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The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. —William Gibson

The New Frontier — Invention, Innovation, and Imagination

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.    — Founders Fund

I’ve always been interested in space. I grew up reading books about planets, stars, and asteroids. The Earthrise photo hangs framed in my office — the first photograph of Earth, taken by the crew of Apollo 8. I remember watching Carl Sagan documentaries (he of the famous “billions and billions”) and rolling out that strip of paper with a google and a googleplex on it. And when my parents asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said an astronaut or a cowboy. I was awed by space and gravitated towards frontiers.

When I transitioned out of finance a few years ago, I started a company to hold the investments I planned to make. I wasn’t entirely sure what they were going to be, but I knew that ultimately I wanted to start and invest in companies. I had read Kennedy’s speech where he talked about the “New Frontier,” and the name resonated, so I formed NewFrontier Holdings.

For the problems are not all solved and the battles are not all won — and we stand today on the edge of a New Frontier…a frontier of unknown opportunities and perils — a frontier of unfulfilled hopes and threats…. Beyond that frontier are the uncharted areas of science and space, unsolved problems of peace and war, unconquered pockets of ignorance and prejudice, unanswered questions of poverty and surplus. It would be easier to shrink back from that frontier, to look to the safe mediocrity of the past, to be lulled by good intentions and high rhetoric…. But I believe the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision.   — 1960 Kennedy Acceptance Speech

That quote seems as appropriate today as it must have to people in the 1960s. Certainly peace and war and ignorance and prejudice still exist (in abundance). The question of poverty and surplus is front and center as we come out of the Great Recession with little to no gains in real wages for the vast majority of people.

We live in a world of fewer physical frontiers, with the last being space or possibly the depths of the oceans, although we’re making progress there too. There’s a sense that technology hasn’t delivered, that we’ve stagnated and that basic things like our kitchens have hardly changed in 50 years.

But there are new frontiers left:

Resources

There’s the frontier of the environment — how to maximize food, energy, and water while minimizing impact and externalities in a world moving from 6 to 11 billion people over the next fifty years.

Science

There’s the frontier of biology — genetics and sequencing are advancing at an astonishing rate, leading to personalized medicine and insights into how to treat and cure diseases like cancer and to create synthetic life.

Space

There’s still the frontier of space — there has been a revitalization and interest in space with everyone from Bezos to Branson to Musk competing for market share. Mars is going to be this generation’s Moon.

Impact

There’s the frontier of impact investing — learning how to address poverty and surplus, at the intersection of capital markets and philanthropy, is being pioneered by firms like Acumen.

The idea that there are no more new frontiers could not be further from the truth; they are there, and we need invention, innovation, and imagination now more than ever if we are to succeed at crossing them.

Further Reading & References

Full Kennedy Speech
The Great Stagnation, Tyler Cowen
The Kitchen Test, Paul Krugman
What Happened to the Future?, Founders Fund

Thiel: What Happened to the Future?

An excellent look at venture investing and technology. This along with Blake Masters’s course notes from Peter Thiel’s CS 183 class are a must read.

We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.

What Happened to the Future?
CS 183 Course Notes

Krugman: The Kitchen Test (2011)

Better yet, think about how a typical middle-class family lives today compared with 40 years ago — and compare those changes with the progress that took place over the previous 40 years.

The Kitchen Test