To Show Off SD Startups, Investors Hit the Road with New TV Show

First there was “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.” Now four San Diego, CA-based investors are debuting “VCs in a Van,” a vehicle (no pun intended) meant to spotlight local companies ripe for funding.

The show tracks the financiers—Neil Senturia, Tom Tullie, Mark Bowles, and Taner Halicioğlu—as they visit a handful of San Diego-based early-stage businesses seeking financing. The six-episode miniseries the investors produced for TV is slated to debut Dec. 2 on Cox Channel 4/Yurview 1004.

The group credits Senturia, a well-known local serial entrepreneur with a Hollywood background, for the initial idea that led to the show’s creation. The Blackbird Ventures CEO writes a column in the San Diego Union-Tribune, and it was his musings about the need to raise the profile of San Diego startups that spurred Bowles into action. He, too, had been thinking the region could benefit from something similar.

Senturia had given voice to something that had been gnawing at Bowles, who co-founded San Diego electronics recycling company EcoATM, which sold to Outerwall (NASDAQ: OUTR) (the parent company of kiosk company Coinstar) in 2013 for $350 million in cash.

“I was frustrated that there were so many entrepreneurs and companies I was working with who thought they were in the backwoods here in San Diego, that there was no money here and that it was hard to start a company, and I thought there was nothing further from the truth,” Bowles said in a phone interview with Xconomy. “I was in the Bay Area for 17 years and started four companies there, and then started three here—and I think this is a better place to start a company.”

Bowles quickly recruited Tullie, who had worked alongside Bowles at EcoATM as its CEO through the acquisition.

They also recruited Halicioğlu, an early alum of Facebook who invests often in local startups through his angel investment firm Keshif Ventures. Last year Halicioğlu gave $75 million to UC San Diego to establish its Halicioğlu Data Science Institute. It was the largest ever gift the school had received from an alumni. The camera-shy super angel investor doesn’t appear in the show, though he did make a cameo in the trailer.

“Fifteen years ago no one would have watched a show like ‘Shark Tank’ because it would be considered boring, but it’s sort of [part of] pop culture now,” Bowles said. “We thought, we’re doing this anyway, so the show is just really putting a camera to what we’ve always done, and we hope people find it interesting.”

The startups highlighted in the first season of the documentary-style show fall into two categories: companies developing two-sided networks (like Uber), and consumer food and beverage companies. The team wouldn’t reveal ahead of the show’s launch which were featured during their excursions, but the trailer teases a visit to Wrapify, a Solana Beach, CA-based startup that temporarily “wraps” cars with ads.

The team initially considered making the show similar to “Shark Tank,” Tullie said, but decided against it since it doesn’t accurately represent how investing typically takes place. They ended up investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in total across a few of the companies that will appear on the show, which were selected from about 20 they they came across during day-to-day deal-vetting and visited. (Some of the companies they visited that don’t appear in the first season also received funding, they said.)

If the series finds traction, the team may create a equity crowdfunding investment fund through which to invest in additional local companies that are featured on the show, the “VCs in a Van” team said.

“We’re set up to whet the appetite with this first mini pilot series … then kick it off in earnest on a second season, and hopefully really widen the investor set for San Diego,” Tullie said.

Bowles said the show is also intended to highlight the local organizations that support startups in San Diego—and encourage others to join in their efforts.

“There is a lot of money on the sidelines here in San Diego that made it outside of tech and outside of biotech,” he said. “They would likely invest in some of this stuff if they had access to it, so we hope the show will be an onramp for people who might otherwise not see these deals, and who might find them exciting and write checks.”

The show will air on Sundays at 6 p.m., Mondays at 7:30 p.m., Tuesdays at 6:30 p.m., and Saturdays at 11 a.m. For cord cutters, an online version will be available at the show’s website.

Sarah de Crescenzo is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can reach her at sdecrescenzo@xconomy.com. Follow @sarahdc

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