What Are You Waiting For- A Certain Shade of Green? Core Science & Tech Development

Solving difficult scientific or engineering problems has proven itself to be the greatest benefactor of long-term growth and development. However, finding support for fundamental technological developments has come increasingly under fire in recent years.

From “Amusing Ourselves to Death” By Neil Postman, a book about the possibility that Aldous Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

It is not just crying wolf, and we have all heard this message before, funding for science is low, the space program takes cuts, fewer technical majors, Justin Bieber is more popular than The Doors.

A fantastic metric to determine whether our resources, in sum, are being allocated fruitfully is to look at pooled returns of venture fund indexes. Starting with its birth in the 1960s, to the 1990s. Venture capital had excellent returns, and it often closely associated with the high-capital, slow-growth, semiconductor and biotechnology industries.

VC funds have posted negative mean and median returns, starting in 1999 through the present. A small fraction of firms are the exception.

In the new millennium however, we have encountered a new paradigm for returns amongst these indexes, a shift from funding transformational technologies to supporting companies solving incremental, or “hype” based problems. A shift from long-term garden like growth, to one equivalent to big game hunting. Steve Blank, who is invested in Ayasdi, said it best recently, stating:

If investors have a choice of investing in a blockbuster cancer drug that will pay them nothing for fifteen years or a social media application that can go big in a few years, which do you think they’re going to pick? If you’re a VC firm, you’re phasing out your life science division.

This perspective is beyond the bubble argument, or the oscillations of markets. It marks the creeping penetration of triviality into our investment culture. Furthermore, it is not a decision by any individual, rather the whole return of investment ecosystem has created an illusion highlighting consumer, social, and entertainment products.

Illumina HiSeq systems, a core technology driving contemporary life-science discoveries.

Venture is often associated with bravely expanding our horizons, to seek out new lands, and bring back riches that will ensure growth for generations to come. Where will we go after all the shoe stores, and match-makers have migrated online? Once the saturation of social media has reached nauseating ubiquity? To truly create long-term returns, that assure the future financial stability of the investor, scientist/engineer, and society we must lead, not follow the bandwagon, or be part of the “me too” culture.


“Cambridge Associates LLC U.S. Venture Capital Index® And Selected Benchmark Statistics” 2011

“Lessons from Twenty Years of the Kauffman Foundation’s Investments in Venture Capital Funds and The Triumph of Hope over Experience” 2012

“What Happened To The Future” – FoundersFund Manifesto


Filed under BigPharma, Genomics

2 responses to “What Are You Waiting For- A Certain Shade of Green? Core Science & Tech Development

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  2. Important post, and a lamentable state of affairs. It’s worth addressing why things are as they are, particularly in the US. The first question we need to ask: where would the money come from?

    1) Government/taxes: with the dog-eat-dog, every man for himself, taxes-are-theft-and “I don’t want them going to the ‘undeserving'” culture not going anywhere anytime soon, despite the continuing efforts or many, this one cannot be counted on. Changing this culture will likely take many decades of effort. DARPA remains the one bright spot here (even if obliquely) as blue-sky, big money projects can still happen without the ROI-demanders sitting on its shoulder all the time. We should always remember that the balanced-books, transparent-everything, everyone-is-accountable culture is a double edged sword; it protects investors and the public, but it also means that big chances can not or will not be taken due to the possibility of people being taken off the project/fired/ridiculed for being “financially irresponsible.” There’s no easy answer to this one either, as there’s a fundamental conflict of values, perceived needs, and perfectly valid worries about corruption/fraud/waste.

    2) Large, well-heeled companies. Right now, these probably offer our best hope for progress. The Googles and such of the world have massive cash holdings; an ostensible desire to make technological/scientific progress; a desire by its leaders to truly make their mark; and a company culture that allows significant freedom. The self-driving car and Google Glasses are two recent prominent examples. Of course, not every company has the right combination of money and culture to make this happen, but this is all we’ve really have at the moment.

    3) The people directly. Unfortunately, too likely difficult to make a dent in the needs of scientific researchers and their projects. With more people every more strapped for cash (if they even still have a job), along with a bewildering array of possible choices of types of research and/or institutions to support, and an often fad-driven set of behaviors, I don’t think there’s much hope here either. Even if you could get people focused with a Kickstarter-for-science (e.g., petridish.org) the amounts needed for truly large projects that help humanity (truly long-term life extension, difficult disease research, the works) just aren’t likely to be raised. I would love be proven wrong here, but as interesting as some of the projects that get funded are (and I hope they succeed – I’m happy to hear about the evolution of cooperation in vampire bats) it’s not enough to tackle the problems and questions.

    In the US and many other parts of the world have become steeped in a short-termist, fastest ROI culture which is going to be difficult to dislodge. We should also be thinking about /why/ this is. Why are we short-termist? Part of it is the zeitgeist – the world is changing more quickly than some/many are able to process; growing fears about the future, justified or not; the fear that it may just all end tomorrow – so why bother making long term investments in anything? You could even think of it as a kind of renewed undercurrent of subconscious eschatological feeling running through societies. Until we can address these issues, I think that the underfunding of science will continue. We should hope that Google and its ilk can make real progress in the interim, while trying to change the culture that leads to this (I hold out no hope whatsoever for improvements through legislation any time in the near-to-medium term.)

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