F50: A Different Kind Of Tech Conference

Faster than you can say “Can I borrow your copy of ‘How To Win Friends And Influence People,’” it’s tech conference season again. There hasn’t been a week during the month of May where I haven’t attended a tech conference or traveled to something tech conference-related. And judging by Techmeme’s events calendar the state of affairs only gets worse as we get deeper into summer.

Between Disrupt NYC last week, D10 tomorrow, NY Founders and Le Web London in June, Allen & Co, Sun Valley in July, the CrunchUp in August and TechCrunch Disrupt in San Francisco in September, the tech community is pretty much spending the next couple of months checking in and out of airports on Foursquare, Path, Instagram or whatever their social/mobile/local drug of choice currently is.

In between this barrage of formal tech conferences, I briefly popped into F50 earlier this month … Founders Fund’s first attempt at a tech conference, F50 is the ultimate “un-conference,” where fifty of the technology industry’s “most promising” engineers and entrepreneurs were brought together on the Hawaiian island of Lanai. Founders Fund partner Bruce Gibney called it “intellectual exchange without the structural nightmare that’s gone up around it” and INC magazine dubbed it, “The Most Exclusive Tech Conference Ever?”

The elite group of fifty technologists were hand-selected by the Founders Fund partners and sent invites to save the dates between Friday May 11th and Sunday the 13th. Those from out of town were flown out to SF and put up for Thursday night at the Westin St. Francis Hotel, and both the East Coasters and the West Coasters were picked up by black car or bus and taken to Oakland’s Private Airport on Friday.

There they met the other F50ers for the first time, in addition to about a dozen Founders Fund friends and mentors, and all traded in their fancy steel invites for a spot on one of two planes. None of the attendees knew exactly who else was on the trip or who they were flying with prior to their arrival and the group didn’t even know their destination as they boarded the jets.

The seating on the private flight was arranged, and upon each seat was a personalized engraved iPad, complete with a .pdf deck of photos and bios of the rest of the attendees. While Founders Fund won’t let me publish the full list, it was very thorough and ran the gamut of world-changing innovators — from a guy with a serious plan to cure Cancer to a rocket engineer to a 3-D printer with a gaggle of rockstar computer scientists thrown in for good measure.

Also worth noting: Founders Fund footed the bill for the entire fifty, turning the traditional model of “conference as a business” onto its axis (Note: As the only press invited I flew in coach and Aol paid most of my way). “Invest early and often” at its most extreme.

Aboard the incoming flight, the menu was geek-themed, and guests could choose from the paleo friendly “Contemporary Nerd” (Filet Mignon and Tomato Basil salad), “Classic Nerd” (Pizza Pockets, Chicken Nuggets, Pringles and Red Bull) and “Vegan” (Pasta with Grilled Vegetables in an herbed Olive oil) meals. I guess whoever set up the menu thought vegan was nerdy enough to stand on its own.

In order to encourage interaction between the attendees, Founders Fund made everyone switch seats halfway through the flight. In addition, Founders Fund partner Auren Hoffman, who has an obsession with questions apparently, had written out an ice-breaker question tailored to each attendee’s interest next to the iPads, like “What could be invented if energy were freely available everywhere?,” How will the human body change over the next thirty years, and how should we change it?” and “What turns human passion into money?”

(Mine, which Hoffman handed to me the next night, was appropriately enough, “What makes you weird?”).

After the very informal in-flight networking, the plane landed on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, and, finally finding out their destination, the fifty were driven to the Four Seasons, where they disembarked and picked up a simple swag bag filled with orange flip-flops and F50 t-shirts. They then were herded to a dinner where the conversations between these brilliant young minds were spearheaded by either a Founders Fund member or mentor at each table.

“I had more great conversations per hour than I’d had in years,” Hoffman later told me.

The mentors, who flew in on a different plane along with Founders Fund partners Peter Thiel, Ken Howery, Luke Nosek, Brian Singerman, Bruce Gibney and Sean Parker included Yelp’s Russell Simmons, Palantir’s Stephen Cohen, World Economic Forum CTO Brian Behlendorf, and Airtime co-founder Joey Liaw. From what I heard the mentors really didn’t feel like there was that much difference between them and the attendees — as in, both groups were just as in awe of each other and eager to partake in dialogue.

In lieu of the artifice of talks or anything even remotely structured the next morning, the attendees were given the option of going snorkeling or off-roading in Jeeps, and those that chose snorkeling got to explore the ocean floor with industry visionaries like Parker and Thiel. Because this was Hawaii, some of the group even informally went golfing, on a whim.

To give you a sense of how casual everything was, when I arrived in Lanai, Island Air informed me that it had lost my baggage and I was stuck wearing my default airplane outfit to the conference: a Coachella hoodie, a pair of cut-off shorts, ballet slippers and a tank top. When I asked the hotel guest reception whether or not my attire was appropriate for dinner, they responded, “Yeah, everyone else is also dressed like you.” I ended up buying a Hawaiian themed dress from the gift shop anyways.

I arrived at the dinner 15 minutes late, and immediately one of the F50 kindly helped me get situated. My table was a cornucopia of super-impressive people, to my right Eben Bayer, a entrepreneur who is trying to make mushrooms “the new plastic” with his company Ecovative Design, to my left Founders Fund partner Gibney, and across from me was child prodigy Taylor Wilson — a kid who created nuclear fusion in his garage at 14 and currently owns one of the largest private collections of radioactive materials in the US.

At 18, Taylor wasn’t yet old enough to drink the wine and margaritas being offered to the table. He really wasn’t missing out on much, we insisted.

Sometimes I like to think of the technology industry as what high school would have been like if the nerds were actually cool, and this exactly was the vibe at F50. The next morning when I donned my swag shirt to breakfast (I still didn’t have normal clothes) I came across a girl who was also wandering aimlessly about the Four Seasons, also looking for the F50 breakfast, I assumed.

Ariel Garten was slight and about as un-intimidating as possible until she opened her mouth to respond to my cliche, “And what do you do?”question. “Thought-controlled computing,” was her answer and it made me do a double take. As CEO of InteraXon industries, Garten is making hardware products that can be controlled by the human mind (Seriously). She is also part owner of a Fashion Boutique in her native Canada.

“I can pick any one person here and they’ll be amazing,” she quipped as we headed to breakfast.

“Neither haphazard tossings of business cards nor random people’s elevator pitches blessed the event, where, profoundly brilliant people exchanged world-changing ideas,” explained attendee Meredith Perry (who, as the founder of Ubeam, is working on a ground-breaking wireless phone charger), who I got to know over a breakfast buffet replete with scrambled eggs, bacon and mangoes and more.

Perry set F50 in a league apart from other tech conferences, “[It] was small enough so that people felt intimate and uninhibited, and unstructured enough so that violent ideation could unfold … The relationships formed between the eager minds in attendance will lead to future-changing partnerships.”

And indeed I already know of one (off-the-record, for the moment) partnership to stem from the event — just weeks or so after. “The real ‘results’ of the F50 weekend won’t materialize for several years,” Perry said.

So who exactly were the chosen fifty?

“We asked our friends to identify the smartest, most entrepreneurial people they knew who were not already directly known to Founders Fund,” Gibney told me, “And then we made sure that these were people who wanted to go out and change the world – people who hadn’t succumbed to irony, boredom or cynicism, but had a real plan for how to make things better through technology .. The result … really was one of the half dozen most fun and interesting things I’ve participated in (and this in a week that includes the FB IPO and a Falcon 9 launch).”

Whether or not any of the F50 will actually end up changing the world remains to be seen, but the conference has already proven to be the gift that keeps on giving for many (and I have a slew of new, smart friends in my inbox). The bonds forged between attendees through a mere couple of days were strong enough that when the plane that was supposed to take us back to the mainland broke down, one attendee remarked, “Well if you’re going to be stuck on a deserted island, it might as well be with these people.”

Another said goodbye to a new friend thusly, “Good luck with saving the world and curing Cancer and everything.”


Images via: Jason Purtorti and Michael Solana