So I was sitting innocently at Buck’s one morning and these stylish folks from British Airways came in and invited me to come with them to England for a brainstorming session in the sky around the subject of STEM. Science Technology Engineering Mathematics. This is the touchstone today. 130 Important Silicon Valley Innovators, and me, met up at the Clift Hotel in San Francisco where Gavin Newsome addressed us and begged off the trip claiming that his wife was about to go into labor. Flimsy excuse if you ask me.
We broke into teams at the hotel and went into conference to come up with schemes to promote education, create products and foster more participation in STEM. Then together with the facilitators from IDEO and a support staff from British Airways we took busses to the VIP lounge at SFO where we boarded a new 747 that had been rigged for a 10 hour conference in the sky. We had 16 teams each charged with developing a plan to present to the United Nations on our arrival in London.
An example of the folks on board was Duncan Logan, founder of RocketSpace. Rocketspace is a collaborative workspace in San Francisco where startups rent space to be part of a frothy atmosphere conducive to emerging ideas. This plan is to break down the traditional walls isolating small firms and providing both physical space and a social atmosphere to make working more fun and increase connectivity. British Airways has some people in this space.
The event was called Ungrounded and is part of a larger initiative by British Airways to open the door to collaboration with the start-up community in Silicon Valley.
We were spread throughout the aircraft and as we developed our ideas we posted charts and slogans all over the walls and overhead bins. We roamed the aisles and eventually voted on the most popular ideas. Our group hatched the notion of creating mini maker-shops in places like Home Depot where kids could come and learn to use tools and discover techniques to actually build physical things. It was no coincidence that the founder of the Tech Shop, Jim Newton, was in our group. There are a half dozen of these Tech Shops across the country and one is in Menlo Park. There you can join like a gym membership and come in and use a wide range of tools from saws and lathes to 3d printers and plasma cutters.
The most popular ideas from our journey included a backpack wireless hotspot for travelers, a protocol to engage more women in STEM, and a notion called Init – a technical ingredients list (much like a food ingredient label) that is meant to educate consumers as to the exact contents of technical products. Brian Wong hatched the idea for Init.
Brian Wong is a kinetic 22 year old entrepreneur who founded Kilp. He dreamed up the idea of offering real world rewards for achievements in the virtual world of gaming. For instance you reach a new personal best or beat a record and you get a coupon for a consumer product. Brands are wild to give Kilp the goods and in just 3 years he has 45 people sending out 100 million rewards a month. He told me he wasn’t a good student in school but I noticed he finished university at 18. During one brainstorming session a facilitator handed him a pen and he looked at it and asked, “Who still uses these?
Having finished our project we arrived in London where we were whisked off to the Langham Hotel, a 19th century first class hotel. In the last 20 years they have put 250 million pounds into renovations and it looks it. The Langham is right across the street from the BBC’s Broadcasting House and is the only corner in all of London about which I know some history as I was once taken on a tour of the BBC.
Our hotel’s roof is the place where Edward R. Murrow broadcast during the blitz back in the War. It is also where author Arthur Conan Doyle and Noel Coward had dinner one night with Doyle’s publisher and from that meeting came the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle as well as Mark Twain were guests and now.…me.
House of Parliament
That night we were invited to the Houses of Parliament where Baroness Scotland told us about how the place functions and asked if we might like a tour of the digs. We then proceeded to crawl all about the joint including a visit to the Houses of Common and that of the Lords. Down one random hallway I spied the Magna Carta in a flimsy glass case just begging to be lifted for display at Buck’s. Alas it turned out to be locked up pretty securely and besides it looked like a fakeWe convened for breakfast and were treated with the 5-star elegance this place is renowned for. A crumb can’t fall to the floor without a tuxedoed waiter slipping a tiny silver tray under it (just like at Buck’s).
The agenda for the day following our in-air confab was a bit of mystery. Most of us had not looked up the name of the next conference as we just went where and when we were told to. A nice way to travel. Turned out we took a bus to the Olympic Village and joined up with other entrepreneurs and tech folks making us now about 250 people. On entering the auditorium we were treated to a talk by Richard Branson. And he wasn’t even the headliner. This was the G8 Innovation Summit.
Ron Dennis, the CEO of McLaren automobile told us about his new hybrid which gets 25 miles to the gallon while hitting 0-60 in about three seconds. It costs about 700,000 pounds so I’m not sure how many miles you would have drive to make this economical.
Really Jim, how big is it?
to us about trade, immigration and taxes for half an hour and then took questions. David Cameron really had the crowd in the palm of his hand. He is elegant and appropriate. He said he would like to stay longer but he had to go meet Vladimir Putin in a few minutes. One does not keep that man waiting.
June Sarpong UK TV star, Craig Newmark & some guy
One of the organizers of Ungrounded was also a member of a discussion panel, Celestine Johnson. She is a partner at Eric Schmidt’s new venture firm Innovation Endeavors and her area of concern is human rights in the supply chain, a topic both very new and quite pressing. Her panel consisted of women in the forefront of media, tech and venture. Among the topics they addressed was why there aren’t more women in STEM. The answer goes all the way back to elementary school. One study shows that women comprise about 35% of the workforce in tech, and yet women run businesses have a 12% higher revenue and 35% greater return on equity. Interesting stats, no?
Thomas Heatherwick, the designer of the new London bus as well as the stupendous Olympic torch displayed at the Games last year told us about his design process (I would not want to have to follow him as an Olympic torch designer).
After a break for lunch the topic was the DNA Summit (Decide Now Act) with more great speakers, including the Secretary General of the United Nations ITV who came to us by live link from Geneva. He commented on our Ungrounded summit singling out the winning ideas for specific comment.
Afterwards, in a TED Conference fashion, there was vigorous mixing of the delegates in the public areas. Me, I passed out face first on the lawn from jetlag.
After the conferences we were taken off once more, this time for a reception at the Royal Academy of Art. This was yet another mix of people and I ran into a rather lot of folks who were Buck’s customers. I teamed up with some Stanford medical researchers and people from Singularity University in Mt. View. We went to one of those tony restaurants you see in the movies called Downtown Mayfair right between Savile Row and Regent Street.
The next morning I was up early for a stroll around London town. It was Saturday and the city had yet to wake up. The skyline is changing dramatically with skyscrapers emerging all round including what will be when completed the tallest building in Europe.
London is definitely on. I recall a time in the 70s when it seemed that it would really become the dystopian Clockwork Orangian fantasy. But there has been a town and city there for about 2,000 years and it has never been more vibrant.
Over by Hyde Park they were setting up barricades for a parade later that morning for the Royals who were celebrating the Queen’s birthday. The Queen would have to see me another time. I had a plane to catch.
So why on earth would an airline go to all this effort and expense in a field they are not in business in? Well in England British Airways is big. The way we look to Google here Londoners look to BA so they feel that by creating strong ties to Silicon Valley they will continue to be thought leaders.
When I first heard that a new university had been founded I was immediately struck by the inevitability of this being the brainchild of long time venture capitalist Tim Draper. Tim has had an abiding interest in education for quite some time. A few years ago he spearheaded an educational initiative on the California state ballot and he is also the founder of the successful Biz World program, which teaches basic business ideas to elementary school children.
So it is a natural extension of his egalitarian ideals to found a university. He bought the Ben Franklin Hotel in San Mateo and remodeled it into a campus with facilities for about 50 students to live there for the two-month sessions.The students come from all over the world and what they all have in common is that they want to be “in business”. This is not an MBA; it has a very different twist. Basically it’s about teambuilding, public speaking and a great environment to build confidence. Tim uses a superhero theme as the hook and he has the students break into teams for the duration. They work on individual and group projects culminating in final presentations.
Tim and his staff believe that creating a fun environment fosters creativity and team participation. Some of the activities can seem a little corny but try this: at Google new hires are expected to wear a propeller beanie hat when they first come aboard and are referred to as Nooglers. Imagine you are top of your class at Harvard and you have to dress in this less than hip fashion. It is partly to allow new hires to be greeted by the already arrived but it is also a way of saying “You aren’t as cool as you might think. Join the club.”
I have been fortunate to have been asked to lecture about my business history and that of The Valley and I have also worked with a number of students on their projects at Draper University.
Right now the whole affair is in the beanbag-chair phase but the learning is for real. People far more experienced than I have come forward to participate as mentors and lecturers. I sense the start of something durable and significant.
Most of the students have some college or have even graduated. They are bursting with ideas and high ideals. One of the outcomes of attending a semester at Draper University is to feel out the process of how it is to create a startup in an atmosphere far more forgiving than the much colder world of having to compete in the open market of ideas.
It’s often said that failure is in some sense good but I have always thought that failure is the second best lesson where there are just two lessons. So maybe instead of celebrating failure we should say that we are trailing ideas. Draper U is great place to do just that.
Many folks recall that the magnificent SolarImpulse solar powered airplane was here in the Bay Area recently. I had the great good luck to not only meet the people behind this effort but to get somewhat involved. The pilots and other key members of the team were living in Woodside while they were getting prepared for the first leg of their round the world expedition.
The two principals behind this effort are the Swiss adventurers Betrand Piccard and André Borschberg. The goal is to circumnavigate the world using only the power of the sun. It is impractical, dangerous and wildly expensive. It serves no clear business purpose. It is simply a magical mystery tour, just like our excursions to the moon. Except for scaring the Russians, there was no practical application in taking a car to the moon and hitting some golf balls. I know you’re thinking Tang and Velcro. It turns out these products were not first connected with the space program.What the moon adventure did was make being a scientist and an engineer, not to mention an astronaut, very cool and attainable goals for the youth of the nation. Compare that to the impact of writing the next cool iphone app and you might see a bit of difference.SolarImpulse was founded on the idea that we can all soar beyond our preconceived limitations. This was the message the founders gave to the sponsors and they have believed it to the tune of well over a hundred million dollars. The entire enterprise is expected to cost 140 million. And the funders aren’t aviation companies either. Among the biggest sponsors are Bayer (a multi-national conglomerate making everything from aspirin to appliances) and Schindler (an elevator company). Schindler probably hasn’t improved its elevators much with the materials science behind the project but Bayer certainly has. One of the structural foams used in the plane was so revolutionary that it is now being used as insulation in millions of refrigerators.It’s hard to say sometimes what the specific benefit of sponsoring something this esoteric is but many firms want to be associated with cool future-tense technology. And the fact is, one has to do something with one’s time and money. There are always folks who will say that feeding the poor is of first and only importance but we live in a world of vivid opportunities and the SolarImpuse team is adding to that.The plane itself is a remarkable piece of construction. It has the density of a dragonfly. The wingspan is greater than that of a 747 yet it weighs as much as a Prius. This fragility makes taking off and landing with any sort of wind a challenge but after 6,000 miles it has performed flawlessly. The aircraft takes over 30 technicians to fly while holding just one pilot.SolarImpulse has just completed the trip across the U.S. and now it will be retired. The next aircraft will be even larger so that it will be able to complete a trans Pacific jump that requires several days in the air without stopping. Bertrand is expected to be the pilot of that leg as he has been practicing deep concentration for long periods. Professionally he is a psychiatrist with a specialty in hypnotism and he says this project will make good use of this ability.Bertrand comes from a long line of adventurers. His grandfather, August Piccard, and a partner were the first men to the edge of outer space when they flew to 50,000 feet in a balloon in 1932. August had to invent the pressurized cabin to accomplish this as well as the pillow-stuffed wicker crash helmet. It seems the German FAA required crash helmets for the flight so the pilots used the seats from the gondola.
Bertrand, Jamis, Andre and Grandpa in his fabulous hat
Bertrand’s father was the deep sea explorer who went to the deepest part of the ocean, 35,000 feet in 1960 in the Trieste bathysphere.Bertrand set his own records including the first balloon flight to circumnavigate the earth. After 20 days he and his partner landed with only a couple of hours worth of fuel remaining. It must have been then when he decided that he would not take fuel on his next adventure.
Bertrand, some guy and Andre with grandpa w/helmet
If you’ve heard the name Captain Piccard from Star Trek it is a nod to this amazing family.Andre has his share of accomplishments as well. He has been a fighter pilot on the Swiss Air Force. The Swiss have an air force? Yes, and it is a volunteer one at that. The Swiss are a peace loving people despite the fact that adult males are required to keep automatic weapons at home in case of an invasion. So yes, a volunteer air force. Anyway Andre is an engineer and has launched several tech companies. He is the chief developer of the aircraft and, with Betrand, is the co-pilot.In 2015 the next aircraft will take our hopes and dreams on an around the world tour. Mine will be on board.