Bonfire Case Study

TLDR:

  • 🎫 Two former classmates in Duke’s Computer Science Department, Melissa Zhang and Matt Alston left their jobs at Coinbase and Uber, respectively, and decided to start a company aimed initially at helping people discover things to do in a new city.
  • 🤔 After joining Pear’s Summer 2021 Accelerator cohort, Melissa and Matt received feedback from Pear’s team and community of mentors that helped them realize that their original business plan wasn’t likely to set them up for long-term success — so they pivoted!
  • 🏦 Ultimately, they landed on a plan to use Web3 technology to help creators become equity holders in their own brands.
  • 💰 After completing the Accelerator, they landed 70+ investor intros, and with some guidance from Ajay, landed a successful Seed fundraise of $5.2M, led by NEA.

Step 1: Forming the founding team

In 2020, Melissa Zhang left her job as a software engineer at Coinbase to start a new company with her former Computer Science classmate at Duke, Matt Alston. Matt brought extensive experience in consumer apps and product management, having previously worked as a PM at Uber, while Melissa brought an expertise in full-stack software development and an in-depth knowledge of the burgeoning Web3 industry.

Melissa was already connected to Pear through our builder community, and she and Matt came to us with an idea to start a consumer-focused tech company that, at the time, they were calling Rally. While Pear’s team had some open questions about the initial product concept, they also knew Melissa and Matt were still in the pre-launch / ideation stage and there was plenty of time to help them evolve their product vision as they dug into potential product-market fit. More importantly, Pear’s team felt the founding team was top-notch, so we invited them to participate in our Summer 2021 Accelerator cohort.

Step 2: Testing and pivoting

Melissa and Matt’s initial idea centered around creating a consumer product that would help people discover what to do in a city on any given day. The idea stemmed from their own experiences as transplants in San Francisco, where they had moved shortly after graduating from college, and had initially struggled to understand the full extent of what the city had to offer.

As an early step to validate their early product vision, Pear connected the Bonfire team with founders and operators who had worked on similar problems. By connecting with another contact at a well-funded social company in the same space, Melissa and Matt learned that they had actually tried something similar, but struggled to get it off the ground. From the feedback they received in those conversations, and from feedback they were getting from the Pear team directly, they realized they were facing three big challenges to their initial concept:

  1. Many people had tried and failed to get a similar idea off the ground
  2. The product had limited long-term potential
  3. There is an inherent retention problem

“We realized that the idea was too broad and limited,”  said Co-Founder Matt.

The Bonfire team decided to shift away from this initial consumer-focused idea and went back to the drawing board — literally. Pear VC Partner, Ajay, started meeting with the Bonfire team on a weekly basis to whiteboard new ideas. “The team at Bonfire was extremely sharp and talented, and we knew they were the right group of founders, we just had to help them find the perfect problem to focus on,” said Ajay.

The team then honed in on a second idea, focused on group meetups and community management. Again, the Pear team helped Melissa and Matt do extensive customer development around this idea, and they even launched a minimum viable product (MVP) before ultimately deciding that monetization would be tricky and there likely wasn’t enough demand in the market to substantiate moving forward with this second idea.

So, they went back to the drawing board for the third time and decided to focus on how to utilize Web3 technology to support real world use cases. This was a big breakthrough moment for the team, especially since Melissa was particularly well positioned to start something in this space, given her history at Coinbase. “The Web3 space is still so new, and there is a ton of opportunity to build in this space,” says Pear Partner Ajay, who leads the firm’s Web3 investments.

Once they circled around the right problem space, the ideas just started flowing and the team knew they were onto something. “I didn’t realize it would take three months and three tries to land on the perfect idea,” said Matt. 

Step 3: Working towards product-market fit

Once they decided to focus on Web3, the team was able to ideate quickly and find early interest in what would eventually become Bonfire.

Melissa and Matt identified that the Creator 1.0 space, like content creators on ad-based platforms like YouTube, create a ton of value for platforms, but the creators only receive a fraction of that monetary value in return. While the Creator 2.0 space, through monetization platforms like Patreon, allows creators to receive a slightly bigger slice of the pie, there is still a lot of room for improvement. The team recognized that none of these platforms give creators true ownership of the brands and communities they work so hard to create. But thanks to Web3, this is now possible, really for the first time.

The team got to work on a product roadmap. With Ajay’s help, they firmed up an idea to focus on utilizing NFTs and social tokens to allow creators to own their content, their brand, and their community. They created a product roadmap of tools that make it easy for any creator to build and manage their own token community. This included creator homepages, tools that monetize and reward engagement, and templates for creating value for token holders.

Step 4: Building out the big idea 

As they started building out their product strategy, the team knew the market size for an idea like this is enormous, with millions of creators likely interested in a way to get a larger ownership stake in the communities they’re cultivating. However, they also wanted to be sure to align their business’s incentives and monetization strategy with those of the creators to set up a win-win situation.

With Ajay’s help, they aligned on a business idea to create this mutually beneficial dynamic. A creator could mint a token and drop it to early supporters, monetize that token through NFTs like memberships, event tickets, and digital goods, and they could offer other perks and benefits for token holders. And, on their end, Bonfire would be earning a 2.5% fee on transactions unlocked through their technology, ensuring that their monetization ensured both sides would have compatible incentives. Some quick math showed the potential of this strategy: if 2.5M creators created $100K each in volume, that would generate $6.25B for Bonfire, meaning this idea had a huge market potential. 

Step 5: Preparing for demo day and fundraising

Confident on where they’d landed through all their research and iterations of their business plan, Matt and Melissa turned their attention to preparing to pitch their newly-rebranded company, Bonfire, to potential investors at the Pear Accelerator’s Demo Day. Ajay helped the team perfect their messaging and work through over 20 versions of their deck in preparation for the big day. They ultimately presented to a room of 700+ investors during Pear’s virtual demo day.

Their mission to use Web3 to empower the next generation of creative communities to achieve economic independence and prosperity really resonated with investors. After a successful demo day pitch, they landed 70+ investor intros. Like many new entrepreneurs, Melissa and Matt knew there were nuances of fundraising and negotiating they needed help working through, so Ajay advised them every step of the way. The team ultimately had a successful seed fundraise of $5.2M, led by NEA.

The Pear team is thrilled that Melissa and Matt were able to land on the right idea through the Pear Accelerator, and we are so excited to see their continued growth journey.

Xilis Case Study

TLDR:

  • 🎓 Xilis was founded by three academic researchers, Xiling Shen, David Hsu, and Hans Clevers, who came from three different disciplines, but who were able to build off of one another’s expertise to make a transformative, paradigm-shifting discovery.
  • 🧬 Working together, the team realized they could grow 3D cultures of cancer cells in a laboratory to create “mini tumors,” or organoids, that could then be used as, essentially, a real time test that could guide oncological patient care.
  • 🍐 As exciting as this discovery was, the founding team quickly realized they needed the support of Pear’s Accelerator to ultimately turn their research into a widely-used tool that could benefit patients around the world.
  • 💵 They participated in Pear’s Accelerator program and successfully raised a $3M seed round, and less than 18 months later, a $70M Series A round.

Forming the founding team

Xiling Shen and David Hsu first met when Xiling interviewed at Duke for a faculty position in the Department of Biomedical Engineering. David, a professor at Duke’s Medical Center, and Xiling, then a professor at Cornell, hit it off, and bonded over their shared research interests.

“As an academic junior faculty, you’re focused on publishing papers. But when I was talking to David, he asked, ‘How do you think about how to help patients?’ and that suddenly opened a door—that’s where you really make an impact. 10 or 20 years down the road, do you really want to be remembered for how you published this many papers that probably no one reads anymore?”

Xiling relocated from New York to Durham, NC and the two immediately began a research partnership, focusing on how to use patient-derived models of cancer as a potential diagnostic tool.

Testing and learning

While the two were making great progress on their research, they weren’t immediately as successful in finding a way to turn this into a useful tool for on-the-ground clinicians and providers.

“Patient-derived models of cancer are great for research or discovering new tools for discovering new drugs. The problem is, they weren’t very useful in a clinical setting,” says David. “The main reason is that a lot of these models take too long to make, so I could never use them in real time to guide patient care. I don’t have time to grow these models, to do all this testing.”

Eventually, however, they realized they could solve this dilemma by incorporating the ground-breaking work of their third co-founder, Hans Clevers, a professor of Molecular Genetics at Utrecht University in The Netherlands. Hans had discovered that 3D cultures of cancer cells can be grown in a laboratory from real human samples, allowing for the creation of “mini tumors,” or organoids. These organoids could be grown rapidly and with greater success rates than cell lines or mouse models. And perhaps most importantly, they’re also able to replicate the original native cancer, making precision medicine possible. It represents the culmination of a long-time dream of precision medicine, powered by big data.

Building off of Hans’ discovery, David and Xiling worked to develop “micro-organosphere technology,” a microfluidic-based method of growing miniature organoids. David saw that this new technology had the potential to be used as a diagnostic assay — essentially a real time test that could guide patient care.

“Until we started making these droplet organoids, I never felt that there was going to be a patient-derived model of cancer that I could potentially use clinically as a diagnostic tool, but finally we had this breakthrough,” says David.

Turning academic research into a business

At this point, David and Xiling realized they were approaching a crossroads with where to go next: they could either double down on their academic trajectories or try to create a new company around this new technology. The first question they had to ask themselves was what were they optimizing for: research novelty and journal publications? Or getting their organoid model so dialed in that it could work 100% of the time?

The next question was whether they were willing to commit to this fully, with a sense of urgency needed in the business world, or whether they would keep going with their myriad of other research projects, with less concern about the pace of new developments and getting their organoids into the hands of clinicians.

Around this time, Xiling was back in Palo Alto and was able to catch up with Mar Hershenson, Pear’s Founding Managing Partner, who had hired him back in 1999 as her first intern at her first start-up, Barcelona Design. Xiling was trying to figure out how to turn the technology into a start-up. He was about to sign a very unfavorable financing deal with a foreign investor when Mar convinced him to pitch to her partners. The pitch was really an academic presentation, not an investor presentation, but it was enough for Pear to understand that the team’s new breakthrough with organoids had the potential not only to be commercialized, but also to lead to a category-defining company.

And so the partnership between Xilis and Pear began.

Joining the Pear Accelerator 

The Pear team worked side by side with Xiling and David to first come up with a viable business strategy that maximized long-term value, and then to effectively communicate the strategy and market opportunity to investors. Pear was fortunate to have previously worked with the team at Guardant and could use a lot of that know-how to support Xilis. 

Mar worked closely with Xiling and David for hours to grow their mindset from academic only to academic + business. The Pear team believes that academic founders, when exposed to the right information, mentorship, and connections, can become great CEOs and business leaders. 

During the Accelerator, the focus shifted from being technology-development focused to market-development focused. The company had the opportunity to be a platform not only for precision diagnostics, but also for drug development.

Perhaps most importantly, the team was able to come up with a crisp business proposal and include crucial details on their go-to-market strategy. As Xiling put it, “Pear provided an opportunity to hammer out 80% of the questions we got from investors. We were not even thinking about a lot of those questions.”

Presenting at Pear Demo Day and Fundraising

Xiling and David spent countless hours practicing their investor pitch for Demo Day. It is no easy task for an academic to present to hundreds of early stage investors. They nailed their presentation, and right after Pear’s Demo Day, investor interest immediately started to flood in. The team returned to Duke after Demo Day with term sheets in hand. 

They successfully raised a $3M seed round. With this new capital in hand, David and Xiling turned to scaling their company and building their team. They used the funds to fill key hires. 

As Xiling says, “We are kind of a unique company in terms of being very interdisciplinary. Engineering, biology, clinical, and of course then adding business people, software, hardware… so we’re really focused on building a team that has complementary skills. Right now, the next hiring priority is continuing to hire the right business expertise. You want to have a team that has the right business experience in the intended market, so that investors feel the investment is more de-risked. I think that’s probably the biggest challenge for most academic teams. It’s often the piece that would increase their attractiveness significantly.”

The team raised a $70M Series A round less than 18 months after the conclusion of the Accelerator. Xilis is continuing to work on bringing their product to market, focusing currently on conducting clinical trials to validate the platform’s efficacy in predicting drug responses in cancer patients, and on establishing pharma partnerships for a host of drug development applications. 

And Pear continues to work closely with Xilis. In his role as a Board observer, Eddie Eltoukhy, Pear’s biotech partner, is leveraging his previous operating and business development experience to guide Xilis’ management team on company strategy, partnering, and fundraising. We’re confident the best is yet to come for this team.

Gathermade Case Study

TLDR:

  • 👥 Gathermade was founded by Mackenzie Branigan, CEO, and Joe Sofia, COO, while they were attending business school at Stanford.
  • 🎓 They met the Pear team while in business school at Stanford GSB and joined our S21 Accelerator after graduation.
  • ↩️ They made a 180 during the Accelerator, completely pivoting on their initial idea. They found product-market fit and the pieces started falling into place quickly.
  • 🌮 Today, their company matches time-strapped families looking for healthy, freshly cooked meals with top-notch home chefs looking to boost their incomes.
  • 💰 They raised a successful seed round at the conclusion of the Accelerator.
  • 🍐 Check out the full case below to hear about how Pear’s Accelerator program set up Mackenzie and Joe to take an initial idea and pivot into a fast-growing, venture-backed business.

Forming the founding team

Mackenzie Branigan and Joe Sofia met the first weekend of orientation as MBA students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (GSB). They quickly connected through a shared passion and commitment to creating more gender equity in the home. Having grown up in households with two working parents, both Mackenzie and Joe saw first hand how challenging it was for their moms to get ahead in the working world while also trying to balance a myriad of responsibilities of home. And unlike many business school students, they were both willing to 100% commit to entrepreneurship and go all in on a plan to launch a business centered on addressing this challenge.

Testing and learning

Mackenzie and Joe really started moving forward with their idea while participating in Mar Hershenson’s Launchpad class at Stanford’s GSB. Their initial idea was to help address the “mental load” responsibilities associated with running a household by building a “To-Do List” productivity tool for parents. While participating in the course, the two realized that having a To-Do List was helpful, but, more than anything, parents just needed to get things done. This lead them to pivot to their second product idea: a virtual assistant for parents. And, after graduation, they decided to pursue this plan full-time. Initially, they weren’t interested in joining an Accelerator program, since, in their minds, the programs were impersonal and didn’t offer much real access to partners.

However, in talking to GSB alums, they realized that Pear had an Accelerator program that was exactly what they needed. As Mackenzie put it, “The consensus was, if we got into Pear’s Accelerator, we’d do it. Otherwise we would go about it on our own. I loved that it was a small batch size of 10-15 companies and that I actually got to work with Pear’s entire team day-to-day.”

Mar saw the potential in Mackenzie and Joe, even though she wasn’t as convinced about this virtual assistant product idea, telling the the pair, “We believe in you as founders…we’re not 100% set on the idea, but we believe in you guys.” And with that, the two joined the Pear Accelerator Summer 2021 cohort.

Finding a way to product-market fit through the Pear Accelerator

Going into the Accelerator program, Mackenzie and Joe felt a lot of pressure to make as much progress as possible in a limited amount of time, but the Pear team helped shield them from that anxiety and reassured them it was worth taking the time needed to land on the perfect idea.

As part of this research phase, the Pear team paired Mackenzie and Joe up with a mentor, who was a PM at Babycenter, had already thought a lot about the needs of parents, and could help them better understand this audience and how they could address their problems.

At the same time, Mackenze and Joe started meeting every day with one of Pear’s visiting partners, who previously founded a childcare marketplace that was acquired by Care.com in 2018. He was able to coach them on how to take what they were learning through their research and apply it to evolve their business and product strategy.

Pretty soon, the pair realized that their virtual assistant idea had some important pitfalls: it was too broad and many of their target users didn’t even know what to use it for. However, in talking with busy parents about the challenges of balancing work and household obligations, a key concern emerged: the daily struggle to get a healthy dinner on the table when parents simply didn’t have the time to cook themselves and were tired of ordering the same unhealthy takeout options over and over again.

The next step was for Mackenzie and Joe to validate that this was truly a market worth pursuing. The Pear team helped them ensure there was a big enough total addressable market (TAM) to make pursuing this idea worth it and to do mini assessments along the way to measure the best case scenario, given different assumptions or tweaks to the strategy. They quickly realized the data was making a very strong argument in favor of fully doubling down on this pivot into the food space.

They learned that families are spending $220B each year feeding their families, yet 89% of families report daily stress over getting a healthy, home-cooked meal on the table. At the same time, the pandemic accelerated the future of work, with many people being driven to become their own bosses and the economy seeing a huge spike in the number of home-based entrepreneurs. And finally, state legislators across the U.S. loosened regulations in response to the pandemic to allow home chefs to legally sell food prepared in their home kitchens, unlocking opportunities for even more home chefs wanting to earn money by cooking at home.

Ultimately, both consumer insights and market data validated their updated plan to focus on finding a way to match talented home chefs with time-strapped parents looking for low-stress, yet healthy, options for their family to eat for dinner.

As they put this place into action, the business, rebranded as Gathermade, just took off and they felt demand pull instead of push for the first time. They simply couldn’t keep up with people’s interest in it. In seven weeks, they served 450 meals to 56 families with four home chefs. They grew 44% week over week with zero marketing spend, through purely word-of-mouth and referrals. The majority of families are now ordering 2.2 meals every week, giving the business revenue retention of 102%, and their annual net LTV of $591 means they have an enormous market opportunity ahead of them.

Building the company and successfully fundraising

Within a few months, Gathermade was able to grow its supply pipeline to 44 chefs, thanks to a process that makes it easy for new chefs to onboard onto the platform. And Gathermade is now also offering chefs tools to manage their finances, orders, and more. The whole process is working well for both the growing number of home chefs on the platform and busy families in their communities.

However, the team viewed this as just the beginning. Knowing that they’ll need to be well capitalized to continue and even expand their rate of growth, Mackenzie and Joe prepared to cap their experience in the Summer 2021 Accelerator by presenting their plans for Gathermade at Pear’s Demo Day in October, 2021.

Taking their same meticulous approach to telling their story to potential investors, Mackenzie and Joe went through about 100 iterations of their pitch deck as they got ready for Demo Day, getting feedback from Pear’s team at each step of the way. Finally, the Friday before, they thought they had it locked down.

Going through that version from the eyes of the potential investors she knew would be listening just a few days later, though, Mar had a realization, telling Mackenzie and Joe, “Don’t freak out, but I think we should start over.” Together, they decided to flip the narrative from talking from one side of their marketplace, a customer POV, to the other, chef POV.

Mar met with Mackenzie and Joe Saturday morning, Saturday night, and Sunday morning to dial in this updated narrative, truly getting in the trenches with them. As Mackenzie describes, “Mar is on the Midas List, but was helping me move text boxes around on my slides.”

Ultimately, this all paid off, as Mackenzie and Joe left Demo Day set up with a great set of investors ready to begin negotiating term sheets and invest the capital the team needs to accelerate their growth. They raised a successful seed round within a few months of coming out of the Accelerator. Mackenzie told us, “We’re so proud of the work we’ve done. I don’t have enough good things to say about the Accelerator or the Pear team.”