Unearthly Materials claimed to have big-name investors, but they weren’t all on board
The startup claims it’s on the cusp of a superconductor breakthrough despite questionable scientific record
Ever since they were discovered over 100 years ago, superconductors have seemed a bit magical.
You might have seen one on YouTube, levitating above a pool of liquid nitrogen, shrouded in vapor as the super-chilled seventh element boils off. Or maybe you’ve been inside a much larger one that was cooled by liquid helium, generating tremendous magnetic and radio waves that allowed doctors to peer inside your body as part of an MRI.
Even with their delicate temperature requirements, superconductors have become key players in science, medicine and technology. So you can imagine the excitement when earlier this month, a team of scientists led by Ranga Dias, a professor at the University of Rochester in New York, claimed in a paper that they’d created a room-temperature superconductor, one that exhibits the same magical properties at 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit, to be exact.
If the claims are true, and if scientists are able to refine the product further, it could become a truly transformative technology. Fusion reactors, which rely on superconducting magnets to confine the blazing hot plasma, would grow smaller and cheaper. The electrical grid would stand to be transformed, as lossless superconductors would make transcontinental power lines a reality. Maglev trains might stop being the butt of jokes and become a real alternative to air travel.
In order to capitalize on their research, Dias and Ashkan Salamat, co-author on the paper, founded a company called Unearthly Materials.
I recently stumbled upon a YouTube recording of a virtual talk Dias gave to a Sri Lankan scientific society and university in which he claimed to have raised a $1 million seed round and a $20 million Series A for Unearthly Materials.
In his presentation, Dias claimed to have prominent investors, too. The $1 million seed round featured Union Square Ventures’ Albert Wenger, Spotify’s Daniel Ek, Dolby chairman Peter Gotcher and Wise co-founder Taavet Hinrikus. The Series A included Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Open AI’s Sam Altman; Ek and Hinrikus followed up.
Though its website is spare, and LinkedIn lists just six employees, Unearthly Materials is not exactly a secret. But at the same time, the company isn’t tracked on PitchBook and doesn’t appear on Crunchbase. It’s unusual for a widely publicized startup to raise $20 million without writing a blog post or issuing a press release.