Fifty Years, a deep-tech investor, has raised $90 million from tens of “unicorn” founders

Fifty Years, a six-year-old, San Francisco-based outfit with a portfolio that’s already rife with mostly deep tech companies — many with a good story to tell about how they can have an impact on the environment — just closed its third and newest fund with $90 million in capital commitments.

The money isn’t coming from just anywhere. Firm cofounder Seth Bannon tells us the firm aimed to recruit founders of 20 so-called unicorn companies so that they would have a vested interest in — and could occasionally advise — its portfolio companies. He says that Fifty Years wound up instead with 44 “unicorn” founders, including from Spotify, Github, Skype, Supercell, Minecraft, Dropbox, Unity, Klarna, Zendesk, Kahoot, and Upstart.

Some of those founders were backed by Fifty Years, in fact, including the cofounders of the synthetic biology company Solugen, which is now valued by investors at $1.8 billion and which received its first check from Fifty Years; Astranis, a geostationary communications satellite operator that is currently valued at $1.4 billion and which also received its first check from Fifty Years; and Opentrons, a maker of affordable lab robots that is now valued at $1.8 billion (that Fifty Years backed as part of a broader seed round).

Indeed, Fifty Years — which is run by Bannon; firm cofounder Ela Madej; and six other full-time people, including a synthetic biologist — has a pretty good story to tell about itself for such a young firm.

First, it has an undeniably interesting portfolio. In addition to space satellites and sustainable chemicals, the firm’s bets include Upside Foods, the food tech company that was formerly known as Memphis Meats (and whose valuation is also estimated to now be in the billion-dollar range). It’s also an investor in Varda, a space manufacturing company that has raised $51 million and plans to make things in space to deliver back to earth. Explains Bannon: “There are things like protein therapeutics, telecommunications fibers, and semiconductors that, because gravity interferes [with their production], you’d rather make without gravity.”

Also unique, seemingly, is Fifty Years’s ability to connect with scientists and to help them start companies. It isn’t a matter of Bannon and Madej hanging out in college parking lots or tech transfer offices but instead creating initiatives that, while perhaps gimmicky, are also helpful for everyone involved.

One of these is a PhD-to-VC program wherein Fifty Years, with the help of its broader networks, helps to educate PhDs (as well as doctoral program drop-outs) about the ins and outs of venture capital over 10 weeks so that they might find their way into the industry. The academics get to learn the lingo and processes that are part and parcel of the venture world, while Fifty Years gets to know the academics.

Fifty Years also has a “super nerdy” podcast called the “Translation Podcast,” wherein the lead author of a breakthrough paper in biology is asked to go through his or her background and what they aim to accomplish with their research. And it has a platform, a Slack channel, and organizes in-person regional events for a community that it has dubbed the “Fifty 50,” which encompasses 50 top biologists from labs across North America who are provided content on entrepreneurship — as well as companionship.

“We do this because we heard from top biology PhDs that academia can be very isolating and that it’s hard to meet people who even share your interests,” says Bannon. (It also heightens the “innovation flow” of the firm, he adds.)

A connection dating back to Y Combinator, which both Bannon and Madej passed through, also helps. For example, it was through YC that they met Cover, a fast-growing maker of modular homes an ADUs.

As for where that new capital might flow, Bannon says that synthetic biology remains a major area of interest, thanks largely to Solugen. “We’ve grown more active over time because the more a company begins to breakout, the more learnings you develop over time based on supporting that company, and the bigger your network in that space grows,” he explains.

Madej is also “taking a deep dive into Web3 currently,” says Bannon. “We think enough core infrastructure has been built to allow people to build applications that create massive positive social impact.”

Fifty Years will likely find willing co-investors along the way. Not only does Fifty Years have a portfolio it can brag about now, but unlike in 2015, when “we felt very lonely,” says Bannon, it’s “no longer fringe to say you can make great returns and make an impact. A ton of allies have come into this space.”

That’s very good news, as far as he’d concerned. “We don’t view anyone as competitive. We love working with Lowercarbon Capital. Chris [Sacca] has been an LP since our second fund and we love what they’ve been doing in climate. We like another firm, Boom Capital, as well as Cantos, which more or less exclusively partners with deep-tech impact companies.”

There are also a growing number of better-known venture outfits that “like really hard, really ambitious startups,” such as Founders Fund, he notes. Even still, says Bannon, there’s much more for the taking. When it comes to deep-tech investment firms, he says, in his view, “We probably need 10 times more of them.”

Above, Fifty Years cofounders Ela Madej and Seth Bannon.

Journey Clinical raises $3M to allow psychotherapists to prescribe psychedelics

Psychedelics companies are all the rage right now. Compass Pathways is working with the magic mushroom compound psilocybin to treat depression. It’s has raised $290 million in total. Atai Life Sciences — backed by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel — brought in $258 million from its IPO. In the tech space, this has not gone unnoticed and the same business models that have been used in other platforms for health and wellness startups are coming to psychedelics.

The latest is Journey Clinical, based out of NYC, which has raised a $3 million seed round led by San Francisco VC firm Fifty Years. Also participating were Neo Kuma Ventures, Palo Santo, PsyMed Ventures, Lionheart Ventures, Christina Sass co-founder of Andela, ​​Edvard Engesæth, MD co-founder of Nurx and, Hans Gangeskar co-founder of Nurx.

Journey joins other startups in the space looking at psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, where ketamine is used to treat depression, anxiety, PTSD, and trauma, known as ketamine-assisted psychotherapy (KAP). Miami-based startup NUE Life Health raised a $3.3 million seed round for the same purpose back in June. There is also Field Trip and Mindbloom playing in this space.

These startups are pushing at an open door on depression and anxiety. Pre-COVID-19, the National Center for Health Statistics estimated some 50 million Americans were fighting the afflictions. The pandemic has of course exacerbated this issue, with those figures doubling, by some estimates.

It’s still an early market. Journey says the market landscape for legal psychedelic therapies is very disparate, with over a million licensed mental health professionals lacking the infrastructure to offer these treatments as they lack access to prescribing clinicians. On the flip side, patients struggle to find psychotherapists who can prescribe psychedelics as treatment.

Journey says it has a “decentralized clinic model” that allows psychotherapists to offer legal psychedelic therapy treatments in their practice, starting with ketamine. The way it works is that Journey takes care of the pharmacology side, while psychotherapists that sign up to the platform take care of the psychotherapy of the patient. The treatment plans are then customized to meet the patient’s needs.

Jonathan Sabbagh, co-founder and CEO, was previously diagnosed with PTSD, but after discovering psychedelics, he went back to school to study clinical psychology, and went on to co-found Journey. He said: “We are on the verge of a paradigm shift in the field of mental health. Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapies are one of the most promising new means of treatment available; they will allow clinicians to tackle the growing global mental health crisis we are facing.”

Speaking to TechCrunch he added: “When we asked what was the main bottleneck for therapists to offer KAP to their patients, the #1 response was access to a prescribing doctor. Our alpha test group confirmed that guaranteeing access to a trained medical team and building a robust care management system would solve an essential bottleneck of mainstream adoption for KAP.”

Journey has two revenue streams. Psychotherapists pay them a $200 monthly membership fee which gives them access to a number of services including and access to the prescriber, an EHR (achieved through a white label), a KAP training (training materials created by a specialized training company), a profile on Journey’s directory, and a community of peers. Patients pay journey for medical services. They pay $250 for the intake consultation and $150 for follow-up consultations.

Ela Madej, Founding Partner at Fifty Years, said: “I dream of a world where those of us affected by trauma, anxiety, or depression don’t have to fall into learned helplessness. We’re lucky that powerful psychedelic treatments for the mind exist, but they need to be delivered responsibly, with proper screening, protocols, and follow-up. We’ve been incredibly impressed by Journey Clinical’s ambitious plan to empower psychotherapists to better treat their existing patients.”

The team also comprises Kyle Lapidus MD, Ph.D., who has over 20 years as a board-certified psychiatrist and has extensive experience working with ketamine; and Brigitte Gordon DNP a professor at Columbia University and also works for the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS.)

Noya Labs turns cooling towers into direct air capture devices for CO2 emissions

Not every company’s founders find themselves on a first name basis with the local bomb squad, but then again not every company is Noya Labs, which wants to turn the roughly 2 million cooling towers at industrial sites and buildings across the U.S. into CO2 sucking weapons in the fight against global climate change.

When the company first started developing prototypes of its devices that attach to water coolers, the company’s founders, Josh Santos and Daniel Cavero, did what all good founders do, they started building in their backyard.

The sight of a 55 gallon oil drum, a yellow refrigeration tank in a sous vide bath attached to red and blue cables didn’t sit so well with the neighbors, so Santos and Cavero found themselves playing host to the bomb squad multiple times, according to the company’s chief executive, Santos.

“We proved that it could capture CO2, and we achieved something that no startup should achieve,” Santos said of the dubious bomb squad distinction.

Santos and Cavero were inspired to begin their experiments with direct air capture by an article describing some research into plants’ declining ability to capture carbon dioxide that Santos read on the Caltrain on his way to work back in 2019. That article spurred the would-be entrepreneur and his roommate to get to work on experimenting with carbon chemistry.

Their first product was a consumer air purifier that would pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in homes and capture it. Homeowners could then sell the captured gases to Santos and Cavero who would then resell it. But the two quickly realized that the business model wasn’t economical, and went back to the drawing board.

They found their eventual application in industrial cooling towers, which the company’s tech can turn into CO2 capturing devices that have the capacity to take in between half a ton and a ton of carbon dioxide per day.

Noya’s tech works by adding a blend of CO2 absorbing chemicals to the water in the cooling towers. They then add an attachment to the cooling tower that activates what Santos called a regeneration process to convert the captured CO2 back into gas. Once they have captured the CO2 the company will look to resell it to industrial Co2 consumers.

It’s not green yet, at least not exactly, because that CO2 is being recirculated instead of sequestered, but Santos said it’s greener existing sources of the gas, which come from ammonia and ethanol plants.

Noya Labs co-founders Josh Santos and Daniel Cavero. Image Credit: Noya Labs

Five years from now we fully intend to have vertically integrated carbon capture and sequestration. Our first step is locally produced low cost atmospherically captured CO2,” said Santos. “If we were to go all in on a carbon capture that would require a lot of time for us to develop. What this initial model allows us to do is fine tune our capture technology while building up longterm to go to market.”

Santos called it the “Tesla roadster approach” so that the company can build up capital and get revenue and prove one piece of it as an MVP so they can prove other steps of it down the line.

Noya Labs already is developing a pilot plant with the Alexandre Family Farm that should capture between the estimated half a ton and one ton target.

To develop the initial pilot and build out its team, the company has managed to raise $1.2 million from the frontier tech investment firm Fifty Years, founded by Ela Madej and Seth Bannon, and Chris Sacca’s Lowercarbon Capital (whose mission statement to invest in companies that will buy time to “unf*ck the planet” might be one of the greatest). The company’s also in Y Combinator.

“One of the things that makes us excited about this technology is that in the U.S. alone there are 2 million cooling towers. Looking conservatively — if our initial pilot plant can capture 1 ton per day — we’re at right over half a gigaton of CO2 capture.”

And companies are already raising their hands to pick up the CO2 that Noya would sell on the market. There’s a growing collection of startups that are using CO2 to make products. These companies range from the slightly silly, like Aether Diamonds, which uses CO2 to make… diamonds; to companies like Dimensional Energy or Prometheus fuels, which make synthetic fuels with CO2, or Opus12, which uses CO2 in its replacements for petrochemicals.

Prices for commercial CO2 range between $125 per ton to $5,000 per ton, according to Santos. And Noya would be producing at less than $100 per ton. Current Direct Air Capture companies sell their CO2 from somewhere between $600 to $700 per ton.

Stoya’s first installation could cost around $250,000, Santos said. For Bannon, that means the company passes his “Mr. Burns test.”

“We’ve been digging into the DAC space but haven’t liked the techno-economics we’ve seen. Previous approaches have had too much capex and opex and not enough revenue potential,” Bannon wrote in an email. “That’s what Noya has solved. By leveraging existing industrial equipment, their model is profitable. And better yet, they make their carbon capture partners money, allowing them to scale this up fast. This creates an opportunity to profitably remove 1 gigaton plus a year.”