Can Venture Capitalists Fill the Science Gap?

Without interest and money, we'd never see tech innovations like Google's self-driving car. By Martial Red/Shutterstock

From Google's self-driving cars to the rise of Elon Musk's Tesla Motors and disruptive solar ventures, Silicon Valley movers and shakers have long been interested in ways that science and technology might change the way we live. Too many, however, got burned during the last boom in clean energy investment, as companies like battery-swap pioneers Better Place or solar tech outliers Solyndra ran into financial trouble.

According to a recent article in The New York Times, Silicon Valley investors may be renewing their interest in science and technology start-ups. Driven partially by concerns that the social media/web space may be impossibly crowded, and partially by a conviction that the role of venture capital should be to fund "what's next," investors are putting money into science-based ventures that range from small-scale nuclear reactor companies through space travel start-ups to sustainable forms of persticides that are manufactured from spider venom.

Here are some recent recipients of Silicon Valley money.

Google spends big on smart homes
The world is not short of iPhone apps and social media platforms. While these services have changed the way we communicate, the next big tech revolution may change how we actually live. Google's aforementioned self-driving car, for example, may radically change how we view personal transportation. Similarly, when Google spent $3.2 billion on Nest Labs, they were buying more than just "smart" thermostats and smoke detectors. They were buying an entry point into people's homes. It's all part of what tech folks have been calling "the Internet of Things," where everyday objects communicate with you and each other to optimize both energy-efficiency and consumer convenience. From cars to light bulbs to garage doors and washing machines, the Works with Nest section of the company's website reveals how far down the road to this vision we have already traveled. (Folks concerned with privacy and corporate overreach in our lives may not enjoy this section as much as others.)

Silicon Valley bets on smarter nuclear power
Silicon Valley movers and shakers have long been keen on investing in solar power, but some are also looking to other, more long-term energy bets. As mentioned in the recent Times article, the Founders Fund — which has previously backed online ventures like Facebook and Spotify — is putting $2 million into Transatomic Power, a company founded by nuclear scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is working to develop and eventually commercialize small-scale nuclear power reactors that turn nuclear waste into usable electricity.

Now, whether nuclear power can be considered green has long been controversial. While prominent scientist and climate activist James Hansen is a vocal advocate for nuclear, powerful environmental groups have lined up to oppose it — especially after the Fukushima disaster. But tech investors are hoping that new technologies will radically alter the equation, tackling nuclear power's waste challenge while reducing economic costs and increasing efficiency in the process. Here's how Transatomic Power's Professor Dr. Richard Lester, Mark Massie and Leslie Dewan, all MIT folks, described the potential at a TEDx talk back in 2011.

Tech pioneers look to biotech for answers
Biotechnology is another area viewed with suspicion by many hardcore environmentalists. Yet while consumers may be running scared from GMOs, others see new and sometimes unusual ways to boost crop yields and reduce agricultural impact on the environment through a selective use of biotechnology. Silicon Valley, ever focused on science-based solutions, would seem to be a natural ally of the latter camp. Indeed Vestaron, a company that makes a pesticide produced from spider venom, says its product can target beetles, caterpillars and other pests without harming other animals. It is cited as one of the science-based companies now being courted by tech investors.

More than just money

This is just a sampling of the projects that are catching the eye of investors, but the real story isn't just about money; it's about how politics and money are changing the way the business world works. Take Google for example.

When Google recently parted ways with lobbying group ALEC, Eric Schmidt stated that political decisions should be based in fact. Because climate change was happening, he said, Google couldn't continue to fund groups that are opposing clean energy. In the context of Silicon Valley's funding of science, this statement becomes particularly interesting. It suggests that the tech world should stand behind technologies based on solid, peer-reviewed science, not public opinion or political rhetoric.

On the one hand, this is encouraging for environmentalists. Science-based solutions should be central to our efforts to cut emissions, conserve our natural resources and heal the damage that has already been done. We must not fall into the trap, however, of assuming that trusting science means we must leave it all to science to develop magic bullets. Politics and culture are important spheres of influence in the shift to a sustainable future. Boosting crop yields, for example, is a noble cause and a worthy goal. Equally important, however, is reducing food waste and income inequality. Self-driving electric cars are cool, but bike-friendly cities are pretty cool, too.

Ultimately the notion of science or politics is a false choice and a dangerous distraction. So as Silicon Valley backs new energy and food solutions, let's hope it also turns its attention to political and moral questions. The fallout from San Francisco's tech-driven gentrification suggests there is a long way to go.