Why innovation is sequester-proof


U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during a visit to Newport News Shipbuilding February 26, 2013 in Newport News, Virginia. (Alex Wong/GETTY IMAGES)
Vivek Wadhwa
Contributor, Innovations March 4, 2013

This may come as surprise to people in Washington (or perhaps not), but the sequester is hardly a topic of discussion in Silicon Valley. Indeed, it’s not even a trending topic on Twitter. That is how unimportant short-term government decisions are to innovation. While lawmakers battle over taxes and fiscal cliffs, entrepreneurs are busy solving humanity’s problems so that we can go from debating how we distribute scarce resources to discussing how we equitably share the bounty we are creating.

In his bestselling book, “Abundance”, my colleague, XPRIZE Chairman and CEO and Singularity University founder Peter Diamandis, tells the story of how aluminum went from a rare metal to something we casually wrap our food in. When the king of Siam hosted Napoleon III in the 1840s, writes Diamandis, the people working for Napoleon were served with silver utensils. Those working for the king received gold. The king himself got aluminum-the rarest metal at the time. Aluminum was so valuable because it was extremely difficult to extract from bauxite-though it is one of the most abundant elements on Earth. Then came electrolysis technology, which used electricity to liberate aluminum from bauxite, driving down aluminum’s value.

Vivek Wadhwa is a fellow at Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University, director of research at Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke, and distinguished fellow at Singularity University. His past appointments include Harvard Law School, University of California Berkeley, and Emory University. View Archive

It isn’t just aluminum that has become abundant — so have electrical power, refrigeration, television, telephones, cars, and air conditioning. Two hundred years ago, kings and queens didn’t have these luxuries. Today, many people who are classified as poor in the U.S. do. This prosperity has not reached most of the developing world yet. But the proliferation of mobile phones shows what is possible. Within ten years, their numbers have gone from zero to nearly 1 billion in both India and China. Even some of the poorest villagers own them.

We are also making headway in solving the global water crisis. According to the World Health Organization, water-related diseases are responsible for more than 3.4 million deaths, making it the leading cause of disease and death around the world. There are predictions that countries such as India, China, and parts of the Middle East will run out of water and that wars will break out over supplies. This seems paradoxical: 71 percent of the Earth’s surface is water, and sanitizing and converting seawater is as simple as boiling it and condensing the vapor. The problem is the cost of energy — it is prohibitively expensive to do this in any significant quantity.

Two exciting solutions to the water problem are already working and ready to scale.


Inventor Dean Kamen attends Will.I.Am's annual TRANS4M Day Conference focusing on TRANS4Ming America in 2013 on February 7, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Joe Scarnici/GETTY IMAGES FOR TRANS4M)

The first is a product by Dean Kamen called Slingshot. Kamen is the inventor of the Segway personal transporter, an insulin pump, and many other breakthroughs. Slingshot is a vapor-compression water-purification machine that can produce about 30 liters of pure distilled water per hour using the same amount of power as a handheld hair dryer. It can transform dirty water from any source: rivers, oceans, and even raw sewage. Slingshot has been under development for more than a decade and was recently tested by Coca-Cola in five towns in Ghana for six months in 2011.

Kamen told me that he expects Slingshot will cost less than $2,000 when mass produced and will not require any maintenance or servicing for seven years. One device will produce enough clean water to support a village of 300 people. Coca-Cola plans to test it in dozens of locations this year and expects to roll it out on a larger scale next year. I hope that other organizations will also license the technology from Kamen and alleviate worldwide disease and suffering.

Another product, by Alfredo Zolezzi of Chile Advanced Innovation Center, is a Plasma Water Sanitation System that can sanitize 35 liters of water in five minutes at a cost-per-liter of less than 1/8th of a (U.S.) cent. This works by injecting water into a reaction chamber, where it achieves plasma state through a high-intensity electrical field. The microbiological content of the water is eliminated by electroporation, oxidation, ionization, ultraviolet and infrared radiation and shockwaves. This technology won’t remove impurities such as salt, arsenic, and heavy metals from water, but it will kill bacteria. The system has been in operation for more than two years in a slum in Santiago, Chile. When I visited in April last year, the inhabitants told me that not one person had gotten sick since they started using it — in stark contrast to life before the device was put into use.

According to Zolezzi, his device has been successfully tested by various labs in Chile and is being tested in collaboration with the National Science Foundation (NSF) to determine its conformance to EPA guidelines. Zolezzi expects that mass-produced units, which cost $500, will be able to sanitize up to 2,500 liters per day, and smaller units, which cost $200, will be able to process 1,000 liters or more. He says he is in discussions with several large corporations for the mass production and distribution of the technology pending the NSF validation.

Every month, we read about advancements in energy technologies. Despite all the negative press about solar, the price of solar panels (per watt) was 97.2 percent lower in 2012 than in 1975 according to GTM Research — and the downward trend is continuing. At these rates, within a decade, expect solar energy to cost much less than what we pay to our utility companies. Solar is also on track to achieve what is called “grid parity” in Europe and other parts of the world even sooner than in the U.S.

Last month, the most exciting news on my radar came from UCLA, where a small team of researchers developed a micro-scale graphene-based supercapacitor that can charge and discharge a hundred to a thousand times faster than current batteries. This could make it possible to fully charge your laptop in seconds and your electric car in a couple of minutes.

When we have unlimited clean water and unlimited renewable energy, we can produce unlimited amounts of food. Singapore is already growing food in vertical farms. A Silicon Valley company called Hampton Creek Foods is producing an egg substitute made from plants. Another startup, Modern Meadow, is using tissue-engineering techniques to produce in-vitro leather and meat without requiring the raising, slaughtering, and transporting of animals. With methods such as these, we will need less — not more — land to feed the world’s population.

Discovery, application, and invention are also occurring in medicine, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, and many other fields that will change our lives and transform entire industries. I have described some of these in this TedX talk and in these articles.

To be fair, basic research is necessary for long term innovation. Most of today’s breakthroughs are the harvested fruits of discoveries made in government-funded laboratories. If we choke off investment in the basic sciences, we will choke off future innovations. So we need to restore funding. The good news is that entrepreneurs aren’t getting distracted by the mindless battles in D.C.-they are still very much focused on saving the world.

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