Q&A with Neda Blocho, principal and head of Studios, and David Li, principal, Avanta Ventures

Steve Bernardez, a partner at Avanta Ventures, said of Neda Blocho: “Neda is Avanta Ventures’ head of Studios where she focuses on helping startups grow in the insurtech, mobility and adjacent spaces. Avanta Ventures is the corporate venture capital (CVC) arm of CSAA Insurance Group, an AAA insurer.

“Neda has brought accelerator management skills from her experiences with the Stanford Venture Studio programme, StartX, Pear Ventures and WeWork Labs. Since joining Avanta Ventures earlier this year, Neda has built a successful accelerator programme from the ground up.

“She has leveraged her previous accelerator experience to refine our Studios strategy, recruit relevant quality startups, assemble an engaged set of mentors, and provide structure and guidance to programme participants.

“Neda rapidly and successfully pivoted the programme from an in-person, on-site approach to a virtual programme at the onset of covid-19. Neda brings a move-fast, get-it-done-now attitude that yields results quickly. Avanta Ventures is glad to have her on board.”

Regarding David Li, Bernardez added: “David is a principal with Avanta Ventures. Bringing prior institutional venture investing skills developed at Longitude Capital, a product management background at Pivotal Software, and deep financial experience from positions at KKR, Lazard and Merrill Lynch, David has added value above and beyond his level to Avanta Ventures’ investments in startups across mobility, insurtech and fintech.

“From putting rigour to our investment theses to sourcing quality companies in the mobility space, to closing a number of investments, David has become an integral part of Avanta Ventures and CSAA Insurance Group in leveraging disruptive innovation.

“With his startup insight, David is often called upon by our corporate parent to work on key projects mapping out a strategy for future product directions. David’s voice has been appreciated by executive leadership at Avanta Ventures’ corporate parent (CSAA Insurance Group), helping to validate the strategic value of our corporate venture function and drive growth for CSAA Insurance Group.

“David has been tireless in adding value to our portfolio companies, either as a board observer or informal advisor on a daily basis by engaging them in partnership discussions, advising them on financing strategy and cap table construction, and introducing them to other venture capitalists. Within Avanta Ventures, David is our go-to resource for any challenge.”

 

Neda Blocho Q&A

1. First, just give us a quick overview of who you work for, what you do, and how long you have been doing it? 

I am a principal investor and head of the Studios programme at Avanta Ventures, where I focus on investing and helping startups grow in the insurtech and mobility space. I have spent over seven years guiding and mentoring startup founders, and am passionate about all facets of innovation.

My path to entrepreneurship began at Stanford University, where I helped build and run the Stanford Venture Studio programme while working at the Centre for Entrepreneurial Studies (CES) at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. I went on to evolve and expand the StartX accelerator programme, where my focus was helping founders maximise their potential through education and strategic relationships.

I then joined Pear Ventures, where I funded and worked with incredible early-stage founders to help them disrupt industries and incumbents. I went on to co-found Ziba Quest, a startup with a mission to help children lead happier and healthier lives by improving their emotional intelligence using cognitive behavioural therapy tools and growth mindset principles.

Before joining Avanta Ventures, I was with WeWork Labs, the We Company’s platform for fostering and building early-stage startups, where I managed engagements and helped incubate startups.

2. What attracted you to CVC? 

Being part of a CVC allows starts access to more resources, so we can help co-create and bring bigger ideas to life through working at a CVC.

3. What have been your greatest successes at your unit? 

Creating, executing, and managing our Avanta Studios program. Avanta Studios offers a customized approach to helping startups reach their milestones and growth. The Avanta Studios program enables startups to partner with Avanta Ventures and CSAA Insurance Group to jointly explore new markets, business models, and technologies.

4. What have been your biggest challenges? 

My biggest challenges have been overcoming my constant feeling of imposter syndrome. As an immigrant, female VC, who did not come from an ivy league background I always had to fight back against my lack of confidence early in my career and realize I did have the right talent and knowledge to be at the table with my peers.

5. What is your main professional ambition for the future? 

I aspire to one day start my own fund that supports more minority founders and help move innovation towards making a social impact on issues facing society today, ranging from food insecurity, mental health and climate change.

6. What do you think all CVCs could do better to make it a stronger industry?

Provide more business development opportunities and introductions to potential pilot customers, alongside funding.

7. What are some of your corporate parent’s technology needs and corporate strategy amid the pandemic, as well as your CVC unit’s pain points?

We want to better understand how to leverage drone capabilities to mainly help fight wildfires but to also understand how they and other autonomous vehicles will impact delivery services and the gig economy.

8. And, finally, for colour, what did you do prior to CVC or in your spare time?

In my spare time, I pursue my passion for helping children with my volunteer work with the non-profit Moms Against Poverty (MAP), whose mission is to nurture and educate underprivileged children to their fullest potential, so that one day, they can contribute and lead within their own communities to break the cycle of poverty. I helped to create and manage their online store, that sells items from underrepresented artisans and communities from around the world, and all profits go back to support MAP projects.

 

David Li Q&A

1. First, just give us a quick overview of who you work for, what you do, and how long you have been doing it?

I am part of the investment team here at Avanta Ventures, which is the corporate venture arm of CSAA Insurance Group (CSAA IG), one of the insurers in the AAA ecosystem including roadside assistance and travel services.

I joined the team in June 2018 and spend the majority of my time focused on early-stage investments across mobility from autonomous vehicles to connected fleets to smart cities. As part of this, I manage and support the end-to-end investment process from deal sourcing, diligence, negotiations and strategic guidance for our portfolio companies. This vertical is especially exciting for me as I have been a car enthusiast ever since I was a kid.

2. What attracted you to CVC?

For me the question has always been, “where can I go that will allow me to have the greatest impact”, and CVC as a platform is a great example of this. At Avanta Ventures, I am able to leverage our close ties with internal CSAA IG business units, as well as the broader AAA ecosystem to support our portfolio companies. This enables me to help create mutually beneficial partnerships, with CSAA IG gaining access to disruptive technologies and our portfolio companies benefiting from the deep domain expertise, new pilot opportunities, and distribution channels offered by CSAA IG. Ultimately then, in a funding environment that is flush with capital, CVC represents a unique platform that enables me to add significant strategic value to the companies I invest in.

3. What have been your greatest successes at your unit?

The best part of my job is having the opportunity to invest in and work with exceptional founders building game-changing products and services. One such founder and company (as well as the first investment I led at Avanta Ventures) is Sterling Pratz of Car IQ.

Upon meeting Sterling, who is a serial entrepreneur and former professional racecar driver, I immediately resonated with his vision for fully-automated, vehicle-initiated payments. As we continue the path toward full-self-driving, we are migrating away from personal vehicle ownership toward fully managed commercial fleets. These changes will in turn create structural challenges on how vehicle-related services and products, from insurance to maintenance, are authorized and paid for without a human in the loop. Sterling created Car IQ to tackle exactly these problems. The company is growing rapidly with pilots programs in place across multiple financial institutions and vehicle fleets in addition to ongoing discussions with CSAA IG and AAA. I’m proud to be a part of the Board at Car IQ and consider my leading our investment in Car IQ to be a great success to date.

4. What have been your biggest challenges?

Time management. While CVCs have the unique opportunity to leverage internal business units for diligence, business development projects, etc., this also means managing a new stakeholder that traditional venture funds may not have. Finding the time to balance certain corporate strategic needs on top of investment activities can thus become challenging.

5. What is your main professional ambition for the future?

I love working with exceptional teams to help them build their companies and turn their visions into reality. My goal and ambition are to continue doing exactly that and to support these founders with a combination of investment capital, strategic guidance, and business development opportunities.

6. What do you think all CVCs could do better to make it a stronger industry?

Finding a common pace of collaboration. Startups have long lived under the motto, “move fast and break things”, while larger corporations tend to move meticulously, carefully assessing the risks and benefits of each action before engaging. Ultimately, neither of these two attitudes is actually the right one.

For all the good that has come from the “move fast and break things” mentality, there has been an equal number of disastrous outcomes (Theranos being one of many). Conversely, corporations carefully plodding along is one of the primary reasons why disruption happens altogether. Instead, there must be a unifying medium and balance that marries a strong experimentation appetite with a clear understanding of implications.

I believe CVCs are in an enviable and challenging position to help pinpoint this medium. By leveraging our internal relationships to carefully guide our portfolio companies through the corporate maze, we can accelerate the process of partnership and collaboration. At the same time, this very engagement between the portfolio company and the business unit could be invaluable to both sides in helping build deep domain expertise for the portfolio companies and enabling the business units to anticipate disruptive technologies.

7. And, finally, for colour, what did you do prior to CVC or in your spare time?

Prior to joining Avanta Ventures, I was a venture investor at Longitude Capital, where I focused on growth stage venture investments in digital health and medical device companies. I’ve also spent time on the product and operations side at Pivotal Labs, where I was part of the Cloud Foundry team. I received my MBA from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and spent my undergraduate years at the University of California, Berkeley. In my free time, I love travelling, exploring the great outdoors, and frustratingly cheering on the “San Diego” Chargers each year until playoff season.