Founders Fund, the venture firm co-created by Peter Thiel, is entering yet another surprising area that you don’t commonly see with Silicon Valley VCs.
They’re backing a materials sciences company called Modumetal, which is making nanolaminated metals for use in the oil and gas industry. With currently used metals, pipes and equipment can corrode pretty easily, leading to $2.2 trillion in losses annually.
Modumetal is run by Christina Lomasney, a fourth-generation physicist who was one of the first Americans to ever work in a Russian nuclear research institute.
She and the company had developed a technology for coating pipes and other materials with a ultra-thin metal alloy that renders them more protected against corrosion. An analogy would be something like metallic plywood with really, really thin layers. It could, for example, allow turbines or jet propulsion systems to operate at higher temperatures, leading to better efficiency and cost savings.
At the time, another Midwestern company had simultaneously developed and patented a similar process. They, however went bankrupt and Lomasney and her team seized on the opportunity, acquired the intellectual property and started this company.
Lomasney argues that what Modumetal does is a major advance in metal-working and metallurgy, (think the kind that led to serious advances during the Industrial Age). The company’s process allows it to “grow” metal over the shape of a part or “the way Mother Nature grows trees” with rings encircling older parts, she explained.
“I’d hopefully want to see a reverse in the way that metallurgy is perceived in universities. I’d want to see students studying new ways of manipulated nano-laminated alloys,” she said. “It’s rare that you get an opportunity to realize a new age in metals.”
The company’s technology is already being used and piloted by some of the biggest oil and gas companies in the world like Chevron, ConocoPhillips and BP, which are also investors in Modumetal. Lomasney adds that the cost of producing these special nano-laminated alloys is comparable to what’s already out there on the market.
Other investors include Sunshine Tech Limited, Steve Singh, Catamount Ventures, Second Avenue Partners, Goldenseeds and members of the Alliance of Angels. Hercules Technology Growth Capital, Inc. also participated as a debt investor.
“As an investor, you’re walking a thin line between looking for people who are pushing the envelope, but are also hovering on the edge of what’s possible,” said Founders Fund’s chief scientist Aaron VanDevender. “You need something that has the science credibility to pull it off. This does.”