20VC Bryan Johnson @ OS Fund & Braintree on Investing In The Operating Systems Of Life & Why VC Should All Be Open Source



In the latest episode of "20 minutes VC," host Harry Stebbings interviews Brian Johnson, founder of Os Fund and Braintree. Johnson shares his journey from witnessing extreme poverty in Ecuador to becoming an entrepreneur with the aim of significantly improving people's lives. After selling Braintree to eBay for $800 million, he launched Os Fund with $100 million of his personal capital to invest in scientific and technological innovations that could rewrite the operating systems of life, such as curing age-related diseases, extending human longevity, and mining asteroids. Johnson discusses his investment philosophy, which combines altruistic goals with capitalistic models for sustainable impact, and his focus on funding hard science ventures that are often overlooked due to their complexity and perceived risk. He also touches on his interest in material science and the potential of blockchain technology, while advocating for a collaborative approach within the investment community.

Summary Notes

Introduction to the 20 Minutes VC Podcast

  • Harry Stebbings introduces the podcast and teases exciting guests, including Brian Johnson.
  • Brian Johnson is highlighted as both a founder and an investor, with notable achievements such as founding Os Fund and Braintree.
  • Braintree's acquisition by eBay for $800 million in cash is mentioned.
  • Johnson's use of $100 million of his personal capital for Os Fund, which supports inventors and scientists, is discussed.
  • The podcast requests listener feedback and thanks Mattermark for providing data.

Hello and welcome to the 20 minutes VC with your host Harry Stebbings. And we have another incredibly special week on the show for you. Some amazing guests lined up.

This quote serves as the podcast's introduction, setting the stage for the episode and indicating the presence of notable guests.

But joining me today is Brian Johnson, the founder of Os Fund and Braintree, the latter of which which was bought by eBay in 2013 for $800 million in cash.

Harry Stebbings provides background on the episode's guest, Brian Johnson, highlighting his entrepreneurial success and the sale of Braintree to eBay.

Brian Johnson's Background and the OS Fund

  • Brian Johnson shares his motivation stemming from witnessing extreme poverty in Ecuador and his desire to improve lives.
  • He discusses his entrepreneurial journey, with both successes and failures, and his interest in science and technology.
  • Johnson's realization that we can program existence with tools like biology, genomics, 3D printing, robotics, virtual reality, and artificial intelligence.
  • The OS fund was started to invest in technologies that will define our existence in the future.

Yeah, I guess it started when I was 21. I just returned to the US after being in Ecuador for two years living among extreme poverty, and I came back to the US with this burning desire to spend my life trying to improve people's lives.

Brian Johnson explains his early motivation for becoming an entrepreneur and his aspirations to use wealth to add value to the world.

My relationship with the universe is that I think that the uniqueness of our time and place is that we can literally program our existence.

This quote highlights Johnson's epiphany about the power of current technologies to shape human existence, which influenced his decision to start the OS fund.

Pivotal Moment in Brian Johnson's Career

  • The success of Braintree is identified as a pivotal moment in Johnson's career, with the right timing, product, and team.
  • The acquisition of Braintree provided Johnson with freedom and resources, allowing him to pursue his interests without constraints.
  • Johnson reflects on the transition from having to do things to having the freedom to choose what to do.

So I think it was probably the building of Braintree. We were in the right place at the right time, with the right product and the right team.

Brian Johnson identifies the success of Braintree as a critical turning point in his career, attributing it to a combination of favorable factors.

At that point, I could literally choose to do anything I wanted. There was no more what I must do. It was a question of, what can I do now that I have nothing that I must do.

This quote encapsulates the freedom and opportunity that came with the financial success of Braintree, allowing Johnson to focus on what he could do rather than what he had to do.

Brian Johnson's Entrepreneurial Considerations Post-Braintree

  • Johnson admits that the idea of starting another entrepreneurial venture is always on his mind.
  • He does not elaborate further on this point, leaving his future entrepreneurial intentions open.

Oh, of course. It's always in the back of my mind, and I think

Brian Johnson briefly acknowledges his ongoing interest in entrepreneurship, suggesting that it remains a consideration for him.

Personal Motivation for Problem Solving

  • Brian Johnson expresses a desire to remain actively involved in building solutions for problems that interest him.
  • He identifies four general areas of interest which he believes are crucial for human progress.

"I still may, because I do love being in the trenches. I love building. I do have some things I'd like to. A few problems I'd like to see solved."

The quote shows Brian Johnson's passion for being actively involved in problem-solving and his intention to continue working on specific issues that he finds important.

Four Areas of Interest


  • The improvement of human adaptability through intelligence is a key area of interest.
  • Enhancing intelligence can be achieved through artificial intelligence and cognitive enhancement.

"One is intelligence. That I think that for the human race, to be able to adapt to circumstances that we'll encounter, we need to maintain adaptability."

Brian Johnson emphasizes the importance of intelligence in human adaptability and suggests that improving intelligence can help humans adapt more quickly to changing circumstances.

Ideological Systems

  • Ideological systems, including belief and value systems, shape human behavior.
  • Aspirations of children in the context of creation tools are important to Brian Johnson.
  • He wants to help children understand their potential to create and aspire to do meaningful things.

"Two is ideological systems, any belief and value system that compels humans to behave a certain way."

Brian Johnson identifies ideological systems as a significant influence on human behavior and is interested in how they can be shaped to inspire children to achieve their full potential.

Children's Efforts and Education Technology

  • Brian Johnson has written a children's book and is working on a second.
  • An upcoming endeavor will focus on reorienting children's identity and aspirations.
  • The goal is to empower children to use tools of creation for meaningful endeavors.

"Well, so I wrote a children's book, and I'm currently writing a second one. And next year we're starting or launching an endeavor focused on children."

The quote reveals Brian Johnson's tangible efforts in educating children through literature and an upcoming project aimed at shaping their aspirations and understanding of creation tools.

Governance Systems

  • Cooperation, decision-making, and resource allocation in governance systems are crucial for technology development.
  • There is potential for improvement in governmental systems worldwide.

"And three, governance systems. So how we cooperate. So the US government is a very important player in the world in terms of how we develop technology here in the US, but also abroad."

Brian Johnson points out the significance of governance systems in cooperation and technology development, indicating a need for improvement in how governments function.

OS Fund Motivation

  • The OS Fund invests in companies within the categories of interest to Brian Johnson.
  • The fund is motivated by a mix of altruism and return-based investment.
  • Capitalistic models are preferred as they increase the ability to influence and accomplish favorable outcomes for humanity.

"Sure. Money is a tool of power and influence, right? I can do things with money that I could otherwise do."

Brian Johnson views money as a means to exert power and influence, and by investing in capitalistic ventures, he can generate returns that enable him to further pursue beneficial projects for humanity.

Investment Culture in Science-based Companies

  • The culture of investing in science-based companies is found to be more cooperative and collaborative.
  • There is less competition compared to investing in software or app companies.
  • The cooperative nature is partly due to fewer viable capital sources for hard science endeavors.

"I found it to be less competitive and less cutthroat than, say, for example, you find the behavior in investing in a particular app or software company where you have dozens and dozens of companies that are viable capital sources."

Brian Johnson contrasts the competitive nature of investing in software companies with the more collaborative environment in science-based investments, attributing it to the scarcity of funding sources in the latter.

Challenges in Science-based Investment

  • Fewer investors are willing to engage in science-based endeavors.
  • The reasons for this may include the long-term nature of returns and the complexity of the science involved.

"I think there's a couple challenges. One is, I think most of the wealth in the world is maintained or managed by people who don't have scientific"

The quote suggests that one of the challenges in attracting investors to science-based companies is the lack of scientific background among those who control significant wealth, which may hinder their willingness to invest in such fields.

Familiarity in Investment Choices

  • Investing in fields where one has expertise is more sensible.
  • Fields like internet, software, real estate, and transportation are more approachable for those without scientific expertise.
  • Scientific fields can be intimidating due to complexity and unfamiliarity.

"And so it makes more sense to invest in things that you do have familiarity with, like the Internet or software, or real estate or transportation."

This quote explains the rationale behind choosing investment areas where one has existing knowledge, as it reduces the intimidation and complexity associated with unfamiliar fields.

Challenges in Scientific Investment

  • Perception of longer time horizons and increased uncertainty in scientific endeavors.
  • Difficulties in understanding scientific intricacies.
  • Importance of decision-making processes in investments.

"And then number two, I think what you mentioned before is true, that there is this perception that it's longer time horizons, that there's a lot more uncertainty, a lot more could go wrong."

The quote highlights the perceived challenges of investing in science, such as the longer time required for returns and the higher degree of uncertainty compared to other fields.

Decision-Making Model for Scientific Investment

  • Creation of a decision-making model based on analysis of big pharma and oil decision processes.
  • The model helps guide non-scientists through the investment process in science.
  • Sharing the model with the community to encourage investment in scientific fields.

"So we used decision analysis and created a model that helped guide us through what questions to ask, what areas to dig into, what data to process, and then how to make a decision on the end."

This quote explains the development of a decision-making model designed to assist non-scientists in making informed investment decisions in scientific endeavors.

Future of Investment Attitudes toward Science

  • Anticipation of a shift towards more accessible scientific investments.
  • Efforts to demystify the investment process in science are expected to increase.

"I do. I think it will in the coming years. I think that efforts like what we've done with the playbook of trying to make it more accessible will be helpful, and others are doing some similar things."

The quote suggests a positive outlook on the future of scientific investment, with a belief that making the process more accessible will encourage more participation.

Open Sourcing Due Diligence Processes

  • The rarity of investors sharing detailed due diligence processes.
  • Expectation for a trend towards open sourcing due diligence to solve complex problems.

"Is that becoming common? Open sourcing DD processes? Because OS funds was the first that I've seen that's done it in kind of extensive, generous detail."

The quote questions the commonality of open sourcing due diligence processes and acknowledges the unique approach taken by OS funds.

Motivations for Investing in Science

  • Wealthy individuals are increasingly interested in pursuing scientific endeavors with significant impact.
  • Social cues, status, and the desire to have a positive impact motivate investment in challenging scientific projects.

"I think that if you look at the underlying motivations of why people do this, there's social cues of, like, how do you achieve status? What's cool, what's important, what it's meaningful."

This quote discusses the social and psychological motivations behind why individuals choose to invest in ambitious scientific projects that aim to benefit society.

Personal Background and Investment Approach

  • Personal history, including entrepreneurial and Mormon upbringing, influences investment attitudes.
  • Values such as hard work, thoughtfulness, and community generosity are ingrained from culture.

"I'm sure in some ways because it was so embedded in me for so long, I don't know specifically what I would say, but I do think that I was raised to work hard and to be thoughtful and to try to be generous in communities."

The quote reflects on how the speaker's upbringing and cultural background have shaped their work ethic and investment philosophy.

Investment Time Horizons

  • The speaker does not have a specific time frame for returns on investments.
  • Investments aim to benefit society on a large scale and rewrite societal operating systems.
  • The focus is on long-term impact rather than short-term gains.

"My benchmark of is the goal is to benefit the lives of billions of people for generations to come. It's to rewrite the major operating systems of our society."

The quote underscores the speaker's long-term vision for investments, emphasizing societal impact over immediate returns.

Gaps in Investment Portfolio

  • Interest in material science as a potential area for investment.
  • Material science could impact various aspects of the ecosystem, including resource inputs and distribution.
  • The speaker's portfolio has focused on other areas but sees potential in material science.

"One area that I love is material science, the rearranging of atoms."

This quote indicates the speaker's interest in expanding their investment portfolio to include material science due to its broad implications and transformative potential.

Approach to Due Diligence

  • Brian Johnson engages in scientific due diligence (dd) personally.
  • A broad network of experts is utilized depending on the area being examined.
  • For a synthetic biology company, an interdisciplinary team approach is taken.
  • Teams may include experts from biology, computation, physics, etc.

So I do engage in it myself, but we also have a broad network of experts, so it depends on which area we're looking at.

This quote emphasizes Brian Johnson's personal involvement in due diligence while highlighting the use of a broad network of experts tailored to the specific field under review.

Advisory Role and Team Composition

  • Advisors to the fund contribute to various aspects of the investment process.
  • Brian Johnson's fund consists of around ten people.


This confirms the existence of advisors within the fund.

Investment Perspectives

  • Brian Johnson believes opportunities exist everywhere and success depends on the structure of the investment.
  • He does not specify any particular area where others invest as a mistake.

I think there's always opportunities everywhere. It's just the matter how it's structured.

This quote conveys Brian Johnson's view that investment opportunities are widespread, and the key to profitability lies in how investments are structured.

Views on Bitcoin and Blockchain

  • Brian Johnson is enthusiastic about bitcoin and blockchain technology.
  • He compares the impact of blockchain to the printing press in terms of broad distribution and unpredictable outcomes.
  • The transformative potential of blockchain is likened to other foundational technologies like genomics.

I love it. It's a fantastic technology. I guess I kind of think of it like, I mean, the blockchain technology. I kind of think of it like the printing press...

This quote expresses Brian Johnson's admiration for blockchain technology and its potential to revolutionize various aspects of society, drawing a parallel with the historical impact of the printing press.

Co-Investment and Partnerships

  • Brian Johnson has preferred venture capital (VC) funds that he partners with for investments.
  • Mentioned VC funds include DC VC, Founders Fund, and Lux Capital.

Yeah, so quite a few. We like DC VC, founders Fund, Lux Capital.

This quote lists some of the VC funds that Brian Johnson prefers to work with, indicating a collaborative approach to investing.

Quick Fire Round Responses

Favorite Book

  • Brian Johnson's favorite book is "Shackleton's Endurance Voyage."
  • He admires the book for showcasing the tenacity of humans overcoming challenges.

Shackleton endurance voyage? Because it demonstrates the unbelievable tenaciousness of a group to overcome challenges.

The quote reveals Brian Johnson's appreciation for stories of human resilience and perseverance, as depicted in his favorite book.

Best Piece of Advice

  • The best advice he received is a quote from his mother's fridge about life and resilience.

It's on my mother's fridge. Life is not waiting for the storm to pass. It's dancing in the rain.

This quote reflects a life philosophy that values resilience and finding joy amidst challenges.

Reading Preferences

  • Brian Johnson does not have a most-read blog or newsletter; he prefers to vary his reading sources.
  • No preferred newspapers; his reading is driven by the information he seeks at the time.

I don't have one. I like to dance around.

This indicates Brian Johnson's eclectic approach to reading, choosing sources based on current informational needs rather than loyalty to specific publications.

App Usage

  • Most used apps on his phone are Pandora and Spotify, indicating a preference for music streaming services.

Phone, Pandora and Spotify.

The quote identifies the apps Brian Johnson frequently uses, suggesting a personal interest in music and audio content.

Balancing Social Impact and Investor Returns

  • Brian Johnson believes it is possible to achieve both social impact and investor returns without prioritizing one over the other.

No, both are achievable.

This quote conveys his stance that investment strategies can be designed to fulfill both social and financial objectives simultaneously.

Industry Thought Leaders

  • In finance and science, Brian Johnson regards Craig Venter as a visionary capable of solving complex problems.

Craig venture, he's a visionary that can execute on extremely hard problems.

The quote highlights Craig Venter as an influential figure in the industry, admired for his ability to tackle difficult challenges.

Most Recent Investment

  • Brian Johnson's most recent investment is in Ginkgo Bioworks due to its potential to transform biology into a predictable programming language.

Ginkgo Bioworks, because they are making biology a predictable programming language which will radically transform planet Earth.

This quote explains the rationale behind Brian Johnson's investment in Ginkgo Bioworks, emphasizing the company's innovative approach to biology and its expected significant impact.

Show Feedback and Appreciation

  • Brian Johnson expresses a desire for feedback to improve and make discussions more relevant.
  • He compliments the interview style as soft, easy, and flowing.

Cool, well, I'd love to hear any feedback. I always want to get better and speak to what's relevant and get better at these. So you have a good interview style. I like it. It's very soft and easy and just flows well.

This quote reflects Brian Johnson's openness to constructive feedback and his positive assessment of the interview experience.

Podcast Promotion and Listener Engagement

  • Harry Stebbings encourages listeners to sign up for the 20 Minute VC newsletter and provide feedback on the show.
  • Contact details for feedback are provided, emphasizing the value placed on listener input.

And if you're enjoying the 20 minutes VC, then please do sign up for our newsletter on the Twentyminutevc.com all in letters so you never have to miss an episode or an update.

This quote is part of the show's closing remarks, promoting listener engagement and continuous improvement of the podcast.

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