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The return of adventure capital

Vinod Murali
3rd Jan 2017
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The American thanksgiving holiday tradition can be traced to the early 17th century. However, the real origins go all the way back to 1492 when Christopher Columbus decided to chart a course to India (Asia). He found it quite difficult to get sponsorship for his venture, which was seen by most to be a foolhardy exercise, as he was perceived to have underestimated the effort involved.

Eventually, he was able to convince King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain about the commercial utility of his adventurous exploration and hence received the sponsorship required to launch his three vessels – Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria. When he heard the magical words – Land, Ahoy, Columbus refused to believe he had, in fact, reached the new world and believed it to be part of Asia. If not for this obstinacy, one of the largest landmasses of the world might very well have been named after Columbus instead of Amerigo Vespucci, who saw it fit to proclaim that this was indeed a new continent which was yet to be explored and understood.

Credit : Shutterstock
Credit : Shutterstock

Explorers in the 15th and 16th century were driven by a sense of conquering the unknown. They seldom found support from royalty and predominantly relied on merchants to sponsor trips as the value of their voyages was in the riches which would follow – through spices, textiles, gems, and sometimes even human capital. The hardships to be faced also led to numerous deaths (literally), but those who survived to tell the story often found their names etched in the annals of time.

Over the next three to four centuries, while there has been significant progress in science and technology spurred predominantly by the Industrial Revolution in Europe, there has always been an immediate expectation of payback from industrial investment. The power of the steam engine resulted in a massive explosion of progress, especially in areas like metallurgy, manufacturing, transportation, and textiles. The resultant impact on the socioeconomic fabric was the advent of capitalism where profiteering was a good thing as it created employment and a new social order.

A new sense of exploration

Five centuries have lapsed since Columbus set foot on North American soil and the world has drastically morphed due to science and technology. However, it is only in the very recent past that there has evolved a new sense of exploration which could literally change the world. These are in areas like space travel, auto-transportation, quantum computing, nanotechnology as well as possibly the initial successes of extending human lifespans beyond a century consistently. Bear in mind, space travel and nuclear physics have seen strong efforts in the last century but these were always controlled by governments. It is only now that there is a strong layer of private capital fuelling a new wave of highly ambitious efforts to change the world as we know it. This capital needs long gestation periods without necessarily having political expectations or limitations.

This ideally should not be housed under large corporations as well for various reasons and is best served by the Venture Capital ecosystem, which by definition is intended to sow seeds in unknown terrain. In the 16th Century, captains of ships used to retain 20 percent of the goods they carried to compensate for the risk of the high seas aka carried interest. Today, the captains of VC firms are in an equivalent position to take high levels of risk and facilitate the exploration of the unknown. However, the real movers and shakers are the entrepreneurs who take the highest risk and have the ambition to change the world. Historically, such voyages typically led to imperial control which had to be shaken up over time due to its obvious issues. Such a relationship was always built to fail. In the future, such voyages will hopefully see strong partnerships built on the premise of trust, collaboration, and inspiration.

 Era of massive change

The last time the world witnessed a proliferation of information and content was driven by the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, which had strong repercussions on the spread of knowledge. It subsequently led to the protestant movement thus having implications on religion  as

well as life in general. After many centuries, thanks to the internet as well as a focus on technology for long-term progress, we have seen creations like Google, Facebook, and Tesla with mandates extending beyond their immediate line of business. The modern human being has the world literally at his/her fingertips. Digitisation of books, news, and entertainment has led to a fountain of knowledge which keeps gushing and the flow can be controlled based on personal discretion. And best of all, it is quite inexpensive.

The rapid proliferation of smartphones globally has made every user a potential author, critic, journalist, or even a mini-celebrity. This is bound to have geopolitical repercussions as has been seen already with the Arab Spring as well as various other uprisings driven by socio-digital impact. It is essential for many of these new avenues to be isolated from political or corporate strangleholds to the extent possible, but they still need high levels of patient funding which can be met by venture capital.

It is indeed exciting to be on the cusp of this era of massive change which could literally land us on another world or change the world we live in, drastically. While India has lagged behind the world on groundbreaking innovative efforts, there is a high level of expectation from this corner of the world to drive the global engine into the 22nd century. It is time for the return of adventure capital!

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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