How one moonshot VC approaches investing in the COVID-19 era 

Playground Global CTO Peter Barrett: 'A dating app looks less appealing than contributing in some way'

Take one glance at Playground Global’s portfolio and a theme emerges: The firm’s investments are forward-looking, longer-term plays, a strategy that runs counter to the fast-return ethos that permeates certain Silicon Valley sectors.

The Palo Alto-based VC firm is banking on the future with investments in capital-intensive and technically complex pursuits, including robotics, autonomous driving, metallic 3D printing and infrastructure. It’s an investment strategy that isn’t for the faint of heart.

So, how does a firm that embraces futurism handle the present-day disruption of COVID-19? It looks ahead, of course.

When co-founder and CTO Peter Barrett joined TechCrunch this week for an Extra Crunch Live panel, the pandemic dominated the conversation. The executive noted that a new and common thread has emerged throughout the many discussions among Playground executives and the startups in which it has invested.

Priorities are shifting toward finding ways to be of service.

Everything feels different these days. Recent months have caused many in Silicon Valley to reconsider their investment priorities, roll up their figurative sleeves and begin the process of helping the world survive and, eventually, recover from the seemingly endless COVID-19 pandemic. Like many others, Playground finds itself at a crossroads — determining how it can be of service, while examining the ways in which a crisis like this can be addressed.

“One thing that underscores this pandemic is a realization that we need to be doing other things if we want to avoid being stuck inside for six months to a year,” Barrett said. “The biggest trend is a recognition that we need to make the investments that give us agency over our biology, and to build the tooling and infrastructure, so the parade of maladies which is behind COVID won’t have the same consequences that COVID-19 has.”

The pandemic has also driven people to reflect on what they want to do with their lives, Barrett said, suggesting that this phenomenon could influence which startups emerge from this period as well as what venture capitalists choose to invest in.

“If you’re an entrepreneur, I think a dating app looks less appealing than contributing in some way,” Barrett said, adding that entrepreneurs are looking at areas that “put us in a position where we really don’t have to be stuck inside because of a thirty kilobase virus.”

Playground has a number of startups that are in position to offer some support, though, as is the nature of the firm’s tendency toward long runways. Most, however, appear better positioned to consider how we can prepare ourselves for the inevitability of some future pandemic, rather than the one we’re currently battling. Click through to read the highlights and watch a video with our entire conversation.

Nearer term plays

Playground’s portfolio is a mix of companies that are building things on a longer timescale that have the capital and patience to weather this pandemic, Barrett said.

However, in the near term, there are categories of companies that have an opportunity to be of service and grow their business.