This story originally appeared in Techonomy’s Winter 2020 magazine.
When Eric Schmidt and Dror Berman launched the investment fund Innovation Endeavors nearly a decade ago, the former Google CEO and his business partner introduced a new model for venture investing. The new firm was built on an ecosystem model, in which portfolio companies are surrounded by strategic partners from academia, the public sector, non-governmental organizations, as well as large and small businesses within their industry.
Fast forward to today, and Harpinder Singh – a serial entrepreneur who’d worked with Innovation Endeavors as a part-time partner and advisor – joined full-time as it launched a third investment fund rooted in an ambitious new philosophy: super evolution.
The super evolution theory is based on the belief that a proliferation of data, computing and advanced engineering are making it possible to learn from and improve the physical and biological worlds at a significantly faster pace than ever before. The result is a “collapse of time,” which makes it possible to run more business and data experiments faster, better and cheaper and, in turn, empowers even small companies and teams to innovate at scale. The idea is that such rapidly-scaling companies in targeted applications may be able to solve global problems with unexpected efficiency even as generating profits for their investors.
Techonomy recently spoke to Singh about why this approach is valuable. Here’s an excerpt:
Techonomy: You introduced the super evolution theory two years ago. What have you learned?
Singh: The super evolution is definitely happening. Look at one of our portfolio companies, Plenty. Their indoor produce farms incorporate cameras and sensors that monitor and generate data on every aspect of growing conditions: temperature, light, irrigation, carbon dioxide, plant growth stage, and more. They’ve accelerated growth cycles that would take from four to six months on a traditional farm, to only one to two weeks at a Plenty farm. It uses machine learning to optimize each plant’s taste, nutritional value, and yield, and has essentially condensed a century of breeding experiments into just three years. These optimizations mean Plenty can grow 350 times more produce per square foot than a traditional farm, while using just 1% of the water and a fraction of the land—without pesticides or herbicides.
The world needs to see a 70% increase in food production by 2050 to feed a growing population, and Plenty brings us one step closer to solving this global food challenge. This is the benefit of the super evolution theory in practice.
How does the theory inform your investment strategy?
When we evaluate companies and investments through the lens of the super evolution, we ask ourselves: Have the founders identified not only a market need, but a new way to connect the dots in an unexpected way using data, computing, and advanced engineering? If their new system combines the three pillars of the super evolution, and if it will fundamentally transform the traditional way of doing something, then we want to support and accelerate that company’s growth.
How does Innovation Endeavors’ ecosystem model work?
We focus on asking big questions, generating novel solutions and accelerating the way those solutions are brought to market. We bring a variety of stakeholders to the table, which fosters an environment where real business problems can be discussed frankly. We’ve built a number of ecosystems in various categories: agriculture, cybersecurity, and now life sciences. They’ve produced strategic partnerships between start-ups and top corporations and leading academic research institutions, accelerated market demand for key products, and even start-up acquisitions. We’ll be launching more ecosystems for additional industries.
How might the super evolution theory help drive transformation within traditional industries like agriculture, shipping, or construction, for example?
Traditional industries and systems are sometimes so hidden in the backgrounds of our lives that they’re able to keep working at a “good enough” pace. So when a technologist like me pauses to look at these traditional industries, it’s easy to be startled by the status quo. Not only are there analog processes that could easily be brought online, but there are also advancements like in data, computing, and advanced engineering that could modernize infrastructures. We try to connect the dots between technologies we’ve encountered in other contexts that can help solve basic but essential functions in industries like construction or farming.
Have you encountered places where the theory doesn’t apply?
It’s natural for the mind to latch onto tech-centric examples. But the bigger power of the super evolution is that any industry can leverage the power of computing to glean intelligence from data and then apply new engineering approaches in novel, real-world ways. Now, that’s something to be excited about!