Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Breakthrough Philanthropy - Thiel Foundation event

I've been asked by a lot of people both inside and outside Benetech lately to not only talk about the what we do, but the why we do it: the thinking behind it. I met with a very senior nonprofit leader last week in New York who explicitly asked us to talk more about what we're thinking. So, I hope to have more Beneblogs that give a window onto our thought processes (even when raw and not quite baked)! So, after I do my readout on what happened, I'll try to inject the way it got me thinking at the end of this post.

Last night I had the privilege of attending the Breakthough Philanthropy event put on by Peter Thiel's foundation, covered in the local press with articles like "Silicon Valley billionaire backs futuristic philanthropy" from the San Jose Mercury News.

The foundation spotlighted eight unusual nonprofit groups. I knew of a fair number of the groups already. The Santa Fe Institute is probably the best known: a research institute dedicated to studying complex problems. Benetech's chief scientist, Dr. Patrick Ball, has spent time there working on the scientific challenges of our work studying large scale human rights violations. We and Santa Fe also share a common board member: Dr. Leighton Read (founder of Aviron, the original makers of the FluMist nasal spray vaccine, author of Total Engagement, etc.). SFI had Dr. Murray Gell-Mann there, the Caltech Nobel Physics laureate, in person as well with a bobble-head doll!

Christine Peterson of the Foresight Institute has been a leading proponent of the nanotechnology field (and expected revolution). I got to meet Christine when I was part of the private rocket field in the early 80s (I recently discovered the best article about my brief rocket science period online: The Wrong Stuff).

Three of the groups were loosely affiliated with Ray Kurzweil and his ideas around human uploading and the Singularity. There was a group called the Seasteading Institute: they want to experiment with new political forms by starting new countries on the high seas. The SENS Foundation wants to advance "Rejuvenation Biotechnologies." Their thesis is that we have to study the progressive development of aging to get ahead of treating pathology: sort of studying how to fix it before it's broken. And the last group is well known to tech people, the X PRIZE Foundation.

So, I was initially kind of skeptical about this eclectic group. I've not been a huge fan of Ray's somewhat dystopian ideas of the future of mankind. I also don't think the X Prize approach is applicable to most of the social challenges I see, although I loved the Ansari X Prize as driving space flight through Burt Rutan's winning entry.

The groups each had four minutes to pitch their ideas. They all had big picture goals, and some of them made explicit funding asks during their lightning presentations. These were much more effective than I expected, and even two of the three Kurzweil-inspired groups were convincing enough (Singularity U and Humanity+). Only one didn't work at all for me: Singularity Institute.

But, Peter Thiel did a good job of setting up the framing for these investments in brief final comments. He acknowledged that many of these ideas struck many in the philanthropy field as weird. But, he drew a distinction between incremental change and breakthrough change (he used the words "extensive" and "intensive"). Extensive change is going from something that works at one scale and bringing it up to a larger scale. He pointed out that it's much harder to go from zero to one, than it is to go from one to many. He's looking for those breakthrough opportunities that will have a major impact. But, that means you have to bet on a lot of unusual, "weird" ideas, to see one or two that have that kind of revolutionary impact.

There aren't many philanthropists that explicitly endorse a strategy where the majority of their grants are likely to not be successful. But, if you have a heightened appetite for risk, the frame changes. What if only one of these groups gets revolutionary change going that changes society on a big scale? Probably a pretty good return on investment. Of course, we might not know that for a decade or two or three, and any change at the scale will require far more groups helping make it happen. But, through the lens of one home run justifies all of the other efforts, it makes sense.

I see the same kind of energy present in these groups that I saw in the early days of the private rocket business in the 1980s (and to be honest, in the social entrepreneurship movement of today!). Being a rocket scientist (even though my rocket admittedly blew up) was the catalyst for me to go in a completely different career direction and helped make me into what turned into a social entrepreneur. So, even if I don't buy the Ray Kurzweil vision of the singularity happening in the next century, I can imagine that a bunch of brilliant young people excited by that vision will invent the future after going through Singularity U. As one VC put it to me after the talks, you don't have to become a Jesuit to benefit from a Jesuit education! And, if a one in ten chance of Ray's vision coming true in the next 50 years is acceptable odds, investing in guiding that transition makes a lot more sense than if your standard is certainty.

Finally, I also took away that this is not an either-or proposition from Thiel's standpoint. We need investments both in breakthrough opportunities and in scaling up great ideas that have already been proven.

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