What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Sci-Fi: Previewing CU Law’s Event

On Friday, the University of Colorado Law School’s Silicon Flatirons Center will host its annual conference on entrepreneurship. This year the event comes with a twist: instead of discussing a topic such as fundraising, the conference, titled Sci-Fi and Entrepreneurship: Is Resistance Futile?, will be about what entrepreneurs can learn from science fiction. Brad Bernthal, director of Silicon Flatirons Center’s Entrepreneurship Initiative and a law professor, gave us his thoughts on the topic in this Q-and-A. He is one of the event’s organizers.

Xconomy: In the past, this conference was devoted to topics like angel investing and venture capital. Why take the conference in this direction?

Brad Bernthal: People come to Silicon Flatirons events for insights that are one-to-three years out. When Silicon Flatirons is on its game, attendees peek around the corners of what might be coming next, and what the causes of those events will be.

At the university, we can push the envelope in two unique ways. One role for us is to move the frontiers of knowledge. When we do a conference on early stage finance, like angel and VC investing, we tap into scholarship and experts, and we simply go deeper than most organizations. A second role for us is to cross boundaries to see what happens. We have access to world-class experts across diverse domains. When we cross the streams, to borrow a Ghostbusters metaphor, it jars loose new patterns of thought. This year’s conference takes advantage of the second type of contribution that we can make.

Silicon Flatirons’ agenda this year includes a lot of investigation about where novel ideas come from. Creativity is increasingly of interest to me, which may strike some as bizarre since I’m a law professor. But I think creativity—conceiving of something really new—is one of the highest human values. Whether an author crafts a spellbinding sci-fi thriller, or an entrepreneur comes up with a really new product, I’m fascinated as to how this miracle happens. Mounting evidence suggests the powerful effects of combining knowledge across industry and disciplinary lines.

We recently released a roundtable report, Boundary Jumping: Understanding the Value of Modest Anarchy in Entrepreneurial Networks, which explains why the exchange of information across disparate sectors is uniquely disruptive.

X: Why focus on science fiction?

BB: Brad Feld had a throwaway line at an event five years ago. Brad was asked what business books he would recommend. His answer: “I don’t read business books. I read science fiction.” That caught my attention. Around the same time, Michael Arrington wrote a TechCrunch piece that made a similar point. Shortly thereafter, a friend gave me canonical sci-fi books Neuromancer, Snow Crash, and Accelerando. I got it.

Sci-fi’s prescience in anticipating what would come in the future blew me away. For example, in 1984 Neuromancer discussed “jacking in,” a phenomenon that 30 years later we do on a daily basis. Snow Crash‘s notion of the “Metaverse” in 1992 anticipated the Internet and its successor in ways far ahead of its time. It convinced me that, in order to understand what is coming ahead, I should pay more attention to sci-fi.

X: What are some lessons science fiction has to teach entrepreneurs?

BB: Any founder that tries to do something disruptive, one, has to work out a plausible world that does not exist, and, two, convincingly share that vision with others. Science fiction authors engage … Next Page »

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