Why Do Our Best and Brightest End Up in Silicon Valley and Not D.C.?

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America's wunderkinds once looked to politics to make a difference on issues like healthcare reform. Now they come to Google Ventures asking Bill Maris for money.

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Bill Maris of Google Ventures at the Aspen Institute. Stuart Isett/Fortune Brainstorm TECH

Recently I visited one of the primary ventricles of Silicon Valley's investment culture, Google Ventures. I wanted to find out why more of our era's genii are not interested in government, specifically in helping out with reforming the U.S. healthcare system.

Google Ventures is not one of the largest of venture outfits here in the Valley. Nor is it the oldest. It isn't even located on Sand Hill Road in nearby Menlo Park, where venerable firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers are lined up end-to-end in low-rise office parks dispensing billions of dollars.

What Google Ventures has become after only three years in business is the height of tech über-coolness. This is the place where the world's best and brightest come hoping not only for money, but also validation as a truly cutting edge concern.

They come to this glass-cubed building near Google headquarters to pitch their ideas to managing partner Bill Maris, who is often the person who tells them "yes" or "no".

I wasn't there, however, to talk about investment strategies or Google Venture's portfolio. I was there to ask Maris why he and other Valley leaders weren't taking their brand of innovation - and tech-hipness--to help solve public policy problems in desperate need of fresh thinking.

Or to put in terms of a generation past, I wanted to find out why America's smartest in the current generation are so far removed from John F. Kennedy's call to "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country". In the 1960s this launched a wave of participation in government among those that writer David Halberstam once dubbed the "best and the brightest". 

Lean and compact with a three-day beard, Maris looked even younger than his 37 years. He wore the Valley's de rigueur jeans and t-shirt, sitting in a corner office where he and his team annually doll out $200 million in investment funds provided by Google.

"Commercial enterprises, when they're successful, tend to make big impacts in a way that non-profits sometimes have a more difficult time doing."

Dozens of portfolio companies listed on the fund's website cover the categories of digital, energy, gaming, mobile, and life sciences. And many have whimsical, Google-esque names like Bionic Panda Games, Humanoid, Rocket Lawyer, and Crittercism.

In life sciences they have invested in well-known companies like the genetic testing business 23andme and Iperian, a company using new stem cell technologies to develop therapies for disease.

I spoke with Maris for over an hour. In this first part of a multi-part chat, we talked about why the Google Ventures culture seems uninterested in public policy and politics, particularly with the life science and healthcare--a topic Maris knows something about, having studied neuroscience at Middlebury College.

As we talked, I watched a constant bustle of activity through the glass walls of Maris' office as the mostly youngish staff worked at computers, chatted with one another or on smart phones, and moved to and from meetings. Fifty people work here, said Maris, mostly as advisors to portfolio companies in areas like engineering, design, marketing, and communications.


What do you think is the biggest health problem in the world today?

A hard question, there is so much. There are environmental threats to health; there are internal threats to health--genetic conditions, viral threats, diseases like cancer and Parkinson's. And then there are societal and global ones, like poverty and lack of nutrition. And unknown viral threats, everything from a new kind of influenza to hemorrhagic fever. In terms of a macro-macro level, one thing I worry about is an asteroid hitting the earth.

Are you investing in an anti-asteroid company?

Well, send me the pitch. I'd love to see it.

Seriously?

There's an absurdity to it, but asteroids have hit earth, and it will happen again. A lot of these scenarios are sort of funny until they actually happen. Like a dangerous virus coming out of nowhere. It's unlikely but also significantly impactful, so it's worth thinking about. We want to invest in companies that matter. Whether it's an anti-asteroid company or a company that's going to help us understand your genome.

In the venture community and at Google Ventures, do you think you can help with these problems?

I hope so. If you don't know someone with cancer, you probably will eventually, sadly. We have this powerful lever at Google Ventures, which is to invest $200 million a year. This is a huge lever. It's not all going into one place, it's going into lots of start ups and founders and entrepreneurs, all of which are levers to try and change the world in one way or another. One way we can try and improve our existence on earth as it spins around the sun is to try and help people live longer, healthier, happier lives, have more time with their loved ones.

For you, why venture as opposed to, say, working for the NIH or for the White House?

I contemplated a career at NIH at one point. I have a neuroscience background. Lots of people are making a difference in the academic world doing government-funded research. So there are lots of ways to do it. I find this path I'm on to be a particularly leveraged way. Commercial enterprises, when they're successful, tend to make really big impacts and scale in a way that non-profits sometimes have a more difficult time doing.

Do you even consider yourself a venture capitalist in the traditional sense? For one thing, you don't have lots of limited partners that invest in your fund.

We have just one, Google. We really tried to reinvent what it means to be a venture capitalist. We're interested in smaller companies with a potential upside and with creating large, scalable companies. And we have this really risk-leaning LP (Limited Partner), Google, that always says: "We don't want to do what everyone else is doing." So do I think of myself as a venture capitalist? Not really. I think of myself as an entrepreneur.

What makes you so confident that what happens here in Silicon Valley is going to change the world?

For one, you can certainly point to a long list of companies and innovations that have come out of the Valley. There's a different mindset here than in other places. Silicon Valley has been a technology capital like New York is a financial capital. Here it's about the future and inventing new things. I'm super optimistic about that because I see the hundreds of entrepreneurs a year that come in here, some that we fund, that are going to do amazing things.

You mentioned the impact of poverty and malnutrition in the health space. Does that optimism you have extend to solving some of these problems?

Sure. I think as a human you have to be. Otherwise you'd just kind of give up. One of my aunts had polio. She's in a wheelchair, and now polio in this country is unheard of. We live in a world now where smallpox doesn't exist. There are bacteria that would have killed you years ago, and now you take antibiotics, and you're going to be fine. Is that available broadly enough in the world? No. But if you think about how we define poverty in this country compared to a hundred years ago, I'm incredibly optimistic that the sweep of things over time is in the right direction.

But you are a fund, which means a major motivation has to be making money.

We're not "in it for the money", we're in it to do something really important. We're a venture fund, and one way to measure this is financial success. Companies that are financially successful tend to be those that make the biggest impact. We also share Google's values, like: customers come first, transparency is important, your data is yours. And when you screw up, you say, "yeah, I screwed up," and then everyone moves on and tries something else. These values are something we share with our companies; that we can leverage in a big way.

I wonder, can you apply all of this energy, innovation, and optimism to Washington, D.C. and public policy?

That would be great, but I'm not hugely optimistic. Thinking about government policy sends shivers up my spine. The gears are grinding together in government, and it's slow and complicated and no one understands it. Great things are usually not accomplished in Silicon Valley through government policy, they are accomplished by individuals who set out to change the world, invent something, create a better live for themselves and their children. Now the government can make sure there is a level playing field, and make sure that the rules are enforced and fair.

Would you ever want to go into politics to make an impact?

No. I have a hard time finding people I love, trust, and respect that do want to be in politics. Because what are the incentives? They are usually not financial--hopefully--but there's not much incentive to make a change, to make a difference. I wish I had a cause to be optimistic that all of those things will be fixed.

So I found a place where you're not an optimist.

It's not that I'm pessimistic about it. It's just not a place where I spend a lot of time. Because I don't feel like I can have a lot of impact there. There are people who spend their entire careers in government and policy, and I'd hate to do that and ask myself, "has the peanut been pushed one inch?"

And yet the infrastructure--the roads, water, sewage--that allow you to operate here at Google Ventures and in the Valley was organized and mostly paid for by government.

That's why I draw a distinction between politics and the government. There are people who are doing really hard work--in the military, building bridges, engineers, the NIH, versus what goes on at the highest level in Washington. And you've got to ask: "are you guys totally out of touch?"

So why wouldn't you want to turn some of this energy and innovation out here into solving some of the intractable problems in Washington?

Overall I think government does a pretty good job, and there's no place I'd rather live. We're generally safe; we don't have a poverty level as bad as many other places. You put it in context--things have been worse at times in the history of this country.

When I started Google Ventures there were a few criteria that I needed. We wanted to be able to make our own decisions, to do our own hiring. We didn't want to be forced to invest strategically, and we wanted to invest in the things we believe in Part of the reason why this works here is this really risk-leaning LP (Google) that says, "We'd rather leave a smoking crater in the ground than do what everyone else is doing." So if you went in as the head of NIH or any other large government agency and said, "I'd rather leave a smoking crater here than keep doing what we're doing," that might not go over so well.

You don't get the level of autonomy and trust, generally speaking, as an appointed person at one of those agencies, as you might need. You've got to work from within. I feel like my energies are a lot more impactful, and I get to see the results a lot quicker doing this.

Arguably there have been bold projects coming from government in the past--the interstate highway system, NASA.

I agree with that. Government is really successful when it's willing to make big bold objectives like: We're going to get to the moon. And they're willing to invest in those things to get there. I don't think it was: "We're going to invent the Internet," but: "We're going to invest in these technologies and things will develop from them." And you know, that flows out to universities, which flows out to companies. This system has given us a lot, and I hope will continue to give us in the future. But without leaders with big ideas we get stuck.

Look for further excerpts from the Bill Maris interview coming soon about the Health 2.0 movement to connect bioscience and information technology, and about using technology to redesign people.

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David Ewing Duncan is a journalist in San Francisco. He is also a television, radio, and film producer, and he has written eight books. His most recent e-book is entitled When I’m 164: The Science of Radical Life Extension, and What Happens If It Succeeds. More

Duncan's previous books include Experimental Man: What one man's body reveals about his future, your health, and our toxic world. He is a correspondent for Atlantic.com and the Chief Correspondent of public radio's Biotech Nation, broadcast on NPR Talk. He has been a commentator on NPR's Morning Edition, and a contributing editor for Wired, Discover and Conde Nast Portfolio. David has written for The New York Times, Fortune, National Geographic, Harper's, The Atlantic, and many other publications. He is a former special correspondent and producer for ABC Nightline, and correspondent for NOVA's ScienceNOW! He has won numerous awards including the Magazine Story of the Year from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. His articles have twice been cited in nominations for National Magazine Awards, and his work has appeared twice in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. He is the founding director of the Center of Life Science Policy at UC Berkeley, and a founder of the BioAgenda Institute. His website is www.davidewingduncan.com

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