Subscribe

Meet Tess Hatch: Aerospace engineer turned VC (and Bessemer’s newest partner)

By THE BESSEMER PARTNERS 4.13.21 FIRM

Tess Hatch firmly believes that one day, ordinary people will travel to the Moon and Mars as often as they travel via aircraft. “I think we’ll get to go to space in our lifetimes,” she says. “It won’t just be billionaires taking selfies in space.”

But beyond the thrill of space tourism, Tess believes space exploration holds the key to solving far more critical matters. “We need to be a multi-planet species in order to survive,” she says. “The technology we need to sustain life on other planets will ultimately fix societal problems here on Earth—from climate change to global food shortages.”

“We’ll get to go to space in our lifetimes.”

Take the Apollo Mission as an example. The optic technology that was developed to take pictures of the lunar surface had implications far beyond those originally intended. The technology from that mission became the basis for MRI and CT scanning technology, which saves lives in hospitals every day.

In pursuit of the credentials necessary to become an astronaut, Tess earned a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering and a master’s in aeronautics and astronautics engineering. Today as a partner at Bessemer, she specializes in fostering entrepreneurship of frontier technology, specifically the commercialization of space, drones, autonomous vehicles, and agriculture and food technology.

Tess has garnered impressive accolades for her work, including earning a spot on Forbes 30 Under 30 in Venture Capital. She has a stellar track record of elevating cutting-edge entrepreneurs, as current board director for companies like Spire Global and Phantom Auto, and as a board observer for companies like Rocket Lab and DroneDeploy.

We sat down with Tess to explore her philosophy on entrepreneurship, the women in aerospace engineering who inspire her, and how plant-based alternatives impacted her career in an unexpected way.

Enamored with space from an early age

It almost seems like the cosmos conspired to give Tess a penchant for aerospace engineering. She attended the same childhood school as the first American female astronaut, Sally Ride. When Ride gave a speech at the school, Tess, then in middle school, was astonished and declared she wanted to follow in Ride’s footsteps.

Another female trailblazer in Tess’s orbit is worth mentioning—Gwynne Shotwell, the President and COO of SpaceX, where Tess worked after completing her undergraduate degree. “I admired her deeply,” recalls Tess. “When she would walk down that rocket aisle floor in her red-soled Louboutins, it was so inspiring. She commanded authority with a very feminine personality. It allowed me to envision my own future. And I cannot wait for women in this industry to inspire the next generation of little girls.”

From airfoils to term sheets

After Tess got a taste of a customer-facing role at SpaceX, she was hooked. She decided to diversify from just technical courses during her master’s, and took courses on leadership and entrepreneurship. This led her to uncover her true passion—venture capital. “I still am an aerospace engineer,” she says, “but I’m now in the boardroom strategically thinking about the future of the industry, rather than coding or CADing.”

Today she partners with and invests in companies that disrupt technical industries, whether that means opening space for business, or utilizing our stratosphere, or allowing drones to fly ubiquitously and safely in our airspace. Rather than act as a technical engineer at a single company, she invests in innovative companies, strategically thinks about where the industry is going, and how companies can continue to push the bounds of what is possible.

When considering a new partnership, Tess encourages founders to “do as much diligence on me as I’m doing on you.” She explains, “I’m digging into your technology, your market, your customers. Why not call up every single CEO I’ve ever worked with and ask, ‘How is Tess in the boardroom? What’s she like, not just during the highs, but during the lows—especially during the lows.’”

Tess is impressively calm and collected under pressure. She was an intern at NASA during the “Seven Minutes of Terror”—those harrowing minutes when engineers held their breath seeing if the Curiosity rover would land successfully on Mars—an experience that taught her to handle stress with grace. Also a certified yoga instructor, she practices equanimity both on and off the mat. “I don’t get too high with the highs or too low with the lows,” she says. “When I get new and potentially stressful information, the first thing I do is take a step back. I really sit with it. I don’t jump straight to an answer.”

Ever-expanding interests—from space to drones to plant-based lamb

Never one to rest on her laurels, Tess is constantly expanding her roadmap and becoming an expert on new topics. She started at Bessemer focused on space investing with Rocket Lab and Spire, but expanded to invest in drones a year later with Iris Automation, Impossible Aerospace, and DroneDeploy. A year later, she delved deep into the world of autonomous vehicles with Phantom Auto, and then most recently, agriculture tech with Atomo Coffee and Black Sheep. “As an investor, I feel like I have a dozen mini-PhDs in different topics and industries,” she says. “There’s always something new to learn, especially when you’re in startup land. These companies are literally turning theory into reality.”

One of the new realities Tess is thrilled to be exploring is how many foods that we consume on a daily basis can be replaced with plant-based alternatives. Many of these alternatives are more nutritious, far less taxing on the environment, and a lucrative business opportunity.

All of the food tech investments Tess has made have relied on deep technology, either with regard to the ingredients, the process, or both. One of these companies is Atomo Coffee, which develops and sells beanless (“molecular”) coffee, aiming to provide a sustainable alternative to the world’s roughly 2.5 trillion cups of coffee consumed each year. They do so by reverse engineering coffee’s aroma, flavor, color, caffeine content, and mouthfeel with upcycled and sustainable ingredients such as seeds and roots. In short, Atomo Coffee is to conventional coffee what lab-grown meat is to conventional meat.

What’s next for Tess? For starters, two of her portfolio companies are going public this year—Spire Global and Rocket Lab. Beyond that, Tess looks to the next generation of technically-minded entrepreneurs to guide her to what’s next. “Every new roadmap I’ve chosen has been due to brilliant entrepreneurs who have told me about why their solution will remove a bottleneck in the deep tech industry. I sincerely can’t wait to meet whoever’s next.”

Tess would like to extend her gratitude to her mentor David Cowan, who championed and sponsored her—often putting her ahead of himself amid new opportunities. “I really am the investor I am today because of him,” she says. She would also like to thank Byron Deeter, Elliott Robinson, and the rest of the Bessemer partners for putting their faith in her.