Resilient Tech: Investing in What Matters
At 5 years old, I marveled at the work ethic of ants as they built their homes — complex labyrinthes — sand grain by sand grain. The coordination of ants astounded me; they weaved together as a team seamlessly. Their persistence was unparalleled, maintaining focus for days and weeks at a time. The brilliance of the design and the commitment to their work was understandable. It was their home — their place of shelter and sustenance, nothing more important. I took this as evidence that perhaps ants were smarter than humans. But eventually, I learned why ants were considered lower organisms. They built their homes with total disregard to the high risk of demolition of their end product. One hard rain or a nose of a curious dog and their months of work were ruined.
What kind of species would ever put that much effort into something so important and leave it so vulnerable? To my surprise, as I got older, I realized that in fact humans were no smarter and no better in this regard. We were just as illogical, perhaps even more so since our cognitive capabilities suggest we should know better.
Even so, man has worked diligently for years on products and infrastructure that are core to our survival, only to find that they are later susceptible to destruction, just like an ant farm in my backyard. Our power grid, water source, health system, food supply and shelter are typically at great risk by our own design. Floods, strong winds, fires, earthquakes, heatwaves, and, more recently, pandemics, can render many of these products useless or even worse, harmful. Why work this hard on important products and critical infrastructure where the end result is so fragile? Many of these products not only risk the lives of humans today but threaten the future existence of the human race by risking the planet.
Today, humans are designing brand new technologies that are good for humans today and good for the planet in the long run. But how useful are these products if they cannot withstand predictable and inevitable stresses? It doesn’t make sense to build power lines that shut off during a snowstorm, a water system that crumbles during a hurricane, or a medical device that does not work during a health crisis.
As an investor and company builder, I am laser focused on developing “Resilient Technology”: products that are robust in design and function, bringing solutions to real world problems. With my partners at Material Impact and colleagues at Breakthrough Energy, we build companies and develop technologies that collectively have a mission of keeping the world healthy, safe, fed, warm, powered and secure, especially when things go wrong: Soft Robotics’ hand-like robotic grippers that eliminate the need for human contact in food handling, NextGen Jane’s remote diagnostic solution that enables patients to gather high-quality health data from the comfort of home or Zero Mass Water’s infrastructure-independent technology that decentralizes access to clean drinking water.
These products are most important during the toughest times for humanity. Given an unforeseen disruption or threat, resilient technologies continue to work with limited disturbance to businesses. While other companies “shut down,” our companies can stay the course. We have found that our steadfast commitment to true resiliency makes good business sense, in addition to good common sense. Getting beyond that ant-like mentality.