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Solving (Hard) Biological Problems

Good morning innovators, change-makers, and entrepreneurs.


This newsletter and podcast feature stories about the people – past, present and future – who change the world.  They make decisions and take actions enlivened by what I call The Entrepreneur’s Ethic.  The Entrepreneur’s Ethic infuses people, organizations and places where the future is created, and the world is made a better place.

One of the Entrepreneurs featured in my upcoming book, The Entrepreneur’s Ethic, is Henry Ford. There are seven parts of The Entrepreneur’s Ethic. Ford’s work exemplifies Ethic 2: Solve Hard Problems. This is the priority setting-orientation of entrepreneurship. It tackles the profound question of “what should I work on?”

This week’s podcast is an interview with Joel Harris, co-founder and CEO of GenVax and my compatriot with agtech investment fund Ag Startup Engine. Joel co-founded another business more than fifteen years ago, Harris Vaccines, that pioneered development and commercialization of mRNA vaccines in the livestock industry. The GenVax team is working on the next generation of livestock vaccines for diseases that would be devastating for agriculture and food security like African Swine Fever and Foot and Mouth Disease.


It struck me as we spoke how hard the problems are that GenVax and businesses like it are working to solve. More than one hundred years ago, Henry Ford worked to solve some considerable mechanical, manufacturing and business model problems. These were hard problems in the context of the times, but when you compare solving mechanical to biological problems the contrast is significant.


Joel and I also talk about the dynamic tension between entrepreneurs and investors, an issue Henry Ford struggled with that is an ever-present challenge when entrepreneurs need significant capital to solve hard problems. There’s no easy answer, but there has been progress since Ford’s time.


Good Reads


The Techno-Optimist Manifesto – Marc Andreessen


And a thoughtful response to Andreessen from Jason Kuznicki

The Future's Going to Break Your Heart – Jason Kuznicki, Virginia Postrel’s Newsletter


The Quest for Autonomy – Arnold Kling



Three Things I Think (I Think)


We tried not to get too science-y in our discussion, but it is interesting to think about the contrast between entrepreneurs like Joel solving biological problems today and entrepreneurs like Henry Ford solving mechanical ones more than one hundred years ago. Some things stay the same, but some things don’t. No matter the time, entrepreneurs apply their imagination to problem solving. Hard problems are solved on the frontier of human imagination. And the frontier of imagination changes through time.


1.     I think the shift from mechanical frontiers to biological is significant. When Joel Harris and Dr. Hank Harris founded Harris Vaccines in 2005, they asked the question why vaccine development used forty-year-old technology. A good question then and good question now. Developments in synthetic biology are leading to many interesting questions.

2.     I think the shift from earth to ether is significant. We will never run out of problems to solve for how we tend the earth and its resources. But human imagination is being applied to that which we cannot touch in so many ways. When our kids were young in the 1990s and we would be on a long car drive, we’d get good kid questions such as, “why is the sky blue?” I recall Patti and I saying how cool it would be if we could access the Internet while driving to get better answer for them. “Hey Siri.”

3.     I think the shift from technology being applied to productivity problems to creativity problems is significant. The heart of developing new technologies will be saving labor and doing more with less: productivity. But human imagination being applied to technology to magnify… human imagination? This is going to be fun.


Farm to My Table

The first frost has arrived, so Patti picked the remaining garden items. We had tomato plants as tall as corn with the help of trellises, and it showed in the yield since July. The tomatillos did well too. Patti made this late harvest tomatillo lime salsa, soon to be on a dish near… me.


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