Moonshots, Tough Tech, and Not Falling in Love With Your Robot

Xconomy Boston — 

Before researchers at Google’s skunkworks labs embark on a new project, they decide when to kill it.

The technical and business teams set parameters for when to walk away from the “moonshot” idea to avoid being so seduced by the technology that they forget about the underlying problem it aimed to solve.

“It becomes less emotional when you have to kill the project,” says Hans Brøndmo, head of robotics at X, The Moonshot Factory, formerly known as Google X.

When a project hits the criteria and is stopped, the participants get a bonus, a vacation, and the chance to present findings to the whole company, he says.

“You need to have people who fall in love with the problem, not with the technology,” Brøndmo says. “Technology is a tool. It’s not the end in itself. There’s a tendency among technologists, perhaps among roboticists more than anyone, to fall deeply in love with these things we are making. When they start moving, your heart starts thumping.”

The importance of pursuing a problem, not a technology, echoed throughout the Tough Tech Summit hosted by the MIT-connected venture firm The Engine this week in Boston, where Brøndmo and a slate of other entrepreneurs presented tales of caution and inspiration to startups and investors working toward a breakthrough.

Startups at The Engine’s summit are hunting enterprises in space propulsion, metallurgy, fusion energy, energy storage, 3D printing, light-powered computer chips, A.I.-developed materials, quantum computing, self-driving cars, and other sectors. The companies, many of them university spinouts, range from a handful of employees to hundreds. (Reed Sturtevant, partner at The Engine, will be speaking along with two of the venture firm’s portfolio companies at X·CON 2018 next week in Boston.)

The naming conventions for this crop of technologists range from “tough tech to “deep tech,” “hard tech,” and even “real tech.” But maybe “foolish tech” should also be an option, if you follow the thinking of Danny Hillis, co-founder of Applied Invention and the parallel computing company Thinking Machines.

“Anyone who undertakes one of these tough tech problems is really in some sense doing something foolish,” Hillis says. “There’s much easier ways to make money. It turns out the things that change the world are those tough things—even though it’s kind of crazy and even though you are likely to fail—those are the only things worth trying for.”

It turns out that having that audacious, risk-taking culture could be what most helps teams shed preconceptions and make breakthroughs possible, Brøndmo says.

Try building a car that gets 50 miles per gallon or even 100 miles per gallon, Brøndmo offers as an example. Over time, engineers could chip away at issues and improve a car to reach that goal. But shoot for 1,000 miles per gallon, and they’d have to jettison conventional thinking about cars and combustion engines.

“Incremental change never inspired anyone,” Brøndmo says. He advocates setting goals on the order of 10-times better than the status quo, rather than a mere 10 percent better. “You have to throw out everything you know,” he says. “It forces you to start over. It forces you to think about the problem in [a] radically different way.”

A funny thing about moonshots, though, is they are still moonshots even if they have yet to achieve their vision and change the world on a large commercial scale. While some of Google’s X projects have been discontinued, some have “graduated” the lab and become companies, including the self-driving car venture Waymo and life sciences firm Verily. But those startups are still early and face enormous hurdles in trying to turn big ideas into big businesses. Bottom line: X’s certifiable technological revolution has yet to materialize. In the first nine months of the year, X’s parent company Alphabet (NASDAQ: GOOGL) reported sinking more than $2 billion into “other bets”—a category that includes X, Alphabet’s venture and equity capital arms, and other investments. Moonshots are moonshots for a reason.

One core challenge for young tough-tech enterprises is the heavy technical risk they carry as they push forward on, for example, designing a working fusion reactor. The issue with complex tech, put succinctly by Ginkgo Bioworks co-founder Jason Kelly, is “you got to know what the hell is going on,” which can lead to difficulties when hunting for talent and landing investment capital.

For talent, one answer could be roping graduate students into startups before they land in cushy corporate jobs or academic positions, Kelly says. On fundraising, entrepreneurs have to hustle to show incremental improvements in the technology along the way, much like Facebook and Twitter could promote increases in user counts long before they made a single dollar.

Much of “tough tech,” Kelly says, suffers from what he calls the “SpaceX problem”—the fact that some of the most important technological advances are the hardest to fund and advance.

“It’s pretty sad to me that there’s a decent chance that whole company wouldn’t exist without Elon Musk’s largesse,” he says. “That shouldn’t be a dice roll that SpaceX exists or not. There should be a healthy pipeline producing SpaceX’s if it’s the right time to have a company like that.”

Another risk lurking for complex technology companies is when development timelines stretch longer than their investors expect and the backers push the company away from the startup’s initial aim and toward a specific application that’s had proven results.

Hillis tells a story about his time at Applied Proteomics, which created a protein discovery platform, when investors drove the company to raise more money to develop a colon cancer test rather than pursue the broader platform that first interested the founders. The founders’ and investors’ goals “got out of alignment,” he says.

Hillis adds: “It’s sort of like you make this magic goose that lays a golden egg, and everybody lets the goose die and tries to bring the golden egg public.”

[Top photo by Sam Loyd downloaded from Unsplash and used in accordance with Unsplash free license.]