Led by 32-year-old Zoe Weinberg and spun out of a public-benefit venture group from billionaire Eric Schmidt, ex/ante’s “agentic tech” thesis has found backers like Marc Andreessen and the Ford Foundation.
For many venture capital firms, subjects like disinformation and surveillance, user privacy and online ownership rights are tangential to their startup investment strategies. For new fund manager Zoe Weinberg, they’re everything.
Her fund, ex/ante, has raised $33 million to focus on “agentic tech” — a fledgling term that the fund defines as technology that relates to human agency and rights in the digital age. Spun out of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic venture arm of former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, ex/ante will invest in pre-seed and seed stage startups. And it’s already got the backing of other major industry players including Cendana Capital, Marc Andreessen, the Ford Foundation and Union Square Ventures.
Weinberg, 32, a Brooklyn-based former NGO aid worker and policy wonk with degrees from Harvard, Stanford and Yale, has positioned ex/ante to tackle daunting global issues from internet-based threats to democracy to intellectual property in an era of AI-generated deep fakes.
“How I like to think about it is, what are the tools that you can build that advance a positive vision of the world?” she said.
Weinberg’s partner in the fund is Michael Mosier, formerly the top lawyer at crypto startups Espresso Systems and Chainalysis and a former official in leadership roles at the U.S. Treasury and Department of Justice. The duo will look to write $500,000 to $1 million checks, capable of co-leading rounds in companies that will often fall into more traditional categories, too, such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, data infrastructure, digital identity, fintech and web3.
ex/ante has made nine investments so far, including deep-fake detection startup Reality Defender, consumer identity company Lockr and self-custody business Webacy.
“I have known Zoe since 2018, and from the beginning our conversations always wrestled with this question of how new technology could meet this moment of geopolitical turmoil,” Schmidt wrote Forbes in a statement. “Technology for the next era must protect and advance the democratic values. We are proud to have incubated and supported the launch of ex/ante, a venture fund that will pioneer that future and have a profound impact on the world.”
Weinberg was serving as an aid worker in Mosul, Iraq, when she visited one of the country’s first bitcoin mining operations in a small white building near the Iran border in 2017. Everyone involved was displaced or a refugee from the Islamic State, or ISIS, that still controlled parts of the country, she said later.
“I remember one of the guys saying, ‘look, ISIS could take over tomorrow, and I could leave the country and still have assets,’” she recalled. “Suddenly they were able to have a degree of financial security and freedom that just didn’t exist previously.”
That experience joined others abroad and domestic in helping to form Weinberg’s worldview. The daughter of parents in the art world, she volunteered in Senegal as a high schooler and won several thesis prizes at Harvard, then worked a stint at Goldman Sachs. She spent two years with the International Finance Corporation’s World Bank Group, work that took her to Kenya with stops in Somalia, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Working in the developing world, Weinberg was struck by how technology was being used both to benefit and hold back local citizens — some tools surveilling and controlling, others allowing access to outside information and financial opportunity.
Back in the U.S., Weinberg worked for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016 and racked up more degrees: a JD from Yale, where she earned several fellowships, and an MBA from Stanford, where she was a Knight-Hennessy scholar. In 2019, she briefly joined Google’s AI team in a research position. It was in her next role, working in policy on the congressional National Security Commission on Artificial Intelligence in Washington, D.C., that she got to know Schmidt, the work group’s chairman.
By early 2020, she had joined his and his wife Wendy Schmidt’s public benefit venture facility, Schmidt Futures, to incubate the idea that would become ex/ante. The pitch: build an investment vehicle that could accelerate technology, while also “making democracies more robust and resilient.” (Schmidt, whose net worth Forbes values at about $19 billion, recently raised $600 million for his own venture fund, Innovation Endeavors, per the Venture Capital Journal; in October, Forbes reported that Schmidt had committed at least $100 million to a startup accelerator with whose CEO he had a romantic relationship.)
Weinberg and ex/ante split off on their own last year, bringing three investments made for the family office with her; Mosier joined in March 2023, several months after its formal launch. Targeting $25 million initially, ex/ante’s limited partner group expanded far beyond Schmidt Futures, eventually attracting Andreessen and fellow a16z partner Chris Dixon, USV and its founders Fred Wilson and Brad Burnham, Cendana and the Ford Foundation, as well as Protocol Labs, the Klarman Family Foundation, and Midas List investor Kirsten Green.
Burnham was so taken by Weinberg and her approach that he volunteered to sit in on ex/ante’s investment committee meetings as an adviser, something he only does for the firm, his own (where he’s now stepped back into a venture partner role) and one other fund. In Weinberg’s approach to investing, the veteran investor said he was reminded of his and Wilson’s own work to establish Union Square Ventures into a preeminent VC firm.
“There’s no question in terms of whether Zoe and Michael are right, in my mind,” Burnham said. “There’s a question about whether they’re early.”
Ex/ante means “before the event,” and whether the firm is taking a riskier approach by backing companies not traditionally seen as VC fund drivers remains to be seen. Weinberg pointed to established businesses outside the fund’s portfolio, such as messaging non-profit Signal, search engine DuckDuckGo, web browser Brave and decentralized storage network Arweave as examples of companies focused on privacy and user protection that have reached meaningful scale; others have been acquired by the big tech companies, inching them toward being more conscious in such areas, she argued.
Still, Weinberg said she’s a pragmatist about how such tools will become top priorities for large numbers of users. “I show up at LaGuardia Airport and suddenly Google knows it’s time for me to have my boarding pass. It’s a little creepy, but it’s also convenient. I understand that,” she said. Other technologies, such as data “passports” that could allow users to willingly sell their personal data, or watermarking tools that would mark ownership of digital content, could lead to inequality and misuse, she noted.
It’s precisely such conversations, however, that make Weinberg unusually valuable on a cap table, said Daniel Mason, CEO of Anon, as startup building infrastructure for AI agents to carry out tasks across different services and apps, such as posting to multiple social media sites simultaneously, or autonomously finding and booking a plane ticket. In product strategy meetings, Weinberg urged Mason to store as little user data as possible; she’s also made introductions to customers and other investors, he added.
“Zoe is truly an expert on data security, data privacy and identity,” Mason said. “She just blew me away, both with that and the people she knew. She’s been an amazing confidante for us.”
That’s one benefit — and calling card — of ex/ante: for mission-driven founders who take its money, they gain an “ideological ally,” Weinberg argued. Such policy positions — pro privacy and civil liberties, digital sovereignty and American-style democracy — should win fans across the tech sector’s ideological spectrums, the investor hopes.
“In many ways what we are doing is inherently political,” Weinberg said. “But it’s not inherently partisan.”