A couple of hundred people, including me, gathered this week in Hertfordshire for the Google big tent event 2013. An interesting range of people including Eric Schmidt, Michael Flowers, Ed Miliband and the Bionic Man, to name just a few, were discussing the digital innovation revolution. How it has shaped our lives so drastically through advancements in health, communications, and information.
A running theme throughout the day (other than tax!) was: how far is too far when it comes to technology?
Are things advancing at such a pace that we are losing control? Do we really understand the internet and how it works? Do we know what happens to our data? Have we lost control of our digital identities, and of our ability to govern digital businesses operating in borderless cyber space? Will we soon be walking around wearing Google glasses telling us where to go and what to do, being transported in self-driving cars and interacting with robots?
This may all seem daunting and, as with many things in life, digital innovation has the propensity to be used for evil. However, I’m in a privileged position working for Nesta Impact Investments where I get to meet businesses doing amazing positive things with digital technology. I meet entrepreneurs and ventures every week that are using tech in new ways to create innovations in health, education and sustainability. I get to see the potential for such innovations to create real and lasting change in society – from how we care for our elderly population to how we educate our children.
One of my favourite speakers of the day was Astro Teller, Captain of Moonshots – not least because of his amazing title! – but for his enthusiastic talk, inspiring people to think big and aim for ‘moonshots’. Moonshots, according to Google[x] are “seemingly impossible and yet impossibly-important ideas that through science and technology can be brought to reality.”
Astro says that to create moonshots we have to do three things:
- point to a huge problem in the world and say ‘I’m going to solve that’;
- come up with a science fiction sounding product or service that will solve the problem; and
- have a glimmer of hope that you can do it.
These reflect the questions that we always ask ventures that come through our door: what is the need you are trying to meet?; how are you going to meet it?; and why do you think you can deliver?
It’s important to start with identifying the need, know the problem you are trying to address. It’s the lean start-up approach of “don’t sell what you can make; make what you can sell”. Develop the product or service to solve this problem and generate evidence that it works.
We invest with the aim to scale up impact ventures with solutions to some of the UK’s biggest social and environmental challenges. Often the most game-changing innovations don’t come from government or big corporates but from small ventures.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has” (Margaret Mead)
Katie Mountain – Investment Associate