Navigating a New Now: Investing in ‘Tough Tech’
A venture fund led by Katie Rae ’97 was providing the patient capital required for breakthroughs on major societal problems like climate change and community health. Then COVID-19 complicated their day-to-day work—and gave their efforts greater urgency. In this series, we talk with Yale SOM alumni about how they are leading their organizations through the uncertainty, optimism, and fear of the new now.
Adapted from a phone interview, November 19, 2021.
Q: How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted you personally and professionally?
The organization that I run, The Engine, has biology and chemistry labs that were deemed essential, so we never closed our doors. From the get-go, we had to figure out how to stay open and keep people safe. I got a massive education in how viruses spread, how to test, distance, and mask. We’ve very much had to stay abreast of all the science and best practices as they develop.
It has really changed how we all work. As an investor. I’d only ever met founders in person. Now we do most of our first meetings online. It’s only second or third meetings we do in person. There’s efficiency in that. We’re able to look at deals quicker and get into the details faster. I never would’ve said that that would be the case in a pandemic.
That was a real mind shift for me. The venture capital business is a people-first business. I really like people. I had to figure out how to get the same energy that I would normally get working side by side with others. It forced a different set of personal practices to keep me interested, occupied, and feeling like I was getting enough people time.
Q: What are the origins of The Engine?
The Engine was born at MIT after a 2015 analysis on where venture capital dollars were going revealed there was a lot of money for software or pharmaceuticals if you could show you’d have returns in five years, but it was hard to attract venture capital for what we call tough tech—transformative technologies that emerge from the convergence of science, engineering, and leadership—where longer cycles of experimentation and development timelines are common.
In 2017 we spun off from MIT, created a public benefit corporation, and raised a $200 million venture capital fund with a mission to help these founders bring breakthrough solutions to market quicker, cheaper, and faster. We provide long-term capital, knowledge, a network, and the specialized equipment and labs they need.
Those labs are why we were deemed essential. Companies with relevant expertise shifted to working on COVID. For example, Biobot Analytics was working on understanding community health through sewer wastewater monitoring. They’ve continued their work on opioids. Adding COVID detection only made sense.
Q: What has the last year been like for The Engine?
“COVID woke everyone up to the importance of supply chain, healthcare diagnostics, climate tech, and many other-out-of-favor areas. These are things The Engine focuses on.”
The pandemic woke everybody up to the fact that we have to invest into our physical processes and goods. COVID woke everyone up to the importance of supply chain, healthcare diagnostics, climate tech, and many other-out-of-favor areas. These are things The Engine focuses on, so it has been a fantastic year. I raised a $302 million fund during COVID. Capital is flowing towards tough tech and these incredible companies.
Our startups have all had to figure out COVID, and hopefully because we were a community, people figured it out faster. I think we’ve gotten into a cadence of how to bring the team together physically and safely and how to let people have flexibility, because the demands from their families were higher during COVID. I think everybody’s learned how to give each other enough space that they can work out all the different sides of their lives. I hope that points to an exciting future where we all will have a little more flexibility. I think that would mean higher productivity and higher satisfaction.
Q: For individuals and organizations there’s been a tremendous amount of adaptation. How much of the adaptation is temporary? How much is a new normal?
I’m set to assume it’s a long-term normal. I hope that’s not true, but I think that mindset allows us to continue working. We just kind of got over it and said, all right, we’re going to mask up, we’re going to test, we’re going to make sure everybody gets vaccinated and boosted. We’re going to keep everyone safe and we’re going to keep moving forward. We had contact tracing in place almost immediately. But we’ve also given people the flexibility of, do not come into the office if you think you are putting others at risk. Just don’t.
We have a very big advantage in that almost everybody who works at The Engine is a scientist or an engineer. They understand the data. They are compliant with the practices that we’ve implemented. Because that is the community I work in, we’ve been very, very safe here. Because we got pushed to adapt so quickly, I’m less fearful about whatever further adaptation may need to be done in the future.
Q: This has been a trying time and it has continued longer than we hoped it would. What’s the mood in the startups?
I think people feel proud and more united with each other. They’re not so worried about their competition; instead they’re focused on, “Hey, is everybody able to get their stuff done?” It’s very community oriented, and I love that.
Early on, as we were figuring out how to stay open safely, every week we would get on a call and talk to each other. “What are you struggling with? What do we have to work on?” It was just an open exchange of ideas.
At one point, a lot of us were saying, “We can’t get any hand sanitizer.” One of our sister organizations delivered hand sanitizer to all of us. They had bought as much as they could buy—a thousand gallons. They didn’t have to share it around, but it was in that spirit of, we want to help everybody stay safe and stay open because it’s so important to our innovation community. It was just such a beautiful thing.
That was emblematic of what I’ve continued to see in the scientific community; people are helping each other. It’s what I see in the innovation community; people exchanging information and being really open about what they’re doing in a spirit of wanting to keep each other safe. When that happens, we can all accomplish so much.
Q: Are there other opportunities in this moment you want to point to?
Health, environment, and equity have all collided with each other in such a big way over the last two years. That has shifted where people want to put their time, energy, and effort.
People want to work on things that matter, that have a global impact, and that they can feel proud of in their community. That’s awesome. We need all the people we can get working on these tough issues. To me, that desire to have impact is the big opportunity.
Q: For you personally, what has it meant to work at the intersection of business and society during such a challenging period?
My mother recently passed away. It’s one of those moments where you assess your life. “Am I close to my friends and family? Am I working on things I care about? Are there changes I want to make?”
“We’re working on startups that could have a very positive global impact, on health or climate change or systems that connect the world. My work couldn’t be more aligned with what I want to do in the world.”
I kind of went down my checklist. We’re working on incredibly ambitious startups that could have a very positive global impact, whether it’s on health or climate change or systems that connect the world and make life better. My work couldn’t be more aligned with what I want to do in the world. And it’s just so much fun. Doing that reflection and seeing that I’m doing what matters to me was such a great feeling.
One of the things that was so much part of my SOM experience was the intersectionality between government, private sector, and nonprofit—what I call mission. I work at the crux of that. Breakthrough discoveries don’t happen without government funding. Market forces help them go faster and scale faster. And you have to be on a mission to solve a big problem. Understanding the key levers of each is something that I really cherish from SOM.