By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
In the beginning…there was no word from Silicon Valley tech leaders on Donald Trump’s presidency, despite his kingly proclamations: Let there be Two Pipelines, Let there be a Wall…Let there not be TPP!
But on the seventh day, tech leaders arose against Trump’s dominion over them when his immigration order unleashed chaos for their people. And so, on the 16th day, they filed a legal brief saying the order inflicted “significant harm on American business, innovation and growth.”
Today in San Francisco a US Court of Appeals will decide oral arguments in the case: State of Washington et al. vs Donald J. Trump et al..
I joined the BBC World Service’s Business Matters last night to report on Silicon Valley’s furious reaction to Trump. Venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse spoke for many in the valley:
“The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie…to be offensive, to be homophobic, to be xenophobic. Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!” Jean-Louis Gasse, Silicon Valley venture capitalist
Listen to the BBC World Service podcast, (my report starts at 5:15).
Here’s a transcript of our conversation (edited for length and clarity) and a longer version of my report:
Fergus Nicoll: Donald Trump says he is pro-business. But a lot of businesses, it seems, are not pro-Trump. They’re certainly not in favor of his attempt to restrict immigration. Almost 100 mainly tech companies have filed an amicus brief arguing that the ban – already the subject of a separate legal process – inflicts significant harm on American business. Who’s signed up? Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Twitter and belatedly Tesla. I’ll hand over to Alison in a moment – but first, let’s hear from Emily Dreyfuss at the tech news website Wired in Boston.
Emily Dreyfuss: By some estimates, half of unicorn startups in America were founded by an immigrant. These big companies, Apple, Google, Facebook: they depend on H1-B visa holders. 85,000 H1-B visas go to the tech community every year in America. This is affecting their bottom line. Yes, there is some risk but I think these technology companies are calculating that together they are stronger which is why they’ve signed on to this amicus brief. I think what we’re seeing here is a clash of ideology and business acumen. In this instance, Trump saying he’s pro-business is actually just talk.
Fergus Nicoll: Is that a fair summary then, Alison…the way it’s seen on the west coast?
Alison van Diggelen: Trump is saying that he’s pro-business (and I believe he intends to be), but it looks like his immigration ban has not been thought through… as to the impact it’s going to have on business. It’s been severely criticized .
I’ve been closely watching Silicon Valley’s reaction to the Trump presidency since inauguration day. When Trump issued that immigration order some Silicon Valley leaders were compelled to break their silence and take action. It’s an issue that’s split the US in two. A CNN poll shows about 53% oppose the ban. But today Trump has said that negative polls about the travel ban are “fake news.” He accused the NY Times of making up stories and sources. So my report explores why Trump is getting under Silicon Valley’s skin via this travel ban and the role of lies and fake news.
The day after he was inaugurated, Silicon Valley took to the streets to protest. Tens of thousands of marchers carried placards saying “Stop the hate”; “Words Matter”, and “Never Again.” I asked Patrick Adams, a local science teacher…What’s your message for Trump?
Patrick Adams: Get out of the way…this is a tsunami, this is people who care deeply about what this country really stands for – which is inclusion and love and hope – it’s unstoppable. This idea: that the trickle down economics of neoliberalism and the strange backward thinking of racism is going to lead us to a better world? It’s not, it’s a dead end.
Alison van Diggelen: In the first week of Trump’s presidency, it appeared like “business as usual” here in SV. On day seven, Trump’s immigration order lit the fire under SV.
By day 10, protests had broken out at several tech campuses; and business leaders came out of their bunkers to voice concerns about the order’s morality, not just its economic impact. It was personal: almost 60% of Silicon Valley engineers are foreign born.
I spoke with Meg Whitman, CEO of Hewlett Packard Enterprise, a company born here in 1939:
Meg Whitman: Our view is that this was a mistake. We are a nation of immigrants and a broad-brush sweep of seven countries, of Muslims in those seven countries, is not what America is. So I hope that the president rethinks…
If you think of the innovation that’s been done in the valley over the last 75 years, much of it is from people who came here from someplace else … that’s an economic engine of the country and an economic engine of the world…
Alison van Diggelen: Alphabet’s chairman, Eric Schmidt even described the Trump administration actions as “evil” but many responses were muted.
I contacted companies, from oil to solar; from startups to Fortune 500, but many declined to talk, even LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman who was an outspoken critic of candidate Trump. Why the silence?
Is it the prospect of Trump unleashing his Twitter followers? Kevin Surace, CEO at Appvance, a software company, sums it up:
Kevin Surace: No one wants the current leader of the free world to unleash something against them. And frankly as a CEO of a corporation, it’s your duty to your shareholders to not have the US government hate you…the last thing you want is the president saying: I’ve had it with your company, I’m going to slap tariffs on you…
Alison van Diggelen: Surace emphasizes that the stock market is up over 8% since the election and the Dow hit the symbolic 20,000 point milestone last month. Trump even hosted a “cordial” tech summit with many of the valley’s leaders. Three juicy carrots are now dangling their way: the prospect of infrastructure investment, a corporate tax cut and a huge tax break for the repatriation of $2.5 Trillion in corporate profits lying offshore.
Kevin Surace: If that all comes back to the US, it’ll be the biggest boom to the US economy, possibly ever. For the next 10 years, the economy will be on fire.
Alison van Diggelen: Nevertheless, venture capitalist, Jean-Louis Gasse addresses the disquiet in Silicon Valley. He points to H1-B visa concerns as well as a flood of uncertainties:
Jean-Louis Gasse: The stock market is up, up, up right now which we know could turn around on a dime…
It’s not good for biz to have too many uncertainties on immigration, on trade wars, on interest rates, on spending, on building a wall with Mexico…
Alison van Diggelen: Gasse was Steve Jobs’ right hand man when Apple first expanded into Europe. I asked him to sum up the Valley’s reaction to Trump:
Jean-Louis Gasse: They’re waking up to the fact that just like you need clean air and clean water… you need clean information for society to be healthy. It’s an issue of conscience for the people in tech to get up and say we’re going to fight fake news – especially the ones that stem from the top. The danger with an administration or a president like Donald Trump is that he gives permission to lie. … to be offensive…to be homophobic, to be xenophobic… Cultures are nothing but a system of permissions and those come from the top. When you see the President of the US lying – you have to stand up and say: it’s a lie!
Check back soon for part II when we discuss:
Elon Musk’s role in Trump’s economic advisory council and why his decision to stay is so controversial, especially after Uber’s CEO stood down.
And Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s CEO Carl Guardino’s advice to Trump.
Photo: Skyward CEO Jonathan Evans is convinced we’ll see “Jetsons” human-moving drones in 5 to 10 years
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Portland is better known for its environmental activism and the quirky comedy Portlandia
than its tech; but that reputation is beginning to change. This month, I visited two Portland startups that are helping accelerate the future of transportation through innovative technology for drones and autonomous vehicles. Skyward
, a drone operations startup, predicts that the Jetsons
future of flying cars is closer than we think. And in the fast-moving autonomous vehicle sector, Polysync’s
software is being widely used to speed up the development of self-driving cars.
“It’s harder to move from A to B and when you look at the sky, you have a blank slate. Within 5-10 years you will see human-moving aero robots that will be moving programmatically in space. It’s a lot like the vision we have of the Jetsons. It’s going to be much more on-demand, much cheaper, empowering all of us to be able to access the sky for whatever we want to,” Jonathan Evans, CEO Skyward
“That’s the problem with autonomous driving: each one of these sensing modalities has their limitations: some don’t see well in rain, in fog, at dusk. The Mobile Eye, what Tesla was using to detect lanes, some objects…that does very poorly at dusk….when the sun is head on. You really want backup, systems that are all corroborating its perception of the environment. In my opinion, the more sensing, the better,” Evan Livingston, Polysync Test Engineer
BBC tech writer, and Click contributor, Bill Thompson
shared some good insights on my report, emphasizing the importance of new drone regulations
that will help bring drones from the Wild West era to “civilization in the sky.”
Here’s a transcript of my report (edited for length and clarity).
BBC Click Host, Gareth Mitchell: Flying cars are part of the subject for our final item. We’re off to Portland, Oregon to its famous “Silicon Forest”, their counterpart to Silicon Valley in California. There’s a startup there working on flying cars, another is working on autonomous vehicles and we have this report from Alison van Diggelen, who’s been there.
Alison van Diggelen: My first stop was the Technology Association of Oregon. Its President, Skip Newberry is bullish about Portland’s growth prospects: in data, software development, and the Internet of Things.
Skip Newberry: I refer to Portland as having this Goldilocks phenomenon: we’re not too big, not too small, not too expensive and yet we also have some interesting amenities and international connections. We have a great quality of life.
Alison van Diggelen: He sent me to Polysync, a software startup that helps speed up the development of autonomous cars.
Polysync just earned a top 10 startup ranking at this year’s L.A. Auto Show.
Evan Livingston: On the right trigger we have acceleration, on the left trigger we have breaking. [Ambi: car accelerating and breaking]
Alison van Diggelen: In a converted warehouse, Polysync’s engineers test the software of autonomous cars to make sure all the sensors are communicating. Field engineer, Evan Livingston gave me a demo.
Evan Livingston: On this car, we have about 15 different sensors…we have 4 cameras that give us 360 degree views of the environment, we have six radars. We have 2 different LIDAR systems, and then we have a GPS inertial movement unit…so it gives us a very accurate location of the vehicle.
Alison van Diggelen: We discuss the recent fatal crash involving Tesla’s autopilot feature.
Evan Livingston: That’s the problem with autonomous driving: each one of these sensing modalities has their limitations: some don’t see well in rain, in fog, at dusk. The Mobile Eye, what Tesla was using to detect lanes, some objects…that does very poorly at dusk….when the sun is head on. You really want backup, systems that are all corroborating its perception of the environment. In my opinion, the more sensing, the better.
Evan Livingston sets up a demo of the Polysync software that connects the car’s 15 sensors.
Alison van Diggelen: Polysync’s team has doubled in size in this year, driven by partnerships with over 50 major car manufacturers and their suppliers. The company uses a 32-acre “mock city” campus near Detroit for testing. It’s called M-City. Here’s Polysync’s CEO, Josh Hartung.
Josh Hartung says MCity’s physical test track allows them to test near collisions and real world simulations.
Josh Hartung: They have cute fake buildings, and intersections, a small section of highway, little stop lights…. They have different ways they can trick an algorithm to think that it’s a real person with cardboard cutouts or inflatable targets. It’s one of the first in the world.
Polysync demo shows the car sensors in action
Alison van Diggelen: Across the Willamette River, I meet with Jonathan Evans, a former Blackhawk pilot in the army. He leads Skyward, an operations platform for commercial drones. He’s excited about how our perception of drones is changing as they touch our lives ever more closely…from fun toys to aerial surveys to even delivering breaking news.
Jonathan Evans: They look at this really beautiful piece of technology that is really like a flying cellphone. It’s gyro-stabilized, grid-oriented, information-oriented robot that can move ubiquitously in space… We take the pilots and the aircraft and we put them into the global airspace and help them conform to whatever the rules of the road are there. We were in the era of the Wild West… but now we have regulators that have provided us the channels to flow into responsibly. You can see a dramatic shift into civilization in the sky.
Alison van Diggelen: Evans thinks that drones will soon make (package) deliveries –even Internet delivery – and anticipates a paradigm shift in transportation.
Jonathan Evans: On the ground, things are getting much more clogged and it’s harder to move from A to B and when you look at the sky, you have a blank slate. Within 5-10 years you will see human-moving aero robots that will be moving programmatically in space. It’s a lot like the vision we have of the Jetsons. It’s going to be much more on-demand, much cheaper, empowering all of us to be able to access the sky for whatever we want to.
Alison van Diggelen: Silicon Valley companies may steal the limelight but behind the scenes, Portland’s “Silicon Forest” is making its mark on the evolution and impact of technology around the world. [Ambi: Skyward flight ops team, DJI Phantom 3 Professional drone]
Jonathan Natiuk: “That’s kinda cool, man!”
Gareth Mitchell: Are we really heading for the Jetsons in our lives, do you think Bill Thompson?
Bill Thompson: Well, I started off being really skeptical about this…but then I discovered a human carrying drone is being tested in Nevada, the eHang drone…the actual hardware is being built. It can go 100 km/hour. The hardware is there and what we hear from Skyward is that the regulation is starting to be there. That’s the crucial thing. It’s about making sure if we have the technology that can deliver these things. It fits into a broader regulatory environment, so it becomes both legal and as safe as it can be to do them. It took a long time for the automobile, for the car, to go from being something strange and mysterious to dominating our cities. I do think we will get to the stage where we’re using the skies in these new ways, so actually, yeah: it is coming.
Find out more about electric and autonomous vehicles, from Tesla to Hyperloop at Fresh Dialogues EV archives
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
Today began with news that Apple was in talks with British carmaker McLaren about a possible acquisition, linked to Apple’s “Project Titan” electric car. Rumors were later squashed by McLaren, but attention is still on Apple’s autonomous car plans and speculation is mounting.
Meanwhile, my friends at the BBC invited me to share my (verified) interview with new electric vehicle company, NextEV. This Chinese startup, with a growing R&D facility in Silicon Valley has just come out of stealth mode and plans to reveal its “supercar” in November. When I interviewed Padmasree Warrior, CEO of NextEV USA last month, she couldn’t reveal the specs of the car, but my investigations concluded that it would be autonomous. This week, her spokesperson confirmed that both the first generation NextEV cars, to be manufactured in China, and those to be made at a manufacturing facility in the U.S. will be autonomous.
Listen to my report at the BBC’s Business Matters. Our electric/autonomous car discussion starts at 32:46.
Here’s a transcript of our discussion and my report (edited for length and clarity)
BBC Host, Anu Anand: Apparently Apple is NOT in talks with McLaren as reported by the Financial Times. This all underscores the feverish speculation about driverless car technology and where the major tech companies like Apple are putting their chips and what they’re doing to prepare products for this market. This is something you’ve been looking at too, isn’t it Alison?
Alison van Diggelen: Absolutely. Apple is notoriously secret…It’s well known they’ve been working for two years on the electric car (Project Titan). The latest speculation says they may be in talks with a San Francisco startup called Lit Motors. There is a race for electric vehicle talent and Apple recently laid off dozens of its team and is looking to fill that gap. I’ve been talking with NextEV, a real electric car maker that’s just coming out of stealth mode. Its CEO, Padmasree Warrior, invited me to visit its brand new R&D facility in San Jose. Here’s my report:
The race for affordable electric vehicles is heating up around the world. Here in Silicon Valley, just 10 miles from the factory where Tesla makes its electric cars, NextEV, an electric vehicle startup is racing to get on the track. Former CTO at Cisco, Padmasree Warrior now leads the U.S. facility of this global startup with operations in China, Germany and the UK. Despite her lack of car experience, Warrior’s bold approach to beat Tesla in China is earning her the name: “Queen of the electric car.”
Padmasree Warrior: When you think about cars in the old paradigm…people used to talk about Horse Power…we think in the future people will talk about ease of use, user interface, Artificial Intelligence. And so the shift from HP to AI is one of the shifts that we will embrace much more rapidly. Our opportunity within China is to combine all of the capabilities from the mobile Internet to focus on user experience – from ownership, to maintenance to post ownership services.
NextEV US headquarters in San Jose is 85,000 square feet. When remodeling is complete, it will house a 10,500 square feet auto lab.
Alison van Diggelen: Energized by NextEV’s $1Billion in funding, Warrior and her Silicon Valley R&D team has gone from zero to 160 employees in about 9 months. It has attracted auto and software experts from the likes of Tesla, Apple and Dropbox. It’s this focus on the software that Warrior hopes will differentiate her products in a crowded race. She suggests that the touch screens on NextEV cars will be more actively utilized than Tesla’s and the car will automatically “know who’s driving it.”
New team member skill-sets suggest that features will include voice interaction and autonomous driving.
I asked her if building an attractive car was important too?
Padmasree Warrior: This is why we have a design center in Munich; we have an amazing industrial design team and styling expertise… We believe European design is unbelievably superior in the consumer product space.
Alison van Diggelen: NextEV’s founder, Chinese Internet billionaire William Li has a global strategy that aims to leverage each location’s comparative advantage and use virtual reality tools to make sure that all its teams are driving forward together.
Padmasree Warrior: Silicon Valley is obviously the place to be for looking at technology, looking at disruptions. China’s expertise is manufacturing, supply chain…obviously the market is there.
NextEV hopes to make a flying start in the Chinese market next year, but is keeping the specs of its cars under wraps, until the “supercar” is revealed before the year end. Co-President Martin Leach confirmed that their cars will definitely be cheaper than Tesla’s.
He spoke to me from NextEV’s London office:
Martin Leach: We’re not making a company for ultra millionaires and billionaires and then trying to transition the company to a more affordable solution…the supercar plays a role in our overall strategy, and is being developed alongside our other mainstream products… from day one.
The “living wall” in NextEV US Headquarters in San Jose, CA
With about 200 electric car companies in China alone, NextEV’s William Li has put his company’s chance of success at just 5%, but that doesn’t deter Warrior.
Alison van Diggelen: Although the odds are against her, Warrior – who’s known as a champion for women in tech – is following her own advice to women in business:
Padmasree Warrior: Be confident, go for what your dreams are. Sometimes, we second guess ourselves, we stay with what is comfortable rather than what we really desire to do. Take risks wisely, but take risks.
Alison van Diggelen: Her team in Silicon Valley is putting pedal to the metal to make it happen…
Continue listening to the podcast (@38:00) to hear our discussion about driverless car fears and the impact of this week’s Department of Transport guidelines for automated cars.
Find out more about Tesla’s plans and other Electric Vehicle developments at Fresh Dialogues
NB: As with all my BBC Dialogues and Reports at Fresh Dialogues, the copyright of this report remains with the BBC.
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
In 1996, space enthusiast, Peter Diamandis announced the $10 Million XPrize for the first private spaceship to fly 100 kilometers into space. The only problem was: he didn’t have $10 Million, not even close! Nevertheless, his audacious challenge inspired dozens of teams all over the world to compete and he did eventually find a sponsor…and a winning team. The dramatic story that helped jumpstart the private space race is told in Julian Guthrie’s new book “How to Make a Spaceship” which comes out on September 20th. The book has a foreword by Virgin’s Richard Branson and afterword by superstar scientist, Stephen Hawking.
I interviewed Julian and Peter at the Singularity University Summit and they shared their unique insights into the band of renegades who finally succeeded in winning the XPrize. Peter talked about how he was inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s historic transatlantic flight to win a $25,000 prize. Today, this original XPrize has spawned many others. Over $80 Million in XPrizes continue to drive tech innovation in energy, education, medicine and space exploration.
“This incentive challenge really touched a nerve globally and brought out this entrepreneurial spirit internationally. You had people taking big risks and sacrificing a huge amount…They were fueled by their own passions and obsessions, and dismissed their own fears and naysayers. There’s a lot of bravery in what was done.” Author Julian Guthrie
Last week, the BBC’s Tech Tent aired my interview with Peter. Listen to the podcast excerpt:
Backstage with Julian Guthrie, author of “How to Make a Spaceship”
Here’s a transcript of the introduction and report:
BBC’s Rory Cellan-Jones: It’s 20 years since a space-obsessed entrepreneur called Peter Diamandis launched a $10M to stimulate private space flight. The XPrize spurred dozens of teams around the world to compete for the money and the glory and today the private space industry is one of the most exciting – and risky – sectors of tech innovation. This whole story is told in “How to Make a Spaceship” published later this month.
We asked the Silicon Valley journalist, Alison van Diggelen, to interview Peter Diamandis. He told her why he’s glad Virgin’s Richard Branson turned him down as a sponsor for the first XPrize.
Peter Diamandis: I pitched Richard (Branson) twice. I thought he was the perfect person to do this…The fact that he didn’t fund it and make it the Virgin XPrize, which could’ve been a cool name, led him to the point that when the $10M Ansari XPrize was ultimately won, Richard came in and bought the rights to the winning technology to create Virgin Galactic. So instead of spending $10 million on the prize purse, he spent quarter of a billion dollars developing Virgin Galactic….which I was very happy about.
Alison van Diggelen: Let’s talk about the Cambridge physicist, Stephen Hawking. He wrote (in) the afterword for your book: “The human race has no future if it doesn’t go to space.” Can you explain what he meant by that?
Peter Diamandis: I had a chance to meet Prof Hawking through the XPrize. We’re actually working right now on an ALS XPrize…. When I met him back in 2007 I invited him to fly on a zero G flight. It was amazing to give the world’s expert on gravity the experience of zero gravity…He was asked why he was doing something kind of risky…for someone in a wheelchair…that frail, it could be dangerous.
“I want to promote space travel… If the human race doesn’t go into space, we don’t have a future.” Stephen Hawking
His concerns are the existential threats of nuclear war, killer virus, asteroid impact…I’m an optimistic guy. I think we have a bigger future if we go into space. The concept that Richard Branson, Elon Musk, Larry Page, Stephen Hawking, myself…that we talk about is the notion that: It’s time to make the earth a multi-planetary species…that we can back-up the biosphere. We have the ability to take all the knowledge, all of the genomes on this planet…and to take all the eggs out of one basket…
Alison van Diggelen: And talk about the technology. Some are saying: OK the private sector has entered the space race but we’re not any further forward than when man landed on the moon with NASA (Apollo missions). Talk about how the technology has changed with the private sector on a much more limited budget and a faster timetable.
Peter Diamandis: It’s astounding how fast the technology has changed. It’s night and day. It doesn’t come out of the large industrial military complex, which is risk averse, it comes out of an entrepreneurial mindset that’s willing to do something completely different. I give credit to Elon Musk and a team at SpaceX. They’ve pulled off the impossible. They’ve built the Falcon 9 launch vehicle which has a fully reusable first stage which could drop the cost of launching satellites into space by a factor of 5.
There’s sensors on board, there’s 3D printing engines on the vehicle. You’re mass manufacturing everything in house. You’re using the latest materials, machine learning, and AI protocols for design. You’re able to create a vehicle that was never heretofore possible.
This is for me is the most exciting time ever to be alive.
Bonus Material (these make the final cut)
Alison van Diggelen: Instead of thinking out of the box, you’re saying you should “think in a small box.” Explain that rationale.
Peter Diamandis: In Julian Guthrie’s book “How to make a spaceship” I demonstrate this. I said: This competition is over on Dec 31 2004. It’s not any spaceship to any altitude. It’s 3 people to 100km. You have to land and in two weeks do it again.
When you’re able to constrain the problem that’s when people can innovate. It gives them the ability to throw out all old ways of thinking and really innovate with something new.
Alison van Diggelen: What stimulated all this spaceship innovation?
Julian Guthrie: Innovations came from very unexpected places: entrepreneurs…these scrappy teams. Small teams can do big things and in this case they can make history. They have the ability to fail and then to move forward very quickly, and test new things. You’re not dealing with bureaucratic nightmares. You’re iterating – which is the key to success – that rapid pivoting led to a new iteration of (spaceship) design.
Alison van Diggelen: Steve Bennett (the UK rocket builder) talked about the “American mindset” of dream big. After all your book research, do you believe this mindset is exclusively American?
Julian Guthrie: What Steve Bennet is doing in the UK and telling kids: think big, follow your dreams, whatever your spaceship is, make it happen, is great! But I think there is a uniquely American quality to rolling up your sleeves…there is an American bootstrap mentality. This is the epicenter of that “ anything is possible ” mentality.
Find out more at Fresh Dialogues
My interview with Elon Musk re SpaceX
“I always thought that we’d make much more progress in space…and it just didn’t happen…it was really disappointing, so I was really quite bothered by it. So when we went to the moon, we were supposed to have a base on the moon, we were supposed to send people to Mars and that stuff just didn’t happen. We went backwards. I thought, well maybe it’s a question of there not being enough intention or ‘will’ to do this. This was a wrong assumption. That’s the reason for the greenhouse idea…if there could be a small philanthropic mission to Mars…a small greenhouse with seeds and dehydrated nutrients, you’d have this great shot of a little greenhouse with little green plants on a red background. I thought that would get people excited…you have to imagine the money shot. I thought this would result in a bigger budget for NASA and then we could resume the journey…” Elon Musk
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
“Making the world a better place.” This popular mantra of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is regularly ridiculed by HBO’s popular series, Silicon Valley. For sure, the valley is full of hyperbole and idealistic exuberance, and to many outsiders that may seem completely irrational, insane even, but perhaps it’s a necessary mindset for this innovative region? Are there some entrepreneurs who genuinely want to make the world a better place, not for PR reasons, or to boost their social media following; but just for the sake of it? I attended the 19th annual SVForum Visionary Awards to explore the question.
This is my first report for the BBC World Service tech program, Click.
Listen at the BBC Click podcast (Silicon Valley segment starts at @13:33)
Here’s a transcript of the segment, edited for length and clarity:
Click Radio host, Gareth Mitchell: This is Click from the BBC in London. We talk about technology every week and Silicon Valley is often on the agenda. It’s the kind of place where if you’re a company CEO, and you clock up, say a billion users, most people would say, ‘well that’s incredible,’ but in Silicon Valley, people are likely to say, ‘Oh really?’ It’s almost like a billion seems like a small number, such is the ambition about that place. But Silicon Valley likes to tell us it does have a beating heart through its Visionary Awards and this is where the valley recognizes CEOs and developers who really do want to make the world a better place. From the awards, we have this report from Alison van Diggelen.
Alison van Diggelen: Talk of revolution was in the air in Silicon Valley last week at SVForum’s Visionary Awards. With past recipients like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Esther Dyson, these awards have earned a reputation as the Oscars of Silicon Valley. Sam Liccardo, the mayor of San Jose, welcomed guests…
Liccardo: In Silicon Valley we do a great job of innovating; we do a terrible job of celebrating. And it’s important that we stop every once in a while and recognize those who’ve been leading the way and perhaps allow them to inspire us.
van Diggelen: Jennifer Palka is one of this year’s visionary award winners and wants to inspire a revolution by transforming the relationship of the American people with their government. She’s founder of Code for America, a nonprofit that leverages the innovative power of SV technology to help make government work more efficiently, cheaply and openly.
Pahlka: We’ve been trying to make the guts of government… as sexy as making Facebook. People are buying it… by coming into government, they can change the world.
van Diggelen: Remarkably, Code for America has managed to attract many top techies from companies like Apple, Adobe and Google who apply the SV playbook to government.
Pahlka: We believe that government can work better “for the people and by the people” in the 21st Century…the thing we are doing is bringing the practices of SV – user centered, iterative and data-driven approaches to solving problems – into government…by asking people to come and do a year of service.
van Diggelen: Code for America “fellows” make open source apps to address local issues. These are being scaled from local to national level. It’s now easier to apply for food stamps, connect with city hall via text, and get access to public records online. In San Jose, it helped inspire a (waste no food) app that helps hotels and restaurants redirect excess food to feed SV’s homeless. Pahlka’s innovative model has even been adopted by governments around the world. There’s a Code for Japan, Germany, South Africa, and Pakistan. But what really animates Pahlka is how it’s helping redefine SV’s role in the world.
Pahlka: Silicon Valley gets bad rap – we’ve transformed the world, but increased the inequality in our country.
Silicon Valley isn’t just about wealth creation; it’s about bringing people into our institutions in a profoundly valuable way that connects to the history of our country.
van Diggelen: The history of the United States and the need for an open Internet was also top of visionary award winner Tom Wheeler’s mind. A former tech entrepreneur and VC, Wheeler is now Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, the FCC, which regulates US phone and cable companies; and fights for net neutrality on behalf of consumers and innovators. Wheeler describes broadband as a major driver of economic growth and likens it to coal during the industrial revolution.
Wheeler: Broadband, high speed Internet is the essential “commodity” of the 21st Century… You can’t be in a situation where you’ve got gatekeepers deciding which innovators get on…
van Diggelen: The European Union is in the process of following a similar model.
But like many tech innovators, Wheeler has a long list of ambitions, including the fight for consumer privacy.
Wheeler: A network gets to see every place you go on the Internet, everything you do. In the phone world, they couldn’t sell that information without your permission. That doesn’t exist today for networks in the high speed Internet, so we’re proposing that it should. The consumer has right to say whether that information can be productized and sold by their network provider.
van Diggelen: As the celebrations come to a close, I asked serial entrepreneur, Kevin Surace to reflect on the evening.
Surace: We’re living in a time when the innovations are coming faster than we’ve ever seen – in the history of ever – we’re now seeing inventions as powerful as the fire or the wheel every month…the pace of innovation is unbelievable.
van Diggelen: A fitting end to an exuberant Silicon Valley evening, where everyone was pumped by the same revolutionary fervor: to make the world a better place.
Ambi –audience exuberance…fade out
Gareth Mitchell: Not that I want to bring the party down, but do they really want to make the world a better place? They might be nice people, but they’re running businesses, they’re pretty hard hearted entrepreneurs at the end of the day, aren’t they?
LJ Rich: There’s something called corporate social responsibility…it’s nice in a way that some companies would like to give back to the community, but it can’t hurt their social reputation, to be seen to be good, especially when you look at how a company’s social behavior is analyzed online and people will suffer if they’re behaving badly or in a way people aren’t impressed by. So yes, I think it’s very nice and altruistic, but there are always pluses to behaving in a responsible manner and some of these will definitely be impacting the bottom line.
Listen to the whole Click program, featuring reports on the future of the Internet; Wonderlab at London’s Science Museum; and a new virtual reality film called Valen’s Reef (about climate change’s impact on our oceans)
By Alison van Diggelen, host of Fresh Dialogues
This week, I met the “legendary” Tony Fadell at SVForum’s Visionary Salon in Palo Alto. Fadell has been called “the father of the iPod,” Google’s $3.2 Billion guru, among other colorful things, so I was intrigued. Here’s what I gleaned from our brief conversation:
On Working with Steve Jobs
Fadell learned to say “no” more than “yes” while working at Apple and he found creative ways to “disappear” when Jobs was in “one of his moods.”
But in 10 years of working with Steve Jobs, the Apple cofounder often revealed his softer side. For example, when Fadell became a father for the first time, Jobs took him for a walk and advised him not to over-schedule his child.
“Make sure they’re bored sometimes,” said Jobs.
What did he mean?
Fadell explains: Kids need the time to find themselves…be creative, and solve problems.
Although critics say he micromanages his teams, Fadell sees himself as a mentor (see more below).
On Google Glass
Glass is definitely a side project for Fadell…he checks in with his Glass design team sporadically. He’s still CEO of Nest and that remains his primary focus, since, as he underlines, “it’s actually shipping product.” He’s laser focused on making sure it’s being done right (see Leadership below).
On Tech Security
Fadell reckons people today are obsessed with tech security and that in reality “nothing is secure…people in the security business are stirring up the shit.”
On Moving Meditation
Fadell starts his work day at 5:30 am and does what he calls a “moving meditation,” be that running, or yoga (one hour, three times a week). That gives him time to problem solve and prepare for his “roller coaster” day of “back-to-back” meetings.
I challenged him to demonstrate one of his favorite poses: the Vriksasana, or tree pose and as you can see…he likes a good challenge.
For non-yogis out there, it’s a great pose for increasing balance, focus, and memory. It also strengthens your feet, ankles and knees.
The main event at the salon was an excellent fireside chat between Fadell and Kevin Surace, SVForum board member and serial entrepreneur. I’ll post a link to the video here, when it’s available.
Here are some of the highlights of that conversation and my observations:
Make sure your projects don’t take over 18 months to ship, otherwise “it’s impossible to keep your team together,” says Fadell.
Although Fadell has lost several key members of Nest recently, he insists that his young team “need mentored to grow into the next leaders in Silicon Valley.” He says that those who walk out the door are examples of “the Tinder generation.”
Like Steve Jobs, Fadell has a reputation for being an intense leader, a micromanager or even a bully.
As Ben Austen so eloquently describes in Wired, “Steve Jobs has become a Rorschach test, a screen onto which entrepreneurs and executives can project a justification of their own lives: choices they would have made anyway, difficult traits they already possess.”
Perhaps Fadell needs to do a little more yoga and a little less yelling?
Larry Page vs Steve Jobs
Fadell characterizes his new Google boss, Larry Page as “an incredible scientist” who respects products and likes deep research to push the limits of technology. By contrast, he found Steve Jobs more focused on marketing, “more business, less science” and says he often took, or even “stole ownership of ideas.”
Fadell says before joining Apple, he’d had 10 years of failure, at General Magic and other enterprises. In 1998 he was a DJ in his spare time, and founded a hardware startup for music collections. He made about 80 pitches to VCs without success. It was the intense fear of failure that helped him stay strong in negotiations with Steve Jobs. He agreed to work on what would become the iPod, only after Jobs assured him, “if you can build it, we’ll put every marketing dollar into this.” And of course, the rest is history.
Should tech companies build cars?
Fadell gives this question a resounding “YES!” He describes a recent meeting with some members of the board at Ford, “I could see fear in their eyes,” he says.
He views cars – especially self-driving cars – as “lots of computer with a little bit of car,” and says that car companies “need to do a 180 and compete with computers on wheels.”
Find out more:
See lots more photos of SVForum’s Visionary Salon
Top Silicon Valley entrepreneurs share success insights at Fresh Dialogues
An in-depth interview with Tesla CEO, Elon Musk