A common belief in the Silicon Valley VC community is that if you are over 35 years old, you are too old to innovate. The stereotypical successful entrepreneur is Mark Zuckerberg—the young college dropout who dreamed up a crazy idea while in his dorm room.
As I have explained in previous articles, this stereotype is deeply flawed. The fact is that you are never too old to innovate. As well, the wunderkinder who are glorified, including Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, only achieved success with the help of old, experienced executives.
Yes, the young do have advantages in fields of technology such as social media and mobile. They grew up during the era in which the world became connected through the Internet. The young are very comfortable with these technologies and their rapid pace of evolution. To them, the world is a fast-changing social network in which new things keep becoming possible. The young also have an advantage of not being bounded or knowing what the limits of knowledge and success are. They have ready access to an ocean of knowledge on the Web — and to each other. When my generation grew up, our only sources of knowledge were books, teachers, parents and friends. The encyclopedia was an item of luxury. We faced big limits in what we could learn, where we could be and who we could reach.
A key ingredient in innovation is the ability to challenge authority and break rules. Because they haven’t had the limits that we did, today’s youth doesn’t hesitate to question the norms, think outside the box and come up with crazy ideas.
But great ideas by themselves don’t lead to breakthrough technologies or successful companies. Ideas are dime a dozen. The value comes from translating idea into invention and invention into a successful venture. To do this, you have to collaborate with others, obtain financing, understand markets, price products, develop distribution channels and deal with rejection and failure. You have to be able to inspire, manage and motivate others. In other words, you need business and management skills and maturity. These come with education, experience and age.
We are now in period of profound technology evolution—not only in computing but also fields such as robotics, synthetic biology, 3D printing, medicine and nano-materials. The human genome, for example, was first sequenced about a decade ago at cost of more than a billion dollars. Now full human genome sequencing costs a few thousand dollars—opening up endless possibilities to solve the problems of health by analyzing genome data and correlating this with disease, lifestyle, and diet. And then there are sophisticated sensors that connect to our smartphones monitor our body functions. At the same time, 3-D printers are allowing us to inexpensively print complex objects—even human organs. Advances in synthetic biology are making it possible to create biofuels from genetically engineered algae and biosensors that detect pollutants.
Put all these advances together and you get the ability to address humanity’s grand challenges. Just as the team in Chile that I wrote about is developing a way of sanitizing water to reduce the incidence of disease caused by waterborne viruses, entrepreneurs anywhere can now solve the global problems of education, water, food, shelter, health and security.
But still, understanding these diverse technologies isn’t the domain of the young. College dropouts may understand social media, but it is very unlikely that they understand the intricacies of medicine, physics, and artificial intelligence. Zolezzi, the Chilean entrepreneur who developed the water sanitization technology is 54. And David Albert, who built a heart monitor that connects to iPhones, is 56. These are complex technologies that require not only a strong education, but also the ability to work across domains and collaborate with intellectual peers in different disciplines of science and engineering.
The reality is that there is no age requirement for innovation and we need both old and young working together. The young will surely dominate new-era software development, and software will be a key driving force in the convergence of exponential technologies. But the old will bring real-world and cross-disciplinary knowledge, management and business skills, and maturity. This is the combination we need to solve the big problems that the world faces.