At One with Nature: Tom Chi
From search engines to self-driving cars, Tom Chi has helped create many of the technologies that have changed our world.
“I’ve been making cool things since I can remember,” Chi says, adding that at age 7, he built a crossbow out of an X-ACTO knife and chopsticks. Since then, he’s developed products like Outlook for Microsoft, search for Yahoo, and self-driving cars for Google before founding At One Ventures, a San Francisco-based firm with the goal to help humanity becomes net-positive to nature.
Chi’s hope is to support inventions that have potential to disrupt the industries most responsible for destabilizing our climate. To date, At One Ventures has invested in 24 start-ups that focus on everything from indoor farming to converting waste heat into electricity. “Beyond that, I’m personally working on a coral planting robot with a small team,” Chi says.
Chi’s interest in coral started when he witnessed the mass bleaching of a reef near his home in Hawaii. “I watched that reef turn gray and brown in about two months,” he says. “The type of loss that I felt was hard to explain. My first thought was that maybe we did something wrong in our neighborhood, but, in my hunt for answers, I learned that there’s only 35 to 40 years before we extinct coral from the planet.”
That timeline reset Chi’s priorities.
“No one after the year 2060 can do anything about coral,” Chi says. “Only the people alive right now can do something.” So, in 2012, Chi left his job at Google to focus his inventive spirit and technical expertise on helping the planet full-time.
Trained in physics, electrical engineering, and robotics—Chi brings a unique viewpoint to his venture capital firm, often getting into the nitty gritty of how an innovation works, something not all investors are able to do. Chi remembers thinking in numbers and pictures. By first grade, he scored off the charts on an IQ test in almost every section. By 15, he was doing astrophysical research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Lab for Astrophysics.
Today, Chi speaks in front of crowds with ease. (Check out his TED talks.) He also teaches, including a class on rapid prototyping, and At One Venture’s first fund raised $150 million and has had outstanding financial performance so far.
“In the realm of physics, there’s nothing to prevent us, as a species, from being healthy for the planet,” Chi says, pointing out as an example that ants consume more in total than humans. “But ants aren’t destroying the planet because they provide more ecosystem services than ecosystem consumption.”