Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Seeking the Big Advances

We looked before at how venture capital has failed to deliver a return in recent years, mostly because there has been little long-term thinking. Investors just flock to the latest short-term fads like social networking.

Nathan Myhrvold says he and some other software plutocrats like Bill Gates are doing just the kind of long-term investment demanded by our big problems. They are funding an alternative kind of nuclear energy that uses depleted uranium, for example. He writes in the MIT Technology Review:

So why would any rational group of people create a nuclear power company? Part of the reason is that Bill and I have been primed to think long-term. We have the experience and resources to look for game-changing ideas—and the confidence to act when we think we've found one. Other technologists who fund ambitious projects have similar motivations. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are literally reaching for the stars because they believe NASA and its traditional suppliers can't innovate at the same rate they can.

Myhrvold is scarily able, and amazingly multi-talented. He likes cooking, too. So he and a large team worked for several years to produce the massive, revolutionary and definitive guide to new food techniques, Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking. He turned a hobby which millions of people enjoy into a ground-breaking advance in knowledge.

So it's possible this kind of venture can deliver game-changing breakthroughs, and that's a good thing.

But we shouldn't necessarily have to rely on billionaire hobbyists to drive innovation. Myhrvold is admirable in many ways, but he is also one of the main people involved in Intellectual Ventures, which is one of the world's most obstructive and damaging patent trolling companies. There are deeper issues of intellectual property here.

So we should also ask why NASA can't innovate as fast. DARPA seems capable of funding breakthrough technologies.

Perhaps it is because government can't be seen to take risks and fail in the same way. You get a Solyndra situation and accusations of wasting public money. There is always suspicion that money is doled out for political favors instead of merit. But endless patent litigation is not the way forward either.


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