Transcriptic's wild seed round: "The Internet was just trying to throw money at us"

By Sarah Lacy , written on December 13, 2012

From The News Desk

Just yesterday I was talking to a top VC who said in all earnestness, "I just don't understand who is sourcing deals on AngelList. I've never sourced a single a deal there."

The statement -- which I hear a lot-- juxtaposed with the reality that AngelList alums have raised some $1.1 billion shows just how big and diverse the early stage funding world is getting.

There are certainly negatives with that. But Series A Crunch or no, we seem to be living in a world where how you raise your earliest money has changed forever. The Web hasn't totally disrupted venture capital. But it's clearly changed seed investing -- with many more big changes on the way.

Max Hodak has one of the more insane accounts of how he raised a large, rolling $1.2 million seed round, particularly given his company isn't an easy-to-demo, lean photosharing app.

He first started working on his company, Transcriptic, while he was doing biology research at Duke. It's still a pretty manual process, with students and technicians moving around petri-dishes, pipetting fluids and doing other manual tasks that shouldn't really require an advanced degree, Hodak says. It seemed like a waste of a pulse and a cognitive brain to him. "All research is done by hand by people pretending to be robots all day long," he says. "It's really boring and time intensive, and humans just introduce errors."

Hodak was also a programmer so he wondered, why not have actual robots do robot work?

What he's built since is a lab in Menlo Park that outsources basic biology research work for life sciences companies. He's bought industry standard machines and robots and incubators from big pharma companies, stripped them of all their software and written custom programs that connect to the Web and tell the robots what to do. If you want to add fluids or throw samples into a centrifuge, all you do is type the instructions into your laptop from miles away and the robots will do it for you.

It's a novel idea that plays off other disruptive trends in the tech world-- like the power of the cloud and the early days of fabless semiconductor companies. "You don't need the lab on site, you just pay on demand for what you use," Hodak says. "Instead of buying a $30,000 incubator, you can just tell the program to incubate for 16 hours and pay $15."

The eventual dream is a lofty one: More kids coming out of college and places like Y Combinator able to do basic drug discovery with nothing more than a laptop. But it's still very new and a lot of the market and technology of what Hodak is trying to do remains unproven. He doesn't kid himself, or his two coworkers: This is going to be a long, expensive process.

Lucky for Hodak, the Internet practically threw money at him to get started. Hodak graduated in May and started buying robots and playing around with them. By June he started to raise cash. The very first money in was from a friend, and the second was from-- oddly enough-- Mark Cuban. Hodak met him over email from a mutual friend and in the course of five emails or so Cuban sent him a $100,000 check. Hodak has still never met him. "If things go well, I hope to at some point," he says.

After that Google Ventures and Founders Fund invested, also via connections with mutual friends. AngelList founder Naval Ravikant invested about this time too. Ravikant was particularly taken with the company. "It's a unique company that makes total sense," he says. "Everything is going cloud-hosted, API accessible. Why not the science lab?" He continually nagged Hodak to fill out his AngelList profile.

Finally, when he got around to it, the flood gates opened. He got more than 100 emails, which turned into about thirty leads. At the end of the process, Hodak had raised another $350,000 from the Web. Investors who came in during this round included well known Valley names like HotorNot's James Hong, Friendster's Jonathan Abrams, and others from the Y Combinator universe.

But he wasn't done. Ravikant suggested Transcriptic be the test case in a new partnership between AngelList and SecondMarket, that would allow accredited investors to get into early stage companies. These are the same types of investors who were burned by a lot of the late stage, pre-IPO buying on secondary markets, but apparently the demand to go earlier is still there.

Why was Transcriptic picked? Part of the reason was that Ravikant was bullish on the company. But part if it was because some of the SecondMarket team had seen Hodek's profile on AngelList.

Even after turning down several large orders via SecondMarket, Transcriptic raised another $150,000 there. ($550,000 was committed, but Hodak only accepted $150,000)

The whole thing totaled nearly $1.2 million, although they could have raised closer to $2 million. It was all in a note at mostly the same terms. A lot of the SecondMarket transactions were for $1,000 here or there, but some orders came in for $150,000 or more-- something that stunned Hodak. "Who are these people?" he wondered. "The Internet was just trying to throw money at us," he says. "I don't know what Naval and SecondMarket are doing but they are clearly where the money is."

No doubt some entrepreneurs around the world are getting angry just reading a statement like that. Few people have this experience as young first time entrepreneurs out of college trying to prove a bold and risky new, capital-intensive idea. But it's important to note that Hodak didn't merely open up a browser and get $1.2 million. He used the Web as a tool, while he worked traditional channels as well.

Like Rally-- the first company to raise a Series A on AngelList-- Transcriptic was greatly help by the star power of Mark Cuban, Google Ventures and Founders Fund having already invested in the round before he posted on AngelList. It greatly derisked the company, particularly for people who aren't in the bio field. It's hard to believe he would have gotten so much traction otherwise.

And Hodak got those meetings by working his rolodex, leaning on friends for intros and finding his own ways into those firms. (Although he's probably too young to have ever actually used a real rolodex...)

While he's never met Cuban, he hustled doing the regular tour of Sand Hill Road, meeting with many traditional firms that weren't interested. He has heard the word no.

Most importantly, when people did invest, he didn't just treat them like dumb money. Many of them, he did in person face to face meetings with, just so they could understand his business and what they were getting into.

Arguably the one area where Hodak bucked the traditional wisdom right now was raising a big rolling party round with no clear lead investor. Pretty much everyone advises against that in a period where seed investing is so dramatically outstripping the number of firms who can do Series A deals. The complaint with party rounds is there's no real advocate because no one has too much skin in the game.

Hodak had a few willing leads in Founders Fund and Google Ventures but actually capped how much anyone could invest to avoid having one. He was concerned about the other big thing people warn against in this climate: Taking seed money from a venture firm that doesn't re-up in the next round. Without a clear lead, if anyone re-ups he figured it'd be a positive when it comes to optics. Besides which, he's hoping to raise a Series A from a life sciences firm who can join the board and really help grow the company's management team.

It's a risky bet, but Hodak isn't exactly playing it safe as an entrepreneur. "There's no new science here, but it's certainly not a Web app," he says. "This is not a local, social, mobile photosharing app. It's really frustrating to see someone get a PhD in chemistry and decide what the world really needs is a better way to share photos in real time to music."

His company many go down in flames, but Hodak is clearly cut from that "big idea" cloth that Andy Rachleff described in a guest post earlier this week. Like Steve Jobs, Larry Page, and Mark Zuckerberg, Hodak's insights came "from following (his) passion." He counts on being in that camp of companies who are compelling enough they can raise a Series A in any climate. At a minimum, he'll stand out from the crowd.