Introduction to the World of Corporate Venturing 2019

“The Stone Age didn’t end because the world ran out of stones” – Niels Bohr, physicist

Taking time as a snapshot of generations brings a chance to look ahead as well as see how far we have come against expectations. Futurism usually ends up saying more about the conditions and cultural mores of the time in which it was written than actually predicting the future, but as with looking at light as a wave or particle – as Bohr did – just asking the question seems to change the answer.

When George Orwell in 1949 wrote the book 1984, he took the spirit of an age defined by the Cold War. At the end of 1983, Isaac Asimov, in the Star, took on the same challenge to predict what 2019 would look like and was more optimistic.

Outside of nuclear war, “it is quite likely that society, then, will have entered a phase that may be more or less permanently improved over the situation as it now exists”.

One area of hope for Asimov was “space utilisation”.

“By 2019, we will be back on the moon in force. There will be on it not Americans only, but an international force of some size; and not to collect moon rocks only, but to establish a mining station that will process moon soil and take it to places in space where it can be smelted into metals, ceramics. glass and concrete – construction materials for the large structures that will be put in orbit about the Earth.

“One such structure which very conceivably, might be completed by 2019 would be the prototype of a solar power station, outfitted to collect solar energy, convert it to microwaves and beam it to Earth.”

As China has landed on the dark side of the moon this year and India prepares to land a rover there later in the first quarter, Asimov’s expectation of an internationalisation of space travel has happened and more can be expected. Girish Nadkarni, head of Total’s corporate venturing unit, in this year’s annual GCV survey, noted outer space was a hot area for development.

This fed Asimov’s hope for a globalisation of outlook to “weaken in comparison the causes that have fed the time-honoured quarrels between and within nations over petty hatred and suspicions” and “advances in technology will place tools in our hands that will help accelerate the process whereby the deterioration of the environment will be reversed”.

Asimov foresaw the main tool in this as “computerisation” – or digitisation as it is more commonly regarded now judging by the GCV annual survey. Asimov said in 1983: “Computers have already made themselves essential to the governments of the industrial nations, and to world industry, and it is now beginning to make itself comfortable in the home. Those parts of the world that fall behind in this respect will suffer so obviously as a result that their ruling bodies will clamour for computerisation as they now clamour for weapons.”

He was perhaps a little optimistic about the speed of change. “By the year 2019, however, we should find that the transition is about over. Those who can be retrained and re-educated will have been.”

Considering the technology developments unleashed by computerisation, we are arguably still only a fraction of the way through the changes required of people.

Academic Carlota Perez, in a series of posts concluding last month reflected on aspects of Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s book, The Second Machine Age, and found “the impact of the information and communication technology revolution across society is only half done”.

This is partly because there are still so many potential tech developments to come given the willingness of investors to fund them, at least judging by the record levels of venture dealmaking last year, according to GCV Analytics, with nearly 1,500 corporations involved in more than $180bn-worth of deals – a more than 50% increase by deal value from the year before.

News editor Rob Lavine’s series on 2018 trends covered the ubiquity of the SoftBank Vision Fund, the increased willingness of unicorns to go public, and increased activity in the crypto and agriculture spaces as well as the growth of Chinese tech companies, genomics, advances in transport tech and the growth of the scooter rental space.

There was a wave of exciting breakthroughs in 2018 noted by Singularity University, including gene-edited babies, the rise of ions as a potential quantum computing architecture, solar being cheaper than fossil fuels, dextrous robots, natural language processing for machines and non-invasive brain modulation.

The annual Global Corporate Venturing survey of industry leaders uncovers a sweep of the hot areas for likely investment this year, from blockchain to artificial intelligence and through to industry 4.0 or the internet of things and on to new and better ways to treat and prevent illness and develop radical energy sources, such as fusion These deals can now be shared through the GCV Connect platform by Leadership Society members but to the whole community..

But beyond the technology changes are a host of organisational and structural developments bringing corporate venturing further into the strategic mainstream of innovation tools for executives. The blurring of private and public capital markets and financing tools is also seeing the take-up of CVC-style strategic investment approaches by corporations, led by groups such as Novo and Tencent, investing or holding stakes in the listed companies.

As private markets deepen to enable longer holding times and greater amounts to be invested in private companies so greater tolerance of risk and value creation beyond purely financial structures is starting to seep into public market investors beyond the often-crude tools of traditional activist hedge funds. This starts to turn minds on the impact of what businesses and innovation tools are trying to achieve and for whom. Risk, return and impact were increasingly the watch words of 2018 and this year will see closer attention paid to the questions this meme brings.

Thinking of the next generational leap in 35 years, brings hard questions of what technological changes will affect us and the world most. It also brings perhaps harder ones about what cultural and social changes we will be facing then. Space usage and quantum entanglement, effectively free energy and biotechnology offer utopia-dystopia-like possibilities.

Entrepreneur Aarish Shah in a GCV-moderated discussion forum said: “As for 2054, life extension leading to core shift in demography, resource utilisation and so on, the internet of us, meaning shared consciousness and an exponentially capable organic supercomputer, and the battle cry of ‘make Earth great again’ trumping regional, secular and commercial objectives to return equilibrium to the world.

“Or we will still be playing Candy Crush on the Northern line.”

Perez in her concluding post said: “It is indeed possible that, as Brynjolfsson and McAfee assert, this revolution is different in kind to those preceding it. The potential inherent in this technology is huge. What is needed now, as I have argued elsewhere, are not just policies for growth, but for a whole new direction of growth.”

She points to the environment and globalisation as “key to the demand-pull forces shaping technology and the economy in the near and further future” and wider issues for society around equality and the welfare state and the modernisation of government.

The impact of the technology is no longer as tools to help replace our physical capabilities but to augment or replace our intelligent and creative powers. As another academic, Yuval Harari, notes in his effectively three-part series, Sapiens, Homo Deus and 21 Rules for the 21st Century, the question that comes back in this era could be one of how well you know yourself in an age when machines can know you better. Or, taking Asimov’s advice, on staying creative and having ideas through relaxed small groups.

Asimov said: “I do not think that cerebration sessions can be left unguided…. A session-arbiter will have to sit there, stirring up the animals, asking the shrewd question, making the necessary comment, bringing them gently back to the point.”

Hacked humans, or the singularity, implies an evolutionary leap in the same way homo sapiens differed from Neanderthals – in certain conditions both could outperform, but over generations one species died out bar some intermingling of DNA.

The Anthropocene might not end officially because there are no more people, just that home sapiens has effectively evolved or created a successor with more impact.

This raises the possibility of impact. Questioning assumptions of what we invest in to create the conditions of the future also requires leadership. At the Global Corporate Venturing & Innovation Summit in Monterey, California, this month, as well as our other networking receptions, academies and conferences around the world, these leaders gather to make the world a better place.