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Venture Capital Must Invest in Earth to Meet the Challenges of the Moment 

By | October 30, 2020

Red orange skies seen over San Francisco in September during wildfires in the West. Photo: Juan Naranjo via Airbus Ventures

On September 9, we awoke to a Martian sky. The smoke from flames scorching 3.4 million acres engulfed San Francisco’s golden gate arches, which disappeared into orange and ash. Earth — once most widely recognizable as the “Blue Marble” photographed by Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972 — in closeup now photographs more like an aeolian other-world, on the heels of the worst wildfires in California’s recorded history. 

Burned out too by the daunting effects of a global pandemic and by growing environmental concerns, the world is burdened with challenges beyond any one nation’s control. 2020 has seen a fusillade of viral catastrophe and economic freefall for nearly all 7.8 billion of us on Earth, further imperiling millions of other species inhabiting the planet alongside us. This leads us to ask… 

How will we ever be able to overcome this?

In this current superstorm, my team at Airbus Ventures and I find ourselves mulling over these kinds of questions constantly, configuring the best methods for venture capital to affect change amidst the chaos threatening to consume our planet.

How do we as venture capitalists utilize our power to generate scientific discoveries that propel the world forward to solving and surviving these crises? 

How should investors embrace the creativity of pioneering thinkers, while listening attentively to the counter-voices taking issue with the implications of the latest advances in tech?

I recently saw a quote floating around the internet from Fattmerchant Founder Suneera Madhani: “Maybe 2020 was the perfect conundrum the universe created so we can finally see clearly what matters, who matters, and why it matters.” I sat back in my desk chair, letting the words sink in, as fiery streams of sunlight poured through the windows. Amidst the fear of the pandemic, there was a strange sense of clarity. In this moment, priorities have become more deeply defined, including — and perhaps at the very top of the list — the pressing need to prioritize planet Earth. 

As the Managing Partner of Airbus Ventures, this quandary is top of mind. As we grapple with division, isolation, and climate disaster, true transformation is a cornerstone of the important investment in our planet. That commitment begins by cultivating international partnerships that enrich our understanding of our world and the cosmos.

We’re constantly calibrating that important balance of our ascent into the cosmos, with our rootedness in figuratively tilling the Earth’s soil, which is rapidly deteriorating from the accelerating effects of global heating. 

Certainly on the cascading dangers of climate change, Airbus Ventures is not alone among VCs — many of the top tier are seeking out the best climate tech entrepreneurs and their solutions, with early funding rising from $418 million in 2013 to over $16 billion in 2019, as reported by PwC’s “The State of Climate Tech” report. And in the past several months alone, big players, like Amazon, Microsoft, and Unilever have announced the start of multi-billion-dollar venture funds devoted to preserving our planet. 

Exploring the limitless potential of the universe starts with critical reflection, reconfiguring how we as humans can live sustainably, while also living productively, utilizing technology to uncover the best methods to limit greenhouse gas emissions and reduce carbon footprint. For examples of how founders are forging new, eco-friendly ground, one can start with Dendra, our Oxford-based portfolio company planting billions of trees with a fleet of SKAI-Tractor drones that cultivate biodiverse, ecosystem-specific seeds in soil. 

But the truth is that no one firm, company, or even nation can take on this global challenge alone. 

While VCs investing in this sector are a “key part of the puzzle,” notes Nat Keohane, senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, “to get all the way to net zero we are going to need additional innovation in hard industries, like manufacturing, construction, energy, agriculture, and transport.” 

But, I would take it one step further. Ultimately, inter-industrial and international crossways are the convergences that will actualize compelling ideas into groundbreaking transformations. Advances rely on the enriching diversity of perspective to generate excellence. The plurality of different experiences, educations, and cultural purviews elevates design and thought in ingenious ways. True transformation relies on cross-pollination. 

This notion extends beyond the confines of climate tech, expanding the trajectory of innovation. And this global intersectionality is unfolding as I write this. Today, founders and entrepreneurs like at LeoLabs, are working internationally to tackle the imminent risks of space debris collisions, which, if unmitigated, could strip away the Earth’s observation and communication capabilities that are among our most important tools in supporting our planet’s global health. 

Soon, we will need broad international collaboration to have any realistic chance of avoiding civilization-collapsing asteroid impact, a disaster with a statistical probability as harsh as nuclear confrontation and climate overheating. We don’t know which startups around the globe will first emerge to meet these system-wide challenges, but we must aim to tap worldwide capabilities to bring their critical talents to bear.

At Airbus Ventures we recently unveiled a partnership with Development Bank of Japan Inc. (DBJ), Mitsubishi UFJ Lease & Finance Company Limited (Mitsubishi UFJ Lease) and Fuyo General Lease Co., Ltd. (FGL) investing in Airbus Ventures Fund III LP. With new investors spanning the globe, we are embarking together on a joint mission to support our entrepreneurs as they develop key elements of all the system capabilities that will be needed, from autonomy and electrification to orbital and deep space technologies, and from machine learning and Artificial Intelligence (AI), harnessing living systems technology, as well as robotic interfaces to extend human reach.  

We know we will all need to meet the accelerating challenges of our now truly planetary crisis. We don’t claim to know more than any other VC, but we have a strong sense of where we can begin. 

We know that we must cross borders and boundaries in order to team with the very best minds. That begins with reflection; asking ourselves how we can recalibrate our roles as investors. Listening. Observing. Investing in thinkers who will help our planet heal. Doing our part to usher in a new moment. For a world tired of waking up to orange and ashy skies. For a world ready to lift off and embrace change.

Thomas d’Halluin is the managing partner of Airbus Ventures.Thomas d’Halluin is the managing partner of Airbus Ventures, based in Silicon Valley. With an Airbus tenure of sixteen years, Thomas served previously as the COO of Airbus Ventures and as chief of staff to the CFO of Airbus. Trained as an aerospace engineer, he has worked in manufacturing, procurement, supply chain, and finance roles throughout Europe and China, and was based in Shanghai for three years.