Venture Capital

Venture capital investor DCVC nurtures big ideas while riding wave of technological change


Because venture capitalists are often early-stage investors in companies that occupy the leading edge of technology change, they are positioned to see new trends develop before the rest of the world.

This can mean changes not just in the products and services being built for the future, but an entire paradigm shift in the technology ecosystem as a whole. It involves the power of “big ideas,” a recognition that technology can enable new approaches to solve the hard problems of society.

“We’re starting to see a shift,” said Alan Cohen (pictured), partner at DCVC Management Co. LLC. “We built networks and data warehouses and server farms and created software with it; we took atoms and turned them into bits. Now we’re seeing things move in the other direction, where we take bits — software, AI, massive amounts of compute power from companies like AWS — and create better atoms.”

Cohen spoke with John Furrier, host of theCUBE, SiliconANGLE Media’s livestreaming studio, during AWS re:Invent. They discussed the impact of technology on science and health, startup companies that are seeking to transform agriculture and space, and the ability to solve hard problems with venture investment. (* Disclosure below.)

Accelerated response

A byproduct of the transformation described by Cohen can be found in the fields of medicine and vaccines. As the global pandemic has accelerated the need for a vaccine, pharmaceutical companies have relied more heavily on the application of software and computing power to develop a safe solution in record time.

“The worst public health crisis in our lifetime is being addressed because of the ability of people to apply technology and accelerate the ability to create vaccines,” Cohen said. “We’re going to lose a lot of people because of this virus, but we’re also going to be able to reduce a lot of pain for people, and potentially death, because of the ability for people to accelerate these capabilities to react.”

The impact of technology’s ability to accelerate change through science can be seen through some of the companies in which DCVC has chosen to invest. One firm, Pivot Bio Inc., is seeking to transform the multi-billion-dollar fertilizer industry by providing computationally generated biological replacements.

“They’ve created a series of microbes that do a process called nitrogen fixation,” Cohen explained. “It attaches nitrogen to the roots of corn, sorghum and wheat so you don’t have to use chemical fertilizer. Those microbes were all created through an enormous amount of machine learning. If we didn’t have the computing capabilities that we have today, we clearly wouldn’t have been able to do that.”

Printed rocket parts

Another of DCVC’s startup companies is Rocket Lab Inc., which has successfully launched multiple satellites into orbit using technologies with rapid, low-cost payload deployment.

“Peter Beck, the founder of that company, has a dream to launch a rocket once a year, once a month, once a week, and eventually once a day,” Cohen said. “They print their rocket engines with a 3D metal printer. He’s effectively creating a huge upswing in the ability of people to commercialize space.”

The investments by Cohen’s firm are unlikely to all pay off, because that’s just not how the venture world works. But if enough manage to foster viable businesses, some of the world’s most difficult problems could be solved.

“You can go after really hard problems with a venture scale level of investment,” Cohen said. “These companies don’t happen in two or three or five years; they take sometimes seven, 10 or 15 years. It’s life work for people.”

Watch the complete video interview below, and be sure to check out more of SiliconANGLE’s and theCUBE’s coverage of AWS re:Invent. (* Disclosure: Amazon Web Services Inc. sponsored this segment of theCUBE. Neither AWS nor other sponsors have editorial control over content on theCUBE or SiliconANGLE.)

Photo: SiliconANGLE

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