Deep science investor Lindy Fishburne co-founded startup and startup company Breakout Ventures several years ago, after co-founding Breakout Labs within the Thiel Foundation in 2011, and she has made a wide range of interesting bets in the process. Among the companies in his business portfolio are Cortexyme, a company that aims to treat Alzheimer’s disease; the manufacturer of sustainable materials Modern Meadow; and Strateos, a company whose robotic cloud platform is rethinking the way lab work is done.
We spoke with Fishburne this week about where – based on what she sees – we find ourselves in the arc of this pandemic. We also explained why more of his investments, which once seemed like long shots, suddenly seem like solid bets.
Parts of our discussion below have been edited slightly for length and clarity.
TC: We want to be excited about the progress being made in immunizing Americans. Based on the conversations you have, what is your sense of things?
LF: Accelerating vaccines is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in science before, and now we’re really into the unsexy part of the logistics of deploying them. This is clearly our biggest challenge. Then the next piece we’re going to have to face is what happens when the world is vaccinated. [at] very uneven levels and what people think of travel, exposure and fairness on these issues. But I think we see the end of the greatest threat to humanity and our hospital systems around COVID. . .we probably have another odd year ahead of us.
TC: Science was the big story last year. Do you hear from investors and potential union partners who haven’t contacted before?
LF: Yes. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of investing in science. For the first time, we’re really seeing a whole bunch of what you might think of as mainstream tech investors reading up on the mRNA vaccine Moderna coded over the weekend and starting to believe we’re capable of designing the biology and that it no longer looks like an artisanal process.
TC: You talk about coding a vaccine. Are laboratories becoming less important as scientists can do a lot more in simulation and, if so, what does this mean for human testing? Are we coming to a point where we no longer have to rely as much on human testing as we once did?
LF: This is where we hope to mount on the human test piece. We are not there yet. You may have read and heard of organs on a chip and growing organoids, where you can have a very small piece of liver that you can test for toxicity on. [and] we do more of that. Having said that, we are not ready to take that leap of doing it completely in silico to humans with an extremely high level of confidence. The human body is such a complex system that we are not yet able to fully model it.
I think what you mean, to a certain extent, is the democratization of science and access to more people with less skills to be able to work remotely in drug discovery and drug development. . So, for example, we have a company that we worked with called Strateos that has a full robotic lab that – instead of having technicians standing there – you have robots and a little railroad track that moves analyzes around the room so that scientists who were stuck at home this year could continue the experiments regardless of their geography or lab safety or time constraints.
TC: You have another interesting holding company, Opus 12, which turns industrial emissions of carbon dioxide into chemicals. Towards what end?
LF: So obviously, decarbonizing the world is a major objective. And you are seeing for the first time companies like United Airlines making commitments about their carbon footprint or reaching zero carbon emissions. Opus 12 came from two PhDs and an MBA from Stanford a few years ago and their breakthrough is a catalytic material that allows you to take residual CO2 – the bad things – for example – and push it through. this catalyst material and produce useful CO. This year, for example, they produced auto parts in green polycarbonate in partnership with Daimler. The material is exactly the same making it easy to fit into existing products, but it’s actually made by reusing carbon.
The shift in consumer awareness around carbon-made materials is a huge opportunity.
TC: Do companies get some kind of carbon credit for doing that?
LF: Yeah, and in the past we’ve seen a lot of companies trying to go green by buying and trading carbon credits, and the change we’re going through right now is everyone is saying, ‘D’ Okay, at some degree, it was a bit of financial engineering; now we really need to see these companies change their direct use of fossil fuels and their direct impact on the amount of carbon ”. [There’s growing awareness that] buying carbon offsets will not be enough. So, for the first time, you really see commitments to change processes, the supply chain, and ultimately the products.
TC: In recent years, biotechnology companies have gone public two and three years after their creation. Today we are seeing a much wider range of start-ups transforming into public companies through an increasing number of blank check companies. Do you have any idea whether or not there are parallels here?
LF: On the therapeutic side, you tend to have a very clear playbook on what the potential release is and who the buyers are. We know that big pharmaceutical companies are cash rich and pipeline poor, and therefore [these pharma giants] have to pick up the assets that are working, and you see them doing this regularly. And you have comps, and you know what that looks like, so by placing a wide range of early stage therapy bets, it’s clear that if you win, you’re covered.
The PSPC world is going to be really interesting because most of these companies do not operate traditional traditional playbooks, and it is not clear whether they operate as public companies for the longer term. Are they really set up for acquisition?
[Another] The difference here is that these companies are going to have this huge amount of funding, and yet they won’t be able to work in the dark, so the traditional settings that we all want. [in] public companies and looking at revenues and profits and these metrics, we’re going to have to look at these PSPCs and their growth from a different perspective, and I’m just not sure how receptive government markets will be to that in the next one. 24months. I think we don’t know if we will have an account there or not.
You can hear the full conversation here.