October 10, 2023

‘It needed to be different from DeepMind’ — why this founder left the world’s top AI lab

Alumni of the company want to focus on using AI to create solutions for more ambitious goals like the climate crisis

Tim Smith

3 min read

Google-owned DeepMind has been responsible for some of the world’s biggest breakthroughs in machine learning — but today more and more staffers are leaving the London-based firm to launch their own ventures as investment into AI explodes.

One of those is Jonathan Godwin, cofounder of London-based Orbital Materials, a startup using generative AI to create novel materials for applications like carbon capture and sustainable aviation fuel.

He tells Sifted that he needed to leave the security and structure of DeepMind if he wanted to be able to focus on using AI to create solutions for the climate crisis.


“I felt like you needed a company really focused on that ambitious goal — and not just focused on AI — and so it needed to be something different from what we were doing at DeepMind,” he tells Sifted.

What does Orbital Materials do?

Orbital Materials is one of a growing number of companies that are training AI models on raw scientific information (others include Duisburg-based Hortiya and Cambridge-based BeyondMath), as opposed to the vast troves of human language that language models like ChatGPT are trained on.

In Orbital’s case, it involves feeding an AI model with data from the 3D structures of existing materials, which then allows the user to ask the model to design the structure of a new material based on a simple prompt.

“It’s understanding the physical — using AI to spot patterns in the way that atoms interact and accounting for these emergent properties,” says Godwin. “You would put in a prompt, and then a 3D material structure for that prompt will be generated. A prompt might be something like a CO2 capture material within a certain absorption capacity. “

Orbital will be using the new material designs generated by its AI model to create its own products, with a carbon capture device being the first (carbon capture machines use specialised materials to absorb CO2 from the air).

The market

Bringing new hardware — based on novel materials — to the market is more capital-intensive than the typical VC software bet, but Godwin says that the market for climate solutions is only moving in one direction.

“How much money does the world spend on waste disposal and environmental remediation — so cleaning our drinking water, removing the waste from our dust bins? It’s about a trillion dollars, if you add [it] all [up],” he argues.  

Since launching in September 2022, Orbital Materials has raised early funding from AI-focused Fly Ventures and grown its headcount to 12, with more hires coming down the track, as Godwin makes the transition from research engineer to company leader.

“It’s certainly been challenging at times and I’ve definitely had to acquire new skills,” he says. 

“But I feel hugely passionate about what I’m doing. And I think that passion is shared by my team, and that’s a huge boon for us.”

Tim Smith

Tim Smith is news editor at Sifted. He covers deeptech and AI, and produces Startup Europe — The Sifted Podcast . Follow him on X and LinkedIn