What to know about Bay Area investments from a Russian oligarch

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A Russian oligarch, $28 million, an abandoned church, and the dream of a new technological religion might seem like something out of a bad science fiction novel. But it’s real.

In a new investigation, The San Francisco Standard reveals how a Russian billionaire linked to Vladimir Putin invested $28 million in the Bay Area in 2015 and 2016 through a secret corporate network.

His most notable investments have been in a self-driving car tech company and, wait for it, a former church in San Francisco turned into a startup incubator.

Then, in 2018, the United States sanctioned the oligarch in question, Suleyman Kerimov, in retaliation for “the Kremlin’s malign activity around the world”. His foothold in the Bay Area began to dissipate.

Here are five takeaways from The Standard’s new survey.

Russian billionaire, businessman and Federation Council member Suleyman Kerimov attends a meeting at Naryn Kala Castle April 14, 2021 in Derbent, Dagestan, Russia. | Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

1. Who is Suleyman Kerimov? How did he get to San Francisco?

Kerimov is a Russian oligarch who made his fortune investing in Polyus, a Russian company that is the largest gold producer in the world.

In 2015 and 2016, Kerimov invested part of his fortune in the Bay Area’s hot tech scene through a venture capital firm named GVA Capital.

Described as “not your typical dad’s venture capital firm,” GVA Capital touted its investments in early-stage startups and international connections without naming the source of its funds.

Founded by Russian businessmen Magomed Musaev and Pavel Cherkashin, the venture capital firm tapped Kerimov as a client and found him investment opportunities.

2. Three investments, one big success

Kerimov has made three investments through GVA Capital:

  • $3 million in Vestor.In, a seed fund for startups.
  • $20 million in Luminar Technologies, a company developing technology for self-driving cars. In 2020, the company went public. Kerimov’s shares are now worth around $150 million.
  • $5 million in Startup Temple Fund, a company that bought Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a former Catholic church in Russian Hill. He transformed the church into a tech incubator and event space known as the Startup Temple.
Exteriors of the former Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church (Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe) at 906 Broadway Street which was privately purchased in 2016 to become Hack Temple in San Francisco, California, November 16, 2022. | Michaela Vacheva for The Standard

3. Wait, did you say “Startup Temple”?

Yes, we did. The man of ideas behind this unusual project was Cherkashin, who envisioned a place where investors and startup founders could mingle, party and even cohabit in a cohabitation space built in the former church rectory. .

In a 2017 magazine column, Cherkashin compared startup culture to a “religious experiment” and pleaded with readers to build an IRS-approved “Church of Hacktivism,” offering to cover costs and provide space. event.

But the Startup Temple failed as a business and as an investment for Kerimov.

In 2020, after three to four years of struggling, the company ran out of money amid the pandemic. Cherkashin could no longer pay its American creditor and the building was seized. The church is now empty.

4. Plans thwarted for a homeless shelter

After being elected to his third term on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2015, Aaron Peskin pledged to fulfill a campaign promise: to bring a homeless shelter to Russian Hill. He had a building in mind for this – the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church.

But during lease negotiations with the landlord, he received bad news.

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“They had sold it to this anonymous party. And we were like, ‘What is this?’ “Said Peskin. “We were told, ‘These people gave us a huge amount of money.’ To me, that made no sense.”

That party, of course, was the Startup Temple Fund, backed by Kerimov’s money.

The foiled Russian Hill homeless shelter reveals the impact of capital flight and oligarchic investment at the grassroots level.

Had Kerimov never invested in the church, Peskin believes the neighborhood would have received a homeless shelter in 2016. It took another three years to find another location in the area, delaying a critical resource for the growing homeless population of the city.

5. American sanctions overtaken by Kerimov

In 2018, the United States imposed sanctions on Kerimov. But his investments in San Francisco were not clearly affected because they were registered with an offshore company which the oligarch did not directly own.

In 2022, after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine led to new sanctions, the United States blocked Heritage Trust, the Delaware trust holding Kerimov’s investments, freezing them.

On November 14, the United States sanctioned Kerimov’s wife, children, nephew and alleged proxies. Heritage Trust ultimately benefits the oligarch’s children, grandchildren and potentially other family members, The Standard’s investigation has revealed.

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