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

- January 25, 2023 7 MIN READ
Main Sequence Ventures partner Phil Morle
I’ve always struggled to write a year in review. Not at the end of the year, at least.

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

But it is worth a quick look. What did I learn, and what am I going to do this year because of it?

Reflections on 2022

Going into 2022, I did not anticipate how much I was determined to rebuild momentum after Covid. This manifested as positive habit change at the start of the year driving new levels of progress. It felt like everyone around me was of a similar mind, and the world exploded into life. The 9-5 quickly stretched to 5-7, every other week was away from home and the back-to-back zoom meetings resisted reducing even though face-to-face was back.

I was knackered by the end of the year. But I was aware of that, and I saw it coming. My first learning from 2022 is to watch my energy balance and take action sooner.

Some things stand out from the year.

I rebooted thinking out loud

I began 2022 with a mission to re-establish a writing habit. Why think and write in private when I can write out loud, and we can all learn together? Ship30for30 forced me to write one atomic essay per day for 30 days. I continued for 100 days and then posted most weeks for the rest of the year. I found it wonderfully valuable.

  • Some great conversations began. It was common to meet someone new and realise that they had been reading my essays. Our new relationship began with a conversation already underway.
  • The discipline it forces in me to think clearly about something helped me to develop some of my ideas. Each day forced the habit of reflecting on what I need to think about and then figuring out how to communicate it clearly.
  • Creativity, ideas and discussion purged my Twitter feed of toxic junk. It was interesting to observe that my LinkedIn network was much more up for a debate than Twitter, where all 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 published.

This year, I intend to build on the habit. I won’t publish every day because that was intense, but I will try to do it a couple of times per week and fold in some longer form writing like this one. I’ll share the longer stuff here on Substack.

I’ll also be collaborating with some other folks at Main Sequence, who will join me in thinking out loud. Follow us here.

My mindset began to shift towards the infinite game

I began to practice the infinite game explicitly in 2022. No more winning or losing – just keeping the game in play. I’m not done yet, of course. It is a process, and part of the game is to acknowledge (and insist) that it never ends. .

Imagined by Midjourney

Here’s what happened in 2022.

  • I became less petty. Competition became something to aspire to and even collaborate with. Just another player in a game that is bigger than both of us.
  • I became more patient. It is OK if something takes longer. Many plans have been slowed by the market trough we are in, and plans have evolved to pass through it with eyes on the horizon. The infinite game calls this ‘Existentual Resilience’.
  • I became more ambitious. Any known target is now just a waypoint before I change the rules of the game and move the horizon out.

It is a process. Some days I am still petty, impatient and small-minded, but at least I have a model to challenge it with.

I realised the need for radical collaboration

Most projects I am working on are impossible to deliver without other people. A lot of other people.

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

I think this leads to a smaller opportunity canvas.

Being a part of something bigger can achieve unimaginable impact.

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

  • We collaborated more across the portfolio. Our portfolio at Main Sequence did business with each other and shared customers, insights, and resources. This has only led to benefits. A fun session at the end of the year that we called a ‘Core Sample’ looked at a subset of companies from pre-investment to multi-million $ revenue to explore how they were collaborating through the core. For example, the pre-investment company is coming together because of some work in the mature company.
  • We became explicit at market making. A new food system is emerging in which the food we love will be made with a different production method. For example, brewing milk in the same way we make beer instead of using animals. This needs a whole new value chain to rise in unison. We began the year with a conclave in Melbourne that brought together different parts of the new system, including competitors, to identify who would do what, putting competition aside. There is no market to compete in yet. In this project, we have been inspired by the work of Queensland and especially the Greater Whitsundays region, to activate a new biotech industry in Far North Queensland. See ‘Moonshot Country’ below.
  • We worked more on how to start new companies. Deep tech companies are hard to start and need more than any one person or organisation in most cases. Many companies fail at the first step, and we have started to partner with accelerator programs to de-risk this. See below.

We re-framed the purpose of accelerators

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

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

Imagined by MidJourney
  • An active role for investors forces the focus required for company creation. We had been creating companies in the fabric of our other work. This created distraction, extended the timeline and diluted the concentration of attention. Accelerators enabled us to start multiple companies in the same 3 months and pay proper attention to their development.
  • Investing at the start has a positive outcome. Historically, accelerators have included zero or very low investment amounts at the start, focusing on using the program to raise capital. For UNSW Synbio 10x, we experimented with investing $120k at the start of the program. This gave the teams enough capital to do the job properly and gave us skin in the game to step change their value. The difference in outcomes was spectacular.
  • We can’t fund everything, and as many companies as possible should have a shot. We have experimented with bringing in other investors at the start for ON Accelerate. This was a new experience because it meant that we were competing and collaborating around ventures that were not formed as companies yet. We needed to figure out who could help best to bootstrap the company to a seed round. In this way, we were making deal flow for each other and giving more companies the chance to rise from an accelerator. This experiment will continue into 2023. #radicalcollaboration

Focus for 2023

Moving into 2023, some themes will intensify and build.

Alt protein begins the ‘Slope of Enlightenment’

I remain a believer in the need and the opportunity to create the food we love in more sustainable ways.

This new category of plant-based meat, food grown directly from the cells and foods fermented from organisms like yeast, is getting closer to equivalency to products made in animals or in small volumes in other parts of nature (e.g. vanilla).

It is also dramatically making its way through the Gartner Hype Cycle.

It is squarely in the ‘Trough of Disillusionment’ currently after a ‘Peak of Inflated Expectations’ that compounded a bouyant capital market with a surge in demand for ESG companies to invest in. All this crystalising in valuation surges in companies like Beyond Meat that have now crashed.

The mission is the same. I have seen nothing to suggest that the problem of feeding 10b people has diminished. I have seen no evidence that these products won’t be equivalent in price, nutrition and experience in the coming years.

The focus this year is on:

  • Maturing the category in retail. How will the category tell its story? What will cause the shift in product mix? What is the journey from altprotein as vegan niche to a new mainstream category?
  • Building out manufacturing. There are over 1,000 companies on earth today, working on novel new ways to produce food. Many of these are well funded with venture capital. Few of these have any means to produce at scale and hit the price points needed for mass consumer adoption. 2023 will see a considerable surge in activity around this.

A deeper dive into biology

I can imagine that much of my investing activity in the years to come will be around biology-based products. Our work in food has expanded into biological methods for infinitely recycling 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 companies. Continuing our work with UNSW’s Synbio 10x program we will create more companies from research.
  • Speeding up the tools for discovery & development. These products are traditionally discovered through trial and error, but computational methods are revealing ways of building with biology like we build with code.
  • Building out manufacting. Focus on building these products at scale.

Building out “Moonshot Country”

Building with biology, still needs a feedstock that the agriculture sector produces. For example, sugar cane is a terrific source of carbon to feed yeast that makes dairy proteins.

The skilled labour required to produce these products are today working in agriculture, mining and manufacturing.

The global bio-revolution isn’t going to rise in the cities, but in the country.

I love the idea that the country is the logical place for new Silicon Valleys to rise.

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

The 2023 mission gets a T-Shirt

My theme for the year is ‘Building the Machines’

My biggest weakness is the instinct to do things myself.

I will be working harder this year on building the systems and the skills in other people to ‘build the machines’ that can scale what we do.

  • What is the playbook? How do we best share the systems that work?
  • Is the right person working on this project or mission? What am I working on that I should not be working on?
  • I will be trying to support others to lead projects more than I lead projects myself.

Let’s see how it goes!