Shooting for The Moon:
How Tech Will Shape our Future
Naveen Jain’s first company, Infospace — which started out by focusing on content and services for websites — was created during the Internet dotcom boom. While that company had big ambitions, Jain is now shooting for the moon. Moon Express, the third company he has co-founded, is attempting to build machine-operated spacecraft that can mine materials like gold, cobalt, platinum, and Helium-3 (nuclear energy fuel) on the moon. It won a contract from NASA and is participating in the Google Lunar X-Prize.
Without even waiting for Moon Express to launch its first spacecraft, Jain is already busy working on his next moon shot, a startup called Viome, that seeks to prevent chronic diseases by examining the microorganisms in users’ guts and counseling them on how to keep healthy.
Jain, a scheduled speaker at Slush, a technology conference taking place in Helsinki on Nov. 30 and Dec.1, is one of a number of tech entrepreneurs who are embracing moon shots, ambitious projects that address big problems and propose radical solutions using breakthrough technology.
While the Internet revolutionized communications, today a whole host of powerful technologies are converging, bringing about exponential change and opening up the possibility for tech entrepreneurs to tackle challenges that in the past only governments could handle: space exploration, the eradication of diseases and ensuring an abundance of food, energy and water. “None of these things are impossible any longer,” says Jain, “and the cost is coming down so that it can be privately funded.
Jain, who grew up poor in India and became a billionaire after moving to the United States, says he believes the next set of superpowers will be entrepreneurs, not nation states. “For the first time in human history a small group of people can do things that only nation states could do before,” says Jain. “We no longer have to rely on the government to impact society, whether it is going to space or solving the problem of healthcare or the clean energy talked about in the Paris Treaty — these things will be solved by entrepreneurs.”
A Call To Action
Technology is at a point where it could potentially solve the world’s biggest problems, but for that to happen more entrepreneurs will need to make moon shots. Al Gore, a politician and environmentalist who served as the 45th Vice-President of the United States, is scheduled to speak at Slush about the need for entrepreneurs to help solve climate change. Executives at Bayer Foundations, a branch of Germany’s global drug and agriculture company that focuses on frontier science, social pioneers and startups with impactful tech innovations, will use their time at Slush to search for startups with technologies that will impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people across the globe.
The German entrepreneur Harald Neidhardt, who co-created one of a select few health-related projects funded by the Bayer Foundations (see the story on pages 30 and 31), will promote a HeroX competition at Slush that aims to encourage one million people in the developing world to become entrepreneurs over the next 30 years. (See the competition details at the bottom of page 12.)
And Bill Liao, a general partner at SOSV, a global fund that accelerates over 150 startups a year in verticals that include synthetic food and health, plans to talk to entrepreneurs at Slush about the importance of purpose. SOSV’s core purpose is “making the impossible inevitable,” says Liao. “It is not a slogan. It is what we do. Produce things that the world needs and set the stage for a massive shift in what biology is going to do to solve global grand challenges.” There is good reason for this flurry of activity: global issues that urgently need to be solved.
The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Paris Agreement require an unprecedented mobilization of both public and private finance — some $90 trillion over the next 13 years. Only a fraction of that funding has been spent, says the Slush attendee Marc Buckley, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project Country Manager for Germany and Austria and a jury member and open innovation advisor to the Bayer Foundations. “Between 2015 and 2016 we did not even spend $1 trillion,” says Buckley. He adds that Bayer Foundations, which invests $15 million per year through all of its various programs, has trouble giving out its grants. “There is plenty of money but there are just not enough good, impactful innovations,” he says. “This is not about a 3-, 5- or 10-minute pitch. It is not about a TED talk about how to save the world. Impactful Global Solutions are complex systems and dynamic models. What we want is business models that address all aspects of complete systems and the global challenges we are trying to solve in our world — whether it involves agriculture, food, water, or power,” says Buckley. “Most companies are only doing one aspect and those will not have sustainable resilient long-term impact.”
A systems approach is necessary because problems are so complex. Take the example of two of the world’s biggest problems: a lack of food and of clean drinking water. Technology pioneers such as Indigo Agriculture are using plant microbiomes to strengthen crops against disease and drought, to help farmers sustainably feed the planet and reduce water use in agriculture. (See the story in full magazine pages 34 and 35.)
That is helpful, but it only solves part of the problem because the majority of agriculture is used to fuel cars and feed animals. When it came to introducing electric vehicles, which remove the need for fossil fuels and bio-fuel production, big car manufacturers initially dragged their heels.
Then the entrepreneur Elon Musk came along and launched Tesla, which earlier this year reached a market capitalization that surpassed that of Ford Motor Company and General Motors. Tesla’s progress has spurred the big auto companies to up their game. On the same day in November that Tesla introduced a new all-electric truck and an electric sports car that goes from 0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and has a 620-mile range, the Volkswagen group announced it had approved a €34 billion spending plan to accelerate its efforts to become a global leader in electric cars.
Memphis Meats — one of SOSV’s investments — is among a number of startups helping ease the other part of the issue: It creates beef from self-reproducing cells, producing an animal-based product but avoiding the need to breed, raise, and slaughter huge numbers of animals. (See the story on pages 36 and 37.) Electric cars and lab-produced meats result in more food for people and lead to huge reductions in water and land use.
If you eliminate cattle farming then you also eliminate the massive amounts of methane that cows produce and which harm the environment. That is why the Bayer Foundations’ new focus is finding entrepreneurs aimed at disrupting agricultural, food and beverage industries. “Globally these industries are responsible for the majority of climate change,” says Buckley.
The Case for Change
These industries and others are in for a big shakeup. The $90 billion global meat industry — which includes cattle farms, butchers, slaughterhouses — is being transformed, as is real estate, since land use is set to change radically. “There are 71 markets out there that are ripe for disruption and it promises to be a lot worse than what happened to Kodak.” says Buckley. “This exponential disruption will not only occur because of the quantum leaps start-ups are taking in the digital age but because of the quantum leaps start-ups are taking in the digital age but also due to the globally unknown effects of climate change and deteriorating infrastructures.”
In the case of food, “there are 10 big companies out there that control all of the brands — Nestle, Kraft, Unilver, Coke, Pepsi, etc — and in agriculture when it comes to seeds it is DuPont and Montsano. This has to change if we are going to feed all of the people we need to feed,” says Buckley.
Agriculture is also facing radical change. “The world is losing 23 global hectares a minute to soil contamination and drought; five years ago it was 12 global hectares,” says Buckley. “If you think a new country the size of Brazil is going to come along or a new place where we can grow crops outdoors I will tell you that you are wrong,” he says. “We are going to have to get vertical and go multilevel and build closed greenhouse systems and use land more efficiently and use solar power and ambient water harvesting.” Today 30% of everything the agriculture, food and beverage industry produces “is thrown away, which is a 10x waste and then comes back to bite us as methane which is 70% more effective at trapping heat than CO2,” says Buckley.
What’s more, “we do not know what kind of climate calamities will come upon us but if we do not have a resilient sustainable infrastructure in place we will experience food security issues and other problems,” he says. Puerto Rico is a case in point. Its agriculture sector was decimated by Hurricane Maria, resulting in a 90% loss of local and regional food sources. This type of devastation is due to climate change and if there is no resilient sustainable infrastructure in place, the recovery takes years, says Buckley. “This can prove to be devastating for humanity that needs to eat daily. After all food is our energy source. This is one big reason why we can hear talk about the Anthropocene and that humanity may be facing the sixth mass extinction.”
A Solution to Waste
Buckley is frustrated by what he sees to be limited efforts by the food and beverage companies to change their business models and do less damage to the environment. “If you are driving down the road in the wrong direction and you slow down by 60% you are still going in the wrong direction, just slower,” he says. “We need to stop and start going in the right direction. If you tell me you are doing some minor changes or good pilot (test) projects, or reductions in your greenhouse emissions you are still damaging our environment and killing people, you are just doing it slower.”
Waste from the food and beverage industry includes mountains of single-use plastic containers. The UN has estimated that yearly damage from plastic pollution in the ocean is $13 billion, due to impact on marine life, tourism and fishing. That is not all. Globally, 30% to 40% of food produced for consumption is wasted. If food waste were a nation, it would rank third in the world for harmful emissions, according to OpenIDEO. An American startup called Full Cycle Bioplastics is aiming to solve both of those issues by converting food waste into a fully compostable bioplastic. As for the plastic that is already there, Boyan Slat, a 23-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, has raised $30 million for The Ocean Cleanup, an initiative that aims to eradicate the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, one of the most polluted areas of the ocean, using a boom to capture plastic and keep it in areas where a boat can pick it up. These are just some of the many examples of the rise of the non-expert, people from outside industries who come up with novel approaches because they see things from a completely different angle and just go out and do it. A UK start-up called E-leather is another example. Its late founder, Chris Bevan, was told that what he set out to do was impossible. Up to 50% of natural leather hide is wasted and often destined for the landfill. E-leather is using that waste by recycling it into a more durable, light-weight leather, saving over 5,000 tons of traditional leather waste from landfill – the equivalent of the weight of over 100 narrow-body aircraft.
Not only is E-Leather selling its leather to airlines who use it for seat upholstery to save weight, fuel and money, in September the company signed a partnership agreement with Nike, which is producing a sport shoe made out of the material. A French startup called Pili is also doing its part, by changing the environmentally toxic process used to make dyes. It makes biosynthetic dyes as a cleaner alternative to petrochemical syntheses or heavy-metal-containing pigments.
The Human Factor
Technology could also help solve some of the developing world’s biggest problems, including the recording of births and deaths, financial exclusion and inaccuracies and fraud in property registration. More than a billion people do not have a recognized means of identifying themselves, leaving them without access to healthcare, education, government assistance and financial services. The Swiss technology firmWISeKey’s digital identity dual factor authentication sits on top of the blockchain, an immutable ledger that allows third parties to validate that an original digital identity or attribute certifications have not been changed or misrepresented.
This and other similar new technologies could help the United Nations achieve its goal of helping everyone in the world have a secure digital identity by 2020, paving the way for a better life both for citizens of the developing world and for refugees. Already the Finnish Immigration Service has begun providing unbanked refugees with prepaid Mastercards rather than cash. These prepaid cards, which were developed by the Helsinki startup MONI, also provide refugees with a unique digital identity stored on a blockchain and could be adopted by refugee camps throughout the world.
Entrepreneurs are also helping to improve the plight of the some-60 million displaced people in other ways. The German entrepreneur Neiderhardt co-developed with Cisco a refugee first response mobile medical center out of converted shipping containers and outfitted it with advanced technology tools that allow the translation of patient-doctor dialogue into 50 languages. Technology is also finding unique approaches to solving healthcare issues for millions — if not billions — of people.
For example, Israel’s Zebra Medical Vision teaches AI-powered computers to automatically read and diagnose medical imaging data, allowing healthcare institutions to identify patients at risk of conditions like emphysema and coronary artery diseases and offer preventative treatments. It recently introduced a new suite that offers all of its current and future algorithms to healthcare providers globally for $1 per scan.
The company says its aim is to make it possible to deliver healthcare to the next billion people who will join the middle class by 2020. Artificial intelligence is also enabling a breakthrough in the fight against malaria, which each year kills almost a half a million people. Malaria is one of the hardest diseases to identify on a microscope slide. So the Global Good Fund, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and the Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to develop technologies for humanitarian impact, has just announced a collaboration with the advanced microscope designer and manufacturer Motic China Group to create a distribute the EasyScan GO, an AI-powered microscope to fight the spread of drug-resistant malaria and assist in its case management. Using custom image recognition software, EasyScan GO is capable of identifying and counting malaria parasites in a blood smear in as little as 20 minutes.
Intellectual Ventures said it bases its work on “reverse innovation,” the idea that to successfully tackle big problems like malaria, technology has to be invented explicitly for conditions in the developing world such as lack of consistent electricity and poor technician training, rather than being retrofitted to those settings. Often these technologies are disruptive enough to be re-deployed back to higher-income markets for profit, creating a market incentive for commercial partners. In the case of EasyScan GO, the microscope was built to tackle malaria, but Intellectual Ventures is now exploring going after some forms of cancer in partnership with Motic.
Other advanced technologies could do everything from help relieve the global shortage of organ donors to eliminating chronic disease. Prellis Biologics prints human organs in a laboratory setting. The company aims to address organ donor shortage and provide human tissues to streamline the development of therapeutics. As its first product, the startup is developing insulin-secreting units of the pancreas to help people with
Type 1 Diabetes. Viome, Jain’s venture, and a number of other startups, including Ubiome, are offering new services that sequence the microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. The companies say they can do things like make diet recommendations and predict risk for certain diseases based on a person’s unique microbial makeup. If it lives up to its promise, Jain says analysis of microbiomes could prevent people from developing chronic diseases.
Shooting for the Moon and Beyond
By why stop at solving earth’s problems? Jain says he believes it is possible to make other planets livable for humans. “That’s the ultimate goal,” he says. “The moon is the first stepping stone. If we manage to make the moon the eighth continent then we can go and live anywhere else.” Jain dreams about bringing resources back to Earth, such as Helium-3, “which could power this planet for generations to come.” And he believes moon rocks may someday replace diamonds. DeBeers made a fortune out of associating diamonds with love. Jain envisions a marketing campaign that says “If you love her enough, give her the moon.” Moon Express is one of five companies competing for the Google Lunar X prize. If none of them manage to make a moon landing by March of next year, the total of $30 million in promised prize money may be rescinded. That doesn’t faze Jain.
“I am confident that we will launch by the end of March,” says Jain. “If not the prize may be extended or someone else could fund a prize. It doesn’t really matter. We are building a business that can survive with or without a prize.”As Moon Express hopes to prove for entrepreneurs ready to make moon shots, the sky could literally no longer be the limit.