EVCA Spotlight
February 1, 2024

Meet Leonardo Banchik, Director at Voyager Ventures

Samantha Huang
Principal at BMW i Ventures

Leonardo Banchik is a Director at Voyager Ventures, a venture capital fund investing in early-stage companies decarbonizing the global economy. Of all places for an environmentalist-turned-VC to spend his formative years, Leonardo grew up in Las Vegas, that spectacle of a city where millions of pleasure seekers flocked each year for respite amid the din of slot machines and casino tables in the middle of the Mojave desert. In the nineties, his parents, both immigrants from Argentina, brought Leonardo and his sister there to live, drawn by the job opportunities afforded to two civil engineers like themselves in a city that was always under construction. Leonardo looks back fondly at those early years, even as certain experiences had rubbed him the wrong way: the mounds of food scraps from the buffets, the water alerts caused by Lake Mead drying up, the unsustainability of such a vast, power-hungry city existing in the middle of the desert. Leonardo vowed to dedicate himself to a career where he could have an impact on the planet. After learning programming in high school and graduating with a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from University of Nevada-Las Vegas, a local college that he chose for its free tuition, Leonardo worked in research roles focused on commercializing clean technologies -- first at the Department of Energy, then at prestigious institutions including Lawrence Berkeley and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. By the time Leonardo matriculated into MIT for his PhD in Mechanical Engineering, his interest in climate tech was cemented. He later would join McKinsey, his step into the “Halls of Power”, where he counseled clients across various cleantech projects for five years. He quickly became passionate about advising investors on how to invest in companies in the deep-tech and sustainability spaces. When Global Founders Capital offered him a Partner role to lead their global climate tech practice, Leonardo was excited to make the jump. He stayed at the fund for two and a half years building out his portfolio until late last year when he joined the team at Voyager Ventures, continuing his foray into climate tech investing.

Born in Oakland, California, Leonardo views himself as American while considering Argentina, the homeland of his parents, as a distinct part of his cultural identity. He grew up speaking Spanish, and he returns to Argentina every other year to visit his family. Leonardo is an extrovert by nature and loves to exchange ideas with people. A talented chef, he is a gracious host of dinner parties. His culinary repertoire spans a multitude of cooking techniques and international cuisines including Argentinian, Chinese, Italian, French, Indian, and Spanish. It's an aspect of his character that he attributes to the “Argentine in me.” Leonardo is also a talented musician. For a time in his twenties, he had garnered a local reputation in Las Vegas as a studio bassist. In those days, you might have found him on The Strip, strumming hits by The Beatles or The Rolling Stones on his guitar as a friend kept beat on the bongos. If you had been really lucky, you might have seen him playing bass for the retro rock band The Rooks when they opened that magical night for Imagine Dragons. Nowadays, balancing fatherhood and a career, Leonardo’s focus is less on playing music but on investing in the next big climate tech startups to change the world. Sometimes at night though, you can still find him strumming chords on his guitar, no longer for the Las Vegas crowds but to lullaby his two young children to sleep.

Sam: What is your origins story?

Leo: I was born in Oakland, California. Both of my parents are from Argentina from a province in the north called Salta. They came to the U.S. to complete their Master’s degrees in civil engineering at UC Berkeley. I was raised speaking Spanish. I view myself as an American, but my whole family is in Argentina, and I go back almost every other year to see them.

In the nineties, my parents moved my sister and I out of California to Las Vegas. Las Vegas was booming, with a lot of construction happening for new hotels and different structural engineering projects. Las Vegas was a natural place for a civil engineer to end up, and I spent my formative years growing up there. I attribute my interest in climate tech to living there. I remember looking around at the vast expanse of desert surrounding the city, seeing all the food scraps from the buffets, and fearing water shortages caused by Lake Mead drying up. There weren’t any solar panels around because solar was too expensive at the time. Growing up in Las Vegas, I recall thinking as a high school student that the city's reliance on natural gas and coal for power didn't seem sustainable in the long-term. I wanted to dedicate my life to finding new technologies to allow us to live more sustainably.

For college, I went to my local state school, University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), because I didn’t want to take on any debt. I studied Mechanical Engineering, loved it, and graduated at the top of my class. I knew that it was best for me to continue my education, so I applied to several grad schools and decided to go to MIT for a PhD in Mechanical Engineering. Before graduate school, I had three really formative research positions that shaped my interest in climate tech. In 2008, I worked as a policy analyst at the Department of Energy in the office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Then I was also a research scientist at Lawrence Berkeley and Oak Ridge National Laboratories. Across these research roles and throughout my studies at MIT, I was motivated by the goal of working on ways to help commercialize cleantech to make the world a better place. During graduate school, I performed research on low-carbon desalination and wastewater treatment systems, and spent some time on renewables and chemical engineering processes as well. I even started a company focused on commercializing oil/water separation members for use in the oil and gas industry, but I ultimately wound it down because the unit economics of running the operations weren’t as strong as I would have liked. For all these travails during my early years, I knew I wanted a career somewhere in climate tech.

Sam: After graduating from your PhD program at MIT, how did you transition into climate tech investing?

Leo: Nearing the end of graduate school, I applied to several consulting firms as a way to get into those “Halls of Power”, so to speak, in order to make a difference in sustainability by learning how to pull the levers of business and policy. I chose to join McKinsey, focusing on cleantech and sustainability projects. While there, I advised green startups on scaling their businesses. I worked with Fortune 500 utilities providers, airlines, EV infrastructure companies, and automotive OEMs on making the energy transition. I also advised investors on where to allocate capital in the sustainability landscape. That was the work I loved the most. I started out in Boston but then later moved out to San Francisco with my wife. I ultimately developed a reputation as the West Coast cleantech diligence and strategy guy. 

After nearly five years at McKinsey, I joined Global Founders Capital as a Partner in the summer of 2021 to build out their global climate tech practice. During my tenure there, I invested in nine companies and built a track record I’m proud of. Late last year, I decided to leave Global Founders Capital and join Voyager Ventures, a new fund that invests in early-stage climate tech companies. Voyager Ventures is a pre-seed to Series A fund investing in hardware and software to decarbonize global industry. I met the fund founders, Sierra Peterson and Sarah Sclarsic, while evaluating the same startup, discovering a shared passion for supporting strong founders building tech with superior unit economics in large addressable markets. Voyager has established itself as a respected brand. I look forward to helping expand its impact and announcing the ventures I've helped support soon.

Sam: What was the first job in your life?

Leo: My first job out of college was as a policy analyst at the DOE. My very first job though, which was during the summer between high school and college, was selling water massages to tourists on the Las Vegas strip. If you’ve ever been to Las Vegas, you might have seen these tanning beds that shoot water at your back; there’s an impermeable membrane between your back and the jet stream, so you don’t get wet, but you can feel the power of the jet on your back. That’s where I developed my extroverted nature, because I essentially had to convince random strangers walking by to lie down in these machines. It was a sales job, and many of the skills I learned there apply to VC when it comes to meeting new people and helping founders communicate their stories.

Sam: What’s your favorite part of your role as a VC?

Leo: I’m a natural extrovert and I get energy from discussing new ideas with people. I’ve been lucky to work with some really strong founders during my time in venture capital and it’s been a pleasure to be helpful where I can--whether that’s providing introductions or helping them execute on their visions more broadly. I would call many of the founders I work with friends in addition to business partners. I relish how the incentives among founders and investors are aligned in the same way where both parties can succeed. We can all work on the same goal to decarbonize the planet and make phenomenal returns at the same time. I find the same is true on the investor front as well. Meeting with other VCs, exchanging ideas, and working together is one the most rewarding aspects of the job.

Sam: What do you view as the hardest part of VC?

Leo:  In venture capital, when a specific opportunity is really attractive, it can become quite competitive and you can face a lot of sharp elbows among investors. Fortunately, climate tech has a bit more of a collaborative spirit, and I’ve been able to support the founders I’ve wanted to, but there are of course moments it can be quite scary when facing the prospects of losing an opportunity.

One challenge I continue working on in venture capital is knowing when enough diligence has been done, especially given my curious nature. During the diligence process, one can essentially keep digging forever. There’s plenty of reference backchanneling one can do, countless reports one can read, market and unit economics models to test and recreate, and innumerable conversations one can have with the management team and relevant experts. A key part of the job is learning how to make an investment decision when you may not have wholly complete information.

Sam: If you were to look back at your career, what lessons would you extract from it that you would impart to the next generation of VCs?

Leo: When building your network, be generous with your time and resources. There are sometimes treasures to be found in meetings that you may not think are initially high value. In other words, you can end up finding a lead to a great new opportunity or meeting a new subject matter expert even when you think you might not have a lot of points of mutual connection with a particular individual. Always aim to be open to new experiences and challenge your biases.

Sam: Where do you see yourself in a decade or two from now? 

Leo: Ten years in the future, I hope to be doing what I’m doing now. I would like to remain in climate tech, but I am also interested in exploring a more horizontal approach to venture investing and working in the broader deep-tech ecosystem. One thing I’ve been working to implement for the past few years is alternative ways to provide non-dilutive infrastructure financing for startups, apart from just equity investment. I’m also very interested in the intersection between policy and technology, as well as figuring out ways to help different regions of the world adopt decarbonization measures and more sustainable practices. In the future, I’d love to be able to look back and feel like I’ve shaped the journey of notable companies having a positive impact on the world.