Bridging the Gap Between Sci-Fi and Reality: Investing in Deep Tech
We are transitioning from a world that is merely connected through technology to a world that will become radically enhanced through technology. Investing in this new world of deep tech bridges the gap between science fiction and reality and calls for creative, outside-the-box thinking from talented founders and funders alike.
During the final week of Maddie Callander’s miniseries, “Women Leading Deep Tech”, Maddie and her guests, Maryanna Saenko, Partner at Future Ventures, and Christy Cardenas, Managing Partner at Grit Ventures, investigate how the gap between science fiction and reality continues to converge.
This season of the Kauffman Fellows Podcast is produced in partnership with Mighty Capital. Together, we unravel what truly makes a great VC investor.
Future Ventures Co-Founder and Partner, Maryanna Saenko, on Why Deep Tech is the Space To Be In
Maddie hosts Maryanna Saenko, Partner at Future Ventures, an early-stage venture capital fund focused on frontier technology investments. With an academic background in material science, biomedical engineering, and robotics, Maryanna offers her expertise to describe why deep tech is constantly changing, explain what fuels her lifelong desire to keep learning, and share her journey from engineer to venture capitalist.
Tune in and catch some of our favorite soundbites below!
On what led her to Future Ventures
Like many people, Saenko never planned to be a VC, but her background in science led her to deep tech investing.
“I never expected to be a venture capitalist. I had no idea that creatures called venture capitalists existed until my mid-20s. I am a recovering engineer. I had intended to spend my life as a research scientist and an academic. I had the pleasure of working on all sorts of interesting projects. That bred in me a desire to learn about the future of technology and the interesting intersection between fields of technology that are advancing in parallel and where suddenly overlap at the edges becomes viable and interesting. Those boundary layers are where I get to play today.”
On the definition of deep tech
Saenko breaks down precisely what should be considered deep tech.
“Deep tech is a constantly moving target. One would argue it’s similar to the singularity. It’s maybe not a single point in our future state where technology advances. Something that 30 years ago was considered frontier, deep technology, by the very nature of time passing, is no longer that today. I would define frontier technology as what is just over the horizon of the capability to produce in mass today from a technological standpoint, but that scientifically, thermodynamic and first principle of physics closes. There’s a difference between pure research science and frontier technology. It’s a subtle difference. Frontier technology is that space, beyond basic research science, where we’re trying to describe the fundamentals of how our universe works. A bit before you are at a known, well understood, easily scalable, and mass-producible form of technology.
On Future Ventures investment thesis for deep tech
As Saenko described, deep tech is constantly changing. Future Ventures needed an investment thesis to fit that.
“Our investment thesis is to chase that moving target across the diaspora of frontier technologies. Whether they be in semiconductor processing, advanced algorithmic techniques in machine learning in AI, in how we could look at genetic data and metagenomic data, creating larger simulation structures, and build better therapeutics for our world.
We look for novel technology — things unlike anything we’ve seen before that hopefully make the world a better place. Most importantly, things that don’t prey on human frailty. I’m a techno-optimist. I think that technology can solve an enormous amount of problems in the world and generally do good. I also think it’s essential to consider all of the second-order effects. The risky subjugations of blindly believing that technology can do no harm.”
On what fuels her to keep learning and growing
There might be a bit of FOMO to what drives Saenko.
“Something is always grabbing my attention. I think it’s why I became a scientist and an engineer. That sense of trying to understand the universe. It’s such a complex system. It has such crazy, emergent behaviors. Life is such a chaotic experience, and to pause, look at a tree blossoming and understand what that blossom means. How when that one gets pollinated before others, it will start growing fruit. Then, the amount of fruit you allow a tree to grow affects how many resources it has and how sweet the fruit is.
There’s such a beauty in understanding the world. That’s what drives me. Not from an ego perspective, but there are so many things to learn. They often stack on one another. You learn something in a sector, and then it suddenly allows you to be more inspired and understand something else. Maybe I’m just a person who’s afraid of being left in the dark, but I really appreciate being able to understand what’s going on around me.”
Grit Ventures Managing Partner, Christy Cardenas, on the Role of Universities in Deep Tech
In the final episode of Maddie Callander’s miniseries, she welcomes Christy Cardenas, Managing Partner at Grit Ventures, which funds pre-seed and seed-stage deep tech. Bringing ten years and $12 billion in investment banking, private equity, and venture capital transaction experience, Christy dives into the 3 D’s of deep tech, the benefits of partnering with universities to get in early with deep tech researchers, and how she keeps her finger on the pulse of deep tech.
Tune in and catch some of our favorite soundbites below!
On the type of checks Grit Ventures writes for deep tech
Cardenas and her partners at Grit Ventures are investing in a revolution.
“We are an early-stage, deep tech fund, investing at the pre-seed and seed level. Sometimes, we’ll double down on the series A. We like to be the first institutional capital in, and we’ll go as high as a million. Sometimes, we’ll go in early enough that we’ll start small, around $250,000.
Grit Ventures organizes ourselves around universities, deeper technical founders, and the ecosystem surrounding our hub universities. We’re investing in what we consider the clean machine revolution. AI, robotics, and energy, what I consider technological infrastructure.”
On the 3 D’s of deep tech
Tech is the solution for the less glamorous jobs that humans don’t want to do but need to be done.
“The 3 D’s are dull, dirty, and dangerous. When it comes to labor shortages and such, there are many things that people don’t want to do and shouldn’t be doing. Trash, we’re taking a close look now at recycling, which is cutting off sifting through trash. Ideally, machines can solve these types of problems.
Anything routine, anything that is a rote, manual task that you can machine enable and program a machine to do what humans aren’t well suited for. Humans are amazing enlightened creatures, and to subject them to doing very routine manual tasks doesn’t make sense.”
On how Grit Ventures sources deep tech companies to invest in
Universities are brimming with talent, so Grit Ventures has developed relationships within universities to get in early with deep tech researchers and budding companies.
“The universities are the tech R&D nervous system in the United States. It’s a nicely organized hub and spoke system, where there are many technical experts and a lot of talent. We pay attention to the labs where professors and researchers are actively developing technology. There are a handful of universities that are strong in robotics and AI. Those also happen to be the universities that pay attention to energy for obvious reasons.
We spent quite a bit of time getting to know the universities, the tech transfer offices, and the individual researchers who are doing the real work. Also, these innovation ecosystems tend to develop around the universities. That aura is another thing that we pay attention to where it’s talent and startups. Places like Austin, Silicon Valley, Boston, Atlanta, and Denver.”
On how Grit Ventures helps deep tech companies get off the ground
Cardenas and the partners at Grit Ventures must keep their finger on the pulse of several areas to best help their founders.
“It’s a more complex game. For some technologies, particularly deeper technologies, only the US government has the wherewithal to explore and find them. The government is the most powerful economic force on the globe. If you look at federal spending, it’s like a third of US GDP. $6 trillion per year. We’re paying close attention to where the Biden administration is spending money on infrastructure and R&D. That’s important to us. That means not only watching where the dollars are going but paying attention to the organizations that are doing the work.
There’s something of a chasm to bridge for corporates, particularly in robotics and these kinds of deeper tech fields such as AI and energy. You’ve got the R&D happening in the universities where the tech is today. Then, you’ve got what the corporates care about. Not only that, but you’ve got corporates that have substantial economic power but need to pivot. Oil and gas companies that need to become clean energy companies or machine companies somehow. We’re actively paying attention to bridging that gap and making that process more efficient. That’s the investor’s responsibility. To be a network organizer, connect some of these dots, and sort out how to make this equation work better.”