In recent years, Hearst Ventures has grown its presence in international markets opening offices in China, Israel and the U.K. which has expanded Hearst’s portfolio with promising international companies.
“It is increasingly clear that innovation doesn’t happen solely in Silicon Valley,” says Hearst Ventures Senior Managing Director and Head of International Investments Ken Bronfin. “Innovation is taking place all over the world and we’d be at a disadvantage if we failed to look beyond the U.S. Further, we also recognize that many entrepreneurs seek to build global businesses on day one no matter where they start, they will likely impact their industry on a worldwide scale. We want to find the best company in any given field, no matter where it’s based.”
In China, Director Katie Hu is leading the charge to identify and vet competitive startups. After joining the Hearst China corporate office in Beijing, Hu transitioned to the ventures space in 2014 and has since helped Hearst invest in five companies.
“Hearst Ventures is operating in so many regions across the world and that is a unique model in China,” Hu says. “People recognize the different brands Hearst owns across our divisions, and because many of those companies are present in China, we gain credibility from that brand endorsement. It is a very powerful and unique factor we offer to entrepreneurs.”
The Hearst Ventures portfolio companies based in China operate in the foreign language learning, automotive, design and delivery realms. Lingochamp (called Liulishuo in China) is an AI-powered English learning tool using speech recognition technology. The company recently announced it has completed a Series C round of funding, and since Hearst’s first investment in 2014, the company has experienced tremendous growth in revenue and usership. With Hearst’s support, Lingochamp has become a high-profile, heavily-talked-about entity, highlighting Hearst Ventures’ unique ability to discover promising companies.
In the interior décor and online design space, Hearst Ventures China has made investments in Kujiale and Zcool. And Atzuche, a peer-to-peer car rental platform, is another important investment for Hearst Ventures. The team’s most recent investment in China, Shansong (Flash Delivery in English), is a crowd-sourced direct delivery service provider the company has already reached a large scale, and is currently seeing orders peak at 100,000 per day.
“Katie has very quickly built a high-profile view of Hearst Ventures for the entrepreneurial and venture capital world in China” Bronfin says. “For us, operating as a small investor in a very large country, being able to stand out is extremely important. You have to have unique assets, you want to be top of mind. That’s what Katie has been able to achieve over the past few years.”
Other industries also rely on information from otonomo, including parking services, insurance companies, and safety and retail businesses. The rate of growth for otonomo-enabled cars has been sharp, expanding from 0.2 million in 2016 to an expected five million by end of 2017. That growth is on track to reach 15 million in 2018.
“One important facet to the ventures space in Israel is that there is no local market,” Canaani continues. “As opposed to China, Europe and the U.S., Israeli entrepreneurs are developing products and services exclusively for foreign markets.”
In London, Managing Director Megumi Ikeda explores micro hubs of entrepreneurialism and investments across the European markets. With a background in mergers and acquisitions (M&A) for companies including NBCUniversal, Ikeda considers companies in the media, service marketplace, real estate and transport technology spaces.
“There has been a great proliferation of seed capital from early investors, and the number of new micro-funds have blossomed particularly in London and Berlin, as well as Paris,” Ikeda says. “Historically, finding early-stage money has been a very hard thing to do in Europe, but capital is becoming increasingly available and the competition is growing across the region.”
In December of last year, Ikeda led Hearst’s investment in the Series A round of funding for Signal Media, an artificial intelligence-powered information company that helps its clients monitor the world’s news media. In an interview with Hearst about the investment earlier this year, Signal’s CEO David Benigson said,“There is no better organization at the edge of innovation in news distribution than Hearst. They have offered unparalleled strategic advice when it comes to our expansion and how to leverage technology to get the most value.”
Stylus is another Hearst Ventures investment based in London. The company serves as a trend forecasting service for multiple industries and produces in-depth reports about the future of retail, hospitality, fashion, technology and more. The company also presents an interesting intersection with the key customers of Hearst in the magazine space.
Across international markets, Hearst Ventures (hearst.com) maintains a consistent approach to vetting potential portfolio companies. With a deep understanding of the marketplaces in which they operate and the competition across these industries, the team makes getting to know the founders of each company a top priority.
“We are constantly highlighting the ways in which Hearst Ventures is unique,” Bronfin adds. “Typical venture capital firms tend to have 10 to 15 smart investment professionals. While we too have a team of smart investment professionals, we also have 22,000 employees and 360-plus brands across a wide swath of industries, coupled with proven distribution channels and resources that we can bring to the table. The venture space is becoming more crowded, and that means the more we have to differentiate ourselves to grab the best possible investments.”
Recognizing the budding tech scene in Israel, Bronfin brought Gil Canaani on board last summer as director to expand Hearst’s presence in that market. Canaani’s strong technical background from his time spent in the elite “8200 unit” of the Israeli Defenses Forces Intelligence Corps, coupled with his experience in investment in the Israel technology sector, has helped bring Hearst into another burgeoning market.
“The venture industry is relatively young in Israel,” Canaani says. “Many Israelis went abroad for higher education in the early 80s have returned to start research and development (R&D) centers for multi-national firms including IBM, Intel, HP, Cisco and national semi-conductors. Right now, there are more than 360 multi-national R&D centers in Israel.”
In his first year with Hearst, Canaani brought the connected-car data exchange company ontonomo into the portfolio. The company takes data from “connected cars,” i.e. cars where information can be collected from dozens of sensors throughout the vehicle, and delivers that real-time information to service providers. This data provides car manufactures with information about car performance and drivers’ behavioral patterns, which allows for predicative and preventive maintenance.