Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Caltech: Founding Values

Address on receiving Caltech’s Distinguished Alumni Award
May 18, 2013

Caltech was founded to give back to society through science and engineering, to discover knowledge and apply that knowledge. There was tremendous optimism about the value of training engineers and scientists and how that would benefit all of humanity, especially in the southern California of a century ago which was reshaped through the wonders of technology.
Jim in a suit behind a podium with the word Ccaltech"

Caltech’s small size makes its faculty and students incredibly agile when it comes to understanding a broad array of fields: there is a need here to be able to explain your work, and to understand the work of others. That’s the Caltech advantage! Richard Feynman once tried to reduce an advanced physics concept to a freshman lecture. When Feynman found he couldn’t do so, he said that meant “that we really don’t understand it.” The first lecture I heard as a freshman at Caltech was delivered by Feynman on the topic of liquid helium three, and I was certain he did understand the topic! Being a Caltech freshman makes you confident for the rest of your life: if someone cannot explain something to you, that means that they really don’t understand it!

Caltech feeds an intense curiosity, a burning desire to understand, to grapple with hard problems and to own them! As Feynman said when asked about winning the Nobel Prize: “The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work].”

Jim Fruchterman receiving the Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award from Caltech President Jean Lou Chameau, May 18, 2013
More than anything else, that pleasure in finding things out has been Caltech’s gift to me in my work as an entrepreneur and a social entrepreneur. Whether it’s turning optical pattern recognition for targeting missiles into reading systems for the blind, building the largest online library for people who are blind or dyslexic, doing the analysis for the United Nations to determine how many people have actually been killed in the civil war in Syria, assisting in the dramatic trial of the former dictator of Guatemala who was convicted of genocide just last week, modeling for conservationists the best way to run field biodiversity projects, or matching volunteers from Silicon Valley’s top software companies with open source social good projects, the team at Benetech, the nonprofit tech company I founded and lead, is fueled by these Caltech values. The thrill of solving problems, of figuring something out, and bringing that understanding into the service of humanity.

However, my concern today is that technology professionals have drifted over the last century away from directly applying the benefits of science and technology to the needs of all of humanity. The need to get practical, to find a business model that provides massive financial return to investors, means that many great ideas get put back on the shelf when the inventors realize that they aren’t a fit for the venture capital model. Now, as a successful tech entrepreneur, I’ve benefited from California’s incredible venture machine, which creates immense value for individuals and for society. Of course: from its founding Caltech has been a testament to the generosity of donors who succeeded in business. But, we can’t fully realize the promise of Caltech and institutions like it if we only market our products to the richest 1% or 5% of the world’s population. It wasn’t too many years ago when our pharmaceutical industry more or less argued that people with AIDS in Africa should die rather than to license their medicines for low cost manufacture.

I want to advocate for “giving the sleeves off your vest” strategy! Top tech companies like Google, Facebook and IBM have figured out how to make vast quantities of money by giving away their core product, or building products on top of open source and free software. Keep the business focus on those top markets that justify the venture capital returns, that feed our successful business enterprises. But, allow the benefits of technology to reach far beyond the top of the pyramid. To the greatest extent possible, be open. Support open data, open access to research, open content and open source.

When I ask the owners of intellectual property to license their creations to my nonprofit, for free, for these markets where they have already decided that they can’t make money, they say yes: 80% of the time! People are immensely proud of their creations and would love to see them used to benefit more people. Think of the freedom that can be promoted by greater sharing of the benefits of science and technology: freedom from hunger, from thirst, from illness, freedom from ignorance, illiteracy, from lack of education, freedom from human rights abuses, from tyranny.

If we can do that, by being as open and sharing as we can be, we’ll better realize the founding values of Caltech and its motto: “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free!”

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