What’s Better: Saving the World or Building Another Facebook app?

Running on just sugar and caffeine, 32 teams of students worked non-stop for 18 hours to develop applications that they hoped would blow the judges’ socks off. This was at the UC-Berkeley Hackathon, last weekend. Indeed, many teams succeeded in their mission. They built some amazing software: to provide server-side rendering of games, convert website mockups to HTML/CSS, create sophisticated playlists for Youtube videos, and to analyze Twitter streams. One team even built a gaming interface for a neural headset.

There were so many cool tools that the seven judges, who included representatives from Zynga, Facebook, Y-Combinator (and me), had a hard time picking a winner in each category. The exception was the “social good” category. There was only one team worthy of receiving this prize. The team built a system to enable villagers in developing countries to send SMSs to volunteers across the globe who provide emergency medical advice. But the Silicon Valley judges couldn’t see the value of this technology. One commented, “If the villager has a cell-phone, why doesn’t he just call 911? This is really dumb”. (Most of the judges didn’t understand that 911 services don’t exist in most places in the world, and that SMSs have become the internet of the developing world). Instead, the panel awarded the prize to a team that developed a polling technology for university classrooms and for conferences. The rationale for this decision? “Helping universities is a social good.”

This brings me to the point of this post. What if we challenged these students and Silicon Valley to build businesses that do good for the planet and make a healthy profit doing so? Today, the world faces more problems than perhaps at any point in recent history. The economy is on the brink. Greenhouse gases threaten to turn Earth into a giant steam room. Scarce resources such as food, water, and oil have already become international flashpoints as the developing and developed worlds jockey for position to sustain or improve their standards of living. Drug-resistant bacteria threaten us with doomsday plagues. Yet we have the greatest minds and the deepest pool of investment capital in the world focused on building Facebook and Twitter apps.

Yes, I know that some in Silicon Valley are solving important problems. But these are the tiny minority.  Out of 32 teams at UC-Berkeley, only one was focused on a social cause. That’s probably the same proportion of do-gooders as in the Valley. I’ll bet that most Berkeley students would do anything to better the world if they knew how.  But like the Hackathon judges, they don’t know what problems need to be solved and what they can do to solve them.

There is a way. In 2008, Charles Vest, the president of the National Academy of Engineering brought together a group of prominent deans of engineering schools from around the country to create a list of Grand Challenges that can be solved by engineers, in our lifetime. These were in several broad realms of human concern — sustainability, health, vulnerability, and joy of living. Dr. Vest believed that “the world’s cadre of engineers will seek ways to put knowledge into practice to meet these grand challenges. Applying the rules of reason, the findings of science, the aesthetics of art, and the spark of creative imagination, engineers will continue the tradition of forging a better future”.

Here is the list of the 14 Grand Challenges the deans created:
Make solar energy economical
Provide energy from fusion
Develop carbon sequestration methods
Manage the nitrogen cycle
Provide access to clean water
Restore and improve urban infrastructure
Advance health informatics
Engineer better medicines
Reverse-engineer the brain
Prevent nuclear terror
Secure cyberspace
Enhance virtual reality
Advance personalized learning
Engineer the tools of scientific discovery

Some of these may sound far afield for typical Silicon Valley TechCrunch readers and Berkeley students, but they are not.  I asked Duke University’s dean of engineering, Tom Katsouleas, to help me translate some of these into tangible business ideas. Here are three examples:

1.  Engineer better medicines. You might think this is the purview of the medical researcher or biomedical engineer, and it is, but it is also an electrical-engineering (EE), computer-science and information-technology challenge.  For example, one of the big drivers here is the need to predict and prevent future pandemics of highly resistant diseases.  So a concrete grand challenge is to provide early detection of diseases from a saliva swab.  It turns out that the human body when exposed to diseases such as H1N1 responds with elevated gene expressions almost immediately.  Picking out the protein signal from such an event and distinguishing it from the noise of normal metabolism turns out to be amenable to the same techniques EE’s develop to pick out a weak cell-phone signal.  Duke Professor of EE, Larry Carin, has teamed up with genomicist Geoff Ginsburg and shown that this approach allows disease prediction up to 5 days in advance of symptoms.  Photonics researchers are busy trying to develop rapid on-chip diagnostics that are optical or based on electrical resistance rather than on lab chemistry and that work on saliva instead of blood.  This information can then be fed into dynamically steered computer models of disease propagation and guide both vaccine developers and public-health officials.

2.  Make solar energy economical.  It is that one extra word at the end of the sentence that changes everything.  Without the word economical, this is a physics challenge that we know how to meet: to convert energy from photons to a flow of electrons.   But with the extra word, the challenge cannot be solved without addressing business, policy, human behavior, and of course a spectrum of technologies far beyond the basic physics.  For example, nano-scale plasmonic structures could be critical to making solar cells as “cheap as paint” as well as coating roofs that are as reflective as white paint but still aesthetic.   Wireless technology could assist the adoption of electric vehicles.   Imagine using metamaterial lenses to make wireless chargers in the floor of garages highly efficient.  The leapfrog from EVs’ being less convenient vehicles that have to be plugged in to never having to stop to refuel turns one key obstacle to adoption into an incentive to make a better product.

3.  Reverse-engineer the brain. As brain researcher and Palm inventor, Jeff Hawkins, at Numenta pointed out, there was a time when computer scientists thought they could create artificial intelligence algorithmically.  That hubris is giving way to a recognition that understanding the structure and function of biological neural networks may be essential to achieving applications as mundane as navigating a car down the freeway to as grand as helping individuals optimize their own learning.

If you review the list of challenges, you may be able to develop some great business ideas of your own. Olin College and the Kauffman Foundation have created a competition for students who have completed science and engineering projects that tie directly to the 14 Grand Challenges. Several universities, including North Carolina State University and Duke University, are also holding a series of summits to bring thinkers together to solve problems. I encourage you to participate. My hope is that rather than run business-plan contests and hackathons, our universities will start competing to solve the Grand Challenges. Maybe the excitement and sense of purpose will seep through to my fellow judges and others in Silicon Valley… and maybe we’ll even help save the world.

Editor’s note: Guest writer Vivek Wadhwa is an entrepreneur turned academic. He is a Visiting Scholar at UC-Berkeley, Senior Research Associate at Harvard Law School and Director of Research at the Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at Duke University. Follow him on Twitter at @vwadhwa.