Fifty Years, a deep-tech investor, has raised $90 million from tens of “unicorn” founders

Fifty Years, a six-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit with a portfolio that’s already rife with mostly deep tech companies — many with a good story to tell about how they can have an impact on the environment — just closed its third and newest fund with $90 million in capital commitments.

The money isn’t coming from just anywhere. Firm cofounder Seth Bannon tells us the firm aimed to recruit founders of 20 so-called unicorn companies so that they would have a vested interest in — and could occasionally advise — its portfolio companies. He says that Fifty Years wound up instead with 44 “unicorn” founders, including from Spotify, Github, Skype, Supercell, Minecraft, Dropbox, Unity, Klarna, Zendesk, Kahoot, and Upstart.

Some of those founders were backed by Fifty Years, in fact, including the cofounders of the synthetic biology company Solugen, which is now valued by investors at $1.8 billion and which received its first check from Fifty Years; Astranis, a geostationary communications satellite operator that is currently valued at $1.4 billion and which also received its first check from Fifty Years; and Opentrons, a maker of affordable lab robots that is now valued at $1.8 billion (which Fifty Years backed as part of a broader seed round).

Indeed, Fifty Years — which is run by Bannon; firm cofounder Ela Madej; and six other full-time people, including a synthetic biologist — has a pretty good story to tell about itself for such a young firm.

First, it has an undeniably interesting portfolio. In addition to space satellites and sustainable chemicals, the firm’s bets include Upside Foods, the food tech company that was formerly known as Memphis Meats (and whose valuation is also estimated to now be in the billion-dollar range). It’s also an investor in Varda, a space manufacturing company that has raised $51 million and plans to make things in space to deliver back to earth. Explains Bannon: “There are things like protein therapeutics, telecommunications fibers, and semiconductors that, because gravity interferes [with their production], you’d rather make without gravity.”

Also unique, seemingly, is Fifty Years’s ability to connect with scientists and to help them start companies. It isn’t a matter of Bannon and Madej hanging out in college parking lots or tech transfer offices but instead creating initiatives that, while perhaps gimmicky, are also helpful for everyone involved.

One of these is a PhD-to-VC program wherein Fifty Years, with the help of its broader networks, helps to educate PhDs (as well as doctoral program drop-outs) about the ins and outs of venture capital over 10 weeks so that they might find their way into the industry. The academics get to learn the lingo and processes that are part and parcel of the venture world, while Fifty Years gets to know the academics.

Fifty Years also has a “super nerdy” podcast called the “Translation Podcast,” wherein the lead author of a breakthrough paper in biology is asked to go through his or her background and what they aim to accomplish with their research. And it has a platform, a Slack channel, and organizes in-person regional events for a community that it has dubbed the “Fifty 50,” which encompasses 50 top biologists from labs across North America who are provided content on entrepreneurship — as well as companionship.

“We do this because we heard from top biology PhDs that academia can be very isolating and that it’s hard to meet people who even share your interests,” says Bannon. (It also heightens the “innovation flow” of the firm, he adds.)

A connection dating back to Y Combinator, which both Bannon and Madej passed through, also helps. For example, it was through YC that they met Cover, a fast-growing maker of modular homes an ADUs.

As for where that new capital might flow, Bannon says that synthetic biology remains a major area of interest, thanks largely to Solugen. “We’ve grown more active over time because the more a company begins to breakout, the more learnings you develop over time based on supporting that company, and the bigger your network in that space grows,” he explains.

Madej is also “taking a deep dive into Web3 currently,” says Bannon. “We think enough core infrastructure has been built to allow people to build applications that create massive positive social impact.”

Fifty Years will likely find willing co-investors along the way. Not only does Fifty Years have a portfolio it can brag about now, but unlike in 2015, when “we felt very lonely,” says Bannon, it’s “no longer fringe to say you can make great returns and make an impact. A ton of allies have come into this space.”

That’s very good news, as far as he’d concerned. “We don’t view anyone as competitive. We love working with Lowercarbon Capital. Chris [Sacca] has been an LP since our second fund and we love what they’ve been doing in climate. We like another firm, Boom Capital, as well as Cantos, which more or less exclusively partners with deep-tech impact companies.”

There are also a growing number of better-known venture outfits that “like really hard, really ambitious startups,” such as Founders Fund, he notes. Even still, says Bannon, there’s much more for the taking. When it comes to deep-tech investment firms, he says, in his view, “We probably need 10 times more of them.”

Fifty Years now has $200 million in assets under management altogether.

Above, Fifty Years cofounders Ela Madej and Seth Bannon.

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