Applying VC approach to cancer research

The Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation has awarded the first three grants from a $9 million cancer research grant it received from retired Benchmark Capital co-founder Andy Rachleff and his wife, Debra.

The “Damon Runyon Rachleff Innovation Award” goes to cancer research projects that Rachleff notes would not typically get funded by the National Institutes of Health. The idea behind it is to apply the high risk/high reward model of venture capital to cancer research. Rachleff says a big success from even a single project among the 18 or so he expects to fund over the next six or seven years would justify the whole endeavor.

He wants to inspire other potential donors to adopt the VC philosophy about risky projects. “It’s the ones that are off the beaten track that lead to the best outcomes,” he says.

Rachleff retired as a GP from Benchmark in 2004. Since then he has stayed busy teaching courses in entrepreneurship and venture capital at Stanford University, where he earned his MBA in 1973.

The human touch

Venture capitalists have made a lot of money off of voice-recognition-enabled call routing systems that nearly every big company now uses in place of human operators.

When they’re not investing, however, even VCs are less than pleased with the cold touch of a computerized operator.

Drew Clark, director of corporate strategy at IBM Venture Capital Group, tried to track a package that was shipped during the holidays with FedEx, a company noted for its automated approach to customer support. Frustrated at being unable to locate the late shipment through the FedEx help desk, Clark turned to, a website with live instructors who help callers reach humans at 500 companies and government agencies. The site provided Clark with an 800-number for FedEx and instructions to say “representative” at each prompt, ignoring other options.

It worked. Not only did he reach a person, but he worked out the problem. “They were very nice about it and gave me all the information, none of which was available online.”

As it turns out, GetHuman’s founder, Paul English, is no stranger to the venture world. He is also CTO and founder of, a venture-backed travel search engine that raised $196 million (that’s not a typo) in December. The Kayak site, English says, is also sensitive to customers’ preference for a human-staffed help desk. “I require that every employee talk with or email one or more customers every day,” he says.

“VCJ Cribs” with Halsey

CNet founder turned venture capitalist Halsey Minor bought the historic, 400-acre Carter’s Grove plantation in Virginia for $15.3 million in December.

Minor, a native of Charlottesville, Va., says that he plans to keep the estate more or less as it is, as a private residence and as “a center for a thoroughbred horse-breeding program.” The 18th-century mansion was built by one of Virginia’s most influential early families. The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation put the property on the market in 2006, in part, because of a drop in tourism.

Minor, 43, graduated in 1987 from the University of Virginia, where he majored in anthropology. He is currently investing in new companies via his San Francisco-based Minor Ventures.

The art of health care

At the recent JP Morgan Healthcare Conference in San Francisco, Caanan Partners hosted an art and wine reception that drew more than 300 entrepreneurs, investors and media folk, making it the big draw among the dozen or so parties that took place during the conference.

Part of the allure may have been the location at San Francisco’s airy, loft-like Weinstein Gallery, which has a collection of original works by Joan Miró, Marc Chagall and Pablo Picasso, among other modern masters.

“With nine positive exits in just three years, the Canaan health care team considers our portfolio companies to be our own ‘works of art,’ so we wanted to showcase them alongside the work of famous artists,” says Canaan Partner Wende Hutton.

That’s so Maven

Jennifer Gill Roberts

, co-founder of Maven Venture Partners, called in to say that the Silicon Valley firm she co-founded is still alive and kicking. Some were starting to wonder, since Maven is no longer in the office listed on its website and its voicemail directs callers to a personal voicemail for Gill Roberts.

Maven had been trying to raise $150 million for its debut fund. Gill Roberts says that the firm raised a “modest fund,” made a couple of seed investments and will make a couple of more substantial investments during the first quarter.

She also says that Maven has opened a permanent office in Houston, which is where the firm’s LPs and her father, co-founding partner Jack Gill of Vanguard Ventures, are located. The firm will announce a permanent Silicon Valley office in February.