I was at a PandoMonthly event in 2013 when Sarah Lacy interviewed John Doerr about the role of venture capitalists (VCs). John is certainly one of the greatest contemporary VCs, but he’s actually not the subject of this post. John via his firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers has invested in a number of iconic companies in our lifetime, including Google, Amazon, and Intuit.
When asked about the role of VCs, Doerr said that VCs “set the stage” for entrepreneurs — they check the lights, adjust the sound system and pull back the curtains for entrepreneurs to shine on stage. That analogy resonated with me.
When I was watching Season 1 Episode 3 of Cosmos, When Knowledge Conquered Fear, I learned of the story of Isaac Newton’s Principia. You know, the book that brought Newtonian physics and calculus to the world and transformed all of modern science that followed it, no big deal.
I realized that the story wasn’t just about one of the greatest work of science ever, it also happened to be about the greatest venture capitalist ever, before our current understanding of the term was even born. His name?
Yes, the Edmund Halley who is much better known for having a comet named after him, but as a venture capitalist?
Here’s how events unfolded: on an August day in 1684, Edmund Halley, a Fellow and Council member of the Royal Society in London, paid Newton a visit. Halley was having problems deriving the laws that governed the orbits of stars and planets. When he brought the topic up with Newton, Isaac told Halley that he had already solved the problem several years ago (he forgot to tweet it out). However, Newton was unable to find his solution (ouch, should have used Dropbox) and spent two months redoing the work for Halley.
Once Halley saw the document — Of the motion of bodies in an orbit — he was so impressed that he immediately went back to Newton to ask him to extend his work. Their meeting greatly stimulate Newton with enthusiasm to continue his writing, which he did intensively from late 1684 to late 1686.
Over this period, Newton sometimes forgot to eat properly, to sleep enough, and to care for the state of his clothes (perhaps he just preferred a Principia hoodie). He would take walks in his garden and spontaneously rush back to write down an idea before even sitting down.
In the meantime, Halley took on the role of Newton’s biggest cheerleader and also his psychotherapist, managing the politics between Newton and Robert Hooke, another member of the Royal Society who had clashed with Newton earlier on who should receive credit for scientific work in gravitation and the planets. Halley confronted Hooke and cleared the way for Newton complete and prosper from his work.
Also, as it turned out, the Royal Society had published a prior book just before the Principia that was met with a resounding thud, draining the Society’s budget. Halley had to pull out his own pocketbook and write a check to the publishers (they wouldn’t take bitcoins).
The publishing of the Principia cemented Sir Isaac Newton’s name as synonymous with modern science.
I think there are lessons that VCs today can take away from Halley’s work with Newton. Sure, Halley put up the capital but more importantly he backed Newton when there was just a very basic version of the product. He played the role of a co-creator, helping to bring to life the Principia and dealing with external relationships on Newton’s behalf. Halley set the stage for Newton to rise as one of the greatest scientists of all time and without his involvement, the Principia would never have been conceived, written, and published.
The best way to predict the future is to invent it, and the second best way is to fund it.
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