Dreaming Big

Naveen Jain

A Conversation with Entrepreneur & Philanthropist, Naveen Jain

I remember when I was still at school, almost 20 years ago now, when I started my first business.  At the time, it started out as me- on my own- building websites and doing graphic design and making (frankly) a lot more money than most 15 year olds should be.  Even in those early days however, I had a dream to scale the business globally.  I had visions of my offices, my data-centres, my design studios and all the trappings that came with running an organisation at scale.  Most of my teachers, peers and customers thought it sounded like just a ‘big dream’ (especially because I wasn’t an expert in the sector), but fast forward a few-years and when I was just 16-17 years old, my firm (now with a fair number of employees) was doing technology and digital-marketing work for large businesses around the world, we were growing fast and it was every bit as glamorous, exciting, exhausting and rewarding as I could have imagined.   Looking back on this, I simply don’t think my company would have grown to where it was without the critical, intangible component – ‘dreaming.’

It’s rare to go a month in the news now without reading about an entrepreneur who is planning the next audacious moon-shot.  Sean Parker has challenged his foundation to cure cancer, Mark Zuckerberg has committed to get the world connected to the internet, Larry Page and Sergey Brin are taking on some of the world’s greatest health and social challenges and many more are taking on the heavens with space-exploration companies.

Naveen Jain is an internet entrepreneur, with an infectious character and a huge amount of energy.  He’s a self-made billionaire, and one of his next major projects is to commercialise asteroid and lunar mining.

The first trillionaires are going to be created through space exploration,” Jain told me, “…Imagine the mineral wealth on planet Earth, and then realise that Earth is just a tiny blue dot in our whole galaxy… which is just one galaxy in a universe, which could be part of many universes.   Everything we think is rare on Earth, is abundant in space.”

Naveen is the founder of Moon Express, World Innovation Institute, iNome, TalentWise, Intelius, and Infospace, Naveen sees beyond the current business and technological landscape, creating companies that make a true impact.

In August 2017, The U.S. Government has made a historic ruling to allow the first private enterprise, Moon Express, Inc. (MoonEx), permission to travel beyond Earth’s orbit and land on the Moon in 2017. This breakthrough U.S. policy decision provides authorization to Moon Express for a maiden flight of its robotic spacecraft onto the Moon’s surface, beginning a new era of ongoing commercial lunar exploration and discovery, unlocking the immense potential of the Moon’s valuable resources. Moon Express received the green light for pursuing its 2017 lunar mission following in depth consultations with the FAA, the White House, the State Department, NASA and other federal agencies.

Q: What does entrepreneurship mean to you?

[Naveen Jain] Most people think of entrepreneurs as someone who starts a company, but to me? Entrepreneurship is really about problem solving.

People can (roughly) be divided into three categories.  The first category are people who can tell you all the problems in the world! ‘here is a pothole someone should fix,’ ‘here is a path someone should take!,’ ‘why isn’t someone doing something about this?’ – the second group of people are those who invent, innovate and find solutions to these problems. The third group, entrepreneurs, are those people who don’t talk about the problem or solution but go out and solve it.

You can be an entrepreneur in a company, in a family or in your own venture.  The bottom line? If you can solve a problem – you’re an entrepreneur.

Q: What drives entrepreneurs?

[Naveen Jain] If I care enough about something, as opposed to writing a cheque and letting someone else do it, or bitching about the problem, I say… ‘you know what? If I care enough about something? I’m going to go out and do it…’ that means I’m giving one of the most valuable things I have… my time.   In life, you can always make more money and get more of everything- but one thing you can never get back is the time you give.

As humans, we are giving.  Compassion and empathy are hard-wired into who we are – but for many people, they think that writing a cheque and calling it philanthropy satisfies that part of us.  To me, philanthropy is not about giving money, it’s about solving problem.  The bigger the problem, the bigger the impact you can have.

You may become rich, engage in philanthropy and help a million people but the only way you can help a billion people is by building a profitable business.  Making money has almost become a taboo! People say, “oh my god! You’re making money?” and I say, “you know what? I’m so proud that my business makes money… it’s the only way I can scale and make a huge impact…

People get so cagey; they may want to provide fresh water to billions of people but choose to make it non-profit because of the taboo of making money doing it.  You know what? If you can’t make a profit, you can’t help a billion people – so go make a profit!

If you care about providing fresh water, affordably, to billions of people, and let’s assume that you are able to do that, and in the process you made a billion dollar profit… are people going to come to you and say, “how dare you help a billion people?!” no…. they’re probably going to say, “you know what, we’re really proud of you and we wish you could have made an even bigger profit!” why? You solved a problem.

Q: What are the biggest areas of impact to invest?

[Naveen Jain] When choosing the areas I want to invest, I start with one basic question which is, ‘what are the biggest problems facing humanity?’ I then look at the technological innovations that are at my disposal. Why? It’s the convergence of technologies at any given time that allow individuals to achieve the things which simply were not possible before.

As more and more people buy smartphones for example, you can imagine the number of sensors on these devices is increasing.  They’re becoming smaller, more complex and cheaper too.  At the same time, you’re starting to see the bandwidth of connectivity to these devices increasing.  Thirdly, they computing power on these devices is approaching a marginal cost of zero as you have massive computing power in the cloud, on demand.  When you have massive bandwidth, massive computing power and complex sensors, you can start to do things that were never possible before.  Your smartphone can be used to diagnose diseases for example – every disease has a pattern, and if you can use your smartphone’s sensors to measure inputs (ultrasound, temperature, pressure, blood, and so on) and put that data in the cloud to be analysed – you are able to find patterns and diagnose diseases like never before.

My new venture ‘Blue Dot,’ takes advantage of the inventions and innovations that are sitting in our research labs- places like NASA, our Universities and National Research Labs.  We’re putting these innovations together to solve problems in all spaces.  For example, why is it that we cannot easily tell whether someone has a bacterial or viral infection, this should be a trivially easy thing for us to do! Every single time you’re sick, you need to know whether it’s bacterial or viral so you know whether to take antibiotics.  If we don’t get this simple question right, we’re going to end up with another massive problem – we’re going to end up back in the pre-medicine era, where people will die of common infections because our antibiotics aren’t working.

Space is also hugely exciting at the moment.  Think about it.., only three superpowers have ever landed on the Moon.  The United States, Russia and maybe China (I say maybe because they crashed, rather than landed).  Now? A small group of individuals are doing things that previously could only have been achieved by superpowers.   My venture Moon-Express is planning to land on the Moon next year, and just think about that – it means a small group of people have suddenly become the fourth superpower.   Not the UK, Germany, France or a Fortune 500 company… but a small committed group of people.  The cost? Under 10 million dollars.

Elon Musk has brought the cost of putting a rocket in orbit from hundreds of millions of dollars down to around $60 million.  That’s not good enough… just look at entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson, with LauncherOne, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin or New Zealand based Rocket Lab who are building 3D printing Titanium rockets which can put an object in orbit for under $5 million.  We’re getting to a stage where the marginal cost of putting an object in space is just the fuel; and that means it’s now not unrealistic to get to a stage where you could get to space for under $1 million, or even Mars for under $1 million.

Q: Why did you become fascinated with space?

[Naveen Jain] For me, it wasn’t about space itself, but rather- that space was a big business opportunity.

When you start to look at an opportunity you have to ask some key questions.  Are the macro-trends with it? Are technologies at the knee of the exponential curve where you know prices will start dropping?

6 years ago, we saw that sensors were becoming faster, cheaper and smaller.  That meant that things that previously cost billions of dollars could now cost millions. For example, the LIDARs that you find in autonomous cars are the same that we use in spacecraft descent and landing.  5 years ago, those LIDARs would have cost $1.5 million and now? $1500.

The rockets that we use previously cost $100’s of millions of dollars, and now we got a 3D-printed rocket for under $5 million.  The whole cost of our mission to the Moon will be substantially under $10 million, and has a team of 25 people.  The first time the United States went to the Moon? It cost billions of dollars and literally took millions of people.

This is the key to why space exploration is now good business.  A billion-dollar lunar mission is unlikely to be profitable, a $10 million mission however is wildly profitable.

To rephrase John F. Kennedy, we are choosing to go to the Moon, not because it’s easy, but because it’s a great business!

Q: Why are entrepreneurs fascinated by space exploration?

[Naveen Jain] The first trillionaires are going to be created through space exploration.  Imagine the mineral wealth on planet Earth, and then realise that Earth is just a tiny blue dot in our whole galaxy… which is just one galaxy in a universe, which could be part of many universes.   Everything we think is rare on Earth, is abundant in space.

If you go back several-centuries, travel was only for the rich.  Now? Flying anywhere on Earth is accessible.   In the future, people could take weekend trips to the Moon! Guess what? Finally we could go on Honeymoon.  There’s a reason it’s not called Honey-paris… it’s Honeymoon!.

Humanity has a love-affair with the Moon, we’ve been making art about it since the dawn of mankind… Today, if you love someone you give them a diamond.  It’s not because diamonds are scarce… in the past month alone, they’ve found thousand-carat diamonds… but de Beers- through brilliant marketing- have made diamonds rare.  Now, what do entrepreneurs do when faced with monopolies? They go fight them head-on!  What if we change the paradigm…? What if we make diamonds a commodity…? What if we bring back rocks from the Moon and say, “you know what? It’s easy to give a diamond, but if you really love someone, give them the Moon…”  People will start saying, “hey, I’m not going to marry you for a diamond, don’t you love me?!

Landing on the Moon is not just about the act of landing on another celestial body, it’s about showing other entrepreneurs what’s possible.

If you go back in time, people thought it was impossible to run a mile in under 4 minutes.  And you know what? It was impossible, until it wasn’t.  Roger Bannister showed you could run a mile in under 4 minutes, and 13 people did that the following year.  Once you show people something can be done, the only thing that limits them from then on is their imagination.

What people do when you give them capability is beyond imagination.  Our job is to show what is possible, inspire people, and inspire entrepreneurs to build applications on top of that.

Space and the internet have a lot in parallel.  If you go back and look at the early-internet, there were three sets of companies created.  Firstly, there were companies who laid-down the fibre and built the connectivity.  Secondly there were people who provided the last-mile solutions, more commonly known as Internet Service Providers.  Thirdly, there were companies who built applications on top of this infrastructure.  Space is identical!  Rockets are the fibre, they are the commodity – the ‘dumb pipe.’  The last-mile solution is the hardware… the lander on the Moon or Mars, the hardware that connects to the thing that needs to be done… The third thing will be the application – that could be an orbital fuel-depot, it could be a talent contest broadcast from moon, it could be a company that puts your child’s footprints on the moon as a memento.   We couldn’t have imagined Google or Facebook existing when the internet first began, but just look where we are now.

Q: Why did you choose to undertake a mission to the moon?

[Naveen Jain] The Moon is a stepping-stone is a stepping-stone to our space exploration ambitions.  Even if you wanted to settle-down on Mars for example, you would have to cope with problems including high-radiation, wide temperature differences, and not having the infrastructure to survive away from Earth.

Essentially, we have to re-learn to learn how to do the things we require to live on spaceship Earth, but on another celestial body.  I would rather have a problem 3-days away on a lunar trip, than 6-months away on a Martian one…

We are aiming to prove the technologies we need to live on the Moon using in-situ resources rather than resources we carry with us.

We are on this spaceship called Earth, flying around in space.  That gives us a single point of failure.  If an asteroid were to hit our spaceship? We will all die simultaneously.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the dinosaurs! I bet they wished they had great entrepreneurs who took them to the Moon and Mars, they’d still be around.

We also need to develop the communications technologies to ensure that being a multi-planet species doesn’t feel any different to being a species across different nations.  How often do you visit a friend in Sydney for example? You stay in touch using technology and maybe visit them every now and again.

We can’t make the same mistakes again and become dinosaurs.  We need to get away from the single point of failure our species has, Earth.

Q: What are the economics of space travel?

[Naveen Jain] The Moon has plenty of water.  That means abundant hydrogen and oxygen- rocket fuel and human fuel.

Now we can create fuel-depots en-route to the Moon, in low-Earth orbit, in Earth orbit and at various points between here and the Moon.   That means we don’t have to carry all the fuel with us.  97% of the weight of a rocket is fuel, so you’re carrying fuel just to carry fuel!    If you can reduce the amount of fuel you have to carry, costs come down.  Reusable rockets make the economics even better; the marginal cost of space-travel now becomes fuel.

Space is becoming affordable and accessible.

What do we fight about on Earth? Land, water and energy.  Just look up.  You will see an abundance of land, water and energy.

People have always believed that making our species a multi-planetary one was impossible, but you and I both know that the minute you think something is impossible? It becomes impossible for you but not for someone else.

You have to show people the possibilities! When we land on the Moon, it will be a seminal event that will show people what’s possible.  It will be like an iPhone! When Steve Jobs launched the iPhone, he had no conception of what the use cases would be.  When the iPhone first came out, do you honestly think that analysts would have expected a billion dollar business could have emerged from throwing birds at pigs?

When we land on the Moon, we may think of a dozen use cases.  We may bring back Moon rocks as a new symbol of love, we may allow people to leave their footprints on the Moon as pioneers… I’m excited to know what the Pokemon Go of the Moon will be.  There will be some clever entrepreneur who will create the Pokemon Go of the Moon, and we will be part of that journey.

Q: Will space travel change our economy?

[Naveen Jain] We’re dependent on resources because of our mind-set of scarcity.  A mind-set of abundance changes everything.

Today, our own planet is bathed in energy by the Sun at a magnitude of thousands of times more than we will need…. Imagine too if we were able to bring back Helium-3 from the Moon as a clean energy source.

The mind-set of abundance allows us to live peacefully.  Once you change people’s minds about scarcity, they stop fighting.

You and I can sit in the same room and I don’t say, “Hey! Move away! You’re sucking m oxygen!’ why? We both believe oxygen is in abundance.  If we believe energy is in abundance, we’ll stop fighting over it.  If energy is in abundance, freshwater is in abundance and all of a sudden frontiers open; agriculture can be cultivated anywhere and perhaps even we will be able to live on the oceans.

We need to open our minds to what’s possible.  People often ask how we’ll ever be able to live on the Moon or Mars because of the high radiation, but you know what? Nature is amazing.  We’re finding bacterial colonies growing in Chernobyl, growing and flourishing in radioactive waste.  Imagine that, life is thriving in a setting where it shouldn’t exist.  Life is making itself not just radiation-proof, but able to use that radiation to thrive.  Imagine if we could take that gene, evolved by nature, and modify our own genes using CRISPR to make ourselves not just resistant to radiation, but able to use it as a ‘food.’

Maybe we wouldn’t need Pizza on Mars, we could just eat radiation from the Sun!

Q: Why are non-experts such great innovators?

[Naveen Jain] The reason societies don’t progress fast enough is because people don’t dream big, and are afraid to fail.  People are afraid to fail because they’re scared of their lack of knowledge.

In my world, not knowing something makes someone the most dangerous person when it comes to disruption.

Every company I have ever started has been in an industry that I knew nothing about.  For example, people ask me how I can possibly get into the healthcare market when I know nothing about it! To me? That’s why I am the most dangerous person that industry ever faced.  I don’t know what’s possible and what’s not and so I can approach problems from every angle.

Our brains are great pattern-matchers.  The minute you become an expert, your brain starts to identify patterns and solutions based on what you know and maybe if you’re smart enough you can incrementally improve by 5%, 10%.  You can never make it 10 times better.  That kind of giant-leap comes from thinking in abstract terms, and those are the solutions which are often laughed-at, then dismissed, and then seem obvious.

Q: How do entrepreneurs maintain work-life balance?

[Naveen Jain] People who talk about work-life balance have fundamentally concluded that those two things are mutually exclusive and will never come together.

The only time you want to balance two things is because you think they cannot exist together.

Life is a continuum, everything happens together.  Sometimes there may be more of one-thing and sometimes more of another.  Life is not about ‘this’ or ‘that.’  There is no such thing as work-life balance, it’s a work-life continuum.

Work should never be work; it should be your life.

I look at myself as having been retired for a very long time.  What happens when you retire? You do things that you enjoy doing as often and as long as you want.  Guess what… I’m doing that! So that means I’m retired!

Q: What are your views on sustainability in entrepreneurship?

[Naveen Jain] Sustainability has become a synonym for conservation.

You can never have sustainability through conservation, you can only have sustainability through creation.  You need to create more of what you need, not use less of what you have.

Imagine if I said, “We need to conserve Oxygen, so you can only breathe every 5 seconds” you can probably do that… imagine it then went to 10 seconds, then 20, then a minute.  There comes a point where you can’t do it.  But what if, instead, you create more oxygen.

The things we fight over are in abundance if we think about it.  We fight over land, but we can live anywhere… We fight over water, but we can have as much as we want… We fight over energy, but it could be limitless.  Technology is creating abundance.

It wasn’t long ago when the rarest and most precious mental on earth was Aluminium.  It was so rare that the Washington Monument was tipped with it.  There’s a great story about Napoleon hosting the King of Siam.  He wanted to honour the King, and so he organised a huge dinner.  His Generals were fed on gold platter, his troops on silver, but the King? He was fed on aluminium! That was the highest honour.

Guess what… when electrolysis came along, aluminium became so abundant that we throw it away now in wraps and cans.  This is the same abundance we could create for energy, for space travel, for fresh water, for clean air, for health.

We are living in the most innovative decade in human history.  We can modify the software of our own body!  For example, why do we get fat? It’s a bug in our software that links back to when we used to eat maybe every 3 or 4 days, and so we needed to store fat for the next hunt.  Now? We should be able to tell our software that just because we had a big lunch, it doesn’t mean we won’t have a big dinner! I may have an even bigger dinner! We can theoretically fix that now.   Why should we age? It’s a disease that kills everyone.  We should be able to cure ageing now.

Q: How did you feel when you learned you would be the first private company in history to get a license to land on the Moon?

[Naveen Jain] Something we never told anyone was the fact that our license to land on the Moon was granted on July 20th, not August 3rd when we announced it.

July 20th as you may recall, was the date when Apollo 11 landed on the Moon with Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong.  What we were doing was not lost on NASA, the State Department, the Whitehouse or the FAA.  They were symbolically telling us that they were passing the baton to us, and wanted us to take care of their legacy.

Whether it is curing cancer, autonomous cars, curing zika, alzheimers or any other grand-challenge, the solutions will not come from states- they will come from entrepreneurs.  When we started our company 6 years ago, we had every reason to say no.  People said we couldn’t go to the Moon, people said we would never get permission to leave Earth orbit and travel to the Moon.  People even said that we would never be able to bring back anything from the Moon as we wouldn’t have the rights to do it.  But here we are… Obama signed into law that we will own what we bring back, we have the technology to go to the Moon, and we’re going to get there in 2017.

The next global superpowers will not be nations; they will be entrepreneurs.

Anything is possible if you set your mind to it, what’s your moon-shot.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.