Thoughts on innovation, entrepreneurship, & changing the world

Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the closing session for Singularity University‘s 2011 Graduate School Program. Speakers included Ray Kurzweil and Peter Diamandis (co-founders of Singularity U), Reid Hoffman, and Vinod Khosla along with overviews of the student’s projects.  For now, I’ll highlight some of the comments made by Hoffman and Khosla.  In my next post, I’ll cover some of the projects.

Reid Hoffman, founder & now Executive Chair of LinkedIn as well as an investor at Greylock, shared his ways of determining what is worth investing in.  His assessments are based on answers to these questions:

  • What hypotheses, if they were true, could impact billions of lives?
  • How do you see what other people don’t? [Although he didn’t say it-it’s been shown that experts often know what can’t be done until someone does it]
  • What lever can you construct to change the world?
  • How can you apply this to your life?
  • How can it scale?
Vinod Khosla‘s talk echoed some of those ideas.  He started with the finding that treating critically ill people with high fever who were given aspirin were more likely to die that those who did not receive aspirin.  Counter-intuitive?  Yes.  But until that research, it was standard procedure to give such patients aspirin because…. well, they had always done so.  Experts often don’t know what they don’t know. This led to his sharing other examples of why you should not believe forecasts.  Experts often use precision of methodology or model as a poor substitute for accuracy.  One study looked at the accuracy of political judgements made by 80,000 experts over a 20 year period.  In Vinod’s words:  “the accuracy was poorer than forecasts of dart-throwing monkeys.” Now there’s an interesting image!
He also went on to say that “willingness to fail is the single  biggest factor in my being able to succeed.  Willingess to fail gives us the freedom to succeed.”  [This struck me as particularly interesting given the response I had to a workshop I had recently posted talking about the importance of learning to fail as a key to success.  You wouldn’t believe some of the hostile reactions I had to the description.  Must have pushed someone’s button!]
One of his last points was to be wary of inconsistent ideas.  For example, there was a proposal to replace cattle with kangaroos for meat because kangaroos presumably fart less and therefor are less hazardous to the environment.  He also sees electric cars as inconsistent since they need electricity which takes oil or other limited resources to power them.  He didn’t talk about hybrids- but I’ve heard lots of mixed reactions to them.  People who own them love them;  they are clearly more efficient on the road than the average gas-powered car.  The downside is the need to ship heavy parts long distances to manufacture the car and the limited life of the battery which will ultimately need to be disposed of- create a different type of environmental impact.  I suspect this would be viewed as inconsistent.  An example of a truly consistent concept he shared was a company called Ciris Energy which has a clean way to convert coal to natural gas without taking it out of the ground.
One can only imagine what is next.