Safi Bahcall: From Loonshots to Moonshots
Shooting for the stars: The nurturing of wild ideas into innovations that change the world.
What do James Bond and Lipitor have in common? What can we learn about human nature and world history from a glass of water?
These are questions physicist, entrepreneur, and author, Safi Bahcall, answers using the science of phase transitions. He became interested in how important ideas were either set aside and forgotten or became major innovations with the potential to change the world.
He says, “The most important breakthroughs rarely follow blaring trumpets and a red carpet, with central authorities offering overflowing pots of tools and money. They pass through long dark tunnels of skepticism and uncertainty, crushed or neglected; their champions often dismissed as crazy.”
The Gardener’s Hand
According to Bahcall, a moonshot is a destination —an idea that culminates into a big goal like landing a man on the moon or curing cancer. A loonshot is how we get there. But what is a loonshot? It is an idea deemed too farfetched and is therefore set aside to be neglected and buried. But, by reviving important loonshots they can be nurtured into game-changing innovations.
Bahcall coined the term “loonshot” and describes them as being fragile and requiring cultivation with “the gentle hands of a gardener rather than the commanding vision of a master leader.”
Still not sure what a loonshot is? Bahcall explains and gives us a perfect example of a loonshot’s journey in this video…
Released in March 2019, his book Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries takes us on a fascinating journey of historical examples of loonshots and lessons learned. It’s a real eye-opener for visionaries, entrepreneurs, and creatives who can garner valuable insight to apply to their own projects.
A New Kind of Science
Bahcall draws on the science of phase transitions to reveal the “mysteries of group behavior.” He delves into why teams, companies, or mission-driven groups are influenced to embrace or reject new ideas. He uses the example of flowing water suddenly changing from liquid to ice. The water is the same but its behavior has changed with just a change in temperature.
Likewise, small shifts in an organization’s structure can control transition. By applying an idea to a group, behavior and sudden change can be revealed. Bahcall believes it is a group’s structure and not culture or directive coming from the top that dictates sudden behavior changes.
He observes small-size companies have more incentive for workers to team up and accomplish an objective since they have a stake in the company’s success. It’s different in larger organizations where layers of groups have different incentives and objectives, with innovation taking a back seat to personal pursuits like climbing the corporate ladder.
As in the water example, the workers are the same, but changing the size of the group or adding layers of groups transforms the innovative entrepreneurial mindset into one of corporate politics. He points out that making improvements to a product may sustain competitiveness for a while, but it is the small changes made to strategy that can really propel a company into being a cutting-edge industry leader.
And just in case you’re wondering about what makes innovating well, here is a great short video that explains…
A Bit of Background
Bahcall is the progeny of two astrophysicists. Raised in Princeton, New Jersey, he enrolled in physics and mathematics at Princeton University at age 13. In 1988, he received his B.A. from Harvard University in theoretical physics, graduating summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa. In 1995, he received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. Bahcall received academic awards including a National Science Foundation Fellowship, a John Harvard Scholarship, and a National Merit Scholarship. He then went on to receive a Miller Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship at U.C. Berkeley where he continued researching condensed matter theory.
In 1998, he began a career at McKinsey & Company as a technology, strategy, and operations consultant for investment banks and pharma companies. In 2001, he went on to co-found Synta Pharmaceuticals, a biotech firm specializing in the development of cancer drugs. He led the company’s IPO and served 13 years as its president and CEO.
Bahcall was named Ernst & Young New England Biotechnology/Pharmaceutical Entrepreneur of the Year in 2008. And in 2011, he served on President Obama’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) which advises the President on the future of science and technology research in the United States.
In demand for speaking engagements, he has made presentations worldwide at banking, investors, and medical events as well as top academic institutions. He has also been featured in numerous publications and news media such as Bloomberg, MPR News, Forbes, Inc., The Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review, and many more.
Bahcall and his book have received high praise from many top influencers and intellectuals. One example is by Robert Laughlin, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics and author of A Different Universe, who says, “Safi Bahcall extends the principles of emergence to the behavior of groups, creating an entirely new way of thinking about why some succeed and others fail. Safi hits all the right notes: the rhythm is right, the humor is right, the scope is right … everything is right. Loonshots should be required reading for anyone serious about changing the world for the better.”
You can learn more about Safi Bahcall and loonshots at www.bahcall.com. His book, Loonshots, is a fascinating read even if you don’t have ambitions to change the world.