Sunday, January 15, 2006

How America Came to be THE Hyperpower, Why She Will Continue to Pull Away From the Rest of the World - and Why I'm Such a Loser

Hat tip to Photoncourier :

Red Herring, the venture capital magazine, has a piece on a company called Theranos, founded and being run by Elizabeth Holmes. The company has been developing a device which detects adverse drug reactions. It works by analyzing a tiny amount of blood from a person's finger or arm, then transmitting the data to a Theranos server, which uses biostatistics algorithms to profile the information.
In 2004, there were more than 400,000 adverse drug reactions reported to the FDA, and Ms Holmes wants this device to bring the numbers down. She also believes that the device could fundamentally change healthcare by determining of a particular drug is working on an individual basis.

She just turned 21--and this is her second company...

Now, I have no doubt whatsoever that I'm a "late bloomer", and I fully expect to do some slightly great(er) things during my life, in the fullness of time - assuming that I have a fullness of time remaining, of course.

Ms Holmes demonstrates why I'm second-team (if I may be permitted to flatter myself).

In the first place, this is a really smart idea. It could both save lives directly, and, by essentially converting every wired patient into an ongoing drug effectiveness test, it could lead to better drugs for all, fewer side effects from unnecessary overmedicating, and help us avoid wasting time and money on ineffective drugs.

So, wonderful. (Potentially).

Secondly, and this deals with two-thirds of the headline, in how many nations of the world could A TEENAGE GIRL get a serious audience, and then MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in VC funding, to develop her idea ?!?

There are many unpleasant consequences to American society being perpetually adolescent, a bit shallow and thrill-seeking, with an attention deficit and a naive optimism born of ignorance about the odds, but this type of thing is one of the UPSIDES of being that way.

In America, if you can do, the odds are pretty good that you'll be allowed to do, regardless of your shortcomings and quirks. We're flexible and goal-driven, not so much wedded to process.

Hey, this is the society that brought a castles-in-the-sky SciFi dream, a ballistic missile defense system, from concept to deployed and defending in only 23 years.
When "Star Wars", the Strategic Defense Initiative, was first proposed during the Reagan admin, it was flat out IMPOSSIBLE.
Not difficult, not challenging, it COULD NOT BE DONE.

Well, it's still impossible, in its original form, but the limited SDI system that's been deployed is a technological wonder, one that makes North America somewhat safer, and it clearly points the way towards the eventual success of the original "space shield" vision.

Who else but America would have the chutzpah (and the spare cash), to actually attempt to build such a Flash Gordon system ?

Well, along those lines, I've got to hand it to the PRC, their space programme is visionary and bold, but until and unless they actually do more than put a few people into orbit, they're still only potential worldbeaters.


Blogger Duck said...


Yes, don't you just hate those hyperachievers? Not really, this kind of thing is marvelous. I'm approaching 50 (48) and still waiting to "bloom", as you say.

My wife almost died from an adverse reaction to pennicillin. The problem is that you can develop a sensitivity to a drug over time, even though you took it in the past without problems. She had taken pennicillin many times previously, but then one time she went into anafalactic (sp?) shock. Luckily we were in the medical clinic when it happened.

January 15, 2006 5:57 AM  
Blogger David said...

Thanks for the link....

January 15, 2006 9:39 AM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

No argument about the thrust of the post, but -- again -- I find myself in the happy position of being a skeptic on both sides about SDI.

When they (meaning, largely, the Union of Concerned but Not Very Productive Scientists) said it couldn't be done, one of the reasons advanced was that it would require 500K lines of validated code, and no one had ever or could ever generate that.

A few weeks later, I got a press release from an accounting company offering to sell me, for about $500, a program with FIVE MILLION lines of code.

I have never paid any attention to anything from UCS since.

On the other hand, though I have not bothered to look into it, a statement made out here last week by a general leads me to believe that the system being deployed in Alaska is based on Aegis.

Aegis does not work. This has been proved operationally: 3 out of 3 failures.

January 15, 2006 10:19 AM  
Blogger Bret said...

I think that Oroborous exactly identifies a very important difference between the business perspectives of more or less ordinary people in the United States and the rest of the developed world. We look at every problem as an opportunity and resources can be found for many of those opportunities. This attitude has developed wonderfully in my experience in the last 30 years.

My wife considers me a serial entrepreneur. I'm not sure why, since I've only founded four companies (depending on how you count). I certainly wasn't always that way. My dad worked at IBM and when I was growing up I assumed that one day I'd be engineer just like him. It was when I went to college and found that lots of my peers assumed that they were destined to start companies that it then occurred to me that starting a company was a possibility for me as well. Then, when I went to work for a big company after graduating and observed firsthand the inflexibility of the bureacracy, that I realized it was not only a possibility to start a company, but for someone with my temperment, the only possibility.

It looks to me like the entrepreneurial meme has spread like wildfire. Fueled by the huge increases in investment capital, I see entrepreneurs at all levels of business - from starting picture framing shops or taco shops to starting high tech ventures that achieve that magic market cap of $1 billion.

Yet when I go to Europe, the spark isn't there. My business contacts assume that starting a company is strictly an American phenomenon - they feel that they could never do such a thing, and if they decided they wanted to, they would move to the United States (if they could). Certainly part of it's structural - it's probably hard to start a company there. But I think a significant part is attitude.

Until the rest of the world gets the right attitude, I also think they will lag behind the United States.


BTW, Oroborous, what sort of work do you do, do you live anywhere near San Diego, and are you interested in joining a robotics startup?

January 15, 2006 11:06 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...


It's still valuable as a deterrent, even if it doesn't really work.

The Atlas ICBMs of the 60s were RUBBISH - only half of them would have actually lifted off and manage to made it to their destination.
Still, the USSR had to assume that they might work, just as we planned as if their rust-bucket ICBMs were capable of actual flight.

If there ever comes a time when some nut has one or two large missiles, and is planning on launching them at the U.S., it might at least delay their plans if they have to attempt to work around the potential of a capable missile defense system.

Plus, the work that's been done in R & D, on radar, optics, and computer algorithms, in order to detect, track, and target enemy missiles from among the chaff and decoys, will have many future benefits for non-military uses.


Yes, of course I'd LOVE to join a robotics startup, and although I live near Salt Lake City, I'm willing to relocate, especially to San Diego, where the air is sweet, the flowers are bright, and Killer Pizza from Mars is close-by...
(The pizza is actually just good, not "killer", but the name and the decor alone are worth a visit - unless you only enjoy good taste and sophistication, in which case don't visit).

Click on my Blogger Profile for some backround on me, and if you think that there's any possibility that you might be able to use me, contact me at, and we'll talk.

If you need a salesperson, one of my brothers already lives in SoCal, and he could sell water to a drowning person.

January 15, 2006 2:24 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Perhaps I should also mention that IF the situation were right, I would be willing to defer compensation, in whole or in part, for up to a year.

January 15, 2006 2:51 PM  
Blogger Harry Eagar said...

Well, somebody must have formed corporations in Europe. It would be interesting -- and I'm sure this has been done somewhere -- to find out the backgrounds of those who did.

Reuters, Lumiere, Cook were only a few of the doughty self-starters who began worldwide businesses in Europe at one time.

I'm not close to the scene, but it must still be happening. For example, European companies dominate all sorts of surfing, both in innovation of style, or manufacture, of brand; and in volume of sales.

Surfing is not as important, in the long run, as medicine, but the opportunity must still be there.

January 15, 2006 5:00 PM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

The U.S. missile defense system is based on Aegis.
The test record is mixed:

Test Marks Fifth Successful Intercept for Aegis BMD Team

El Segundo CA Mar 07, 2005
The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Weapon System with the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) successfully intercepted a ballistic missile target outside the earth's atmosphere during its descent phase of flight test ...

The Aegis Weapon System is the world's premier naval surface defense system and is the basis for Aegis BMD, the primary component of the sea-based element of the United States' Ballistic Missile Defense System.

US: Missile Shield Intercept Successful

Washington (AFP) Feb 24, 2005
A US navy missile over the Pacific intercepted a target missile, which the military on Thursday said was the fifth successful test of a system to shield North America.
The navy said the Standard Missile 3 interceptor is designed to destroy medium- to long-range missiles on the fly.The navy launched the target missile from the Hawaiian island of Kauai and launched the Standard Missile 3 from the USS Lake Erie about 100 miles (160 km) away, according to a statement.
The Aegis missiles collided, using the same technology as a ground-based system designed to destroy long-range missiles and used by army's Patriot system.

US Missile Defense Test Ends In Fiasco, Second In A Row

WASHINGTON (AFP) Feb 15, 2005
For the second time in less than two months, a test of the Pentagon's missile defense system ended in fiasco Monday when an interceptor missile failed to lift off, defense officials said.


The biggest elements that comprise American society were started, nurtured, and/or perfected in Europe.

It's not that we're completely unique, although there are some very unique things about America, it's that Europe has drifted away from the very things that they taught us.

It's not that there is no innovation in Continental Europe, it's that it's much more difficult to start an industry-beating, or industry-creating, business from one's garage: No more Euro Hewlett-Packards, Dells, Apples...

But, they dominate the design and production of very large windmills for electrical utilities, and here's something innovative and eventually extremely important that Europe had a hand in:

Noordwijk, The Netherlands (ESA) Jan 13, 2006
The European Space Agency and the Australian National University have successfully tested a new design of spacecraft ion engine that dramatically improves performance over present thrusters and marks a major step forward in space propulsion capability.
Ion engines are a form of electric propulsion and work by accelerating a beam of positively charged particles (or ions) away from the spacecraft using an electric field. ESA is currently using electric propulsion on its Moon mission, SMART-1. The new engine is over ten times more fuel efficient than the one used on SMART-1. "Using a similar amount of propellant as SMART-1, with the right power supply, a future spacecraft using our new engine design wouldn't just reach the Moon, it would be able to leave the Solar System entirely," says Dr Roger Walker of ESA's Advanced Concepts Team.

The new experimental engine, called the Dual-Stage 4-Grid (DS4G) ion thruster, was designed and built under a contract with ESA, by a team at the Australian National University.
Traditional ion engines use three closely separated perforated grids containing thousands of millimetre-sized holes attached to a chamber containing a reservoir of the charged particles. The first grid has thousands of volts applied, and the second grid operates at low voltage.The voltage difference over the gap between the two grids creates an electric field that acts to simultaneously extract and accelerate the ions out of the chamber and into space in a single step. The higher the voltage difference, the faster the ions are expelled and the greater the fuel efficiency of the thruster.
However, at higher voltage differences approaching five thousand volts (5kV), some of the ions collide with the second grid as they are accelerated, thus eroding and damaging the grid and thereby limiting its lifetime in space.The DS4G ion engine utilises a different concept first proposed in 2001 by David Fearn, a pioneer of ion propulsion in the UK, which solves this limitation by performing a two-stage process to decouple the extraction and acceleration of ions using four grids.

In the first stage, the first two grids are closely spaced and both are operated at very high voltage, and a low voltage difference between the two (3 kV) enables the ions to be safely extracted from the chamber without hitting the grids. Then, in the second stage, two more grids are positioned at a greater distance 'downstream' and operated at low voltages. The high voltage difference between the two pairs of grids powerfully accelerates the extracted ions.The test model achieved voltage differences as high as 30kV and produced an ion exhaust plume that travelled at 210,000 m/s, over four times faster than state-of-the-art ion engine designs achieve. This makes it four times more fuel efficient, and also enables an engine design which is many times more compact than present thrusters, allowing the design to be scaled up in size to operate at high power and thrust.
Due to the very high acceleration, the ion exhaust plume was very narrow, diverging by only 3 degrees, which is five times narrower than present systems. This reduces the fuel needed to correct the orientation of spacecraft from small uncertainties in the thrust direction.There is of course still a great deal of work to be done before the new engine design can fly in space.

These supercharged ion engines could figure prominently in the human exploration of space. With an adequate supply of electrical power, a small cluster of larger, high power versions of the new engine design would provide enough thrust to propel a crewed spacecraft to Mars and back."This is an ultra-ion engine. It has exceeded the current crop by many times and opens up a whole new frontier of exploration possibilities," says Dr Walker.


The engine design was conceptualized in the UK, researchers in Australia built a successful experimental model, and the European Space Agency then provided funding and a better test facility for the Australians to build a better version.

Ion engines are very low-thrust, so they explode out of the blocks like a turtle, but they're also continuous-thrust, so over time they can propell spacecraft to very high speeds.

January 15, 2006 6:11 PM  
Blogger Duck said...


If Oro gets the job, you can send the finder's fee to me. ;-)

January 16, 2006 10:17 AM  
Blogger Hey Skipper said...


... in how many nations of the world could A TEENAGE GIRL get a serious audience

Never mind teenage girl, in the vast majority of the world a woman of any age is in permanant disregard.

Which means the US has twice the brain power for a given population size than almost any other country on the planet. You just can't give up that kind of advantage without leaving a mark.

My wife considers me a serial entrepreneur. I'm not sure why, since I've only founded four companies.

You are my hero.

If there is one quality I admire, and desparately lack, it is entrepeneurial drive.

Granted, being a glorified heavy equipment operator with particuarly good eyesight (pilot) leaves little room for self-employment. However, my post 9/11 employment has led to me having sufficient business intelligence skills so that, given the aforementioned drive, I would stand a reasonable chance at establishing a successful consultancy.

Given the drive.

What a loser.

January 18, 2006 10:09 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

Take heart, Skipper, you may yet entreprendre.

I've had the "entrepreneurial spirit" since I was a teen, but it took me the better part of two decades before I felt comfortable that I knew how to accomplish such, what to do to generate business, how to set things up, and so forth.

For some it's a talent, but it can be learned.

January 18, 2006 4:21 PM  
Blogger Brit said...


Which means the US has twice the brain power for a given population size than almost any other country on the planet. You just can't give up that kind of advantage without leaving a mark.

Well maybe, but of the top 500 US companies, 498 have male CEOs.

Britain is increasingly celebrating a US-style entreprenurial spirit. (In practice, I think this means Business Angels, bank loans and the removal of the stigma that used to be attached to bankruptcy).

However, like, Skipper, that spirit is something I greatly admire but utterly lack.

January 19, 2006 2:32 AM  
Blogger Oroborous said...

On the other hand...

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, America's 9.1 million women-owned businesses employ 27.5 million people and have revenues of $3.6 trillion - that's roughly 45% of all American companies, 20% of America's labor force, and 30% of U.S. GNP.

According to the non-profit Center for Women's Business Research, one out of every 11 U.S. women is now a business owner, a ratio somewhat lower than that of men; but, since the care and upbringing of children in America is still primarily a feminine responsibility, an direct comparison is problematic.

The number of companies majority-owned by women is expanding at nearly twice the growth rate of the number of all companies.

As with many of the USA's more than 20 million companies, female-owned businesses are often tiny, home-based operations with few employees.

However, one thing that we can be sure of is that today's 500 largest American companies will not be tomorrow's 500 largest; a few of these female-founded companies will eventually bang with the big boys, and it's likely that more of the biggest companies will end up being run by females.

Having said that, I'd be surprised if more than a third of the 500 largest American businesses ended up being run by women in the future, unless American society, and human biology, changes quite a bit.

January 19, 2006 5:53 AM  

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