December 2008

gates23Bill Gates wants to make a bigger impact.

Due to its 30 billion dollar birthright, most people have already heard of the Gates Foundation.  The foundation is one of the largest in the world, and is making huge progress in saving literally millions of lives through their work on preventing and treating malaria. However, perhaps one of the biggest potential areas of influence from the Gates Foundation is teaching everyone else how to solve the world’s problems.

Gates has assembled some really really world class people in his organization. Although the foundation started off as inspired but clueless as any other, working from an office over top a pizza place, the foundation is taking a page from the business world in solving problems. There are many fads and entries into “buzz-word bingo” in the business strategy world, but one idea with real substance is evidence-based management.  This approach to strategy and business execution is to focus most of an organizations efforts into things that can be measured, counted, and proven to work.  General Electric is perhaps the most successful firm to focus on such efforts, but the meticulous attention to “show me the results” measurement and accountability has great promise to solve the world’s problems.  The Gates Foundation articulates their approach to giving here. I’ll sum it up for you:  ‘show me the results.’

It is this simple approach to philanthropy through which Gates and company aim to make a bigger impact.  They have a lot of money.  Still, they can’t save the world.  However, if they can show people how to use key business principles to better attack the world’s problems, who knows how big of an impact they can make.

Warren Buffett has been wildly successful for doing things simply.  He focuses on basic criteria, using his extensive experience to just support basic wisdom about value based investing.  He has decided to bet his fortune on the Gates Foundation, to the tune of another 30 or so billion.  I’ll bet he knows what he is doing.

musk3Elon Musk is all kinds of crazy.

Who starts a car company in the U.S. these days?  Lets see, currently we have all of the drama of the auto industry bailout.  However, its not like this was hard to see coming.  Strikes.  Unions. Fierce foreign competition. Slow to declining sales. Layoffs. These were the big auto industry headlines in the 1980’s.  Given all this, who would start a new car company from scratch?  Elon Musk.  Tesla Motors.

I have a new idea.  Lets compete with NASA!  Yeah.  We can start a new space exploration company. Who does that?  Lets see.  Russia did that.  China is working on that.  There is a European consortium of nations working on that.  Not for the faint of heart.  Not many of the names on that list are private individuals… Elon Musk not only decided to start  SpaceX but he is building it on the back of brand-new reusable launch vehicles. Elon thought that the ones NASA designed were inefficient and outdated.  Oh.  Ok.  Well, NASA and company seem to be impressed.  So far he has contracts with the U.S. Air Force and NASA for over a billion dollars worth of potential launches, as long as SpaceX hits their development milestones.

The guy is 37 years old.  Wonder what he’ll do next?

quitterAre you too cool for school? 

It is with mixed feelings that I marvel over the success of several notable dropouts.  Over the last few weeks I’ve been reminded of several notable dropouts from school, Steve Jobs (Reed College), Bill Gates (Harvard), and Elon Musk (Stanford).  For those really interested, we could list many many more.  Maybe the term ‘dropouts’ is a misnomer, as people dropout at many different points. Jobs and Gates dropped out of undergraduate programs, Musk out of a Ph.D. program.  Nonetheless, all are quitters.

So, what’s so bad about quitting? 

I guess the problem would be making the perceptual exposure bias mistake of overgeneralizing the glory of dropouts.  I’m sure there are far more dropouts that are very disenfranchised with their choice than there are Microsoft, Apple, and PayPal success stories.  A common theme among those who dropout successfully is the jump to something bigger or more important.  For Gates and Musk that was the case – dropping out to start a company around some high-potential biz.

I guess formal education is always a value proposition. What do you expect to gain from school vs. the cost of school (time, money, opportunities, etc.). If the costs are too big, dropout. Like most things, however, estimating the value of an opportunity is hard to do. Given the risk it seems like education is common sense.

Ok. Common sense… Pro-Education: Slow and safe wins the race.  Pro-Quitter: No guts, no glory.

I’m reminded of a point a former professor once made – “common sense” is a bit confusing.  It can argue both sides of most discussions.  Example: Two heads are better than one.  Wait.  Too many cooks spoil the broth.  Hmmm.  Looks like there is no easy answer to quitting.

“Cure to Cancer Discovered in Some Guy’s Basement” sounds like your typical headline at  Wait.  This one is real? 

John Kanzius is a former radio station owner who, experimenting with ideas in his basement, has created a machine that has exciting cancer-treatment potential.  He is not a cancer researcher.  He has no real ‘lab.’  The device Kanzius created emits very specific radio frequencies that can excite nano-sized particles to heat them up and cause cell death. By carefully modulating the radio frequencies emitted, he can potentially target only certain particles in cancer cells to destroy such cells while preserving healthy cells nearby.  Part of the technology is about getting the right particles into the cancer cells to be targeted by the machine.  Now Kanzius is focusing on getting funding for scaling up his invention and prepping for clinical trials.  Although he started off alone in his basement, he now has some heavy-hitter help from M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and the University of Pittsburg to move his work forward.

By the way, another cool trick from John Kanzius’ crazy cancer destroying machine is that it has potential in the green power generation field because of its freaky ability to light salt water on fire.  See the picture above, where an ice cube is engulfed in a flame.

gatesIn case anyone was wondering, the key to real wealth creation is entrepreneurship.  A little exercise to help illustrate my point.  Click on the link above and check how many of the richest Americans can blame their wealth on entrepreneurship.  If you remove the inheritance crowd, the percentage is even bigger.  Oh, wait.  Yeah, most inheritance-based wealth is the direct result of earlier entrepreneurship by the innovative ancestor of the inheritor.   If you are a fan of larger sample sizes, expand your search to the global list of the world’s billionaires on Forbes.  Check.  Yep, they are mostly entrepreneurs too.

Word to the wise:  start your own high-growth business.

Where do ideas come from?  How does science solve problems?  My research suggests that it is usually  more than just some scientist in a lab somewhere with a eureka moment.  In recent years I have become fascinated with the field of informatics, and specifically, bioinformatics.  bluekeyboardAt a level of abstraction, informatics is the articulation of my organizational learning research at a much more broad level.  The key question driving my research on organizational learning is that of understanding how organizations create breakthrough new knowledge.  I see these types of breakthroughs as the driver of of most business and science, those ideas that transform industries, create new markets, and improve the human condition. Informatics aims to make the process of finding solutions / breakthroughs much more systematic… driving the questions we ask to be more precise and efficient. 

Who decides the direction of science?  On the ‘supply-side’ of course there are several answers, including individual scientists, research grants, and private funding.  Certainly the ‘demand-side’ of the equation has some influence too….  when an epidemic rages, science quickly jumps to find solutions.  Pharma companies very carefully choose their projects based on projected market sizes for potential drugs.  So, supply and demand control the direction of science.  I think its more idiosyncratic than that.  People have a wide variety of  motivations, and some of these motivations lead them to think about grad school.  Some do biology, some do engineering.  Maybe they even come  into grad school with some sort of idea of the type of work they would like to do.  Maybe.  More likely they read bios for people they might work with, decide which sound most interesting, and eventually work with one of these people.  At the end of their graduate studies they are a fresh-minted scientist, maybe a Ph.D., but what will they work on?  Something deriving out of their work in grad school.  This path dependency constrains science in existing directions.  Why are most major math breakthroughs created by people under the age of 30?  Because they are free of the rigidities of their experience.  The same goes for science.  Some break the mold, and all scientists morph over time to create their own identity, but their work, their version of science, their paths are significantly influenced by their experience. 

Informatics has the potential to change the questions people ask.  Why study the properties of one particular enzyme and not another?  People assign probabilities to certain directions, after engaging in local search around what they already know.  If informatics can provide tools for analyzing the big-picture, or make search generally more broad, or make search generally more effective by using more data more effectively to shape the questions we ask, the potential is crazy.  Everything could be solved faster.  Science would still be incremental, but the gains could be so much more systemic. Labs become exponentially more productive.  Collaborations can be driven by likelihood models instead of just social relations or geographic proximity. 

Informatics could be the solution to solutions.  Or at least the solution to asking better questions, and attacking better problems.  I think that is fascinating.

Apparently Microsoft thinks so too… see this doc on Microsoft’s vision of science in 2020 and the roadmap to get there (driving straight through informatics).

Maybe it is because I’m going to Africa in  a few weeks, or maybe I’m just a junky for people with ridiculously ambitious ideas, but I love people like Neil TurokturokHe is aiming to transform Africa into a player on the scientific landscape by launching new college institutes across Africa focused on math.  The guy should know what he is talking about, he is a physics professor at Cambridge and buddies with Stephen Hawking, but the idea of just going around and launching new colleges from nothing to transform something as dramatic as Africa’s future is inspiring.  Taking a step back, you have people as diverse as U2’s Bono, the quintessential rockstar, and a big time professor from Cambridge just leveraging their positions to enact big change.  Africa will be a different place in 20 years.

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