Lessons from a toddler VC – “Are there toilets in space?”

Dr Ashwath Sundaresan

March 4, 2022

A few weeks ago, my five-year-old son and I were watching YouTube videos of Sir Richard Branson heading up to space. While I was in awe of this incredible feat, I noticed the ambivalent look on my son's face. After a few moments of silence, Iwas peppered with questions - What happens if he needs to go to the toilet? Are there toilets in space? If there are no toilets, what will they do? Will he wee in his pants?

Initially incredulous (why is he talking about toilets when we are watching people go to space ….!), my thoughts shifted to how we deal with new situations and unknowns. My son was forming his views on an unknown experience (i.e. a long trip to space) with his knowledge from a prior/ known experience (i.e. a long car trip).

As a deeptech VC, we often see a variety of businesses and companies solving extremely complex problems. Many of the scientists and entrepreneurs we talk to know a lot more than us about their specific subject matter. The first conversation I have is often exciting – these people have dedicated a large chunk of their lives in this new venture and are excited by the possibilities and impact it brings.

However, eventually, as I ask probing questions, the excitement tempers and I sense the mood soften. “I don’t think you get it” is a statement I have heard more than once – often followed by a sense of deflation because I haven’t got it or don’t understand the potential.

In reality (and as my toddler taught me), we ask questions because:

-         we want to understand the problem and the potential impact (travelling to space is a lot harder than jumping in the car for a roadie…!);

-         we want to understand gaps in everyone’s thinking and if our previous experiences are relevant in addressing these;

-         we want to really understand the significance of what the entrepreneur is doing (did you know that the first American in space in 1961, Alan Shepard, did not have a toilet. He had to wee in his space suit. The first toilet in space was installed in the space station in 1970…so yep, going to space is impressive because even the simplest human act ain’t so simple!)

Ultimately, the conversation between a VC and a scientist/ entrepreneur is a conversation. We want to learn as much as we can quickly because we want to start sharing the entrepreneur’s vision and excitement. We also want to know if we are the right partner and if our prior experiences have relevance in helping startups on their journey. If the objective is to raise lots of money then there is plenty out there and for the right opportunity it is not particularly difficult. What is harder is finding a partner who can share the entrepreneur’s vision and who can bring relevant experiences to grow the business.

So, while we may not get it the first time, let’s have a conversation. Help us understand what you are trying to solve and what your ambitions are. We want to learn so we can share your vision and can articulate how we can help. And if we seem ambivalent, it is not because we don’t care…its because we are trying to ask a smart question like “What happens if the astronaut needs to go to the toilet in space?”