Confession: I love Uber. Check out my op-ed on Uber’s awkward / stormy adolescence published yesterday by Fox: Uber exits the unicorn years and awkwardly steps into adolescence. Can it survive and thrive?


I’m not sure what my favorite part of the Elizabeth Holmes story actually is.  It is tempting to focus on the welizabeth holmes fortunehole “self-made billionaire” bit, or the “billionaire before the age of 30“, or that she has 84 patents to her name while also running a hyper-growth company.  There is also the fact that she recognized that her age would be an obstacle for investors, so she assembled what some have called the most impressive board of directors ever. Of course there is also the “female version of Steve Jobs” angle, as he is apparently also her idol, and she is doing a killer impersonation.

But no.  Instead, my favorite thing about Elizabeth Holmes is that she and I share something important – we are both wusses. According to Inc., Holmes has a deep seated “aversion to needles“, which helped inspire her to approach the blood testing market from a new angle. The focus of most business model innovation is identifying unmet value that can be created for customers, and she used a well-established fear as a starting point. From there she has guided her ideas into some pretty awesome directions, guided by cutting edge science, to destroy the typical business model for the $73 billion diagnostic-lab industry with extremely inexpensive blood tests that can be conducted with no-pain blood draws of tiny samples that allow a huge range of tests from a single sample. All of this is then implemented in tiny labs, outside of the typical doctor’s office setting. Now she and her company (Theranos) are racking up FDA approvals to bring this all to market, starting with a huge partnership with Walgreens.

Starting with a clear value proposition, and then driving that insight into transformative new directions guided by research-driven science, Elizabeth Holmes has the world at her fingertips.  She has her sights set on creating a new market and ecosystem that does not yet exist – one that focuses on a more democratic approach to medicine with an empowered and informed patient that better monitors their own health throughout their life at a reasonable cost. I’ll bet this is just the beginning.

I have always been interested in what the most powerful / smart / successful people in the world do after they create their great work or leave their high-profile positions.  Where is the afterparty?  Do they move to the background and pull the strings that control the puppets that run the rest of the world?  Do they just retire into the freedom of the caribbean?  Do they make symbolic gestures or motivate big changes in the world? Do they work harder than ever?  Surely, some do each of these things.

Upon first reflection, several names come to mind.  JD Salinger.  Al Gore.  Eli Broad.  Bill Clinton.  Nathan Myhrvold (see previous post). Several recent names have highlighted this issue.  Take Sandra Day O’Connor or Evan Bayh.  For O’Connor, she was a supreme court justice for 25 years and the first woman to ever reach the high court.  There is not much room to go up from there.  For Evan Bayh, he was a political scion / heir-apparent (his dad was a US senator) who lived up to his famiy reputation to become a 2-term state governor and then a 2-term US senator.  Of these, Evan Bayh is a bit more interesting, as it is much more intriguing to see what happens when someone is still young after their notable work than if they are more retirement-age.  Sandra Day O’Connor (age 79) has taken up a position as a social commentator and paid speaker, essentially doing a well-earned victory lap.  Evan Bayh just turned 54.  He has mentioned everything from becoming a CEO to a university president, but is “leaving his options open.”

That’s it, I’m checking out.  JD Salinger never wanted to be famous are avoided it at all costs.  He wrote in “The Catcher in the Rye” of his main character Holden Caulfield hating “phonies” and wanting to go live in a cabin alone where he wouldn’t have to talk with anyone. In a sense, that is exactly what JD Salinger did, moving out of New York after achieving some success to a secluded existence on 90 acres in Cornish, New Hampshire. He is reported to have written extensively for the rest of his life – in more than 50 years of isolation – without publishing much of anything.  What did he write?  Will any of us ‘phonies’ ever see any of it?  One of the greatest American writers in history, but he doesn’t think anyone deserves to share his work.  How many other Howard Hughes /  JD Salinger / or other scientific or literary or mathematical genius types through history have just checked out and simply cut themselves off?  I’m sure historians could put together a pretty high-powered list.

Power brokers.  Bill Clinton was a US governor at 32 years old, president by 46.  After two terms as the most powerful man on Earth he was done by the time he was 54.  Then what?  He became the pre-eminent power broker in the democratic party and has invested his time heavily in the Clinton Global Initiative, a high-powered group designed to bring powerful business leaders, former heads of state, nobel prize winners, and other influential people together in a call-to-action to help improve the global condition.  In this role he has been able to continue his hold on influence and has enormous sway as a world-wide power broker.

Save the World.  Bill Gates holds mythical status in modern society for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is his title as the “richest man in the world.” He is a well-respected techie and business leader. In 2009 he mostly checked out of the company that had created him to do something bigger.  With the Gates Foundation (see previous post) he has created an organization that is already the world-leader in making philanthropy more like a business with clear goals and huge impact.  By managing his foundation more closely, he can write a letter to stakeholders like the one he recently released, talking about the 250 million children he is saving with one new vaccine, and the 500 million starving people he is helping to feeed with new drought resistance crops.  I exaggerate, but only a little.  Gates has traded in making money for saving and improving lives.  In a sense, Al Gore has done the same, but more focused on a single cause (climate change). Gore now has an Oscar and a Nobel prize to console him as he curses the hanging chads in Florida’s election ballots.

Get Richer.  More than a few people upon exiting their high-profile situations just turn their genius-power, public service history, or other notariety into bigger bucks. Names that might get mentioned here include anyone from Nathan Myhrvold (his “Intellectual Ventures” is not exactly a non-profit) to Elon Musk (PayPal to SpaceX andTesla Motors) and other serial-entrepreneurs. Given the other ambitions on this list (saving the world or enhancing the arts) this may seem like a selfish play with one’s talents, and maybe it is, but we can’t fault talented people from creating companies, creating new jobs, and creating wealth.  It is no less than the American way.

Enhance the Arts.  Eli Broad has had wild success, building two Fortune 500 companies (KB Homes and SunAmerica Financial). In a sense, he gets the title of “get richer” together with his fascination with the arts for going back after making his fortune to try to do it again with company #2.  He currently is a noted philanthropist, focusing his efforts on a variety of efforts from improving K-12 education to supporting stem cell research and his named business school. However, a huge focus for Broad has been on the arts.  In addition to holding one of the greatest private art collections in the world, he has given endlessly to support museums and to protect and provide access to the arts.

On and On…. This list could go on and on. In coming years it will be interesting to see what Obama, Bayh, and others do with their new-found freedom.

Malcolm Gladwell is clever.  Anyone who has read his books can quickly deduce this.  However, perhaps what is most clever about Malcolm Gladwell is that he recognizes that cleverness is not necessarily all about being smart.  In fact, most of the truly great things that people get credit for were not really invented by them.  Henry Ford did not invent much truly new, he just was exceptional at making it work together.  Andrew Hargadon had a recent post on his blog about this issue as well, but for every great invention / business / whatever you can name, I can find three people who could probably lay claim at the idea first. It’s not that ideas are not precious, or necessary, it’s just that they are not enough.  Malcolm Gladwell is best known for several books (Tipping Point, Blink, etc.) that take well established ideas from many domains, repackage and add new insights, and make him into an icon.  The fact that most of these ideas are not original Gladwell creations does not diminish his contribution, and he’d be the first to tell you it was not all him.  It’s about putting things together in the right context, with the right people, and sometimes the right business model.

This simple insight could be pretty influential for those who seek big ideas.  Be an idea harvester, not just an idea creator.

I’m always interested in the guy-behind-the-guy.  Despite our tendency to lionize the individuals who do great things in this world, often those who reach great heights are propelled in part by some interesting people who stay behind the curtains.  Sometimes these people are spouses with great support, ideas, or encouragement. Sometimes they are mentors who have seen their day come and go and later find their greatest fulfillment in pressing a new hero into service or greater heights. Sometimes the ‘man behind the curtain’ is a benefactor.

Dr. Paul Farmer is a truly great man.  Even among those who have a life’s ambition to help the poor or serve the vulnerable, Dr. Farmer sets a high bar. His work, now known as Partners in Health, embodies the essence of transformational service and is rooted in a service to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on Earth, in rural Haiti.  Much has been written about the greatness of Paul Farmer, most notably in the incredibly well reviewed book “Mountains beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder. This work and others attest to the great story of how a kid from Florida who was about to start at Harvard Medical School begged, borrowed, and stole whatever he could to help a people who the rest of the world seemed to have forgotten about. He built clinics, brought resources, directed the attention of institutions (the World Health Organization and Harvard Medical School among others), and changed the way modern medicine was delivered to those he served. By learning about the people he served and the lives they lived, not just their medical problems, Dr. Farmer achieved incredible results and changed medicine.

However, to me a layer beyond the Paul Farmer story is the story of a friendship and a man behind the curtain who in no small part made it all possible. Tom White was an exceptional man in just how unexceptionally he saw the world. Yet it was his humble vision and vigorous benefaction that made the Paul Farmer story possible. He seemed to have a simple way of approaching life, focused on core values of integrity and honest work, but embodied in exceptional generosity of heart and money. He was a successful businessman in his family’s construction business (J.F. White), but saw his role in this world as much more than just to be in business. In a moving eulogy reflecting on the life of his friend and chief benefactor, Paul Farmer noted that Tom saw a world in need and responded with generosity, compassion, and service. He did not accept simple answers to tough problems, and saw the needs of the poor as urgent rather than just a long-term problem. He focused on building an ‘inclusive world’ recognizing that the basic humanity of all people is the same. He rejected the idea that the poor had made bad choices, arguing that a great deal of each person’s life is determined by the circumstances into which they are born. This, in part, motivated a profound urgency to act to bring the hope of prosperity and health to those who deserved it but had little access to it. The depth of Tom’s compassion drove him to give away nearly all of his wealth toward these goals, with the Boston Globe joking that Tom White’s bumper sticker should read: “He who gives it all away wins.”

By most accounts, Tom White seemed to shy away from individual acclaim, despite his immense generosity. He preferred to be the embodied example of the man from the Wizard of Oz, who despite controlling all of the sparkle and power of the emerald city, declared, “please pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” 

I wonder who else is back there, behind all those curtains.

There are a lot of stereotypes about smart people.  Most of these stereotypes are well supported with the geeks and freaks that occupy the top of the intellectual spectrum.  However, a few of the absolute intellectual elite break the mold.  Nathan Myhrvold is one of these.  He is as one-of-a-kind as people come, and he is amazing.

Let’s start with some of his geek cred.  It’s pretty good.  He started college at age 14 (ala Doogie Howser).  He graduated from UCLA having studied math and physics with bachelors and masters degrees.  Then on to Princeton, where he recieved his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23 (now I’m thinking of the “Charlie” character from the TV show Numbers).  What does a wunderkind do with a Princeton PhD by 23?  He went to study cosmology and quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge.  Like most super-geniuses this was just the beginning.  He left Hawking to start a computer start-up in California, which was soon snapped up by Microsoft.  He then worked at Microsoft for 13 years, launching many of their best selling products, the Microsoft research division, and running a bunch of the company as the Chief Technology Officer (also getting filthy rich).  After leaving Microsoft he has broadened into a variety of scientific and technical ventures, and is currently wrapped up in running an ‘invention company’ called Intellectual Ventures that is shaking some of the foundations of invention with its approach to brainstorming the future of everything from semiconductors to lasers that shoot mosquitos out of the air and biotechnology (there will be a future post on their methods). He holds many patents and has published widely in the top echelons of science.

That is the geek cred, which is pretty A+ stuff.  Along the way, however, he has demonstrated an amazingly diverse and rounded taste for life.  He is a master French chef (once an assistant chef in a top Seattle French restaurant).  He is a paleontologist.  Not just a museum-dwelling paleontologist, but a get-your-hands-in-the-dirt digging up dinosaur bones in Montana every year paleotologist.  He has a complete t-rex skeleton in his living room.  He is a world champion barbecue master (winning 1st and 2nd in Memphis, TN world championships).  He is an award winning nature and wildlife  photographer.  He is an avid searcher for alien life with SETI.  He is a dad, husband, and family man.

Malcolm Gladwell once famously described him as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  I agree.

A few years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for her heart surgery her Yale-educated doctor and I were talking about everything from obscure rock bands to the latest in medical innovations with sonic technology.  When I commented on his broad knowledge base, he laughed and said that you never want a doctor whose brain power is fully maxed out with the medical knowledge, instead opting for the doc with enough bandwidth for other pursuits as well.  Nathan Myhrvold is an example of breadth on steroids.

What is he doing now?  In addition to shooting mosquitos out of the sky to help with the malaria crisis and solving global warming (by building a shield of sulfer in the atmosphere), he has another project he is hot and passionate about.  What, you might ask?   Working on a cookbook, of course.

Ok, so maybe that headline is a little ridiculous.bethShapiro2

Nonetheless, I’m a huge fan of the MacArthur Foundationgenius grants” and I particularly love it when young people recieve them.  In fact, young people recieve these grants all the time (see the past fellows list), but this year I couldn’t help but wonder what Beth (Beth Shapiro) and Becky’s (Rebecca Onie) friends must have thought about their friend recieving this honor.  Beth is 33 and Rebecca is 32.  I can just see Beth’s friends from the University of Georgia (where she graduated as an undergrad in 1999) posting something like this OMG statement on Facebook.  Sure, she left Georgia as a Rhodes Scholar, but still, it wasn’t that long ago.

Per their website, the MacArthur Foundation awards their unrestricted $500,000 fellowships  to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” The basic idea is that the foundation quietly identifies these extraordinary people (see the mysterious identification process) and makes an ‘investment’ in them to pursue whatever they want with ‘no strings attached.’  The fellowships pay out the 500k fellowship money in 100k installments for 5 years, plus they cover other things like health insurance, etc. to really give their fellows a chance to pursue whatever they want.  Most keep doing what they have already been doing, some drop everything and try something new.  For a country built on the shoulders of very creative people and innovations, this program seems like a fantastic way to push forward America’s creative spirit into the next millenium very strategically.

As for Beth and Becky, they are each involved with some pretty cool stuff.  Beth’s work focuses on the use of biostatistics to understand population dynamics in recently extinct or endangered species.  She worked with some of the best people in the world at the University of Oxford, and has done interesting work on species as diverse as the dodo bird and T-Rex. Rebecca was recognized for her work with Project Health, an organization that pairs college kids with hospitals and health clinics to meet the unmet needs of the poor and sick. The work evolved out of her experience as a sophomore at Harvard, and now she is the CEO of the organization leading its national and international expansion.  Their goal is to better reach out to those in poverty to overcome the obstacles that prevent people from getting decent health care.

The “Mother Theresa of Philly” is not your typical Catholic nun.  In addition to transforming the streets of Philadelphia even more profoundly than a Bruce Springsteen song, Bon Jovi says that she also “swears and spits” in the course of her work helping the homeless beat the streets.  She insists that she does not spit.

Sister Mary Scullion entered the convent in 1972 when she was 19.  Since then she has worked tirelessly with the homeless, mentally ill, and other at-risk populations around the Philadelphia area to help move people off of the streets.  Although she is not alone in her efforts, her success has been amazing.  By 2000, she and those involved with Project H.O.M.E. (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care, Education) had reduced the homeless population in Philly to less than 200 people.  Perhaps most amazing of all is that a full 95% of those who she has helped have remained off the streets.  For anyone who knows anything about the cycles that lead to homelessness, this number is truly astounding. Now people like Bill Clinton and mayors around the world are taking notes to learn how Sister Mary thinks.

In recognition for her work she has been awarded honorary doctorates at universities, fellowships from international foundations, the highest awards in Philadelphia, and recently was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people in the world.  She seems to shrug it all off, insisting that this recognition belongs to everyone involved with her work.

Much like Mother Theresa, Sister Mary sees those she helps as whole people, not just needy adicts, helping those who often times do not want help while respecting their individual dignity.  She reaches people by building their self-esteem, and then enables them by helping them with more than just housing but also education and medical support.  She aims to help people plan a viable future with goals and then supports them along the way.  Although many social work systems in urban environments preach these things, I think it is by really valuing and building up the identities of the people she serves that Sister Mary is so successful.  Somewhere deep inside everyone wants to be successful, but some need more help believing in themselves, despite their failures, to take the hard path toward long-term recovery.

Nate Silver is the man.

A 31-year old 1996 East Lansing high school graduate was recently named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.  Pretty good stuff.  How did he pull it off?  Pretty simply, he believes in data.

To be honest, lots of people believe in data.  Silver’s angle is that he uses data endlessly to build statistical projections that are about as good as any you can find anywhere.  So, logically, what does he use these projections to forecast?  Baseball.  Well, he started off in baseball, but now he is branching out.  Based on his early success creating PECOTA, a statistical system for evaluating baseball players based on comparable players, he moved on to other contexts using similar methodologies.  His most famous achievement is correctly predicting electoral voting outcomes in 49 / 50 states in the most recent presidential elections (he missed on Indiana) and every single senate race.  Not bad!  Considering how many people do professional political polling, his accuracy is unbelievable.  At the heart of his approach is just pounding the data, using as much data as he can possibly devour, and weighting the data by its own past accuracy.

Embracing the fame that has come with his incredible penchant for accuracy, he spent last year’s election cycle on every national news show in the world, from the Colbert Report to CNN and the like.  So, what is next?  He recently tried his hand at predicting another hotly debated contest —- the Oscars.   How did he do?  Not so good.  Taking stock of his performance, he has decided to hold off on projecting new contexts until he has his models better tuned.   Turns out even Nate needs a little time to make the data talk, and rushing too quickly into the Oscars didn’t work.

I wonder what he has planned next?  He already uses this stuff to play online poker.  Maybe next he will go for predicting hurricanes and stock market shifts.  One thing I’m sure of…. I’ll bet he gets rich!

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.

Huggy Rao has a new book called “Market Rebels” with some cool ideas.  I particularly like Bob Sutton’s summary of one key idea that I find particularly interesting:

The book is full of useful ideas, but perhaps the central one is that, if you want to mobilize networks of people and markets to embrace and spread an idea, you need the one-two punch of a “Hot Cause” and “Cool Solutions.”  A hot cause like deaths from tobacco or medical errors can be used as springboards to raise awareness, spark motivation, and ignite red-hot outrage.  And naming these as enemies is an important step in mobilizing a network or market. But creating the heat isn’t enough; the next step needs to be cool solutions.   This doesn’t just mean identifying technically feasible solutions, it also means finding ways to bind people together, to empower them to take steps that help solve the problem, and to create enduring commitment to implementing solutions.

olpcOne laptop per child… perhaps even more interesting than the cause is the approach from the OLPC leadership, which is well articulated here.