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About this blog: I write about technology companies, trends and events in and around Mountain View. Where else can you find startups nurtured by Y-Combinator and 500 Startups working alongside multi-billion corporations like Google, Symantec and I...  (More)

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Esther Dyson's Thoughts on Space and Social Media - What are your priorities?

Uploaded: Apr 8, 2009
Esther Dyson shared insights with Tatyana Kanzaveli at the Bay Area IT/Software Execs Meetup Group re: Russia, space, investing, social media, health, genomes and government on Tuesday April 7th, 2009.

Having recently completed training as a backup space tourist Charles Simonyi in Star City, she first visited Russia for a 3-week vacation in 1989, her first since 1974. She is passionate about space exploration. Sending people to Mars could result in amazing discoveries and help mankind develop new survival techniques. For example, we could learn how to create oxygen-rich environments efficiently.

Describing herself as a typical angel investor with a few successes, including Flickr, and many fascinating ventures that didn't make it, she started atypically with $1M from a friend, some of her own money and 5 "trial sized" investments in Eastern Europe. What does she look for in investments? A likeable entrepreneur and a valid idea. Realizing that many good companies don't make it, she wants to know that she gave the deal a good shot and wants to resonate with the business. Not being a driver, cars are not her thing!

Why are social media sites fascinating? Is it a primeval instinct for survival, akin to spreading genes? Are we a narcissistic society, looking inward at ourselves? When asked how social media could be used to further space exploration, Esther postulated that popular support for a Mars Mission could be generated from sites like Facebook and Twitter. What it would take is someone able to raise $20B, led by the right billionaire, to launch a commercial Mars exploring company. Most of the audience thought that a concerted effort to get people on Mars would be worth pursuing.

As a board member of the Sunlight Foundation, which funds web projects that make government more transparent, Esther advocates openness. Openness can be difficult to implement. Collecting records from different jurisdictions, management structures and systems is not easy.

By publishing her genome on the web, Esther wants to help seed genomic databases for medical research. It can also be used by the experimenter or programmer who wants to sample data. So far she hasn't heard from any researchers who have manipulated her data set!

Is there harm in publicizing your genome? For most people, it's not scary, the advantages outweigh the risk, says Dyson. Insurance companies can already gauge risk from factors like weight, parental illnesses and current medications. If you discover you have a high chance of a disease, then maybe you can exercise more to mitigate the effects and take preventative screening tests. Most of the audience wanted to have a personal genetic analysis. Esther is on the board of 23andMe.

Not everyone will want to have public access to their health records. The key is to give the user control and the ability to selectively share parts of a record. She suggests we talk about Health, not Health Care. The current medical system deals with illness, rather than wellness. We can reduce medical costs and improve productivity by keeping people well.

Obama's challenge, having convinced half the country to vote for him, is to persuade those who have not voted with him to join in his quest for change and openness.

Regarding media, Esther thought that ads could pay for articles related to products, but sponsorship would be useful for some publications and services. Starting out as a fact checker for Forbes, she claimed people would continue to pay for quality business news.

Advice to entrepreneurs: her quote "Always Make New Mistakes" brings in royalties from a fridge magnet, but nowhere near enough to pay the $3M for her recent space training.

Esther concluded by thanking Tatyana for a recent tour of Baku in her native Azerbaijan. She also revealed that Tatyana had played chess with Gary Kasparov. Over $200 was raised for an orphanage by auctioning Esther's book Release 2.1.

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