Shane Kelly, Founding Partner of Wolverine Angels, also leads Partnerships for CrowdSmart, an AI platform and venture fund combining human expertise and artificial intelligence to increase transparency and reduce bias in venture investing.
Tell us about the professional journey that took you where you are today. What major lessons did you learn along the way?
Later, I founded Wolverine Angels, an early stage tech investment firm and mentor network with investments including Neurable and FEM (Acq Nielsen). We pool capital and expertise from University of Michigan alumni to accelerate early stage tech startups.
In 2017 I joined CrowdSmart, where I immersed himself in technologies and investment structures to expand access and reduce risk in venture investing. Using the company’s technology combining human expertise and artificial intelligence, we created transparency for founders to investor opinions and actively performed sensitivity on human bias as part of the fund’s investment process. I led 15 investments for the fund including InvolveSoft and Syntiant.
I continue to run Wolverine Angels. Meanwhile, I recently launched Cinematica Labs where our first 2 companies – Seed & Spark and Genius Produced – are pioneering the intersection of film and technology.
I am also producing Restarting the Motor City, a documentary on the seen and unseen intersectional impacts of gender, race, and financial means on entrepreneurship in Detroit.
What motivates you?
People and Purpose. I am driven by the people I’m around every day and the shared mission we all gather around. I believe that content and technology inspire the world, and imagination will inspire a more equitable economy. That vision drives me every day.
What does a typical day look like for you?
On a typical day, I am primarily driven by the top 1-2 portfolio companies that I am working most closely with. Since launching Cinematica Labs, I have been able to go deep with my purpose-driven companies at the intersection of technology and entertainment in a new way.
Meanwhile, I am always connected to my ecosystem builders as they are building startup ecosystems and always have amazing founders to connect with, support, and learn from. For example, I recently joined Plug in South LA as an advisor. Other communities love to connect with are Techstars LA, Techstars Anywhere, Nex3, and of course Female Founders Alliance.
What do you wish founders knew about before meeting you? What about female founders specifically?
Founders who deeply understand VC motivations have a meaningful advantage in fundraising. They waste less time on the wrong investors and prepare more carefully for the right investors. Examples of things I’d like more founders to know:
1. To get at investment thesis, I like to ask a simple question: assume there are 10 well-funded startups out there in stealth mode doing what you’re doing. What will enable your team to win? This is a simple question that investors all approach differently. For example, competitive advantage, unfair advantage, differentiation, uniqueness of team…all of these questions get at a similar idea of how to win in this massively competitive world. If you have an authentically strong answer to this question, it will make a difference with professional investors.
2. Fund size and strategy, which are increasingly public information, are a great filter for whether or not a fund is a good fit for a startup and vice versa.
For women founders, in particular, I believe it’s critical to preserve conviction around your unique point of view, even if it seems like most people don’t “get it.” Until you find evidence that changes your own point of view, maintain your conviction. All great entrepreneurs must do this, and groups who are underrepresented in tech often face extraordinary headwinds in maintaining that conviction.
What are the major trends you are seeing in your space?
There is an opportunity to increase access to, and reduce risk in, venture capital. This is becoming apparent through three trends:
1. Investment structures: new investment instruments such as revenue-based financing will continue to emerge, just as notes and SAFEs rose to relevance
2. Technology: firms from Signal Fire to First Round Capital are using data to support their firms’ activities. There is a great deal of potential to utilize data science as we did at CrowdSmart to assess, analyze, and then mitigate undue bias in the venture investment process.
3. People: Techstars and a16z are organizing people in support of venture investing. There is a great deal of room for new models for people to support startups, including and expanding beyond the accelerator model. I launched Cinematica Labs with the thesis that by marshaling my unique set of resources, relationships, and knowledge base at the intersection of tech and film, we can support and propel startups post-accelerator.
What are you most excited about these days?
Movements around defunding police and building a more equitable economy are powerful and solid concepts, and are decades, and even centuries old. But in today’s discourse, we often struggle to honor these concepts with great storytelling.
There is an opportunity to leverage the best of filmmaking together with the best of data science to tell and distribute stories that bridge the gap between soundbites and the powerful ideas that underlie these movements. Until 1987, the Fairness Doctrine required broadcasters to present controversial issues, and cover them responsibly with opposing viewpoints. We have gradually lost that in our news media, and there is an opportunity for entrepreneurs to step into that void, build new tools, and pioneer new business models for content creators, industry incumbents, and underserved audiences to flourish in the 21st century. When I was a film finance executive in New York City in 2005, I thought this would happen by 2010. Now, it’s happening.
What do you look for in a potential investment?
Purpose-driven companies at the intersection of entertainment and technology.
How do you find and curate your deal flow? What are the most effective ways for a founder to connect with you?
I love connecting with entrepreneurs through my existing startup communities, like Plug In South LA and Techstars.
At the moment, I am very excited about purpose-driven companies at the intersection of technology and entertainment. I recently had a number of conversations with a founder at this intersection who reached out to me cold on LinkedIn. I don’t respond to all cold outreach, but her message was targeted and relevant to my background and area of focus.
What are a few of the investments that you are the most proud of, regardless of the company’s success?
Neurable is an underestimated founder and technology. The tech enables users to control devices and software with their thoughts. Driven by a vision where people are no longer limited by their physical capabilities.
FEM. All-female founding team, developing deep software technology to address the gender bias problem in recommendation engines and other algorithms. They had an exit to Nielsen Gracenote in 2018.