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Betting on biodiversity: Q&A with Superorganism’s Kevin Webb & Tom Quigley

Monarch butterflies

Monarch butterflies, a migratory butterfly species that is endangered. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

  • Superorganism is a newly launched venture capital firm, touted to be the first that’s dedicated to addressing the biodiversity crisis.
  • The firm aims to support startups that are developing and deploying technology to prevent biodiversity loss and protect nature.
  • The firm’s early portfolio includes companies that are working to tackle extinction drivers and finding solutions that lay at the intersection of biodiversity conservation and climate change mitigation.

How do you bridge the gap between ecology and the economy? It’s this question that guided both Kevin Webb and Tom Quigley, albeit from different perspectives.

Webb, a venture capitalist, was witnessing rapid progress in the deployment of climate technology, but wasn’t seeing similar enthusiasm when it came to tech solutions to deal with the biodiversity crisis. Similarly, conservation technologist Quigley was seeing some of the best talent being attracted to developing technology to mitigate the climate crisis, while biodiversity conservation was consigned to the backburner.

“It seemed like it was not getting as much attention within those circles as climate is, but it’s clearly as important of a crisis to solve for humanity as climate is,” Quigley says.

With the aim of filling this gap, Webb and Quigley founded a venture capital firm dedicated specifically to addressing the biodiversity crisis. Launched in September, Superorganism is touted as the first ever venture firm that supports startups working to prevent biodiversity loss and protect nature. The firm has an early portfolio of 11 companies, including a startup that produces leather from dangerous invasive species, and another that’s automating sustainable insect farming.

Webb and Quigley say they invest in companies that are looking to tackle extinction drivers, that work at the intersection of biodiversity conservation and climate change, and that use cutting-edge technology to protect nature.

“Do we think that this could potentially make an ecological dent at scale? We have to get a conviction that the company’s impact is going to be something that scales with the business,” Webb says.

Kevin Webb and Tom Quigley
Kevin Webb and Tom Quigley launched Superorganism, a venture capital firm that is dedicated to businesses that benefit biodiversity. Image courtesy of Superorganism.

The duo spoke with Mongabay’s Abhishyant Kidangoor about what prompted them to launch a venture capital firm focused on the biodiversity crisis, the things that surprised them the most, and how they’re planning for the future. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Mongabay: How would you describe Superorganism to someone who doesn’t know anything about it?

Kevin Webb: Superorganism is the first venture firm that is entirely dedicated to businesses that benefit biodiversity. We partner with pre-seed and seed-stage founders building ambitious, nature-positive startups. Climate tech has proven that you can look for climate-related opportunities across the whole economy. Our view is that since biodiversity loss also cuts across the world’s economy, there are countless places for startups to drive positive change.

At Superorganism, we invest in three big theses: extinction drivers, climate and biodiversity, and enabling technology. The first thesis covers any startup addressing extinction drivers — pollution, invasive species, habitat loss, overexploitation — and using new technologies and approaches to disrupt existing industries that cause harm. Our second thesis focuses on the fifth extinction driver, climate change, and how it overlaps with nature. In this theme, picture businesses that enable nature-based solutions, nature as a tool for climate adaptation, and arenas like wildfire, soil, and water, where there’s a nature story as well as a climate story.

Lastly, we’re obsessed with enabling technologies. Conservationists are incredible adopters of technology, and so we’re looking for the newest, most cutting-edge technologies, from AI to satellites to genomics, to see what can be really useful to people who are in the field doing the hard work. Stepping back, our role is to really help these startups as they deal with challenges unique to businesses that are interfacing with ecosystems responsibly.

Mongabay: What’s the status now? Where are you in the process of finding startups that are aligned with your mindset?

Tom Quigley: We’re currently allocating capital to startups. We have a portfolio of 11 companies, and we’ll be building a full portfolio of 30 to 35 different companies across software, hardware, biotech, and many different industries.

Mongabay: What gaps are you trying to fill with Superorganism?

Tom Quigley: Kevin and I came to this problem from slightly different approaches. Kevin had spent his career in venture capital, and he had been really working on things that were more from a traditional venture approach. He was seeing a lot of the progress that was happening in climate tech and thinking, “Why not for nature?” He was thinking, “What if you could do for nature what climate tech has done for the climate crisis?” His perspective coming from there was there is a gap that isn’t serving those founders that are having the largest impacts on nature.

Meanwhile, I was starting my career as a conservationist. I was working with Conservation X Labs and supporting all of these types of companies that were tools for conservationists and scientists. I was also seeing what was happening in climate tech, and seeing how they are raising millions of dollars and attracting some of the best talent on the planet. I started thinking, “How do we channel some of that to think about biodiversity loss?” It seemed like it was not getting as much attention within those circles as climate is, but it’s clearly as important of a crisis to solve for humanity as climate is. So that was where we met in the middle and reconnected, and started shaping a full venture support stack for founders that are working on nature.

Kevin Webb: There’s so much more capital that needs to go into nature broadly. We think that venture is very well-suited to do certain things like going after these industries that are driving extinction head-on. You look at who the historic financiers of a lot of conservation work have been, and see many of them have been entrepreneurs who have cared. So if we can find more of those and help accelerate their trajectory, we hope that it ends up having cascading positive impacts.

North American beaver dam in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, where the animal is invasive.
North American beaver dam in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina, where the animal is invasive. Image by IlyaHaykinson via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 1.0).

Mongabay: Walk me through how it came together after that.

Kevin Webb: Tom and I first met through Conservation X Labs. I reached out to him. He was doing a lot of the community work with a lot of their different teams internally. I was in this place where I had been working in more traditional venture capital and started angel investing to really see if there were biodiversity-adjacent opportunities, and to try to understand how these companies were different from traditional Silicon Valley businesses. And that took me to Conservation X Labs. We stayed in touch. I then got to a point where my angel investing was good, but I kept meeting founders who were saying, “There’s no VCs focused on biodiversity and the nature crisis.” It just became clear that there was really an opportunity to bring conservationists to the table and help these kinds of businesses. And at the same time, Tom was working and thinking about his next steps. So it was really kismet.

Tom Quigley: When we started talking to each other about what it might look like to build a venture capital firm around nature, we spent a lot of time thinking about what would be the highest-leverage ways that we would be able to both find venture-looking returns and also find the highest-leverage impact on biodiversity. That’s where our thesis areas emerged from.

Mongabay: Could you explain the work of two of the companies in your portfolio?

Kevin Webb: We should start by saying that we love all of our children <laughs>

Tom Quigley: Inversa is a company that creates luxury leather out of invasive species. They want to access the market demand from companies that are currently using exotic leather — the high-end brands making leather goods — with communities that are removing invasive species on the ground. Their first products are a lionfish leather, a Burmese python leather from Florida, and an Asian carp leather from the Mississippi River Basin. Their work is really important and impactful because it really allows them to continually fund invasive species removal at scale in a way that doesn’t require that money to come out of the budgets of a municipality or department of environment, while also replacing the exotic leather or other types of leather that might be used on the market side.

Kevin Webb: Funga is our newest investment. It was started by Colin [Averill], who’s one of the world’s leading experts on mycorrhizal networks and their impacts on forest biomes. We met with him last year, and we ended up investing more recently. What Funga is doing is taking intact soil mycorrhizal networks and figuring out the species assemblages from relatively healthy forests, and then using that to inform replanting strategies in managed forests in order to be able to enhance tree growth by up to 64%, according to research. They can drive carbon benefits from a climate perspective, as well as produce more saleable timber. We like it because the soil microbiome is incredibly important. This is essentially functionally rewilding areas from the soil networks out. So a lot of win-wins and it definitely demonstrates our climate and biodiversity thesis.

Funga, a startup that uses underground fungal networks to address climate change, is among the companies in Superorganism's early portfolio.
Funga, a startup that uses underground fungal networks to address climate change, is among the companies in Superorganism’s early portfolio. Image courtesy of Funga.

Mongabay: What are your criteria for deciding which company to invest in?

Tom Quigley: One thing that is really important for us is that there are large and existing markets that those companies can scale up through. This is why we’ve structured our thesis so that there will be large markets of customers that will be able to go up that growth curve, and also that there will be many downstream investors to be able to also support those companies so that they don’t get kind of caught in an impact trap. We also look for the application of technology in this problem area, so that we’re increasing scalability and we’re trying new approaches and solving inefficiencies in ways that haven’t been done before. We also obviously look for a strong market pull. So when companies are coming to us with their pitch, we see if they show traction and a pipeline of companies that are interested and excited to buy so that it can be evidence of that downstream market pull where these companies are really hungry for the product that’s being built.

Kevin Webb: Fundamentally, we are looking for two things. First, like any VC, we’re looking for businesses that are venture-profile–ambitious, targeting revenue generating, aim to one day sell or IPO. The second piece that’s unique for us is we’re looking for outsized biodiversity impact. Those are our first-pass filters. Do we think that this startup could potentially make an ecological dent at scale? We have to get a conviction that the company’s impact is going to be something that scales with the business. We want something that is so inextricably linked to the company that it would be difficult for them to pivot away into something else that’s maybe not harmful, but not doing the kind of work that we want to be supporting.

Mongabay: What have been the hurdles in doing this?

Kevin Webb: We’re early to this whole space and this whole category. And that’s part of what makes it exciting for us, and for the founders that we work with. Many of these founders have been successfully operating within other categories, whether it’s agritech, whether it’s climate. You really pick apart why people are motivated to start these companies. It’s because of ecosystem loss and biodiversity loss. Most people have a shared story when you ask a couple questions about why they’re doing this work, and why they’ve pivoted their careers in this direction.

I think, by virtue of being venture capitalists who say that they are motivated by biodiversity, it puts us in an interesting position. When I first started exploring this, four or five years ago, I got a lot of puzzled looks when I said I care about biodiversity. That has fortunately gotten a lot better due to COP15, CSRD [corporate sustainability reporting directive], and due to all these things that are coming down the pipe. This approach is one that within the conservation community also results in us having to do some educating. What is appropriate for a venture capital model? How can this potentially play a role? How can we look at it with what it’s good for and what it’s not? We try to openly share what we’ve learned.

Satellite image of deforestation in Bolivia.
Satellite image of deforestation in Bolivia. Image by European Space Agency via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Mongabay: What have been the surprises along the way?

Tom Quigley: One thing that really surprised me has been that the conservation tech communities, and the tech community and founders from more traditional Silicon Valley-style companies, are still very disconnected. And yet there’s a lot of interest from both parties to be more connected with each other. When we started working together, I had a lot of questions around the types of companies that we might find, how venture-scalable many of them might be, and I was really impressed by the founders that we were seeing. But many of them were saying that we were the first venture capital firm that they had spoken to who understood their specific slice of impact, such as invasive species, that they didn’t have to bother to explain what the problems there were because we just got it. It was a big surprise that they were not getting that type of support from other arenas. The hunger and interest to be connected to those conservation communities was really strong, and was a barrier for them. So those companies that were doing really high-impact scalable work were asking us for connections to conservationists and scientists that were doing that work. As were the conservationists. They didn’t have access. A lot of what we’ve been building out has been with that in mind, to think about how we can better bridge these two areas: How can we encourage more cross-disciplinary work in either of those fields, both conservationists with sort of tech and entrepreneurship approaches in mind, and getting more founders to work on biodiversity problems.

Kevin Webb: I was pleasantly surprised to discover that conservationists are actually a lot more entrepreneurial than people give them credit for. They’re used to scrappy budgets, pushing through walls in order to get something done, and you want someone who has outsized motivation, and there’s very few people who have that. So we think there’s a lot of opportunity for cross-pollination here.

Mongabay: You get access to a lot of conservation tech projects that are being developed. How would you say the field is faring?

Kevin Webb: What’s really cool is everything that is coming out of Silicon Valley, but the tech world generally, is finding its way into the hands of conservationists enabling ways to monitor and look at biodiversity in a way that wasn’t possible a decade ago. So whether you’re looking at drones, satellites, AI, and the cost of genetic sequencing going down, we have technology that is capable of understanding and working with nature like never before. We did this because this is what we like nerding out about. There’s a lot that’s exciting. It’s almost like the question of what isn’t exciting.

On the flip side, companies are starting to have to think about their impacts on nature in a way that they haven’t before. This starts to tiptoe toward a point where nature shows up on the balance sheet. When you do that, and you start saying, “This place matters just as much as this other place,” companies have to account for consequences that have been invisible to the consumer and to other enterprises. It just creates a ton of opportunities for businesses to do the right thing, to work with companies that can help them do the right thing, or for new startups to just outcompete them by doing the right thing from day one. So it’s a really exciting time.

Mongabay: What does the future look like for Superorganism?

Tom Quigley: Our core work is finding and investing in world-changing, highly impactful businesses. We’re really excited to be building more efforts around the community and thinking about category building in this nature-tech space. How do we bring more resources and support systems for founders, conservationists and people that want to join these types of companies? How do we share our learnings as investors and allow other investors to start moving more into biodiversity as an investable category? That’s all to come. There’s a really greenfield opportunity here to bring everyone along. So that’s a lot of what we’re going to be doing over the next few years beyond our core investing work.

Banner image: Monarch butterflies, a migratory butterfly species that is endangered. Image by Charles J. Sharp via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).

Abhishyant Kidangoor is a staff writer at Mongabay. Find him on 𝕏 @AbhishyantPK.

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