Betaworks unveils Alphaworks, a new equity crowdfunding platform
FORTUNE — Since forming in 2008, Betaworks has launched dozens of its own products and invested in 130 startups. Its latest project, called Alphaworks, combines the two.
Alphaworks is a crowdfunding platform created for new startups, and eventually all kinds of small businesses, to sell equity to investors. The differentiator from other crowdfunding platforms is that Alphaworks is a white label platform, so companies can host crowdfunding campaigns on their own websites. Alphaworks is designed to handle the process behind the scenes.
Currently, only accredited investors can buy equity in startups. The JOBS Act, which passed in early 2012, has legalized equity crowdfunding for regular Joe investors, but the SEC hasn’t yet finalized its rules for implementing the law. Once it does, the myriad of equity crowdfunding platforms that have sprung up — including CircleUp, Fundable, AlumniFunder, SoMoLend, and now Alphaworks — will start selling equity to any interested investor. Until then, startups are relegated to accredited investors or rewards-based crowdfunding similar to Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, where backers don’t get any equity.
Betaworks has set up Alphaworks as a separate LLC with $1 million of its own funding, $200,000 of which comes from Betaworks itself. Prolific early stage investment firms SV Angel and Lerer Ventures have contributed a respective $500,000 and $300,000. In the future, they will float portions of their new deals onto the platform. Nick Chirls, who ran Betaworks’ investment activity, will be head of Alphaworks.
The process works by taking “reservations” from investors for a piece of the equity in a startup. Betaworks then vets the potential investors, prioritizing anyone who is relevant to the company. (In past AngelList Syndicates deals, a stranger whose AngelList bio simply read “I like bacon” was rejected, said Betaworks founder John Borthwick.) Accepted investors are then confirmed as accredited investors by Folio or SecondMarket.
This is why Alphaworks is separate from Betaworks — it will be regulated differently once the JOBS Act goes into full effect, and it will likely become a broker-dealer. For now, the company has partnered with broker-dealers Folio Investing and SecondMarket to handle the accreditation side of things.
See.Me, an online community for artists, is the first company to launch a campaign on Alphaworks. The startup, which counts Reggie Watts, DJ Spooky, and Questlove among its top users, recently raised $1.1 million in Series A funding from Betaworks and others at a valuation of $9.5 million. See.Me left $150,000 of that round available for members of its community to fill out via Alphaworks. See.Me’s community of 1 million members (200,000 of whom are artists and the rest are fans of the artists) can now invest in the platform via a bespoke section on See.Me’s site, and the campaign will stay open for several weeks.
Allowing users to invest equity in the company is meaningful to a site like See.Me, says CEO William Etundi. The white label branding part was nice, too. “Alphaworks lives on our site, and we control the whole presentation and fit it into our brand,” he says. “That was pretty compelling to us. We can do this without being in the wrapper of some syndicate site.”
Betaworks was quick to jump on the equity crowdfunding trend — the company launched an AngelList Syndicate on the day that that part of the JOBS Act went into effect, raising $250,000 for a company called Estimote. That deal inspired Borthwick to build a platform that was entirely focused on enabling communities of users to be invested in a startup’s big vision, he said.
In recent years, Betaworks has been working out its own big vision. The company made returns on early investments in Venmo, Tweetdeck, GroupMe, OMGPop, and Tumblr (a high seven-figure return on a $50,000 seed deal). Last year Betaworks itself raised $20 million in new funding from Lerer Ventures, RRE Ventures and White Star Capital. All the while, the incubator of sorts has had a scattered, and sometimes confusing, approach to innovation. Betaworks has revived Digg, the dying Web 2.0 darling, bought bookmarking service Instapaper, and released a string of unrelated web products such as Tapestry, Swirl, Donenotdone, Blend.io, Poncho, Dots, Telecast, Giphy, and Findings, shutting down the ones that don’t work as quickly as it introduces new ones. But there is a master plan. Alphaworks is the latest in Betaworks’ experimentation lab.
Borthwick compared equity crowdfunding to the early days of payments on the Internet: “In the beginning it was pretty complicated, and now there are a few really great plug-and-play solutions,” he said. “It will over time get easier and easier. At some point it will be a very simple process.” The goal is to have that figured out long before anyone else wises up to the opportunity.