Startups

‘AI-powered’ VC firm Vela emerges from stealth with $25M under management

Comment

The world of big data is seen in this complex and vibrantly colored visual representation of data.
Image Credits: John Lund / Getty Images

Six years ago, Yiğit Ihlamur, a former senior program manager at Google, observed that AI was surpassing human capabilities in certain areas — at least by his estimation. Equipped with this perspective, he looked into various sectors with the goal of tackling a problem that he could work on for the rest of his life.

“At an abstract level, I was intrigued by the idea of accelerating innovation, because innovation creates new products, services and experiences that were previously unimaginable,” Ihlamur told TechCrunch in an email interview. “I perceived delivering capital to innovation as a math problem and started coding and hacking my way in.”

Ihlamur decided to focus on the VC space, which he saw as behind in terms of leveraging automation and AI. With the help of several co-founders, he launched Vela Partners, a VC firm that he describes as “AI-powered” and “product-led.”

Vela is an early-stage VC with $25 million under management and 32 portfolio companies, including self-checkout startup Grabango and robotics firm Bear Robotics. Like all VCs, Vela determines — partly using predictive algorithms — new investment areas as it attempts to identify trends, source the right opportunities and suss out threats to its existing investments.

To train its predictive algorithms, Vela draws on websites and social networks for data, also leveraging paid datasets like Crunchbase.

“Vela provides market intelligence and insights of innovative ideas; hence technical decision makers can decide which tools to buy or build to grow their core businesses,” Ihlamur said. “Models must be informative and explanatory. Ultimately our approach marries AI with expert heuristics.”

Inevitably, of course, algorithms amplify the biases in the data on which they’re trained — and this can have major consequences in the VC realm. In an experiment in November 2020, Harvard Business Review (HBR) found that an investment recommendation algorithm tended to pick white entrepreneurs rather than entrepreneurs of color and preferred investing in startups with male founders. Experts uncovered similar issues with CB Insights’ Mosaic tool, which uses proxies for race, socioeconomic status, gender and disability to determine a person’s likelihood of success.

Ihlamur somewhat dodged questions around bias, acknowledging that it comes with the territory — but not necessarily offering a solution.

“A model can learn the biases of other VCs or biases of the past,” he said. “First, one needs to understand the underlying reason why these behaviors occurred in the venture market. Second, every problem is unique, and a generalized approach cannot work for everything.”

Bias issues aside, Bay Area–based Vela isn’t the first to develop algorithmic tools to inform its investment decisions. VC firms, including SignalFire, EQT Ventures and Nauta Capital, are using AI-powered platforms to flag potential top picks.

The differentiator for Vela, according to Ihlamur, is its “game-like” terminal built to assist entrepreneurs, limited partners and other VCs in using its services. Entrepreneurs can analyze tendencies in developer ecosystems like Amazon Web Services and GitHub, while whitelisted VCs can spot (with any luck) promising seed-stage startups and limited partners can ask questions about why Vela invested in a particular startup.

Vela’s GitHub repo, which includes its algorithmic models, is public — both for inspection and reuse.

“While some VCs may be experimenting with AI-based sourcing, we haven’t seen any VC taking a product-led approach,” Ihlamur said. “Anyone can go to Vela’s website and use our product. We’re building relationships with entrepreneurs and limited partners in a programmatic way — our ultimate goal is for AI and automation to touch and manage all aspects of our business.”

It’s an approach that’s worked well for Vela so far. The firm claims to be running at “break-even” level, leading or co-leading $500,000 to $1.5 million check sizes.

In the near term, Vela plans to invest mainly in AI, data and developer-focused startups. Ihlamur expressed enthusiasm for generative AI specifically, a market that could be worth $51.8 billion by 2028 — depending on which sources you believe.

“The pandemic had a positive impact on our business, as was the case for many other venture capital firms,” Ihlamur said. “OpenAI’s ChatGPT’s release provided further tailwinds for us as an AI-powered VC firm … With respect to the broader slowdown in tech, we’re not concerned as we’re break-even as a company and have capital to invest. Despite the slowdown, there are significant opportunities to seize partially thanks to the rapid progress in AI.”

More TechCrunch

Zen Educate, an online marketplace that connects schools with teachers, has raised $37 million in a Series B round of funding. The raise comes amid a growing teacher shortage crisis…

Zen Educate raises $37M and acquires Aquinas Education as it tries to address the teacher shortage

“When I heard the released demo, I was shocked, angered and in disbelief that Mr. Altman would pursue a voice that sounded so eerily similar to mine.”

Scarlett Johansson says that OpenAI approached her to use her voice

A new self-driving truck — manufactured by Volvo and loaded with autonomous vehicle tech developed by Aurora Innovation — could be on public highways as early as this summer.  The…

Aurora and Volvo unveil self-driving truck designed for a driverless future

The European venture capital firm raised its fourth fund as fund as climate tech “comes of age.”

ETF Partners raises €284M for climate startups that will be effective quickly — not 20 years down the road

Copilot, Microsoft’s brand of generative AI, will soon be far more deeply integrated into the Windows 11 experience.

Microsoft wants to make Windows an AI operating system, launches Copilot+ PCs

Hello and welcome back to TechCrunch Space. For those who haven’t heard, the first crewed launch of Boeing’s Starliner capsule has been pushed back yet again to no earlier than…

TechCrunch Space: Star(side)liner

When I attended Automate in Chicago a few weeks back, multiple people thanked me for TechCrunch’s semi-regular robotics job report. It’s always edifying to get that feedback in person. While…

These 81 robotics companies are hiring

The top vehicle safety regulator in the U.S. has launched a formal probe into an April crash involving the all-electric VinFast VF8 SUV that claimed the lives of a family…

VinFast crash that killed family of four now under federal investigation

When putting a video portal in a public park in the middle of New York City, some inappropriate behavior will likely occur. The Portal, the vision of Lithuanian artist and…

NYC-Dublin real-time video portal reopens with some fixes to prevent inappropriate behavior

Longtime New York-based seed investor, Contour Venture Partners, is making progress on its latest flagship fund after lowering its target. The firm closed on $42 million, raised from 64 backers,…

Contour Venture Partners, an early investor in Datadog and Movable Ink, lowers the target for its fifth fund

Meta’s Oversight Board has now extended its scope to include the company’s newest platform, Instagram Threads, and has begun hearing cases from Threads.

Meta’s Oversight Board takes its first Threads case

The company says it’s refocusing and prioritizing fewer initiatives that will have the biggest impact on customers and add value to the business.

SeekOut, a recruiting startup last valued at $1.2 billion, lays off 30% of its workforce

The U.K.’s self-proclaimed “world-leading” regulations for self-driving cars are now official, after the Automated Vehicles (AV) Act received royal assent — the final rubber stamp any legislation must go through…

UK’s autonomous vehicle legislation becomes law, paving the way for first driverless cars by 2026

ChatGPT, OpenAI’s text-generating AI chatbot, has taken the world by storm. What started as a tool to hyper-charge productivity through writing essays and code with short text prompts has evolved…

ChatGPT: Everything you need to know about the AI-powered chatbot

SoLo Funds CEO Travis Holoway: “Regulators seem driven by press releases when they should be motivated by true consumer protection and empowering equitable solutions.”

Fintech lender SoLo Funds is being sued again by the government over its lending practices

Hard tech startups generate a lot of buzz, but there’s a growing cohort of companies building digital tools squarely focused on making hard tech development faster, more efficient and —…

Rollup wants to be the hardware engineer’s workhorse

TechCrunch Disrupt 2024 is not just about groundbreaking innovations, insightful panels, and visionary speakers — it’s also about listening to YOU, the audience, and what you feel is top of…

Disrupt Audience Choice vote closes Friday

Google says the new SDK would help Google expand on its core mission of connecting the right audience to the right content at the right time.

Google is launching a new Android feature to drive users back into their installed apps

Jolla has taken the official wraps off the first version of its personal server-based AI assistant in the making. The reborn startup is building a privacy-focused AI device — aka…

Jolla debuts privacy-focused AI hardware

The ChatGPT mobile app’s net revenue first jumped 22% on the day of the GPT-4o launch and continued to grow in the following days.

ChatGPT’s mobile app revenue saw its biggest spike yet following GPT-4o launch

Dating app maker Bumble has acquired Geneva, an online platform built around forming real-world groups and clubs. The company said that the deal is designed to help it expand its…

Bumble buys community building app Geneva to expand further into friendships

CyberArk — one of the army of larger security companies founded out of Israel — is acquiring Venafi, a specialist in machine identity, for $1.54 billion. 

CyberArk snaps up Venafi for $1.54B to ramp up in machine-to-machine security

Founder-market fit is one of the most crucial factors in a startup’s success, and operators (someone involved in the day-to-day operations of a startup) turned founders have an almost unfair advantage…

OpenseedVC, which backs operators in Africa and Europe starting their companies, reaches first close of $10M fund

A Singapore High Court has effectively approved Pine Labs’ request to shift its operations to India.

Pine Labs gets Singapore court approval to shift base to India

The AI Safety Institute, a U.K. body that aims to assess and address risks in AI platforms, has said it will open a second location in San Francisco. 

UK opens office in San Francisco to tackle AI risk

Companies are always looking for an edge, and searching for ways to encourage their employees to innovate. One way to do that is by running an internal hackathon around a…

Why companies are turning to internal hackathons

Featured Article

I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Women in tech still face a shocking level of mistreatment at work. Melinda French Gates is one of the few working to change that.

2 days ago
I’m rooting for Melinda French Gates to fix tech’s  broken ‘brilliant jerk’ culture

Blue Origin has successfully completed its NS-25 mission, resuming crewed flights for the first time in nearly two years. The mission brought six tourist crew members to the edge of…

Blue Origin successfully launches its first crewed mission since 2022

Creative Artists Agency (CAA), one of the top entertainment and sports talent agencies, is hoping to be at the forefront of AI protection services for celebrities in Hollywood. With many…

Hollywood agency CAA aims to help stars manage their own AI likenesses

Expedia says Rathi Murthy and Sreenivas Rachamadugu, respectively its CTO and senior vice president of core services product & engineering, are no longer employed at the travel booking company. In…

Expedia says two execs dismissed after ‘violation of company policy’