Deep Dives

Shooting For The Moon: How Tech Will Shape Our Future

Naveen Jain’s first company, Infospace — which started out by focusing on content and services for websites — was created during the Internet dotcom boom. While that company had big ambitions, Jain is now shooting for the moon. Moon Express, the third company he has cofounded, is attempting to build machine-operated spacecraft that can mine materials like gold, cobalt, platinum and Helium-3 (nuclear energy fuel) on the moon. It won a contract from NASA and is participating in the
Google Lunar X-Prize.

Without even waiting for Moon Express to launch its first spacecraft, Jain
is already busy working on his next moon shot, a startup called Viome,
that seeks to prevent chronic diseases by examining the microorganisms
in users’ guts and counseling them on how to keep healthy.
Jain, a scheduled speaker at Slush, a technology conference taking place
in Helsinki on Nov. 30 and Dec.1, is one of a number of tech entrepreneurs
who are embracing moon shots, ambitious projects that address big
problems and propose radical solutions using breakthrough technology.
While the Internet revolutionized communications, today a whole host of
powerful technologies are converging, bringing about exponential change
and opening up the possibility for tech entrepreneurs to tackle challenges
that in the past only governments could handle: space exploration, the
eradication of diseases and ensuring an abundance of food, energy and
water. “None of these things are impossible any longer,” says Jain, “and
the cost is coming down so that it can be privately funded.”
Jain, who grew up poor in India and became a billionaire after moving to
the United States, says he believes the next set of superpowers will be
entrepreneurs, not nation states. “For the first time in human history a
small group of people can do things that only nation states could do before,” says Jain. “We no longer have to rely on the government to impact society, whether it is going to space or solving the problem of healthcare or the clean energy talked about in the Paris Treaty — these things will be solved by entrepreneurs.”

A Call To Action

Technology is at a point where it could potentially solve the world’s biggest
problems, but for that to happen more entrepreneurs will need to make
moon shots. Al Gore, a politician and environmentalist who served as the
45th Vice-President of the United States, is scheduled to speak at Slush
about the need for entrepreneurs to help solve climate change.
Executives at Bayer Foundations, a branch of Germany’s global drug and
agriculture company that focuses on frontier science, social pioneers and
startups with impactful tech innovations, will use their time at Slush to
search for startups with technologies that will impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people across the globe. The German entrepreneur Harald Neidhardt, who co-created one of a select few health-related projects funded by the Bayer Foundations (see the story on pages 30 and 31), will promote a HeroX competition at Slush that aims to encourage one million people in the developing world to become entrepreneurs over the next 30 years. (See the competition details at the bottom of page 12.) And Bill Liao, a general partner at SOSV, a global fund that accelerates over 150 startups a year in verticals that include synthetic food and health, plans to talk to entrepreneurs at Slush about the importance of purpose. SOSV’s core purpose is “making the impossible inevitable,” says Liao. “It is not a slogan. It is what we do. Produce things that the world needs and set the stage for a massive shift in what biology is going to do to solve global grand challenges.”
There is good reason for this flurry of activity: global issues that urgently
need to be solved. The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable
Development and the Paris Agreement require an unprecedented
mobilization of both public and private finance — some $90 trillion over
the next 13 years. Only a fraction of that funding has been spent, says the
Slush attendee Marc Buckley, Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project Country
Manager for Germany and Austria and a jury member and open innovation
advisor to the Bayer Foundations. “Between 2015 and 2016 we did not
even spend $1 trillion,” says Buckley. He adds that Bayer Foundations,
which invests $15 million per year through all of its various programs, has
trouble giving out its grants. “There is plenty of money but there are just
not enough good, impactful innovations,” he says.
“This is not about a 3-, 5- or 10-minute pitch. It is not about a TED talk
about how to save the world. Impactful Global Solutions are complex
systems and dynamic models. What we want is business models that
address all aspects of complete systems and the global challenges we are
trying to solve in our world — whether it involves agriculture, food, water,
or power,” says Buckley. “Most companies are only doing one aspect and
those will not have sustainable resilient long-term impact.”

Systems Approach

A systems approach is necessary because problems are so complex. Take
the example of two of the world’s biggest problems: a lack of food and of
clean drinking water. Technology pioneers such as Indigo Agriculture are
using plant microbiomes to strengthen crops against disease and drought,
to help farmers sustainably feed the planet and reduce water use in
agriculture. (See the story pages 34 and 35.)
That is helpful, but it only solves part of the problem because the majority
of agriculture is used to fuel cars and feed animals. When it came to
introducing electric vehicles, which remove the need for fossil fuels and
bio-fuel production, big car manufacturers initially dragged their heels.
Then the entrepreneur Elon Musk came along and launched Tesla, which
earlier this year reachedamarket capitalization that surpassed that of Ford
Motor Company and General Motors. Tesla’s progress has spurred the big
auto companies to up their game. On the same day in November that Tesla introduced a new all-electric truck and an electric sports car that goes from
0 to 60 miles per hour in 1.9 seconds and has a 620-mile range, the
Volkswagen group announced it had approved a €34 billion spending plan
to accelerate its efforts to become a global leader in electric cars.
Memphis Meats — one of SOSV’s investments — is among a number of
startups helping ease the other part of the issue: It creates beef from selfreproducing cells, producing an animal-based product but avoiding the
need to breed, raise, and slaughter huge numbers of animals. (See the
story on pages 36 and 37.) Electric cars and lab-produced meats result in
more food for people and lead to huge reductions in water and land use.
If you eliminate cattle farming then you also eliminate the massive amounts
of methane that cows produce and which harm the environment.
That is why the Bayer Foundations’ new focus is finding entrepreneurs
aimed at disrupting agricultural, food and beverage industries. “Globally
these industries are responsible for the majority of climate change,” says

The Case for Change

These industries and others are in for a big shakeup. The $90 billion
global meat industry — which includes cattle farms, butchers,
slaughterhouses — is being transformed, as is real estate, since land use is
set to change radically. “There are 71 markets out there that are ripe for
disruption and it promises to be a lot worse than what happened to
Kodak.” says Buckley. “This exponential disruption will not only occur
because of the quantum leaps start-ups are taking in the digital age but because of the quantum leaps start-ups are taking in the digital age but
also due to the globally unknown effects of climate change and
deteriorating infrastructures.”
In the case of food, “there are 10 big companies out there that control all
of the brands — Nestle, Kraft, Unilver, Coke, Pepsi, etc — and in agriculture
when it comes to seeds it is DuPont and Montsano. This has to change if
we are going to feed all of the people we need to feed,” says Buckley.
Agriculture is also facing radical change. “The world is losing 23 global
hectares a minute to soil contamination and drought; five years ago it was
12 global hectares,” says Buckley. “If you think a new country the size of
Brazil is going to come along or a new place where we can grow crops
outdoors I will tell you that you are wrong,” he says. “We are going to
have to get vertical and go multilevel and build closed greenhouse systems
and use land more efficiently and use solar power and ambient water
harvesting.” Today 30% of everything the agriculture, food and beverage
industry produces “is thrown away, which is a 10x waste and then comes
back to bite us as methane which is 70% more effective at trapping heat
than CO2,” says Buckley.
What’s more, “we do not know what kind of climate calamities will come
upon us but if we do not have a resilient sustainable infrastructure in place
we will experience food security issues and other problems,” he says.
Puerto Rico is a case in point. Its agriculture sector was decimated by
Hurricane Maria, resulting in a 90% loss of local and regional food
sources. This type of devastation is due to climate change and if there is
no resilient sustainable infrastructure in place, the recovery takes years,
says Buckley. “This can prove to be devastating for humanity that needs to eat daily. After all food is our energy source. This is one big reason why
we can hear talk about the Anthropocene and that humanity may be
facing the sixth mass extinction.”

A Solution to Waste

Buckley is frustrated by what he sees to be limited efforts by the food and
beverage companies to change their business models and do less damage
to the environment. “If you are driving down the road in the wrong
direction and you slow down by 60% you are still going in the wrong
direction, just slower,” he says. “We need to stop and start going in the
right direction. If you tell me you are doing some minor changes or good
pilot (test) projects, or reductions in your green house emissions you are
still damaging our environment and killing people, you are just doing it

Waste from the food and beverage industry includes mountains of singleuse
plastic containers. The UN has estimated that yearly damage from
plastic pollution in the ocean is $13 billion, due to impact onmarine life,
tourism and fishing. That is not all. Globally, 30% to 40% of food
produced for consumption is wasted. If food waste were a nation, it
would rank third in the world for harmful emissions, according to
OpenIDEO. An American startup called Full Cycle Bioplastics is aiming to
solve both of those issues by converting food waste into a fully
compostable bioplastic. As for the plastic that is already there, Boyan Slat,
a 23-year-old Dutch entrepreneur, has raised $30 million for The Ocean Cleanup, an initiative that aims to eradicate the Great Pacific Garbage
Patch, one of the most polluted areas of the ocean, using a boom to
capture plastic and keep it in areas where a boat can pick it up. These
are just some of the many examples of the rise of the non-expert, people
fromoutside industries who come up with novel approaches because they
see things from a completely different angle and just go out and do it. A
UK start-up called E-leather is another example. Its late founder, Chris
Bevan, was told that what he set out to do was impossible. Up to 50% of
natural leather hide is wasted and often destined for the landfill. E-leather
is using that waste by recycling it into a more durable, light-weight
leather, saving over 5,000 tons of traditional leather waste from landfill
– the equivalent of the weight of over 100 narrow-body aircraft.
Not only is E-Leather selling its leather to airlines who use it for seat
upholstery to save weight, fuel and money, in September the company
signed a partnership agreement with Nike, which is producing a sport
shoe made out of the material. A French startup called Pili is also doing
its part, by changing the environmentally toxic process used tomake dyes.
It makes biosynthetic dyes as a cleaner alternative to petrochemical
syntheses or heavy-metal-containing pigments.

The Human Factor

Technology could also help solve some of the developing world’s biggest
problems, including the recording of births and deaths, financial exclusion
and inaccuracies and fraud in property registration. More than a billion
people do not have a recognizedmeans of identifying themselves, leaving
them without access to healthcare, education, government assistance and
financial services. The Swiss technology firmWISeKey’s digital identity
dual factor authentication sits on top of the blockchain, an immutable ledger that allows third parties to validate that an original digital identity
or attribute certifications have not been changed or misrepresented.
This and other similar new technologies could help the United Nations
achieve its goal of helping everyone in the world have a secure digital
identity by 2020, paving the way for a better life both for citizens of the
developing world and for refugees. Already the Finnish Immigration
Service has begun providing unbanked refugees with prepaid Mastercards
rather than cash. These prepaid cards, which were developed by the
Helsinki startup MONI, also provide refugees with a unique digital identity
stored on a blockchain and could be adopted by refugee camps throughout
the world.
Entrepreneurs are also helping to improve the plight of the some-60
million displaced people in other ways. The German entrepreneur Neiderhardt co-developed with Cisco a refugee first response mobile
medical center out of converted shipping containers and outfitted it with
advanced technology tools that allow the translation of patient-doctor
dialogue into 50 languages. Technology is also finding unique approaches
to solving healthcare issues for millions — if not billions — of people.
For example, Israel’s Zebra Medical Vision teaches AI-powered computers
to automatically read and diagnose medical imaging data, allowing
healthcare institutions to identify patients at risk of conditions like
emphysema and coronary artery diseases and offer preventative
treatments. It recently introduced a new suite that offers all of its current
and future algorithms to healthcare providers globally for $1 per scan.
The company says its aim is to make it possible to deliver healthcare to
the next billion people who will join the middle class by 2020. Artificial intelligence is also enabling a breakthrough in the fight against malaria,
which each year kills almost a half a million people. Malaria is one of the
hardest diseases to identify on a microscope slide. So the Global Good
Fund, a collaboration between Intellectual Ventures and the Microsoft cofounder
Bill Gates to develop technologies for humanitarian impact, has
just announced a collaboration with the advanced microscope designer
and manufacturer Motic China Group to create a distribute the EasyScan
GO, an AI-powered microscope to fight the spread of drug-resistant
malaria and assist in its case management. Using custom image
recognition software, EasyScan GO is capable of identifying and counting
malaria parasites in a blood smear in as little as 20 minutes.
Intellectual Ventures said it bases its work on “reverse innovation,” the
idea that to successfully tackle big problems like malaria, technology has to be invented explicitly for conditions in the developing world such as
lack of consistent electricity and poor technician training, rather than
being retrofitted to those settings. Often these technologies are disruptive
enough to be re-deployed back to higher-income markets for profit,
creating a market incentive for commercial partners. In the case of
EasyScan GO, the microscope was built to tackle malaria, but Intellectual
Ventures is now exploring going after some forms of cancer in partnership
with Motic.
Other advanced technologies could do everything from help relieve the
global shortage of organ donors to eliminating chronic disease. Prellis
Biologics prints human organs in a laboratory setting. The company aims
to address organ donor shortage and provide human tissues to streamline
the development of therapeutics. As its first product, the startup is
developing insulin-secreting units of the pancreas to help people with
Type 1 Diabetes. Viome, Jain’s venture, and a number of other startups,
including Ubiome, are offering new services that sequence the
microorganisms that live in the digestive tract. The companies say they
can do things like make diet recommendations and predict risk for certain
diseases based on a person’s unique microbial makeup. If it lives up to
its promise, Jain says analysis of microbiomes could prevent people from
developing chronic diseases.

Shooting for the Moon and Beyond

By why stop at solving earth’s problems? Jain says he believes it is possible
to make other planets livable for humans. “That’s the ultimate goal,” he
says. “The moon is the first stepping stone. If we manage to make the
moon the eighth continent then we can go and live anywhere else.”
Jain dreams about bringing resources back to Earth, such as Helium-3,
“which could power this planet for generations to come.” And he believes moon rocks may someday replace diamonds. DeBeers made a fortune out of associating diamonds with love. Jain envisions a marketing campaign that says “If you love her enough, give her the moon.” Moon Express is one of five companies competing for the Google Lunar X prize. If none of them manage to makeamoon landing by March of next year, the total of $30 million in promised prize money may be rescinded. That doesn’t faze Jain.
“I am confident that we will launch by the end of March,” says Jain. “If not the prize may be extended or someone else could fund a prize. It doesn’t really matter. We are building a business that can survive with or without a prize.”As Moon Express hopes to prove for entrepreneurs ready to make moon shots, the sky could literally no longer be the limit.

About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.