Rob Nail, Chief Executive Officer of Singularity University

By Peter High, published on Forbes


In 2011, Rob Nail thought he was retired. Never mind that he was only 15 years out of undergrad. He had co-founded Velocity 11, a robotics company that pioneered automation technology solutions for life science laboratories, and in late 2007, he sold it to Agilent Technologies. He had joined the board of Alite Designs, had become an angel investor, and generally enjoyed himself.

He elected to take one of the first executive programs at Singularity University (SU), the Silicon Valley think-tank that offers educational programs and that serves as a business incubator, founded by Peter Diamandis and Ray Kurzweil. Whereas he thought he knew a lot about robotics, his exposure to the big thinkers at SU led him to realize that there was much he did not know, and that he was fortunate to have sold his company when he did because of competitive forces that would have made for tough going in the near-term.

Nail was so taken with SU that he invested time and money in it, and developed a number of ideas for the founders to pursue. Diamandis and Kurzweil were sufficiently impressed to ask him to come on as the organization’s chief executive officer, a role he has held since late 2011.

Today, he believes that the work of SU (among other institutions and enterprises) will lead to a world of abundance. He foresees a time in the next three decades where a middle-class existence in the western world will be accessible to all through exponential technologies. We cover his rationale among other things in this far ranging interview.

Peter High: I have had the chance to speak with multiple of your colleagues at Singularity University, though none with as broad a purview as you have. I thought maybe, given your high perch in the organization and your long tenure with it since its founding in 2008, you could talk a bit about the unmet need that led to the creation of Singularity University, especially at its founding; as well as how the organization has evolved in the eight plus years since.

Rob Nail: I met Peter Diamandis in 2009 after he and Ray Kurzweil had just started Singularity University. They ran that first program, and I met Peter at another event, and he said, “We just started this thing called Singularity University, and we are going to run these executive programs. You should come check it out.” I ended up attended one of the first executive programs at SU.

I had just had an exit after building a robotics company for drug and cancer research [Velocity 11] over 10 plus years. I sold it to Agilent Technologies, and worked at Agilent for a few years and then left. I basically walked into this executive program – I am a super tech geek so it sounded like fun –thinking I was the expert in robotics and biotech because I just had built a leading business and was in and out of pharma. In that week, I discovered all kinds of things happening in robotics and biotech that I had not known. That was an interesting epiphany. The second thing that hit me was that I learned about things happening in neuroscience and nanotechnology that were converging to potentially disrupt the robotics business that I had built. The second epiphany for me was that I left thinking, “Thank goodness I sold my business when I did because it was in trouble, and I did not even see it coming.”

That was a formative week for me. It was an interesting time when I was looking at broadening my horizons, and trying to find the next big thing for myself personally. I was fascinated by the faculty, the level of thought, the depth of thought, the meta-level of the philosophical conversation, and the potential of the ideas that were coming out of it. I pitched Peter Diamandis on a bunch of ideas: licensing what they were doing to start an online version, starting an accelerator program, and starting a fund to kick off and catalyze some of the ideas that were coming out of the programs. Peter’s response was, “Slow down, we just stated, but why don’t you come on and help.” At that time, I thought I was retired, and so I said I am happy to help, but I am definitely not taking the job.

Interestingly, where Peter and I aligned – and really the original reason that Peter and Ray started the University – was the insight that technology is moving far faster than most people realize, and the implications of that are extreme. Having an institution where you can go to understand the broad base of technology, but also go deep into understanding the implications on our lives, on our businesses, on our industries, on our society, and even on what it means to be human, is probably an important thing in the world. I took over as CEO about a year after that.

I think we find ourselves at a time where I believe the mission of Singularity University is more important than ever before. Just to give a quick narrative of where we are right now, we just had an interesting period with our election cycle here. We have seen Brexit. We just saw Italy go the way of Populism and sort of changing. I have a strong thesis that this is naturally expected to happen in a time that is rife with so much change. Most people have no idea about what is happening with technology, they just feel it changing every part of their lives. All we read in the front page of the paper is that Amazon Go is going to displace all cashier jobs. We are constantly bombarded with this horrific, negative news about the future. It keeps us in a constant state of anxiety and fear. When you are living in fear, you look for something to hold on to, something stable – and typically that looks like the past. So, I would suggest that Brexit, and Trump, and the Prime Minister stepping down in Italy; these are just examples of people not having a clear vision of a long-term future. They are just operating out of fear, and they are clinging to something that feels normal from the past because they are operating without anyone trying to articulate a long-term vision that we can agree upon, or even a vision that sounds positive, or any relative path towards it.

I believe that the mission of Singularity University is first and foremost to build an awareness of what is happening and what is available, but also to create a new narrative and a new lens for people to look at these technologies and breakthroughs with a long term, optimistic viewpoint. That view point is that exponential technologies are providing us with these capabilities that we never could have even imagined before, and they are going to allow us to solve problems that we never even remotely could have touched before. That can translate into us creating a world of abundance, as we like to call it.

If you look through Moore’s Law continuing for some time, through the works of Google Loon and Facebook drones and One Web satellite, everybody on the planet is going to be connected within the next five to 10 years. That means they will have access to the greatest education that ever existed. They can get a free degree from MIT today, imagine what five years from now is going to offer. The XPRIZE has this amazing global literacy prize that is a $50 million-dollar prize to build an app that will take someone from complete illiteracy to reading and writing proficiency with 18 months. They are pretty sure somebody will win this within the next two years. With access to IBM Watson, you get the best health care capabilities. Energy is getting cheaper on a 30-year timeline. It will mean that food and water can be cheap. Taken together, on a 30-year timeline, there is a real path towards us having an upper class, Western U.S.-based lifestyle as a baseline for everybody on the planet, all through exponential technologies.

Peter has a saying that we are going to move from a world of “haves and have nots” to a world of “haves and super-haves.” I think it is fundamentally possible, but it does not feel possible living in the time that we have because we have few visionaries, few people even able to discuss a vision of the future that sounds anything like this. It means drastic changes to the current system, and we know that change is scary and hard, especially when it means having to rewrite a lot of our existing infrastructure system, our economic system, our health care system, our insurance practices, and so on. All these things are being disrupted because of technology.

I would say that the one other thing that we are trying to provoke and inspire is getting more storytellers to think about this world of abundance, and how to fashion true narratives around that. This is critical because most people do not have good imaginations. We are fed these horrible things from the news, from the media, and from Hollywood, where almost any vision of the future that you see through these channels looks like a dystopian Hunger Games zombie apocalypse scenario. There are not many visions that are different for the future. Until we start telling ourselves better stories, we are going to manifest the ones that we are telling ourselves. We are working hard to change that narrative, and then show some credible path, and build a global community that is activated to take the steps to inspire the policymakers, to scale the startups, and to bring in the big development organizations and big corporations that have the wherewithal to make these things real.

High: One of the challenges you highlighted is that the pace of change has never been faster, and in many cases what we are seeing – in politics for one, among the examples you gave – is a reaction to that pace of change and maybe a desire to slow it a bit. As you are immersed in a world where that change is perhaps at its fastest, how do you think about strategy. You talked about the need for a bigger and better vision in some ways, but the substance of that vision, the reality of that is obviously changing to such a dramatic degree, I wonder what sort of time horizon you use for planning. Also, how do you incorporate flexibility and the ability to pivot relative to some of the ideas that you hold dearly as part of those strategies?

Nail: That is where the rubber hits the road. We have worked with enough corporations and startups, and we are based in Silicon Valley, so we have a particular bent around entrepreneurship and the entrepreneurial mindset. For big companies, we call this mindset of experimenting and trying stuff “intrapreneurship.” We see that mindset extending directly to these big societal problems as well.

First, you must have some risk takers. You must have an ecosystem that is supportive of risk takers and is catalyzing them, and then you have to protect and support those experiments and learn from them and keep experimenting. One critical insight that we have learned is the concept of scaling at the edges. Do not try to revamp the core business or the core systems that you have in place, do not try to hit those head on. Try to run experiments on the side where maybe it is completely stealth or unseen until you get a critical mass, or you have iterated enough to the point where you know what the path is. Once you find the right experiment that is working, and you scale it to a point, then you scale it from the edges and make it real, so it eventually displaces or replace the core. There is a lot of art to how you integrate that into business, or bring it back. That is a big part of the learning curve that we have explored. In Exponential Organizations, one of the books that came out of Singularity University, we looked at how you organize around these exponential technologies.

Another issueis that we have an extraordinary global community. We have more than 20,000 alumni out of our 110 countries who have come to our core programs, and more than 100,000 people interacting through different venues and online threads. We also have interacted with a lot of governments, a lot of Mayors of major cities, as well as Presidents and Prime Ministers around the world. There is a real hunger – largely based on fear – of what to do. They see this stuff coming but they do not know what to do, so we hope to leverage our community to inspire new experiments to be done.

For example, we say there is a big need in education to create a new skill set, and about three years ago, the President and the Vice President of Uruguay invited us to do a program for all the Ministers and Heads of State and others industry partners to inspired them about our vision for the long-term future. We got to meet all their industry leaders and startups that are there, and we came to discover that in Uruguay, 100 percent of the kids have laptops or tablets now in primary, secondary and technical schools. That was a huge public-private partnership to make sure there was connectivity and power and services. The next phase is teaching robotics classes in public schools in Uruguay to five-year-old kids. Imagine five and six-year-old kids learning coding and robotics. What will Uruguay look like 15 years from now? Seeing that as an interesting model, and then sharing that example with other regions that are testing different educational models is something that we can do quickly through the different venue and the different forms that we are taking.

Right now, we are trying to look for and classify the types of experiments that are being run by startups, by policy makers and by corporations that are tackling some of the grand challenges, and then spread those best practices as quickly as we can. It is about finding the ones that are working, finding ones that failed, and understanding why they fail. We try to take a little more of an academic approach to understand it, but then sharing best practices and getting behind and helping scale the ones that are good. That is where Singularity University becomes a platform for identifying and scaling amazing ideas that are going to tackle the most important problems long term, and doing so through a rapidly growing community of partners and individuals.

High: Core to Singularity University is the notion of exponential technological progress, accelerating change and the abundance mindset – the idea that there is no problem that cannot be solved with the right combination of technology, people and capital. I am curious, as you have seen larger more well established organizations begin to grasp some of these ideas and seek to implement them, what sorts of best practices have you seen? I can certainly understand that startups building their technologies and setting up their processes for the first time have an advantage, but what have you seen for larger organizations that need to reboot to some extent to realize the advantages that you have described?

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