The Brief | December 11, 2020

The Week in impact investing: Science

The team at


TGIF, Agents of Impact! 

Scientific method. The COVID vaccines rolling out this week in the U.K. and, soon, worldwide, represent a triumph of science and scientists (see, Agents of Impact, below). The achievement may augur a renewed appreciation of scientific knowledge in, say, climate policy as well. Impact investors have a role to play in helping bring scientific achievements to market (see No. 1). The march of science, not to mention the revolution in finance, sometimes take on an air of inevitability. But it is people who keep both moving in the right direction. 

Impact Briefing. On this week’s podcast, host Monique Aiken chats with David Bank about science and scientists – this week’s Agents of Impact. And we’ll peek around the corner to next year. Plus, the headlines. Tune in, share, and follow us on Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. 

The Week’s Big 6

1. Betting on ‘deep tech.’ San Francisco-based venture firm Fifty Years has made more than 50 investments in companies pursuing synthetic biology, alternative proteins, healthcare therapeutics and, yes, vaccines. The companies, “if successful, will be massively profitable and make a massive positive impact,” says Fifty Years’ Seth Bannon. Already, valuations of portfolio companies, including Memphis Meats, suggest the firm’s $5 million first fund could rank in the top decile of venture funds of similar vintage. Keep reading

2. The new meaning of ‘activist hedge fund.’ Engine No. 1, launched by hedge fund veteran Chris James, is among a growing set of hedge funds agitating for long-term, sustainable value creation. Its first target: ExxonMobil, which has resisted shareholder efforts to address climate risks. More

  • Bridgewater goes sustainable. “Sustainable investing is the top strategic agenda in the industry,” says Bridgewater Associates’ Carsten Stendevad. The $140 billion hedge fund led by billionaire Ray Dalio will launch two funds targeting stocks advancing the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals.
  • NEW: Net-zero asset managers. Investment firms with $9 trillion in assets will work towards net zero emissions by 2050 or sooner as part of the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative. “We’re talking about our entire portfolios, and the portfolios are carbon intensive,” said David Blood of Generation Investment Management. AXA Group and Legal & General Investment Management are among 30 founding signatories.

3. Financing small businesses in Indian Country. The COVID downturn has been especially hard on Native business owners on tribal lands, who were already among the most financially underserved groups in the U.S. Akiptan and Cook Inlet Lending Center are among 70 Native community development financial institutions that serve Indigenous communities in the U.S. overlooked even by other CDFIs. Dig in.

4. The impact performance mindset. Benchmarks enable the measurement of relative performance, write 60 Decibels’ Tom Adams, Kelsey Jarrett and Ashley Speyer for ImpactAlpha. “Just as it is for finance, sport, or any other walk of life where performance matters, the key lies in standardization and repetition.” Get smarter.

5. Here come the climate fintechs. More than 250 financial technology startups in Europe, the U.S. and China are aiming to speed decarbonization and boost climate resilience, according to New Energy Nexus. They range from Ecountabl, which helps people buy from sustainable brands, to Carbon Delta, a climate-risk evaluation tool. In China, Alipay’s Ant Forest app has signed up 550 million people and reduced carbon emissions by 11 million tons. Check it out.

6. Creative investors in the creative economy. Impact investor Lorrie Meyercord has deployed about $4 million of her personal wealth into arts and culture businesses, including a film studio in upstate New York putting local talent to work and jumpstarting the economy. “I liked supporting a women-led project, where women are looking around and saying, ‘How can I invest in my local community in a meaningful, impactful way?’” says Meyercord of the studio. Meyercord is profiled in “Creative Impact” from UpStart Co-Lab. Onward.

The Week’s Agents of Impact 

Scientists. This week, 90-year-old Margaret Keenan was the first person in the U.K. to receive an approved COVID-19 vaccination (the second was, yes, William Shakespeare). That several coronavirus vaccines are ready for deployment to at-risk individuals and frontline health workers just 11 months after the identification of the novel coronavirus is a remarkable achievement. The innovative messenger, or mRNA, technology behind the vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech could usher in faster, more targeted vaccine development. It’s a triumph of basic science and the individuals that pursue it against the odds and, sometimes even their backers. Katalin Kariko and Drew Weissman at the University of Pennsylvania spent years modifying RNA so that it could reliably reach its target (Kariko is now at Moderna). Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created a fat-covered nanoparticle to help deliver the RNA. BioNTech’s founders, Özlem Türeci and Ugur Sahin, a Turkish-German couple, spent decades researching novel therapies.

“The important message is that basic research creates knowledge that puts you in a better position to deal with a crisis like this,” says Barney Graham of the National Institutes of Health, who bioengineered a virus protein to prompt a reliable immune response. A team led by Graham and Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett (see, “Agent of Impact: Kizzmekia Corbett”) worked with Moderna to commercialize the company’s vaccine. Scientific breakthroughs in biology and health, food and climate, come not only from government and large philanthropies like the Gates Foundation (see, “Gates Foundation’s role in Pfizer’s promising COVID vaccine is part of a strategy, not a conspiracy). Passionate and persistent scientists are at work on carbon capture and storage, green hydrogen, next-gen batteries and so much more. Their basic research puts us in a better position to deal with the next crises as well.

The Week’s Dealflow

Boosting livelihoods. FMO invests $30 million to give India’s small businesses a boost… Mexico’s Heru secures $1.7 million to support Latin America’s gig workers… Barbershop tech startup Squire raises $45 million in latest round… IIX raises $27.7 million for third Women’s Livelihood Bond… Career Karma raises $10 million for coding bootcamp platform.

Returns on inclusion. Fifth Third Bank pledges $2.8 billion to accelerating racial equity… Rise of the Rest backs Black-led startups… SoLa Impact’s billion-dollar impact fund targets Black and Latinx communities… Living Cities Blended Catalyst Fund invests in Aux21 Capital Partners.  

Sustainable solutions. QuantumScape claims EV battery breakthrough… Circulate Capital invests $19 million in four companies reducing plastic waste in India… Secha Capital invests in a pair of green businesses in South Africa.

Basic needs. Turner Impact Capital closes $357 million affordable workforce housing fund… Elation Health raises $40 million to digitize independent primary care providers… United Healthcare backs Maycomb Capital’s pay-for-success fund… India’s 5C Network clinches $1.2 million for low-cost radiology diagnostics.

Farmer finance. Spanish development bank launches $145 million fund for emerging market farmers… Goodwell invests $1.5 million in Mozambican tilapia farm Chicoa.

The Week’s Talent

Stephanie Maier, ex- of HSBC Global Asset Management, joins GAM Investments as global head of sustainable and impact investment… Lauren Burnhill joins Emerald Peak Private Equity as managing partner… Jarrett Barrios of California Community Foundation and Gabriella Morris of World Food Program USA join the Nathan Cummings Foundation’s board of trustees… Monica Melton, ex- of Forbes, joins The Plug as managing editor… 

Anil Soni, ex- of Viatris, is named inaugural CEO of The WHO Foundation… David Roberts steps down at Vox to launch Volts, a clean energy and politics newsletter… i(x) investments’ Trevor Neilson is moving from CEO to chairman of the board. Steve Oyer takes over as interim CEO… Mark Malloch-Brown, a former top U.N. official, takes over from Patrick Gaspard at Open Society Foundations.

The Week’s Jobs

Confluence Philanthropy is looking for a senior program manager of its climate solutions collaborative and development and communications director/staff writer in New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut… Reinvestment Fund is hiring a senior director in Philadelphia, Baltimore or Atlanta… Emerson Collective is looking for an education portfolio director in Palo Alto, Calif.… 

Align Capital is recruiting a catalytic capital analyst in Santa Monica, Calif… Donors of Color seeks a communications manager… UpMetrics is hiring a director of impact investing… OpenInvest is looking for a content marketing specialist in San Francisco… Roots of Impact is hiring an associate… New Mexico Angels and UpSpring Associates seek an impact investing analyst intern.

Have a great weekend! 

– Dec. 11, 2020