Step into Root Ventures‘ office and the first thing that founding partner Avidan Ross will do is offer you an espresso. Their new space in San Francisco’s Mission district is still under construction, but the Italian espresso machine has a prominent spot on a makeshift sawhorse table directly in front of the entrance. Ross excitedly details the hardware hacks he’s done to the machine, overriding its internal controls to create a wireless system that starts with a click of a button and measures out a perfectly weighed double shot of liquid caffeine, tracked precisely with a bluetooth scale. The new system is now powered by a Particle Photon microcontroller — fitting, as Ross was one of the earliest investors in the company.
I’m visiting to hear about the latest fund the Root team is launching, a $76.7269 million pool that will be used for seed investments in engineering-based startups. The number, deliberately specific, is a play on the speed of sound (767.269 MPH), a nod to the nerdish engineering backgrounds of the three partners — one of whom made sure to point out that this is at standard temperature and pressure. (Their first fund followed a similar pattern, referencing Pi at $31.415 million). But before we get to the details of the new fund, Ross shows me the planned upgrades to his automated perfect-coffee maker, as well as the RJ45-equipped refrigerators the company recently acquired from a dismantled high-roller suite in Vegas (the cabling was for tracking which items the hotel guests were consuming). He then kicks into high gear discussing a potential Alexa-powered robot-arm vending machine and his ideas to put a double Viking range into the kitchen and add digital controls to it — a feature he says is not available on any of their stoves.
It might seem this is a lot of distraction for a company that’s focused on helping engineering companies find success, but it turns out there’s a strategic value in these projects. “The one downside of an engineer becoming a VC is that you’re either going to become dull, you’re just going to lose all your engineering skills, or you’re going to resent being a VC because you don’t get to build things,” Ross explains. “And so we constantly are building things around our office.” Ross does this by combining his computer science background with his passion for food, having hacked together BBQ smokers that tweet and supercharger-powered pizza ovens. He’s even written a book about the best coffee spots on the planet.
Ross explains that it helps him and partners Chrissy Meyer and Kane Hsieh continue to speak the same language, and these technical skills connect closely to the types of companies that Root invests in — you could call them the maker’s venture fund, with a portfolio that includes Particle, Shaper, Skycatch, Creator, and Plethora.
He didn’t initially set out to become a venture capitalist. After graduating from Columbia, Ross took a job building hardware for Excite@Home, then moved to an investment company providing tech support, eventually moving to the CTO position. While there he had a revelation: “Startups were going to get to compete in big legacy industry.” With that experience and associated epiphany, he stepped away to focus on young companies aiming on solving complicated engineering challenges.
This led him to the heart of the maker movement. “Democratization of toolsets is quintessential maker mentality,” Ross says, “and that is also reflected in the entrepreneurial side of the world, where you’re seeing people saying ‘Now that I have access to all these tools, what kind of company can I create?'”
“Every entrepreneur we do fund has a maker mindset, and the maker mindset is the ability to do a lot with a little.”
But he’s also cautious about how he approaches the maker community when looking for opportunities to invest in. “We need to be very careful not to celebrate entrepreneurship at the expense of what truly makes a maker. There are tremendous opportunities for makers to become entrepreneurs but it should be done for reasons that are rational business decisions, and we shouldn’t then make anybody who is a celebrated maker feel less successful if they are building something that is truly just heart-and-soul-maker, and not necessarily a perfectly viable business.”
Part of what attracts Ross to a startup is when they’re positioned to ask the all-important question, why? “That’s when you see true innovation,” he says, “and then they can get into the ‘how’ — ‘how do we make this better, how do we accomplish this end goal in a more efficient fashion, using a new set of tools that was otherwise not accessible?’ And the end goal is something I think makers love, which is magic, having something appear to be magic.”
He sees the handheld CNC router Shaper as a perfect example of that. “When I first saw Shaper, it was created because the founder said ‘well why do I have to do woodworking this way?'” Ross says. “And because he had access to the toolset of computer vision, and his cofounder having access to extremely complex mechanical designs, they were able to build a better solution. When I first saw that demo four years ago, my jaw dropped.”
With the launch of their new fund, which includes participants ranging from universities to sovereign wealth funds, Root plans to continue to focus on $1-2 million seed-round investments of companies tackling those difficult engineering tasks — “software for physical industries, robotics, and hardware for enterprise and consumer.” For the companies they invest in, they offer roadmap assessment, talent recruiting, and other engineering and startup resources. And at the same time, they are building the rest of the office, which tentatively may include a community-servicing open cafe for people to drop into for coffee and remote work (although Ross jokes he might omit power outlets). First up, though, is the conference room, being constructed by Root’s new high-end buildout neighbor with a similar name, Fine Root. And they’ll need that conference room quickly, with a growing list of companies that may soon be coming aboard.
For companies that want to look into Root as a potential investor, Ross says they keep all communication channels open, including the founders’ individual twitter accounts and the contact form on their website. He comments one thing to those groups, though:
“We don’t invest in products, we invest in companies — so they should think about how does that product become a company. But even if they’re not thinking about starting a company, and they just want to share what they’re working on, we’d love to see it.”