Democracies are fragile, and hardware is hard

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Journalists and readers love scoops. But sometimes it’s important to state the obvious. This week, I’m reminded that democracies are fragile but that technology can help. And also that crowdfunding isn’t always the best way to launch an innovative product.

On a side note, this newsletter will be taking a break until January 6 next year, so wishing you all happy holidays. — Anna

Why agentic tech?

When I read that a new venture firm called ex/ante had raised $33 million to invest in “agentic tech,” I got curious: What did that mean, and why were LPs such as Marc Andreessen and Union Square Ventures willing to back an emerging fund manager focusing on this category?

I already had something to go on: Forbes’ Alex Konrad noted that ex/ante would invest in online privacy and security, and described agentic tech as “a fledgling term that the fund defines as technology that relates to human agency and rights in the digital age.” But I still wanted to know more, so I had a chat with its founder, 32-year-old Zoe Weinberg.

Weinberg’s project was initially part of Schmidt Futures, Eric Schmidt’s philanthropic venture (or philanthropic mess, depending on who you ask). But when she spun it out as a stand-alone fund, she needed a concise way to explain her thesis to stakeholders.

“When I was first thinking about how to frame our strategy, I kept coming back to this question of what is ultimately the tech that will help us to restore agency to individuals and help to counter digital authoritarianism and surveillance capitalism.”

This thesis encompasses ex/ante portfolio companies such as Reality Defender, which aims to fight deepfakes, as well as Webacy, which promises to help you “do crypto/DeFi/web3 safely.”

“I used to explain it to people as anti-authoritarian tech . . . but I never liked that term,” Weinberg told me. Other terms such as “anti-surveillance tech” also had similar negative connotations, so Weinberg credits privacy expert Anastasia Uglova for the wording she finally landed on. Uglova confirmed her role in an email to me:

“I encouraged Zoe to go with the term ‘agentic tech’ and not anti-surveillance tech because (1) it reclaims the term towards trends that empower human dignity, sovereignty, and choice, rather than subverting them as the age of social media has done, and (2) it’s a positive term that implies possibility for human flourishing with technology rather than conveying anti-tech sentiment.”

Using an emerging term is also a way for Weinberg to show that its focus is news. “Historically, the way that folks have been invested in the intersection of technology and democracy has been either civic tech and govtech, [or] on the other side, defense tech (national security, military hardware, etc.). And what I’m trying to do is different from both of those things.”

While Weinberg thinks it’s good to see VCs become more willing to invest in defense tech, she thinks that protecting democracies takes a broader approach.

“When I step back and think about what is the biggest threat to at least American democracy in 2023, it’s probably not a physical invasion on one of our borders. It is the crumbling of democracy from within, as a result of things like lack of trust in public institutions, greater polarization, conspiracy theories, etc. And so, to me, we really should be expanding the aperture of what we mean when we say national security or defending democracy.”

Weinberg’s take clearly seemed unique enough to attract some high-profile LPs, despite the challenging environment for startups and funds alike, especially emerging ones. But her voice is also part of a growing trend in public discourse, including in venture capital.

Future Union, a group that describes itself as “a nonpartisan organization focused on winning the geopolitical clash between democracy and autocracy for the next generation,” recently came up with a report on the top investors supporting democracy. Just like Weinberg’s, its definition is much broader than defense tech, so chances are good that ex/ante will be on its list.

Reinventing the wheel, again

Revolve, a Startup Battlefield 2023 alum that came up with an innovative travel wheelchair, is rethinking its go-to-market strategy after canceling its Kickstarter campaign. While €39,293 had been pledged, it wasn’t enough and the startup decided to “explore different avenues to offer our product to the world.”

Go-to-market expert Andrea Baldereschi had advised Revolve on its crowdfunding strategy and remains bullish about this approach, which proved successful for most projects he worked with. But in retrospect, he sees why it wasn’t the right fit for Revolve; a niche hardware product at a high price is simply a tough (pre-)sell, he told me.

After coming to this same conclusion, Revolve’s founder, Andrea Mocellin, is pursuing a more collaborative approach. In a statement he shared with me, he explained that Revolve is now looking for “licensing partners and forward-thinking companies” to acquire its technology, and is keen to partner up with “institutions and visionary universities eager to challenge traditional business models.”

“This approach positions Revolve not as a niche product but as a global innovation, poised to serve a large number of users and businesses,” Mocellin wrote. His vision, he added, “is to create a lasting impact, fostering inclusivity and reaching a broad user base.” Let’s hope it becomes a reality sooner rather than later. Traveling with a disability is still much harder than it should be, so if a travel wheelchair can help, the faster, the better.

This post was updated on December 18, 2023 to add a link to Andrea Mocellin’s website.