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Searching for Synthia – hottest innovation of the 21st century

August 22nd, 2010 by admin 1 comment »

Introducing Synthia

So popular is she, that 3 months after her birth, she already has her own Wikipedia page. Synthia may be the hottest innovation of the 21st Century.Yet, for many of us, we read about it casually on May 21st on our iPads  or home-delivered newspapers, next to stories about the latest Giants-A’s series showdown and local murder trials.  If you happened to miss the news that day, read on, as you might want to become familiar with this innovation.

“Synthia” is the nickname for a brand new bacterium developed by Craig Venter and his J. Craig Venter Institute.  You may recognize Venter’s name – he led a team at  TIGR (The Institute for Genomic Research) which in is credited as first to fully decode the genome sequence for a free living organism, Haemophilus influenzae in 1995;  in 2001, Venter and his team along with Celera Genomics decoded the first human genome entirely.  After leaving TIGR, Venter went on to form the the J. Craig Venter Institute and several related companies, such as Synthetic Genomics.  Bottom line:  Venter is among the leaders in understanding how to decode the basic building blocks of life and has a significant advantage in combining creative ideas on how to use this information commercially in the future.  It’s no wonder several investors and VCs like Steve Jurvetson kept close to him.

Her Story

The story of Synthia is truly something out of a Robin Cook novel – but in this case, the technology that has been perfected may truly have lasting effect on our lives and the lives of our progeny. It’s no simply science fiction.

Synthia was created by a synthetic genome. The team at Venter’s institute essentially pieced together from DNA fragments a modified version of a natural genome (mycoplasma mycoides - a chromosome with some 1.2 million base pairs) and implanted the hand-made genome into the shell of a  bacterium.  The new organism essentially came to live and is self-replicating.  That means that it essentially takes on a life of its own.

Uses and Abuses

One can only image the possible uses of this new approach to synthesizing life, as Synthia only represents the very beginning in a likely long exercise in creating new life forms.

Other areas that Venter and his team are apparently already exploring, and hoping to use their approaches on are:  fuel/energy, vaccination production, pollution control/clean-up,cell production,

Since genomes are the building blocks of heredity and proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of cells, and cells are the components of complex systems (organs, etc) within living organisms, the implication is that a synthetic self-replicating organism can become the basic building block to almost any change in life one can imagine.

Shades of “Singularity”

The question that many have had is whether biologists will soon be playing God with this new-found approach.  The new technology ultimately leads the way to new forms of genetically produced bacteria, viruses, plants and animals – and since they would be new to our world there would be no way of predicting how they might affect our global environment, ecosystem or biosphere.

What  might occur when eventually the recipe for synthetic life falls into naive or evil hands?

This is the essentially the first time that an artificially-created organism can self-replicate. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the predictions by author Ray Kurzweil who has written numerous books predicting new innovations that will explode from the intersection of biology/biotech/genetics, artificial intelligence and nanotechnology around the year 2030 (for more on this read The Singularity is Near by Kurzweil).

Love Her, Hate Her

So, that’s Synthia.  The bacterium you will come to love and hate.  Either we’ve unleashed a new “Manhattan Project” or we’ve got the beginning of a new Era in science.   Or, both.

I’d like to hear your impressions on this important innovation.

What, really, is Creativity?

August 10th, 2010 by admin 66 comments »

Every year the students at UC Berkeley challenge me to identify some elements around Creativity. What is it? How can managers harness it within their organizations? What is the nature of great ideas – where do they come from? Is Creativity the same as Innovation?

A simple definition:

…if it’s useful, novel and not previously thought of, call it creative. This applies to works of art, businesses, events, etc.   If it’s a new idea that is put to some practical purpose for the first time anywhere, it’s an innovation. It’s possible to be highly creative but not very innovative. However, it would be hard to be innovative, without having gone through the creative process.


I’d like to challenge my readers – do you agree/disagree with the above? How do YOU define creativity? What is the difference between Creativity and Innovation?

(After hearing from several of you, I’ll post discussion by 8-9 entrepreneurs that I’ve interviewed recently on their thoughts on creativity and innovation.)

Keeping Innovation Simple – social entrepreneurship

July 19th, 2010 by admin No comments »

I get little argument when I suggest to entrepreneurs that they keep their businesses simple, that they focus on getting the simple steps done first, or that they focus on products that meet simple consumer needs.

But TALKING ABOUT simplicity and actually enabling it are two different things. It’s amazing how complex things can get when you hire a team of bright minds, create partnerships or define the functions of your product!

I was on the website Echoing Green (a early-stage social venture firm) and came across the video for one of their “Green Fellows” – a woman named Jodie Wu.  I love the innovations that she is creating with a somewhat mundane (by US standards) technology and transforming it into something of value to the poor villagers in other countries around the world.  This is simplicity in action.

What I see here is an entrepreneur who is taking a basic/antiquated technology – the bicycle – and looking at the world through the eyes of the social entrepreneur in Africa, South America, India, or China – and coming up with an innovative way of approaching this technology for alternative uses.

Will the organization itself get funding, grow successfully and launch? Perhaps? But they certainly are off to an innovative approach to social entrepreneurship that may re-purpose an old technology for the benefit of the Third World.

Have examples of simplicity that you can share? I’d love to hear from you…

The U.S. Constitution – creativity & innovation in Action

July 9th, 2010 by admin 4 comments »

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia, is a massive structure located near old-town Philadelphia (2 blocks from Independence Hall).  I visited the museum on July 4th – a fitting day to be prancing around Philadelphia – at 10:00 am that day, I was the only visitor walking around the 2nd floor  huge (circular) multimedia atrium and one of only 8 people to sit through the first showing in the theater-in-the-round presentation (“We the People”) on the Constitution.

This museum is a must-see if you want to understand how this country was founded on principles of freedom, democracy and innovation.  During the 17-minute “We the People” live show, it really started to sink in with me how special this country is that we live in…and how the combined creative genius of Jefferson, Franklin, Paine,  Adams, Hamilton and others living in America in the late 1770-1790 time-frame came together to form a government and nation never before attempted.

The Consitution was delivered on Sept 17, 1787, after months of debate and draft in what was to become know as the Philadelphia Convention.  So, not a bad place to be on July 4th, 2010.

Who Wrote the Constitution

Picture a team brainstorm meeting that you have attended in the past and the process and results it yielded.  Now picture a similar meeting – only the participants are Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and other luminaries.

Interesting “sketches” on many of the Constitution’s authors were written by William Pierce.

Madison is generally credited for drafting the Constitution. But the ideas contained in it were the result of 12 colonies/states (one state did not send a delegate) all contributing ideas and sending their most critical thinkers to the Philadelphia Convention.

Thus, the Convention had was incredible intellectual horse power behind it.  It also had ideas and ideals from men who had studied governments all over the world and throughout history.  The goals, in my opinion, for these men was to craft something that would suit the particular situation that America found itself in following the Revolution:

  • America was a relatively newly settled land, each State in the union had its own priorities and needs
  • The patriotism of the American people was at an all-time high
  • The States required coordination between them and a set of laws that would govern them
  • The entire operation could not be headed by a dictator, but required a unique set of democratic processes in order that all opinions/needs would be fairly heard

The Creative Process at Work

But Horse Power is not enough.  For amazing results to play out of this milieu, the leaders needed a process. I cannot claim to be an historical expert on the process that played out, but I plan to learn more about it.

By my estimation, the creative problem solving process they employed was astounding.  The process needed to identify the critical needs of the day, brainstorm creative ways that the States could COLLECTIVELY and separately, solve these issues – and come up with common vision from all this.  Finally, the group of delegates had to identify a future implementation process by which the newly formed solution could unfold over time as new ideas and needs were revealed.  At any one of these junctures, things could have fallen apart.

Failure to come up with a way to “unite” the states?  Things fall apart.

Can’t think of a way that we can ensure freedom ? Things fall apart

You fail to be able to get the delegates to “converge” on a set of solutions that benefits all? Things fall apart.

No options for growing the collective prosperity of a newly formed “united states”?  Things fall apart.

Can’t think of a process by which all this can evolve (try thinking out 200 years into the future – it ain’t easy!).  Things fall apart.

This was Pretty Darn Innovative

What made the US Constitution so innovative when it was adopted in 1787?

  • The initial “brainstorming” process include separate plans for the Constitution from Virginia, South Carolina, New Jersey, Alexander Hamilton (a plan resembling the British government) and Connecticut
  • The document was crafted so it could be additive & flexible (it has been amended 27 times since, including the first 10 amendments in 1787-8)
  • It was the first document of its kind in modern times to include Freedom as a central theme, yet the heated topic of the day was slavery, yet the plan avoided this issue initially so as to be ratified – otherwise the debate might have lasted years or decades and nothing would have been accomplished
  • The document itself allowed for a complete process for democratic vote and amendment
  • The document included an elaborate plan for Balance - a judiciary system, a legislative branch and executive decision-making
  • Required was some fair way for States to vote on future issues – so a system for representation and voting needed to be put into effect

This is Hard Work!

I must say, that Washington,  as a leader of this highly innovative new “experiment” has also impressed me.  Our first president had to take on a role that no human being had ever experienced – “President” of a “united” group of men and women who were anything but united.The newly united states were a pot full of idealistic, commercial, political and social ideas  – all simmering to a boil.  Washington had to be SOME POLITICIAN to get many factions to work with one another (heck his two top men, Jefferson and Adams, could not even get along), interpret the newly formed constitution, continue to protect his country, battle the concept of slavery in a land that had just declared itself free.

There’s a Lot More to this Story

I’m only scratching the surface here, being neither a top historian, nor actually being there over 200 years ago – I can only guess at some of the processes and innovations that came up during the Philadelphia Convention and beyond it…I’d love to hear your thoughts on additional areas of Creativity and Innovation that I”ve undoubtedly missed.

Hunger-driven creativity

June 30th, 2010 by admin 1 comment »

One of my favorite charities is Opportunity International, a global non-profit that in the past 27 years has put in place an incredible network of overseas banks and NGO partnerships to provide small loans (aka “micro-finance”) to poverty-stricken families starting small businesses. These occur in Africa, Asia, and Latin America primarily.

A lot of small loans moving the needle

According to Opportunity’s SVP of Resource Development, Dave Knibbe, 1.3 million individual loans (each on average about $150 or so in size) were given out to “clients” in 2009. That’s a LOT of entrepreneurs getting funding at a micro level…enough to move the needle in a small community, given the loans are appropriated on a group basis (usually 20-30 families cross-collateralizing each others’ loans as a group and paying small interest weekly) Opportunity claims a 96+% repayment rate on these micro loans…and the loan money is then available for the next family and the next and the next….

Opportunity reports that there are some 2 billion people in the world today living with under $2/day in wages or income.  The organization is on a mission to affect 1 billion people through it’s financial operations in the coming years.

Seeing the work – in Latin America

My recent trip to see Opportunity’s work took me (along with daughter, Kayla), to Colombia.  We visited deeply impoverished sites outside the capital, Bogota, and the coastal city of Cartagena.  Our week-long visit with other families who give to Opportunity, consisted of visits to the local bank/NGO offices to meet “loan officers” and regional managers and then out to visit “clients”, most of whom ate living in unbelievable conditions…photos of the trip are posted HERE.

What drives creativity?

This is my 3rd trip to see this innovative organization in action – and these trips are ALWAYS uplifting…because it turns out that the street barracks of Cartagena, Colombia — or the villages of Malawi, Africa or the inner city in Manila, Philippines — are full of highly motivated and creative entrepreneurs. They create businesses ranging from pottery to vegetable stands to leather goods to beauty salons…

These Entrepreneurs are a whole lot different from those that I’ve deal with for the past 20 years in the Silicon Valley. The education they have may not be what it is in the Silicon Valley, but the drive is is more focused and never-ending.

By  our U.S. standards these are very basic businesses with basic business models.  What amazes me is the differences in motivation. It got me thinking about 3 types of entrepreneurs…the typical American entrepreneur I’ve engaged with either seems to be focused on social needs or conquest/wealth generation.  For example, I know a lot of young entrepreneurs who have engaged with Web 2.0 and developed unique social applications – it was their way of providing something back to the world to allow us all to be more social.  Some of these companies haven’t created great wealth, but they’ve connected people like never before. Most of the entrepreneurs I’ve dealt with are after wealth creation or simply proving they can build something (“out for the kill”). Looking at Abraham Maslow‘s theory on hierarchy of human needs (see purple band above), these two sets of entrepreneurs fill needs for Social growth or Esteem.

The Opportunity entrepreneur (90% are woman, ages 25-55), in contrast, is driven by the need to feed her family personal hunger, desire for shelter, desire for safety – and or desire to see her children have a better life. Most are driven by all three.  Farther down on Maslow’s hierchy they are.  There’s quite a bit of motivation involved when your food shelter and clothing depends upon it.  The result is quite a bit of human ingenuity…finding solutions to getting around the system, using I call it true hunger-driven creativity.

At the top of the Pyramid

The third type of entrepreneur, an area that I am exploring in detail with my own career these days, is what I call the “social entrepreneur”.  These are typically those that have started a non-profit, or even a foundation, to serve others or a for-profit with a triple-bottom line.  These are sometimes successful entrepreneurs who have decided to give something back to others. Examples include Bill George, Bill & Melinda Gates, Bob Buford (author of HalfTime). Their Life work is focused on the top of the pyramid, self-actualization – typically in giving to others.

Although I teach a course at UC Berkeley about all the impressive ways that entrepreneurs use their creativity – in all aspects of business – I’m truly amazed when I visit and interact with hunger-driven entrepreneurs.

Of the 3 types of entrepreneurs, can you guess who shows the most gratitude?

Bogotá