Big-name VCs invest in medical site that will never exit or IPO

Earlier this year, medical crowdfunding site Watsi broke new ground, becoming the first non-profit startup to be accepted to the prestigious startup accelerator Y Combinator. Now, it’s trying to bring the rest of Silicon Valley along for the ride.

On Thursday, Watsi’s founders said they had raised a $1.2 million philanthropic round from some of Silicon Valley’s leading venture capitalists, including Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham, Ron Conway and Vinod Khosla. For these investors, who are used to funding hot for-profit startups like Airbnb and Foursquare, the investment in Watsi is a change of pace. The non-profit isn’t looking for a big exit or IPO down the road, but the chance to help millions of people around the world get the healthcare they need.
Compared to philanthropy in places like New York and London, charitable giving in Silicon Valley is nascent, said Watsi co-founder Chase Adams. But he hopes Watsi can pioneer a new model that gives venture capitalists an opportunity to be involved and have a big impact.
Launched about a year ago, Watsi is a crowdfunding platform that lets anyone fund medical care for people around the world. For example, current campaigns could help a three-year-old Burmese boy remove a screw in his lung or enable a seven-year-old girl in Africa to get surgery to reconstruct her scalp after severe burning.
Unlike other for-profit crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, as well as health-centric platform Medstartr, the site guarantees that 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the intended recipients. Since launching, the non-profit says it’s raised $400,000 to provide medical care for 500 parents in 16 countries. In the next 18 months, Chase said, Watsi’s (very ambitious) goal is to reach $2.5 million in crowdfunded care.
With the new funding, the non-profit plans to invest in its technology and build its site, but it doesn’t plan to rely on venture funding forever. Chase said Watsi plans to earn revenue in three ways: voluntary “tips” that contributors give on top of their donations, cause marketing partnerships with companies, and as a white-label platform that would enable non-profits in healthcare to raise money.
In addition to the investors mentioned above, Watsi’s supporters include Chinese Internet firm Tencent, the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, Geoff Ralston, a parter at Y Combinator and co-founder of ed tech accelerator Imagine K-12, and Jasmine Social Investments.