2012-06-11

On leaving academia, and wanting to create "Google X" without the Google part


[ tl;dr version: I'm leaving academia after many years; have big life decisions to make; need a dose of perspective. What's a good next step? What's the likelihood of success of creating some sort of standalone Google X type lab with a few brilliant people and getting it funded in the current climate? ]

So I'm finally biting the bullet and leaving academia, after a nasty realization that the powers that be (the hand that was supposed to feed me, NSF, cough) -- in conversations right to the top of the hierarchy -- have insufficient technical understanding to tell sound ideas from the rest, and insufficient foresight to take a risk on funding potentially revolutionary ideas when there's an evolutionary idea from a good friend of theirs also submitted in the same round of proposals that lets them check off their keyword boxes.

As a result, I have started gingerly digging through some job listings on both coasts. When you've been in academia as long as I have (and had it drummed into you that "you will never amount to anything in this world, or accomplish anything much, if you leave academia -- and you'll never come back if you leave"), it's hard to look forward to being a code monkey. I have, however, worked as a software engineer several times, for several different companies, so it's not like I have never had a "real job", but I figured I should ask for a dose of perspective. Tell me that academia has been lying to me all these years :-)

Really, I know that the perception that academia is the be-all and end-all of innovation and world-saving is for the most part false or at least myopic, and nobody outside academia really sees it that way, even though some cool research comes out of all the major institutions each year. Academia is certainly not the be-all and end-all of wealth creation. Peter Diamandis (whom I know from Singularity University) once expressed complete disbelief that I would even be considering a career in academia -- "You'll amount to 1/10th of your potential if you stay in academia."). Deep down I know he's right, even if I still have a strong urge to at least keep my foot in the door.

Anyway, I also have a strong entrepreneurial streak (I have a doc I have been compiling over the last few years, that now consists of hundreds of different ideas, some of which might even succeed to some degree if the execution is good) but I also have a strong dislike for business operations (although I have been involved in a small startup before). There seems to be a lot of funding out there right now, and a resurgence of new ideas, as well as more risk-taking than the industry has seen for a decade or more. I think this might be the right time to try to jump into entrepreneurship rather than working for the man.

So, I guess the questions I have for anybody that stumbles across this post are:

(1) Does anybody have experience with leaving academia and getting back into it after having accomplished something useful in industry? Is it even worth trying to keep that option open if my greatest interests are all heavily research-oriented (and when I would go crazy with mundane coding), or are there all-round better alternatives? Does anybody have experience working somewhere like PARC or one of the Intel research labs?

(2) How hard would it be to create a new research lab with a few top-notch guys, as a standalone "skunkworks" type lab but based outside of any organization or company with deep pockets, and get it funded today? (i.e. something like the Google X lab, but run outside of Google -- this would obviously be a big investment risk if the focus is even partly on blue-skies projects.)  Is working with the type of employee that is frequently attracted to that sort of working environment (i.e. top 1% of engineers, theorists, inventive types etc. with all the crazy ideas and the audacity to think that they might be able to make them work) like herding cats? Has anybody worked at Google X or in a similar moonshot research lab?

I guess I'm just trying to figure out where I can make the biggest difference. Or maybe even thinking that way is a delusional after-effect of standing on the Ivory Tower :-)

PS in case anybody is hiring...  http://resume.lukehutch.com/

1 comment:

  1. Sounds a bit like Starlab.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Starlab

    ReplyDelete