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Building the Machines: Main Sequence VC investor Phil Morle on his plans and opportunities for startups in 2023

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The end of a year is usually a burnt-out shell with no time or energy, too busy thinking about the future to focus on the past.

But it’s worth a quick look. What have I learned and what will I do this year as a result?

Reflections on 2022

Going into 2022, I didn’t expect how determined I was to rebuild post-Covid momentum. This manifested itself in a positive habit change at the beginning of the year, achieving new levels of progress. It felt like everyone around me was of the same mind, and the world exploded into life. The 9-5 quickly stretched to 5-7, was away from home every other week, and back-to-back zoom meetings couldn’t be reduced even though face-to-face was back.

By the end of the year I was broke. But I was aware of that and I saw it coming. My first lesson from 2022 is to pay attention to my energy balance and take action sooner.

Some things stand out through the year.

I started 2022 with a mission to fix a writing habit. Why think and write privately when I can write out loud and we can all learn together? Ship30for30 forced me to write one atomic essay a day for 30 days. I went through 100 days and then posted most weeks for the rest of the year. I found it very valuable.

  • Some good conversations ensued. It was common to meet someone new and realize they had read my essays. Our new relationship started with a conversation that was already underway.
  • The discipline it gives me to think clearly about something has helped me develop some of my ideas. Each day forced me into the habit of thinking about what to think about and then figuring out how to communicate it clearly.
  • Creativity, ideas, and discussion cleared my Twitter feed of toxic junk. It was interesting to see that my LinkedIn network was much more capable of discussion than Twitter, where almost everyone but a few are afraid to have an opinion, it seems.
  • No one told me I was an idiot. Imposter Syndrome expects this and stands at the gate, preventing most of us from sharing our ideas. I walked through, and it was OK.

Here’s a link to everything I’ve published.

This year I want to build on the habit. I won’t be publishing every day because that was intense, but I’ll try to do it a few times a week and fold it into a longer form of writing like this. I’ll share the longer stuff here on Substack.

I’ll also be collaborating with some of the other Main Sequence folks who will be thinking aloud with me. Follow us here.

I started practicing the infinite game explicitly in 2022. No more winning or losing – just keep the game in the game. Of course I’m not done yet. It’s a process and part of the game is to recognize (and maintain) that it never ends. .

Imagined by Midjourney

This is what happened in 2022.

  • I became less petty. Competition became something to strive for and even to cooperate with. Just another player in a game bigger than either of us.
  • I became more patient. It’s okay if something takes a little longer. Many plans have been delayed by the market we are in, and plans have been developed to move through them with eyes on the horizon. The Infinite Game calls this “Existentual Resilience.”
  • I became more ambitious. Every known target is now just a waypoint before I change the rules and expand the horizon.

It’s a process. Some days I’m still petty, impatient and mean-spirited, but at least I have a model to challenge it with.

Most of the projects I work on are impossible to realize without other people. Lots of other people.

The ‘radical’ means that a collaboration choice is sometimes surprising and that some people have an allergic reaction to it. A belief that “winning” happens in a world of scarce power and opportunity, with the aim of the game being to collect those things.

I think this leads to a smaller opportunity canvas.

Being part of something bigger can have an unimaginable impact.

Here are some of the 2022 activities where I’ve tried this out.

  • We worked more together in the portfolio. Us portfolio at Main Sequence did business with each other and shared customers, insights and resources. This has only brought benefits. A fun session at the end of the year, which we called a “Core Sample,” looked at a subset of companies, from pre-investment to multimillion-dollar revenue, to explore how they interacted through the core. For example, the pre-investment company comes together because of some work in the mature company.
  • We got explicit in making markets. A new food system is emerging in which the food we love is made using a different production method. For example, brewing milk the way we make beer instead of using animals. This needs a whole new value chain to grow together. We started the year with a conclave in Melbourne, where different parts of the new system, including competitors, were brought together to determine who would do what and sideline the competition. There is no market to compete in yet. In this project, we took inspiration from the work of Queensland and in particular the Greater Whitsundays region, to activate a new biotech industry in Far North Queensland. See ‘Moonshot Country’ below.
  • We worked more on starting new businesses. Deep tech companies are difficult to start and in most cases need more than any person or organization. Many companies fail at the first step and we have started working with accelerator programs to reduce this risk. See below.

As someone who has designed many current accelerator programs, I wondered what the point was of an accelerator in 2022. My hypothesis became that accelerators were not there to discover (demo day, etc.) but to create. They work best when they produce a deliberate act of momentum building where as many forces in the innovation system as possible come together immediately to start the engine.

We worked with UNSW on the Synbio10x program and CSIRO on them ON Accelerate program.

Imagined by MidJourney
  • An active role for investors enforces the focus necessary for the establishment of a company. We had set up companies in the structure of our other work. This created distractions, lengthened the timeline and diluted the concentration of attention. Accelerators enabled us to start up several companies in the same 3 months and pay close attention to their development.
  • Investing at the beginning has a positive result. Historically, accelerators initially included zero or very low investment amounts, with an emphasis on using the program to raise capital. For UNSW Synbio 10x, we experimented with an investment of $120,000 at the beginning of the program. This gave the teams enough capital to do the job well and gave us skin in the game to incrementally change their value. The difference in results was spectacular.
  • We cannot finance everything, and as many companies as possible should be given a chance. We have experimented with involving other investors at the start of ON Accelerate. This was a new experience as it meant competing and collaborating around companies that had not yet been established as a company. We had to figure out who could best help get the company up and running to a starting round. In this way, we ensured deal flow for each other and gave more companies the opportunity to move up from an accelerator. This experiment will continue until 2023. #radicalcooperation

In the run-up to 2023, some themes will be intensified and built up.

I continue to believe in the need and opportunity to create the food we love in more sustainable ways.

This new category of plant-based meats, foods grown directly from the cells and foods fermented from organisms such as yeast, is moving closer and closer to equivalence with products made in animals or in small quantities in other parts of nature (e.g. .vanilla).

It also dramatically cuts its way through the Gartner hype cycle.

It is currently right in the “valley of disillusionment” following a “surge of inflated expectations” that exacerbated a booming capital market with a surge in demand for ESG companies to invest in. All of this crystallized into valuation gains in companies like Beyond Meat now crashed.

The mission is the same. I have not seen anything to suggest that the problem of feeding 10 billion people has diminished. I have seen no evidence that these products will not be equivalent in price, nutrition and experience for years to come.

The focus this year is on:

  • Mature the category in retail. How will the category tell its story? What is causing the shift in the product mix? What is the journey from alt protein as a vegan niche to a new mainstream category?
  • Expand production. There are more than 1000 companies on the planet today that are working on new ways to produce food. Many of these are well funded with venture capital. Few have the resources to produce on a large scale and reach the price point necessary for mass consumer adoption. In 2023, activity in this area will increase significantly.

I can imagine that much of my investing activity in the coming years will be around organic products. Our work in food has expanded to organic methods for infinite recycling of plastic and making materials with biology that were traditionally built from oil.

Imagined by Midjourney

This will be my focus of 2023:

  • Continued focus on how to start these businesses. By continuing our work with UNSW’s Synbio 10x program, we will create more companies from research.
  • Accelerate discovery and development tools. These products are traditionally discovered through trial and error, but computational methods are revealing ways to build with biology the way we build with code.
  • Expand manufacturing. Focus on building these products on a large scale.

Building with biology still needs a raw material that agriculture produces. For example, sugar cane is a great source of carbon to feed yeast that makes dairy proteins.

The skilled labor needed to produce these products today works in agriculture, mining and manufacturing.

The global biorevolution will not arise in the cities, but in the countryside.

I like the idea that the country is the logical place for new Silicon Valleys to emerge.

Here’s my new 2023 t-shirt and something of a ‘call to arms’ to focus an infinite game.

The 2023 mission gets a T-shirt

My biggest weakness is the instinct to do things yourself.

I will work harder this year to build the systems and other people’s skills to “build the machines” that can scale what we do.

  • What is the script? How do we best share the systems that work best?
  • Is the right person working on this project or mission? What am I working on that I shouldn’t be working on?
  • I will try more to support others in leading projects than leading projects myself.

Let’s see how it goes!


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