Q&A: Schmidt Futures' formula to identify moonshots for global development

Tom Kalil, chief innovation officer at Schmidt Futures. Photo by: Schmidt Futures

SAN FRANCISCO — When Tom Kalil worked for former U.S. President Barack Obama, he would ask the same question of a lot of people.

“In the same way that President Kennedy said, ‘Let's put an astronaut on the moon,’ What are the similarly ambitious goals that we should be setting in the 21st century?” he said.

Kalil, who served as the deputy director for technology and innovation for the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, often gives the example of former president John F. Kennedy when he talks about the importance of ambitious but achievable goals called “moonshots.”

“I'm not saying we should take all of public and private investment that is going to global development and global health and put it into moonshots.”

— Tom Kalil, chief innovation officer, Schmidt Futures

Kalil is the chief innovation officer at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Wendy Schmidt and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt that uses science and technology to tackle social problems.

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In an interview with Devex, Kalil spoke about the critical role that philanthropy can play in setting the agenda. Noting where we are today, asking where we want to be over the short, medium, and long term, and determining what steps need to be taken to get there can influence larger scale investment, he said.

Kalil welcomes input on what moonshots the international development community should rally behind, the actions that would put those goals within reach, and what strategies might help achieve them, he told Devex.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Schmidt Futures provided a grant to American Association for the Advancement of Science to produce “The Moonshot Catalog.” You have described this as a series of stories on goals that are ambitious but achievable and would require increased investment to achieve. How do you define a moonshot?

A moonshot generally has several characteristics. One is that it has to help solve a really important economic, societal, or scientific problem. Second, it has to have a clear goal and a clear finish line. Finally, I think it's really useful if there is a compelling "why now?" story.

So if I said, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could teleport?" It certainly would be, right? So that would check the ambition. But it wouldn't check the box of achievability.

One of the things that is very valuable about moonshots is to be able to point to something that has changed about the world that makes something that was previously impossible, possible. For the kinds of things I tend to focus on, that might be an increase in our fundamental understanding of the problem, technological advances in one or more technologies, a novel business model, a change of policy, or maybe even a demographic change.

In addition to the large established foundations, you also have more philanthropists who are earlier in their career. And what I think is interesting is that they have the flexibility to use a number of different tactics to achieve a given moonshot. In addition to, for example, providing grants to universities and nonprofits, they could make investments in companies that they think could help achieve these moonshots.

They could build coalitions of the public and private sectors. And they could advocate for public policies both in the United States and abroad. So I think they have a particularly interesting set of opportunities.

At the United Nations General Assembly last year, Astro Teller, director of moonshots at X, talked about ways to apply moonshot thinking to the Sustainable Development Goals. I’d love your take on whether and how the SDGs provide a useful framework for moonshots.

Obviously, you not only have the SDGs at a high level, but each of the goals have indicators that could be used to help develop moonshots. For example, one of the targets of the SDGs related to ending hunger is about ending stunting and wasting for children under the age of 5.

So I see a moonshot around biofortification — identifying all of the important staple crops in those areas of the world where stunting is prevalent and figuring out how to use biofortification so that they all have iron, zinc, and vitamin A.

Another exercise that has also identified some of these moonshots is some of the Gates Foundation's work around “grand challenges.” So for example, one of the grand challenges they've identified is a universal flu vaccine. Having a flu vaccine that works for every strain of flu or most strains of flu would certainly be a game changer.

You can use not only the broad categories of SDGs but also the metrics underneath those SDGs to identify some goals that have these characteristics that I'm talking about. You would know when you were done and you can point to a scientific and technological advance that makes it more likely that we would be able to achieve these goals.

I want to make clear that I'm not saying we should take all of public and private investment that is going to global development and global health and put it into moonshots.

I think we should have a portfolio approach — In the same way that if you are running a pension fund, you might take 5% of your portfolio and you invest it in a venture capital fund, and then you have a lot of that in safer investments

So I'm not saying don't scale up interventions that have already been rigorously evaluated and have a high bang for the buck, but I think there are some areas where we really don't have a good solution, and being willing to invest a certain amount of resources in high risk, high return research makes a lot of sense.

Can you give an example of how advances in areas including social and behavioral sciences can play a role, rather than science and technology advancements that might seem more obvious, such as computer science and emerging technology?

A major problem that many developing countries face is very high levels of youth unemployment. I think one example of a moonshot would be: Could you reduce the time and cost necessary for an unemployed young person to gain a skill that is a ticket to the middle class?

That might integrate on the one hand advances in the science of learning, which is coming from fields like cognitive science and educational psychology, and the science of assessment, or how we know whether someone has actually mastered a skill that would be a good predictor of on the job performance.

But you can also imagine computer science playing a role. So for example, we know that it's always better to learn by doing as opposed to watching someone else do something. One could imagine creating interactive simulations that are good predictors of whether someone is going to master a particular skill that is the ticket to the middle class.

One really important idea is to figure out whether there are technological approaches that can democratize the process of science, technology, and innovation itself. I’ll give you some examples of things we’re doing in order to be able to support that.

Together with the Moore Foundation, we’ve been supporting a series of investments in low-cost scientific tools.

If you look at traditional funding agencies in the federal government, what they have focused on is: How do we increase the power of scientific instruments so that we can answer questions we weren’t previously able to answer? For example, they worked on the development of a very expensive electron microscope that allows you to see individual atoms.

We’re supporting a researcher at Stanford whose name is Manu Prakash who has developed a $3 microscope. He also has ideas for lower cost microscopes that could be used for the diagnosis of tuberculosis and malaria that would be open source so people could modify them to repurpose them to respond to local needs.

There are certainly certain circumstances in which having the top researchers and entrepreneurs work on a developing country problem can have large payoffs, but I also think there is value in democratizing these tools so that people can also solve local problems that we may not even be aware of.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.