How to Build a Time Machine

The four elements of thematic venture capital

James Joaquin |
Illustrations by Ula Sveikauskaite

At Obvious Ventures, we build time machines.

Not the science fiction kind that teleport into the far future or the deep past.

I’m talking about building a researched point of view on where the world is heading, and backing exceptional founders bringing exponential technologies to market in the near future. When we get the knobs and dials right, these investments result in disruptive startups reimagining trillion-dollar industries in a world positive way.

Obvious is a thematic venture firm, investing within categories like food, transportation, healthcare, and other fundamental building blocks of society. Across these investment themes, our work with founders has revealed an interesting and all too common pattern:

The most successful founders are often ridiculed, derided, and overlooked early on.

Ethan Brown was laughed at about Beyond Meat’s ($BYND) mission to create meat made from plants. Chris Gibson was told Recursion ($RXRX) would never work for drug discovery. Virta (now valued over $2 billion) founder Sami Inkinen was told by mainstream medicine that diabetes could only be treated, not reversed.

But our brave pilots ignored the skeptics and set the knobs and dials correctly to land time machines that changed the game and moved humanity forward. Across these success stories, we’ve observed four key ingredients needed to get it right.

The Four Core Elements

1. Technology Breakthroughs
New science or technology enabling a 10X to 100X better way.

2. Cultural / Societal Shifts
Insights into how consumers are changing their wants, needs, and sentiments in a particular market or category.

3. Market Timing
A forecast into a future time when the necessary tools are in place and customers are ready for this new innovation.

4. Exceptional Founders
The crazy misfits with the right stuff to pilot and land the time machine in the right way at the right time.

Time Machine Examples

Here are three specific examples from the Obvious portfolio, with details on the four core elements of each future-changing investment. Across these amazing companies you’ll see a thread of fundamental invention. As Alan Kay famously said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Plant-Based Food: Beyond Meat

  • Tech: Breakthroughs in both plant extrusion for texture, and precision fermentation for flavor.
  • Society: A generational awakening connecting food to human and planetary health, shifting from niche “vegan” to mainstream “plant forward.”
  • Timing: Acceptance at progressive natural grocers like Whole Foods combined with a need for vegan options at quick service restaurants.
  • Team: Clean energy executive Ethan Brown started Beyond Meat to de-carbonize the meat aisle by bringing consumers delicious, nutritious alternatives to eating animals.

Lab-Grown Diamonds: Diamond Foundry

  • Tech: Plasma reactors that use renewable energy to grow pure diamond crystal at temperatures as hot as the sun.
  • Society: A generational awareness of the huge environmental and social damage caused by diamond mining.
  • Timing: First to market in 2016, several years ahead of diamond mining giant De Beers announcing they would attempt to launch their own lab-grown brand Lightbox.
  • Team: Stanford computer science PhD Martin Roscheisen and MIT mechanical engineer Jeremy Scholz, applying their expertise from thin-film solar to above-ground diamonds.

AI for Drug Discovery: Recursion

  • Tech: Machine vision that is able to analyze and interpret images at the cellular level, finding more signal than humans ever could alone.
  • Society: A growing need for faster, more affordable therapeutics at a time when drug discovery was getting slower and more expensive.
  • Timing: An existing ecosystem of cloud storage and distributed compute, combined with proven advances in robotic lab automation.
  • Team: Chris Gibson obtained his Ph.D. from University of Utah, then withdrew from medical school to found Recursion. Co-founder and board member Dean Li was on the cutting-edge of translational medical research at the University of Utah for more than two decades and is now President at Merck Research Laboratories.

Today, we’re busy building more time machines across new frontiers. Here are three examples that the Obvious team has been hard at work on:

Electric RVs: Lightship
While the world has been enamored with electric cars, the Obvious team has envisioned the electrification of everything on the horizon, and we’re excited to work on a future filled with fully-electrified RVs from Lightship.

Psychedelics for Human Health: MycoMedica
With research on the potential use of psychedelics for human health restarting, we are excited about a future where molecules like psilocybin are available as FDA-approved medicines. We’ve partnered with star mycologist Paul Stamets to pursue this vision at MycoMedica.

Long-term Capital Markets: Long Term Stock Exchange
LTSE CEO Eric Ries first wrote about the idea for a long-term stock exchange in his 2011 book The Lean Startup. We partnered with him in 2016 to bring the idea into creation. In 2021 the LTSE team announced their first listings on their SEC-approved exchange, in a time machine post appropriately titled A Letter to Our Future.

Of course spacetime is also littered with thematic VC investments that were not successful. Inherent in the risk we take is the chance that the technology won’t work, the market timing will be off, or myriad other hazards will trip us up along the way.

Founders, are you building a time machine in your garage right now? We’d love to pore over the blueprints with you. Tweet me at @jamesjoaquin.

James Joaquin

James invests early in breakthrough technologies that move humanity forward. He’s passionate about the responsible use of AI to solve the unsolvable across trillion-dollar industries.

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