founder of ReConceive AI. Z2Sixty Ventures wrote the first check into Charlie's startup earlier this year. Charlie is a seasoned technology expert who has played a key role in the development and commercialization of some of Apple's most popular products, including ApplePay, AirPods, Apple Watch, Airtags, and the iPhone. He has also held a leadership position at Nest. During his one-on-one with Hernando, Charlie discussed his mission to create a robust infrastructure and architecture to support the scaling of AI. He emphasized his experience in scaling life-changing technology products and explained why he is currently focused on addressing the computing challenge and energy inefficiency that comes with the growth of artificial intelligence. “The primary problem with it right now is that it is an intensely inefficient way of computing. Traditional kind of CPU, memory, storage has been the norm for so long, but AI, really machine learning, is just a massively brute force approach of doing things,” he stated. With ReConceive, his new startup, Charlie aims to solve these challenges and revolutionize the way we approach AI technology.
A Future Vision of Smart Cities
Speaker: Nick D'Andre, CEO and Co-Founder, GridMatrix
At the start of the afternoon sessions, Nick D'Andre, the CEO and co-founder of GridMatrix, shared his vision for the future city. He challenged the audience to name a city that functions without any problems such as road fatalities, disconnected infrastructure, and high emissions.
According to Nick, most of the current cities are facing these problems. Instead, he envisions a city in which roads and infrastructure are connected. This connectivity will allow optimized traffic flow, reduced emissions, and safer roads. To achieve this vision, GridMatrix is developing a software layer that connects road users and infrastructure by utilizing existing roadway sensors. This software will make cities safer and greener in the future. GridMatrix has already received contracts from multiple municipalities to use its video processing technology and data insights to address their long-term infrastructure needs. "The AI platforms that will dominate the 21st century will be those with the best data sets, and we currently capture over 40 different fields of data from every single sensor we're on," said Nick.
Bringing High Performance Back to the Workplace Through Kindness
Speakers: Daniel Lozano, Founder & CEO; Nicole Yelsey, COO/CMO & Co-Founder; Michael Kurt, Head of Finance, KindWorks AI
The last portfolio company presentation was from KindWorks, which recently closed an oversubscribed round that Z2Sixty Ventures participated in. Daniel Lozano and his team at KindWorks AI spoke about their mission to promote kindness, mindfulness, and exercise in the workplace. Kindness is a two-way street - when employees are kind to each other, they feel better about themselves and their work environment. This results in higher employee morale, reduced absenteeism, and ultimately reduced turnover - all of which drive business success and reduce costs. To make kindness a habit, KindWorks has developed an AI agent that integrates with primary workplace tools, suggesting and encouraging acts of kindness. This innovative technology has already been adopted by some of the world's top consulting companies, demonstrating the effectiveness of KindWorks' approach.
In addition to the portfolio founders, we had several guest speakers who offered their industry expertise and guidance:
From Founder's Vision to Getting Acquired to the Largest Renewables IPO
Speaker: Mike Mehawich, Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder, Nextracker (NASDAQ: NXT)
Hernando had a conversation with Mike Mehawich, who is the Chief Strategy Officer and Co-Founder at Nextracker. During the conversation, Mike shared his fascinating entrepreneurial journey at Nextracker. He talked about joining the startup at the very beginning, then being sold just two years later after a fundraise, and finally becoming a public company via a carve-out. In 2023, Nextracker had the largest IPO in the cleantech industry.
In an industry that has seen its ups and downs, Mike talked about the importance of doubling down on core competencies and core values during the hard times. According to Mike, "It was about going back to basics in terms of how do we get in front of customers and really communicate our value proposition in a way that resonates."
Financial Markets Update: M&A and IPO Outlook
Speaker: Julie Bennett Bunuan, Managing Director, Group Head of Sustainabiility and Family Office Coverage, Truist Securities
During her presentation, Julie provided an outstanding overview of the current market trends for company valuations, IPOs, and M&A activity. It has been observed that the number of IPOs has reduced significantly this year. Although M&A activity is also down, valuations have become more attractive to strategic buyers, and an uptick in activity should occur in 2024. Julie emphasized that companies must focus on profitable revenue growth, rather than revenue growth at any cost. The Rule of 40 is still a critical factor to consider in achieving success.
A Lesson in Entrepreneurial Selling
Speaker: Jeff Lietz, Principal Partner, Sales Engine
Jeff Lietz from Sales Engine delivered an informative masterclass on sales. As a successful serial entrepreneur, Jeff discussed changing the mindset of how we associate salespeople, saying that salespeople and founders are one and the same: “sales is making progress in people's lives. That's all you're doing”. He then went on to demonstrate various sales tools and techniques to improve performance through dedicated and timely feedback, specifically on how to give and receive feedback using two key questions: "What did I do well?" and "What can I do differently?". Some of the founders in attendance were already applying this principle by pitching their products to investors and other members of the audience.
Tactical Advice from the Trenches
Speakers: Zach Debelak, Eric Lewis, and Steve Piekarczyk, Venture Advisors, Z2Sixty Ventures
Zach Debelak, Eric Lewis, and Steve Piekarczyk are Venture Advisors at Z2Sixty Ventures. They sat down with the audience to address a range of operational startup topics and share advice on preparing for 2024. Eric emphasized the importance of investing in marketing now to gain market share, especially during a time when other companies are cutting marketing budgets due to financial constraints. Steve recommended that portfolio companies take funding now to allow for a longer runway, which would enable the company to weather market turbulence. Zach mentioned that even during a downturn, companies should continue to prioritize quality hiring over hiring individuals who are cheaper and less experienced. Zach advised, “You really have to give yourself a rubric and stick to that rubric for making tough decisions about people, about contracts, about clients”.
Overall, Z2Sixty Venture’s inaugural annual meeting successfully demonstrated the firm’s commitment to backing bold founders building a smarter, sustainable and more impactful society. We had the opportunity to meet some of the most promising startups across various industries. Z2Sixty Ventures was chosen by these companies as a venture investor because of the valuable support system it provides. The guidance and network offered by Z2Sixty are exactly what these startups need to achieve their long-term vision. The atmosphere was buzzing with energy and several attendees look forward to next year's meeting.