Singularity University to launch $50 million venture fund to tackle the world’s ‘grand challenges’

Made in Space is based out of the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. From the campus's main lawn, you can see the historic hangar. Signe Brewster

Forward-looking startups will have a chance at $50 million later this year when Singularity University, an education center and accelerator based at Mountain View’s NASA Ames Research Center, launches its first venture fund.

The university will begin raising capital during the second quarter of 2014, according to managing director of new venture development Sandy Miller. The fund will focus on companies launched by SU students, alumni and faculty.

Everything SU does is tied to pursuing “exponential technologies:” tools that are developing so fast that small teams of people can now use them to accomplish tasks that once required a large company. Examples include robotics, biotech and nanotechnology. SU challenges these fields to put their work toward solving major world problems like poverty, education and security.

SU has used these principles to populate its accelerator, which is separate from the venture fund, with an interesting mix of companies; an approach it will apply to the fund as well.

“The (accelerator) companies have to use an exponential technology as part of their product solution in markets, applications that are addressing at least one or more of the grand challenges,” Miller said in an interview. “Being one or more years ahead of the market, that’s something that I see working with some of the companies in our portfolio.”

SU was started in 2008 by X Prize founder Peter Diamandis and Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil. It has grown to encompass educational programs aimed at executives and graduate students and the accelerator. GetaroundMade in Space and Modern Meadow are among the participating startups. It also has a new program that pairs its startups with established companies like Lowe’s, Coca-Cola, Unicef and Hershey’s. Miller said said that while the accelerator currently only accepts companies associated with its alumni, it plans to begin accepting outsiders in six to nine months.

While interest in exponential technologies is growing, they can still face a harder time finding funding than an Instagram-type startup. Their final goal can be years away. But Miller emphasized that many find commercial prospects earlier than they thought. Modern Meadow, for example, which eventually plans to print edible meat, is already looking into markets for 3D printed leather.

“A lot of things are changing far faster than most of us realize and we’re living in a world that has problems and capabilities that will not be solved by the infrastructure from hundreds and thousands of years ago that we’re currently using,” CEO Rob Nail said in an interview. “There’s a critical need for us to be aware of how technology is shifting our lives and the world we live in, but also there’s a gigantic opportunity to take advantage of those technologies that are on the near cusp to deploy them to solve the big problems.”

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