BELLEVUE, Wash. — Seattle-area entrepreneur Naveen Jain is a big fan of moonshots — in part because one of his ventures, Moon Express, is gearing up to do honest-to-goodness moonshots. Jain also backs a “moonshot factory” called BlueDot. So it only makes sense that Jain’s newly published book, written with John Schroeter, is titled “Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance.”
What does Jain see as the next frontier for technological moonshots?
“I think the next problem I want to solve is agricultural production and food,” Jain told me in the run-up to this week’s publication of the book. “We really believe there is no reason we cannot increase the productivity of our crops by adjusting the soil microbiome and the seed microbiome.”
That may sound like a tall order, considering that experts are sounding the alarm about potentially catastrophic food shortages by the year 2050. But Jain has faith that technology — and entrepreneurship — will find a way.
That attitude is reflected in the 59-year-old, Indian-born engineer’s career, including his sometimes-controversial stint as the founder and CEO of InfoSpace, his foray into space missions as the co-founder and chairman of Moon Express, and his CEO roles at the Bellevue-based BlueDot tech incubator and at its first spinout, the Viome wellness venture.
It’s reflected as well in “Moonshots,” which puts entrepreneurs front and center when it comes to saving the world.
“The book was written for entrepreneurs, and really, even our own kids,” Jain said.
Like British billionaire Richard Branson (who wrote the foreword for “Moonshots”) and XPRIZE co-founder Peter Diamandis (who, like Jain, wrote a book with “Abundance” in the title), Jain counsels entrepreneurs to think big, ignore the naysayers and avoid sweating the small stuff.
“It’s easier to solve the problems that on the surface look audacious than to solve these smaller problems,” Jain told me. “It takes the same amount of effort to do things when you start a company, whether it’s a small idea or a big idea. Why not dedicate your life to doing something that, if successful, could move the needle, could really make a dent in the universe, could change the lives of billions of people?”
Jain makes it sound easy, in the book and in conversation. He envisions a day when energy is as free as the air, thanks to the advances being made in nuclear power. One of the companies focusing on next-generation fission reactors is Bellevue-based TerraPower, which has Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates as its chairman. A different energy frontier is being pioneered by fusion startups, including General Fusion (backed by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos) and TAE Technologies (which attracted investment from Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital).
TerraPower is doing a “great job on building small, cheap nuclear reactors,” Jain said, and “there are a lot of smart people working on fusion energy.” That’s why his future plans focus on other areas, such as agriculture, education and personal wellness.
Viome’s focus on fine-tuning the human microbiome is a big part of Jain’s vision for keeping humans healthier during a longer lifespan. “My hope is that we can reach escape velocity, where every 10 years we get enough breakthroughs to increase the life of people by 10 years or more,” he said. “I really believe aging is a chronic disease.”
But what about the people who are left behind in the nearer term? That’s where the drive toward abundance could hit some bumps in the road.
For example, take housing affordability, which is a big problem for Seattle. Jain suggests the problem could virtually solve itself — once self-driving cars take over.
“Imagine when you have these self-driving cars, not only can they communicate with each other, they essentially can drive much closer to each other. That means you don’t need to have as many construction companies because you don’t need to build as many roads,” Jain told me. “Secondly, all the real estate that you see — the biggest parking lot under every building … all that space now can be used for affordable housing.”
Jain said virtual reality and telepresence will also allow people to live anyplace in the world and telecommute to their jobs. “My point is, all of those things will take away a lot of simple things like homelessness,” he said.
Is homelessness really that simple to solve? Some readers might roll their eyes.
Because Jain wrote “Moonshots” specifically for entrepreneurs, he takes the entrepreneurs’ side of the argument when it comes to regulations (too many!) and the media (too negative!). He also criticizes the traditional approach to philanthropy.
“If you want to do a small good in the world, then by all means, support or create a nonprofit,” Jain writes. “If, on the other hand, you want to do a large good in the world, then you’ve got to go the route of for-profit — for the simple reason that if an initiative is not profitable, then it is not financially viable.”
That might seem to be at odds with the way Seattle billionaires such as Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen have operated. But Jain goes on to say that the impact of philanthropy can’t be measured by dollars alone.
“Philanthropy is not about giving money,” Jain told me. “Philanthropy is about solving problems.”
And that’s a view that Paul Allen, a leader in philanthropy as well as technology, would have surely endorsed.