Joe Biden's election to head the State Department co-founded a management consulting firm that helped create a little-known venture capital fund with a strong national security portfolio.
Antony Blinken, Biden's election as Secretary of State, co-founded WestExec Advisors in 2017 with other former government officials including Michele Flournoy, former Under-Secretary of State for Defense Policy under President Barack Obama.
The Ridgeline Partners fund was co-founded by Blinkens WestExec and, according to the WestExec website, offers "strategic insights into the requirements of the US and allied national security capabilities and new opportunities to expand the fund portfolio."
The fund's website also states that WestExec is Ridgeline's strategic partner. Another co-founder of the consulting firm, Nitin Chadda, is the investment co-chair of Ridgeline Partners. Chadda was senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense during Obama's second term.
Companies in Ridgeline's portfolio include data and technology startups that have been reported to have won government contracts, including some contracts with the Department of Defense, according to disclosure reports. Another of his portfolio companies is partially funded by a nonprofit that was originally formed to support the Central Intelligence Agency.
This is another example of the business relationship between Biden's agents raising questions about potential conflicts of interest. Blinken, managing partner at WestExec, has been on leave since joining the Biden campaign.
Blinken was also involved in Pine Island Capital Partners. The investment firm was recently featured in a special-purpose prospectus for an acquisition company that provides access to interested parties to purchase an equity interest. Biden's most recent election as Secretary of Defense, retired General Lloyd Austin, is also part of Pine Capital's Washington, DC advisory team. Pine Island is listed as a strategic partner of WestExec.
Neera Tanden, Biden's decision to head the bureau of administration and housekeeping, ran a nonprofit that was largely funded by Wall Street financiers and Silicon Valley giants.
Progressives are demanding more transparency about Biden agents associated with the Ridgeline and the companies in their portfolio.
"We need to understand exactly who is affiliated with this company and the companies in its portfolio – many of which rely on government contracts or investments – how this affects decisions they are likely to have to make, and whether potential conflicts are even possible are to be cured, "David Segal, executive director of Progressive Demand Progress, told CNBC in an email.
Ridgeline's website states that it is "investing in viable technology companies that are vital to national security". The company's website also lists eight members of the WestExec team, including Chadda and Flournoy, whom Biden reportedly considered as Secretary of Defense before choosing Austin. The website does not describe any potential roles for WestExec executives and Blinken is not listed on the Fund's homepage.
A WestExec spokesperson declined to answer detailed questions about its working relationship with Ridgeline and referred CNBC to a section of the company's website that provides a brief overview of its partnership. The representative also said WestExec has no role in Ridgeline-backed companies applying for or receiving contracts.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden transition team, told CNBC in a statement that while Blinken was not involved in the company's operations, if it is approved by the Senate, Blinken will divest its interest in Ridgeline. The statement did not specify how much he invested in the company.
"Joe Biden has pledged the strictest ethical government in American history, and every cabinet member will adhere to all disclosure requirements and strict ethical rules – including refusal if necessary," said Bates.
At the beginning of the official verification process, Blinken is required to file a public financial report that can provide insight into how much it has made and what stake in Ridgeline it has made since its launch.
The other co-founders of Ridgeline have a mix of backgrounds in finance, venture capital and various government apparatuses. Ridgeline's co-founder and partner, Ben Walker, was a founding partner of Harpoon Ventures, another venture capital firm. He also has experience serving on the Defense Council for the Truman National Security Project.
Andrew McMahon is also listed as a co-founder and partner. In addition to his many other previous experiences, McMahon's LinkedIn page was a political analyst in the Bureau of Administration and Budget during the Obama administration.
Ryan Clinton is another co-founder and partner of the fund. His LinkedIn profile states that he has a background in "Defense Technology". Shortly before heading up Rigeline, he worked at Anduril, a defense technology company co-founded by longtime Trump ally Palmer Luckey. Clinton's LinkedIn page states that he has been working on "Business Development and Growth," and his profile suggests that his work for Anduril is focused on the Department of Defense.
Walker, McMahon, and Clinton have not returned requests for comment.
Of the 13 companies currently listed in Ridgeline's portfolio, at least three have received significant government contracts. Opentrons, a New York-based start-up that purportedly makes robots for biologists, has won nearly $ 90,000 in government contracts since late 2019. The Ministries of Commerce, Agriculture and Home Affairs recently purchased services from Opentrons.
Wallaroo Labs, a New York-based data and technology company, is also listed in Ridgeline's portfolio. At the end of 2019, Wallaroo received a contract from the Department of Defense worth almost $ 50,000.
Fluree is also a Ridgeline portfolio company. Late last year, the DOD was awarded a contract worth nearly $ 50,000. The data company is based in North Carolina, and Ridgeline is listed as a partner among a number of technology and military giants, including Amazon Web Services, the U.S. Air Force, and the Google Cloud Platform.
The Australian technology company Myriota is also part of the portfolio. Though the startup doesn't appear to have any recent government contracts associated with it, it is partially funded by In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit that was created to bring high-end technology to the CIA, says the agency's website .
In-Q-Tel, along with other investors, has spent $ 28 million in Series B funding to expand Myriota’s satellite network, according to an April press release. According to In-Q-Tel's latest 990 disclosure form from 2018, the group is a 501 (c) (3) group that closed this year with net worth more than $ 450 million.
"ln-Q-Tel identifies, adapts and delivers innovative technological solutions that serve the national security interests of the United States government and its allies," states the file under its mission statement.