Unreasonable Group Tackles World’s Greatest Challenges
It’s not surprising that billionaires come with big egos, though the recent revelation from SoftBank’s CEO Mayoshi Son that he’s kind of like Jesus seems like some outsized hubris even for him. After all, Son is not exactly walking on water these days, as his outsized Vision Fund has lost about $17.7 billion last year, not to mention another $6.25 billion in losses from direct startup investments by SoftBank Group (SFTBY) itself. Son is a self-described futurist who has implied the Vision Fund will accelerate technological innovation, as well as the Singularity when artificial intelligence basically gives us power over the space-time continuum. All we’ve got so far is a failing real estate company (WeWork) and a fancy taxi service for Millennials (Uber).
Fortunately, there are venture capital firms and other types of investment arms still committed to moonshot tech, sci-fi visions, and the idea that you can make a profit and still tackle seemingly intractable societal challenges. One of them is called Unreasonable Group.
Unreasonable Group Founded to Help Solve Big Problems
Unreasonable Group is a bit difficult to define. It’s part-accelerator and part-investment firm that also runs a media house and other programs and initiatives that feed its mission to “drive resources into and break down barriers for entrepreneurs solving BFPs.” Urban dictionary can’t help us with this acronym, but suffice to say, the firm is talking about intractable problems like poverty, climate change, and the displacement of millions of jobs thanks to some of the same technological progress that comes with automation.
Back in 2016, for instance, Unreasonable Group partnered with Barclays on the Unreasonable Impact program. It sounds to us like two-week-long popups of the sorts of ESG-themed meetings you imagine take place at the World Economic Forum gatherings in Davos, Switzerland every year:
[The] Unreasonable Impact programme is designed to help each of the participating entrepreneurs achieve breakthrough realisations faster. This is achieved by uniting attending CEOs with a targeted group of serial entrepreneurs, funders, and global experts in a close community bound by a remote sense of place, and dedication to supporting entrepreneurs in overcoming any obstacles to scale.
But this certainly isn’t your typical Y Combinator accelerator with fresh-faced MIT spinouts and dropouts trying to plant the first seeds of success. These are mostly growth-stage companies that bring some bling to the game. The companies must also be oriented toward solving a “pressing societal and/or environmental challenge,” with a scalable solution and demonstrable potential to introduce at least 500 new jobs over the next five years.
The Impact of Unreasonable Group
One of the chief personalities behind Boulder, Colorado-based Unreasonable Group and all of its various Unreasonable off-shoots is a guy named Daniel Epstein who believes entrepreneurship can solve any global challenge. Based on the location, it’s no surprise that one of the first Unreasonable ventures back in 2005 was Unreasonable Adventures, an online reservation system for the guiding industry. He’s not shy about telling you that he landed on Fortune’s 2019 list of the world’s 50 greatest leaders – but neither would we.
Aside from programs like Unreasonable Impact and Unreasonable Goals (another accelerator program aligned with the U.S. State Department and United Nations), the firm has its own private equity investment arm called Unreasonable Capital. Altogether, the Unreasonable Group claims it supports more than “200 growth-stage CEOs who have raised more than $4.5 billion in financing, generated over $3.9 billion in revenue, and are measurably and positively impacting the lives of more than 400 million individuals across 180-plus countries.” Let’s meet four of the kinds of companies that have joined the Unreasonable ecosystem.
Floating at the top of the list is Altaeros Energies, which is developing various technologies around aerostats, which most of us landlubbers call blimps. Founded in 2010, the Boston-based startup has raised $14.5 million over a couple of venture rounds that were led by none other than SoftBank. While the company’s name refers to its original mission to provide wind energy via its airborne platform, Altaeros Energies’ first commercial product is a floating cell tower that’s designed to provide broadband internet to underserved rural areas like the Alaskan hinterland. This idea of bringing global internet to billions of unconnected people is one we’ve been following for a while, with companies like SpaceX winning the space race for internet satellites. Altaeros believes its SuperTower, a tethered but autonomously operated aerostat, can address a different part of the market. Floating about 800 feet above ground level, the SuperTower replaces up to 15 regular cell towers at 60% lower cost. The system looks something like this:
The idea might sound a little crazy, but beaming internet from balloons isn’t a new concept. You may have heard of a little tech company called Google that’s doing something a bit similar with Project Loon. Google’s balloon-borne internet platform, however, sails more than 30 miles above the planet, with operations focused on places like Puerto Rico. So there’s still plenty of room for Altaeros Energies to navigate.
Clean energy is one of the major investment themes at Unreasonable Group, from fusion energy to fuel cells and everything in between. We’ve previously profiled startups like General Fusion, an Unreasonable Group company that has now raised nearly $200 million for its particular brand of advanced nuclear energy called magnetized target fusion. Fuel cell technology also seems trendy again, as companies tackle different energy and transportation markets like passenger drones. While the hydrogen fuel cell vehicle mass market has yet to materialize, that hasn’t put the brakes on the race to commercialize new variations of these zero-emission cars.
Founded in 2013, Riversimple out of the UK has raised about $3.8 million for a hydrogen fuel cell vehicle it calls the Rasa. The technology is pretty typical to start: Hydrogen passes through a membrane in the fuel cell where it combines with oxygen to form water and electricity, which flows to a motor in each wheel, giving it four-wheel drive capability. Where things get interesting is the braking system, which captures more than 50% of the kinetic energy as electricity and feeds it into a bank of supercapacitors at the front of the car. The supercapacitors charge very quickly but can’t store a lot of energy, so they spit the electricity back out to the motors to provide the oomph for acceleration.
Riversimple refers to the Rasa as a network electric car because the energy is networked around the car, flowing in any direction on any path apart from back into the fuel cell. The design means that the car doesn’t need heavy fuel cells to aid acceleration. The culmination of 15 years of development, the working prototype has clocked over 60 mph weaving through the streets of London.
3D Printed Orthotics
We’ve also been writing quite a bit lately about how 3D printing seems to be finally hitting its stride. In particular, the healthcare sector has seen quite a bit of activity, especially for medical devices ranging from orthodontics to orthotics. Founded in 2013, London-based Andiamo specializes in 3D printing pediatric orthotics, medical devices to support various body parts like legs and torsos. The startup has raised a reported $2.8 million. The backstory is that co-founders Samiya and Naveed Parvez started the company after seeing the precision of 3D printing. They were inspired to help children based on their experiences with their son, Diamo, who had cerebral palsy before passing away. The company says it uses big data and artificial intelligence to create highly detailed body scans that are used to make 3D-printed orthotics.
Andiamo says its 3D-printed orthotics are up to 65% lighter than those manufactured with traditional materials. The process is also much faster: Devices can be completed in about one week versus up to six months for some types of orthotics.
While hiding in an underground bunker might seem like a good way to survive a pandemic, you’re likely to run out of freshies pretty quickly. Unless you’re living near Growing Underground, an indoor urban farm located more than 100 feet under the streets of London in a converted WWII air-raid shelter. Founded in 2012, the startup uses the “latest LED lighting and hydroponic growing systems” to grow fresh herbs and salad greens while using 70% less water. It looks a bit eerie and haunted to us:
The company partners with some big brains at the University of Cambridge to track all sorts of data such as temperature, humidity, and crop growth. They then analyze the interactions between these different factors to hit the optimal conditions that require the least amount of energy to grow. Sounds like most guys in a relationship.
Unreasonable Group is attempting to show that there are lots of great ideas out there that could also be great businesses. We’ve only given you a mere smattering of the startups in the firm’s voluminous portfolio. Other companies are working on projects as modest as edible cutlery for keeping plastic out of landfills to as far-out as bioengineering plants to help produce clean drinking water or storing energy in salt crystals. The idea that you can make a profit and protect the planet seems reasonable to us. What’s unreasonable is not even trying.
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