Fifty Years to help climate scientists turn research into solutions with new grants program

Venture investors at Fifty Years, a climate- and biotech-focused fund.

Fifty Years

San Francisco venture firm Fifty Years is launching a new grant-making initiative to fund scientists working to translate their research into products that can curb climate change, or help people adapt to and survive it.

The initiative was inspired by one of the firm’s portfolio companies, a sustainable chemicals startup called Solugen, according to Fifty Years’ Special Operations leader Sara Kemppainen.

Solugen is now valued at around $2 billion, and operates a plant in Houston, Texas, where it turns custom enzymes and renewable feedstock (like dextrose, a simple sugar) into chemicals that were traditionally made using petroleum, natural gas and phosphates, which contribute to water, air and soil pollution.

When Solugen’s founders, Gaurab Chakrabarti and Sean Hunt, were still working on their concept, they had looked into early-stage funding from venture and angel investors, and from government grant programs. They were overwhelmed by the long response time it would take to score grants from government programs, and sometimes discouraged by prospective investors who wanted to see how their research would work in a real world application.

They submitted a pitch and competed at the MIT 100K entrepreneurship competition, and secured enough funding in prize money from that event, about $10,000, to create a prototype reactor using materials available for purchase at any big box retailer — wood, PVC pipes and zip ties.

Solugen co-founders: CEO Gaurab Chakrabarti and CTO Sean Hunt.

Todd Spoth for Solugen

Kemppainen told CNBC that people with deep expertise in a technical or scientific subject should not have to feel so limited by funding, and that all the great research that can come from academia and different labs around the world should not wind up stuck on a shelf when it could make a difference to people and the planet.

The investor said, “Often after the basic science is done, and understood, there’s just a bit more work to essentially show that the science has feasibility and potential. This could be prototype, techno-economic modeling, and things like that – but almost nobody funds that work.”

Applying for a Fifty Years Manifest Grant shouldn’t take entrepreneurial scientists more than an hour, the investor said, and her firm promises to make decisions within three weeks. A typical Manifest grant will amount to $25,000 to $100,000, she added.

The grants are open to academic researchers as of Tuesday August 1 and the application period closes on August 31.

Fifty Years is running the grant-making initiative with primary funding from philanthropic backers the EQT Foundation and Automattic, the company behind web publishing platform WordPress.

Fifty Years and its partners will not take equity nor claim intellectual property rights over any companies or inventions that arise from the projects funded by the grants. Kemppainen emphasized that this program is intended to help scientists translate their best, deep tech research into real-world climate solutions sooner rather than later, with no strings attached.

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