I will never forget the summer of 2017. I’m a huge tennis fan, and that summer, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal battled back from injury and old age to re-emerge as multiple grand slam champions. It was also the summer I almost joined a monastery in Nepal to become a monk.
My fascination with monastic lifestyles stemmed from my passion for philosophy — which has become core to my identity since I first studied philosophy in college. My areas of interest were well defined at the time: philosophy of mind, philosophy of language, and machine ethics. Though I considered pursuing a PhD, I grew frustrated with the lack of practical applications in academia. If philosophy (the art of critical and logical thinking) is to ponder big questions, I soon realized it was meant to be practiced and applied in everyday life and especially in environments free of workplace politics (such as a monastery).
As fate would have it, before leaving for Nepal in the summer of 2017, an opening for Chief of Staff at an up & coming AI startup in New York City grabbed my attention. Given my interest in philosophy of mind, seeing what artificial intelligence looks like in a practical setting on the ground floor seemed like the perfect opportunity to combine my passion for philosophy with my business background. I ended up putting my monk plans on hold to join the startup world.
Today, I’m a Midwest-based investor, a founder of an emerging tech incubator, and an advisor & mentor to deep tech and enterprise software startups as well as at accelerators such as MassChallenge and Plug & Play. Even as my career has diverged from monasticism, the memory of studying & reading philosophy on a daily basis has never been more relevant. My angel investments (ten and counting) in deep tech companies along with my experiences building and managing products in the AI/ML space have shown me how important yet ignored ethics is at emerging technology startups. Issues involving algorithmic bias, data privacy, responsible data sourcing, climate change, and labor displacement are at the forefront of researchers’ and, increasingly, regulators’ minds — but not enough at deep tech founders’. Countdown Capital is here to change that.
The Countdown Strategy
Enter Countdown Capital’s Fund I: a $5m pre-seed and seed stage fund investing and providing in-house support for frontier tech startups that are committed to deep philosophical and ethical thinking on top of breakthrough engineering.
Over the past year, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we’re approaching a technological crossroads. On one hand, emerging technologies such as AR/VR, quantum computing, and full-stack robotics are set to reshape the nature of industrials this decade. For an aging society that is struggling to maintain solid productivity growth in traditional industries, these emerging technologies could be revolutionary. Despite this potential, this innovation represents a ticking time bomb. Without machine ethics in the conversation, we’re “counting down” to a future where building technology will only compound systemic problems and fail to make the greatest positive impact.
Thus, our thesis is that thoughtful pioneers deliver returns. The more thoughtful the deep tech founding team, the more likely their companies will generate outsized returns. We believe that when building a deep tech product with ethics in mind, founders better understand their market, have a more favorable relationship with regulators, and ultimately create value for customers and indirect stakeholders alike. An autonomous vehicle startup that understands how pedestrians and passengers alike think, an aerospace startup committed to carbon neutrality, and a robotics startup that cares about the workers they’re displacing all have one thing in common: they will generate more value in this coming decade than startups in the same industries that don’t.
However, if you’re an early stage deep tech founder reading this, you’re probably thinking the same thing I’m thinking most of the time I hear other investors speak: talk is cheap. That’s why our goal at Countdown is not just to invest in ethics-forward or conscious deep tech founders but to help them build ethics into their products and organizations.
It’s important to acknowledge that, at the early stage (especially at seed and pre-seed), many deep tech founders are still developing and commercializing their product; and have not thought a ton about machine ethics. Thus, at Countdown, we will not screen out opportunities to invest in founders who haven’t already built up commitments to positive impact. In fact, in our view, the most disruptive ideas often entail challenging ethical dilemmas; but those issues and dilemmas present opportunities for us to work with founders early on to build ethics and positive impact where it is most needed.
Our Value Add: Operationalizing Ethics
The Steering Committee
The first way we aim to help founders embed machine ethics into their products and organizations is through our Steering Committee. We’ve assembled some of the brightest minds in ethics & public policy who will conduct monthly meetings with our portfolio founders to help them navigate product-related ethical dilemmas & educate them on the importance of machine ethics.
Headlining the Committee today are:
- Dr. Sarah Sewall, former under Secretary of State in the Obama Administration and Harvard professor
- Dr. S. Matthew Liao, distinguished professor and Chair of Bioethics at New York University
- Dr. Marianna Ganapini, distinguished AI Ethics researcher at the Montreal AI Ethics Institute
We’ve completed a handful of pilot Steering Committee meetings to date, and I can confidently state that these meetings are not for the faint of heart. Over the course of a meeting, our Committee gets in the weeds; they challenge founders to examine their core values and work with them to identify avenues where they can learn more about their specific ethical dilemmas and issues. Education is the first step to managing ethical issues productively, and our Committee works with founders to establish a baseline level of understanding.
In-House Ethics Support
The second way we tackle ethical dilemmas is focused on providing deep tech founders with structured and defined ethics & philosophy support initiatives. Leveraging an in-house support team composed of Oxford-educated philosophers (our “Philosophy Associates”), we are excited to bring ethics-related value-add services to our portfolio companies to complement our Steering Committee meetings. Specifically, we will provide machine ethics research, ethical risk assessments, second-order stakeholder relationships, and codified statements of purpose (among others). We’ve hired in-house philosophers to send a strong message: we’re here to stay, and we’re going to build a new type of VC firm that will increasingly provide productized philosophical and ethical support on top of typical post-investment support.
Meet the Crew
At the helm of Countdown Capital is an all star team. You’ve already heard about my background, but our Venture Partner, Ariana Thacker, is a former early-stage investor at Rhapsody Venture Partners (industrial sciences venture firm) and successful chemical engineer with extensive experience leading external innovation, investments, and start-up partnerships for public companies around the world. Manoj Soundararajan, our investment associate, previously worked as an analyst with an early-stage deep tech fund and served as the Head of Operations at a social impact fund (Carbon Global Group). Finally, our Philosophy Associates Elliott Thornley (PhD Candidate) and Katerina Jennings (MPhil Candidate) are both completing coursework at Oxford’s top tier graduate program for philosophy. Both Elliott and Kat are focused on practical ethics and moral philosophy.
Our Board of Advisors includes Willy Schlacks, founder and CEO of EquipmentShare, which is now valued above $1B (unicorn); Aaron Peterman, Chief of Staff at Boeing NeXt and former Principal at Boeing HorizonX; and, Kenji Narushima, Chief Strategy Officer at Carro (backed by Softbank).
Although we are just getting started, we’re excited to announce our first portfolio company as DASH Systems (co-invested in Seed financing with 8VC and Tusk Ventures). DASH is automating middle-mile supply chain processes by building tail kits capable of landing packages. Essentially, you can throw a package out of a commercial plane and get it to land within a defined area.
We are excited to add more trailblazing thinkers and builders like DASH to the Countdown family as we grow.
Be a part of the crew
- If the Countdown mission and platform excites you, we are first and foremost looking for LPs that are aligned with our strategy. Any LP introductions are greatly appreciated. Apply to be an LP here!
- If you are a deep tech founder and excited to work with us, please let us know you want to pitch us here!
- Finally, if you are interested in joining our Steering Committee and have relevant expertise in machine ethics and philosophy, we are always open to chatting! Apply to join our Committee here.
*Note that we have filed as a 506(c) fund, which allows us to market our platform and fund openly.