Would even the boldest of investors bet their money on something as potentially perilous as Jurassic Park?
A dinosaur-filled amusement park makes for a good disaster flick — the next one hits theaters this summer — but what about an investment opportunity?
The idea isn’t as far-fetched as you might think.
And just last year, a group of investors plowed $15 million into Colossal, a new company with intentions to resurrect the woolly mammoth using CRISPR genome editing.
So it’s within the realm of possibility that InGen — Jurassic Park’s fictional bioengineering startup that made a tourist attraction out of a remote island by populating it with dinosaurs they cloned using DNA preserved in fossilized mosquitoes — could raise enough money to get off the ground.
That said, InGen’s CEO John Hammond would have to jump through a few hoops before someone would cut him a check.
What hoops, exactly? To find out, I asked people familiar with how wildly ambitious startups get funded.
How Investors Evaluate Moonshots
Investors have certain expectations when they receive startup pitches. They want to know about the company’s vision, the problem its product or service solves, the size of the market opportunity, how its business model works, what the competition looks like and why the founders are capable of actually pulling it off.
The same goes for the evaluation criteria of moonshot ideas like Jurassic Park.
What Is a ‘Moonshot’?
Three main elements tend to receive increased scrutiny when it comes to considering such ambitious ventures: the founding team, the underlying technology and the business model.
And make no mistake, Jurassic Park is ambitious: A YouTube page devoted to the franchise crunched the numbers, putting the park construction price tag at $23 billion and estimating an annual operating budget of over $11 billion. Say nothing of potential lawsuits involving escaped velociraptors.
The Founding Team
When it comes to high-risk, high-reward companies, perhaps nothing is as vital as the leaders operating them.
“The most important thing, as with any startup — not just deep tech or hard science startups — is the team itself,” Rahul Rana, investor and operator, and author of the book Making Moonshots, told me.
“If [someone built] a basic software company, that’s probably not the ideal person to build a space company, for example,” Rana continued. “But if you have an aerospace engineer who worked at SpaceX and NASA, you’d rather bet on that person.”
While John Hammond is a consummate showman and brand storyteller — always game to warmly introduce guests to sauropods in his little white linen outfit — I would argue that the real secret sauce of InGen is Henry Wu.
“The most important thing, as with any startup — not just deep tech or hard science startups — is the team itself.”
As the team’s chief geneticist, Wu figured out how to clone the dinosaur genome by filling in its missing parts with frog DNA. His steady, science-forward presence in the C-suite would likely instill confidence in skeptical investors, as would his proprietary dinosaur-creation process.
Rana said that any investor flipping through InGen’s pitch deck who was worth their salt would ask themselves, “Is this the right team in the entire world to build this product and this company?”
On paper, at least, Hammond and Wu appear to be the right duo for the job.
For decades, scientists have been looking for ways to reconstruct the genomes of extinct species that they can later clone, but to no avail.
That’s probably why Anirudh Pai, an investor at On Deck, told me the biggest question he has for Jurassic Park operators is: “Is this science sound?”
“When you start a company in deep tech, you can’t just be messing around with the science,” Pai said. “You have to be certain that it works. Building a company is so hard that, if you have to make scientific miracles [for it] to work, it’s probably not going to happen.”
Pai caveated that most great companies, at some point, need to solve at least one miracle. But too often he fields pitches from startups that, in order to generate a return, need to catch a whole lot of unlikely breaks. Those don’t excite him very much as potential investments.
But assuming for the sake of argument that Wu’s dino recipe is airtight, Pai said investors like him would still probably wonder if exploring other applications — besides creating a far-flung tourist attraction — would make more business sense.
That brings me to the next point.
The Business Model
If you had the ability to bring prehistoric species back from extinction — and clone them — the most savvy business move probably wouldn’t involve trying to run a theme park on an island that’s only accessible by a ferry ride from Costa Rica.
And, according to the film’s director, the park only sees an average of 20,000 visitors per day (for comparison, Disneyland’s pre-pandemic attendance was around 51,000 visitors per day). So the market doesn’t appear to be astronomical, while the operational cost of running the park, on the other hand, does.
“It’s not a science project. And so it has to be profitable, it has to be defensible long term, it has to have moats and it has to have its IP protected.”
So as exciting as it would be to say “I invested in Jurassic Park” at cocktail parties, at the end of the day, “this is still a company,” Rana said. “It’s not a science project. And so it has to be profitable, it has to be defensible long term, it has to have moats and it has to have its IP protected.”
(Given that Jurassic Park’s top-secret dinosaur embryos were stolen by a lone computer programmer in the original film, extra capital would probably need to be allocated to the security budget to literally protect the IP.)
With that context in mind, investors I talked to said it would be worthwhile for the InGen team to focus on different use cases of the scientific breakthrough first.
“If they’re reviving dinosaurs, it’s an easy assumption to make [that they have] incredible geneticists,” Rana said. “What else can they do? Can they cure diseases on the RNA or DNA level? Can they grow plants and animals for consumption?”
Pai traced a similar thought.
“I wonder, besides the novelty, what value does [the park] create?” he said. “I wonder if rejuvenation techniques and making something like this happen would be worthwhile for human discovery. And people would pay for it — pharma companies would pay for it.”
Would Jurassic Park Get Funded?
I made my big pitch of Jurassic Park to Richard DeVaul, an executive innovation consultant and former rapid evaluation team lead at X, Google’s corporate research lab, which is perhaps better known as the moonshot factory.
DeVaul has worked on ambitious projects, mostly around solving climate change, and has both pitched and been pitched startup ideas. He has a good sense of what a lot of Silicon Valley investors look for when they evaluate a venture.
What’s scary about Jurassic Park, DeVaul said, is it’s an idea that hasn’t been done before. There’s lots of risk in being the first through the door, especially when it’s something that’s going to take billions of dollars to put into motion.
“It’s going to be that sort of emotional ‘I love this, I need to see this done in the world’ kind of investor.”
So to get Jurassic Park bankrolled, InGen would probably need to find an investor who has an appetite for risk and is willing to help fund it for sentimental reasons — someone who has “always wanted to see a woolly mammoth or a brontosaurus and damn it, you’re the one who can do it,” DeVaul told me. “It’s going to be that sort of emotional ‘I love this, I need to see this done in the world’ kind of investor.”
“The people who are just in it to make money,” he continued, “they’re sticking their money into SaaS plays because, at the end of the day, it’s really easy to do.”
When it comes down to it, the real problem with the pitch is twofold, DeVaul said. Jurassic Park is a scientific risk on top of an operational risk. Assuming the scientific risk is accounted for — it is; I assure him of Dr. Wu’s capabilities — there still exists the headache of securing the land, as well as the regulatory and ethical hurdles of building out the park, filling it with dinosaurs and shuttling tens of thousands of visitors to it each day.
To bring dinosaurs back to life and run a world-class amusement park is one too many needles to thread. It’s too capital intensive, with too many variables. Investors never want to invest in an idea that stacks risks.
So to decouple the risks, DeVaul told me, the best move might be to use Wu’s science in other ways. One idea is to bring back extinct predators of certain ecosystems that need rebalancing in order to thrive and sell that technology to governments that want it. Another is to introduce genetic diversity into breeding stock and commercially viable species for more efficient food production.
With the costs covered from that, phase two of the plan might involve licensing out the dinosaurs to someone else who already owns big-game preserves and wants a few raptors thrown in the mix. That allows someone else to deal with the headaches of running a dinosaur park, while you count your money from producing the technology.
“Because [investors] want to succeed, they want you to whittle down that space of uncertainty to that one critical thing that you can attack, and then make everything else as boring as possible,” DeVaul said. “That gives you the best possible chance of winning because you only have this one set of risks to think about.”
“Jurassic Park has an uphill battle, but there are definitely crazy moonshots that are more likely to get some traction these days,” he added.
I wouldn’t count it out. After all, some ideas, just like life, find a way.