How can we make the ‘hard stuff’ cool again?


Last week I met with Leslie Dewan, a young entrepreneur in Cambridge. She’s not working on a mobile app or on software to improve business efficiency. She has a big idea. And it’ll take years to find out whether or not it is even economically viable.

In short, she’s not the type of young entrepreneur lured to the startup game by “The Social Network.” Dewan is trying to reinvent the nuclear power plant. The goal of her startup, Transatomic Power: Make nuclear power far less hazardous—and spare us from some of the effects of climate change in the process.

An ambition this lofty doesn’t get off the ground without money. And Transatomic has it, from San Francisco venture firm Founders Fund. Unfortunately, there aren’t many other firms like Founders Fund out there.

Cleantech used to be cool among venture capitalists. Then it sputtered out (for about a thousand reasons). The consensus became that clean energy technology was a bad match for VC; the so-called “VC model” just doesn’t allow for funding potentially world-changing innovations that are risky, expensive, and take a long time. Better to just focus on finding the next Instagram or WhatsApp.

Says who?

The version of the “VC model” that we’ve accepted as gospel is actually the VC model that took shape during the late 1990s (aka the dotcom bubble). Before that, VC was a good way to fund true innovation (it was behind the first waves of semiconductors in the 1960s, computer hardware and software in the ‘70s, and biotech in the ‘80s); since then, “venture investing shifted away from funding transformational companies and toward companies that solved incremental problems or even fake problems,” says the manifesto of Founders Fund.

In Boston, not everyone has gone that way. As I pointed out recently, Boston-area VC firms such as Flagship Ventures and Third Rock Ventures both primarily fund companies with big visions but longer term prospects. You’ll also find investments along those lines sprinkled through the portfolios of a number of other VC firms in Massachusetts—where there’s more of a willingness to tackle the “hard stuff,” thanks in part to the sophisticated tech and biotech coming out of institutions such as MIT.

But the hard stuff still is not cool. Not yet. If it was, you’d be reading about startups as bold as Transatomic on a regular basis rather than once in a blue moon.

Success by entrepreneurs like Leslie Dewan and investors like Founders Fund, Flagship, and Third Rock could change that. But more venture firms and limited partners of VC funds (such as university endowments) need to step up and take more risks for the good of us all; more entrepreneurs—particularly the “serial” variety, who can financially afford to take big risks—need to start or join companies that want to make a real difference.

Once “everyone’s doing it,” then it becomes cool. And once saving the world is cool again, maybe we’ll actually have a shot at pulling it off.

Image of jumping over a train on a motorbike via Shutterstock.

Kyle Alspach has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since 2005 and was one of the original staff writers at BetaBoston.
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