Hi, I’m Azeem Azhar. I convene Exponential View to help us understand how our societies and political economy will change under the force of rapidly accelerating technologies.
What to do with Facebook? This is what I discussed with members in our Friday discussion on the back of Karen Hao’s phenomenal reporting about Facebook that came out this week. It is another incredible discussion.
EV member Geraint Rees joined me on the podcast this week to discuss the role of universities in innovation. Geraint leads University College London as its Pro-Vice-Provost. He is tackling first-hand the evolving landscape of education amidst rapid innovation and transformative crises such as the pandemic and climate change.
Dept of the near future
🍟 The reinvention of Silicon Valley
Tim O’Reilly argues that four trends are shaping Silicon Valley’s future and purpose:
(1) Consumer internet entrepreneurs lack many of the skills needed for the life sciences revolution. (2) Internet regulation is upon us. (3) Climate response is capital intensive, and inherently local. (4) The end of the betting economy.
It is true that there is more entrepreneurship globally now than at any time. It is also the case that many of the key areas of opportunity live in the decarbonisation drive and the intersection of biology and engineering, are outside of the general focus of Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley has, of course, reinvented itself a number of times, from semiconductors to hardware to software. Then starting in the 2000s the locus of startups migrated slowly northwards from Mountain View and Palo Alto towards San Francisco.
But let’s consider climate tech. In research I led into the 1200-or-so funded startups in the climate tech domain, we found that the San Francisco Bay Area dominated the geography of funding. (That table below shows funding raised between 2013 and 2020 by climate tech firms and excludes mobility startups. The full data is available here.)
Since then, of course, there has been a flurry of investing activity, including the wider availability of new capital from new climate-oriented funds and SPACs zeroed in net zero, many of which are not Bay Area domiciled.
I am curious to see how this plays out. Ecosystems, of capital, service providers and the like, are hard to shift, people don’t move that easily. Firms in the climate or bio-space still need software engineers. If you are building a firm that needs dozens of ML & software developers and dozens of molecular biologists (like some bio firms), it isn’t obvious that the Bay Area doesn’t remain a good place to find both types of that talent.
One lesson from the Roblox IPO? Trust your kid. The company is now worth more than Electronic Arts after a stomper IPO. Half of all under-16s play Roblox, and the average player puts in 2.6 hours a day. Player is perhaps the wrong word. Roblox is an interactive environment where anyone can develop games (or apps) and sell them on the platform. Two British teens paid off their parents’ mortgage with their Roblox earnings. (Good overview of Roblox if you are not familiar.)
Musing that Microsoft’s acquisition of Minecraft, a similar product, back in 2014 for $2.5bn might look like a bargain.
🇹🇼 Taiwan: standard bearer
How can Taiwan use its semiconductor industry to establish geopolitical advantage? One idea is being seen as an active participant in developing global standards. “In the world of standard-setting, nonstate actors—such as firms and research laboratories—and behind-the-scenes leadership are often more effective and enduring”, argue Feignbaum and Nelson.
See also: Chinese AI companies are continuing to headhunt Taiwanese semiconductor talent to work on the mainland. The Taiwanese have responded by raiding some of the perpetrators. An ocean away, US car manufacturers are struggling to shake off the dust of the pandemic and start making cars again. Why? Because car manufacturers are now reliant on semiconductors for new units that simply don’t exist thanks to the global semiconductor shortage.
🇮🇳 India’s creeping digital authoritarianism
Given the level of attention placed on internet restrictions, it’s remarkable that India’s new laws aren’t getting more scrutiny. Bear in mind that while Donald Trump was being condemned for his threats to ban TikTok, India actually banned TikTok. The Indian government has placed even more pressure on foreign internet platforms to comply with the government (presumably this means sharing data) or risk getting kicked out of the country. The issue has seemingly been pressed by the farmer protest movement but there is more to this story. The government will soon introduce a bill effectively banning the private use of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. At the same time, Apple is moving more iPhone manufacturing operations to the country, which should give the government even more control over Apple products distributed locally. The world’s largest democracy is a focal point for internet crackdowns. (See also: Dreams of a free internet in Africa are also dimming).
🥼 mRNA: a general platform for therapeutics
Call it the mRNA revolution. The groundbreaking science that went into finding a Covid-19 vaccine is spreading to other diseases. The RNA-based approach is being employed against malaria, with encouraging results. Other research is trying to use mRNA and CRISPR technology together to find a lasting cure for the flu. Anna Fisher-Pinkert at Harvard captures the moment: “what’s remarkable about mRNA technology is that these adjustments can happen faster and more accurately. mRNA technology is being applied to a lot of different diseases right now – from targeted cancer therapies to developing a vaccine against tuberculosis”. Remarkable indeed.
🔋 Dept of decarbonisation
CO2 level 416.21 ppm | 3,377 days
The latest measurement of atmospheric CO2 (as of March 12, 2021): 416.21 ppm; March 2020: 413.5 ppm; 25 years ago: 360 ppm; 250 years ago, est: 250 ppm. Share this reminder with your community by forwarding this email or tweeting this.
🚛 The Gulf wants to become a major renewable energy producer. Just look at the massive solar farms in the UAE. Now Saudi Arabia is jumping into this space with a plan to take over the green hydrogen market with a new $5bn plant near the still-to-be-built city of Neom. The Saudis are saying the right things but there’s a big gulf between rhetoric and reality in that part of the world.
Short morsels to appear smart during the next Facebook scandal
💉 The Covid-19 vaccines have been incredibly resilient and effective. That hasn’t stopped a Russian disinformation campaign designed to undermine public confidence in them.
🛬 Oh, the US Air Force. After the F35 debacle, air force engineers are having to reverse engineer parts of their own stealth bombers to get them to work.
🪙 Centralisation in the crypto market: the US and Germany control 58% of all Ethereum nodes globally.
🌟 Bitcoin is still on a tear, which raises a critical question: how much Bitcoin should you own?
🦠 Excellent reporting from the FT: Some people in the UAE are using their influence (wasta is the term in Arabic) to get global high flyers vaccinated in the country.
👩💻 How one software engineer became an “independent researcher” financing himself on Patreon instead of following the startup path.
🚙 Tesla’s fully self-driving technology is not as autonomous as you might think.
🚔 Tesla has actually been sharing two narratives about its self-driving technology: One for consumers and one for regulators.
🐑 Where did the phrase ”black sheep” come from anyway?
🎶 It’s not just you. Music genres are disappearing under the weight of streaming algorithms.
This month marks the sixth anniversary of Exponential View. I’m sure we’ll do something interesting to celebrate but in the meantime, have a giggle at issue one. It was called Square 33 as I struggled for a name.
What you’re up to – notes from EV readers
Marie Cheong published “Women in climate tech: A US$50 trillion opportunity to shatter the glass ceiling”.
Azeem will be talking about how businesses need to be thinking about the future at the NEXT Conference on March 16th.
Polly Mackenzie and her team at Demos published a report about Covid-19 called Build Back Stronger.
Sten Tamkivi is launching a new VC fund with Taavet Hinrikus called Taavet+Sten.
Engin Ayaz’s company Atolye released its 2020 Impact Report.
Francis Tseng published Inside-Out: Renewable energy, the future of mining, and the re-localization of harm.
James Wang explained everything you need to know about NFTs for Ameritrade.
Michael Hoole published “Why we should be data-conscious, not data driven”
Nader Al Salim’s Gaia startup released its first product, The Gaia IVF Report.
To share your projects and updates, fill out your details here. Because of space constraints, we prioritize updates from paying members and startups I have invested in. (You can become the former by subscribing, if you have not already, and the latter by getting an intro to me via a trusted contact.)