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7 new VC initiatives worth watching

By Michael Gaiss, contributor

Venture capital firms have a reputation in some quarters for being too slow to innovate their value proposition, and for failing to think creatively around new ways of generating quality deal flow. That may be the case for some, but hardly for all. It’s tough to sit pat on current ways of doing business and compete on just capital, especially for the best companies. Plus, with more transparency in the industry through things like AngelList and viral/social ways of amplifying word-of-mouth, reputation alone no longer suffices unless it is backed and substantiated by real and impactful activities.

Some firms have competed for years along these dimensions, launching initiatives aimed at delivering more value to their portfolio companies or developing proprietary programs to engage with entrepreneurs and the community in creative ways. Perhaps as a result of the more recent investment by firms like Andreessen Horowitz in rethinking the whole VC-startup service model, the pace and extent of these efforts have stepped up considerably over the last year.

As 2012 wraps up, here are seven new initiatives from the last three months alone that are interesting to note and/or worth watching:

  • Common Application (First Round Capital): A single, one stop application form for students to apply for internships and permanent positions at 170 First Round portfolio companies. If you’re a company that has the ability to sort through the volume of candidates that this will generate, you’re going to love seeing the additional flow.
  • Cyber Monday Deals (First Round Capital): An aggregation of all the Cyber Monday deals being offered by the 25 eCommerce companies in First Round’s portfolio. What a great way to use your brand to bring attention to these offerings, build further buzz around them across the community and actually help drive sales/revenue at the companies.
  • Dorm Room Fund (First Round Capital): Piloted in Philadelphia, First Round has allocated $500K to be invested in current students or recent grads from Philadelphia-based universities. The additional twist is that it will be a student-run fund, where actual students make the investment decisions. This will be fun to watch develop, particularly around its ability to surface and fund cool new companies.
  • GreylockU  (Greylock): Similar to First Round’s initiative, a portal for students to send their resume for consideration at 50 Greylock portfolio companies. Again, if you’re a company that can process the additional volume this could be an important additional channel for more candidates.
  • Hack/reduce (Atlas Venture): A “big data” initiative aimed at establishing a nexus in Boston for bringing together experienced technologists from the private sector with young technical talent coming out of local universities to explore and pursue new data-related technologies. Residents receive free space and access to data tools, storage and sets. Setup as a nonprofit (it has raised $1 million to date to fund its operations), hack/reduce will not take equity in companies that emerge from it.
  • Rough Draft Ventures (General Catalyst): Like First Round’s Dorm Room Fund, this student-led fund is backed with capital from General Catalyst to invest in student initiatives/startups in the Greater Boston area. They’re looking to make 10-20 investments per year, ranging from a few hundred dollars to up to $20K.
  • University Hacker Olympics (General Catalyst): Involving 25 of the top engineering schools in the U.S., the five highest-scoring students at each university are invited to participate in an all-expenses-paid, three-day “finals” event in San Francisco. It’s an exceptionally smart move to cast a wide net and get exposure into some of the top technical talent in the country.

First, hats off to First Round Capital for being the driver behind so many of these initiatives (with General Catalyst right behind). It is also interesting to note that many of them are university-focused as firms step up their efforts to get closer to what is happening on campuses from both an entrepreneurial and talent perspective.

I suspect we’ll see more novel programs launched in 2013 as the leaders continue to innovate, the bar around value-add continues to rise in the competition for the best deals, and other firms look to match or establish unique differentiation themselves.

Michael Gaiss (@MichaelGaiss) is a Boston-area marketing executive focused on entrepreneurs, and a former senior VP with Highland Capital Partners.