Nasir Bin Olu Dara Jones, better known as Nas, grew up in Queensbridge Houses, the largest housing project in the U.S. located in New York’s Queens borough. If you ask around, many people rank Nas, 43, as one the greatest hip-hop artists. He’s had an impressive rap career, selling over 25 million records worldwide and releasing more than 10 albums. You probably wouldn’t believe that he dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Almost everything Nas knows is self-taught, just like many startup founders in the tech industry — an area where Nas is becoming increasingly vested.
In the past few years, Nas looked outside the music industry and started building a name as a tech investor. In addition to personal investments, Nas is a founding partner of Queensbridge Venture Partners. He has invested in more than 40 companies. He first got interested in startups when he heard the word “investment” in school:
“You invest your time, you can invest money and it was just a matter of time before it all fell into place for me. That’s one of the things that I thought a lot about as a young kid — the guys behind the scenes who make things happen, help build people up, make dreams come true,” Nas said in an interview with Fast Company. After his success in music, he told CNBC he wanted to get into tech “to be surrounded by the smartest people in the world, and didn’t want to limit that to just music.”
QueensBridge Venture Partners invests $100,000 to $500,000 in a company, Nas’s manager and partner Anthony Saleh told CNBC. For each 100 companies pitching to QueensBridge Ventures, less than three receive funding. It amounts to about 20 per year.
“Nas’s biggest fear is investing in a company” where the leadership may be unethical, Saleh told CNBC. “He tends to ask more questions about that.”
These are some startups that are part of Nas’s growing portfolio.
Leela Sanikop contributed to this report.
Nas has invested in San Francisco-based bitcoin exchange Coinbase, the world’s largest bitcoin company. Coinbase was recently valued at $1 billion-plus in recent talks with potential investors on a new funding round, Fortune reported. Nas has his own domain on Coinbase.com (coinbase.com/Nas), according to GoldSilverBitcoin. In an Aug. 1, 2014 CoinDesk interview, Nas predicted that bitcoin could be one of history’s best investment opportunities:
“(Bitcoin) will evolve into an industry as big, if not bigger, than the internet. My man Ben Horowitz really opened my eyes to that point. This isn’t of the internet age. Bitcoin is its own age.”
Coinbase is targeting around $100 million or more in new funding, WSJ reported in early June. If that happens, it will be the biggest funding round on record for venture-backed bitcoin companies. Bitcoin values recently reached all-time highs.
One of QueensBridge’s investments is LANDR, a post-production music service startup that uses big data and artificial intelligence. LANDR has raised more than $8 million in the last few years from various sources including Nas’s firm, Warner Music Group, Disney Music Group, Atlantic Records, SoundCloud, and Native Instruments. LANDR helps musicians in mastering — the final step in music production that happens after you record all of the parts and mix them together, CNBC reported.
Creating music masters is expensive and cumbersome, LANDR CEO Pascal Pilon told CNBC:
“Some musicians have never felt the instant gratification of completing a song, and don’t have the money to release more songs.” That’s where LANDR helps.
LANDR recently partnered with the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, which provides performing rights and advocacy for music creators. ASCAP announced in April 2017 that it will provide unlimited free access to LANDR’s automated mastering for its 600,000 members, American Songwriter reported.
“I want to meet the people who are innovating in all different fields, and investing lets me do that,” Nas told MSNBC. “I meet the people that are changing the game across all different industries, and I get to be there first at the ground level. It’s helped me to progress tremendously in my business.”
Nas was an early investor in Walker & Company Brands, whose signature Bevel brand of high-end men’s shaving products is part of what founder Tristan Walker described from Day 1 as a tech company. “Here’s a project I can be a part of, and I love what (Walker) wants to do,” Nas said in a said in a November 2014 Fast Company interview:
“I’ve wanted to get into hair stuff since I was a teenager. I’ve been all over it—Sporting Waves, you name it. It was like a hobby. And none of those things lasted with me. You become an adult and you need stuff that lasts, that keeps up with the times. I saw this brand as something that helps with a problem that a lot of blacks have with our curly hair. This is something that a lot of us have been looking for.”
When Walker was raising venture capital money for his new startup, he said that he was running a tech company — not a retail company.
“That’s bullshit,” Walker said in March at Recode’s Code Commerce conference in Las Vegas. “If you go to any kind of venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road and you say you want to build a retail business, you’re not going to raise any money. So to say that you’re a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business focused on subscriptions … it allows us to really talk about how we kind of focused on tech.”
That strategy worked. Walker’s startup, Walker & Company, has raised $33 million from well-known VC firms like Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures.
Bevel is also sold at Sephora.com, and will be carried in the fall in Sephora stores.
Nas said he talked to Walker about Bevel barbershops:
“Barbershops will be around forever, right? So, if you can make Bevel the product that barbers will use, you’re guaranteed an almost perpetual source of revenue. I would love to see Bevel barbershops. You know, all the way.”
In 2014, Nas joined Google and Microsoft in an effort to increase diversity in tech by funding scholarships at New York City-based tech educator General Assembly. General Assembly began in 2011 as a co-working space in Midtown Manhattan and evolved into a private school. The scholarships target groups that have been historically under-represented in tech such as women, African Americans, Latinos, and veterans. Initial funding of $170,000 went towards 17 scholarships in General Assembly’s Web Development Immersive course that exposes students to basic coding, data science and web design, Crains New York reported:
“Education, careers and opportunities in technology should not be limited to any one demographic,” Nas said. “And I’m happy to support minorities who will see doors open to them as a result of participation in this program.”
General Assembly has raised $119.3 million in four rounds from 19 investors, according to CrunchBase.
Nas is one of at least 18 investors backing MakeSpace, a startup that is using technology to disrupt the traditional storage unit business in large markets. MakeSpace provides pick-up and drop-off service to its storage facilities. When customers want their storage boxes back, they hit “retrieve” on the website, TechCrunch reported:
“MakeSpace is meant to be something like real world cloud storage, like Dropbox for real life. A service like MakeSpace allows us to be less tied down by our physical possessions,” said MakeSpace founder and CEO Sam Rosen. “When you want to retrieve something, it should be as easy as pressing a button.”
MakeSpace has raised $57.6 million in four funding rounds. Most recent funding
was $30M Series C on April 20, 2017, according to CrunchBase.
“The awesome thing about how we can grow is that we start to use logic in our booking system to limit when customers do pick-ups, or charge a premium for a desired spot…” Rosen said. “There’s a lot we can do programmatically to manage our flow of pick-ups and drop-offs. We’re confident that we can use tech to scale that.”
In addition to Nas, investors include venture capitalists from 8VC, Upfront Ventures, Harmony Partners, Summit Action and celebrity investor Carmelo Anthony.
“The growth has been impressive,” said Mark Suster, managing partner at Upfront Ventures. “I love backing startups in large markets where there’s been no innovation.”
The Genius knowledge project began in 2009 with Rap Genius, a website that explained the lyrics of co-founder Mahbod Moghadam’s favorite rap songs. The platform for annotating rap lyrics eventually expanded to include annotating any page on the internet. It’s a living, crowdsourced archive and tool for interpreting human culture, breaking down information with line-by-line annotations, added and edited by anyone in the world. Next Shark described Rap Genius co-founder Mahbod Moghadam as “the loudest and most disruptive entrepreneur on the internet” who loves “hanging out with his favorite rappers like Gucci Mane, Kanye West and Nas.” Ben Horowitz, Andreessen Horowitz partner and rap enthusiast, invested $15 million early on.
Equity funding in Genius includes $56.9 million in four rounds from 12 investors, according to Crunchbase.
Moghadam talked about his relationship with Nas in a Jan. 11, 2017 interview with Paste Magazine. When he was asked, “Who is on your Mount Rapmore?” Moghadam responded, “(I choose) Nas over Jay Z. He’s my homie and angel investor, so I gotta point that out.”
Valued at $1.3 billion, fintech startup Robinhood has been backed by celebrity investors including Nas, Snoop Dogg and Jared Leto. A zero-fee stock trading app, Robinhood eases access and encourages equality in participation in the financial markets.
The tech startup has won this year’s all-out price war among online brokerage firms, CNBC reported in May 2017. Legacy brokerage firms such as Fidelity and Schwab have cut trading fees up to 40 percent, and now offer trades for less than $5 as they compete with the likes of Robinhood for millennials’ business.
Robinhood’s most recent funding round was a $110 million C Series on April 26, 2017, Crunchbase reported. The fundraising was intended to fuel Robinhood’s attack on old brokerage firms that charge $7 to $10 per trade, Techcrunch reported. The round was led by Yuri Milner’s investment vehicle, DST Global.
Robinhood started in 2013 as a way for younger, less affluent users to start investing. It provides an app for free tracking and stock trading.
Robinhood replaces traditional brokerages like Scottrade and E*Trade which charge per trade to cover their brick-and-mortar franchise, sales staff and marketing spend. Because Robinhood instead employs a leaner engineering-focused team and doesn’t need physical locations, it can pass the savings on to customers and undercut competitors by charging no per-trade fee.
When Schwab reduced its fees, Robinhood said in a statement, “We’re happy to see Charles Schwab lower its commission fees. Ideally, they would have eliminated them altogether, along with the required $1,000 account minimum. At Robinhood, we view commission fees as arbitrary mark-ups like taxes, which discourage participation in the financial markets.”
Robinhood has 2 million users and allows customers to buy and sell U.S. listed stocks and ETFs with zero commission.
Nas made an undisclosed personal investment in DoseDr, a mobile app for diabetics that launched out of Y-Combinator‘s Winter 2016 class. The app helps diabetics better control their disease by adjusting insulin doses between doctor visits. This can prevent $150 billion wasted each year from complications in poorly controlled diabetes. The DoseDr mobile app allows patients to track glucose readings and insulin injections and suggests changes to their regimen, bringing patients closer to their goal faster than routine clinic visits. Providers can intervene remotely through the web portal, making dose adjustments as needed.
The approach has been effective on some of the sickest patients – patients uncontrolled despite years of conventional treatment – and got their blood glucose levels under control in less than a month, according to a Y-Combinator report. DoseDr plans to expand routine medical care for other diseases.
Brooklyn-based Exo Protein Bars are made with cricket flour, and that’s an idea that has attracted more than $5 million in funding from at least 10 investors including Nas. Insects are one of the most nutritious and sustainable protein sources in the world, according to Exo — an idea that has been slow to catch on in the West. The firm combines cricket flour (slow roasted and milled crickets) with organic and natural ingredients such as raw cacao, dates, almond butter and coconut to create a bar high in protein, low in sugar, nutritionally dense, and packed with omega 3 fatty acids, iron and calcium. The bars have no unnatural sugars, gluten, grains, dairy, soy, artificial preservatives and anything processed.
The company closed a $4 million round of Series A funding led by Accel Foods — including Nas — bringing its total funding to $5.6 million, Business Insider reported in March 2017. Check out the Business Insider report complete with facial expressions from someone who ordered a pack of Exo Protein Bars and tasted them.