Eric Tang's Blog

Startups, Software, Everything Wildcard

Of Flying Cars and Meal in a Pill

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If you haven’t watched this video of the debate between Marc Andreessen and Peter Thiel, you should. It’s some of the best content I’ve consumed in the past 6 months, and I highly recommend watching it.

I really like the way Andreessen describe the Internet. While the internet alone is not enough to “save innovation”, it will be the information backbone for almost any new innovation going forward. Self-driving cars, wearable smart devices, or even cancer treatment will rely on it. At its core, the internet is an information management / distribution system, supported by governments and some of the biggest corporations in the world. It takes in information and sends it to the people who want it with incredible speed and accuracy. Since almost everything with significant impact needs management and distribution, the internet will be the most important piece of support infrastructure for innovation in the foreseeable future.

One of the downsides of the internet infrastructure as a distribution system is the restriction of wired networks. Since we haven’t figured out how to economically scale satellite data transmission, the next best thing is local/regional wireless transmission. To that extend, mobile will be a larger infrastructure than the internet today. For one reason or another, mobile hardware did not pan out like the open architecture of PCs. This places a lot of trust on companies for an open ecosystem to create enough room and incentive for innovation. The iPhone might not be the best suited for connecting self-driving cars, but they have the best distribution and that’s valuable. It’s too great of a hurdle for someone to create a self-driving car control panel that plugs into the iPhone, when Apple is charging developers ridiculous fees just to connect through the data port. Of course they are not trying to make a buck here, it’s a “more acceptable” way to limit competition and that’s why almost all hardware innovations on top of the iOS ecosystem has been low-data-transmission devices like Square or Kinsa that go through the headphone jack. Open access to widely distributed hardware will be important to the mobile ecosystem and sustaining the rate of innovation.

It’s exciting to think about innovation in the fields of energy, raw material, transportation, and bio tech. Andreessen and Thiel talked a lot about the obstacles in these fields, but I’d like to think about the ideal situation. For example, energy is a highly controlled and regulated field. Most people make money in energy because of the lack of innovation. It’s all about supply chain control and price control. Fracking is the “latest and greatest” in oil, but it was first invented and commercialized in the 40s. It took close to 70 years and multiple wars for it to be as big as it is today. What will it take for there to be as many energy hackers as there are javascript hackers? It’s not because there are less energy / chemical engineers. It’s because of the (negative) hollywood effect and the lack of clear path to success. Being a code hacker means you will at least be financially self-sufficient, with the possibility of creating the next Napster or Facebook and have huge impact. Being an energy hacker means you will probably be jobless, have no prior examples to follow, and eventually be acuqa-hired by one of the 3 giant corps in your industry for pennies while they go on and use your technology to make millions.

Equally as important is the business side of these industries. Not just venture capital, but also “business guy” founders, marketers, community management, etc. It takes a few successful examples and some marketing to set a trend, but it will be hard for these examples to come from within the industry because of its ingrained culture. University research groups / outsiders might be better positioned to create new innovation in these industries, and software startups have created a great model of operation. The key here is for the ecosystem to provide enough support so these young companies can survive on their own. Even though the constraints are different, energy / transportation / bio tech startups can take a lot of the same principles when it comes to figuring out product-market fit, creating communities, human-centric design, etc.

Btw, who do you think won the debate? Personally I liked Thiel’s arguments better - more quantitative and less anecdotal, but I agree with Andreessen that innovation is happening faster than ever before.

Flying cars and meals in a pill are figurative imagination from the past, and we have embodiments of these concepts today. Think Google self-driving cars and new dietary movement (juice, protein shakes, multi-vitamin pills and other meal supplements) With the macro trends like the hardware renaissance and biohacking, I’m very excited to see more entrepreneurs in other engineering disciplines.