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Summary: There is a growing trend among governments and investors to invest in not just civilizational progress, to increase wealth and wellbeing, but also in civilizational resilience, to stabilize them against economic or environmental shocks. This trend is evident in the areas of food security and biosecurity. Investors and founders, particularly in the emerging bioeconomy, can support and benefit from this trend by incorporating civilizational resilience into their ESG and impact frameworks and implementing company-specific risk mitigation strategies. These strategies may be necessary to ensure that new products or services contribute to a more stable world, particularly in the area of biosecurity.
 

This post outlines possible avenues for for-profit capital to contribute to building a more resilient civilization, specifically by improving food security and biosecurity. It is motivated by the large sums of money flowing through Venture Capital (VC, capital that is invested for profit into start-up companies) - hundreds of billions of dollars per year, comparable to the total federal budget of a state like Germany. These sums are moved by people who think in concepts and frameworks and follow trends they see. Therefore, this post aims to test a preliminary framework for investing into civilizational resilience, based on a couple of conversations, to (a) get feedback on the framework and (b) help investors who care about building a long-term stable civilization to align on a common language. So, if you have suggestions for how to make this framework more useful, and/or just want to connect with like minded investors and founders, please comment and/or DM me.

As a disclaimer for the broader EA Forum audience: This post doesn’t distinguish very carefully between “broadly good” interventions that stabilize society against non-existential threats vs. more targeted interventions that could potentially help prevent civilizational collapse or extinction. From the perspective of a long-termist EA, one may want to focus much more on the latter group. From the perspective of a Venture Capital investor who needs to diversify their portfolio, it may make sense to look with a slightly wider angle, and this is what the post aims to do.

Finally, I work at a Venture Capital firm, but the post is written by me in my personal capacity. I’d like to thank (in alphabetical order) Alexis Carlier, Charlie Petty, Damien Soghoian, Gigi Gronvall, Gregory Lewis, Jacob Swett, James Wagstaff, John Cumbers, Jonas Sandbrink, Jonathan Harris, Miroslav Gasparek, Sarah Carter, and Simon Grimm for helpful input and discussions; all mistakes are my own.
 

 

Civilizational resilience is a growing trend across governments and for-profit investors

On the scale of a global civilization, humanity has reached a stage of unprecedented wealth and wellbeing - at least as measured by indicators like rising global GDP per capitaliteracy and life expectancy. However, our wealth and wellbeing are still fragile, as illustrated by the immense damage that events like the COVID pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and extreme weather events are doing to global supply chains. 

Governments and for-profit investors are increasingly recognizing the need to build not just for increased wealth and wellbeing, but to limit the fragility of humanity’s achievements - investing in civilizational resilience. The trend to invest in civilizational resilience is particularly clear for food security, a key priority for governments, for example in Singapore and Middle Eastern projects like NEOM. Food security is also recognized as an ESG investment theme by for-profit investors, for instance in the Food, Nutrition and Health Investor Coalition. Especially since the COVID pandemic, biosecurity has been recognized as another key priority in building a more resilient civilization, for instance by the US government. The US National Biodefense Strategy outlines audacious targets like developing and deploying pathogen-specific tests within 30 days of detecting a novel pathogen, producing rapid, low-cost, point-of-need diagnostics within 90 days and repurposing effective therapeutics within 90 days. Accordingly, the FY23 US President’s Budget includes a historic $88.2 billion request for mandatory funding, available over five years to prepare for future biological threats in support of objectives within U.S. national and global biodefense and pandemic preparedness strategies and plans. And, not unlike the trends in food security, for-profit investors are stepping into the space as well, for instance GHIC in a partnership with BARDA, OS Fund, and Adjuvant Capital

Although initial steps from governments and investors may indicate the beginning of a trend, the space of building civilizational resilience currently remains drastically underinvested compared to its potential to absorb capital and create value. For instance, the aforementioned Food, Nutrition and Health Investor Coalition aims to invest a total of $2.5bn over three years, while the IMF estimates it would have taken $50bn to eliminate food insecurity globally in 2022[1]. Likewise, the COVID pandemic triggered an almost 10% decline in the UK’s GDP, the steepest drop in GDP since consistent records began in 1948, indicating that preventing the next pandemic could easily be worth trillions of dollars globally.

The bioeconomy offers solutions to increase civilizational resilience, and thus stands to benefit from the emerging trend. However, some technologies that are part of the bioeconomy pose risks of accidental and deliberate misuse, which need to be identified and mitigated.

The bioeconomy has emerged as a darling of many Venture Capital (VC) investors who turn to the next thing after software, led by thinkers like Eric Schmidt (ex-CEO of Google). Indeed, the bioeconomy offers a broad portfolio of solutions that can increase civilizational resilience:

  • Fermentation-derived food ingredients improve plant-based products, which offer shorter, more resilient supply chains than animal-based foods (company examples include Impossible Foods and Motif Foodworks)
  • Fungi- or mycelium-based foods upgrade easily shipped and stored sugar into nutritious protein products, decoupling food production from land and weather needs to some extent (company examples include Meati and Evocative)
  • Gas fermentation can decouple human food production from any plant-based inputs as well as land and weather, producing protein directly from carbon dioxide or methane and nitrogen (company examples include Arkeon and SolarFoods)
  • Diagnostic testing based on the biotechnology tool CRISPR enables rapid, accurate test results to detect infectious diseases without disrupting daily life (company examples include Mammoth Biosciences, Sherlock, Twelve.bio, CASPR Biotech)
  • Rapidly scalable vaccine and/or biological drug manufacturing platforms ensure countermeasures for emerging diseases can be rolled out faster (company examples include Univercells, Lumen Biotechnologies)

Next to these solutions directly addressing civilizational resilience, another group of companies is accelerating the bioeconomy as a whole by enabling and speeding up product development:

  • Foundries offer biological and computational building blocks to engineer microbial strains that then produce bioproducts (company examples include Ginko Bioworks)
  • Data & analytics companies support microbial strain engineering and fermentation process optimization (company examples include EV Biotech, Officinae bio)
  • Bioprospecting companies help others harness biodiversity to improve products (company examples include Basecamp Research, Prose Foods)

While there is clear potential for building civilizational resilience in the bioeconomy, some technologies, especially in the “enabler” category, need to be carefully managed to avoid dual-use risks: What can enable a bioproduct could, in the wrong hands or by accident, also enable the next pandemic. Such risks need to be quantified and factored into impact or ESG assessments where they turn out to be substantial. Oftentimes, they can even be considered as financial risks from negative PR following, for instance, a “leak” from a laboratory or the public misuse of a company’s product or service. To illustrate the potential magnitude of such risks, one may consider the backlash around Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which effectively excluded a whole industry from the European continent.

Investors and founders have a broad toolbox to deploy in building civilizational resilience.

The first step investors and founders can take is to clearly articulate the benefits of fostering civilizational resilience within existing ESG or impact investing frameworks. For instance, one could picture benefits from increased food security or biosecurity being included under the “S” (social) aspect of ESG, or under the health dimension many funds use in their impact frameworks. Such explicit inclusion of civilizational resilience among “investable themes” then naturally leads to more funding for “defense-native” technologies - those that increase civilizational resilience without risks from accidental or deliberate misuse. Examples could include diagnostic testing, novel sterilization technologies, or optimizing growth of non-engineered microorganisms for food production[2].

Where a business offers significant positive returns from a financial and/or impact perspective, but also bears some risks, investors and founders can create substantial value with a good risk mitigation strategy. Just like most businesses based on data need a cybersecurity strategy, many bio-based businesses will need a biosecurity strategy, tailored to their specific product or service. For instance, many risks from misuse can be mitigated to some extent by screening the outputs of algorithms or the inputs of the user for similarity with known pathogens. Where foundries, analytics, or bioprospecting companies work with one client for a longer project, it may even be sensible to vet the client’s history of activities and intentions, just like business partners often conduct KYC (“know your customer”) background checks on each other before entering a contract.

To ensure that goals of fostering civilizational resilience and mitigating potential risks remain core to a business over time, investors and founders may agree to set up specific governance structures. Those could include setting up the business as a benefit corporation and establishing a separate Ethics Advisory Board, potentially even with “veto” rights for certain topics. A relatively easy first step can be to establish clauses in the shareholder’s agreement that is signed when an investor invests into the company, for instance to document a commitment to deploy at least 1% of invested capital towards developing and implementing a biosecurity strategy. To exchange learnings and ideas, scientists, founders and investors can also connect in groups like IBBIS, the International Biosecurity and Biosafety Initiative for Science.

Investors and founders in the early and mid-2020s have the privilege of being early in the history of the bioeconomy as a new industry. They can therefore shape how (and whether) this industry meaningfully contributes to and benefits from trends like civilizational resilience.


 

  1. ^

    Note the comparison isn't perfect here as the measures suggested by the IMF include, e.g., food distribution programs that would not be investable for Venture Capital. The point I'm aiming to illustrate is that although $2.5bn seems like a large number, it is a small drop in a large bucket compared to the problem of food insecurity.

  2. ^

    more defense-native technologies are listed for instance in Appendix A of the Apollo Program report by the Bipartisan Commission on Biodefense, and have been discussed elsewhere on this forum .

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I've argued before that the EA community should be paying more attention to for-profit investing, so I'm glad to see this, thank you :-)

A few comments from me:

  • Your title leads with "Safety sells", but I was unclear from this write-up whether you actually believe that companies which promote civilisational resilience genuinely are getting more investor interest than would be predicted purely based on their financials. E.g. I'm sure there are some investors who ticking a box about this in their ESG frameworks, but I'd imagine this a mere box ticking exercise which has minimal influence on actual decisions for about 99% of investors. In short, I suspect that safety does not, in fact, sell. If you disagree with this, I'd be interested to hear it.
  • Thank you for your comments on the bioeconomy. I would have liked to see more on how this compares with other options. A couple of examples off the top of my head...
  • ... better PPE is probably well-suited to a for-profit company, (presumably?) doesn't count as being part of the bioeconomy, but could well be a valuable step to keeping the world safer from pandemics (as set out in the Apollo programme).  Similarly for indoor air quality. I would expect these to be no worse than the bioeconomy, i.e. the bioeconomy may well be legitimate focus area, but it doesn't appear to have outsized value, as far as I can tell.
  • Your post is focusing just on food security and biosecurity. It would be good to compare this with other cause areas. Some gut feel thoughts (without having researched this much):
  • ... creating aligned AI is suitable to a for-profit company, and there are precedents for this.
  • ... tackling global conflict seems quite difficult in a for-profit company. This might be an imagination failure on my part, but I suspect that this needs to be left to diplomats and governments.
  • ... climate change is believed by many in EA to be less important than other risk areas and it also is much less neglected.
  • I agree that investors have a broad toolbox. I think it would be useful for someone to cast a more critical eye on the tools in that toolbox.
  • ... I agree that civilisational resilience could fit into existing ESG and impact investing frameworks. However it's useful to consider to what extent this actually leads to greater civilisational resilience. I.e. if I fund a company which does good work to keep humanity safe, would that work have been funded anyway? And if it would be funded anyway, does flooding the field with funding actually help to attract more talent to work on it, or are so few people aware of how much money there is in one sector that they won't redirect their careers based on that?
  • ... you mention governance options like an ethics advisory board. How effective are these measures? E.g. I could imagine that an ethics advisory board could spend a lot of time on various topics (D&I, slavery in the supply chain, climate change) without paying much attention to civilisational resilience (not I have anything against D&I, etc)

Thanks for your in-depth comment, Sanjay! 

Maybe the most important point to clarify here is, I'm not arguing that for-profit investing is the best thing to do to increase civilizational resilience. It might be a good career option for some people but this will depend heavily on personal fit and other factors. I'm rather trying to test an argument that I envisage using with (not necessarily EA-familiar) VC investors for why civilizational resilience should be an explicit goal of for-profit investing.

On your specific points

  • What I mean by "safety sells" is that there does seem to be some overlap of the actions one would take if merely trying to build a profitable business and the actions one would take if trying to increase civilizational resilience. For instance, obtaining non-dilutive government funding is good from a financial perspective and meeting the criteria for such government funding may be aligned with increasing civilizational resilience. The link is of course not nearly as strong (yet) as I would want from a long-termist EA perspective but in some cases, it is there - so the title is admittedly somewhat aspirational. I kept it anyway because it encapsulates what I would like VC investors to see: Civilizational Resilience is important and it can be (like sustainability) one of the goals your business can have that positively influence both financials and impact
  • I fully agree there may be interesting opportunities to increase civilizational resilience by building profitable businesses outside the bioeconomy. My personal subject matter expertise is in biotech and I had limited time, hence the focus - I'm excited to see people started looking into PPE and indoor air monitoring/cleaning, for instance!
  • On whether there may be opportunities for for-profit investing into civilizational resilience in cause areas outside food security and biosecurity - I hope so but I'm uncertain. It may be worth looking into but could be that some of the favorable dynamics in food security and biosecurity (alignment between impact and government interest, the fact that there are "defense-native" technologies) are important and don't apply to other cause areas
  • Agree more work on the investor toolbox is needed - for instance, to me, one key advantage of VC is that it is a bit of a "wild west" space in that you can write almost anything into a Shareholder's agreement. There may be amazing ways of using this power as a team of aligned investors and founders that haven't yet been (publicly) tried. Also, I'd love to learn more about what works vs. what doesn't (How good are Safety and Ethics Boards really at influencing a company's course of action, what are known failure modes? Which implementations of civilizational resilience in ESG frameworks are most effective, what are different ways to measure this? ...)

This all makes sense, thank you :-)

Very interesting investment thesis.

 I'm curious on the last point about "investor toolbox" & governance more generally. I don't know how much research has gone into startup governance more broadly and if it has been done, I 'm assuming most of it has been done in terms of advancing business vs ensuring an alignment to a specific mission / value.  OpenAi's recent board events make me doubt the long-term effectiveness of structure like Ethics Boards.

In the VC industry more generally, the "wild west" phenomena is true but from personal experience, the weirder a shareholder agreement gets, the easier it is to scare of future investors. I think this highlights a critical point in the VC model: You would need investors that are aligned with this governance structure throughout the company's entire fundraising journey.