Friday, October 03, 2014

Andreessen-Horowitz Again

Andreessen Horowitz had a second Academic Roundtable, gathering together academics, VCs, and people in startups to talk for a few days about a variety of topics.  I wasn't sure why I was invited the first time (which I wrote about last year), and am even less clear on why I was invited back, but I again had a very good time. 

Before a few words about the talks, the high order point:  I'm told that most/all of the talks will be put online over the coming weeks.  So if you're interested, you can experience them yourself.  I think it's great that they're doing that this year;  if you like the talks, you should tell them, so they keep doing it.  (If they don't have comments there, you can always comment here.)  Sadly, they don't seem to be up yet, but I'll post the links when they become available. 

Highlights would include a discussion of Bitcoin -- interesting to hear what Ed Felten, well-known Princeton professor and now ex-Chief Technologist of the FTC, thinks about the Bitcoin economy.  Dawn Song of Berkeley gave a general talk on security issues of the present and future, while Dan Boneh of Stanford gave a talk on the power of program obfuscation.  Raj Rajikumar of CMU gave some history and some peeks into the future of driverless cars -- it's not just Google, you know.  Tuomas Sandholm of CMU talked about his take on the starting of startups while still being an academic (based on now-multiple experiences), and Josh Bloom of UC Berkeley (and described the differences between writing papers about machine learning and building products using machine learning.

Of course, some heated discussion about the variety of issues that arise between academic work and transfer of technology to startups inevitably ensued.  (Maybe that's why I get invited.)  The key idea repeated by many (on both sides of the fence) in various forms was that businesses (and in particular startups) are very busy going down their road of development and product, and they may see many things out the sides of that road that are very interesting, but don't have time to explore off the road.  Academics are interested in things way off the road, often thinking of issues much further out in time-scale.  And (at least in my opinion) the role academics play is a good thing;  there (obviously) remains a lot of ways the two worlds can interact and cooperate. 


Buddy Michini said...

Hi Professor Mitzenmacher, great to meet you at the A16Z event! Like you, I was unsure why they invited me. Unlike you, I'm pretty sure I *won't* be invited back...

Hopefully my frustrations about tech transfer from academia to businesses didn't come off as accusatory, that certainly was not my intention. Having jumped from graduate work in robotics/AI to helping build a business in robotics/AI, I've seen first-hand the many wonderful algorithms and theoretical tools from academia that would be of enormous benefit to businesses. And indeed, many businesses have benefited enormously from utilizing said tools. Still, it's disheartening (to me, at least) to see so many great academic developments go unnoticed by everyday engineers who could use them to make better products.

Surely the solution is not to wrangle academics onto the near-term road of development and product (to use your analogy) -- if that were the case there would likely be far fewer new and interesting algorithms in the literature. At the same time, it's naive to assume that developers and engineers at businesses (especially startups) will wander too far off the road, i.e. be afforded the opportunity to pursue graduate studies and gain the exposure necessary to take ideas from the literature and apply them to their respective products.

Clearly I'm not pointing out anything new, nor do I claim to have a good solution to the problem. I only offer my recent (and limited) experience as a humble reminder that there is a problem (or, better yet, opportunity for improvement) and that it is worth discussing. Though next time I will think twice before instigating the discussion in a room full of professors =)

P.S. I noticed we have a shared colleague, Dave Reshef. I had the pleasure of living with Dave as an undergrad, and retain plenty of embarrassing stories. I've been following the MIC work you guys have been doing (congrats!), though the latest theoretical foundations paper is officially way-over-my-head.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Hey Buddy. It was fun talking with you at the meeting.

Tech transfer is indeed a challenge. One thing I've found is that academics have a longer time line in mind; if an idea takes 10+ years to have an effect on practice, that's OK -- some would say it's a pretty short amount of time! Perhaps there could have been more use of the idea in those 10 years, but there's a tradeoff in spending your time pushing some idea to be used, and moving on to the next thing you want to try.

I personally have found that for faster connections there needs to be some dedication on both sides for tech transfer -- businesses willing to try to incorporate new ideas, and "idea-people" willing to make an effort to communicate the new ideas. It's maybe not surprising that such opportunities are rarer or at least more challenging than one might think. But I still see them happening regularly.

Let me know if you're coming by Harvard sometime....