Steve Jurvetson on why he couldn’t join the board of secretive Zoox

Today at our TC Disrupt event in San Francisco, we had the chance to catch up with investor Steve Jurvetson about a wide number of things that are sweeping across the startup landscape (and might fundamentally change it), from ICOs to Softbank’s giant Vision Fund to AI to Elon Musk’s new Boring Company.

Jurvetson had plenty of interesting insights about all, unsurprisingly. He somewhat famously graduated from Stanford in 2.5 years, at the top of his class, and has led early investments in many pioneering companies, from Hotmail to SpaceX and Tesla. (He sits on the boards of the last two, alongside Musk.)

Another board seat Jurvetson planned to take but didn’t, he said today, was with Zoox, the three-year-old, Menlo Park, Ca.-based startup that’s building self-driving cars from the ground up with an eye toward picking up passengers as a service.

A year ago, Zoox raised what Jurvetson characterized as the biggest round of Series A funding ever when it closed on $240 million, including from DFJ, Lux Capital, Blackbird Ventures and others.

So much money makes sense, argued Jurvetson. “It’s a capital-intensive business. If you’re going to operate a fully autonomous driving service in an urban environment – imagine an Uber- or Lyft-like service without humans in the loop — that is a big innovation stream.”

What Jurvetson didn’t anticipate when his firm, DFJ, wrote a check to Zoox —  this was “before they had a board, before they really had any structure whatsoever, before the Series A” —  was that Musk would make plans to jump into the car-as-a-service business, too.

Though “[t]here was no whisper of Tesla being competitive” early on, said Jurvetson, that changed abruptly on a Tesla shareholder call last October, when Musk told analysts and investors that he was capable of create a car-sharing network so compelling that customers would abandon Uber and other ride-sharing companies to adopt it.

Jurvetson said he may have unwittingly stirred Musk’s competitive juices by recounting, to a crowd in 2015, a conversation he’d had with then Uber CEO Travis Kalanick about Uber potentially buying Tesla’s autonomous cars and operating them in the service of Uber.

“I thought that was such a typical braggadocio, typical Travis kind of statement,” he joked on stage today. But it was “picked up by the press, and a Morgan Stanley analyst asked Elon about it, and he was like, ‘Well, of course, we might someday do that, too. We might be in that business.'”

Long story short, with Musk broadening his vision for Tesla, Jurvetson wasn’t able to take the seat with Zoox after all, with DFJ instead installing longtime partner Heidi Roizen in his stead. And while it’s easy to imagine that DFJ’s respective stakes might make both Zoox and Tesla nervous about what kind of information is being shared internally, Jurvetson insisted on stage that there’s a “Chinese wall,” meaning that he and Roizen never discuss the companies or their respective strategies.

By the way, we asked Jurvetson if he could confirm reports that Zoox is in talks with Softbank about a huge round that would value it at between $3 billion and $4 billion. Jurvetson declined to do that, saying “they haven’t finished that” (meaning that new round).

Notably, he did say separately that a DFJ company that he declined to name “went to Japan and sat down with [Softbank founder] Masayoshi Son” in what sounded like the not-too-distant past. The team was looking for between $50 million and $100 million, Jurvetson said. Instead, they were handed a written term sheet for $800 million — 45 minutes into the sit-down.