On the face of it, having a pre-dinner open-mike Q&A session moderated by a VC and an inventor might seem like a non-starter. There aren’t many conferences where the food has to wait while someone fills four easel charts with questions from the audience about big issues that need to be addressed in our time.
But then, there aren’t many conferences where John Doerr, the ultimate venture capitalist, and Dean Kamen, the iconic inventor, can call on people in the audience like Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, Google’s Eric Schmidt, and the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Amory Lovins to respond to those big questions.
And big questions they were. How can an entrepreneur create an “Internet treasure,” a highly-valuable company that leverages the characteristics of the Net? Is it possible to create a viable tax on coal, to reduce its huge carbon impact? How can we get longer-term thinking, not just in our political institutions, but in our companies? How can we solve our energy problems? Can we create “portable stored stuff that can become electrons” (as Dean Kamen put it) like batteries, fuel cells, and other technologies to generate or store more electricity? If you could make one amendment to the U.S. constitution, what would it be? Will innovation solve our biggest challenges?
Though there were many thought-provoking questions, there was only time before the main course for a few brief answers.
. Schmidt’s favorite potential amendment: If you want to solve the current gridlock in our political system, rejigger voter districts by designing them in parallelograms – symmetrical constructs that would ensure a balanced number of voters from any particular perspective. “That way you wouldn’t have the gerrymandering we have today,” said Schmidt.
. Idealabs’ Bill Gross believes that our energy problems get solved when solar energy costs get reduced by a factor of two. And he maintains there are factories being built around the world today that in a few years’ time will have done just that.
. Bezos offered a perspective on building an “Internet treasure” – and, having run a multi-billion dollar company for more than 10 years, he should know. In the old world, he said, you probably spent 70% of your dollars “shouting about your services,” and only 30% creating your products or services. “That inverts in the new world,” he said. Successful entrepreneurs will understand those dynamics, and spend less time promoting and more time building great companies.
. Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers’ Doerr: Innovation needs to become a national priority. “The Obama agenda should be an innovation agenda,” he said. Kamen echoed the need for more innovation, especially to solve problems in the developing world – and said that those of us in the developed world need to help. “The 4 billion people out there living on two bucks a day are not equipped to be dealing with these problems,” he maintained.
Even though few in-depth answers were offered, the session will likely set up some of the key questions that will come up in subsequent sessions at the event – resulting, we can hope, in some great solutions.
Gary A. Bolles, CEO, Xigi Inc., gary [at] xigi.biz