In the first post, we stared to explore whether we could use a tool like ChatGPT to come up with new climate-focused research ideas. It came up with some interesting ideas, but made some critical errors. Could it go a step further?
Over the years, I’ve gotten to see many thousands of pitches for breakthrough Climate Tech ideas. Is there a chance one of them was generated by AI?
So far so good – now let’s take it a step further and make up a quantum version:
Great news! Google scholar agrees that quantum hydrodynamic cavitation doesn’t exist (or, at least that it hasn’t yet been discovered.)
One of the most interesting ways to play with ChatGPT is to “jailbreak” it to get it to step outside of some of its constraints.
One way to do that is to ask it to “pretend”.
At this point, I hadn’t prompted the system about anything related to climate tech or clean energy, so I was intrigued that it had offered that idea and probed further:
ChatGPT Applies for a Grant
At the Breakthrough Energy Fellows program, we invite talented researchers from around the world to apply for our program.
I walked ChatGPT through the first stage of our application process to see how credible its application could be — but remember, this is for a totally made up, fictional technology that DOES NOT EXIST!
Given that we know the technology doesn’t exist, let’s explore those citations.
This I did not expect! Others have shared examples of hallucinated citations, but in this case ChatGPT claims to be aware that these are made-up.
Fortunately for this exercise, ChatGPT is eager to please, as I guided it through a few more application questions:
Would ChatGPT get the grant?
At a first pass, these responses all seem plausible — and human. The answers are light on details, and while that may not get a reviewer excited, that alone doesn’t set off alarm bells about a totally made up phenomenon. Of course, the fake citations would be the most reliable red flag.
Not only does it seem unlikely that an application for a made-up topic could make it through a rigorous review process – once the application starts to ask for experimental results and evidence that the phenomenon is real, the hallucination would become clear.
Winners and Losers
Presumably a researcher with a well-established reputation would be less likely to jeopardize it by getting grant funding for a completely made-up phenomenon. Does that increase the value of reputation? Does it make it more difficult for emerging out outside researchers without a track record?
What seems almost certain is that real scientists working on real breakthroughs (not fake concepts) will use a tool like ChatGPT to apply for grants. Researchers often spend weeks writing grant applications. Often their collaborators help write sections and edit. And some researchers, companies, and municipalities hire grant writers https://www.science.org/content/article/day-life-grant-writer — would this be any different? Are the ethical questions different?
Even since first running this test late last year, OpenAI has already released a newer version of the tool. The existence of tools like this change the kinds of questions that should be asked and the level of evidence that grant makers in the sciences will require.
A brief diversion from where we were. One of the most fun uses of ChatGPT is having it create new works in the style of other authors or imaginary conversations among people. Here I decided to see how it would do recreating an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast Conversations with Tyler featuring Vaclav Smil — but I didn’t give it any of that context.
Let’s see how it does!
Not a bad start, though usually Tyler’s first question is more direct.
I’m only noticing this after many re-reads– but I’m surprised ChatGPT makes the mistake of saying “a interesting” instead of “an”… given that the tools is trained to select the most likely word to follow another word, it seems unlikely there are many cases of “interesting” following “a”. Has anyone else noticed agreement issues like this?
Anyway, moving on:
It gave a few more responses in the series, and as you’ll see in a second, I didn’t think this was particularly similar to Tyler’s style of question or Vaclav’s style of answers. But we’ll come back to that.
I wanted to test how much ChatGPT “remembers” about the conversation it’s in the middle of.
Ok, so it does “understand” in some sense who is speaking in which order. To help it out on the question side, I gave it a few examples of the way I think Tyler asks his questions.
Ok, we didn’t like what ChatGPT gave us, can we make it better? How well does ChatGPT do in responding to feedback?
Here it just copied my prompts but made Vaclav’s responses more concise, which I told it wasn’t really what I wanted.
Oh well, let’s see what it can do on its own:
ChatGPT got the format much closer here, but the content is mostly there, but maybe not the way Vaclav would frame it.
Vaclav seems to agree that subsidies and energy efficiency are underrated and that carbon capture is overrated. (See, for example this NYT interview, notably published in 2022– after ChatGPT’s training cutoff, meaning that ChatGPT has not seen this interview.) I don’t have any definitive sources, but I think Vaclav might be more nuanced on solar (my guess is he’d say that on it’s own, solar might be appropriately rated, but as part of a system which requires a significant change in the power grid to deliver it, he might say it’s overrated). And on EVs I think Vaclav would take exactly the opposite position.
ChatGPT is trained on a wide set of data, and by prompting it to focus on the work of Cowen and Smil, I hoped it could bias its answers a little more towards what they would have said in the past. Still, it’s not hard to imagine what the next version of the tool could do.
And now, to close out the conversation like Tyler often does — a step too far for ChatGPT:
Bottom line: European innovation in deep-tech climate is still highly underrated.
What follows is just a quick summary of what I saw last week in the UK and EU:
Incredible entrepreneurial energy
Eager and supportive universities and research orgs
Investors ready to take the baton
Strong government support
This is what we learned in just a week visiting our Breakthrough Energy Fellows and speaking with great partners like ARIA, the Universities of Cambridge, Nottingham, Lincoln, Luxembourg, Imperial College London, the Technical University of Munich, Future Planet Capital, Zero Carbon Capital, Planet First Partners, the European Investment Bank Institute, the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology, Luxinnovation, and many more.
Don’t think I’m saying that Europe has suddenly sprung onto the scene. Europe has long been recognized for its Green credentials — smaller cars, more walkable cities, public transit, “flygskam”, Greta Thunberg. And there have been notable government policies for decades — Germany’s solar subsidies and a framework of carbon costs/taxes. In the private sector, the region has been a leader in areas like wind power and you’ve probably also heard about the recent wave of high-profile, highly-funded startups in the space — Northvolt, H2GreenSteel, Hybrit, and more.
What I am saying here is that something has dramatically shifted over the last 10 years — and I think no matter how you currently rate European climate tech, you should revise your estimates higher!
#1 Everywhere optimism about entrepreneurship.
The overall entrepreneurial mindset has clearly undergone a transformation in the last decade.
By these numbers, VC investment in Europe has grown from some $4 billion in 2011 to $100 billion in 2021!
These numbers aren’t deep-tech or climate-tech specific, but in every conversation we had, there was a clear sense that there is no shortage of entrepreneurs and great ideas. The notion that Europeans are not as risk tolerant as Americans certainly needs to be revised.
#2 Research universities are eager and active to get technology out the door
In the UK, universities we visited were eager to have companies “spin in”.
Under this “embedded company” model, even startups without a previous link to the university can rent space and, more importantly, get access to key scientific equipment— with no demands that the university would take IP or ownership.
“While Venture Capital (VC) remains a powerful source of risk capital to build traditional digital and technology ventures, the nature of deep tech ventures often makes them a poor match for VC investment: they have longer timelines before they can commercialise and generate revenue, the technology and market risks are significant, de-risking these technologies is capital-intensive, and the high standard of science is not easily matched with commercial experience of the same calibre. Together, these factors imply that many high potential ventures are either spun out too early or undercapitalized, leading them to fall into the “valley of death” between university research programmes and commercially viable investments.”
Institute for Deep Tech Entrepreneurship, Imperial College London
The new institute is led by Ramana Nanda, one of the sharpest minds thinking about building and funding science-based businesses. Not only will the institute provide hands-on support to innovators launching new companies, but under Professor Nanda’s leadership, they’ll be engaging in a deeper analysis of what makes these ventures successful and studying how to increase the odds of success.
#3 Investors Standing Ready
The overall VC numbers above speak for themselves – a 10-fold increase in funding over the last decade is incredible. Not only has overall VC activity increased, but according to this report from Dealroom/Talis, Climate-focused investment activity has also ticked up 10x over the last 5 years.
New fund formation also hit an all-time high — and note that this is a very narrow slice, showing only European-only climate-tech funds. The reality is even more exciting — many global funds are also investing in the region and many generalist funds are funding climate-tech startups.
When we met with just a few of these investors last week, it’s clear they are eager to put real capital to work.
#4 European governments are stepping up
In the UK, we met with the leaders of ARIA, the UK’s new Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Taking the best of the US Advanced Research Project Agencies (like DARPA, or the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E) and adapting it based on the lessons learned, I believe this will accelerate the UK’s position in innovation across not just climate tech but other deep-tech sectors like computing, health, space, and more.
The plan has four communicated pillars (each including a number of initiatives), and we will look at each of them below: – a predictable and simplified regulatory environment; – faster access to sufficient funding; – skills; and – open trade for resilient supply chains.
Pale Blue Dot
While this legislation is fresh and there are plenty of details to work out, it has huge potential to spur incredible additional funding in the region.
Don’t Sleep on Europe
It’s not to say that there aren’t challenges. For example, we didn’t hear much love for Brexit — indeed we heard many times that it has raised new roadblocks to scientific collaboration and made it more difficult for UK teams to find the specific engineering talent they need. On the EU side, we did hear concerns that, despite all the progress on building an entrepreneurial ecosystem, there is still a temptation for teams to move to the US because they believe funding will be easier or because the regulatory structure of the Delaware Chancery Court provides a more certain (and more widely accepted) regulatory framework.
Those challenges notwithstanding, all of this together leaves me more optimistic than I’ve ever been about Europe’s continued role in this space. It is abundantly clear that funding and supporting innovation in climate tech and deep tech more broadly is a positive-sum game. Within the region and abroad, increased entrepreneurship invites more investment capital, both make the political economy of encouraging innovation-forward climate policies and funding research and development more appealing to governments, and ultimately pave the way for bringing to market the solutions we need to get to a Net-Zero global economy.
Like many of you, I’ve been having a lot of fun playing around with ChatGPT over the past few months and started wondering about how tools like this would change the world of startup creation and investing in the future.
ChatGPT – What is it?
Late last year, OpenAI released ChatGPT — sort of an advanced AI chat-bot — an improved version of its earlier GPT models. The basics way these systems work is that they’re trained on a huge corpus of text (hundreds of billions of words from the web, books, wikipedia, etc.) and designed to predict the next word given a certain prompt and the words that came before. The results are uncanny in how natural and real they (usually) sound.
You know what, let’s have ChatGPT tell us in its own words:
Probing those limitations of the system — seeing where it doesn’t work — has been just as fascinating as seeing where it will work. Examples abound of funny mistakes the system makes, like insisting that the “fastest marine mammal” is the peregrine falcon. In strange ways the system reveals that it doesn’t /quite/ understand what it’s talking about.
Does ChatGPT understand science?
At this point, I was wondering what effects a tool like this would have on our world. Some fear the end of the education system as we know it — sharing examples of how the tool could be used to both create test questions, write essays, and grade them! (https://twitter.com/emollick/status/1598745129837281280)
The scariest example for me, was the following thread:
Dr. Kubacka wrote her dissertation on multiferroics, a special class of materials with interesting electromagnetic properties. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Multiferroics). First she started probing on whether GPT could describe the technology. Then she began asking about specific papers relevant in the field.
If you read through the thread, GPT first provided fake, but totally convincing, citations for the key papers in the field. Then she started asking about a made-up extension of the field that was equally convincing. The way she describes the tool as “hallucinating” details about the technology puts me deeply in some uncanny valley!
As someone who evaluates thousands of new research ideas within the field of climate tech, all of this inspired me to ask a few questions about how this tool could be used to generate new research ideas, describe existing ideas, and, perhaps more darkly, how it could be used to dupe grant review committees.
Question 1: Can AI create new Climate Tech Startups?
Coming up with a wholly new research idea is no easy feat. Often new ideas come from years and years of experience in a field or from combining unrelated ideas.
I probed ChatGPT on whether it could combine disparate ideas to form new concepts:
All of these sound reasonably plausible, but none sound particularly novel. A quick Google scholar search comes up with some 500,000 articles about graphene-based solar cells, and about the same for carbon nanotube hydrogen storage. The possible exception might be microfluidics for algae production — there are plenty of uses for microfluidics in algae research — for things like rapid prototyping and characterization, but it’s not clear that it would be a scalable solution for production.
If we ask GPT, it gets into what I see as its defining (and maybe most frustrating) characteristic, the sort of wishy-washy, noncommittal answer.
In any case, it’s a fascinating proof of concept! In short order, I expect that a version of GPT that is connected to updated internet results will be able to plug ideas into a search engine until it finds one that doesn’t have many prior examples.
The idea of combining known fields to create a new invention may or may not be a good way to generate research ideas, but what about a more targeted approach?
Targeted idea generation
I asked ChatGPT to help come up with new ideas for hydrogen generation.
By and large, these are good, standard appraoches, even if some of these answers are not really on target (The suggestions for nuclear, geothermal, hydro, and power to gas are sensical but are really just specific cases of #1.)
So far we’re doing OK as far as a set of answers to a test in an introductory course. But quickly we get into territory where GPT is out of its depth.
This explanation sounds so reasonable, so specific, so detailed — it’s hard to believe it’s nonsense.
What ChatGPT is claiming is that you just need some heat and a catalyst (basically some material that speeds up a reaction but otherwise nominally doesn’t react) and you can turn CO2 and water into just hydrogen and oxygen.
As our introductory chemistry reminds us, matter and energy can’t be destroyed — the carbon atom in the CO2 has to go somewhere!
Let’s push ChatGPT a bit:
Notably, this is not the reverse water-gas shift reaction, and furthermore it’s not balanced. Let’s see if ChatGPT can uncover its mistake…
ChatGPT did figure out that there was a missing carbon on the product side, but still wasn’t able to create a balanced reaction (3 oxygens are missing from the right hand side). The second attempt just doubled both sides, which is sort of an irrelevant change.
Back to our original question, can ChatGPT come up with something totally novel?
Well, this is certainly out of the box thinking!
In the next segment, I’ll be going into more detail about whether ChatGPT can (or thinks it can) come up with new research ideas.
Jason Jacobs, host of the excellent new podcast My Climate Journey, wondered aloud on Twitter this weekend what the Climate Tech version of an a16z or First Round would look like. Two caveats before I give my answer
Existing climate investors are playing this role today because they have no other choice.
There is certainly room for a $10B firm to put even more resources behind this.
What’s so special about a16z?
Startup investing today is so much more than just writing a check. Every firm pitches founders on the value they’ll add. (There are even twitter parodies calling into question how serious those offers to help are.) There’s a reason for this focus on value-add. There are three ways a VC can be successful (let’s ignore luck for a second):
But Andreessen Horowitz made its mark by defining what a “value-add” investor is. The firm’s founders understood that many of the next greatest tech companies were going to be built by product and technology people - founders who understood technology and markets, but maybe weren’t expert storytellers, didn’t yet have media and PR experience, and didn’t have the network that Marc and Ben had. They understood that they could accelerate those new companies by providing bench strength - partners at a16z that could be called on to help recruit a great head of sales, or someone who could get the company featured on the front page of the New York Times. In short, in addition to providing sound advice from their board seat, a16z would put people to work every day solving their portfolio companies’ problems. Today, all firms understand that the bar has moved and they can’t just provide a check and some occasional advice.
What are the current Climate Tech funders doing?
Jason’s question wasn’t really “why isn’t there an a16z today” but rather, if what software companies need is better PR or better access to recruiting than they could get on their own, what could an analog in climate tech provide?
One answer is that each and every of the active climate funders are doing this every day. [The following list will not be comprehensive, so please let me know what I’ve missed!]
Today a16z manages around $10B. If you assumed a standard 2% management fee, that would mean the firm has $200m per year to spend on people to support portfolio companies. If we had those resources (or even a fraction) applied to climate tech, here’s what my wishlist would be:
Turbocharged industrial marketing support. So many companies in the space have a great technology that could be used in hundreds of different applications, but haven’t found the perfect fit. Unfortunately, this process takes a combination of experience and luck. By pairing companies with experienced industry experts, we could accelerate their time to first revenue and prove that the company is an attractive follow-on investment. To cover the broad range of industries within Climate Tech, you’d need to have a relatively deep bench.
Top recruiting. Finding the next perfect team member to add sales, marketing, or manufacturing experience to the founding team is expensive. Unlike the market for experienced software talent in Silicon Valley, there isn’t a deep pool of these people and they’re spread all around the country. For the kinds of companies we’re talking about, hiring a recruiter could cost several months of runway. A fund that could bring this in house would put companies on the fast track.
Policy, regulatory, and lobbying help. All startups need to “eat their policy vegetables” and this is especially true in climate tech. Imagine offering what Tusk Ventures does for its highly regulated startups like Uber. And while many entrepreneurs might feel uncomfortable with lobbying, the reality is your competitors (incumbents and other startups) are doing it. (As my colleague Paul says “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”) One example - a solar company discovered that one of their competitors was on the verge of changing state building codes to require all panels to be a certain size, a move that would have completely blocked the company from any new sales.
Grant writers. Jason’s suggestion of a grant writer or two would be hugely helpful. Like with the industrial marketing experts, you need a broad pool of talent here. Instead of having these writers on staff, the fund could provide access to a network of expert grant writers with expertise across energy, materials, agriculture, water, etc.
PR and advertising. This one feels like a cop-out, because of course this isn’t unique to climate tech. But, many of the companies we’re thinking about aren’t selling to consumers or giving away free software. And those that sell into the enterprise often aren’t general-purpose technologies that can be used across industries. Specialized PR and ad firms who can find out which trade publications and which conferences truly matter for each industry.
IP strategy. This role (different from a company’s patent counsel who files the patents) would focus more broadly on the company’s long-term strategy for developing new IP and protecting what it invents. There’s often more that can be patented than founding teams realize and companies at the earliest stages likely don’t have anyone on their team dedicated to this important role.
Manufacturing & Scale Up. Access to experts who understand design for manufacturing, who have worked with contract manufacturers in the US and abroad, and who have taken a hardware product from concept to full scale would help startups avoid the kinds of costly mistakes that have doomed many a company.
The cynic’s view on why there isn’t already a16z in Climate Tech
By disrupting the VC industry and staffing up in each of these areas, a16z was able to offer startups something they couldn’t get anywhere else. They showed companies an unfakeable signal that they were going to help them succeed. In turn, they knew, this would lead the best founders to look to them for investment. In climate tech, I’m sorry to say, we’re not at the point where we have such cutthroat competition for deal flow. The amazing (but growing!) funding in this space can’t keep up with the number of great ideas, so VC firms don’t yet have to compete with added services.
Founders and funders: what else would you add to the list? What would you tell the people building a $10B climate fund?