Material Impact, a Waltham, Mass.-based firm that says it “transforms materials into companies that make an impact,” has closed its debut fund with $110 million in capital commitments from a range of university endowments, foundations, family offices and fund-of-funds.
In a sea of fundraising announcements, it’s tempting to shrug off the development. Another new venture outfit? Big deal. But Material Impact isn’t exactly typical, both because of its founders, and because of its thesis, which stands out amid many other firms that seem to be chasing almost exactly the same opportunities.
Co-founder Carmichael Roberts spent nearly a dozen years with the firm North Bridge Venture Partners, where he led deals and helped build companies that create new products by applying chemistry, materials science or materials engineering. He moved on to launch Material Impact a couple of years ago, when North Bridge was beginning to wind itself down.
Roberts’s partner in Material Impact, Adam Sharkawy, had meanwhile served in recent years as an executive at numerous biopharmaceutical and medical equipment companies, including Abbott, Smith & Nephew and The Medicines Company.
Sharkawy and Roberts, who both received PhDs from Duke University, first met back in 1999, when they found themselves on the school’s biomedical engineering advisory board together. (They maintain they were the “only entrepreneurs” in the mix.) The men say they’ve been collaborating ever since, but Material Impact is among their biggest undertakings to date.
Though it has closed on just four investments to date, the firm has a few approaches to supporting startups. First and foremost, it spends time with big and small companies from a wide range of industries — from agtech to automotive to e-commerce — to learn about their pain points, then it scours universities with which it has ties so see if they are, literally in some cases, cooking up anything that might address these issues.
Many of these schools are in Boston, a stone’s throw from the firm — think Harvard and MIT — though Roberts and Sharkawy say they have relationships with universities elsewhere, too, including Northern California. “That’s largely the algorithm,” says Sharkawy.
In other cases, Material Impact is looking for ways to use products or ideas that its corporate friends have spent millions of dollars to develop but don’t know how to put to good use. Sharkawy points to one example of a material developed for feminine hygiene products whose properties lend itself to another use and thus is at the center of a new spin-out that Material Impact is behind (this deal is in process, so we were asked not to disclose much more here).
A third way that Material Impact is approaching startups is by taking ideas that universities have been tinkering with and turning them into companies, giving the universities a stake in the company and the promise of upside if the companies take off. Soft Robotics, a Cambridge, Mass.-based startup that’s constructing robots from highly compliant materials, including grippers capable of handling fragile objects, is a prime example. The outfit piggybacks off the work of Harvard professor George Whitesides, under whom Roberts studied as a post-doctoral student (and who is also a co-founder of the company, along with Roberts). “I feel old in saying this,” laughs Roberts, but “we have friends who are professors who are 30 years older than us, and we have professors who are friends who are 20 years younger than us.”
Ultimately, the idea is to incubate between 12 and 15 companies with the fund through these three avenues. And Material Impact is targeting 20 percent on average, but that number could also be as low as 5 percent and as high as 50 percent, depending on exactly how involved the firm is.
As for Roberts and Sharkawy being nervous about working so closely with students who may have great ideas but little to no industry experience, Roberts insists that both men “remember being that person, so we know exactly how they think about their work.” In fact, another aspect of their fund, they say, is pairing students with a network of product development experts inside of companies who they’ve known for years. “We give them access to people who they might be nervous to talk with, or who they wouldn’t have access to typically, and we start a dialogue.”
Bigger picture, says Sharkawy, the firm’s biggest differentiator may simply be its relentless focus on materials science: “If you trace back any quantum leap, whether in electronics or healthcare or aerospace, you can trace back those advancements to material science innovation,” he notes. “We all talk about the iPhone, for example. But the reality is that if it weren’t for advances in underlying electronic materials and sensory reactive glass materials, the iPhone wouldn’t have been possible.”