From the outside, it may look like Esther Dyson is used to predicting the future. As an angel investor, entrepreneur, and philanthropist, Dyson's career has rested on her ability to spot the next big innovation and then to invest her time and money into the company that's making it happen. But it's not a characterisation that Dyson herself would agree with.
“I try to think long term, but I don't call myself a futurist — I'm not predicting the future, I'm trying to understand the present," she insists.
“I'm more concerned with constructing the future than predicting it, because my purpose is to change it. Rather than say, 'This is going to happen', I'm saying, 'This is how to make this other thing happen'."
These days, Dyson's focus is firmly on the healthcare and aerospace sectors, with investments in such visionary projects as Way to Wellville, XCOR, and 23andMe. HICCup, Dyson's new company, is launching a “five-year, five-metric, five-community contest" to find the U.S. community that can achieve the greatest overall improvement in health with the Way to Wellville project. Meanwhile, Dyson has also invested in genome firm 23andMe, as well as being involved with spacecraft builder XCOR, and advising the ambitious private plan to establish a colony on the Red Planet, Mars One.
Dyson is clearly interested in putting more than just money into the efforts she believes in: she also invests her time and expertise. She's well-known for having spent time training at Baikonur to be a cosmonaut, so she could be a backup crew member for Space Adventures, another firm she invests in. And her interest in genetics has led to her volunteering her own DNA for sequencing with the Personal Genome Project, as well as investing in related firms.
“I invest in things that wouldn't happen without me," she explains. “I don't mean to sound grandiose! But I don't invest in things that seem to be doing quite well without me — why bother?
“I really find it hard to predict what's going to make money, as do most investors, despite what they tell you! So I concentrate on things that I think should happen and I try to find ones that will be profitable, because if they're profitable, they will grow and be sustainable."
That instinct gave Dyson early successful investments in technology firms like Flickr, which sold to Yahoo! in 2005; Medscape, which is now part of WebMD; and Meetup, the social network that gets folks with a common interest together in real life and boasts over 22 million members in 180 countries. But her main project today is very different.
Healthcare project Way to Wellville is not interested in exciting new technologies and innovations in medicine; rather, it's hoping to apply well-known principles to preventative healthcare, improving the lives and lifestyles of people with investment in their local communities.
“I wasn't trying to be strategic — I was trying to deal with a problem that I had become increasingly aware of, which is that we spend so much money fixing people who are sick when we could be spending a lot less money and being so much more effective keeping them healthy," Dyson said.
“In the U.S. especially, the environment people grow up in makes it very difficult to be healthy, it almost fosters illness. It's just crazy. It's as if we spent all our budgets on repairing cars instead of servicing them and giving them oil regularly and so on."
The project is giving five small U.S. communities five years to come up with ways to improve the basic lifestyles of people in terms of healthy food, exercise, and less stressful living. The difficulty for most people is that even when they know what's good for them — fruits and veggies and regular exercise — it may not be that easy for them to access or afford it.
“It's not just preventative healthcare, it's stuff that doesn't happen like access to transportation, exercise facilities, the availability of healthy food when you go shopping. You can be educated and know what you should eat, but if you can't find it in the store, what are you to do?" asks Dyson.
By keeping the project to smaller communities, those with fewer than 100,000 citizens, Dyson hopes to come up with a blueprint that communities all over the world can implement. This is the sort of innovation that Dyson sees as creating the future, and a very similar theme of common sense runs through her aerospace investments.
Her top priority in that industry right now is XCOR, a private spaceflight and rocket engine firm that hopes, like SpaceX and others, to make travelling out of our atmosphere a cheaper, more accessible, and more reliable prospect.
“We have a beautifully designed spacecraft at XCOR, which I'm on the board of, but at the same time, we're not trying to make something bigger or incredibly fancy. The main thing that distinguishes it is that it's extremely reliable, low cost, and you can fly it several times a day," she explains.
Affordable space exploration isn't just a goal because of the scientific experiments it facilitates, such as zero-gravity research, but also because Dyson does see a future where it may be necessary to leave our planet behind.
“We really need a backup planet. That might sound humorous, and I hope it is humorous and completely unnecessary, but the reality is there is a nonzero chance that the Earth will become uninhabitable for some reason or another — so a backup would be helpful," she says.
Dyson may not see herself as a futurist, but her investments show a visionary approach to solving the problems of our present and striving for a better future. And she will admit to seeing some technological innovations as key to that future.
“3D printing is really going to change logistics. In its own way, it's sort of like the railroad: it changes how the world will be arranged physically. Like if instead of sending garbage to the dump, you can use it locally to produce new things. Or if you're trying to go to Mars, you can bring one hunk of metal and use it to make all kinds of different tools," she says.
Looking at the problems of the present to analyse and construct the future has made Dyson a canny investor, but it also puts her on the same list as tech billionaires like Elon Musk and Bill Gates, whose business and charitable ventures are as much about passion and personal investment as they are about logic and sound financial planning.