Entrepreneurial Precognition

Some startup mavens saw the pandemic coming

2 min read
Illustration of an eye with covid-shaped pupil.
Illustration: Greg Mably

“Spring Festival. New virus. Spreading person to person. This one has everything.” That’s the whole of an email message that I dashed off to a friend, a fellow China watcher, on 21 January, after reading a BBC story about China’s then-tiny COVID-19 epidemic. Something in that story rang alarm bells in my head.

As an entrepreneur, I’ve developed what I call my “Spidey sense”: From time to time I’ll read something, and then feel the hairs on the back of my neck start to rise. Perhaps that’s my amygdala signaling fear without my conscious mind registering why; I don’t know. I reckon this is common among startup entrepreneurs, who tend to have an uncanny ability to forecast the future based on a paucity of information.

Launching a startup requires equal parts faith, conviction, and sensitivity. You believe you can do it (faith) and have the skills to do it (conviction), yet you have to be ready to adapt—to pivot—as circumstances change (sensitivity). That last quality breeds entrepreneurs with good antennae, able to tune into the weak signals given off by the world around them.

Lest you think my short January email message shows particularly special amounts of entrepreneurial precognition, you should read the blog post that Tomas Pueyo, currently a vice president at Course Hero, published on 10 March on Medium. In “Coronavirus: Why You Must Act Now,” Pueyo tries to get his readers to understand the difference between linear growth—something we have experience with—and the exponential acceleration of viral pandemics. Our inability to comprehend exponential changes, which Pueyo aptly characterized as “gradually, and then suddenly,” accounts for most countries’ dangerously slow responses.

Nine days later, Pueyo followed up with a second long blog post, “The Hammer and the Dance,” which remains the best guide I know of to the months ahead. Pueyo predicts a global game of Whack-a-Mole, as the world locks down (the hammer), then finds a path back to normalcy, but with greater vigilance and variable amounts of social distancing to keep the pandemic under control (the dance).

At about the same time, Tokyo-based entrepreneur Patrick McKenzie looked beneath the seeming successes of the Japanese government’s ability to control the pandemic in February and March. Foreseeing disaster, he wrote a private report, publicly tweeting its cryptographically secure hash (thus providing a verifiable time stamp). Working quickly with a small group of like-minded people who had contacted him, he formalized those predictions and circulated a white paper. It argued that undetected transmissions of the virus from people with asymptomatic COVID-19 infections had begun to grow exponentially throughout Japan. That white paper helped to pressure many Japanese organizations to enact more timely and effective responses.

These entrepreneurs saw things many others could not. They then worked hard to turn their understanding into action. Pueyo’s original post got 40 million readers in its first week, while McKenzie’s white paper no doubt helped to save Japan from a pandemic as severe as those of Italy and Spain.

The past few months have made a mockery of the notion that the future will look much like the recent past. In this period of unprecedented change, we could all benefit from the cultivation of our Spidey senses. Somehow we must find the courage to stare into the chaotic abyss of the future, apply our minds, and accept what we might learn.

This article appears in the July 2020 print issue as “Spidey Senses.”

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Special Report: Top Tech 2021

After months of blood, toil, tears, and sweat, we can all expect a much better year

1 min read
Photo-illustration: Edmon de Haro

Last January in this space we wrote that “technology doesn't really have bad years." But 2020 was like no other year in recent memory: Just about everything suffered, including technology. One shining exception was biotech, with the remarkably rapid development of vaccines capable of stemming the COVID-19 pandemic.

This year's roundup of anticipated tech advances includes an examination of the challenges in manufacturing these vaccines. And it describes how certain technologies used widely during the pandemic will likely have far-reaching effects on society, even after the threat subsides. You'll also find accounts of technical developments unrelated to the pandemic that the editors of IEEE Spectrum expect to generate news this year.

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