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In tech, superficial trumps social good

Apple recently posted a quarterly earning of $51.5 billion, bringing its yearly haul to $234 billion, a startling growth of 28 percent over last year’s earnings. This remarkable level success has been enjoyed widely by the tech sector in the past year, with Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Intel stocks skyrocketing. While the tech sector has surged, the biotech and medical sectors have languished with the Nasdaq Biotech, S&P Health Care and S&P 500 Health Care Facilities indexes all encountering steep declines.

This disparity, while troubling, hints at a far more insidious trend — the pursuit of profit dominating the pursuit of global good. Companies such as Uber, Airbnb and Etsy have dominated market evaluations and venture capital investments while biotech and social good companies have been widely viewed as pariahs in Silicon Valley and on Wall Street. There has been a corresponding brain-drain from these companies with massive shortages in medical and scientific workers projected in the near future. This massive exodus from medicine and biotech has led to noticeable declines in innovation for these fields, with the number of drugs and diagnostics decreasing significantly in recent years.

Allured by an intoxicating cocktail of easy money and the glamor of being featured in magazines and on television shows, engineers and scientists have abandoned the worthwhile pursuit of true innovation, instead dedicating themselves to social media start-ups and the sharing economy. Innovation for the good of society has been abandoned for the more lucrative good of profits.

From “The Social Network” to shows such as “Silicon Valley,” tech entrepreneurs have become woven into our cultural fabric. Although the rise of tech entrepreneurs such as Mark Zuckerberg as cultural icons is a benefit for the visibility of science and technology fields, society has placed a premium on the results of innovation and entrepreneurship rather than the acts themselves. In doing so, a “Hollywood culture” has risen, where newly minted scientists and engineers chase the fame and fortune that have become characteristic of start-ups. They’re selling their souls for large paychecks and champagne-laden parties rather than pursuing the greater good for society.

These companies that appropriate scientists and engineers unfortunately focus on the problems of the 1 percent of the world’s population rather than those of the 99 percent, solving the challenges of the privileged instead of the challenges of the many. Investors have followed suit, investing heavily in these social media and sharing economy startups rather than companies addressing the grand challenges of the world. As a result, companies that add little societal value, such as Uber for pot or Tindr for dogs, have received massive evaluations, siphoning critical investor money from biotech, medicine and social good startups. Venture capitalists need to reconnect with reality and deflate the growing tech bubble while reinvesting in the companies that contribute tangible benefits to society.

The next billion dollar idea isn’t going to come from creating the newest quirky addition to the sharing economy or by making another pointless app.  Instead, the next billion dollar idea is going to come when we solve the problem of a billion people — world hunger, water scarcity, renewable energy, healthcare. These are the new big opportunities.

Scientists, engineers and venture capitalists need to pursue these opportunities, because they’re the best investments — not just for your wallet, but also for your heart.

 

Contact Jack Andraka at jandraka ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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