Founders Fund Forms “FF Science” in Search of Startups Tackling Hard Problems
Founders Fund famously knocks the short-term mindset of Silicon Valley in its motto: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
While it has made some investments itself that weren’t exactly aiming at the moon (Slide, Path, Brit + Co.), the San Francisco venture firm has made big bets on companies pushing hard on the edges of engineering and science, including prenatal genetic testing company Natera, DNA synthesis firm Cambrian Genomics, robotic lab Emerald Therapeutics, satellite startup Planet Labs and Elon Musk’s rocket venture SpaceX.
Now Founders Fund says it wants to take more gambles on early-stage startups tackling difficult technical problems. The firm told Re/code it has established “FF Science,” an allocation within its $1 billion fifth fund earmarked for seed-stage investments in areas like aeronautics, advanced computing, energy, life sciences and nanotechnology.
The firm found that its investments in these categories to date have performed as well or slightly better than the overall portfolio.
“We’ve been doing deeper tech R&D things, but we’ve decided that we want to do it in a more structured way and make more of a commitment,” said Partner Scott Nolan, during an interview earlier this week at their offices in San Francisco’s Presidio.
He said the firm wants to invest in startups attempting to solve “some of the world’s most important problems.” They’re not looking for academic science experiments, but incorporated businesses with established teams, even if there’s considerable work left on the science side.
Nolan expects the companies will be a step further along than the fresh-from-the-lab startups sponsored by Founders Fund Partner Peter Thiel’s separate Breakout Labs, a nonprofit program through which proceeds are continually reinvested into subsequent businesses.
The firm hasn’t set aside a specific amount of money for FF Science, preferring to allow the opportunities to dictate how capital is allocated. But together with FF Angel, a seed allocation for consumer tech that started with the firm’s second fund, it’s likely to comprise around five percent of the current fund — or around $50 million.
“We don’t want to commit to a dollar figure and end up lowering our standards,” said Aaron VanDevender, chief scientist at Founders Fund. “Instead, it’s a framework for how to think about companies, in terms of the things we’re going to look for.”