Beyond the BS of Singularity U’s $32M raise to teach trendspotting

Twenty minutes into my interview with CEO Rob Nail, and I still couldn’t cut through the buzzwords about his online and in-person education startup. So I asked him straight up, “with as little BS as possible, what does Singularity University do?” He told me “You learn to read the news differently and how to identify which of all the crazy breakthroughs might be relevant to you. The most powerful thing we do is give people hope for the future and a credible path for getting there.”

…Got it.

SU Leadership Forum

Maybe an example would help. You can pay SU $14,500 for a week-long executive training where it will lodge and feed you as it shows you how to figure out how to exploit tech’s next big shift, and the frameworks for creating your own. There are online classes, industry-specific summits, and franchises all over the world beyond its Silicon Valley headquarters.

And with all the excitement, fear, and opportunity locked within technology, it’s no wonder SU just raised a $32 million. People are desperate to understand where business is going, and SU is happy to try to tell them. The series B was co-led by WestRiver Group and Boeing with participation from Silicon Valley Bank, TAL Education Group, Mukita, and PeopleFund. “I won’t say we have an articulated vision of the future . . . but we’re trying to frame the problems and create a future of abundance as a real possibility” Nail tells me.

SU was co-founded in 2008 by futurists Ray Kurzweil and Peter H. Diamandis as a non-profit before becoming a benefit corporation in 2012. Now it’s grown to 100 chapters in 55 countries, whose summits gathered 8000 people in 2017. It also supports 59 social impact startups and non-profits, and has graduated companies like Getaround’s car sharing service, Made In Space’s 3D printers, and Cambrian Genomics’ DNA laser printer. Oh, and it runs a smart city accelerator, and is launching a science entertainment program with NBC called The Awesome Show.

Yet despite there being of plenty of conferences, online courses, and startup accelerators, Nail tried to tell me “I don’t feel like we have direct competitors.”

Teaching the unpredictable can be a dicey, though, since you encounter a lot of charlatans on the way. You know the type. A guru for whatever people want. Always running some company with no clear product. And so I worry that some people might throw themselves into SU’s programming under the false promise that they’ll be shown the light when we’re all fumbling in the dark to some degree.

But there’s no doubt a keen eye for distinguishing fads from serious trends can be lucrative if it can be taught. Predicting cryptocurrency’s rise, VR’s stagnation, ridesharing’s competition, or CRISPR’s miracles could give people the chance to start new businesses or join the right ones. And so perhaps the money you spend on SU’s myriad programs will unlock new financial mobility. But whether student or professor, everyone must wait and see. There’s no such thing as a sure bet on the future.

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