20VC Lux Capital's ScientistInResidence on Why We Cannot Just Be Specialists Today, The Benefits of Interdisciplinary Thinking & Computational Creativity That Makes Man and Machine Partners with Sam Arbesman

Summary Notes


In this episode of the 20 minutes vc podcast, host Speaker A welcomes Sam Arbesman, scientist in residence at Lux Capital, known for supporting ambitious scientific and technological ventures. Sam discusses his path from a PhD in computational biology to his current role, where he acts as a bridge between science, technology, and venture capital, sourcing deals and connecting startups with diverse expertise. Emphasizing the importance of "radical interdisciplinarity," Sam argues that startups benefit from combining specialized knowledge with broad, interdisciplinary thinking to create defensible and innovative business models. He also explores the partnership between humans and AI in creativity, cautioning against oversimplifying complex biological systems when applying computational methods. Finally, Speaker A highlights the importance of supporting people operations in growing companies, recommending tools like Lattice for performance management and Recurli for subscription success.

Summary Notes

Introduction to Scientists in Residence at Venture Funds

  • Venture funds have begun to incorporate scientists in residence to leverage their expertise.
  • These scientists work with companies and founders at the intersection of science and technology.
  • Sam Arbesman is introduced as the scientist in residence at Lux Capital, which focuses on counterconventional solutions and ambitious projects.

"On Monday, we had Aaron at Founders Fund on the show, and today we're joined by another very special scientist in residence... Sam works with companies and founders that recognize the future happens at the boundaries of both science and technology..."

The quote introduces the concept of scientists in residence at venture funds and highlights the role of Sam Arbesman at Lux Capital, working with companies at the forefront of science and technology.

Sam Arbesman's Background and Path to Lux Capital

  • Sam Arbesman had a passion for science, technology, and science fiction from a young age.
  • He pursued a PhD in computational biology with an interest in evolution and complexity science.
  • After academia, he joined the Kaufman Foundation, focusing on innovation and the startup ecosystem.
  • Sam's role at Lux Capital involves acting as a bridge between ideas, people, and startups, bringing an interdisciplinary approach to venture capital.

"Mine is certainly a circuitous path... I grew up in Buffalo, obsessed with science, technology, science fiction... I also began doing a lot of writing about science and technology for popular audiences, too."

The quote explains Sam Arbesman's diverse background, from his early interests to his professional journey, leading to his current role at Lux Capital.

The Role of a Scientist in Residence

  • A scientist in residence surveys the landscape of science and technology to identify areas of interest for the venture fund.
  • They source deals, find potential company founders, and engage with the public on relevant topics.
  • The role involves connecting scientists and technologists to startups and venture capital, fostering innovation.

"Essentially my role is one of really acting as connective tissue for ideas and people... thinking about something new every day, or sometimes even every hour, and interacting with lots of people who are really just creating the future that we want to live in."

The quote details the responsibilities of a scientist in residence, emphasizing the dynamic and connective nature of the job.

Radical Interdisciplinarity and Startups

  • The modern world requires a balance between specialization and interdisciplinary approaches due to increasing complexity.
  • Radical interdisciplinarity involves the cross-pollination of ideas from different domains, providing a competitive edge.
  • Startups benefit from this approach by creating unique solutions and carving out niches in the market.

"So radical interdisciplinarity, it's essentially then an import-export business of ideas, recognizing that in this age of specialization, the combinatorial power of domains that are not normally connected is actually a competitive advantage."

This quote defines radical interdisciplinarity as the exchange of ideas across different fields, highlighting its importance in the context of specialization and the advantages it provides.

Importance of Interdisciplinary Thinking in Startups

  • Interdisciplinary thinking is crucial for startups to innovate and succeed in a complex world.
  • It allows startups to integrate diverse ideas, stand out in the market, and offer valuable contributions.

"So I think if a startup can bring together disparate ideas and carve out a niche and unique way of thinking, and provide something of value to the world, that's something that is both d"

The incomplete quote suggests that combining different ideas enables startups to establish a distinct presence and contribute meaningfully to the world, although the full context of the statement is not provided.

Interdisciplinary Thinking as a Startup Advantage

  • Interdisciplinary thinking is a proxy for a startup's adaptability and ability to thrive.
  • Combining different domains can create novel solutions and defensible business moats.
  • Examples include integrating computer science, AI, and tax code, or recipe generation with big data (computational gastronomy).
  • This approach is not just innovative but also builds unique operational modes that are hard to replicate.

"So a startup's openness to interdisciplinary thinking can therefore be a proxy for its ability to adapt and to thrive."

This quote highlights the importance of interdisciplinary thinking in a startup's capacity for adaptation and success. It suggests that startups that embrace diverse fields and ideas are more likely to innovate and maintain a competitive edge.

"Or take the idea of, let's see, combining together recipe generation and big data, which is something that's actually part of a field called computational gastronomy."

This quote provides an example of how interdisciplinary thinking can lead to the creation of new fields, such as computational gastronomy, demonstrating the innovative potential that lies at the intersection of different domains.

Balancing Specialization and Interdisciplinary Thinking

  • Organizations need a mix of specialists and generalists for effective interdisciplinary collaboration.
  • Overcoming jargon barriers between different domains is crucial.
  • T-shaped individuals, with deep knowledge in one area and the ability to engage with other disciplines, are valuable.
  • A balance between deeply specialized individuals and more generalist-minded people makes for the best organizational structure.

"So there's kind of the organizational level of organizations need to have the ability to bring lots of different people together who are specialists, but you also need individuals who are more generalist minded who can do that within a single person."

This quote explains the organizational need for both specialists and generalist-minded individuals, highlighting the role of generalists in bridging gaps between different specializations within a company.

"You have to find someone who actually is somewhat versed in both of these, who can almost act as a certain amount of translation and can actually translate from one area to another."

The quote emphasizes the importance of individuals who can understand and translate between different specialized domains, facilitating interdisciplinary communication and collaboration.

Integration of Interdisciplinary Thinking in the Ecosystem

  • The startup ecosystem should incorporate interdisciplinary thinking more than academia, which is very siloed.
  • Startups should be focused but also draw from diverse backgrounds and knowledge.
  • Investors also need to appreciate the synthesis of ideas from various fields to recognize competitive advantages.
  • The balance is necessary to avoid distraction while maintaining focus on the core mission.

"I do think we need to have it integrated to a certain degree throughout."

This quote suggests that interdisciplinary thinking should be integrated across various levels of the startup ecosystem, from startups to investors.

"But the other thing though is you also have to recognize that in many cases startups, you want them to be monomaniacally focused on a certain topic that makes them much, much more successful."

The speaker acknowledges the traditional startup focus but also notes the importance of integrating multiple areas of expertise for success, reinforcing the idea that focus and interdisciplinary synthesis can coexist.

The Relationship Between AI and Humanity

  • Rapid advances in AI are impacting creative domains such as art, music, and scientific discovery.
  • AI can be seen as a partner, helping humans navigate increasingly complex systems.
  • Machines can aid in hypothesis generation, optimization of technologies, and even creating novel source code.
  • Creativity is a collaborative act, and machines are becoming part of our collaborative teams.

"So I view this as a partnership where machines actually allow humans to sift through creative solutions, allowing us to do our work in even better ways."

This quote presents the idea that AI should be seen as a partner to humanity, enhancing our creative capabilities and allowing us to work more efficiently.

"But ultimately, I think creativity, it's always been, to a certain degree, a collaborative act. And now we're going to increasingly count machines as part of our collaborative teams."

The speaker concludes that creativity has always involved collaboration, and as we move forward, machines will increasingly be recognized as valuable members of creative teams, changing the dynamics of innovation and problem-solving.

Use of Machines in Augmenting Discovery and Creativity

  • Machines have historically been used to augment discovery and creativity.
  • Examples include calculators for arithmetic, telescopes for astronomy, and microscopes for biology.
  • The cognitive effort is increasingly being offloaded to machines and algorithms.
  • The partnership between humans and machines is crucial for using tools in service of creativity, not at the expense of human advancement.

"I think we've always been using machines to a certain degree, to kind of augment discovery and creativity."

This quote by Sam Arbesman highlights the historical relationship between humans and machines, where machines have been used as tools to enhance human capabilities in discovery and creativity.

Rapid Technological Advancement and Integration into Society

  • The speed at which technology integrates into society has increased.
  • Concerns exist about the rapid integration and its potential destabilizing effects, especially on job stability.
  • The goal is to build systems that enhance the productivity of creative knowledge workers, not to plateau their output.
  • Machines are seen as partners that are necessary for furthering advances in complex fields.

"One thing that has changed is kind of the speed of integration into society."

This quote emphasizes the unprecedented rate at which technological advancements are being integrated into society, raising questions about the implications of such rapid change.

Creative Output and Machine Partnerships

  • The complexity of systems around us, like biology and machine learning, limits human cognitive capacity.
  • Machine partnerships are essential for continuing to make advances in these complex fields.
  • The perspective of machines displacing humans is challenged; instead, they are seen as enabling continued human work in complex fields.

"Only through this partnership are humans going to be able to continue to work in these fields, which is actually pretty exciting."

Sam Arbesman stresses the importance of human-machine partnerships as a means to enable continued work and progress in fields that have become too complex for the human mind to navigate alone.

Appreciation of Machine-Augmented Creativity

  • There is a belief that people will appreciate new forms of creativity that involve machines.
  • Historical examples, like generative screen savers, show appreciation for algorithmic creativity.
  • The concept of "nachos" from Yiddish culture is used to describe taking pride in the achievements of one's technologies.
  • The distance between human involvement and the final creative product does not diminish excitement for the creation.

"And I think to a certain degree, even though it almost sounds a little bit silly, we are going to increasingly need to have a certain amount of nachos for our technologies."

Sam Arbesman introduces the idea of "nachos" to describe the pride and joy we can take in the creative works produced by technologies we have programmed, suggesting that human appreciation for machine-augmented creativity can be substantial.

Integration of Biology and Computer Science (CS)

  • There are intriguing similarities between biology and computer science, such as the use of discrete symbols (base pairs and bits).
  • Historical parallels exist between the elucidation of DNA structure and the development of early computing.
  • Modularity is a common feature in both biology and technology, leading to cross-domain applications.
  • Examples include storing data in DNA and malware encoded in DNA affecting sequence analysis machines.

"So, obviously, there's some very intriguing similarities between biology and computer science."

Sam Arbesman points out the similarities and historical connections between biology and computer science, highlighting the potential for cross-domain applications and the integration of these fields.

Perils of Analogizing Between Biology and CS

  • Biological systems are massively complex and often non-intuitive, which differs from engineered systems.
  • Biological systems have evolved over millions of years and may be messier than expected by engineers or computer scientists.
  • Applying linear thinking from computer science to biology can lead to failures due to the non-linear complexity of biological systems.

"So biological systems, they're different in a very important way, which is they are massively and often non intuitively complex."

Sam Arbesman cautions against oversimplifying biological systems by directly applying computer science concepts, emphasizing the need to account for the unique and complex nature of biological systems.

Analogizing from Biology to Computer Science and Technology

  • Machine vision is used to find drug treatments, engaging with biological complexity and high-dimensional data.
  • Understanding drugs in complex systems requires iterative comprehension rather than immediate, complete mechanism identification.
  • There are benefits and risks in drawing analogies between biology and technology, and it's important to grapple with the complexity.

"n, actually uses machine vision in order to find drug treatments for diseases, but it engages with the full force of biological complexity and high dimensional data, and a lot of this non linear subtlety."

This quote emphasizes the use of machine vision to address complex biological systems, highlighting the intricate and non-linear nature of the data involved.

Venture Capitalists' Understanding of Deep Tech

  • Analogies in the startup and VC space are often used for the sake of investors' understanding.
  • VCs can handle and invest in deep tech as long as they are not naive about the complexities involved.
  • Recognizing the promise and perils of analogizing between complex systems is crucial for VCs.

"Often analogies within the startup and VC space are for the sake of the VC's intellect and to make them understand certain situations."

This quote suggests that analogies are a tool for VCs to comprehend complex ideas in startups.

The Heterogeneity of Frontier Tech

  • Frontier tech is a broad and diffused space, making it difficult to generalize.
  • Different areas of frontier tech require specific knowledge wells.
  • It's important to be aware of the knowledge and how to navigate each technical area.

"And so in many ways, I'm almost hesitant to group it all under kind of that umbrella term, because the knowledge you need to do something, let's say, related to drones, might be very different from something related to biology."

This quote highlights the diverse nature of frontier tech and the need for specialized knowledge in each subdomain.

Sam Arbesman's Excitement for Transformative Technologies

  • Sam is excited about computational creativity and its transformative potential.
  • Autonomous vehicles are also a point of interest due to their societal implications, such as rethinking urban design and public health.

"Yeah, so I'm certainly interested in a lot, and definitely one that I'm excited for is computational creativity."

This quote reveals Sam's interest in computational creativity as a transformative technology.

Sam Arbesman's Writing Process

  • The ideal writing process involves generating a certain number of words in the morning.
  • The rest of the day is spent on research, editing, or light thinking about the writing.
  • Intense writing throughout the day can lead to burnout, so balance is necessary.

"The ideal writing process involves probably a couple of hours in the morning trying to actually generate just a certain amount of raw number of words."

This quote describes Sam's approach to the initial phase of his writing process, focusing on word output.

Book and Blog Recommendations

  • Favorite books: "The Baroque Cycle" by Neil Stevenson and "The Three-Body Problem" trilogy by Liu Cixin.
  • In non-fiction, "Immortality" by Stephen Cave is recommended.
  • Favorite blogs: kottke.org for a mix of science, tech, and humanities, and Marginal Revolution for economics.

"So I have a lot of books I like. I would certainly say one of my favorite books is actually the baroque cycle, which is, I guess, not quite a single book."

This quote shares a personal book recommendation, expressing Sam's enthusiasm for "The Baroque Cycle."

The Hardest Element in Sam Arbesman's Day-to-Day Role

  • Shifting between various topics throughout the day is challenging but also energizing due to Sam's interest in different areas.

"I guess I might say the ability to kind of move from one topic to another throughout the course of the day because I end up being involved in huge number of different areas."

This quote reflects on the demanding but fulfilling nature of Sam's work, which involves engaging with a variety of topics.

Acknowledgments and Further Information

  • Thanks to Josh and Renata at Lux for the introduction to Sam.
  • Lattice is recommended for performance management in growing companies.
  • Recurly is highlighted for subscription management and its impact on revenue and churn rate.

"And again, a big hand to Josh and Renata at Lux for making the intro to Sam's day, without which this episode would not have been possible."

This quote expresses gratitude for the connections that made the interview possible and provides additional information about recommended services.

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