Why I Suspend Disbelief

tl;dr: Arrogant humans think we have the natural world all figured out. We don’t.

I spend a small but meaningful amount of my time at Venrock intentionally looking at crazy stuff. If you are developing a cold fusion generator or a zero point energy harvester and you have spoken to a venture capitalist, there’s a high probability that it’s me.

These topics account for, at most, a few percentage points of my investment scouting activity. But they’re enduring percentage points. There’s a lot of this kind of work out there, and I recognize that 99%+ of it falls somewhere on the spectrum between experimental error and deliberate fraud – so I narrow the funnel very quickly, much more so than in other domains. With that said, I endeavor to treat innovators with integrity and respect throughout, and on those exceedingly rare occasions where extraordinary claims hold up under initial scrutiny, I dig in with the same diligence I’d devote to the most-credentialed academic. (Of course, sometimes it’s a credentialed academic who brings the crazy idea.)

There are a few fellow travelers in the venture capital/angel financier community who share these investment interests and devote resources to them. Most, however, view these possibilities with derision – or simply feel they’re so improbable that every last second of one’s time is better spent elsewhere.

Let me give you an example of why I choose to suspend disbelief.

I got my first dose of middle-school biology in the mid-80s. And the living world as I learned it was pretty simple: DNA makes RNA, RNA makes proteins, and proteins do stuff. Information flows only in one direction, so the idea that you could pass on a characteristic that you acquired during your life was silly talk. We’d already figured out the handful of letters in the genetic code (easy!) and the sequences that corresponded to each amino acid (no prob!), so the only thing left was to decode the genome and the proteome, and then match the DNA up with the proteins.

Congratulations, you’ve solved life! Stanley Cohen and Herbert Boyer’s creation of the first recombinant organism in 1973 seemed to drive the point home – if we could insert foreign DNA into a living being to make it do what we wanted, certainly we had everything figured out? There were a few little things left to clear up – it wasn’t obvious why DNA was so often chemically modified, or why it was wrapped around these things we called histones, or why so much of it appeared to be non-coding junk – but surely those were minor points.

As we now know, that view of the world wasn’t wrong per se. It was just radically oversimplified.

The holes in the story began appearing almost immediately after Cohen and Boyer’s landmark achievement. In 1975 Robin Holliday and John Pugh (and independently, Arthur Riggs) observed that the methyl groups regularly seen hanging off cytosine and adenosine weren’t, as previously thought, errors in DNA’s signal: They formed a vital mechanism by which cells ramped expression of genes up and down. Shortly thereafter Michael Grunstein and his collaborators demonstrated that the histone proteins around which DNA winds were not simply passive spools, but that histones regulated gene activation depending on how they were chemically altered. In 1999, David Baulcombe showed that short strands of RNA could silence the effect of otherwise-activated genes – information flowed backward; the product of genetic expression could affect the expression itself! Finally, in the last decade, work by researchers such as Larry Feig and David Sweatt has controversially suggested that a mother’s life experiences can endow her developing fetus with features that weren’t in the fetus’s DNA at conception.

These exceptions to the rule have piled so high that we have a name for them: Epigenetics. And a whole slew of start-up companies are aiming to profit from what was heterodoxy 30 years ago.

I have a sneaking suspicion that physics today is something like biology in the 1970s.

Once you split atoms with such destructive force as to kill tens of thousands of people, it’s pretty easy to convince yourself that you’ve got it all figured out. And, as I see it, that’s what the academy did post-World War II after the nuclear genie left the bottle. Sure, there were some minor details to clear up – like the particulars of the units of matter and force that shape atomic interactions, and how to harmonize the way things work at large scales with how they work at small ones – but for the most part, we had it nailed.

Half a century onward, our list of known and suspected subatomic particles exceeds 200, and it continues to grow. We can’t precisely predict the size, structure, or properties of anything more complex than hydrogen. We’re no closer to integrating quantum mechanics with general relativity than we were when I was a child. (Flame shield up: I realize there will be healthy disagreement on these points).

Perhaps these anomalies aren’t anomalies at all. Maybe they are evidence that we don’t, in fact, have everything figured out.

Improbable, yes. Impossible, no. So with a wink to Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who is doubtless shaking his fist from the grave – mocked for decades for suggesting that inherited characteristics could be acquired, and now facing an ounce of vindication through epigenetics – I suspend disbelief. I trust that there are improbable breakthroughs in the physical sciences yet to be made: breakthroughs which will transform how energy is produced and used. I’m with Bill Gates – we need more crazy energy entrepreneurs!

Takeaway: Whether you are a university scientist or a garage inventor, if you’re working on a way-out-there energy idea and you have data that shows something extraordinary, call me. Casimir effect, solar antennae, low-energy nuclear reactions, electricity crops: The door is open! I won’t (and can’t) promise you time or engagement a priori; if I did, I couldn’t do the other 98% of my job. But I do promise you a hearing – and respect.

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3 Responses to Why I Suspend Disbelief

  1. appreciate your post, but never really understood proxy of biology/information science discoveries to the field of energy. DNA…the internet…microchips… yes all the products of secret R&D programs and innovation. but when was there last a truly new idea in energy? solar PV has been around for decades…it’s only when we got serious about implementing it, that it came down in cost. electric vehicles existed in early 1900s. anyways, good luck with the 2% of your time (doesn’t this speak volumes about how much faith you or anyone puts in this?). i really hope something works out…because we sure need it!

  2. Brian Ahern says:

    Brian

    ” A man’s reach must exceed his grasp.” My bet is that nanomagnetism will become the hottest topic in energy exploration. This is a new form of super-ferromagnetism discovered in 2006, but not yet qualified or understood. It is nonlinear and asymmetric and will test our understanding of the fourth dimension, iCt.ahe

  3. Vali Tralov says:

    Dear Matthew!
    Because of Your huge IQ You explained simple things in a complex way. Breakthroughs, probably, stand in the change of conceptual approaches to known and working today things. The real paradox is : “good specialist is a person who knows more and more about less and less (problem). So the best one knows everything but about nothing”.
    Your example with DNA simply proves telegony theory that some think a “false” one. Every pigeon’s lover, who even does not know the word DNA, explane (and can do in practice) what cited by You scientist simply arguing so far of. (Simply ask them how to breed 100% white pigeon).
    The breakthrough is not, IMHO, in more and more deeper understanding of, say, histones role and structure, but in taking into account (and into investing?) the obvious fact that DNA is not the only one data carrier and,besides, it can probably store previously recieved information in another,than we think today, way and shape.
    I am admiring the way You are thinking, but, under a pressure of time, can not devote, to my regret, more time for futher comments.
    With deepest respect

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