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What startups and K-pop have in common

What startups and K-pop have in common
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Today, we’re swapping software for bright lights, AI infrastructure for boy bands, and Silicon Valley for Seoul. 

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We’re talking about K-pop dealmaking. It’s an especially good time to take a closer look at Korea-based entertainment powerhouse Hybe: Last week, Hybe America CEO Scooter Braun officially stepped back from his long career as a manager for superstars like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, and Demi Lovato. He’ll now focus exclusively on Hybe (the news also helped send Braun’s years-long rift with Taylor Swift back into headlines).

Hybe’s story may not be a venture capital story, but it’s an M&A story of extensive proportions—and one with some interesting parallels to the VC industry. 

The first thing to understand is that Hybe is a matryoshka doll of a company, composed of an ever-growing sequence of deals on top of deals. And at the very center is mega-successful boy band BTS

If you’re not a K-pop fan, here’s a quick summary of the band’s stature: “BTS will be like the Rolling Stones as they get older,” said Yale professor Grace Kao. “People are always going to go to their shows, even after the point where they’re not charting anymore. Think about Bruce Springsteen—he doesn’t chart anymore but the shows are sold-out.”

To put it in VC business terms, think about a multi-unicorn startup founder who gets a biography written about them—and then you’re getting close to BTS’s importance in the entertainment industry. And just as a wildly successful startup can turn the fledgling VC firm that backed it into a venture industry giant, BTS forever changed the fate of an upstart music company called Big Hit.

“BTS came from a small company called Big Hit and because BTS did so well, their manager, Bang Si-hyuk, was able to basically build this giant company called Hybe,” said Kao. 

But because BTS’ success is anomalous, Hybe also needed a non-BTS plan—and that plan was M&A.

“Just a few years ago, 80% of Hybe’s revenue came from BTS. Since 2019, Hybe has acquired Pledis; Belift Lab; and Source Music,” Soojin Lim, Daishin Securities researcher, told Fortune via email. “All of these groups have risen to become top K-pop artists in Korea, allowing Hybe to not rely solely on BTS.”

But it’s possible Hybe’s most notable acquisition is the one that brings us back to Braun—in 2021, Hybe bought Braun’s Ithaca Holdings for slightly more than $1 billion, marking a move into the U.S.

“This was an investment to expand the success of K-pop in Asia to the United States,” said Lim via email. “As the U.S. is the largest music market in the world, its future value is high. Although profitability is not yet high, synergy effects are expected rather than just an increase in sales.”

“Braun’s involvement was anticipated to facilitate the globalization of K-Pop by leveraging his connections and experience to promote Hybe’s artists in the Western market,” Lim added. 

Braun seemingly represents Hybe’s future, at a time when the company decidedly needs to be thinking about one. As Braun shifts to spending all his time with Hybe, he has the opportunity to be a bit of a hero—because for Hybe right now, life is not dynamite. (What is, however, is this mesmerizing 2020 BTS performance of their hit “Dynamite.”)

The company’s “going through a tougher time than ever,” Lim said. There are industry-wide problems. For one, Hybe has seen its stock decline by about 17% year-to-date, as K-pop sales have struggled. These sales slumps have also rankled competitors like YG Entertainment, SM Entertainment, and JYP Entertainment. 

But there are also problems specific to Hybe: The company is embroiled in a controversy with its buzziest subsidiary, Ador, which manages surging girl band NewJeans, which Lim says has substantially affected public opinion of Hybe. (It’s a pretty spicy story—allegations of deception and plagiarism are at its center.)

Nevertheless, if Hybe can push forward, K-pop will remain a growing business into the foreseeable future: “In 2023, we estimate roughly $5B direct revenue for K-pop companies,” Bernstein analyst Bokyung Suh said via email, adding that he expects the market to “overall double up in 2030.”

Of course, as is the case with startups, you need the right people in place in order to push forward. And while Braun is set up to build a legacy at and for Hybe, there are currently some key men temporarily removed from Hybe’s orbit: BTS is on hiatus until 2025, as its seven members—RM, Jin, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, V, and Jungkook—have been working on completing their mandatory military service in South Korea.

In that sense, Silicon Valley and K-pop are very much the same—when a key man (or boy band) is absent, much is uncertain. 

See you Monday,

Allie Garfinkle
Twitter:
@agarfinks
Email: alexandra.garfinkle@fortune.com
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Joe Abrams curated the deals section of today’s newsletter.

VENTURE DEALS

Sila, a Alameda, Calif.-based battery materials company, raised $375 million in Series G funding. Existing investors Sutter Hill Ventures and accounts advised by T. Rowe Price Associates led the round and was joined by existing investors Bessemer Venture Partners, Coatue, Perry Creek Capital, and others. 

Clay, a New York City-based provider of AI technology designed to automate sales and marketing processes, raised $46 million in Series B funding. Meritech Capital led the round and was joined by First Round and Sequoia

Odaseva, a San Francisco-based enterprise data security platform for Salesforce, raised $54 million in Series C funding. Silver Lake Waterman led the round and was joined by existing investors F-Prime, Eight Roads, Serena Capital, and new investors Eurazeo and Crescent Cove.

e-Zinc, a Toronto, Canada-based developer of a zinc air battery designed for sustainable, long-duration energy storage, raised $31 million in Series A2 funding. Evok Innovations led the round and was joined by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Export Development Canada (EDC), Ultratech Capital Partners, and existing investors. 

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Innatera, a Rijswijk, The Netherlands-based producer of neuromorphic processors, raised $21 million in Series A funding from Innavest, InvestNL, EIC Fund, MIG Capital, Matterwave Ventures, and Delft Enterprises.

Clearstory, a San Francisco, Calif.-based change order management platform for the construction industry, raised $16 million in Series B funding. Prudence led the round and was joined by Industry Ventures, Jackson Square Ventures, Building Ventures, GS Futures, and Cloud Apps Capital Partners

MagicSchool AI, a Denver, Colo.-based AI platform designed specifically for educators, raised $15 million in Series A funding. Bain Capital Ventures led the round and aws joined by Adobe Ventures, Common Sense Media, and angel investors. 

AuthZed, a New York City-based authorization and permissions platform, raised $12 million in funding. General Catalyst led the round and was joined by existing investors Work-Bench, Y Combinator, and Amplify Partners.

Synthflow, a Berlin, Germany-based AI voice assistant startup, raised $7.4 million in seed funding. Singular led the round and was joined by existing investor Atlantic Labs and others. 

Synthpop, a Wellesley, Mass.-based AI platform designed to automate health care workflows, raised $5.6 million in seed funding. Peterson Ventures led the round and was joined by defy.vc, Zelda Ventures, Think+ Ventures, and OVO Fund

PRIVATE EQUITY

Vista Equity Partners took Model N, a San Mateo, Calif.-based revenue optimization and compliance platform for life sciences and tech companies, private for approximately $1.25 billion. 

Brighton Park Capital invested $112 million in PortSwigger, a Knutsford, U.K.-based application security provider. 

Avenue Sports Fund acquired a minority stake in CityPickle, a New York City-based network of pickleball clubs. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Bernhard Capital Partners acquired Brailsford & Dunlavey, a Washington, D.C.-based project and construction management services for educational institutions and others. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

Kian Capital acquired a majority stake in Diamond Landscaping, a Sylmar, Calif.-based residential landscaping company. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

Swander Pace Capital acquired a majority stake in Inovata Foods Corp., an Edmonton, Alberta-based manufacturer of private label frozen entrées. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

TPG agreed to acquire a majority stake in Altimetrik, a Southfield, Mich.-based digital business and product engineering services firm. Financial terms were not disclosed.

EXITS

GrowthCurve Capital acquired Duetto, a San Francisco-based provider of revenue management software to the hospitality industry, from Warburg Pincus and others. Financial terms were not disclosed. 

IPOS

WEBTOON Entertainment, a Los Angeles, Calif.-based online cartoon platform, raised $315 in an offering of 15 million shares priced at $21 on the Nasdaq. The company posted $1.3 billion in revenue for the year ending March 31, 2024. 

Tamboran Resources, a Barangaroo, Australia-based natural gas exploration and production company developing the natural gas resources within the Northern Territory of Australia, raised $75 million in an offering of 3.1 million shares priced at $24 on the New York Stock Exchange.

FUNDS + FUNDS OF FUNDS

The General Partnership, a San Francisco-based venture capital firm, raised $300 million for its second fund focused on “sweat equity” investments, where a team of recruiters, engineers, and others work alongside founders. 

Ironspring Ventures, an Austin, Texas-based venture capital firm, raised $100 million for their second fund focused on the manufacturing, construction, and other industrial sectors. 

PEOPLE

Forbion, a Naarden, The Netherlands, München, Germany, and Boston, Mass.-based venture capital firm, hired Josh Brumm as a general partner. Formerly, he served as president and CEO of Dyne Therapeutics.

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G2 Venture Partners, a Portola Valley, Calif.-based venture capital firm, hired Anne Fazioli-Khiari as a partner and chief operating officer. Formerly, she was with Ubiquiti Networks.





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