Let the Wealthy Fund Innovation?

Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft, suggests that the wealthy should “think big” by funding large-scale and long-term innovation. Arguably, this would be a much preferred alternative to the wealthy using their millions to gain (more) political influence in much of the West, especially the United States. Myhrvold is now a backer of TerraPower, a nuclear energy startup.

[div class=attrib]From Technology Review:[end-div]

For some technologists, it’s enough to build something that makes them financially successful. They retire happily. Others stay with the company they founded for years and years, enthralled with the platform it gives them. Think how different the work Steve Jobs did at Apple in 2010 was from the innovative ride he took in the 1970s.

A different kind of challenge is to start something new. Once you’ve made it, a new venture carries some disadvantages. It will be smaller than your last company, and more frustrating. Startups require a level of commitment not everyone is ready for after tasting success. On the other hand, there’s no better time than that to be an entrepreneur. You’re not gambling your family’s entire future on what happens next. That is why many accomplished technologists are out in the trenches, leading and funding startups in unprecedented areas.

Jeff Bezos has Blue Origin, a company that builds spaceships. Elon Musk has Tesla, an electric-car company, and SpaceX, another rocket-ship company. Bill Gates took on big challenges in the developing world—combating malaria, HIV, and poverty. He is also funding inventive new companies at the cutting edge of technology. I’m involved in some of them, including TerraPower, which we formed to commercialize a promising new kind of nuclear reactor.

There are few technologies more daunting to inventors (and investors) than nuclear power. On top of the logistics, science, and engineering, you have to deal with the regulations and politics. In the 1970s, much of the world became afraid of nuclear energy, and last year’s events in Fukushima haven’t exactly assuaged those fears.

So why would any rational group of people create a nuclear power company? Part of the reason is that Bill and I have been primed to think long-term. We have the experience and resources to look for game-changing ideas—and the confidence to act when we think we’ve found one. Other technologists who fund ambitious projects have similar motivations. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are literally reaching for the stars because they believe NASA and its traditional suppliers can’t innovate at the same rate they can.

In the next few decades, we need more technology leaders to reach for some very big advances. If 20 of us were to try to solve energy problems—with carbon capture and storage, or perhaps some other crazy idea—maybe one or two of us would actually succeed. If nobody tries, we’ll all certainly fail.

I believe the world will need to rely on nuclear energy. A looming energy crisis will force us to rework the underpinnings of our energy economy. That happened last in the 19th century, when we moved at unprecedented scale toward gas and oil. The 20th century didn’t require a big switcheroo, but looking into the 21st century, it’s clear that we have a much bigger challenge.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Nathan Myhrvold. Courtesy of AllThingsD.[end-div]