Facebook, Amazon, and Silicon Valley bank Allen & Co. are among the high-profile investors in sFund, a $250 million social-application fund launched by venture capital stalwarts Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers today. Kleiner Perkins partner John Doerr spearheaded the announcement, which was held at Facebook's headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif.
"We're in a third wave of incredible and disruptive innovation," Doerr said of the current climate of digital development, which he sees following in the footsteps of the initial rise of PCs and then the Internet and browser revolution in the 1990s. These new entrepreneurs are "reimagining and really reinventing the social Web," he said.
Bing Gordon, a former Electronic Arts executive and current partner at Kleiner Perkins, will run the new fund. Companies and firms who have committed to back the fund and serve as strategic partners include Facebook, Amazon, social-games powerhouse Zynga, Silicon Valley bank Allen & Co, Comcast, and Liberty Media. Gordon said that more partners have been in discussions and will be added in accordance with finance laws.
According to sFund's Web site, the fund will take on a mentorship role for its portfolio companies as well, providing "financing, counsel, and relationship capital" to entrepreneurs.
The initial sFund investment, CafeBots, a "friend relationship management" start-up founded by four Stanford Ph.D.s, was announced in conjunction with the debut of sFund.
"Our view for the next few years is we just think that every industry is going to get fundamentally rethought and designed around people," Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the announcement.
In the past, Facebook itself has operated a seed fund and incubator program, FBfund, for application developers building on its platform. While tapping into the Facebook grid will invariably be central to many of the companies in which sFund invests, it's not a requirement.
Zynga CEO Mark Pincus said that he believes a fund for social-application development is necessary because entrepreneurship and innovation are, for once, actually lagging behind the possibilities that technology offers. "I'm just bugged that there isn't a great travel service. Why can't I have an app," posited Pincus, "that knows I'm at the airport, that knows my flight is canceled, it knows I'm traveling with somebody, and it's already recommended the next option and it'd be sure nice if it could recommend a game I could play in the meantime."
Doerr said that Zynga, a Kleiner Perkins portfolio company which operates popular social games like FarmVille and Mafia Wars that have proliferated across the social connections facilitated by the Facebook platform, is the fastest growing company in the history of the venture fund.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos was on hand as well, talking primarily about the company's Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-service offering and how he hopes that it will help more entrepreneurs launch innovative new ways to harness the power of the social Web. "These social apps do tend to be very viral," Bezos said. "It's kind of built into the nature of the application, and so when they hit they hit fast, they can grow violently, and that really does play to the strengths of AWS."
Calling the social-media revolution "a Cambrian explosion," he indicated that the maturity of social-networking pioneers like Facebook, "this really rich nutrient solution of people who are connected already," can now facilitate a whole new wave of innovation.
Kleiner Perkins launched a green-tech fund and an iPhone app development fund in 2008. But a fund for social applications is a different game, one that taps into a recently brewing debate in Silicon Valley over whether the traditional venture capital model is the best route for new start-ups. In addition to VC firms, new digital ventures in the past decade have increasingly been backed by powerful angel investors--often successful entrepreneurs and executives themselves--and incubators like Y Combinator and TechStars. Getting a Web app off the ground does not require a significant amount of capital, to the extent that early stakes in a potentially hot company may be too small for the Valley's most longstanding firms.
In establishing sFund, Kleiner Perkins is not only making a bet on social applications, it's also attempting to build a more lightweight funding model that's better suited to this kind of investing.
This post was last updated at 11:25 a.m. PDT.