NASA’s Mars Mission Will Give You $1 Million to Turn Carbon Dioxide into Glucose

If you think you could’ve outlasted Matt Damon on Mars, NASA has just the competition for you.

For a potential prize of $1 million, the government space agency is inviting the public to submit ideas about how to turn carbon dioxide, which is plentiful on the red planet, into glucose, which is more useful for human consumption. The goal is to allow astronauts to visit Mars with fewer materials and ultimately “to enable humans to live and thrive on the planet.”

Earth, meanwhile, could also use some CO2 innovation. CO2 levels here are higher than they’ve ever been, and that’s contributing to climate change. As such, NASA hopes to implement successful methods of converting CO2 to glucose at home as well; such advancements could put waste and atmospheric CO2 to good use.

If CO2 conversion isn’t your thing, you can still help get humans to Mars. Through the Centennial Challenges Program, which aims to stimulate innovation inside and outside the traditional aerospace community, NASA has also asked for help controlling a humanoid robot in a simulated mission to Mars and with building “sustainable housing for deep space.”

NASA isn’t the only organization trying to get people on Mars. Boeing and SpaceX are also working on plans to get humans to travel to and colonize Mars, and Elon Musk says SpaceX could begin a mission to Mars as early as 2022.

Entries for the CO2 Conversion Challenge are open through January 24, 2019.

British Fintech Platform Funding Circle Wants to Raise $386 Million in a London IPO

The “peer-to-peer” business-loan service Funding Circle has formally announced it is considering an initial public offering in London.

The eight-year-old British lending platform was earlier this year reported to have lined up Bank of America, Merrill Lynch and others to manage an IPO. Its existing investors include Index Ventures, Union Square Ventures and Accel Partners.

Funding Circle hopes to raise £300 million ($386.5 million) in the IPO. The flotation could value the firm at over £1.5 billion.

According to the Financial Times, the Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen is backing the IPO by agreeing to pick up at least 10% of Funding Circle’s shares if its valuation does not clear the £1.65 billion mark, and Bank of New York Mellon has signed on to lend $1 billion through the platform over the next few years.

Funding Circle’s platform allows investors to lend to small and medium-sized businesses that need the capital. Funding Circle processes the loan applications and the repayments to the investors. So far, it has handled around £5 billion in loans in the U.K., the U.S., Germany and the Netherlands.

American rivals such as OnDeck and LendingClub have both significantly lost value after their own flotations, as Wall Street realized they faced greater risks than anticipated, in terms of regulation, competition and repayments. However, they have been reporting healthier revenues in recent months.

LendingClub has over the years been hit by multiple scandals, over executives’ tampering with loan documents and more recently the deception of consumers, by breaking its promise to avoid hidden fees.

We Need To Reengineer Our Organizations For A New Era Of Innovation

In the first half of the 20th century, Alfred Sloan created the modern corporation at General Motors. In many ways, it was based on the military. Senior leadership at headquarters would make plans, while managers at individual units would be allocated resources and made responsible for for achieving mission objectives.

The rise of digital technology made this kind of structure untenable. By the time strategic information was gathered centrally, it was often too old to be effective. In much the same way, by the time information flowed up from operating units, it was too late to alter the plan. It had already failed.

So in recent years, the management mantra has become agility and iteration. Due to pressures from the market and from shareholders, long-term planning is often eschewed for the needs of the moment. Yet today the digital era is ending and organizations will need to shift once again. We’re going to need to learn to combine long-range planning with empowered execution.

Shifting from Iteration to Exploration

When Steve Jobs came up with the idea for a device that would hold “a thousand songs in my pocket,” it wasn’t technically feasible. There was simply no hard drive available that could fit that much storage into that little space. Nevertheless, within a few years a supplier developed the necessary technology and the iPod was born.

Notice how the bulk of the profits went to Apple, which designed the application and very little to the supplier that developed the technology that made it possible.That’s because the technology for developing hard drives was very well understood. If it hadn’t been that supplier, another would have developed what Jobs needed in six months or so.

Yet today, we’re on the brink of a new era of innovation. New technologies, such as revolutionary computing architectures, genomics and artificial intelligence are coming to the fore that aren’t nearly as well understood as digital technology. So we will have to spend years learning about them before we can develop applications safely and effectively.

For example, companies ranging from Daimler and Samsung to JP Morgan Chase and Barclays have joined IBM’s Q Network to explore quantum computing, even though that it will be years before that technology has a commercial impact. Leading tech companies have formed the Partnership on AI to better understand the consequences for artificial intelligence. Hundreds of companies have joined manufacturing hubs to learn about next generation technology.

It’s becoming more important to prepare than adapt. By the time you realize the need to adapt, it may already be too late.

Building a Pipeline of Problems to be Solved

While the need to explore technologies long before they become commercially viable is increasing, competitive pressures show no signs of abating. Just because digital technology is not advancing the way it once did doesn’t mean that it will disappear. Many aspects of the digital world, such as the speed at which we communicate, will continue.

So it is crucial to build a continuous pipeline of problems to solve. Most will be fairly incremental, either improving on an existing product or developing new ones based on standard technology. Others will be a bit more aspirational, such as applying existing capabilities to a new market or adopting new technology to improve service to existing customers.

However, as the value generated from digital technology continues to level off, much like it did for earlier technologies like internal combustion and electricity, there will be an increasing need to pursue grand challenges to solve fundamental problems. That’s how truly new markets are created.

Clearly, this presents some issues with resource allocation. Senior managers will have to combine the need to move fast and keep up with immediate competitive pressures with the long-term thinking it takes to invest in years of exploration with an uncertain payoff. There’s no magic bullet, but it is generally accepted that the 70/20/10 principle for incremental, adjacent and fundamental innovation is a good rule of thumb.

Empowering Connectivity

When Sloan designed the modern corporation, capacity was a key constraint. The core challenge was to design and build products for the mass market. So long-term planning to effectively organize plant, equipment, distribution and other resources was an important, if not decisive, competitive attribute.

Digitization and globalization, however, flipped this model and vertical integration gave way to radical specialization. Because resources were no longer concentrated in large enterprises, but distributed across global networks, integration within global supply chains became increasingly important.

With the rise of cloud technology, this trend became even more decisive in the digital world. Creating proprietary technology that is closed off to the rest of the world has become unacceptable to customers, who expect you to maintain API’s that integrate with open technologies and those of your competitors.

Over the next decade, it will become increasingly important to build similar connection points for innovation. For example, the US military set up the Rapid Equipping Force that was specifically designed to connect new technologies with soldiers in the field who needed them. Many companies are setting up incubators, accelerators and corporate venture funds for the same reason. Others have set up programs to connect to academic research.

What’s clear is that going it alone is no longer an option and we need to set up specific structures that not only connect to new technology, but ensure that it is understood and adopted throughout the enterprise.

The Leadership Challenge

The shift from one era to another doesn’t mean that old challenges are eliminated. Even today, we need to scale businesses to service mass markets and rapidly iterate new applications. The problems we need to take on in this new era of innovation won’t replace the old ones, they will simply add to them.

Still, we can expect value to shift from agility to exploration as fundamental technologies rise to the fore. Organizations that are able to deliver new computing architectures, revolutionary new materials and miracle cures will have a distinct competitive advantage over those who can merely engineer and design new applications.

It is only senior leaders that can empower these shifts and it won’t be easy. Shareholders will continue to demand quarterly profit performance. Customers will continue to demand product performance and service. Yet it is only those that are able to harness the technologies of this new era — which will not contribute to profits or customer satisfaction for years to come — that will survive the next decade.

The one true constant is that success eventually breeds failure. The skills and strategies of one era do not easily translate to another. To survive, the key organizational attribute will not be speed, agility or even operational excellence, but leadership that understands that when the game is up, you need to learn how to play a new one.

This Little Known Program at the Department of Energy Is Helping to Create a New Future In Manufacturing

In the recession that followed the dotcom crash in 2000, the United States lost 5 million manufacturing jobs and, while there has been an uptick in recent years, all indications are that they are never coming back. Manufacturing, perhaps more than any other sector, relies on deep networks of skills and assets that tend to be regional.

The consequences of this loss are deep and pervasive. Losing a significant portion of our manufacturing base has led not only to economic vulnerability, but to political polarization. Clearly, it is important to rebuild our manufacturing base. But to do that, we need to focus on new, more advanced, technologies

That’s the mission of the Advanced Manufacturing Office (AMO) at the Department of Energy. By providing a crucial link between the cutting edge science done at the National Labs and private industry, it has been able to make considerable progress. As the collaboration between government scientists widen and deepens over time, US manufacturing may well be revived. 

Linking Advanced Research to Private Industry

The origins of the Department of Energy date back to the Manhattan Project during World War II. The immense project was, in many respects, the start of “big science.” Hundreds of top researchers, used to working in small labs, traveled to newly established outposts to collaborate at places like Los Alamos, New Mexico and Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

After the war was over, the facilities continued their work and similar research centers were established to expand the effort. These National Labs became the backbone of the US government’s internal research efforts. In 1977, the National Labs, along with a number of other programs, were combined to form the Department of Energy.

I was able to visit the Innovation Crossroads facility at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and meet the entrepreneurs in its current cohort. Each is working transform a breakthrough discovery into a market changing application, yet due to technical risk, would not be able to attract funding in the private sector. The LEAP program offers a small amount of seed money, access to lab facilities and scientific and entrepreneurial mentorship to help them get off the ground.

That’s just one of the ways that the AMO opens up the resources of the National Labs. It also helps business get access to supercomputing resources (5 out of the 10 fastest computers in the world are located at the National Labs) and conducts early stage research to benefit private industry.

Leading Public-Private Consortia

The idea behind these consortia is to create hubs that provide a critical link with government labs, top scientists at academic universities and private companies looking to solve real-world problems. It both helps firms advance in key areas and allows researchers to focus their work on areas that will have the greatest possible impact.

For example, the Critical Materials Institute (CMI) was set up to develop alternatives to materials that are subject to supply disruptions, such as the rare earth elements that are critical to many high tech products and are largely produced in China. It recently developed, along with several National Labs and Eck Industries, an advanced alloy that can replace more costly materials in components of advanced vehicles and aircraft.

“We went from an idea on a whiteboard to a profitable product in less than two years and turned what was a waste product into a valuable asset,” Robert Ivester, Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Office told me.

Technology Assistance Partnerships

In 2011, the International Organization for Standardization released its ISO 50001 guidelines. Like previous guidelines that focused on quality management and environmental impact, ISO 50001 recommends best practices to reduce energy use. These can benefit businesses through lower costs and result in higher margins.

Still, for harried executives facing cutthroat competition and demanding customers, figuring out how to implement new standards can easily get lost in the mix. So a third key role that the AMO plays is to assist companies who wish to implement new standards by providing tools, guides and access to professional expertise.

The AMO offers similar support for a number of critical areas, such as prototype development and also provides energy assessment centers for firms that want to reduce costs.  “Helping American companies adopt new technology and standards helps keep American manufacturers on the cutting edge,” Ivester says.

“Spinning In” Rather Than Spinning Out

Traditionally we think of the role of government in business largely in terms of regulation. Legislatures pass laws and watchdog agencies enforce them so that we can have confidence in the the food we eat, the products we buy and the medicines that are supposed to cure us. While that is clearly important, we often overlook how government can help drive innovation.

Inventions spun out of government labs include the Internet, GPS and laser scanners, just to name a few. Many of our most important drugs were also originally developed with government funds. Still, traditionally the work has mostly been done in isolation and only later offered to private companies through licensing agreements.

What makes the Advanced Manufacturing Office different than most scientific programs is that it is more focused on “spinning in” private industry rather than spinning out technologies. That enables executives and entrepreneurs with innovative ideas to power them with some of the best minds and advanced equipment in the world.

As Ivester put it to me, “Spinning out technologies is something that the Department of Energy has traditionally done. Increasingly, we want to spin ideas from industry into our labs, so that companies and entrepreneurs can benefit from the resources we have here. It also helps keep our scientists in touch with market needs and helps guide their research.”

Make no mistake, innovation needs collaboration. Combining the ideas from the private sector with the cutting edge science from government labs can help American manufacturing compete for the 21st century.

The Ecologist on a Mission to Count New York's Whales

The first thing you notice about ecologist Arthur Kopelman is his giant white beard. The second is the gold whale charm dangling from his earlobe—a symbol of the creature that has consumed his thoughts for decades.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without it,” says Joe Carrotta, a photographer who documented Kopelman’s whale-watching cruises up and down the New York coast last summer. The boat rides allow Kopelman to collect data for the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island—an organization he co-founded in 1996—while also educating passengers about the incredible cetaceans and pinnipeds swimming (and singing) just miles from shore.

“People are surprised to learn there are marine mammals in New York,” Kopelman says, “perhaps because it’s an area that also has some of the densest human populations in the world.”

The New York Bight—a coastal region stretching from the northern tip of Long Island to southern New Jersey—is a frolicking ground for 19 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises, as well as four species of seal. But in the 1950s, when Kopelman was just a kid in Queens, few people thought about them; whales were mythic figures from the past, long banished by industrial pollution and hunting. But following the Clean Water and Marine Mammal Protection Acts of 1972, they returned. Today, hundreds of humpback, fin and right whales cruise the bight at any time, gobbling up schools of menhaden, a silver fish too oily for Manhattan’s delicatessens.

It’s not all great on the open water, though. While humpback populations are increasing, right whales aren’t doing so well—last year, 17 out of the 450 inhabiting the North Atlantic were killed in Canadian and US waters. Counting the communities has become so crucial, allowing researchers to monitor their abundance and distribution. Organizations like Gotham Whale and the Wildlife Conservation Society do so within the harbors and near Fire Island, while CRESLI does so on the eastern end of the bight.

But that’s not all the cruises are for. “Besides counting, my objective is to educate people about the whales, so they become informed stakeholders who will protect them,” Kopelman says.

Oddly enough, Kopelman began his scientific career in the 1970s studying a creature several orders in magnitude smaller: the Leptopilina boulardi, a two-millimeter wasp that lays its eggs in the larvae of fruit flies. He did that for nine years before switching phyla to whales. “I’d always been an activist,” he says, “and I decided to put my actions where my rhetoric was.” This single-minded passion fascinated Carrotta when the two met in 2016, inspiring Carrotta to tag along on 10 whale-watching cruises and seal walks.

All took place via the 140-foot-long Viking Starship, a gleaming vessel the captain steered toward known whale feeding spots and other places whales were recently reported. Passengers on board marveled as they saw humpbacks break the surface, slapping their fins and tails around to communicate. Kopelman kept a log of the cetaceans and pelagic birds they saw, snapping photos of the animals’ patterning to add to his searchable database of nearly 80,000 images. When he saw a familiar animal, he called out its name—”Draco,” “Glo,” “Infinity”—over the PA system. “He’s very serious about marine life, but you can still hear his excitement when he gets to talking about it, even over the loudspeaker,” Carrotta says.

Carotta photographed it all with a couple Nikon DSLRs and a Profoto strobe. His images sketch a vivid portrait of Kopelman and the charismatic megafauna that inspires his life’s work—and, occasionally, fashion accessories. Sadly, Kopelman lost his whale charm this summer. “I came home from a day on the water and it was gone,” he says. Not to worry, though: He had a backup.


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