May 2013 issue

Date:24 April 2013 Tags:, , , , , , , ,

A few weeks ago, we were privileged to meet a bunch of young tech-entrepreneurs who were participating in a thoroughly fascinating exercise. Together with their high-profile mentors, they were sailing around the world in a fast cruise ship, visiting 13 countries – including South Africa – in a ground-breaking “accelerator” programme that connected them with top government officials, foundations, venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs.

Unreasonable at Sea – described as “a radical experiment in global entrepreneurship, design-thinking and education” – was designed to scale up effective technological solutions to the greatest challenges of our time. Rather than unite start-ups in a conventional entrepreneurial hub, the organisers partnered with two key players, Semester at Sea (a shipboard study programme) and Stanford’s d.school (Institute of Design), to create something quite unique. Sailing aboard the MV Explorer, these very bright thinkers and doers were exposed to 13 international markets over a period of 106 days in the hope of yielding “uncommon and incredibly powerful results”.

In a pitching session during the group’s Cape Town stopover, we watched a compelling presentation by Moshe Zilversmit, founder and CEO of Evotech; his team designs affordable endoscopic devices for maternal care in emerging markets. We also applauded a start-up called Damascus Fortune, which converts waste carbon emissions (think smokebelching industrial chimneys) into valuable carbon nanotubes – or as they described it, “technology that transforms pollution into money”.

Whence the seaborne project’s unusual name? Apparently it was inspired by George Bernard Shaw, who said: “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable.” If Shaw was right, we’re told, and all progress depends on the unreasonable person, then we cannot afford not to bet on unreasonable people. When you come to think of it, this makes perfect sense. After all, if our ancestors had resigned themselves to Fate, not to mention the depredations of their fellow humans, we would probably still be living in bug-infested huts and scattering in panic when neighbouring tribes raid us in search of women and home-brewed beer. (As for decent sushi restaurants, forget it.)

Why are we telling you all this? Because the Unreasonable at Sea project is an excellent example of what can be done, should be done, to encourage tech entrepreneurs in our own country. Wouldn’t it be great if big business got together with government agencies to establish an annual incubation event to identify, encourage and finance these people? Just a thought.

Now to this month’s issue. Our cover story, “How to build a starship”, describes a gathering of scientists, researchers and assorted optimists in Houston late last year for the second annual 100 Year Starship Symposium, a US government-backed project to promote the development of technology capable of taking us to the stars. We take a look at some of the practical challenges (the vast distances involved, for example) and cheekily proffer our own concept for an interstellar vessel.

Next, we introduce you to a sweat-inducing and technologically challenging effort to build and fly a human-powered helicopter capable of staying aloft – that is, hover at a minimum altitude of 3 metres – for at least 60 seconds.

More good stuff comes in the form of desirable gadgets, the chance to win a car, an outdoor adventure aboard gutsy ATVs, a memorable drive in a 54-ton Chieftain tank (spoiler: we crush a car with cheerful abandon) and a fascinating look at robot doctors (no, they are unlikely to usurp the role of family GP). Enjoy.

– Alan Duggan (aland@ramsaymedia.co.za)