How Steve Jurvetson is investing in world- (and Mars-) changing ideas (podcast)
Dylan Tweney October 23, 2014 6:14 PM | VentureBeat
Steve Jurvetson is one of the most interesting investors in Silicon Valley.
An accomplished photographer and amateur rocketry enthusiast, he’s also a former chip designer and a polymath interested in everything from genomics to space travel to agriculture to machine learning.
But he’s no dilettante: He’s delved deeply enough into a variety of fields that he’s been able to identify trends early, make prescient bets, and generate billions of dollars in returns. He was the founding VC investor in Hotmail, Interwoven, Kana, and NeoPhotonics, among many others.
A partner at legendary venture capital firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, he currently sits on the boards of SpaceX, Synthetic Genomics, and Tesla Motors. And he’s a good friend of Elon Musk, the founder of two of those companies.
VentureBeat’s Richard Reilly and I spent half an hour talking with Jurvetson for this week’s podcast. It was a fascinating conversation that started with Musk’s plans to build a greenhouse on Mars, covered the logistics of space launches and regular Mars travel, extended to embrace the electrification of transportation (which is already well underway in China, Jurvetson informed us), and ended with a rapid survey of the areas Jurvetson is focusing on for possible investment.
What it all boils down to, he told us, is that he looks for opportunities to use engineered processes to transform whole systems.
Listen to the podcast to find out more. It’s like a roller coaster ride for your brain.
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Seasteading: a Silicon Valley pipedream or the future of our children?
Shura Collinson | November 28, 2016 3:13pm
Peter Thiel, a German-American billionaire entrepreneur and investor, caused a near-tidal wave of outrage ahead of the recent U.S. presidential election when he set himself apart from most of Silicon Valley by coming out in favour of Donald Trump.
But victory was on Trump’s side, and Thiel has since been named to the executive committee of the president elect’s transition team. It was hardly the first time Thiel – a co-founder of PayPal and partner in the prestigious Y Combinator accelerator – had backed a winner: he was the first outside investor in Facebook, and remains on its board of directors.
Nor was Trump’s bid for the presidency the first ambitious and seemingly doomed project that Thiel has thrown his support behind. He has funded a startup devoted to making nuclear fusion viable, and in 2008 co-founded the Seasteading Institute, a non-profit think tank based in Silicon Valley whose goal is the creation of floating cities.
The dream of the Seasteading Institute was presented in Moscow last month at the Open Innovations forum held at the Skolkovo Technopark, where author Joe Quirk took to the main stage to show artists’ impressions of utopian floating cities in calm waters that were a far cry from the Moscow snow and slush outside.
Seasteading isn’t just about the life aquatic for pleasure’s sake, or about escaping rising sea levels (though the latter is also a key incentive). Its proponents seek emancipation from government regulation and restrictions in order to go about their work unhindered and to test new ideas for government.
“Seasteaders are a diverse global community of nautical engineers, aquaculture farmers, maritime attorneys, medical researchers, security personnel and investors, and we plan to build politically independent cities that float on the ocean,” said Quirk, who together with Patri Friedman, another founder of the Seasteading Institute, has written a book due out in March titled “Seasteading: How Ocean Cities Could Change the World.”
“The greatest and most important business opportunity is startup governance, startup countries,” said Quirk. “If you want a platform for governance innovation, it’s time to break away and try something new. So my colleagues and I at the Seasteading Institute set out to start a business to create the Silicon Valley of the sea.”
An aquatic testing ground
The “seavangelists,” as Quirk describes himself, aren’t the first group of entrepreneurs to have called for the creation of an unfettered space for inventors and scientists. Google co-founder Larry Page has also said the tech community should be able to “set aside a small part of the world” to allow experimentation, while others have called for Silicon Valley to become an independent state.
Quirk is confident that the freedom to innovate and experiment will attract buyers.
“Business people want new jurisdictions for innovations: build it and they will come. Technologists and countries will come to us,” he believes.
The business model for the seasteads is that the creators would sell the real estate that they create, as well as stakes in companies that will operate on them.
If freedom from regulation is not enough, there will be other advantages to a life on the waves: a cheaper cost of living, a lower risk of crime and advantageous tax rates, Quirk argues. The rationale is based on the experience of cruise ships, which, he notes, just keep getting bigger and bigger.
“Cruise ships are floating cities that are de facto self-governing. They are semi-independent pioneers of the blue frontier: They dock in one nation, fly the flag of another nation, and pick up passengers from another,” says Quirk.
The captain of a cruise ship, argues Quirk, is “a de facto dictator of his own global island,” in that he can lock up passengers who misbehave towards other people on the ship.
“Park a dozen of these floating skyscrapers next to each other, and you’ve got the rudiments of an aquapolis,” said Quirk.
French Polynesian pioneer
The vision frequently sounds more like science fiction than a plan for the future, and there is no shortage of sceptics of seasteading. Media reports have described the Seasteading Institute’s vision as “a secessionist daydream” and “techie island fantasies,” and the topic of seasteading has its own page on rationalwiki.org, a website devoted to debunking pseudoscience and “crank ideas.”
There, the authors point to the fact that previous attempts to set up autonomous strongholds in the sea have generally failed miserably, such as the Republic of Minerva set up on reclaimed land in the South Pacific in 1972 (swiftly dispersed by the government of nearby Tonga), the Republic of the Island of Roses founded on a manmade platform in the Adriatic Sea in 1968 (blown up by the Italian Navy) and Operation Atlantis, a large ship that sank in the Bahamas in 1971.
But the Seasteading Institute may have the advantage of having agreed first with a host nation before getting to work on its utopian dream.
In September, representatives of the Seasteading Institute visited French Polynesia at the invitation of the nation’s president Édouard Fritch, and the organisation is now preparing to sign a memorandum of understanding on the creation of the world’s first seastead in its territorial waters, according to Quirk.
“If the memorandum is agreed upon and signed, we plan to create an environmentally sound, self-sustaining floating island starting with two or three island platforms,” he said.
“These floating communities will adapt organically to sea level change, and they will offer significant regulatory autonomy so people can experiment with new societies,” explained Quirk.
“French Polynesia has about 50 uninhabited islands, so we asked them to legislate one as a Special Economic Zone. Simultaneously, we build a floating community inside the natural wave-breaker of an atoll, and declare it a Sea Zone, with a little more legal autonomy [than on land], unprecedented in the world. Our floating village, as it profits and grows, will leave territorial waters and go out into international waters,” he said.
The idea of ocean cities has also attracted interest and financial support from members of the public. More than 1,000 people have donated to the Seasteading Institute, according to Quirk, and when the non-profit organisation launched a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo in 2013, it raised more than the $20,000 it was looking for and which the Thiel Foundation had pledged to match.
Over 3,000 potential residents have already filled out a detailed survey saying what they’d want to see in an ocean city and what they’re willing to pay for it, said Quirk.
If the ideological inspiration for seasteads comes partly from cruise ships, the technical plans – for the Seasteading Institute has done more than simply talk about the prospect of living on the sea – have their roots in oil rigs, which are also getting bigger, and where workers already live for up to half of the year.
“An oil rig is basically a city block without all the frills, and if you take away the incredibly expensive infrastructure of drilling on the ocean floor for fossil fuel, it gets a lot cheaper,” said Quirk.
In French Polynesia, the institute envisages a series of floating platforms, each about 50 metres wide, constructed of reinforced concrete with basalt rebar, which doesn’t corrode in salt water.
It will be, he says, “like a floating Venice,” and the platforms will be able to be locked together for more stability if the sea is unsettled.
The prototype for the floating island project has already been built, says Quirk: the solar-powered sustainable Floating Pavilion in Rotterdam made by Blue 21, which describes itself as a social enterprise devoted to creating cities on water.
That’s not to say that the engineering can simply be transferred to French Polynesia, however. The plan for the first seastead relies on a floating wave breaker which has not been invented yet, Quirk admits, and would necessitate shipping cement all the way from New Zealand.
There are also legal issues to be addressed in the Seasteading Institute’s plan, including differences between French law and French Polynesian law, according to Quirk, and a month after his talk at the Open Innovations forum, no signing of a memorandum has yet been announced.
But proponents of building cities on the sea, like Thiel, are unlikely to be deterred by naysayers. After all, a year ago, there were many who believed that Trump had zero chance of winning the Republican candidacy, never mind the presidency.
Quirk for one is adamant that seasteading is the future, telling the audience in Moscow:
“Throw out the calendars, because this is month two of the aquatic age, and your children are going to be living on floating cities.”
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Out to sea, out of mind
The secret offshore world of the superrich
by John Urry
Warren Buffett once remarked that we were in the midst of a new class war. “There is class warfare, all right,” he said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
One of the ways the rich have waged this war has been through offshoring: moving resources, practices, people and money from one national territory to another and hiding them within secrecy jurisdictions.
Offshoring involves evading rules, laws, taxes, regulations or norms in ways that are either illegal or against the spirit of the law. Offshore worlds developed because of mobility systems that transport people, money, information and objects across the oceans. These include not only physical infrastructure to move cargo ships, planes, cars and trucks but also virtual infrastructure like electronic money-transfer systems and taxation, legal and financial expertise for avoiding national regulations.
This offshoring world is dynamic, reorganizing economic, social, political and material relations among societies and also within them. Above all, it is secretive. This makes it a paradise for the rich, a vision of the world almost without government, taxes and laws, where only the powerful, their ships and their companies survive and everyone else is left — sometimes literally — to sink to the bottom.
Offshoring is a key part of globalization. Throughout the 1990s, it was a widely held belief that the global movement of money, people, ideas, images, information and objects was economically, politically and culturally beneficial. Most aspects of contemporary societies were thought to have been positively transformed through increased borderlessness.
But the ’90s did not turn out to be the harbinger of an optimistic and borderless future. It turns out that there’s a dark side to constant movement. Moving across borders are many new risks, trafficked men and women, drug runners, terrorists, criminals, slave traders, smuggled workers, waste, financial risks and untaxed trillions — to name just a few downsides. They inhabit various secret spheres designed to enable movement out of sight. Central to these offshore worlds are the vast oceans.
Since some 7 billion humans are crowded onto just one-quarter of the earth’s surface, oceans provide ways to obscure what would otherwise be onshore and therefore visible. There are ships flying flags of convenience where work conditions for seafarers are driven to rock bottom. There are places in the sea where many poor migrants have lost their lives in transit to what they hoped would be a better life. Oceans are a global rubbish dump, with the great Pacific garbage patch twice the size of France.
This new global order is thus the opposite of open and transparent. It is a world of concealment, of secret gardens mainly orchestrated in and for the rich class. Tax havens are places of escape and freedom, often with nice beaches. But it’s not the sun and sand that have recalibrated the entire global economy in a few short decades. That shift is to blame on another kind of paradise — the paradise of low taxes, wealth management, deregulation and secrecy.
Since the 1980s, there has been an astonishing growth in the movement of wealth to and through the world’s 60 to 70 tax havens, which today represent at least one-quarter of existing countries. These tax havens are as likely to be in the middle of nowhere as in your own backyard. They include Switzerland, Monaco, Liechtenstein, Manhattan, the City of London, Panama, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Jersey, Delaware, Singapore, Hong Kong and Dubai. The development of secrecy jurisdictions are core to the liberalization of the global economy that began in the 1980s, and they contributed to the ending of many currency-exchange controls — which enabled money to flow around the world and to develop the power of an unregulated shadow finance.
This rich class is the beneficiary of these havens. Almost all major companies have offshore accounts or subsidiaries, more than half of world trade passes through them at some point, and almost all high-net-worth individuals possess offshore accounts enabling tax planning (i.e., avoidance). Ninety-nine of Europe’s hundred largest companies use offshore subsidiaries. It has been calculated that one-quarter to one-third of all global wealth is held offshore.
Despite governments’ constant assertions that they are cracking down on tax evasion and avoidance,offshored money has grown from $11 billion in 1968 to $21 trillion in 2010 (equivalent to about one-third of annual world income). According to the Tax Justice Network’s calculations, fewer than 10 million people own this $21 trillion offshore fortune, a sum equivalent to the combined GDPs of the United States and Japan. This is the source of power and wealth of the superrich, with almost all owing their fortunes in part to the rapid and secret moving of money and ownership.
In “Treasure Islands,” his 2011 book about tax havens, Nicholas Shaxson shows that offshore is how the world of power now works. Money staying onshore is almost now the exception, suitable only for the little people still paying taxes. Big, institutional money is often offshored in one way or another. Shaxson describes how the United States is by a far the world’s most important secrecy jurisdiction. In the little state of Delaware, there is a single building that houses 217,000 companies. Shaxson conservatively calculates the annual loss of taxation from this offshoring world at hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars. The offshore world also makes it hard for small and medium-size companies to compete.
“You don’t live anywhere, and neither does your money,” one commentator said about being a billionaire. “Or, rather, you live everywhere, and so does your money.” This life involves rapid movement across the oceans, with homes dotted around the world, endless business travel, private schools, family structured around occasional get-togethers, private leisure clubs, luxury ground transport, airport lounges, private jets, luxury destinations and places of distinction and luxury for encountering other superrich people. Place, property and power are intertwined in forming and sustaining such a networked and often hidden rich class.
And the consequences of offshoring are not just to heighten the privileges of the superrich. It also means that the rest of society suffers, from the loss of tax revenue and higher taxes paid by the little people, from the deterioration of public services, from a lack of control of resources, from images of the good life that are unsustainable and from an inability to effect a collective response to major issues like climate change.
We neglect these offshore worlds at our peril, especially in examining how what has escaped offshore might ever be reshored. This offshoring and lack of transparency is bad for democratic governance and for societies’ ever being able to move together toward a better future. The motto for these water worlds might as well be “Out to sea and out of mind.”
This argument is developed in: John Urry’s “Offshoring,” Polity (2014). Visit this link for a short offshoring video.
John Urry is a distinguished professor of sociology and the director of the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University. His recent books include “Climate Change and Society” (2011) and “Societies Beyond Oil” (2013).
This article reflects John Urry’s opinion about offshoring - which is not exactly coincident with the opinion of the forum owners…the reason we print it here is because it gives a “comprehensive overview” to the topic.
Balaji Srinivasan on Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit
October 22, 2013 by Charlie Deist
Seasteading supporter Balaji S. Srinivasan is the poster child of a modern-day pioneer. Seeing the limits of old ways of doing things, he founded Counsyl, a prenatal genetic testing company, to extend the technological frontier in medicine. Balaji recently spoke at Y Combinator’s startup school and boldly proposed pushing the frontier a step further, suggesting a framework for thinking about “Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit” (click to see slides). The reference should sound familiar to seasteaders, given our emphasis on the “opt-in/opt-out” mechanism as the lever for change, to complement and empower the people’s voice in society.
In a masterful analogy, Balaji asks if the USA has become the “Microsoft” of international politics. Chief among the similarities is that no one in has a choice but to “buy” the USA as the world’s dominant “operating system.” Just as Google displaced Microsoft’s hegemony over basic computing, a new crop of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and companies are eclipsing the government, along with old co-dependent industries in Hollywood (entertainment), New York City (media), and Boston (academia).
But the “ultimate exit,” he said, will come with the advent of complete societies run by technology and governed on an entirely opt-in/opt-out basis. Influential Silicon Valley entrepreneurs like Larry Page, Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel and Elon Musk have in various ways staked their reputation on such a development, signaling that new ways of running society might be very near indeed.
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