Deep Tech Dive #15 | Galvanizing Moonshots

Meet Rahul Rana, author of Making Moonshots and Summer Associate at Lux Capital. He published his book to answer the question: “Why should we live in a world of incremental scientific and technological progress when the human race has proven in past eras that we are capable of so much more?”

Publishing a book as a sophomore from Rutgers University created a monumental opportunity for Rahul to enter the frontier tech venture capital world, in which he focuses on space, life sciences, climate, and complex systems that push frontiers.

Key Takeaways:

  1. Deep Tech founders tend to have a myriad of opposing traits. Traits that allow them to galvanize the public in believing and supporting their bold visions.
  2. If we want to motivate more people to build solutions to complex challenges we face as a species we need to bring art to the tech. “We need Hollywood, the artists, the authors, all these different people to bring art to the fiction, because they know how to rile up the large crowds, to build narratives the general public can get behind.” We need to make science cool for the common person. Also, we need to create a sense of community that pulls everyone together and removes the jargon barriers.

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.” — John F. Kennedy

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Can you tell me about yourself and your background before VC?

My dad worked at Nokia Bell Labs before I was born and still does today. For those who don’t know, Bell Labs is a storied research organization with tons of breakthroughs, inventions, Nobel Prizes, and more. This heavily influenced my childhood, so it was ironic that when I got to high school, I forgot about most of it and focused on purely finance. When I got to college I ended up tapping into my childhood curiosities and decided to study astrophysics and finance.

What drove you to write Making Moonshots?

I ended up falling in love with the deeptech startup ecosystem and wanted to build a reputation in the space, but I knew I wasn’t ready to be a founder yet and no VC firm would hire me. The next best thing was to create content. And, I don’t know if it was the serendipity or the universe looking out for me, but I came across an investor who also was an author. He convinced me to forget about the blog and do something bold, like writing a book. Something that no one would expect.

And, the rest is history. I started writing the book and interviewing top VCs, scientists, deeptech founders, scholars, people in the government, and anyone in the ecosystem.

Writing a book as a sophomore in college was by definition a moonshot, most people have a hard time even picking up a book yet you wrote one, how did you stay motivated?

It was a mix of genuine curiosity for frontier tech & science companies and also me realizing my mortality and wanting to do something big with my life. Plus The Social Network movie got me hyped, as well as institutions such as Google’s moonshot factory and many others

What personality traits did you observe from these deep tech founders?

Well, you have the typical intuitive sort of qualities that anyone inventing the future would need. Like, be super ambitious, dream big, being contrarian, etc. They’re wise, strong-willed people that kill risks, not just take them.

A differentiating factor that I discovered is that they have these seemingly opposing qualities. Personalities are nearly polar opposites, but they find a beauty between them all. These founders are extremely optimistic yet extremely pessimistic. Grounded in reality but also imaginative. Very extroverted yet also introverted, etc.

At Google, they call this radical creativity. To me, normal creativity is making new things out of existing things. Radical creativity is making new things out of new things — being on the frontiers and pushing what’s possible.

Any other key findings in your research?

All good founders are great storytellers. They have the emotional intelligence to attract capital, customers, talent and galvanize people to back their vision. That’s why JFK made his famous speech, “We choose to go to the Moon.” In the early 60s, we didn’t have space suits, rockets, navigation, and computing power as we have now. We had nothing to go to the moon then. But he realized to support this extremely bold vision of going to the moon by the end of the decade he and his administration needed to galvanize the general public. To hype up scientists, academia, and industry. That’s what founders gotta be able to do if they want to finance a deeptech project with little to no customers.

What technological sectors are you most interested in?

I always think about what I want to go down in history for and it comes down to planetary health. So space, biotech, climate, and other domains with pressing problems.

I believe it’s our destiny to be a multi-planetary species, that we’re in a golden age of biology, and that the largest problem our generation faces is climate change.

But for the most part, I don’t pick and choose. I love gaming, crypto, and any of the hard sciences.

What’s your “secret sauce” in finding the next big thing?

Invest in things that reduce human suffering. It isn’t really that groundbreaking, yet it’s a surefire way to make meaningful returns. But, there are other things such as using mental models, learning from failures, and more.

Do you ever plan to write another book?

Probably, although not anytime soon. I want to focus my content creation on movies/entertainment, blog posts/articles, and other engaging mediums.

You often talk about shrinking the gap between “science fiction and science fact,” how do you help further this initiative?

To bridge the gap between science fiction and science fact we need more collaboration across the entire deeptech ecosystem. Even more so, we need to bring art to the tech. We need Hollywood, the artists, the authors, all these different people to bring art to the fiction, because they know how to rile up the large crowds, to build narratives the general public can get behind. Combine these 2 things and we will witness an explosion of creativity. Now, we can have creators that can help instill a sense of cautious optimism and steely-eyed determinism.

We need to make science cool to the common person.

I’m right there with ya, but what about the noise the headlines can create? Even when there’s good promotion in deep tech, it’s shrouded in a lot of noise. Like, when Google’s quantum computer, Sycamore “Aced” the impossible test. Did it help bolster quantum computing? Yes, for a little while till it just added more ambiguity to the industry. I don’t believe we can consider what Google did to be achieving “Quantum Supremacy,” the test was set up for a very particular environment. This just adds to the constant exaggerated and unfulfilled promise of technology with mythical power. Yet it was labeled a historic event at the time.

It’s difficult to find that mixture of how we can make these technologies cool, w/o adding to the noise. But for now, I think it starts with building more of a community. Pulling everyone together from their siloed corners and taking down jargon barriers.

China is a superpower with centralized decision-making that can focus its entire countries resources and energy on whatever it decides. I feel as if the private markets have always been a very exclusive ecosystem in the US unless you were in one of the major tech hubs like NYC or San Francisco.

If we could increase the melting pot that is America by means of immigration and incentivize intellectual people to move here, that would be huge.

All these things like super PACs and lobbying have always hindered innovation. Such oil & gas industry is a massive roadblock to electric vehicles (EVs) and climate change reform. So should we get rid of them?

Obviously, I’m biased as an investor in deeptech because I want to see progress. Unfortunately, there are legacy institutions that don’t want to see progress in certain areas because they lose their hold over the markets they compete in.

Any last words?

We need more people to get riled up about making progress in our society. I’m always ready to talk, meet, or work with as many people as possible who want to build this future. Reach out to me through my Twitter, LinkedIn, personal website, or buy my book if you’re interested in collaborating on these endeavors.