Connecting dots
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Connecting dots

How US business should navigate the culture wars + a peek into the next wave of innovative technology

a window into boundless opportunities in 2 questions and a prediction with Jason Pontin

2015 onwards will likely be remembered as an inflection point in US corporate history as the accelerating culture wars dragged businesses into the political arena.

I covered this in 2020 before businesses descended into politics The silence from US business in this disruptive era has deep roots (Oct) and “It can’t happen here”

I reached out to Jason Pontin to get his insights on this and on the next wave of technology innovation.

Jason Pontin is a Partner at DCVC, where his belief that emerging technologies and new scientific insights can solve urgent challenges and expand human possibilities inspires his investments in Deep Tech and life sciences companies. Among his operational responsibilities at DCVC, he helps portfolio companies tell their stories. Jason was CEO and editor in chief of MIT Technology Review and editor of Red Herring magazine, the bible of the dot.com boom.

Q1 After a slow start US business has descended into the political arena, do you see this as a plus or minus ? How can US businesses navigate this minefield ?

It may be perilous for US companies to descend too precipitously into politics. Businesses should choose issues carefully, so that causes are aligned with brands and strategies.

There are good reasons why many businesses historically avoided politics, except when it bore on their lobbying. For better and worse, inside and outside the US, American brands mostly wanted to stand for a sunny, optimistic, unobjectionable vision of America as the land of opportunity and broadly based liberal rights and privileges. Now, partisans are asking companies to choose sides in highly contested culture wars.

But choosing sides in culture wars means companies are going into battle against large numbers of their customers, particularly outside the US. America has become an extreme place, quite unlike the rest of the world. So whether a company chooses to march with the forces of reaction on the Right or the troops of progressivism on the Left may not translate well nationally or internationally.

“Apple has advocated for issues closely aligned with its brand and strategies: causes consonant with that unobjectionable liberalism”

A few companies have done a good job choosing the right causes. Apple has advocated for issues closely aligned with its brand and strategies: causes consonant with that unobjectionable liberalism. I’m thinking of the company’s commitment to privacy, sustainability, and diversity.

But when I see CEOs taking on very topical political causes, I get nervous. That’s not their job. That doesn’t mean CEOs shouldn’t be principled or have strong convictions. Tim Cook, for example, has made a full-throated defense of gay rights and other issues. But I become anxious when CEOs lead companies into venomous culture wars, because it’s likely to be a distraction.

Q2 You’re in the VC space and have been vocal about funding the next wave of innovation — is it ripe ?

We exist on a planet roiled by apparently insurmountable challenges — and I don’t just mean the existential challenge of climate change. There are additional challenges unrelated to climate change or made worse by climate change: emergent pandemic diseases like COVID, unsustainable agricultural practices, cancer, wildfires, dementia, a looming water scarcity crisis, antibiotic resistance, or a dozen other difficulties.

These are all terrifying problems. But the good news is they are mainly technical challenges where people more or less agree on the desirable ends. With the 15 to 20 years I have left in my career I’d like to work on big global problems, where venture capital and technology can play a part, where we sort-of know the likely solutions. That’s not every human problem, of course. There are problems where people simply do not agree on ends, or which are not really technological problems. There are yet more problems where, even if agreed on ends, the solution is beyond current technologies.

But there are a small number of urgent problems with plausible answers, where venture funding of entrepreneurs can be the cavalry — either because the government isn’t well-suited to broadly distribute the solution, or because incumbent companies are too slow or self-interested to develop new approaches. I want to stand my post in addressing these problems, by finding, funding, and growing companies that develop and commercialize innovations in energy, health, farming, water, and other similar areas.

Your prediction in your area(s) of interest for the next five years

“the future of medicine is likely to be the use of emerging techniques in machine learning and artificial intelligence to discover entirely novel biomarkers”

One promising avenue for the future of medicine is likely to be the use of emerging techniques in machine learning and artificial intelligence to discover novel biomarkers for really complicated diseases, where a simple mechanistic explanation would be unlikely to be discovered by human scientists working by themselves. Then, scientists can use high throughput assays to screen compounds against those new targets.

For energy we’ll need a whole series of miracles to create a carbon neutral economy by the middle of the century. But as Bill Gates says, “Miracles occur in technology all the time.” There’s also a real recognition by citizens, governments, companies — even traditional energy producing companies — that we need to make very rapid changes in a very short period of time. We may still require regulatory signals like a carbon tax, but lots of smart people are working not just on novel forms of generation, but new ways to transmit energy over long distances and new forms of storage.

My hope and my final message is that I see the future as one of boundless opportunities. But only if we can only hurry.

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