The venture capitalists responsible for managing Bill Gates’ family’s assets are reportedly throwing their weight behind “deep tech” projects altering food at the molecular level.
Tuesday, Bison Ventures announced their debut $135 million fund had closed with six investments aiming to use Artificial Intelligence technologies to tackle complex challenges. The startups, referred to as “deep tech” in relation to the extensive research and development made capable through deep pockets before commercial viability, included one altering proteins for pharmaceutical applications and another genetically engineering plant life.
Speaking with Fast Company, founding partners Tom Biegala and Ben Hemani, who both worked at Cascade Asset Management Company, the firm responsible for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s assets as well as those of the family, addressed their Seattle-based fund.
“What we saw in the venture capital landscape is really a gap for funding for deep tech companies. What you see in Silicon Valley for the most part today is a lot of focus on software and more digital-focused technologies,” said Biegala. “We think there’s a fantastic return to be made in deep tech as well as a fantastic set of impacts that you can have by bringing some of these technologies to market and commercializing them.”
Within their portfolio, Bison included InnerPlant, a company using “machine learning and proprietary software to integrate plant signals with other data sources” with the aim of having crops “communicate their needs,” and Juvena Therapeutics, eyeing “the therapeutic potential of stem cell-secreted proteins and accelerating their development into life-saving therapeutics for chronic and age-related diseases.”
The 2022 edition of the Land Report 100 noted at its release that Gates owned 275,000 acres worth of farmland out of 895.3 million total in the United States at the close of 2021. Speaking to that, the billionaire had been asked why during his annual Reddit Ask Me Anything to begin 2023.
Asserting no plan behind the extensive investments, Gates expressed, “I have invested in these farms to make them more productive and create more jobs. There isn’t some grand scheme involved — in fact all these decisions are made by a professional investment team.”
“There has been a significant rise in interest in the category broadly,” said Hemani to Fast Company. “But I don’t know that that necessarily reflects an increase in the bench of deep experience in the category broadly. So you might have some mismatches there. Tom and I both started our investment careers in the early days of cleantech, where that phenomenon certainly led to some challenging outcomes.”
Of Juvena, Biegala specifically noted, “Within AI and computational drug discovery, there are very sophisticated algorithms out there [and] there’s a base level of data that you can use to bootstrap those algorithms. But to really get to the next level there you need far more rapid throughput experimentation, whether that’s novel robotics-assisted assays and testing methodologies that you can use to then generate more data to reinforce AI models.”
The other ventures in Bison’s portfolio included: Allonia, pursuing “imaginative solutions” for “waste challenges;” Frontera Health, aiming AI at “behavioral healthcare;” and two AI companies called Stealth Gen AI and Zyphra.