Like any venture capital firm in Silicon Valley, Fifty Years backs startups that it thinks will make massive amounts of money. But the firm, recently launched by two Y Combinator alumni, has a second requirement: Each of the entrepreneurs in its portfolio also has to have the potential to solve a major world problem.
One of the startups, for example, is working on meat grown in a lab without cows, avoiding the sustainability and ethical challenges of farming. Another is working on on-demand birth control delivered without a doctor visit.
Cofounder Ela Madej, a serial entrepreneur who previously cofounded Base CRM, a large enterprise software company, was working in a more traditional venture firm when she became frustrated with seeing how smart, talented entrepreneurs were spending their time.
“If somebody is excited about monetizing an e-commerce retargeting platform that kind of helps companies optimize how many consumers they trick into buying stuff they don’t need, it’s kind of disappointing,” she says. “It essentially came down to my frustration–is this all that technology can give the world?”
While a handful of other venture captalists are focused on social impact, it’s still a tiny proportion compared to the rest of Silicon Valley. Cofounder Seth Bannon, who previously launched new software for nonprofits, says that he saw a gap when trying to launch his own startup.
“When it came time to fund-raise, we felt like we always had to make this choice, a choice between investors that either really cared about our social impact mission, or investors that had the skills, knowledge, and experience to help us scale our business,” he says. “It was really hard to find an overlap between these two worlds.”
Some investors in the social impact world support slow-growth companies, but Fifty Years does not. “I think if you look at any one of our portfolio companies on their own, they would look like a very traditional, technology-enabled, high-growth startup,” says Bannon. “We’re really looking at these businesses that can generate massive scale and hence put a dent in solving one of the sustainable development goals as quickly as possible.”
The firm’s name is inspired by a 1931 Winston Churchill essay, Fifty Years Hence, in which Churchill predicted the future of artificial intelligence, mobile phones, genetic engineering, and even lab-grown meat and indoor farming:
We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium . . . If the gigantic new sources of power become available, food will be produced without recourse to sunlight. Vast cellars in which artificial radiation is generated may replace the cornfields or potato patches of the world.
Fifty Years is particularly interested in giving seed funding to startups working on synthetic biology. “One of the reasons we’re excited about synthetic biology is that the costs in the space have been dropping pretty radically over the last 5 to 10 years,” says Bannon. “We’re seeing something very similar to what we saw in software a couple of decades ago and what we saw in hardware 10 years ago. Where it will soon be possible for someone to get a synthetic biology company up and off the ground, funded off their credit card, from their garage.”
Startups using synthetic biology also tend to work on big problems, like diagnosing or treating disease, or creating meat or milk without a cow on a factory farm. “The food system is just totally broken,” he says. “So it’s one of the areas that I think needs reworking.”
Since some in the tech world might define “big problem” differently, the firm uses the Sustainable Development Goals, the UN’s list of major issues like poverty, clean water, and hunger, as its guide.
“We’re not talking about pairing people with the perfect pair of shoes, or making sure that someone can get sushi the second they have a craving for it,” says Bannon. “We’re talking about solving the climate crisis or defeating disease or feeding the world or educating everyone.”
Though most of those challenges are most apparent in the developing world, the firm is interested in companies that can launch in the U.S. and Europe, in order to scale up as quickly as possible. “We prefer the model where a startup builds a sustainable revenue base in the developed world, and then brings their technology to the entire globe.” he says. “We think this makes it more likely they’ll succeed in making a truly global impact.”
Fifty Years is convinced that the mission-driven companies it supports will ultimately also be more successful than their sushi-delivery counterparts.
“It’s going to be very hard for companies that are not doing this to compete,” says Bannon. “One of the big reasons is because millennials just see business differently than other generations, and when they become the talent everyone’s competing for, it’s going to be very hard for a company that’s not solving one of these big problems to recruit and retain the best talent . . . We believe the proper role of business is both making money and solving big problems.”
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