VC Lindy Fishburne on the sudden democratization of science — and deep tech investing

Deep science investor Lindy Fishburne cofounded the seed- and early-stage venture firm Breakout Ventures several years ago, after cofounding Breakout Labs within the Thiel Foundation back in 2011, and she has made a wide array of interesting bets in the process. Among her firm’s portfolio companies is Cortexyme, a company that aims to treat Alzheimer’s disease; the sustainable materials maker Modern Meadow; and Strateos, a company whose robotic cloud platform is remaking how lab work gets done.

We talked with Fishburne this week about where — based on what she is seeing — we are in the arc of this pandemic. We also talked about why more of her investments, which once seemed like long shots, suddenly seem like solid bets.

Parts of our chat, below, have been edited lightly for length and clarity.

TC: We want to be excited about the progress being made in vaccinating Americans. Based on the conversations you’re having, what’s your sense of things?

LF: The acceleration of the vaccines is like nothing we’ve ever seen before in science, and now we really are down to the unsexy part of of the logistics of rolling them out. That’s clearly our biggest challenge. Then the next piece we’re going to have to confront is what happens when the world is vaccinated [at] very unequal levels and how people feel about travel and exposure and equity along those issues. But I do think we see the end of the biggest threat to humanity and our hospital systems around COVID . . .we’ve probably got another odd year ahead of us.

TC: Science has been the big story of the last year. Are you hearing from investors and potential syndicate partners who weren’t reaching out previously?

LF: Yes. The pandemic has brought the importance of investing in science into sharp relief. For the first time, we’re really seeing a whole set of what you would think of as traditional tech investors who read about the mRNA vaccine that Moderna coded in a weekend and who are starting to believe that we’re able to engineer biology and that it doesn’t feel like a craft process anymore.

TC: You talk about coding a vaccine. Are laboratories becoming less important in that scientists are able to do much more in simulation and, if so, what does that mean for human testing? Are we getting to a point where we don’t have to rely on human testing as much as we did in the past?

LF: That’s where we hope to get on the human testing piece. We’re not there yet. You may have read and heard about organs on a chip and growing organoids, where you can have a very small piece of liver that you’re able to test toxicity on [and] we’re doing more of that. That said, we’re not ready to make that leap from completely doing it in silico to humans with a super-high level of confidence.The human body is such a complex system that we’re not able to model that fully yet.

I do think what you’re pointing toward to some degree is democratization in science and the access for more people to be able with lower skills to be able to work in drug discovery and drug development at a distance. So for example, we have a company that we’ve worked with called Strateos that has a full robotic lab that — instead of having technicians standing there — you have robots and a little train track that moves assays throughout the room so that scientists who were stuck at home this year were able to continue experiments regardless of their geography or safety in the lab or time constraints.

TC: You have another interesting portfolio company, Opus 12, which is transforming industrial carbon dioxide emissions into chemicals. Toward what end?

LF: So obviously, decarbonizing the world is a huge focus. And you’re seeing for the first time corporations like United Airlines making commitments as to what their carbon footprint will be, or going to zero carbon emissions. Opus 12 emerged from two PhDs and an MBA out of Stanford a few years ago and their breakthrough is a catalyst material that allows you to take for example, waste CO2 — the bad stuff — and run it through this catalyst material and produce useful CO. This year, for example, they produced green polycarbonate car parts in partnership with Daimler. The material is exactly the same, which makes it easy to slot into existing products, but it’s actually made by reusing carbon.

The shift in consumer awareness around carbon made materials is an enormous opportunity.

TC: Do companies get some sort of carbon credit for doing that?

LF: Yes, and in the past what we’ve seen is a lot of companies trying to green themselves by basically buying and trading carbon credits, and the shift that we’re going through right now is everyone saying, ‘Okay, to some degree, that was a bit of financial engineering; now we actually need to see these businesses making a change in their direct use of fossil fuels and their direct impact in the amount of carbon.’ [There’s growing awareness that] buying carbon offsets isn’t going to be enough. So you’re now for the first time really seeing commitments to change processes, supply chain and ultimately products.

TC: In recent years, biotech companies have been going public two and three years after being formed. Now, we’re seeing a much wider array of younger companies being transformed into public companies through a growing number of blank-check companies. Any thoughts about whether or not there are parallels here?

LF: On the therapeutic side, you tend to have a very clear playbook around what the potential exit is and who the acquirers are. We know that big pharma is cash rich and pipeline poor and so [these pharma giants] have to pick up the the assets that are working, and you see them do that regularly. And you’ve got comps, and you know what that looks like,  so in placing a wide range of bets on early-stage therapeutics, it’s clear that if one wins, you’re covered.

The SPAC world is going to be really interesting because most of these companies are not operating of traditional traditional playbooks, and it’s not clear whether they operate as public companies longer term. Are they really set up for acquisition?

[Another] difference here is these companies are going to have this enormous amount of funding, and yet they’re not going to be able to toil in obscurity, so the traditional metrics that we all want [in] public companies and looking at revenue and profits and those metrics, we’re going to have to look at these SPACs and their growth through a different lens, and I’m just not sure how receptive the public markets will be to that in the next 24 months. I think it’s unclear whether we’ll have a reckoning there or not.

You can hear the full conversation here

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