Comcast Ventures isn't just investing in blockchain startups – it's investing in blockchain startups that invest in blockchain startups, with some very specific goals in mind.
The firm last month joined IBM and Boldstart Ventures in backing accelerator mState, which invests in startups building enterprise blockchain solutions. Further, Comcast Ventures revealed to CoinDesk a recent strategic investment in Blockchange Ventures, a fund that invests in enterprises that have built technology using existing centralized protocols, but that might be in for a decentralized upgrade sometime soon.
The strategy of helping sow as many blockchain seeds as possible by investing in investors is designed to not only generate returns, but to help the venture capital firm's $184 billion parent company accelerate the rate at which it learns about the technology more generally.
To that end, newly appointed managing director Gil Beyda has assembled a team of five of Comcast's most senior investors, all of who are now tasked with planning what he called an "aggressive" investment strategy aimed at determining how the company can benefit from the technology.
"We call ourselves the 'blockchain crew,'" said Beyda, who previously founded adtech startup RealMedia, which was acquired in 2007 for $650 million. The following year, he co-founded seed investing firm Genacast in partnership with Comcast.
He continued, giving CoinDesk an idea of exactly how serious the firm was about its blockchain investments:
"I can write the $1 million dollar checks through Genecast and the $2 million to $20 million checks for multi-stages through Comcast Ventures."
The blockchain crew
At the core of this strategy is the small group of increasingly specialized investors.
While Beyda said he is the only member of the "crew" to dedicate the majority of his time to blockchain, he is joined in his work by Comcast's head of funds, Amy Banse; managing director Sam Landman; principal Teddy Himler; and Morgan Polotan, who also works with Beyda at Genacast.
The team of five meets multiple times a week to discuss trends in blockchain, and to explore how those trends might impact Comcast. Yet, the firm isn't limited to making improvements to Comcast's infrastructure and products, such as its flagship cable and internet services.
"Our mandate is first and foremost to find great investments," said Beyda. "So, we're a financially driven fund, a returns-driven fund."
As such, the first blockchain investment Beyda made was in mState, which started as an accelerator for startups building with open-source Hyperledger Fabric, before evolving into a more broadly focused enterprise software blockchain accelerator.
Similarly, Beyda said Comcast Ventures will "let the market decide" which blockchains best serve any number of use cases, describing the firm's investment style as "very hands-on," with an interest in leading rounds and taking board seats on the companies in which they invest.
Going forward, Beyda also hinted at collaborations with other portfolio startups.
"We'll be working closely with them, but we need to develop this expertise ourselves first before we can see how that plugs and plays with some of these other sectors and verticals," he said.
One of those sectors Comcast Ventures is exploring is venture capital itself.
Indeed, the fund is now taking a closer look at how blockchain could end up making it easier for more people to invest in projects via initial coin offerings (ICOs), a funding model in which a liquid market of provably scarce assets is used to fund new businesses and projects.
"We're not ignoring the fact that our business may change as well," said Beyda.
As evidenced by the increasingly blurry lines that separate traditional venture capital from blockchain-enabled fundraises, Comcast portfolio firm YouNow last year supplemented an earlier $15 million fundraise with a $24 million ethereum-based token sale.
While Comcast does not currently own any YouNow tokens, Beyda said the firm is "warming up" to the idea that it might one day hold tokens on its balance sheet. As a result, the blockchain crew is now helping develop a formal position to guide their future investment decisions.
But before that can happen, Beyda said investors would need to get used to the idea of holding onto the private keys that signify ownership of a token on a blockchain, as well as overcome a number of regulatory uncertainties.
Yet, if Comcast Ventures does decide to hold tokens, it could significantly change the way it operates. To that end, Beyda said he's in close communication with a group of Comcast chief experience officers (CXOs) to help ensure that blockchain evolves into a boon – and not a detriment – to the way they earn money and learn.
"We have a close relationship with the CXO suite at Comcast," said Beyda. "And they're very interested about and excited in these new opportunities, and are open to having that discussion about the evolution of our model."
In many ways, this strategy positions Comcast Ventures as a bridge between the world of blockchain tech and Comcast itself.
And over the past several months, "the mothership," as Beyda calls his parent company, has made a number of its own plays in the blockchain space.
Among the most notable is its support for the Blockchain Insights Platform, a consortium including Disney, Cox Communication and others working to use blockchain so members can more accurately target ads to customers without sharing sensitive customer data with each other.
To show how serious the operation is, just weeks after the platform was revealed, CoinDesk reported on a patent application that Comcast had filed that could potentially help in the process, though a representative of the company said they are not currently related.
Beyda also described a notable internal project between Comcast Labs and Comcast's Xfinity Home program that could build on the data-sharing features of blockchain to further enable the internet of things (IoT).
The project was conceived as a way to privately connect devices like cameras and automated locks in 15 million homes Comcast serves with the homes served by potentially competing customers.
"In a world where you have a blockchain public ledger where these permissions are managed, you can allow others to have access," said Beyda.
While there's currently no formal ties with that work and another project called MachineQ, the synergies are obvious. Last year, Comcast started to roll-out the internet of things network in 12 markets, including Boston, Detroit and Washington D.C.
In short, in the face of rising interest in the telecom industry, including from one of Comcast's biggest competitors, T-Mobile – and from upstarts who would like to put them both out of business – Beyda sees an opportunity to not only streamline internal processes, but gain a competitive advantage.
"Comcast Ventures really has a front-row seat with a multi-hundred billion dollar company," Beyda told CoinDesk, adding:
"We see all the change and the interest that is going on internally. We see where the rubber meets the road."
Comcast building image via Michael del Castillo