The public sector could boost climate tech development when many funds struggle with fitting climate into their 10-year lifecycle, says investor Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz, who was co-founder of impact investment firm Expon Capital and an early investor in companies like GetAround and Glovo.
In the podcast interview, Sepúlveda Schulz also outlined the 12 questions startups have to answer to raise venture capital.
A few key takeaways from Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz:
"There are a number of new funds coming up, focusing exclusively on Climate Technologies. It has a number of challenges, but it has to be done. First is the 10-year timeframe for a fund to return the money is maybe too short for those guys; maybe we need to go to a 15-year timeframe."
"What do you do with all the old equipment? Do you throw it away or just reuse it? I repair most of my stuff. And if something's I don't buy new stuff, you know, I love brands such as Patagonia, which you could go and take your jacket repaired for the rest of your life. We just need to be more conscious of what we do in our choices. I think the younger generation gets it, but it might be too late for them."
"In my personal time, I spend a lot of time with wine. So people think it's like a funky hobby, but in wine, we've seen in the past 10, 15 years, harvests happening two to four weeks earlier than they used to historically. It's not a joke. When Donald Trump says global warming is a joke, it's not a joke."
Tarmo Virki 0:07
Welcome to the NatureBacked podcast of Single.Earth. In this podcast series, we are talking with investors about their vision of the new green world. My name is Tarmo Virki. And in this episode, I'm talking with investor Rodrigo Sepulveda, founder of Expon Capital, on the principles of VC investing and how climate tech does not fully fit into that model of the traditional VC investment world. Enjoy the show.
Tarmo Virki 0:35
Hi, Rodrigo, how are you doing? I am enjoying life here in sunny Estonia. How's Paris?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 0:43
Well, it's very sunny, spring has arrived. Really cool.
Tarmo Virki 0:47
Fantastic. You've been, you know, in an investment scene, looking at startups for years and years, and yes, sorry, I'm not gonna mention your age, right? I'm not gonna mention my age either. Tell me when you know, a startup comes to pitch do that they are they will, you know, become the will change the whole world to be green and sustainable. What are the first things which come to your mind? Or how do you start to see deeper into the story?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 1:18
Wow, that's a very big question.
Tarmo Virki 1:20
Rodrigo Sepulveda 1:20
I'll start with not answering your question, and then I'll answer it a little bit. So I've been investing for about 15 years. I started angel investing. Oh, yeah. 2006. Seven, around that time. And I started Expon Capital with three other partners in Luxembourg in 2015. And the thesis of Expon Capital has been 'impact investing' almost since it was started. So let me tell you a little bit about that. But the first thing is that when we invest, at first we're investors. So I looked at a set of criteria in each company. And in the past six and a half years, we've seen over 10,000 investment opportunities. We call them deals; although they're not deals, they are investment opportunities. So that's about now, 2,000 a year, or 40 or 50 every week. So we need to build a very quick acid test to go through all the companies and figure out whether they're investable or not. Of those, we see about 10% that we have a pitch of one hour after we look at all the documentation they send us, which is not a lot. And after that initial meeting, it goes down again, and we will make continue discussions with maybe two out of the 10.
So I've built a framework around how to analyze a company through four pillars. And there are 12 questions. So there are like three sub-questions in each big question. And each part is extremely important to us. And if each part doesn't check properly, then it's not an investment company. So overall, when we get a deck or a pitch, the first thing we look at - does it fits our investment thesis. And every fund has a different investment thesis; it could be geography, it could be the stage, could be the kind of companies so for example, we only do technology, anything outside of tech we do not do or did not do. So no music, no real estate, no recording studio, for example. Within tech, a lot of things that we would pass - nothing related to e-commerce, nothing related to art tech, advertising, nothing related to hardware, for example. So we tend to screen out everything that doesn't fit the investment thesis. Obviously, the thesis of Expon Capital having been impact, we looked at it through our own little lens, how we define impact at the firm. And I'll get into that. If we pass that then we'll look at the four big areas I was talking about. The first one is marketing. The second one is finance. The third one is operations. And the fourth one is deal.
In marketing, I want to understand what the value proposition of a company is? What is the pain they're trying to solve? I'm not very good at identifying new opportunities. So I tend to look at only companies that solve real pains and big markets for identified customers usually, and this is where we look at the penicillin, you know, test versus the aspirin test. Is it a got to have or a nice to have. And if we have identified a big enough market, were in big enough pain, then I'm interested in looking at the other 11 questions. A lot of companies fail at this stage; you don't know what they do after five or 10 minutes of chatting with them. They still haven't set what they do. They try to prove there is a market for this or that. But we don't know what the pain is; what is your value proposition? Then point two is okay; what is their solution to the pain? And then, before they existed, how did all the other players in this market operate without this new solution? Right? So it's an old competition. Why is it sustainable? So that's kind of the big acid test. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs spend all of their time with an investor on these first three things. And they forget the other three, the other 9, right. So we talk about the market and prove there's a market and how good their product is, and demo for half an hour. Sometimes it talks about competition. It's not enough, right? It's necessary, not enough, then I'd like to know how to make money, what we call the business models for unit metrics like to look at cash flow projections, how much will be needed to finance this business idea. I like to look at risk analysis. So one of the big risks is when there are a lot of very usual risks, market traction, technology, team, etc. But some specific businesses have their own specific risks could be legal risks, for example, data privacy if you're working with healthcare, for example.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 6:19
So once we've looked at marketing, we looked at finance, then we'll look at operations - how is this team going to operate on that idea and execute it? And I like to look at who's missing in the team more than who's in there. And a lot of entrepreneurs go through the whole list of the Logos they have on the team? Not interested? Okay. Tell me why you're good enough. And who's missing? Then go to market? Are you planning to go and acquire people who will pay for the service or the product? And then, since we invest in tech, I look at tech. That's my first nine questions. And we need to keep time for the deal. So what am I buying specifically? Is it just vaporware just very early? Or what do we have? It's surprising how often we have to ask entrepreneurs, where are you incorporated? Which is a key question for an investor. Right? But they never tell us how many people there you have, how many offices and what contracts? What IP blah, blah, blah, what am I buying today? Then what's the deal? How much are you offering of your equity? Or how much do you want? And a lot of them don't like to tell us - It's for you to tell us? Is it debt? Is a convertible note. Safe, is it equity? And then the key question for me is why now? The call to action? Why should I invest now? Because when I go back and see other co-investors or partners of the firm that ask me, why should we invest now? Entrepreneurs should be smart and, like, give me the answer on a slide. This is why you should invest now in us. Now, going back to the question on impact. Those questions just talked about are everything that an investor should be looking at before committing some money, be willing to some percentage of risk to lose it.
Tarmo Virki 8:11
Of course, sometimes that's quite a big percentage.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 8:15
No, actually, we only lost money on a very small amount on the very first deal. We did 27 deals. So yeah, other people lose more money. But the Our job is to invest as professional investors. And to go through the whole checklist of professional investment. Now let's go back to the impact thesis. So when I was traveling a lot to Silicon Valley back in 2011, I went to one of the Singularity University dinners, and I sat next to a person who told me, you know, 96% of the time, a car sits idle on the streets. That, what? I never thought about it. And like public transport and walking and cycling, they'll compensate for that. It's a huge asset. People put a lot of money that is not active 96% of the time. And then we need to create roads and parking spots. And congestion for the cars that are useless. And they were looking at creating a car-sharing model in the same way that Airbnb had just started. It could be done right, and this company was called GetAround, which became a unicorn, and Softbank went in; but I joined in the seed round, the very first round of this company, because the pitch was that, was what we call now impact. But it was like a Tech for Good idea. Let's use technology to solve a real problem in a very big market. For cars unused, make them more accessible for other people cheaper for people just take cars off the street, take carbon emissions off the air, get no stress off people's health because of traffic. So that was probably my first investment in impact. Now, when we were starting Exponn capital back in 2015, we needed a differentiating strategy. As any startup needs to just said, point one, what's the problem for us was raising venture capital firm, what's your product, our product, How's it different from anyone else. And we use the Singularity University framework that I had just attended this executive program that summer to assess companies that can grow really, really fast, what we called, you know, exponential growth. And there was a book called The exponential organization by Salim Ismail from Singularity. He was the dean there; he had analyzed the first 100 unicorns and what they had in common to grow really, really fast. So he has ten criteria that are optional, but you need at least six of them. That one is compulsory, and it's called the MTP, which was a massive transformative purpose. Massive meant for them a billion people, we said, well, all of our technologies should be able to impact at least a continent, so about 500 million people. So we wouldn't invest in anything that is country-specific but Pan-European or global. Transformative means I'm not looking at anything that is incremental. Like if you're going to sell on E-commerce, this will sell maybe two times better. It's not super disruptive. And we could get examples of stuff we did. But something that is really transformative. And then we struggle with the P. What could the purpose be? And the book had a lot of examples, like the purpose of Google is to organize the world's information. And so, looking at recent research, we found out that the United Nations General Assembly had just approved the UN SDGs, the Sustainable Development Goals. Then they were very new back then; this is 2015. Now they're all over the place, and everyone has them. And when the UN gave them, no one knew about them. And the UN SDGs were 17 frameworks of goals. There are over 160 sub-goals now in 17 different silos that were approved by 196 countries saying these are the priorities for the world. By 2030, which was a timeframe of our fund, 2030 is now only eight years away. How do we make an impact? How do we actually help as a firm, as a venture capital firm, invest in businesses that can
Rodrigo Sepulveda 13:11
contribute to enhancing the state of the world, specifically by measuring their impact on one of the UN SDGs sub-goals. And that became our acid test for any business we would look at. So a couple of examples, we invested in an educational business called glows that was trying to help kids learn better and faster. Education was one of the goals. Think of Kindle plus social reader, but that back then, Kindle did not have a social reader. The business was eventually acquired by Medium, the first acquisition in Europe. One of the other sub-goals in the FinTech world - there're not that many in the UN SDGs - was to reduce remittance costs. So when people wire money to someone else. And we found a company in Spain that actually was doing wires with zero cost. So that fitted that. So not giving money to the banks, but actually, people were sending money. They were keeping it. It was one of the UNCG sub-goals. We eventually sold a company called Verse; we sold it to Square, again the first acquisition in Europe.
Tarmo Virki 14:24
How did they make money if there was no cost?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 14:28
But it's the same as Robin Hood. Right? You can make money out of premium services. You can make money just because you hold money onto an account. It came out with a Visa card and a lot of things behind it. But they were helping people transfer money. We then invested, for example, in the business operating out of Nairobi in Kenya, which was a social network of over 2 million farmers talking to each other; we did This with a Silicon Valley fund called True Ventures, helping them share information and improve the crops. And this falls under the UN SDG prosperity. We also did a satellite business that went public on the New York Stock Exchange. And they were building back then the fourth-best weather forecasting model in the world. And then, they became the best weather forecasting model in the world. And the climate has a huge impact on everyone else. We invested in Glovo, which is a food delivery business. But you look at it, and you say, Well, how is this any way relevant to the impact economy? Well, when we invested, Spain had a 25% unemployment rate, and the company is based out of Barcelona, but the young people who actually were riding, the Glovers, it was over 50%. So overall, I don't have the latest. But last time we checked that, the company had created 340,000 jobs, right out of maybe an active force of 70,000, or 65,000. So people had an opportunity to start working again; they were paid all above the minimum wage. And they were getting dignity; they were getting a salary. And this was like a stepping stone to getting another job. And we thought that was fantastic, falls again, under prosperity and helping the economy on a massive scale. Now, then COVID happened, and all the shops that we had a hard time signing up restaurants, over 100,000 restaurants signed up, and food delivery was the only channel they had to survive. So it also helped over 100 thousand very small businesses - restaurants, not a corner survival thing. So the impact of that was huge. Absolutely.
I'll give another final example, one of my partners invested in a semiconductor company called Pliops in Israel. And what they do is they build a chip that organizes storage and data centers in a much more efficient way, transformative way, like more than 10x reduction in the number of writes and reads of movements. So that actually consumes like 90% less energy. Well, overall, for the whole data center, it brings it down to about 30% less. And when you look at the world's consumption of energy, data centers consume about five, four, to 5% of the world's energy. So just this company, what they're aiming to do is reduce at least 1% of the world's energy consumption, just by better, more efficient, you know, hardware to manage that. So this is how we looked at Expon Capital at impact, saying two things, it has to contribute to society as a whole. And we used the UN SDG framework that we adapted so that we could measure it. And so my partner Jerome came up with our first impact report last year, which is on our website or on my LinkedIn; you can go and download it, in which we actually track jobs created, male-female gender equality in jobs, co2 emission reduction, etc.
Tarmo Virki 18:27
How high on that kind of the challenge list was always climate.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 18:37
So, the climate is extremely high in all kinds of ways. I mentioned the satellite business that we looked at; we looked at energy consumption.
In my personal time, I spend a lot of time with wine. So people think it's like a funky hobby, but in wine, we've seen in the past 10, 15 years, harvests happening two to four weeks earlier than they used to historically. It's not a joke. When Donald Trump says global warming is a joke, it's not a joke. I like to go to the great outdoors with my kids. And we've been to, for example, in Chile, to glaciers, and the guy was just pointing out and says, you see that glacier up there? Twenty years ago, it was coming down to the water. This is in Patagonia. And you see global warming. So we invested, for example, in E-scooter and E-bike business called dott. And that was one of the main concerns that we had is reduce pollution, reduce consumption, go electric. This tries to build a better planet for everyone.
Now, there are a number of new funds coming up, focusing exclusively on Climate Technologies. It has a number of challenges, but it has to be done. First is the 10-year timeframe for a fund to return the money is may be too short for those guys, maybe we need to go to a 15-year timeframe, or 20-year timeframe, which is too much anyways, depending on the year, we're told that we have three years left or four years left before the point of no return, or we've already passed the point of no return. But it doesn't fit the proper venture capital model. Right? That's the first thing.
Second, climate impacts a lot of different things. And I'm thinking about the fund, for example, in London called 2150, where one of my buddies, Christian Hernandez, is there, they're looking at a lot of things that are not tech, in the sense that we used to look at its not software, it's not SaaS, it's like building materials. You know, what is it you're putting in the walls of new buildings to dissipate less heat, or heat or heat, etc. So it requires a new set of skills to invest in climate, in addition to what we used to do, and a different timeframe to invest.
Tarmo Virki 21:15
You're referring to this 10-year timeframe as a proper venture capital model -- isn't it changing?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 21:36
It is changing, and even ourselves, we try to change some of the rules of how we operate. So venture capital was started in the very early 80s. In the US, there was a law that was passed in 1979 that allowed investment funds, alternative investment funds to invest in a high-risk class, which is where we fall in. And that gave a lot of money to new funds. And this is where all the big guys that you heard about in the valley started funding, you know, the apples and Microsoft's and all those guys. It was structured, I think, through iteration saying, Okay, why do we need a ten-year timeframe, because we will invest during the first five years, it's what we call the investment period, then we need to give enough time to the company to mature before we can sell it.
Back in the first bubble - and the younger audience probably doesn't know what we're talking about - but in 2000, there was a huge bubble, really. Companies were created and sold sometimes in less than one year, like YouTube was sold after 11 months for 1.7 billion very remember well, right? It's crazy. But that doesn't exist anymore. It's very rare. Maybe you have this exception; that's pretty rare. So you need to give time for the company to grow organically, or by other companies, develop a product and build their income, etc. So if you invest in your three other funds, you need to give it at least five years. So in year eight, and when you're in year eight, it doesn't mean you're going to be selling the next day, you know, you're gonna start courting, you know, potential buyers or go public. So this is why we came up with a 10-year timeframe. Now ten years is very long. If I say to you, okay, give me your money, and I'm going to return it to you in 10 years. You go like, wow, that's too long. So a number of people have tried new models in which you can provide partial liquidity to your investors so that they get money back earlier or they reinvest it. Those are called crossover funds.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 24:03
Right? Sequoia just came up with a new model, which is kind of an evergreen fund to do this. The main concern here is that you kind of be constrained by the 10-year, right investors need their money back earlier, some products as we just discussed, climate needs time later. So we need to find new models. And then, we have this historical distinction of early-stage or seed and AB or late-stage of growth. It hasn't really made sense because you see seed rounds that are crazy, over 100 million new money in, and then you see some late-stage, and it's like a 5, 8 million late stage. What order does this go? So this funny quote is that you can't take nine women to have a baby in one month, right? The company has to mature by itself; it can go really fast if your experience if you're lucky if the winds are blowing in the right way. But basically, it starts historically with some person with an idea and a piece of paper, getting a bunch of friends or people they know, coating, some kind of mock-up. And that's the seed stage, break it down and preseed, pre A, seed, whatever number of rounds. And that's usually financed by friends and family or business angels or micro VCs or incubators. Once you have that money, you have enough time and cash to experiment with the market and go for what we call product-market fit. Product Market Fit is when you are more or less sure that what you just invented will find an audience that people are willing to pay good money for your product. It's different if it's b2b, b2c. In b2b, we tend to like to look at a business that has four or five similar contracts, large size, hopefully, several 100Ks each, whatever the currency, and even sold the same thing a few times, four or five times. This is not your uncle or someone you knew from high school or buying you, right? Everyone has someone like that in the network. So there is some traction; there's market attraction. If you're in the b2c space, with social media, now, you need to have several hundreds of 1000s of users. And a subset of that will convert into paying customers if it's not advertising. That's a product-market fit. The next stage is getting to either profitability on one market or in one business; for one product before you launch the second product, or you go to a second market, but it's usually getting into profitability to some extent, and then its expansion. Pulling into a new business or going to markets. And those used to have names. Right. So now there are funds that operate at different stages because they're not the same skills. It's not the same check size. So it's hard to mix in a lot of people, including Expon tried to do a bit of early-stage a lot of late-stage as an option tool. It works sometimes. But yeah, entrepreneurs looking for money should understand where the fund usually operates, right? You don't show up in jeans and flip-flops at a three-star Michelin restaurant? I'd say it's better just saying there are codes. And there's a way to talk to people or willingness to pay to operate.
Tarmo Virki 27:57
Absolutely. Is there any good tips on how we could squeeze climate into the old-school venture capital model?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 28:09
I think everyone is aware that it's a big issue. But also everyone is aware that it'll take more time and it doesn't fit the current model. Right. So currently, within the existing framework, it's really hard. The large majority of funds are not crossover funds, and the large majority of funds are constrained by the ten-year list. So transition global, for example, is looking at this. So the Helgason brothers, there's 2150 in the UK, there's 2050 interestingly in Paris.
Tarmo Virki 28:50
and no link between the two. Right?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 28:54
None whatsoever. Looking at all these desirable futures, a future positive planet, there are many funds looking at this, but I don't know. I would ask you another question. Is it a private sector initiative? Or Should this be public sector initiatives or a mix of both?
Tarmo Virki 29:16
I mean, not definitely the public sector, right? I mean, the public sector can have a word or have a say or have capital in it. But over an overall picture, you know, my understanding is that private money will change this world, if at all.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 29:33
Yeah, so I think some regulation and top-down public sector initiatives can help. When you ban plastic bags and move totally to paper bags, right? It's a ban by the government. But then if we all try to reduce our energy consumption and change all of our lightbulbs with LEDs etc but then you see massive consumption elsewhere. So it's probably a mix. Right? And we need to invent ways to foster private initiative. We all know innovation usually comes from more individuals.
To get there, a great example is our buddy, Elon Musk, right? With his solar power initiatives, I read back in 2011 or 2012, there was a big Wired interview on Elon Musk, and no one knew who he was back then, really. And his thing was: no fossil energy, it will go away. So we need to reinvent now how we are going to drive. That was his main motivation like fossil fuel was going to go away. Way before he started talking about Mars.
Tarmo Virki 30:48
I think the dilemma in changing this kind of the climate and venture capital model is in the fact that when you look at the climate news, we don't have too much time; we should fix this model ASAP and find the initiatives which can change the climate as soon as possible.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 31:15
I agree. The problem, again, is how the industry is structured. If you're an entrepreneur trying to solve this, you have to start small. Very few will start big. So your impact will take time to make a difference. And then you'll go and find traditional people who will understand that this will take time. So that's why I'm saying it's hard to do it with private money unless you can go with very big private money now to go faster. Who has this and who understands this is the urgency of climate is probably public money
Tarmo Virki 31:52
It can move faster; this is one weird place where public money could move faster. I mean, I'm slightly surprised to even say those words out loud. But it could be, right?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 32:10
Absolutely, absolutely. I'm a strong proponent of the role of government in a number of areas. And one of those is infrastructure. It doesn't make sense to build three competing highways next to each other; then the regulator has to come in and say, Okay, let's like have a concession or have the bid or decide. But this is a public good. Yeah. Climate is a public good.
Tarmo Virki 32:42
I do agree it's a public good, but at the same time, you know, you can't run a private, anything without it, right? If it's totally, totally upside down, or not, not functional.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 32:55
Have you ever been to China?
Tarmo Virki 32:57
Yes. To some extent, not too much, though.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 33:00
So I remember when I first went to China in 2004. Pollution did not reach the airport. And there were only three rings. Now there are six rings for pollution reach of the airport. When I went to Shanghai in 2008, you could still see something from your window; then, you couldn't see anything. Climate is a global problem like the pandemic, right. And we tend to treat it as a local problem. We have to do this together because, you know, if we stop polluting, and a couple of guys even there represent 2 billion people's keep polluting as much as before, even worse. What's the point? There has to be some incentive to solve it together?
Tarmo Virki 33:53
So I think it's a good point to kind of wrap it up with solving together point. I don't know what would be the platform or formula for solving it together. Because on a global scale, the only global organization seems to be failing in many, many, many, many, many things. Talking of the UN and all its initiatives. Maybe the also the, I mean, the reviews of the Glasgow climate meeting late last year were, how to say polite, very, very mixed. So I mean, that's probably the platform to do anything together, right?
Rodrigo Sepulveda 34:40
No, I remember when, what was it called, unconventional truth, Movie by Al Gore came out. When this other guy, the French photographer. It'll come back. Two names. He was taking all the pictures from above. And then he had this movie about home, and our planet and education have been there. We're just not reacting. Everyone knows, right? Yeah. It was this movie the other day lookup or something on Netflix that's just an allegory for you know how fast the climate crisis is arriving on us ...
Tarmo Virki 35:23
... and how little we are actually reacting ...
Rodrigo Sepulveda 35:25
... or not reacting. You know, my kids give me shit if I buy plastic bottles. Right? So they get it, like the younger generation gets it. Now, we ride around on bicycles now. Right? They kind of get it. It's probably the older generation. So people like me and maybe like you, we don't get it fast enough, because maybe we were used to it, or to another world. Back then, pollution was okay. Like running around in thermal cars, right? Or thermal cars and fuel. I try to use; I try to recycle; we invested in a company called Refurbed. Because there's no point in building more phones, changing your phone every year - what for, you know, you could change every three years. You don't need more power consumption just to do WhatsApp or something. You don't need to have kids working in mines and extracting cobalt. Right? And what do you do with all the old equipment? Do you throw it away or just reuse it? I repair most of my stuff. And if something's I don't buy new stuff, you know, I love brands such as Patagonia, which you could go and take your jacket repaired for the rest of your life. Yeah, we just need to be more conscious of what we do in our choices. I think the younger generation gets it, but it might be too late for them.
Tarmo Virki 36:56
Thanks, Rodrigo, for this discussion. We'll continue it over a glass of wine at one of the upcoming conferences.
Rodrigo Sepulveda 37:04
Pleasure, you know, that's my little hobby.
Tarmo Virki 37:08
Yeah, good. Thanks. And have a good day. Join us again for the next episode. Thank you for listening. If you liked the show, please give us a good rating and leave the feedback in your podcast player so others will find it too. We will be back next week. Turn on to nature backup podcast.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai