Four Visionary Ventures

Jim Collins famously urges leaders to pursue BHAGs: goals that are big, hairy, and audacious.  Inc. magazine profiles several early-stage ventures that are attempting large-scale change in critical sectors.

Their goals are certainly big and audacious, but are they hairy?  I’ll let you decide!

Idea:  Make medical research more efficient and cure diseases faster.

The problem is that the culture of biomedical research is to hoard data.  Sage Bionetworks is building a technology platform called Synapse on which researchers worldwide can deposit the raw data they collect on patients and access the data of others.  In essence, Sage is trying to replace the siloed structures of academia, biotech and pharmaceuticals with an open source model.

Idea:  Let the marketplace solve the sanitation crisis.

Ashley Murray is the founder of Waste Enterprisers, an Accra, Ghana-based start-up that plans to turn raw human waste into biofuel pellets.  This product sells for $200 a ton in some parts of Europe as fuel for power plants.  The for-profit company operates on the premise that if human waste can be monetised, we can stem the global sanitation crisis where it starts.

Idea:  Turn nuclear waste into a valuable resource.

Conventional nuclear reactors produce depleted uranium as a by-product.  This waste is generally stored while waiting for someone to come up with an effective way of getting rid of it.  TerraPower is developing a technology called a travelling wave reactor (TWR) which runs on depleted uranium.  Development time (a prototype by 2022) and cost ($5 billion), and regulatory hurdles are significant, but if successful will provide both a solution to the stockpiles of nuclear waste and an almost unlimited source of energy.

Idea:  An elite education at half the price of the Ivy League.

The Minerva Project is a for-profit higher-education start-up which aims to challenge the intellectual supremacy of the Ivy League universities.  CEO Ben Nelson says that the admission standards for Minerva will be higher than Harvard or Yale, but since the teaching is delivered online, there is no limit to student numbers.  Minerva will be global in its student body, as well as its outlook.  Students will need to spend each semester in a different location, or else demonstrate proficiency in three languages to graduate.


I love reading about ideas like these, but what struck me most is how it seems increasingly common for business publications to feature stories that reflect what I call generational thinking.  This mindset considers the value of a business over the long-term, and thinks about the company’s obligation to society as well as care for the environment.  Others may describe this as people / planet / profit, triple bottom line, stakeholder orientation or corporate social responsibility.  But whatever the terminology, it is becoming increasingly fashionable for a business to think more broadly than next quarter’s results.  The Economist quips that “the pursuit of shareholder value is attracting criticism – not all of it foolish.”

Clearly I notice these stories because I am looking for them; nevertheless they seem to keep popping up in a wide range of publications.  Publishers are sensitive to their audience, so to me this indicates that people are wanting to hear this kind of thing.  My view is that businesses who ignore this trend do so at their peril.

What do you think is driving the interest in ventures that seek to change the world for the better?  Is it fear that we are heading towards environmental catastrophe?  Is it a reaction against the greed of bankers and big corporations?  Is it the influence of a younger generation?

What changes in mindset have you noticed in the business world?


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