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An Iron Man goes Green: Robert Downey Jr. launches ESG-focused venture capital funds

January 27, 2021, 7:31 PM UTC

He’s played a billionaire industrialist and a roving English detective. Now, he’s playing himself in a very of-the-moment role: aspiring “green” venture capitalist.

The actor and producer Robert Downey Jr., best known of late for his roles as Tony “Iron Man” Stark and Sherlock Holmes, announced on Wednesday that he is launching two ESG-focused venture capital funds, to persuade investors to get behind his futuristic vision for fighting climate change through bioplastics, aquaculture, A.I., and more.

The FootPrint Coalition Ventures’ rolling venture capital funds, launched through Downey’s FootPrint Coalition NGO, will initially consist of two funds, one for early stage startups and another for late-stage businesses, the actor said Wednesday. The funds are listed through AngelList, and will be structured as rolling funds, a subscription-style format, which requires investors to commit to quarterly contributions. 

Downey announced the launch of the FootPrint Coalition in June 2019 at Amazon’s Re:MARS conference, where he declared that “between robotics and nanotechnology, we could clean up the planet significantly, if not totally, in 10 years.”

Since then, it has announced investments in Ÿnsect, a French insect-farming startup, and Cloud Paper, a bamboo paper company. It has also invested in Arcadia Earth, a virtual reality and art exhibition company focusing on the environment; and the biotech company RWDC Industries, which is developing biodegradable alternatives to plastics.

The coalition said it could not provide specific details on its investments per company, but managing partner Jonathan Schulhof said he and Downey had contributed a total of $10 million, part of which would now be directed yearly into the new funds.

On Wednesday, FootPrint announced that the funds’ first investment would be in Aspiration, an ESG-minded fintech startup, as part of a $50 million funding round for that company that drew from a celebrity-heavy list of investors, including the parent-child duo of Cindy Crawford and Kaia Gerber.

In an interview with Fortune, Downey said the idea for the coalition had grown out of his years working on the Disney Marvel movies and his attempt to reach a new stage in his career.

“I was finishing my Marvel contract; we had an Age of A.I. series coming out on YouTube; I had started realizing that I’ve been steeped in A.I. and robotics and technology, just for the sake of making genre films more believable,” he says. 

“I was reading this article today about, I think it was in the Wall Street Journal: How do you know when you should retire?” he said with a laugh. “And while I’m not quite at that point yet, there’s this messy bit between when you’ve created a kind of wake of success or engagement behind you, and you’re wondering what the next phase of your life is going to be.”

Fairly quickly after announcing the coalition in 2019, Downey said, he realized, “This is going to be the back nine of my life.” 

While star-backed environmental investing is hardly a new phenomenon, the timing may also be fortuitous, because ESG investing has become big business. In a letter to CEOs on Tuesday, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink quoted statistics showing the sheer pace of demand: From January through November 2020, investors in mutual funds and ETFs poured $288 billion worldwide into “sustainable” assets, he said—an increase of 96% over all of 2019.

The Marvel star said that part of his new funds’ role would also be creative—providing informative “content” for the companies they invest in, inspired by Downey’s own experience making the A.I. series for YouTube. Several animated, explanatory videos linked to Ÿnsect and Cloud Paper—featuring a cartoon version of the actor—explaining the numbers behind aquaculture and bamboo, have already been made. 

“I think that while it’s felt a little mom-and-pop right now, because we’ve been kind of honing the messaging, I think that the media vehicle is something that’s also going to scale up,” he said. 

It’s perhaps a forthright approach for a man who once told Fortune in a 2013 interview, when asked if he had invested in Tesla—Elon Musk, the founder, famously inspired his portrayal of Tony Stark—that he was “extremely conservative” with his investments.

Back then, “no one was really interested in my opinions about investing, because I didn’t really know anything about it,” he said. “And also, I think when you’ve been raised without money, and then you get a fair amount, you tend to just want to put it somewhere, and not deal with it. I mean, that’s one version. The other is that you spend it exorbitantly, and then you’re rich and stupid.”

Now, he said he’s conservative in the sense that he “listens to cogent minds around me” but that he prefers to be actively involved.

“I hate the idea of somebody else pressing a space bar and managing my money. I would so much rather have my skin in things I believe in.” 

Still, while there are plenty of areas he’s interested in, there are some—notable—areas he thinks are being overlooked. 

“I don’t think people really look at the amount of waste you create making electric vehicles,” he said. He doesn’t want to “pooh-pooh a movement,” but noted that companies in the field “have the halo effect of ‘Hey, we’re doing electric vehicles.’

“I believe that electronic waste in the downstream channels, from where that goes, is a massive undertaking. It’s just not as cool as talking about EVs,” he said. 

But he also made the point that he already had some experience in the field of venture capital. In his 2013 interview, the actor compared his work with that of his wife, producer Susan Downey, on the Sherlock franchise to the job of running a venture capital firm, saying:

“Ultimately really it comes down to—it’s kind of like being a venture capitalist for a bigger organization in that, you know, we are in a relationship with a studio [Warner Bros.], and not only do we not want to lose them a penny, we want them to feel that we’re one of their great earners, and also that they really appreciate our sensibilities artistically.”

It’s a parallel Downey still sees, seven years later. 

“The venture is we’re bringing together our team, our coalition of creatives, and we feel that we know how to tell this story in a way that people want to see it now, while staying true to the origins of the Doyle material.

“And in that way, it really is [similar], because you’re going all in on: Does our creative problem-solving work? And does an audience respond to it by buying a ticket?”

An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Arcadia—the company’s full name is Arcadia Earth.