Singularity University Founder Runs a School for Startups
Peter Diamandis, cofounder of Singularity University, talks to the 80 students in its class of 2011.
CREDIT: Singularity University
Your school may encourage wacky science experiments or robotics projects, but Singularity University challenges its graduates to change the lives of a billion people over a decade. Its latest class projects include drones delivering medicine to isolated African villages, an automated "personal coach" advising people about health risks based on their genetic profiles, and online games for homeowners to slash their electricity bills. Yet they're much more than just academic exercises; each idea has led to new startups backed by some of Silicon Valley's biggest investors.
The effort embodies the philosophy of Peter Diamandis, cofounder of Singularity University and a leading entrepreneur with degrees in medicine and aerospace engineering. As CEO and Chairman of the X Prize Foundation, Diamandis has already transformed challenges ranging from private spaceflight to oil spill cleanup into prize opportunities.
But when Diamandis read Ray Kurzweil's book, "The Singularity Is Near," about technologies capable of transforming life on Earth within a few decades, he gained new inspiration. He decided to convene some of the world's most brilliant young minds in the heart of Silicon Valley , give them a crash course on the fastest-changing technologies of our time, and then unleash them like smart missiles to solve the world's biggest problems. Recently, he spoke with InnovationNewsDaily about how it's going.
InnovationNewsDaily: You've said that Singularity University enables a conversation about some of the world's fastest-moving technologies and biggest challenges which isn't happening anywhere else. Why can't people do this at other conferences or institutions?
Peter Diamandis: Modern education today is really focused on creating tremendous specificity. If I go to MIT, Harvard or Stanford to work on a master's or Ph.D., I'm rewarded for how specific and deep I go into an area. I may become an expert on an ion channel in a neuron of a particular part of the brain. That's fine; that level of specificity is what drives us forward, in many ways. But in my observation, there's no place you can go that allows you to get a full and vibrant overview of all the key technologies that are in rapid exponential growth. This is about how technology can be used to address the problems that we care about.
We have two programs at Singularity University. The executive program brings together chief technology officers, hedge fund managers, and other leaders from industries and companies. It's focused on how you use technology to solve industry or corporate problems and leapfrog the competition. In our graduate studies program, we focus on the grand challenges facing the world.
InnovationNewsDaily: Is Singularity University's selection process and curriculum shaped around a particular idea about how to stimulate innovation?
Diamandis: We've focused our group on problems that have billion-person markets. The biggest problems on the planet also represent the biggest opportunities. They provide a chance to do well and to do good at the same time, but a lot of these problems have been unsolvable within the existing paradigm.
We're teaching students about where technologies will be in two years, five years, or 10 years, so that they can build a company or service based on that. It's about anticipating what robotics, synthetic biology , or computer systems will become available.
InnovationNewsDaily: Any innovation needs startup money. What prompted Singularity University to start its own angel investment fund (Singularity Angels) this year?
Diamandis: We have an amazing community of passionate, smart, capable folks. Those who come to our executive programs pay $7,500 for four days, $12,500 for a week; it's reasonably expensive. So the people who come to the program have the means to pay for it, and a lot of people come as angel investors and venture capitalists who are interested in what's next.
We had a lot of people asking how they can get involved after attending the executive program. So we wanted to create a formal process for them to do that. We've created a community that wants an inside track on investing in the ideas that come out of Singularity University.
InnovationNewsDaily: Where do you see Singularity University headed 10 years down the road?
Diamandis: I'm hoping to create a new type of university. We're not interested in accreditation; we're interested in impact. I'm interested in creating an innovation engine where we attract great thinkers and doers and entrepreneurs, where we empower them with a big, bold vision. Ultimately, we'll be building an incubator and vibrant angel investment fund for the companies coming out of that.
InnovationNewsDaily: Singularity University has seen three classes come out of the Graduate Studies program so far. What's your benchmark for the university's success?
Diamandis: We're two years out. I think we're doing phenomenally well. One of our startups, Getaround, won the top startup award from the TechCrunch Disrupt NYC conference in May. We're getting some amazing successes, and there are a lot of successes to come. In the first year, there were four companies started; in the second year, 10 started. Of the 14 startups, 10 are going strong.
InnovationNewsDaily: Those startups have a big post-graduation assignment when it comes to positively affecting a billion people in 10 years.
Diamandis: If a team only affects 100 million people, I'll still be pretty happy. Shoot for the stars; if you only hit the moon, that's great.