Katie Fehrenbacher (also my co-chair for our Roadmap conference on design and user experience) was the first person to alert me about Shuji Nakamura, co-founder of a company called Soraa and his collaborators being given the Nobel Prize for Physics. Nakamura, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano of Japan (who worked together at the University of Nagoya) helped create blue light emitting diode technologies (blue LED) and for the far reaching impact they are having on the lighting needs of billions of people in a world that is increasing starved for energy.
Katie pointed out that Nakamura’s company Soraa is using Gallium Nitride (long thought of as wonder material) for LEDs. It is backed by Khosla Ventures and NEA. Vinod Khosla, the founder of Khosla Ventures in a guest post for Techcrunch pointed out, “Physics-based technology development and startups are extraordinarily difficult as many valuable things are. We must not be afraid to fail in attempting these invaluable but risky innovations.”
I have known Vinod for such a long time that I still have trouble calling him by first name, and still refer to him in my one-on-one communication as Mr. Khosla. And like his former partner at KPCB, John Doerr, he has been consistent about one thing — betting on hard problems. Just like Soraa, he made a big bet on Infinera which was pioneering a new approach to optical networks. The bet came at a time when the entire telecom industry was imploding and 101 was lined with carcasses of failed optical business plans. As I got to know him better, Vinod always said that if you are not seeking the edge, you are stuck in the middle. It was a lesson that has always stuck with me since.
Those looking for the edge always run the risk of losing it all. It is no different than a surfer looking for the proverbial big kahuna. Sometimes you conquer it, other times you fail.
SpaceX, Tesla, Nest, these were seeking the edge and not optimizing for a middling outcome. Soraa is on the list of those companies. And often I find someone with ideas and the audacity which defies imagination. It is good because I think we are at a unique time in the technology industry, where the obvious has been done. We have platforms and means to build things pretty easily and smartly. But, the ubiquity of the obvious means we need to seek the edge — look at science to find the next great thing and breakthroughs that change the lives of millions of people.
I am thrilled to bits that Nakamura won the Nobel Prize, because in doing so he proved that even today what was simply a scientific breakthrough can now be a real company with a real future. It isn’t easy or as Katie says, “Science is just hard, particularly compared to investing in Internet companies.”