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A Visit to Rothenberg Ventures' New Virtual-Reality Accelerator

"The technologists and innovators have been doing this for years already. Now it's time for the financiers to come in."

Nellie Bowles

Venture capitalist Mike Rothenberg is freaked out by the nerd-bro stereotypes of Silicon Valley.

On the one hand, if there were such a thing as a rising social chair for the region, it might be the 30-year-old Rothenberg, who helped host (by his own count) more than 100 events last year, including a massive tailgate for the Stanford Athletic Department and an “epic” Founder Field Day at AT&T Park. On the other, this former Math Olympian is about to get in with one of the nerdiest sectors still around Silicon Valley — virtual-reality hackers.

“There was a lot of excitement about VR for years, but people got frustrated and burned out. We’re not burned out,” he told me in his office on a recent rainy afternoon. “The technologists and innovators have been doing this for years already. Now it’s time for the financiers to come in.”

Rothenberg, who runs an eponymous venture capital firm with a team of 10, is starting a virtual-reality accelerator called River, with $1 million to be divided among 10 companies that will be moved into his 8,000-square-foot pad in the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco.

Virtual reality has long been the purview of gamers, designers and sci-fi aficionados who have been fiddling away for fun on projects that have never quite seemed to take off. Now, thanks to virtual-reality headset maker Oculus Rift, which Facebook bought for $2 billion in March, there’s a race to develop everything from games and movies to augmented phone calls and real estate tours. Rothenberg’s firm invests about $20 million in more than 50 companies, with 130 LPs. The overall mission, he said, is to “find and cultivate innovation from a millennial perspective.”

“The technology can be anything. It can go anywhere. It has the potential to touch everybody. It’s what the Internet was 20 years ago,” Rothenberg said. “This accelerator is a call to action.”

He said he also looks at other early-stage technologies like space travel and electronic currency. The first investment he made, in 2013, was Matterport, which makes 3-D models of real spaces.

Rothenberg grew up near Austin, Texas, in a small town that he said inspired the film “Varsity Blues.” His mom was a teacher, and his father worked for IBM and then in real estate. As a teen, Rothenberg played “some football” and “did a whole lot of math.” At age, 17, he competed in a Mathematical Olympiad, before heading to Stanford to study management science and engineering. At Stanford, he lived in the Sigma Nu fraternity house (“the same frat as [Instagram founder] Kevin Systrom,” he said), and coordinated the Entrepreneurial Thought Leader seminar series.

He said he had a knack for picking emerging leaders to come speak at school, which later gave him the confidence to go into venture capital. He invited Mark Zuckerberg in 2005; Marissa Mayer, while she was at Google; Tony Fadell, while he was at Apple; and Evan Williams, before Odeo became Twitter. He started a tutoring company called Cardinal Tutoring, recruiting his Stanford classmates as contractors, and he founded a real estate investment company called Rothenberg Investments.

On a recent afternoon, dressed in a purple button-down shirt and leather loafers, his brown hair tousled, Rothenberg started to show his company’s promo video, which included scenes of outdoor barbecues at Menlo Park mansions (“that one was at Brandon’s parents’ house”), and that tailgate.

He paused the video and, his voice suddenly firm, said that the tailgate should be left out of this story. I laughed — it’s on your website!

The curtains were drawn. On the wall, he has a framed quote: “Fortune favors the bold.” I asked why he was suddenly anxious about a tailgate that looked like good fun. He wanted to go off the record, and we did.

He didn’t want the firm to have a bro-culture reputation, and wanted to emphasize that women have been very influential in his life, he said when we talked about it later. He recently hired former Time Inc. exec Fran Hauser to join the firm as a partner, based in New York. He talked about an influential female professor he had at Stanford.

I suggested that some of his investments might court this reputation. Chubbies — which primarily produces brightly-colored mens’ shorts, a pastel selection of which Rothenberg has framed on his wall — is deliberately marketed as a viral American-guy-humor clothing item. He said Chubbies was going to start making women’s shorts, too. We agreed that would be nice.

He led me out of his office and into the main co-working space for a virtual-reality demo with Tipatat Chennavasin, 36, who will be guiding the cohort of 10 VR startups.

The Rothenberg Ventures team
The Rothenberg Ventures team

“I’ve spent my whole career doing interactive stuff for work and for fun, and when I heard about Rothenberg at one of our VR happy hours, we were all really excited,” Chennavasin said, helping me don the VR headpiece. The straps went around the side and over the top of my head. The clunky eye cover bobbled around from my forehead to mouth.

The game Chennavasin had designed was an interactive version of a few scenes from “The Matrix” movie. In his game, I could stop bullets by looking at them, and could leap across buildings by running (clicking around on a remote control), so long as I didn’t glance down at the street (my knees) below.

“Why watch ‘The Matrix’ when you can be in the Matrix?” Chennavasin said.

Chennavasin clicked me through different scenarios, which got progressively more beta, asking briefly if I had a history of motion sickness. “The first rule of VR Club is don’t get anyone sick,” he said.

By the end, I was dizzy but thrilled with it all. He said that playing the game had cured him of his fear of heights — he recently went zip-lining.

Rothenberg reappeared and invited me to his venture capital firm’s upcoming monthly virtual-reality-and-puppies entrepreneur social.


“Two of the best things in the world, once a month,” chimed in a colleague, happy-hour inventor and fellow Stanford alum Tommy Leep, from a standing desk nearby.

Real puppies, virtual reality,” Rothenberg added, as though introducing the movie trailer.

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