Creating a future where humanity and the planet thrive
To say that science means progress is, to many of us, almost axiomatic. There is a promise of progress implicit in our understanding of scientific endeavour – a belief that knowledge is valuable insofar as it improves lives and collective outcomes.
The last 50 years can be read as a validation of that promise: global GDP per capita rocketed by 1200%, while life expectancy increased by 14 years (73). Countless other metrics and indices tell a tale of undeniable progress - better, longer and richer lives made possible by technological and scientific breakthroughs.
But while science has driven momentous improvements in many areas, in others it lags woefully behind: the more complex challenges - the ones that require networks or systems of new solutions - persist, and we lack the innovation infrastructure to take them on. Consider the areas of health and climate change: a third of us will still die of cancer despite $45bn in exits last year, while a quarter of the global population will be displaced in the next 50 years due to global warming.
At the root of these challenges is not necessarily a lack of scientific knowledge but a failure to combine that knowledge into coherent sets of viable, scalable and sustainable solutions. A failure, in other words, of the capabilities of our scientific economy to keep pace with the evolving complexity of the threats facing humanity. If we are to tackle these existential challenges, drastic, well-coordinated change is required at the level of sectors including climate, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and computation.
This goes to the heart of our mission. At Deep Science Ventures, we’re creating a future where humanity and the planet thrive, combining available scientific knowledge and founder-type scientists into high-impact ventures. We’re focused on four missions: curative therapeutics, restorative agriculture, clean energy and unconstrained computation; tackling the challenges defining those areas by taking a first-principles approach and partnering with leading institutions.
The last 5 years
We have come a long way since our launch, growing ten times in size from a core group of generalists to a bench of deep experts, 95% of whom boast either PhDs or C-Suite founder experience. Overall, we boast a very low failure rate (<10% over 5 years, with all failures in the first year) and 77% of founders who join us end up launching a company, while 80% of our portfolio companies raise follow-on funding (ratio to non-dilutive of 1:1).
We have partnered with FTSE 100 companies like Anglo American on carbon neutral fuels, some of the largest and most effective charities in the world like Cancer Research UK on advanced therapies and Grantham Foundation on carbon capture and worked with governments as far away as Costa Rica on region level crop security.
Whilst science takes time (a typical drug takes over 10 years to reach market), we’re beginning to see evidence that our first principles approach can significantly outperform tech-push in complex areas.
Our companies have already made a significant impact in the key areas that we’re addressing. From Mission Zero capturing carbon at the lowest required energy and winning Elon Musk's X Prize, to Antiverse building and testing in-silico antibodies for “hard” cancer targets that out-perform any of those on the market, to XONAI halving the cost and carbon impact of cloud compute and rolling out to customers with over $300m of cloud spend within 18 months of launch.
Our companies have partnered with VCs such as Bill Gates’ Breakthrough Energy Ventures, Chris Sacca’s Lower Carbon Capital and Atomico to amazing angels like David Rowan (former Editor of Wired), Patrick Collison (Founder of Stripe), Kyle Vogt (Founder of Cruise), Mehdi Ghissassi (Head of applied science at Google DeepMind), Jonathan Milner (founder of antibody unicorn Abcam) and many others.
Looking ahead, we have a pipeline of over 20 partnered areas, which affords us inception stage funding for 30 companies over the next 3 years. We have quintupled (5x) funding per company, eliminated any fees to our portfolio companies, and increased stipends (>2x) as well as the potential duration founders can spend with us from 3 months to 18 months - which in turn has enabled us to tackle much more complex questions with hidden influences and data that often underlie the most pressing issues. We also enable founders to work remotely, drawing founders from 24 different countries so far.
Over the next 5 years we will create 100 companies, opening up our tool set to the broader scientific community in order to create a truly collaborative venture creation ecosystem.
The scientific economy is severely constrained
The scientific economy is much larger than most people imagine. Around $1.7 trillion was spent on global R&D last year, with £70bn allocated to deep-tech venture capital funding (mostly biotech and cleantech) in just the first 3 months of 2021. Most of this capital is late stage and chases a small number of available companies. This led to the implosions we’ve seen this year in the biotech market and cleantech “SPACs” with most now valued well below the amount of money they’ve taken on board.
The reason so much money chases so few companies is that very few deep-tech companies reach scale. For example, just 0.1% of UK spin-outs have reached unicorn status. This in turn is due to an overreliance on spin-outs and, critically, on newly discovered science as the primary source of spin-out formation. However, in reality, most complex problems require a whole suite of solutions from industries and ecosystems working collaboratively (rather than one single breakthrough). We believe this symbiotic approach is a more constructive and pragmatic way of interpreting the challenges we are facing.
It’s small wonder that investors tend to struggle to nail the “timing”: this is often shorthand for “this is an interesting opportunity but the other enabling components are missing”. In other words, if there are no founders providing the other enabling solutions required to usher in a new market, investors must accept that the hands of the venture timing clock have not yet aligned.
Left alone, the scientific economy cannot be counted on to reverse course and embrace the collaborative and agile ethos needed to solve the world’s most pressing challenges - or coordinate sectors to deliver the necessary scientific interventions. The system needs to be drastically rethought.
A new model requires a new protocol
We have observed and learned from other models and frameworks such as tech-transfer, accelerators, talent investors, build-in-house venture, corporate innovation; all of which contributed to our understanding and framing of the challenge of sector-scale change, all the while working with some of the most brilliant innovative minds across Bell Labs, Google X, Google DeepMind, PARC and many of the world's top universities. What has gradually become clear is that we need to combine many elements of these approaches.
We now address venture creation by focusing on shared Outcomes, i.e. changes that we, and the future team, urgently want to see in the world and potential paths to get there. Not a single idea, or a technology, or an individual, but a vision of macro change, into which we recruit Founders with specific skillsets, in order to fulfil that vision in a number of ways. This approach might sound obvious, but nearly all science ventures start with a new discovery or technology that must find a home in the world, or by asking what the expertise of a specific individual might achieve. Instead, our outcome-first methodology allows our internal team of PhDs and industry experts to get just far enough to understand the broad area of the most likely solution and possible skill sets, find the right person to carry on that journey and iterate this until the ideal team and evidence is in place. Often this requires many loops, triggered when that one-in-a-billion person informs us that we should talk to someone else they know who has an even better way of solving this key part of the challenge.
The second major challenge that we confront is that science often runs along highly correlated technology trends, e.g. CRISPR or quantum and any effort to take a more first principles approach faces an uphill battle against initial pre-conceptions and who or whatever technology is hot right now. In the same way that “no one ever got fired for working with McKinsey”, no VC ever got fired for investing in the latest technology from a big name academic. However, whilst the valuation numbers go up, especially in a bull market, eventually the fallacy of single technology approaches for complex problems is revealed with yet another failure.
To overcome this, one of our core developments was the creation of a unique "ontology” - a way of collating knowledge and encoding our thinking so that it is easily understandable by everyone who works with us, allowing them to quickly get to first principles, from the macro to the molecule. This allows us to move fast, avoid biases and unequivocally explain why a given approach has the highest chance of succeeding despite all of the noise in the market. So far, this has had 100% conversion from technical plan to lab results, which is quite astounding considering the typical failure rates in areas like biotech.
Combining these approaches, we now take a highly systematic view centred around shared desired outcomes, constructed across a wide community, often involving hundreds of people and leveraging our community of nearly 500 scientific and commercial advisors as well as the expertise, reach and resources of our partners. For example Cancer Research UK can directly connect to the >4000 researchers that they fund, Stripe works with us to buy the carbon that our companies capture, whilst other partners own millions of hectares of land suitable for testing novel agricultural technologies.
At the same time, the impact of any individual working at DSV is amplified by our community tools, which allow existing members to find the right people across niches, search millions of profiles per minute, find super-aligned pre-IP, pre-team exploration project financing and other resources to identify and pursue the optimal direction together.
Armed with an evolved methodology, we are now in a position to radically increase the number of science companies and help shape a future where humanity and the planet thrives.
Over the next few years we intend to build out and open up our platforms and protocols to more consistently and more rapidly identify knowledge combinations with a high probability of achieving given Outcomes across unrelated knowledge silos. We envision a future in which expertise, knowledge and capital is automatically and rapidly assembled around a given outcome and the field of scientific venturing moves from highly siloed to highly collaborative with everyone involved fairly sharing the upside.
DSV has always stood on the shoulders of an incredible network and ecosystem of partners and supporters, and that will continue to be indispensable as we drive our vision forward. To that end, we strongly encourage all those of you - researchers, entrepreneurs, organisations, partners, investors, governments - who share our vision, values and ideas, to connect with us and explore ways we can collaborate, in pursuit of our common, collective goals.