“But if (and oh what a big if) we could conceive in some warm little pond with all sorts of ammonia and phosphoric salts, light, heat, electricity etcetera present, that a protein compound was chemically formed, ready to undergo still more complex changes [..]"
—Charles Darwin 1871
Modern life is built on a dense web of inventions based on the physics, chemistry, and biology of nature. These inventions transform matter to meet human needs through the alchemy of human inspiration. Understanding quantum mechanics and finding ways to make silicon pure were academic pursuits that put the pioneers of a revolution in a position to fabricate transistors, and then to transform them into the chips that have made our cell phones, laptops, and the information web an essential part of daily life.
Further mastery of the physical world and understanding of biology will surely change our world in the years ahead. Some of these innovations will advance science itself, some will help us produce a more benign impact on the environment, and others will lead to long and healthy lives for a wider slice of humankind. But these changes will not generate themselves. The creative act that makes the possible real is invention.
But what is the best way to encourage invention?
One model is the shark tank—a vigorous competition stimulated by the vision of great rewards for success. This is a powerful way to motivate the commercialization of ideas that are sufficiently developed to benefit from the world of venture capital.
But another model might resemble the warm little pond that Charles Darwin thought might be the place where life itself had its origin. Nostalgic physicists and technologists think back to the Bell Telephone Laboratories—a warm little pond in New Jersey. The tax we all paid to a monopoly telephone company was used to nourish the development of the transistor, the laser and the theory of information (to say nothing about fostering the origin of radio astronomy, the discovery of the glow from the big bang, or the charge coupled device light sensors that have revolutionized our knowledge of the universe.) Nobody wants to go back to a monopoly phone company, but there could be real benefits from providing space for creative scientists with a passion for invention to realize their dreams.
At the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, we’re taking a modest step to make this possible. Starting this year, the Moore Foundation will select five innovators in each of the next ten years (we think of it as “50 inventors to shape the next 50 years”). This program will support “scientist-inventor-problem solvers” with a passion for science and a penchant for inventing—like Gordon Moore himself. With some support from the inventor’s home institution, each fellow will receive a total of $825,000 over three years.
We wanted to honor Gordon Moore’s spirit of scientific innovation by selecting individuals with the drive to push scientific innovation forward. By selecting passionate scientists within research universities, we expect to unleash creativity by providing the freedom to try out new ideas.
Moore’s Law is not a law of physics or of nature: we know imagination, hard work and tenacity drive the exponential trajectory of a successful technological development. We cannot know in advance that an invention we support will change the world—there’s always a risk of failure—but giving people the resources to develop a good idea has the potential to accelerate progress in areas we care about.
The Moore Inventor Fellowships select individuals who can develop tools to advance science, conservation, or patient care, the three areas of emphasis for the foundation. The potential for commercialization or economic return is not a prerequisite.
Philanthropic funding serves society by creating the right conditions in areas where imagination, scientific thinking, and intellectual freedom can create something new. We provide the salt, light, heat, and electricity for a warm little pond: we are hoping for new ideas to come to life.