Private money, public goals

Love this. Love it, love it, love it. Writes Joel Makower:

The request for proposal just issued by Google.org, the company’s philanthropic arm, invites “entrepreneurs and companies to show us their best ideas” with the aim of making “catalytic investments to support technologies, products and services that are critical to accelerating plug-in vehicle commercialization.” Google.org says it will invest between $500,000 and $2 million in the companies it believes stand the best chance of advancing plug-in technology.

It’s been interesting to watch individuals (and a handful of corporations, which are more constrained by responsibilities to shareholders) begin to fund research that pushes the boundaries of useful human knowledge in a way that fits neither commercial nor government models. Besides Google, I’m thinking of the X Prize Foundation and Richard Branson, who’ve done their funding in the form of contests. They’re paying for something in between commercial science (pursuing a marketable product, obviously the traditional domain of private industry) and pure science (seeking to learn, regardless of application, traditionally the domain of government). To do this, you need the kind of money governments have, combined with the intrepidity of people who don’t have to answer to taxpayers who want to know why you’re not spending the money on roads or the army or something.

Inventing a commercializable plug-in vehicle is exactly this kind of problem. It’s a tremendously expensive and speculative proposition. You never know what arbitrary problems you’re going to run into that turn your clever technology into the Betamax of the automotive industry. If you design the VHS recorder, you’ll make a mint, but there are untold numbers of abortive attempts out there that simply lack the magic dust in a way a battalion of engineers, marketers, anthropologists and economists could spend their whole careers trying to pin down.

It’s good to see a company like Google, which has buckets of money and a … let’s call it a creative ownership structure that gives its founders tremendous latitude to take flyers on ventures like this.

Mind you, I don’t own any shares. If I did, statements like this one in Makower’s piece would have my attention:

“We’re going to take advantage of the talent we have here at Google,” explains Kirsten Olsen, Project Manager for RechargeIT initiative. “We have a lot of people here who have experience either screening business plans or have worked for electric vehicle companies.”

I’d start to wonder whether it’s still possible to explain, in one sentence, what a company with that range of employees does. But that’s way outside the competence of this blog.

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