You might be familiar with the term artist-in-residence, but have you ever heard of a scientist-in-residence?
This is Clare Birch’s job title, and it’s unusual in more ways than one.
With an honours degree in chemistry from the University of Sydney – “I worked with Ivan Kassal to design methods for quantum computers to simulate chemistry,” she says – Birch nearly followed a traditional route into academia.
But instead, she became the first scientist-in-residence at the Australian venture capital fund, Blackbird Ventures.
The fund has invested in all kinds of interesting tech startups, including PsiQuantum (quantum computing), Gilmour Space (low-cost propulsion systems for rockets), Bardee (food waste), Fleet (a low-powered satellite network) and Vexev (non-invasive medical imaging).
Birch’s job is to act a bridge between Blackbird and the researchers who submit proposals.
“Early-stage startups are very similar to research groups,” she explains. “The idea of having a hypothesis and coming up with like a quick way to verify whether or not it’s viable, and deciding what path to push forward with and being very comfortable with failure – all stuff that is common to both research groups and startups.
“But they speak completely different languages, and operate at completely different timescales, and operate at completely different funding scales.”
A big part of Birch’s job is to translate the jargon of both sides – the research for her colleagues at Blackbird and the startup process to the scientists – in an effort to get world-changing science and tech projects off the ground.
It’s not just a knowledge base in science that makes a scientist-in-residence valuable – it’s also the critical thinking skills inherent in a scientific mindset, from the evidence-based approach to problems to the ability to question beliefs and assumptions.
Why did Blackbird see the need for a scientist-in-residence?
It was Blackbird Ventures’ Principal Michael Tolo who saw the need for a science-minded colleague and created the role for Birch. Prior to his current role, he’d spent a year in the US with new technology firm Playground Global, which also had a scientist-in-residence who provided advice to the investment team.
“We found that it added such a richness and depth to our analysis,” Tolo says. “It allowed us to understand technologies more deeply, in the sense of being able to identify attractive features that others in the market or other investors were missing. And that allowed us to lean more into the technical risk, because we felt as though we have a better grasp of it.”
At Blackbird, Birch rose to the challenge of bringing a scientific mindset to the investment team, asking the hard questions to determine just how novel ideas are.
“If a deep tech or frontier tech or a really scientific idea comes across our desk, I can on the one hand advocate for the scientist involved, and really try to pull out what is really fantastic and unique about it,” she says.
“But on the other hand, I can mitigate the risk for us a little bit. If something is coming across our desk that is completely farcical, then we can be clued into that.
“It’s like the balance between identifying, ‘No, this is actually just completely ludicrous for XYZ reason’ versus ‘Ooh – it’s a technical risk and it’s really ambitious and it’s like science fiction, but what if?’”
Birch is particularly keen to help direct funding to long-term, impactful science projects that may not see a return for a decade or more.
“A really great example is the quantum space,” she says: it’s truly “deep tech”, and needs time for development – pushing work to go faster will only undermine the quality of the work and the broader trust in the technology.
“Wise, technically sound and risky investment in quantum tech not only benefits the researchers, it also benefits the space more broadly, because it really does validate these long-term excellent endeavours.”
But it’s not just about being able to ask the right questions, read the right papers and build the right network of experts. Being scientist-in-residence is also about bringing a completely different perspective to a company.
For example, Birch is becoming influential in directing some of the firm’s investment themes by recognising areas that will be big in the future.
“Almost by definition, as a venture capitalist, you’re searching for outliers,” Tolo says. “But you [can] become too embedded in historical models of success, and you don’t keep your head up, so to speak – surveying the landscape, looking for opportunities to invest in places that you haven’t invested before, or in categories that haven’t yet emerged”.
Someone like Birch can identify these emerging categories.
“I get to read deeply and widely and be like, ‘Alright, so what do we think this is actually going to look like in 10 years’ time?’” she says. “What are the technical risks we’re willing to take? What are the big questions about the commercial tech side of things? Why do we think that now is the time to be investing in this in the Australian ecosystem? What gives Australian founders an edge?”
What else does a scientist-in-resident do?
For a venture capital firm, there’s another upside to having a scientist-in-residence.
Birch also spends her time addressing a well-recognised problem: the dissonance between research and commercialisation in Australia.
“Australia consistently ranks really high up in terms of the quality of our research output,” Birch says. “But we don’t have a strong culture of translating that research into impactful startups or other commercialisation endeavours.”
This was a problem that Tolo had experienced firsthand; in San Francisco, and the US ecosystem broadly, he saw a seamless transition from university into entrepreneurship.
“I noticed that that was a pathway that was markedly underdeveloped in Australia,” he says.
A recent report from the Menzies Foundation found that Australian science-based start-ups are floundering, with none featured in the nation’s top 25 start-up lists. One key reason is a lack of stable, adequate and long-term funding, according to the report.
In recent years, the most direct funding for science-based start-ups has come through CSIRO’s ON program, funded through Australian Government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) from 2016 to 2020; funding was then diverted to supporting enterprise development rather than entrepreneurship.
From 2021 onwards, CSIRO is running the Kick-Start program, but this only offers small amounts of funding.
The Menzies Foundation report emphasises the benefits of finding ways to address the challenges between research and commercialisation.
“An increase in the number of innovative science-based start-ups and established businesses will lead to an increase in business growth, profitability and employment, more commercialisation of Australian research and ideas, and an embedded culture of innovation, entrepreneurship and risk-taking in Australia,” the report reads.
The current state of affairs has knock-on effects for students, Birch says.
“We focus on traditional career pathways for scientists, even though very few PhD students will end up in academic research,” she says. “There aren’t alternate pathways for them to pursue individual impact and great, creative science. It’s either sell out – go to consulting firms or become patent lawyers – or they go the other direction and go into industry and quite easily become a cog in the machine.”
She believes that startups represent an alternate pathway, but the lack of entrepreneurial culture here means that often students don’t even know their options.
“There isn’t a great wealth of people who have come before to tap into mentorship and to give examples of the path that you might take.”
Birch notes that VCs have been guilty of playing a role in this in the past, breaking trust with unis and researchers. But there’s an opportunity now to repair that trust.
“I’ve been having a lot of conversations with academics, and with university incubators and accelerators for startups and spinoffs, trying to understand what the friction points actually are – why we don’t have the same culture of entrepreneurship coming out of unis,” she says.
“Why weren’t startups at all in the discussion when I was studying science? What is so different about the Australian university ecosystem to the US university ecosystem?
“I don’t think that it’s that our students lack excellence or ambition at all.”
Birch hopes that VCs can act as a unifying force to support potential founders of future startups. “I really want to see our academics and our researchers having the impact that they deserve to have,” she says.
In particular, she’s currently passionate about supporting PhD students.
“They truly are real experts and they have such a great depth and intensity of knowledge and vision in the work that they’re doing,” she says.
“I have a real bee in my bonnet about providing better pathways for them, and opportunities to actually do exceptional work, and gain recognition and the financial and career security that they deserve.
“And I think startups, interestingly enough, even though they’re high risk, are a more attractive pathway than the academic research pathway to many people.”
To this end, Blackbird has just launched a new program called Wild Futures.
“If you are a university student at any stage – domestic, international, undergraduate postgrad, full- or part-time, we don’t care – pull together a team and submit a startup idea,” Birch says.
“The best kind of ideas ought to be really ambitious and scientific. Those really cool ideas, we’ll throw everything at them – give them our best platform and our best people and our networks and everything that we possibly can in order to see them succeed.”
But this is just the beginning. There’s a lot of work to do as a scientist-in-residence, especially since other similar firms don’t have similar positions.
“Of course, I think that other VCs should do this,” Birch says. “I think that Blackbird is the right one to be doing it right now. It’s the more the merrier kind of thing right now, absolutely… But I think that it’s something that should be handled really carefully.”
And venture capital firms aren’t the only places that could benefit from being in conversation with someone with a scientific mindset. Scientists-in-residence are beginning to catch on in other organisations, from conservation non-profits to media outlets to cultural organisations, and even – delightfully – Science for Monks and Nuns.