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

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.

Presented by

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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