San Francisco hardware incubator launches VC fund

March 26, 2014, 7:10 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Lemnos Labs, a San Francisco-based hardware incubator, has raised $20 million for its first institutional fund.

The group – co-founded by U.S. Air Force engineer Jeremy Conrad and former pro baseball scouting coordinator  Helen Boniske — launched in 2011 by raising a small friends and family fund that backed four companies. But then it went months without outside investors, until AngelList founder Naval Ravikant showed up and helped find others to support a $1.85 million “nano fund” that ultimately invested in between $50,000 and $100,000 in 17 companies. Everything from drones to robotics to ag-tech to consumer electronics.

The problem, however, was that Lemnos had no ability to do larger rounds or participate pro rata moving forward (the existing portfolio companies have gone on to raise a total of $35 million in seed and Series A fundings).

So Lemnos began marketing to institutions, leading to today’s announcement. The group now will be able to invest between $100,000 and $250,000 into companies, typically for a 10% equity stake. In addition to capital, Lemnos lets companies work out of its large San Francisco warehouse, which features a full in-house shop (mill, laser-cutters, etc.). It also provides mentorship, both via the fulltime team and a large group of mentors.

$20 million may not seem like much for the types of companies Lemnos is backing, but co-founder Jeremy Conrad says hardware costs are shrinking. “One of our portfolio companies, NanoSatisfy, raised $100,000 from us and then went on to raise a $1.2 million seed round that helped it launch actual satellites. When I was in the Air Force, you couldn’t even get a proof of concept study done for less than $1 million.”

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