There are entrepreneurs who help nudge innovation forward, and there are those who accelerate the most disruptive technologies in the world. Peter Diamandis belongs to the latter group.
Diamandis is the co-founder of Singularity University, which aims to speed up innovation and tackle the world’s biggest problems. His mantra is: "If you're not disrupting yourself, someone else will."
One of his earlier projects is the X Prize Foundation, which challenges teams to conquer the most ambitious goals on earth, such as building a successful private spacecraft or sequencing 100 human genomes in under 10 days.
Inc. caught up with Diamandis on the sidelines of the Exponential Finance conference in New York City this week.
What are some examples of disruptive technologies facing companies today?
I speak to the executive suite at Caterpillar, and I say, "Are you concerned about the autonomous car?" and they say, "We think about putting autonomy into our machines." But they're missing the point that if you have autonomous cars, you could put eight times as many cars on the road. Consequently, you don't have parking garages, you don't have driveways, you don't have parking lots. It transforms a lot of construction needs.
A lot of people don't understand the secondary and tertiary implications of BEAM robotics and how that's going to affect air travel when you have a virtual telepresence, which is as good as going there and saves you 12 hours on a jetliner.
You co-founded Singularity University, which had its founding conference at TED in 2009, with Ray Kurzweil. What are you trying to accomplish with S.U.?
We run about six executive programs a year for 80 executives. It's a lot of people who have just exited their companies, a lot of hedge-fund managers and VCs. It's up in Silicon Valley for a week. Every year, we pick the world's biggest problems. The world's biggest problems are the world's biggest business opportunities. I teach this to my students. You want to be a billionaire? Find a billion-person problem that you can make a dent in. Every summer, we'll pick roughly six grand challenge subjects, waste or health or water--some subset of that--and we challenge the students during the course of the summer to start a company that is focused on solving an element of that that has the potential to go from a startup to affecting a billion people inside of 10 years.
Part of the goal of S.U. is accelerating progress. How do you go about doing that?
You’ve got these executives who would normally be inside the siloed walls of their own company, hanging out next to twentysomethings who are working on 3-D printing or autonomous drones or synthetic biology or A.I., and it puts them in a brand-new thinking regime, because how you think really matters. Most innovation dies inside companies if it’s anything other than incremental, because it threatens the beast. The day before something is truly a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea. And crazy ideas do not survive well inside well-established companies. So by taking these starter companies and putting them outside of the walled garden at the company--and putting them in Mountain View--they’re in a constant water-cooler conversation very unlike anything they would have back home, which is exactly what they need to come up with new ideas.
How do you select students for S.U.?
To compete, they need to come up with a product or service that can affect a million people in their hometown. The best ideas bubble to the top, and the winner gets a scholarship to come to S.U.
Is there any concern on the part of students that their ideas could be stolen?
There are lots of ideas. It’s all about execution, and in the new environment we’re going into--the world going forward--where innovation is just beginning to explode, if secrecy is your differentiator, you're dead. The environment we have at S.U. and in the Valley is much more open. You get much more from sharing your ideas and bouncing them back and forth than you do from being secretive.
What's an example of a great company that has come out of S.U.?
One of the companies that came out of S.U. that’s a lot of fun and came out of conversations between students from Saudi Arabia, Greece, and Africa, is a company called Matternet. One of the six grand challenges was transportation that year. Africa has dirt and mud for roads, and it would cost a trillion dollars to build a road structure there. It's not going to happen. So the team came up with a great project called Matternet, which is the use of autonomous drones for point-to-point package delivery for medicines, small parts, and replacement parts of 5 kilograms or less. [It was] way before Jeff Bezos talked about it with Amazon. It’s the notion that with the advent of 3-D printing, high-resolution GPS, and A.I.--and drones and better batteries--Africa can skip the roads like it skipped the wireline generation. And that’s pretty cool.