Discuss as:

Can business ideas benefit billions?

Tech-savvy entrepreneurs are aiming to find out whether vertical-farm markets, 3-D printers and other innovations can do some good for more than a billion people over the next decade … and do well enough to earn profits in the process. The ventures were born during a summer session at Singularity University in California's Silicon Valley, and announced by the university's founders just today.

Singularity U. started out three years ago as an idea that bounced around between inventor/futurist Ray Kurzweil (author of "The Singularity Is Near") and X Prize Foundation co-founder Peter Diamandis. The academic institution's graduate students pay $25,000 (minus scholarships) for a 10-week summer program aimed at filling them in on the promise of exponentially growing information technologies — a concept that Kurzweil is so keen on that I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up getting abbreviated to EGITs ("egg-its").

The way Kurzweil sees it, many walks of life are amenable to exponential acceleration — not just computer hardware, where the concept manifests itself as Moore's Law, but medical advances and energy possibilities as well. Kurzweil believes information technology will eventually help us crack the codes of life and take advantage of the terawatts of solar power hitting our planet. "Ultimately it transforms all these other areas," Kurzweil said today during a video briefing.

Vertical farm

Dickson Despommier / Verticalfarm

An artist's conception shows the "Living Tower" vertical farm concept. Learn more about vertical farming..

So how do EGITS apply to entrepreneurship? Diamandis observed that most business ideas are based on technology as it is, not technologies as they will be. "It takes three or four years to bring a business to market, and by that time, it's obsolete," he said. During the graduate program, students are encouraged to think outside the box, or at least think inside an exponentially growing box.

Last year, as part of Singularity U.'s "10 to the Ninth Plus" project, the students came up with four ideas for spin-off ventures that they thought could improve the lives of at least a billion people over the next 10 years — including Getaround and CiviGuard. Getaround is an online rental service aimed at maximizing the usage of private automotive vehicles. "Their goal is to do for automobiles what cloud computing does for computers," Kurzweil explained. CiviGuard is working to set up a system for two-way emergency communication, linking victims with emergency responders.

This year's graduate students produced about a dozen ideas, aimed at providing more abundant food, cleaner energy, cleaner water, improved access to space and more sustainable use of technology (a concept dubbed "upcycling"). Here's the full lineup:

Food: A venture called Agropolis aims to put hydroponics and vertical farming to work on a local scale. "This particular project ... deals with producing little modules that can be decentralized," Kurzweil said. One potential application would be to grow produce as well as farm-bred tilapia fish and bioengineered meat inside a multistory building, and sell the foodstuffs at a market located in the same building. "They're off at this point to start up a company," Diamandis said.

"We have a schedule for research, and we're talking with partners to build a prototype," team member Maggie Jack told me. She said the first prototype facilities would be set up in California and India — but there's lots that has to be done before taking that step. "We're working on this kind of in our part time, spare time, until the winter," said Jack, who is a program manager for San Francisco-based Social Venture Technology Group.  

Energy: Another potential startup is Amunda, which would seek to set up small-scale markets in energy for the developing world. "A group can basically say, 'We have 500 households that need this many kilowatts per day,'" Diamandis said. Potential energy providers could then bid to provide the energy for that market. Online tools, such as a "Google Earth with a marketing overlay," could facilitate such markets, Diamandis said.

Water: One team project, dubbed Naishio, would enlist converging technologies (bio plus nano plus solar) to desalinate seawater more efficiently. Former NASA astronaut Dan Barry, Singularity U.'s faculty head, thinks technological convergence was a key to success. "That's where it really starts to get exciting and explodes for me," he said today. Other ventures include Sensoria, which focuses on biology-based sensor technologies to test water purity; and H2020, which would set up an online destination about water resources.

Space: Made in Space would enlist 3-D printers to make spare parts for spacecraft such as the International Space Station, rather than having to ship up tons of parts just in case something breaks. "You just launch the goo, the plastic, the material that you're going to print parts out of," Barry said. That could dramatically reduce the amount of mass that has to be launched to support a particular mission. "It can be the difference between a Mars mission that gets funded and goes, versus one that's too expensive and too difficult to do," Barry said.

Another venture is working with NASA's Ames Research Center and the California Institute of Technology to develop a beamed-energy system that would send up laser light or microwaves to power spacecraft. "That system has the potential to be on the order of 50 to 100 times more efficient than traditional launch vehicles," Diamandis said. Still other teams came up with ideas to bioengineer organisms for extraterrestrial environments, or to do low-cost biological research in space.

Upcycling: The Fre3dom team is working on a 3-D printing process that would allow local communities in the developing world to make their own spare parts for broken-down equipment. "They've identified a new bioplastic that would work well with the existing cutting-edge generation of 3-D printers," Kurzweil said. Other teams are trying to come up with better methods to extract valuable metals from electronic waste (BioMine) and create more efficient markets for products that one company might see as industrial waste (i2cycle).

All these ideas will require financing to be turned into realities, of course, and part of Singularity U.'s appeal is that venture capital types (from companies such as ePlanet Ventures, Draper Fisher Jurvetson, and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers)  have been involved in the summer session alongside the entrepreneurs. That's part of the reason why the students are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for 10 weeks of summer school.

If you were an investor, which ideas would you bet on? If you were a philanthropist, which causes would you support? What challenges would you want to see next year's Singularity U. graduate students address? Or do you think there are better ways to do good while doing well? Feel free to weigh in with your comments below.


Join the Cosmic Log corps by signing up as my Facebook friend or hooking up on Twitter. And if you really want to be friendly, ask me about "The Case for Pluto."