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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Chasing what is not yet known not to work

Today was one of the best events of the year for Bay Area cleantech entrepreneurs, with a panel discussion by three CEOs and one chairman of local biofuels companies (Amyris, Cobalt, Solazyme and LS9, respectively). I organized the event on behalf of the MIT Club of Northern California.

It was a great evening of very sharp leaders talking about how to make a successful business in a high-tech, high-risk industry based on biotech and chemical engineering. We had a standing room only sellout crowd, based in part on favorable publicity from the Merc and Biofuels Digest.

While we learned a lot from all the panelists, a unique perspective was offered by Noubar Afeyan, a Boston VC (and MIT alum) who appears to be a serial (perhaps chronic) entrepreneur. His Flagship Ventures web page says he’s “co-founded and helped build 24 successful life science and technology startups,” including roles building Applera and Celera in the biotech segment.

Afeyan is the chairman of three biofuels companies: LS9, Joule and Midori. The Bay Area’s LS9 was his firm’s 9th life science startup. As he said, “we number our companies the way that MIT numbers buildings.” (Inside joke for us MIT alumni: buildings, courses, majors are all given by numbers rather than names.)

In his opening slide, he showed an oft-quoted cartoon about the optimism of two archaeologists looking at a tiny pyramid in the desert, with the caption “This could be the discovery of the century. Depending, of course, on how far down it goes.”
This set up one of his best laugh lines of the evening, in which he said all the entrepreneurs in the industry were chasing “what is not yet known not to work.”

That seems to capture what makes high-tech entrepreneurship different: we don’t know what technologies will work and won’t work, so we invest in pursuing things that might work (or at least are not yet known to fail) in hopes of finding the one that does work. That seems almost the definition of entrepreneurial optimism: if it isn’t known to fail, it’s worth trying.