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In Technology, Entrepreneurs Must Take the Biggest Shots to Make the Biggest Gains

Here's how "moonshot thinking" can transform entrepreneurship - and three areas it could benefit the most.

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Entrepreneurs shouldn't be happy doing just a little bit better than yesterday. They need to think huge — as big as those who, decades before them, looked up into the night sky, saw a distant moon and thought: We're going to walk on the moon, and we’re going to do it soon

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It wasn’t just the unthinkable achievement of landing on the moon that changed humankind. It was everything the 400,000 engineers and scientists who worked on the program developed on the way to Neil Armstrong taking his "one small step." From inventions such as freeze-dried food to fireproofing materials, from cooling suits to integrated circuits, these 400,000 people changed the course of history.

It's the act that inspired the idea of "moonshot thinking," by which people aim to achieve something previously believed to be impossible. It's about thinking big rather than focusing on incremental gains, since succeeding with a moonshot comes with a whole host of small gains — and a whole lot more. 

One example of a moonshot in progress? In December 2016, Congress passed a cancer moonshot initiative, allocating $1.8 billion in funding toward curing cancer once and for all. Maybe cancer will be cured, but either way, the inventions that forward-thinking individuals develop along the way could transform a number of industries. Look at the University of Missouri as an example: On Oct. 22, 2019, the institution announced that thanks to this moonshot, they plan to take a $3.7 million federal grant and work towards producing a more effective immunotherapy treatment for cancer patients. It may not be the ultimate cure, but it's a step towards it, funded due to that moonshot. 

Emerging areas for entrepreneurial moonshots 

Slowing the aging process and extending life 

Every day, there are advances in medical technology that could lead to humans aging better and smarter. Some recent breakthroughs include the work of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, which is experimenting with gut biomes in mice with aims to alter the current trajectory of aging. Work is also being done on the structure of plant telomerase RNA in a co-venture between Texas A&M and Arizona State University. According to the institutions, a "key component of the telomerase enzyme in the plant kingdom provides an evolutionary bridge ... for understanding how humans keep their DNA safe and enable cells to divide indefinitely." 

Ending malnutrition through agriculture technology 

Malnutrition is an enduring problem today. Reportedly, nearly 795 million people in the world, one out of every nine, do not have enough food, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), nearly 45 percent of deaths among children under five years of age are linked to malnutrition. 

IBM is attempting to roll out technology that could help, including IBM PAIRS Geoscope and IBM Food Trust and Blockchain. By connecting people/entities in the supply chain, this type of technology could maximize efficiency and minimize waste from farm to table. 

Providing energy for all 

In 2019, an estimated 840 million people reportedly did not have access to electricity. By 2030, that number is expected to drop to 650 million. It may be progress, but in many ways, it's not enough. Today, nearly three billion people reportedly rely on wood, coal, charcoal or animal waste for energy. 

Some technology companies are looking to revolutionize the design of microgrids. By making the design faster and less expensive, rural areas and remote islands could eventually meet energy needs previously too expensive or too difficult to attain. If we can create energy to light Las Vegas every night in the middle of a desert, we should be able to find a way to create enough energy for people to survive. 

How to create a culture of moonshots 

Instead of working in a silo, entrepreneurs must share their ideas about the world's enduring problems. There will never be one person or entity with all the answers, but by working together, we may be able to piece together viable solutions. One example happening today: MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence has opened up collaboration between the MIT Media Lab, the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and the MIT Sloan School of Management. The overall goal of the collaboration is to "understand collective intelligence at a deep level [in order to] create and take advantage of the new possibilities it enables ... [leading] to both new scientific understanding in a variety of disciplines and practical advances in many areas of business and society.”

If we kept this in mind as leaders and entrepreneurs, there may be no limit to the technological heights we could reach or the societal ills we could cure. In my view, one day, we could place all of our innovations, challenges and, yes, possible solutions into a centralized hub that could be accessed and leveraged like a collaborative local library, with a directory for each addition and the process for individuals to “check out” the ideas they need in order to further innovation in any sector. 

The tech giants of today may have extremely large budgets and many great minds, but they don't have all the answers or all the talent. Do not limit yourself to what is possible; instead, find your moonshot. Every day, people have out-of-the-box ideas and others tell them that it can't be done. Instead of listening blindly, know that there's a chance you're onto something.

Think about that original moonshot, which came to fruition in 1969. America didn't ask, "Can we land on the moon?" Instead, we asked, "How do we do it?" The people behind the innovation assumed leaving the ground beneath our feet and walking on the moon was possible. It was just a matter of figuring out how. 

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