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Google Ventures Owns Part of Several Unicorns, but the Biggest (And Trickiest) Is Uber

With $2.4 billion on hand and payoffs to come, Google Ventures could be a prized asset for Alphabet.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images News

Alphabet, Google’s newfangled conglomeration, arrived in August, but we will not see its first financial figures until January, when the company reports two sets of earnings — Google and the “other bets.” Each subsidiary will not break out its own performance, but the earnings reports will offer some view into their costs and output. Before then, Re/code is unpacking one Alphabet company a week*, presenting the facts, figures and, just maybe, the financials behind the silos of the world’s most ambitious company. So far: Nest, then Access and Energy. Number three: Google Ventures.

For Google Ventures, Alphabet’s birth was a relief. Since its inception in 2009, the early-stage fund has argued that it operates only to generate hefty returns, not as a strategic arm of Google, its sole capital source. Being a standalone company helps make that case easier.

Google Ventures may soon make another case — one to Alphabet’s investors — that its new division, full of cost sinkholes, can turn profits. Those would come from its lucrative investment windfalls to come.

Operating budget; $2.4 billion

Key Execs: Bill Maris, CEO; General Partners: Krishna Yeshwant, Andy Wheeler, Karim Faris

The venture firm has $2.4 billion under management and has invested in 300 companies, a number of which have secured billion dollar valuations (a.k.a. unicorn status). According to new figures released on Sunday, the VC shop added 39 new startups in 2015, including significant bets in commerce (, biotech (Editas) and agricultural software (Farmer’s Business Network), a new terrain. Most investments during the year, nearly a third, went into life sciences and health companies, followed by consumer and enterprise startups. The firm is also announcing that it’s trimming its name to GV, a sobriquet rung in with a new website.

“We’ll also look to make big investments in artificial intelligence, machine learning, security and other deep technological innovations that we can’t anticipate,” Bill Maris, the Google Ventures honcho, wrote on Medium (another investment).

It is hard to anticipate that any of these investments will be bigger than Uber — in dollars sunk in or payout.

In 2013, Kara Swisher reported that Google Ventures spent $250 million for 1.8 million Series C-1 preferred shares in the ride-hailing app startup. At a then $3.5 billion valuation, that put its stake just north of 7 percent. (Google Ventures declined to comment on this or the size of any other investment stakes.)

Uber is now reportedly en route to a valuation of $62.5 billion. Its many subsequent rounds since 2013 have likely diluted Google Ventures’ share, although a source familiar with the deal terms says not by much. Even at the low end of analyst estimation, around 2 percent ownership, the Google Ventures share would, at Uber’s current valuation, hit fivefold return. And who knows how high Uber will climb before an IPO.

 Bill Maris, CEO, Google Ventures
Bill Maris, CEO, Google Ventures
Courtesy: Google Ventures

Google Ventures prides itself on its arms-length distance from Google proper. It has exited many startups to rivals, a la Facebook (Parse), Yahoo and Twitter (five companies apiece). Yet part of its investment strength comes from its proximity to the Internet giant and key partners — like Android co-founder Rich Miner and veteran Googler David Krane — that eye entrepreneurs in Google’s orbit.

Sometimes these bets don’t work (most notably, the flopped messaging app Secret). More often than not, they do. And the gamble to get in early and significantly behind Uber will likely work very well indeed.

Increasingly, however, it’s a sticky situation. As Uber balloons, many of its ambitions — in mobile app integrations, mapping and self-driving cars — are aimed squarely at Google. The startup is partly driven, several sources said, by a concern the search giant could one day clobber it. Google should be worried if it can’t.

“It’s massive,” a former Google Ventures partner said of the tension.

But then so is the imminent payoff from the Uber stake. For now, Google, Uber and their venture intermediary are sorting out their delicate dance. Given the venture firm’s stated edict of reaping returns, it’s difficult to justify skipping out on Uber if the tension was foreseen. “Would the partners have not done it?” the former partner asked rhetorically. Probably not.

Who to Know

Maris takes an idiosyncratic approach to venture capital, leaning on his firm’s data science team (now 12 engineers strong) for investing picks over gut or nepotism. But, still, there are humans involved.

Krishna Yeshwant, general partner and health guru, Google Ventures
Krishna Yeshwant, general partner and health guru, Google Ventures

Google Ventures is very bullish on health. And the partner behind those deals is Krishna Yeshwant, a one-time Googler, polymath and practicing physician. He led the investments in Flatiron Health and One Medical Group, two of Google Ventures’ largest investments, as well as its stake in Editas, a pioneer in the red-hot, controversial field of gene editing.

While Yeshwant plows money into the future of medicine, his colleague Andy Wheeler oversees even nuttier futuristic bets. Wheeler, a former chief technology officer for energy firm Tendril Networks, led four of Google Ventures’ most audacious investments — Orbital Insights, which mixes artificial intelligence with satellites; Savioke, maker of service robots; Carbon3D, seller of 3-D printers for manufacturers; and Impossible Foods, which is creating meat substitutes.

Another key focus for Google Ventures is enterprise. In addition to fashionable startup Slack (valued at close to $3 billion), the firm backs DocuSign (~$3 billion valuation) and Cloudera (~$5 billion valuation). The partner responsible is Karim Faris, a former Atlas Ventures partner who has been at Google Ventures since it formed.

Bets to Know

Here’s a snapshot of some choice Google Ventures investments, broken down by the firm’s five categories. It includes the colossal ones (Uber, Slack), smaller investments (mobile ad shop Vungle) representative of Google Ventures’ existing industry presence, and newcomers (ClassPass) representative of where it’s heading.

Noah Kulwin contributed reporting. Click to enlarge.
Noah Kulwin contributed reporting. Click to enlarge.

* So far, Alphabet has confirmed the existence of nine subsidiaries, including Google. It’s very likely that an additional one or two — or many — may get the official stamp before the earnings report in January. Rest assured, we will tell you about it if it happens.

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