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Posts Tagged ‘science’

The serendipity of TED

March 4th, 2011

I’m at the last day of the TED ’11 conference in Long Beach, CA.  Many friends have asked me about TED over the years: what’s it like? who goes? how do you get in?. This is my fifth – and there are many “TEDsters” here that have come far more times than me.  I find the Serendipity of TED to be an interesting topic…

Gratitude for Wurman and Anderson

I’m grateful for what Richard Saul Wurman created in 1984 – the early TEDs took place in Monterey, in a fairly intimate setting, with just a few hundred people…and equally as grateful to Chris Anderson, who’s non-profit entity acquired TED in 2001 and has turned it into a global media brand.  Grateful for amazing connections, great content, and vibe.  TED now has conferences throughout the year:  the big event in Long Beach (from which I am posting), the TEDGlobal in summer – now moving to Scotland, and over a THOUSAND TEDx events throughout the world – in every imaginable country – over the past few years.  The website is one of the best video content sites on the web, boasting hundreds of high-quality videos of “Ideas Worth Spreading”…

Ideas Worth Spreading

Ideas are just ideas, unless they do spread to the right minds, hearts and activists. And that’s where the magic of TED seems to work and continue to grow.

TED 2011 Main Lobby

Here at the TED conference, I survey the outside hall:  to my left Al Gore is standing and conversing with a group of repeat TEDsters, behind him Vinod Khosla holding court, with daughter (who presented this year at TED) next to him, and behind me Jason Mraz, musician (who was incredible last night on stage) walking by with his friend/partner in trademark fedora.  Beyond them, scores of venture capitalists that I recognize from the Silicon Valley mingle with 20ish looking young men in jeans and sneakers.  Sitting on the stairs, the founder of Amazon, with family in tote.  Chris Anderson, holding hands with wife, Jacqueline Novogratz (CEO of Acumend Funds).  Off in far corners of the room, scores of creative people mingle, talk excitedly about art, science, music, mother-in-laws and raising kids.   This is a typical scene for TED.

This year’s TedEd talks, held on Mon, Tues and Thurs mornings were short 5 min talks – and many were fascinating. The topics went from How to MindMap a TED talk (by Nina Khosla) to genomes on the Internet (by friend, Jim Hornthal) to the Hoax of State Budgets (Bill Gates).  This short-form talks are a great way for a wide variety of TEDsters to show off another unique aspect of TED:  the diversity of participants from teens to baby-boomers, from scientists to musicians.

The scene not only creates viral spread of ideas, but so does the website, which is available for free to anyone in the world? Missed a session? Look it up on TED within 3 months and you’ll likely find it.  In the future, TED will be broadcast in many companies (their latest endeavor) around the world simultaneously to the live event – so thousands of viewers can watch live, even though at a distance.  That creates more spread.

Sweet Serendipity

What makes this all worthwhile for these folks to shell out $7500 (plus hotel, flights, food) each year?  Serendipity, most likely. At TED, one sets oneself up for that serendipitous moment…a “TEDEd lecture earlier this week by author John Hagel emphasized that serendipity can actually be encouraged, planned for and enhanced.  TED is the ultimate example of this.  The serendipitous moments come when you sit down in the 2000-person auditorium next to the founder of Twitter (as I did yesterday),  or grab coffee and run into someone you’ve followed on Twitter (@aplusk) for a pleasant conversation on the state of Angel Investing…

But, here at TED, serendipity doesn’t seem to be simple luck.  Although the event has reaching proportions that sometimes make you feel like you are at a large trade show party (last night’s party for example, featured a 30-foot puppet and hanging gymnists), the event is set up to allow for interactions, exchanges, and lots of causual “bumping into”.  The five days quickly blend into a blur of great conversations with highly creative people, people who are here to learn and to meet others, many who come with open minds.

At the Intersection

I think what TED represents best is an “intersection” of creative thinking from around the world.  Movie stars, venture capitalists, engineers, singers, adventurers, scientists, mathematicians, CEOs – all in one place – all with expertise in some area, but open  mind to BLEND their expertise with other “ideas worth spreading”.  This is very much like the

Musician & friend, Jason Mraz on stage, Thurs

experience that the Medici Family created in 15th century Florence when they brought together groups of this nature.  So, think of TED as the traveling/virtual equivalent of Firenze.

TED has been a great experience for me over the years…nearly each time I have come, I’ve developed relationships that have been long-lasting, career-changing.  Two of my greatest triumphs and failures have come from relationships with well-known TED speakers that were made here at the conference:  one led to the biggest return in the history of my venture work, another led to less-than-successful (nonetheless interesting) start-up which caused me to question who I really am.  That’s the thing about TED, the serendipitous moments that are created by the intersection of so many wonder-filled people,

Searching for Synthia – hottest innovation of the 21st century

August 22nd, 2010

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.