Disney’s Steamboat not mousing around: Walt Disney’s venture arm adds new managing director to helm

Steamboat Ventures seems to be riding high again, at least in terms of staff numbers. Since 2003, Steamboat has only had one managing director, founder John Ball. And at one time, Steamboat, the venture capital arm of The Walt Disney Co., which was founded in 2000, was down to Ball and a CFO (according to a report in the Oct. 20, 2003 issue of PE Week).

But in an email last week, Dan Beldy announced to friends and former colleagues that he has joined the firm as a managing director. Since November 2004, Beldy has been helping to manage a hedge fund that he co-founded called Plainview Capital, which, according to Beldy’s email, is managing more than $50 million in LP commitments. He also served as the COO of blog tracker Technorati in its nascent days, and, before that, was a GP at Hummer Winblad, which he left in January of 2004.

Steamboat’s staff, according to the website, now includes Ball, Beldy, CFO Judy Dickinson, Senior Principal Scott Hilleboe and Senior Associate David Minn. Similar to Beldy, Hilleboe was formerly an associate at Hummer Winblad. He joined the Burbank-based firm in 2003.

Another recent hire is Principal Alex Hartigan, who joined the firm late last year from Panasonic Ventures.

Ball, who previously ran Disney’s corporate development office, and Beldy did not respond to requests for comment.

While at Hummer Winblad, Beldy led at least seven investments, three of which are now out of business. Two were acquired – one for an undisclosed amount, and another for a loss. Two others – HR software application startup Employease and Lathian Systems, which sells Web-based sales and marketing tools to the life science industry – are ongoing investments. Employease is rumored to have an IPO offering in its sights this year.

Though hardly a thrill ride, the course for Steamboat – which invests in companies with broad strategic importance to Disney – has had some ups and downs. In 2003, it saw several staff departures, including former managing director Michael Banks, one associate, and one analyst.

Today, it appears that Disney, which funded Steamboat with $70 million, isn’t giving up on its offshoot, which invests between $2 million and $5 million per deal, with a maximum of $10 million per company. But it’s not known how much is left in that inaugural fund.

Steamboat has already backed 10 companies since its inception, according to The MoneyTree Survey from PricewaterhouseCoopers, Thomson Venture Economics (publisher of PE Week) and the National Venture Capital Association. They include:

* Menlo Park, Calif.-based BitPass, a Web-based payment service that has raised $14 million from Steamboat and more than a half dozen other investors.

* Photo restoration startup Photo TLC, based in Petaluma, Calif., which last year raised all of its funding to date – $15 million – from Steamboat, JPMorgan and El Dorado Ventures.

* And FastClick, which agreed to be acquired by rival online advertising company ValueClick in a $214 million stock swap in August, five months after its disappointing IPO. Its investors – Steamboat, Highland Capital Partners and Oak Investment Partners – co-led a $75 million Series A for FastClick in September 2004.

Steamboat – which takes its name from “Steamboat Willie,” an animated cartoon that was the screen debut of Mickey and Minnie Mouse in 1928 – had a successful outcome with its investment in Iridigm Display, which sold to Qualcomm in October 2004 for $205 million in cash and stock after raising $46 million from a dozen investors over two rounds. Steamboat participated in both rounds.

The firm sold another startup, Gillian Systems, to a company called Breach Security for an undisclosed amount. Gillian had raised just under $31 million from nearly a dozen investors.