Origin Story Interview W/ Kevin Webb, Superorganism

Origin Story Interview W/ Kevin Webb, Superorganism

Brighter Future

 / 

Mar 6, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #VentureCapital #Biodiversity #NatureTech #Conservation #Innovation #Venture #Funding

Brighter Future

We spoke with Kevin Webb, co-founder of Superorganism, a venture capital firm for startups that benefit biodiversity.

Thank you so much for being here, Kevin. Do you think you could tell us a little about Superorganism?

We're the first venture capital (VC) firm dedicated entirely to biodiversity. Our view is that nature loss, much like climate change, cuts across the economy. Consequently we focus on three primary thematic areas, where we believe startups can deliver significant economic and ecological outcomes. First, using the lens of extinction drivers (habitat loss, invasive species, pollution, and overexploitation), we seek startups using new technology and approaches to disrupt and transition industries largely responsible for nature loss. Second, we are excited for the opportunities the climate movement has created within nature, and look for where technology can support nature-based solutions to drawing down CO2, or where nature can be an adaptation strategy for rising heat and sea levels. We’re also interested in topics like soil, water, and wildfire where nature and climate intersect. Third and last, we recognize that conservationists have always been innovators, and we evaluate breakthrough technologies from AI, to satellites, to genomics, based on how transformational they can be for people working to protect ecosystems, while recognizing that monetization may need to come from other sectors.

What are you trying to achieve with your company, and why does it matter?

First of all, we aim to invest in the companies that, a decade from now, will be looked at as early nature tech pioneers. Businesses with compelling revenue models and outsized impacts, that catalyzed more founders and capital into the nature tech ecosystem. More near-term, we’re excited to collaborate with investors and partners, and help others find biodiversity-positive opportunities that map to their mandates.

We exist in a time of extinction, in an economic system that fails to price in the extensive value of nature to global stability and human well-being. We believe that, done right, venture capital can play a role in finding ambitious, fast-growing approaches to try to change that trajectory.

Where does your company name come from?

Originally, we were going to be called Wildlife Ventures. We were really excited about this because, if you're focused on biodiversity, why not pick "wildlife"? But then, we had a great conversation with one of our mentors, who gently guided us away from it. While I’ve got positive associations, the word has come to be associated with loss, guilt, and ad campaigns. What we wanted to evoke was something positive: a bolder future where humans and nature, aided by technology, could be thriving.

He was right, and I, having just bought the domain after a weeks-long process where we felt quite good about the name Wildlife Ventures, was annoyed because I knew he was right. So I went off to my next meeting, and when I came out, my cofounder Tom had written up on the whiteboard, in big, all-caps letters, “Superorganism.” It was long and unwieldy, but it was also sci-fi, it didn’t sound like any other VC fund we knew, and the word was ripped straight out of academic literature. Once again, I was annoyed, because it was clearly perfect.

What are your roots, or what path do you come from?

My background is primarily in venture capital. I began my career at a small, family-run VC firm named the Webb Investment Network, where I served as one of four key decision-makers. Over my eight and a half years there, I had the opportunity to work with several remarkable companies, sourcing deals, assisting our portfolio, and fostering our community. Before entering the VC world, I’d studied ecosystems at Stanford. Toward the end of my tenure at the last fund, I increasingly met with companies involved in climate, sustainability, and synthetic biology. The throughline of these companies I was finding so intriguing was that they were addressing a fundamental challenge: how can we sustain a growing global population, while also growing our total capacity for nature?

The idea became an obsession, and I eventually left to pursue a masters in Sustainability Science from Columbia, while simultaneously angel investing in startups with climate and nature themes. I had a general idea that venture capital for biodiversity was a needed gap, and wanted to understand whether there were founders motivated by the challenge (yes), whether there were compelling startup opportunities (yes), and how these companies differed from the more software-driven businesses I’d worked with before.

One thing I found was that possessing even a modest conservation network could significantly mitigate risks for businesses impacting ecosystems. They helped me get smarter on a startup faster, while access to land, stakeholders, and conservation experts could actively improve that startup’s chances for success.

This was a huge part of why I wanted to work with my partner Tom, one of a small handful of people I’ve met who has been an in-the-field conservationist and an early tech startup employee. He’s shown repeatedly just how relevant these experiences can be with the nature tech founders we collaborate with.

What exactly led you to create your business?

I would say it was the numerous meetings I had as an angel investor, where I'd enter a room with an entrepreneur doing something positive for nature and say, "I’m primarily investing in businesses that benefit biodiversity." And too many times, I heard founders say something along the lines of “finally, thank goodness someone’s doing this.” And when Tom and I started angel investing, he heard the same thing. We’re fundamentally in this because we’re curious, and we’re deeply passionate about helping entrepreneurs create more abundant possibilities for nature into the future. When you hear enough of the kind of the founders we wanted to work with say “finally,” eventually you have to do something. In our case, we built a venture firm.

Who are you doing your work for? What's your audience?

We think about our audience in a few different ways. First, we have our close community stakeholders. This includes our founders, our network of investors, and our mentors—the people we often meet face-to-face. Then, we consider the wider nature tech community. We've started a newsletter, now on its third issue on Substack, to reach out to a broader group. This group consists of people already involved in nature tech or those interested in it. Our goal is to give them a clearer picture of what's happening in this field.

What part of your work is most fulfilling to you?

My favorite thing is working with the portfolio companies. So, helping them with challenges. Sometimes they're challenges I've seen a hundred times from working with startups before, like fundraising. But sometimes they're completely new, and the completely new ones are really, really fun. Unlike in enterprise software, there’s no nature tech playbook yet, and so you get to chart a course from first principles.

I also get a lot of joy out of having seen how the nature tech world has emerged and matured in the five years since I’ve been exploring biodiversity venture. There are huge regulatory tailwinds (for the latest, check out our latest Substack), but there is now, I think, a lot more awareness of nature as a viable climate solution. And there's this whole scene of businesses that are helping companies measure their biodiversity like never before. When I started, I could feel a bit isolated. Now, major conglomerates are hiring heads of nature, peer VCs are refining their own nature theses, and even the phrase “nature tech” has become common. It lights me up when I get to spend time with this growing community.

When was it that you decided to do something differently or take a new direction in your life or career?

Around 2017. I was really happy and fulfilled at my last venture firm. I adored the team and loved the work. Some of the companies that I had sourced were doing very well. But, despite all this, I didn't feel as fulfilled as I thought I should, considering how well things were going.

I came to realise there was a discrepancy. Venture capital is a tool with tremendous influence on the future direction of the world. You're caught between optimism and pessimism, questioning how much you can truly affect and influence the future. Even though it's somewhat limited, seeing startups go from nothing to something and have an influence on the world was inspiring.

And yet two things were happening concurrently. First was living in California through some of the major wildfires of the late 2010s. It was naive, but I’d just thought we had more time to work on some of the major environmental crises of our time. It really hit me that the choices we were making were going to show up, one way or another, in the fossil record.

Second was meeting more companies with compelling business models that were, correctly, outside the scope of our fund. My interests in climate, sustainability, food, and synthetic biology hinted that maybe there was something else I could be doing.

This led me to spend a year reading every book I could get my hands on. I reached out to authors and took meetings with people I admired, all while still doing my job. Eventually, I secluded myself for a weekend and wrote a hypothetical pitch deck for what a biodiversity venture firm could look like. After sharing it with a few people I respected and received validating feedback, I decided to take a gamble.

So, I quit my job, moved across the country, started at Columbia, and began angel investing.

What life experience gave you the perspective and confidence to know that you can come up with something different or better than what's currently out there?

Most directly, my past experience in venture. I’ve worked directly with north of a hundred startups, and seen many movies. Secondly, my undergraduate and graduate studies, coupled with my reading and what I enjoy diving deep on, really just deepened and expanded my love of nature. And because I believe we’re really the sum of our parts, I’ll throw out that I was in a sketch comedy group in college. It’s not traditionally a fit, but it’s definitely helped being comfortable on a stage, or getting faster to a punchline.

I can imagine, but that’s an interesting surprise. What were the biggest challenges you faced or mistakes you made when you started your journey? And what did they teach you?

I’d point to how my angel investing evolved. I started out unsure myself how many opportunities I’d see that touched nature, and so I think I wound up a little more heavily indexed in climate-centered companies. Over time, and working with Tom, we’ve come to hone in on the opportunities where we really have conviction on biodiversity-specific approaches.

When have you experienced your greatest "Aha!" moments?

Honestly, one of my biggest Aha moments was trying an Impossible burger for the first time. I’ve been a vegetarian since eighth grade (no one else in my family is, we’re all surprised that phase has lasted… decades), and even before then remembered never particularly liking hamburgers. When it came out, I went for lunch with some of the founders we worked with, and I still feel terrible about this, but after trying it I had to ask them to repeat a full minute of what they’d just told me. I’d had years of terrible garden burgers, and the Impossible patty just triggered this lizard brain memory of flavors I didn’t even know I still had burrowed away in my brain. It really clicked for me that a startup, provided it can produce a viable alternative to a harmful competitive product, could be a viable mechanism for driving landscape-scale impacts.

Another was recognizing that addressing and reversing nature loss was an issue that I could spend the rest of my life working on. In the early days of exploring what became Superorganism, this was liberating, because it meant that regardless of outcome, I was still confident that my work was in service of my long-term goals.

What are the biggest sacrifices or compromises that you had to make to get where you are?

The biggest sacrifice I've had to make is traveling more than I ever have before, the irony of which is not lost on me as we start an environmentally focused venture firm. I’m grateful for the people I get to meet and the experiences I am fortunate to have, but I do wish I had more time to be present with my friends and family.

What future are you hoping or envisioning to help create?

I was asked this question yesterday, actually, about what the future could look like in 10 years. First off, the idea of investing for nature will no longer feel novel. Thanks to regulations, breakthrough nature tech companies, and more, there will be a burgeoning ecosystem of financiers and startups, and more abundant capital to fuel vital, on-the-ground restoration and preservation work. Just as with climate, companies will be disclosing their impacts on nature, which leads to businesses that measure, monitor, and report on nature, while others can provide viable alternatives to harmful goods and practices.

I also really hope that more people will be able to build nature-centered, or at least nature-integrated, careers. It drives me crazy that the people who choose to protect nature are so often underpaid relative to peers in the private sector. I’ve worked with entrepreneurs and executives, and I can tell you that people working in conservation are no less skilled, competent, or passionate. If we can really start integrating ecology into our economy, I think there could be more need, more options, and thus more available capital for eco-savvy leaders.

How do you envision your close friends and family reflecting on your journey, and what do you hope others will glean from your experiences?

I'd like my close friends to feel inspired and proud, and to know how grateful I’ve been for their support, curiosity, and encouragement over these past several years. I'm very fortunate to do what I do, where I get to weave two threads I love, venture and nature, with Superorganism.

And I think that leads to my hope for others: starting anything, especially something new and unusual, is hard. Be patient with yourself. Keep your loved ones close, to keep you inspired and grounded. And remember why you’re doing what you’re doing.

What advice would you give a young entrepreneur just starting?

Whether you're embarking on a general entrepreneurial journey or specifically diving into the nature tech world, there are a few key pieces of advice to consider:

First, connect with your potential customers as soon as you can. It's crucial to understand their needs and how much they're willing to pay. This understanding shouldn't be based on assumptions.

Second, at the very start, it's somewhat easier to define what success looks like on a larger scale. Ask yourself: is this actually going to make the positive impact you anticipate at scale? What are customers you might need to work with? How could what you’re building be misused? I find it’s a little easier to be clear-eyed about the impacts you want to achieve early-on.

Lastly, take advantage of being a startup. Do things that don’t scale, out-hustle your competitors, and have fun with it.

Have you got an example of that?

We're investors in a company called Inversa. Inversa is creating high-end luxury leather from invasive species. It was started by a few people in their twenties, and they processed the first several thousand lionfish hides by themselves, until they had a product they were proud of. As a few people in a startup, they were operating at a level that was already having significant, local ecological impacts, because of the devastating impact lionfish have had in the Caribbean. They didn't wait for a lengthy corporate process; they just went for it.

That’s an incredible idea: making luxury goods from invasive species, not just eating them. What books, movies, speeches, people, and so on have inspired you a lot in your journey?

I first saw Jurassic Park when I was five or six years old, and it built upon my already-solid foundation of liking dinosaurs to introduce me to genetics, ecology, and storytelling (not to mention, how good intentions can turn sideways). E.O. Wilson's Half-Earth proposal, which suggests the possibility of allocating half the Earth for nature, was a thought-provoking concept that helped shape some of my views on where technology might be able to play a role. Lots and lots more.

If there was one lasting message that you could share with the world, what would it be?

There has never been a more exciting time to be starting a company that benefits nature. Between new policies, more biodiversity-focused financiers, and technological breakthroughs from AI to genomics, we are developing the ability— and financial mechanisms— to understand and work with ecosystems like never before. And if you’re working on something great, feel free to shoot us a note at hello@superorganism.com.

Thank you so much for sharing these thoughts with us, Kevin, and for giving us an idea of Superorganism and what you’re trying to do. From all of us at Brighter Future, we wish you nothing but the greatest success in supporting as many projects as possible into the far future.

If you’d like to read more about Superorganism, please see www.superorganism.com.

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