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The CIA’s venture capital firm has been busy lately

October 12, 2021, 8:52 PM UTC

It used to be that when spies wanted to communicate with each other, they would set up a radio station that broadcast unsettling beeps or the monotone recitation of numbers. It was all done in the public domain — you just didn’t know what it all meant, unless you had a way to decrypt it. 

So there’s an odd item in Motherboard today about In-Q-Tel, the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency, putting money into the encrypted chat app Wickr. We know this because, like a numbers station, In-Q-Tel operates somewhat publicly, filing 990 tax forms for the public to scrutinize. But do we have any idea what these numbers mean? Not really.

First, the story: In-Q-Tel, founded by former CIA chief George Tenet in the 1990s, paid $1.6 million to Wickr as a vendor for some technological development work, according to the firm’s 2020 form, the most recent available. (This appears to have been done before Amazon Web Services — itself deeply entwined with the intelligence community — bought Wickr in June). Wickr, which has a publicly available app that encrypts and automatically deletes messages, also has a product for military communications. The Defense Department is listed under “partners and customers,” as are other groups for Special Operations and military IT. 

But wait — the CIA has a VC arm? It turns out the firm had $625 million in assets at the end of 2020, according to its tax form. That doesn’t mean it will muscle out giants like Sequoia Capital anytime soon, but it’s still able to throw around some weight. 

Just take a look at its portfolio. There’s GitLab, the software developer platform looking at a $10 billion IPO later this year. There’s Peter Thiel’s analytics firm Palantir, cybersecurity giant FireEye, cloud company Cockroach Labs, and Internet of Things company Swam Technologies. The CIA-backed firm doesn’t list all of its investments — Wickr isn’t on the site, for what it’s worth — nor does it say whether it’s still holding any stake, but it’s still a wide list. (If there are some especially interesting ones I missed, please reach out to me on Twitter).

There are some more good nuggets in there. CEO Christopher Darby made over $2 million last year in total compensation, and Admiral Mike Mullen made $35,000 for his five-hour-a-week job on the board. I reached out to In-Q-Tel and Amazon’s AWS, Wickr’s parent, for a comment, but they didn’t respond to me. Maybe I’m tuned in to the wrong station?

Kevin T. Dugan
@kevintdugan

NEWSWORTHY

ARMs length. European antitrust authorities are expected to drag out its investigation into Nvidia’s $54 billion bid for rival chipmaker ARM, according to Reuters. This comes as previous answers to British government authorities didn’t satisfy concerns about an acquisition’s impact on competition. The European Commission will hold a hearing on Oct. 27. 

Carbon copy. Google, which says it’s neutralized its total carbon emissions with offsets, unveiled two environmentally-minded programs today: a carbon footprint tracker for cloud customers, and a satellite imagery tool that allows for deeper analysis of environmental issues, according to Reuters. The cloud tool will let people see which of their data is wasting energy. The mapping tool has been in use by researchers since 2009, but is not being opened to businesses. 

Money code. Coding platform GitLab raised its valuation to about $10 billion for its upcoming initial public offering, according to Reuters. The entirely-remote company raised its price per share range to $66 to $69, from an earlier $55 to $60, as demand for high-growth tech companies in the public markets pushed the valuation higher. 

Hitting the brakes. Passenger car sales in China fell 17% in September from the year-ago period, to 1.58 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. That’s the worst decline since March of last year, near the start of the global pandemic. The drop is coming as a global chip shortage saps sales, and China’s debt-fueled economy is getting rocked by major defaults. 

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Sexism in the Valley. About $140 billion in venture capital was invested in the first half of this year — a record-breaking number. Of that, $25 billion went to companies with a woman as a founder. Even though that’s the largest amount per dollar ever raised, it’s actually the lowest in five years as a percentage, according to Wired

I’m always shocked by how myopic Silicon Valley is when it comes to women. Look at Pinterest. For years, it struggled to get the kind of traction that other social networks got when its interface is basically a way to make ads interactive. The whole article lays out the kinds of double standards that women face, which, if you’ve been paying attention, are the same as they’ve ever been. 

From the article:

Kostka, from All Raise, says she hears this complaint from women all the time. “We see men with a concept on a napkin who can raise $10 million, and women with $5 million in annual recurring revenue still can’t raise a seed round.” 

In her early meetings, Colacurcio says she was judged on her startup’s defensibility, rather than her future vision. In 2018, Harvard researchers observed a similar phenomenon: Investors tend to ask men about their startup’s potential gains, and women about their potential losses. As a result, the researchers concluded, the startups with male founders raised five times as much as those with female founders.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Paris startup aims to become go-to broker for financial firms trading cryptocurrency by Jeremy Kahn

Amazon Web Services goes temporarily offline by Chris Morris

How tech companies are trying to prevent ethical lapses around A.I. by Erika Fry

Nearly 90% of Americans now use fintech—with boomers the fastest-growing demo by Ray Mashayekhi

Pay streaming is about to upend salaries as we know them by David Ossip

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BEFORE YOU GO

Office Space. About 35% of the workforce is back in an office, a pandemic high — and it looks like it’s about to get higher soon, the Wall Street Journal reports. Big banks, private equity firms, and hedge funds are driving a lot of that — certainly not the white-collar work force of Amazon, Facebook, and Google, which have all pushed back their plans to get their employees back in seats. 

But I wonder what those numbers don’t show. Until there’s a vaccine for children of all ages, it’s going to be difficult for new parents (like myself) to come back in large numbers. And if companies shrug their shoulders and say, well, too bad, that will have a chilling effect on anyone who’s thinking about starting a family. Maybe that’s a risk companies will be comfortable taking. But then again, 3% of the workforce quit in August, so maybe they should think again. 

 

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