Q&A with...

Aaron VanDevender, Chief Scientist of Founders Fund


Aaron VanDevender is the Chief Scientist and a Principal at Founders Fund. 

BDC: Your career has been spent in the sciences—exploring quantum computing and DNA sequencing. How has design impacted your work, and the work of science companies you’ve invested in?  

There is a heavy design component to good science. When you are building an apparatus or a new experiment you are always trying to trade flexibility with usability. You want something that’s powerful enough to test your hypothesis, but simple enough that it’ll work on the bleeding edge. Good design thinking can help balance these tradeoffs. One of my former colleagues once designed a clever experiment around a laser that looked great on paper, but he forgot to include himself, the experimenter, in the design. The result was the only way to realize it was to bolt half the thing to the ceiling, but it was too wobbly and too awkward to control to actually get a good result from the experiment.

With the companies we invest in the same rules apply. Have they designed their experiments in a way that’s unambiguous and unbiased? Are they thinking about the whole lifecycle of the invention, and not just the key features? For things like medical devices, is it designed in a way that a layperson can use as directed? How about if that person is sick or having a medical emergency? No successful technology works in a vacuum, and design thinking is critical for evaluating a breakthrough within the context it will be used.

BDC: What is design’s role in tech innovation? Is it different from the past?

I don’t think design’s role has changed, but I do believe that there is more awareness of its importance than in the past. A lot of the debate between Nikola Tesla and Thomas Edison over AC vs. DC was more about design than it was about system efficiency. Innovators in aviation and automotive have been obsessed with design, as anyone who has ever looked at an SR-71 Blackbird or a Shelby Cobra GT500 can see. Apple gets a lot of accolades for being the first company to marry design and technology, but really Apple is just normal. They only seem exceptional because Microsoft and IBM were exceptionally bad at design.

BDC: Founders Fund looks for companies using science and technology to address pressing problems. What are some breakthroughs you hope to see in the near future?

Breakthroughs are by nature very hard to predict. Either they are incremental, in which case they are not really breakthroughs, or they are really improbable in which case they are unpredictable. That said, there are some grand challenges that I hope will make significant progress in the near future.

1.  The delivery problem in medicine: Most of the focus of drug development is in identification of targets and compounds that can bind to them. But this information is useless unless the drug can actually find the target in the body. How does a molecule get into the body, evade all protections and immune systems, and find the specific cells and sites within the cells? If CRISPR is going to live up to its potential, we need ways of delivering a wide variety of compounds into the body.

2.  Fusion energy: This has been a perennial dream for decades, but has seemed further away from reality with each year that goes by. The assumption has always been that if we could build a big enough machine we could understand the physics and design something that worked from first principles. That hasn’t worked, but I’m optimistic about the future because advances in other areas have shifted the burden from physics to engineering. Recently things like high-speed power electronics, supercomputing simulations of the plasma, and high-field superconductors have advanced very quickly and I am hopeful that these innovations will open doors that pure physics has been unable to.

3.  Brain-Computer interfaces: Who wouldn’t want to jack their mind directly into the Matrix? Turns out loads of people, but fortunately, there are heaps more that do. Starting with people with spinal cord injuries and expanding into general use, direct interfaces will allow us to connect with machines—and consequently with each other—with exceedingly high bandwidth. With your computer running in the gigahertz, and your brain in the petahertz, it seems silly to limit the bridge between them to a few hundred bits per second. With technologies like microneedle arrays and optogenetics, the field is poised for a breakthrough. Watch this space!

BDC: How have you seen companies integrate new technology into the biotech industry?

The two biggest integrations are advances in computing yielding bioinformatics, and advances in robotics creating lab automation. Since Watson and Crick and DNA code, biology has been waiting to be turned into an information science. Despite its superficial simplicity, only recently have computers actually been able to handle the volumes necessary to perform meaningful work on genetic data, especially across populations. As we create computational models that represent all of the underlying complexity, the impact on biotech has been to move it from being largely empirical to more predictive.

Meanwhile, advances in robotics have displaced the essential workhorse of biotech for the past century: the grad student. Utilization of grad students was advantageous in the early days because they are cheap and plentiful and flexible to accommodate a variety of unit operations. The downsides are that they are slow, error-prone, and have an unsettling proclivity to graduate, taking knowledge and know-how with them. Now that many of the lab operations are well-defined, the flexibility is less of an advantage, and the repeatability and speed of automation has enabled biotech to engage in procedures that might have tighter margins and require more accuracy.

More about Aaron: Prior to Founders Fund, Aaron was CTO of enterprise war games firm The Prosperity Institute. Aaron has designed single-photon and single-atom quantum computers in academia and government (NIST), advanced the quantum-mechanical theory for microscopic black holes, patented the fastest transparent optical switch, and is a co-inventor of Yoctotechnology (named after the smallest unit prefix on the SI scale). He then developed next-generation DNA sequencing technology at Halcyon Molecular. His broad scientific interests encompass energy, biotech, nanotech, and computing. Aaron received a BS from MIT and a PhD in physics from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In addition to entrepreneurial science, Aaron is a professional skydiver.

Founders Fund is a San Francisco based venture capital firm investing in companies building revolutionary technologies.





Banner image: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases