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March 24, 2014 | Tom Ballard

GUEST COLUMN: Start with What If

SXSW 2014(EDITOR’S NOTE: The following column was written by Steve Chin, Chief Product Officer of Survature and the writer of the Batbean series of children stories. Survature was one of the 10 start-up companies selected for Launch Tennessee’s inaugural “The TENN” master accelerator. Chin shares his personal insights about the experience that he gained during the recent South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive event in Austin.

By Steve Chin

About a month ago, Launch Tennessee’s “The TENN” program held a celebration during which each of the selected TENN companies presented its final progress report. Survature received two tickets to South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive as the prize for coming in as one of the top three most improved start-ups in “The TENN.” SXSW Interactive is the technology-themed portion of the SXSW festivals and conferences that celebrate emerging music, films, and start-up technologies. As someone who is living the start-up experience, I was excited to go.

I really enjoyed attending sessions, going to meet up groups, and networking with random strangers to share ideas about how to solve problems using cutting edge technologies. But most of all, I enjoyed going to Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson’s keynote address, because it reminded me of what it means to be infinitely curious. Dr. Tyson, an Astrophysicist and Director of the Hayden Planetarium, was invited as a keynote speaker at SXSW Interactive to discuss the importance of science, space, and humanity. His presentation filled the largest conference room in the Austin Convention Center and a large spillover room. He discussed the possibility of life forms outside the Milky Way, which some have termed as being in the Goldilocks zone—having all the right conditions for life to exist. He kept the audience laughing by debunking popular misconceptions of science.

Dr. Tyson asked us to imagine the existence of life in other worlds. Here, on Earth, water is crucial for life, because it dissolves necessary nutrients and provides a medium to deliver nutrients. But water may not be the only biomarker for life. Imagine a world with cold enough temperatures that methane is the liquid that dissolves nutrients and transports them. What kinds of life form would exist in a sea of methane? The idea of living in a sea of methane is curiously funny.

Christie Nicholson, a Journalist for Scientific American, asked Dr. Tyson to leave the audience with a cosmic perspective. To paraphrase, he stated that humans are the only species that can sleep on his back and wonder at the sky and stars. He suggested that we are meant to explore the infinite reaches of space and time. We were meant to do more than what we see on this Earth.

Dr. Tyson’s cosmic perspective may be interpreted as imagining beyond the limits of our current view of the world. In the entrepreneurial community, we tend to equate entrepreneurialism with innovation and discovery. We celebrate innovators such as Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Wright brothers, and others, who imagined a new world of possibilities or more aptly what the future should look like. What if we can see at night? What if we can travel without horses? What if we can fly like birds?

Paul Graham, a co-founder of Y Combinator, wrote in his essay about how to come up with start-up ideas: “Live in the future, then build what’s missing.” It reminded me of Henry David Thoreau: “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” In other words, take time to stargaze and wonder what if . . .

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