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Designer Fund, which backs startups founding by designers, has raised $20 million

TechCrunch TechCrunch 3/05/2016 Connie Loizos

Designer Fund, a San Francisco outfit that looks to invest in seed-stage startups that feature designers on their founding teams, has raised $20 million in funding from unnamed individual investors, most of them successful designers looking to support the next generation.

The four-year-old firm was founded by Enrique Allen and Ben Blumenfeld, who remain its only general partners. Previously, Allen was a designer at 500 Startups and Facebook’s fbFund; Blumenfeld was meanwhile a design lead at Facebook for more than five years. The two met at the Stanford Persuasive Tech Lab, which studies how computer design can change human behavior; when Blumenfeld left Facebook to take a sabbatical, they decided to form Designer Fund.

“We saw a lack of capital that really understood and valued design at the early stages,” explains Allen, who notes that Airbnb’s founders weren’t taken seriously at first because few understood how two design students could rethink and expand the travel market.

Enter Designer Fund, which began largely as the angel fund of Allen and Blumenfeld and has now raised outside capital to provide to companies in chunks of between $250,000 to $1 million. (“We thought that rather than writing $50,000 checks and rallying our friends around certain companies, it made more sense to pool our money,” Allen explains.)

Investors have reason to be optimistic about the effort. Among the companies the duo has backed previously are the payments infrastructure company Stripe; the payroll service Gusto; the online behavioral health coaching company Omada Health; and AltSchool, a growing network of non-profit schools led by former Googler Max Ventilla.

All have raised significant amounts of money and remain highly valued as privately held companies.

Its newest bets sound interesting, too. Among them is AND CO, a company whose app helps freelancers manage their workflow (we featured it in TechCrunch last month); Mixmax, a company whose technology turns email interactive (without a lot of plug-ins); and Framer, whose design tools helps users create prototypes in new ways.

None of Designer Fund’s bets have led to an exit just yet, so it’s a little soon to guess at its odds of success. But Allen and Blumenfeld have another ace up their sleeve with Bridge, a professional development program for designers.

The two developed the program shortly after forming Designer Fund, armed with the belief that the classical design education that most designers receive is good but is mostly applicable to print and physical objects, and that working in tech requires a different type of thinking.

Companies like Slack, Pinterest, and Dropbox have since paid (an undisclosed amount) to enroll their own designers in Bridge, which typically runs nine months and includes one intensive quarter that features regular workshops and talks with top designers, followed by more occasional dinners and meet-ups. “It’s a unique way that we can add material value” to the local design community, says Allen.

The program probably doesn’t hurt when it comes to deal flow, either.

Indeed, Inkling, which publishes beautiful interactive instructional e-books, sent several of its designers through Bridge. Later, when two of those employees struck out on their own to form a startup, Designer Fund backed them. That company is Mixmax, whose other investors include Ram Shriram, Harrison Metal, and Floodgate.

Pictured, from left to right: Heather Phillips, a design manager at Designer Fund; cofounder Ben Blumenfeld; product manager Katie Topper; general manager Lisa Anne Logan; and cofounder Enrique Allen. Phillips, Topper, and Logan largely focus on the Bridge program; Blumenfeld and Allen are now more focused on investing.

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