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How Long is Long Enough?

July 21st 2017

What hasn’t survived from the Apollo era is the ability to marry global collective ambition with individual ingenuity.  It’s not that there aren’t worthy causes to address any more.  Far from it.  A recent study of millennials found that they believe that they face global challenges (climate change, food and water security, poverty and healthcare, exclusion of opportunity) far more serious than their forebears.

It’s more that all our horizon timescales have shortened.  National governments have retreated from long term projects in order to focus on the next election – or even the next day’s social media news.  Society’s members have become more individual, with social media enabling many more to express opinions and fewer omni present broadcasters are able to galvanise public opinion.

With the days of long term government funded grandiose research and development projects now gone, it’s up to the universities, corporates and investors to fund innovation.  And the problem here is also one of timescales.  We all want investments that will provide a quick return.

Angel investors generally look for a return within 3-5 years.  But the reality takes a little longer.  Overall, the range is 4.8 to 8 years.  Part of the equation is that there is a long tail of few investments that can take much longer.  M&A exits tend to occur 2 years earlier than IPO exits – and many angel prefer to hang on to investment for longer, particularly if there’s partial liquidity before a full IPO. But these sorts of timescales are simply far too short to address the real problems. 

So if not investors, then what about the universities and other transnational bodies?  The problem here is again one of short termism, driven by gateway funding regimes that demand progress at each milestone. 

However, some universities are taking a longer view.  MIT has recently set up a $100M fund for long term capital investment.  Cambridge Enterprise aims to provide and secure securing long-term funding for research, cognisant of the University’s 800 years of contribution.

But perhaps the most interesting programmes are those run by the billionaire entrepreneurs.  Think Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation with its Global Health Initiative, Elon Musk with Tesla and Open AI and Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin.  What these and others all combine is the desire, confidence and wherewithal to initiate change.

Perhaps we should all be grateful that since their startup days, it’s their timescales that have changed.

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