Former VC, And Startup CEO, Launches Fund To Back Startups Focused On Neurodiversity

Amol Deshpande is the CEO of Farmers Business Network and the sole GP behind Divergent Investments. COURTESY OF THE FIRM.

When Amol Deshpande gets passionate about an area, he dives deep. The former partner at Kleiner Perkins felt that way about agriculture nearly eight years ago before cofounding his current startup, Farmers Business Network, which helps family farms maximize profits. And when Deshpande’s son was diagnosed with a moderate case of autism seven years ago at age three, he plunged into the different interventions and therapies available. Deshpande’s son, now 10, is thriving. But the founder knows that isn’t everyone’s experience. “I feel grateful about all of the things that had to happen, but I also recognize that we were fortunate to have the means and the access to perform what I think is a miracle,” Deshpande tells Forbes. “There are thousands and thousands getting diagnosed and thousands not even getting diagnosed. I feel a conviction that I have to impact that.”


I think that the whole idea is to hopefully make this a bit more mainstream.”

After investing in companies focused on the area, Deshpande has launched a $10 million fund of his own capital to invest in neurodiversity-focused startups, as originally reported in Midas Touch newsletter. Divergent Investments will invest in early-stage companies across the neurodiversity sector, not exclusively autism, including therapies and treatments for disorders, and related areas like family-oriented healthcare and education. As the fund’s sole GP, Deshpande will look for startups making a direct impact, he says, led by entrepreneurs committed to the cause for the long haul. He’s made nine investments so far into companies including Floreo, which uses virtual reality to help teach social skills to people with autism and related disorders; and Learnfully, an edtech company focused on developing individual education plans, and founded by his wife.


Investing his own capital only, Deshpande says, allows him to move quickly and own the fund’s decisions. So far, Deshpande has mostly invested alongside family offices and angel investors. But more established firms are starting to get interested, he says. “I think that the whole idea is to hopefully make this a bit more mainstream,” Deshpande says. “I certainly want to bring more investors in. The hope is that it sparks some interest. I’m happy to write those first checks and take the risk.”


Investing his own capital only, Deshpande says, allows him to move quickly and own the fund’s decisions. So far, Deshpande has mostly invested alongside family offices and angel investors. But more established firms are starting to get interested, he says. “I think that the whole idea is to hopefully make this a bit more mainstream,” Deshpande says. “I certainly want to bring more investors in. The hope is that it sparks some interest. I’m happy to write those first checks and take the risk.”


Deshpande is able to bring more than just capital to the table too, according to his portfolio companies. Alden Romney, the CEO of Opya, a tech-enabled autism therapy company focused on kids, says that it’s great to work with an investor like Deshpande because of his past experiences as both an entrepreneur and a VC. What sets him apart the most though, Romney says, is his dedication to the subject. “He is incredibly passionate about, broadly the space, and having an impact with neurodivergent kids,” Romney tells Forbes. “That mission-driven focus and the approach of Divergent Investments for long-term investment is incredibly valuable as an entrepreneur.”


While neurodiversity is considered a niche area within VC, Deshpande thinks that’s probably due to the current size of the startup market — which is drastically smaller than other verticals within healthcare, despite the amount of people it impacts. Autism clinics in California currently have six-month waiting lists, Deshpande claims; and while one in five kids have independent education plans in school, finding resources like speech pathologists is incredibly difficult. Romney agrees and hopes this fund helps change that. “There is a huge opportunity in the areas of neurodiversity, edtech, and health that historically have had minimal investment,” Romney says. “A fund focused on [neurodiversity] not only brings experience but a commitment to capital for the long term.”


Divergent Investments is among a slew of recent venture funds that are looking to target specific disorders or verticals of the fragmented healthcare system, often driven by personal experience. Deshpande’s firm joins others like AllerFund, which looks to target early-stage companies in the food allergy space, Vinaj Ventures, which recently launched a fund focused on teen mental health services, and JDRF T1D Fund, a nonprofit VC targeting treatments for Type 1 diabetes started by a former Bain Capital managing director.


“In a strange way, when I’m investing, I feel like I’m investing in my son,” Deshpande says. “I want to emphasize this is all about the impact of trying to attract more attention to this sector. I hope more entrepreneurs choose this sector and I want them to get funded.”

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