Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries by Safi Bahcall

Summary and takeaways from the book.

Loonshot: A neglected project, widely dismissed, its champion written off as unhinged.

The book is about "How to nurture crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases, and transform industries".

ISBN: 978-1250185969
Published: March 19, 2019
Pages: 368
Available on: amazon

Safi Bahcall is a second-generation physicist, a biotech entrepreneur, and former public-company CEO.

He got his PhD in physics from Stanford, co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer, named EY New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year, and worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors (PCAST) on the future of national research. Safi advises CEOs and leadership teams on strategy and innovation. Read more about him here.

Loonshot: A project or idea so impossible, only a fool(loon) will attempt it.

The book is about "How to nurture crazy ideas that win wars, cure diseases, and transform industries".

"In the high-stakes competition between weapons and counterweapons, the weak link was not the supply of new ideas. It was the transfer of those ideas to the field".

The book is about how to turn seemingly impossible, world changing, ideas to reality.
"Why did the empires of China, Islam, and India miss the Scientific Revolution despite their wealth and historical advantages?

For the same reason that Microsoft missed mobile, Merck missed protein drugs, and the film Majors missed My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Loonshots flourish in loonshot nurseries, not in empires devoted to franchises

"The Chinese and Mughal emperors discovered the same lesson that surprised so many of their industrial descendants centuries later: missing loonshots can be fatal".

"Not to be missed by anyone who wants to understand how ideas change the world"

- Daniel Kahneman, winner of the Nobel Prize, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Why nurturing loonshots matters?

Why nurture a project or idea so impossible, only a fool(loon) will attempt it?

It is because such crazy ideas gave us gunpowder, magnetic compass, paper, radar, radar bomb, anti-cholesterol drug statins, mobile phones, app stores and more.

It is not just products, but business and military strategies thought impossible loonshots that changed the world. Author gives examples of trans-pacific airlines that offered first flights between USA and Asia.
Seemingly impossible ideas once implemented can transform a business, culture, region, military, war, people's lives, and history.

Similarly, ignoring seemingly impossible ideas can send people, regions, cultures, nations, armies, and kingdoms to the backwaters of history.

Why Western Europe and USA did much better at nurturing loonshots than India, China and the Islamic world?

This is the Needham's question - named after English biochemist Joseph Needham(1900-95). "Needham’s question—why Europe, and not China or India or anywhere else for that matter" had developed science and technology, and adopted its use in business, everyday life, and military.

Needham wrote: "Francis Bacon had selected four inventions, paper and printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass, which had done more than (anything else), he thought, to transform completely the modern world and mark it off from the antiquity of the Middle Ages. He regarded the origins of these inventions as ‘obscure and inglorious’ and he died without ever knowing that all of them were Chinese".

"A continuing general and scientific progress manifested itself in traditional Chinese society but this was violently overtaken by the exponential growth of modern science after the Renaissance in Europe".

"The tiny nation-states of Western Europe, particularly England, rode that loonshot to global dominance—the principal reason the global language of business today is English rather than Chinese, Arabic, or Hindi".
"The Chinese and Mughal emperors discovered the same lesson that surprised so many of their industrial descendants centuries later: missing loonshots can be fatal".

In medieval China, "Chinese leaders outgrew their interest in easily dismissed crazy ideas. The motion of planets, for example, or the properties of gases. Loonshots.

When the British approached China to expand trade in the eighteenth century, the Qianlong emperor wrote to King George III, 'There is nothing we lack. We have never set much store on strange or ingenious objects, nor do we need any more of your country's manufactures

"Not long after, one of those strange and ingenious ideas arrived off the coast of China, powering the British ship Nemesis. Within weeks, the British fleet destroyed the old and outdated wooden sailing junks of the Chinese navy. The Chinese empire never recovered. David’s slingshot was the steam engine".

Nurturing loonshots

"In the real world, ideas are ridiculed, experiments fail, budgets are cut, and good people are fired for stupid reasons. Companies fall apart and their best projects remain buried, sometimes forever".
"failing to understand the surprising fragility of the loonshot—assuming that the best ideas will blast through barriers, fueled by the power of their brilliance—can be a very expensive mistake".

Good ideas do not just rise to the surface and become successful on their own. It requires a lot of work, support, and organization.

Good ideas, even seemingly impossible loonshots, have to be nurtured.
In ancient China and India, "Political battles, and the emperor’s own prejudices, would regularly override the conclusions of the early 'scientists'".

"The Song emperor failed to quarantine his loonshot group (phase separation) and maintain the balance between loonshots and franchises (equilibrium). In other words, he failed to do exactly what Vannevar Bush set out to do during World War II".
Most Emperors, Generals, CEO's, funders, senior administrators, bankers etc do not have required skills, knowledge, or vision or foresight to recognize or nurture loonshots.

They only handle simpler tasks - what author calls 'franchises'.
"England did one thing quite differently—much better than its neighbors, which set it up to be luckier than its neighbors. England established the earliest example of a successful loonshot nursery inside one country".

"The Royal Society of London, created in 1660, brought together nearly all the founders of modern science in England, including Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton. It famously played a crucial role in helping and inspiring Newton. Without the Royal Society, as one historian noted, It is doubtful that... there would ever have been a Principia. In other words, what we know today as Newton’s laws most likely would go by some other name—or names".

"The Royal Society of London; Vannevar Bush’s wartime loonshot nursery, the OSRD; and Theodore Vail’s Bell Labs—all three had something in common. They were the greatest loonshot nurseries of their time. They were, arguably, the three greatest loonshot nurseries in history. They produced the Scientific Revolution, victory in a world war, and the transistor".

"Why did the empires of China, Islam, and India miss the Scientific Revolution despite their wealth and historical advantages? For the same reason that Microsoft missed mobile, Merck missed protein drugs, and the film Majors missed My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Loonshots flourish in loonshot nurseries, not in empires devoted to franchises.

Being good at loonshots and good at franchises are phases of an organization—whether that organization is a team, a company, or a nation. That’s what the science of emergence tells us


The book tells story of Vannevar Bush(no relation to President Bush) in the period before Second World War.

"Despite the growing threat from fascism in Europe and Asia, the armed services in 1936 cut funds for research on new technologies to one-twentieth the cost of one battleship. An Army memo explained that the only force that mattered was “the infantry with rifle and bayonet.” Bush warned of a growing technology gap with Germany. But little had changed since his experience in New London. Generals had no interest in the views of 'damn professors', their term for civilian scientists".

"Bush and a handful of other scientific leaders—including James Conant, a chemist and the president of Harvard University—believed war was coming and the US was dangerously unprepared. Both had witnessed the tendency of generals to fight a war with the weapons and tactics of the preceding war. They understood that the same mistake this time—facing a much greater German threat—could be fatal".

"Ordinary conditions did not apply in 1938. The generals really would need munitions built at an unprecedented rate, troops and supplies distributed across four continents, and millions of soldiers directed in battle. But the military would also need to win Churchill’s secret war: the race to create technologies that did not yet exist. To survive, the country needed both".

To survive, a country or group of people, or corporations need best of both: taking new ideas to completion, as well as conventional approach well executed. The author calls them 'artists'/creatives/inventors/visionaries and 'soldiers'. We need both.

"Which is why Bush didn’t try to change military culture. A different kind of pressure is required. So Bush created a new structure".

"Bush proposed that FDR authorize a new science and technology group within the federal government, to be led by Bush, reporting directly to the president".

"FDR listened, read Bush’s proposal—four short paragraphs in the middle of one piece of paper—and signed it 'OK—FDR'. The meeting lasted all of ten minutes".

"Bush’s new organization, eventually called the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), would create the opportunity Bush sought for scientists, engineers, and inventors at universities and private labs to explore the bizarre".
"It would be a national department of loonshots, seeding and sheltering promising but fragile ideas across the country".

"The group would develop the unproven technologies the military was unwilling to fund. It would be led by a damn professor".

"The military and its supporters, as expected, objected. They told Bush his new group 'was an end run', a grab by which a small company of scientists and engineers, acting outside established channels, got hold of the authority and money for the program of developing new weapons".

"Bush’s answer: 'That, in fact, is exactly what it was'".
"But at the same time, he explained their goal was more than clever ideas.

Their goal was products that worked.

When interviewing new scientists for his team, he would pose a challenge:

'You are about to land at dead of night in a rubber raft on a German-held coast. Your mission is to destroy a vital enemy wireless installation that is defended by armed guards, dogs, and searchlights. You can have with you any weapon you can imagine. Describe that weapon'.

Scientists got the message. Being practical was a matter of life or death

Structure matters more than culture

The structure people work under is more important than culture or motivation.

"Entrepreneurs, for example, often say that big companies fail because big-corporate types are conservative and risk-averse. The most exciting ideas come from small companies, because—we tell ourselves—we are the truly passionate risk-takers.

But put that big-corporate type in a startup, and the tie will come off and he’ll be pounding the table supporting some wild idea.

The same person can act like a project-killing conservative in one context and a flag-waving entrepreneur in another

"the need for separating and sheltering radical ideas—the need for a department of loonshots run by loons, free to explore the bizarre".

"big ideas—the breakthroughs that change the course of science, business, and history—fail many times before they succeed.

Sometimes they survive through the force of exceptional skill and personality. Sometimes they survive through sheer chance.

In other words, the breakthroughs that change our world are born from the marriage of genius and serendipity.

The magic of Bush and Vail was in engineering the forces of genius and serendipity to work for them rather than against them
Put the right structure/organization in place where loonshot ideas can be explored, nurtured, tested, and then sent for use.

This structure/organization is as/more(?) important as building right culture or searching for 'right' people.

Although the author does not explicitly mention this, this structure/organization is different from institutions. An institution may or may not have separate internal or external structure/organization for loonshots. In the same way, the structure/organization for loonshots may or may not be part of any institutions. There is no relation between the two.

Role of a leader

"It would be fully as accurate to call me a child psychologist" - Vannevar Bush.

"Bush, although a brilliant inventor and engineer, pointedly stayed out of the details of any one loonshot. 'I made no technical contribution whatever to the war effort,' he wrote. 'Not a single technical idea of mine ever amounted to shucks'".

Role of a leader is to "Manage the transfer, not the technology". Leader manages what the author calls the "dynamic equilibrium" - the feedback, communication, and transfer of ideas between visionaries and regular soldiers.

"Vail similarly stayed out of the details of the technical program. Both Bush and Vail saw their jobs as managing the touch and the balance between loonshots and franchises—between scientists exploring the bizarre and soldiers assembling munitions; between the blue-sky research of Bell Labs and the daily grind of telephone operations. Rather than dive deep into one or the other, they focused on the transfer between the two".

"As mentioned earlier, in the chain of creating a breakthrough, the transfer between the two sides is the weakest link. Scientists may pay little attention to soldiers or marketers. Soldiers and suits may dismiss the babble of nerds. Bush and Vail zeroed in on that link.

A radar detection device buried in a building full of physicists would sink no U-boats. A tiny switch made from semiconductors buried in Bell Labs would remain a curiosity rather than grow into the transistor, the invention of the century

"A flawed transfer from inventors to the field is not the only danger. Transfer in the other direction is equally important.

No product works perfectly the first time. If feedback from the field is ignored by inventors, initial enthusiasm can rapidly fade, and a promising program will be dropped.

Early aircraft radar, for example, was practically useless; pilots ignored it. Bush made sure that pilots went back to the scientists and explained why they weren’t using it. The reason had nothing to do with the technology: pilots in the heat of battle didn’t have time to fiddle with the complicated switches on the early radar boxes. The user interface was lousy. Scientists quickly created a custom display technology—the sweeping line and moving dots now called a PPI display. Pilots started using radar
"in the chain of creating a breakthrough, the transfer between the two sides is the weakest link".

This is the critical job of the leader - to facilitate transfer, communication, and feedback of ideas/product/technology between the visionaries/engineers/artists/creatives and the soldiers/manufacturers/users who use it.

Rules for nurturing loonshots

Separate your artists and soldiers(phase separation): "People responsible for developing high-risk, early-stage ideas (call them 'artists') need to be sheltered from the 'soldiers' responsible for the already-successful, steady-growth part of an organization. Early-stage projects are fragile.

Although military officers became avid for a new development once it had thoroughly proved itself in the field, Bush wrote, they dismissed any weapon 'in embryo'—as they did with radar, with the DUKW truck, and with nearly every early innovation, which almost always arrives covered in warts.

Without a strong cocoon to protect those early-stage ideas, they will be shut down or buried, like Young and Taylor’s early discovery of radar

"Leaders of powerful franchises across every industry routinely dismiss early-stage projects by picking at their warts".

"The goal of phase separation is to create a loonshot nursery. The nursery protects those embryonic projects. It allows caregivers to design a sheltered environment where those projects can grow, flourish, and shed their warts".

Tailor the tools to the phase: put in place "separate systems tailored to the needs of each phase. Efficiency systems such as Six Sigma or Total Quality Management might help franchise projects, but they will suffocate artists. Which doesn’t mean that efficiency systems have no place. Loose goals and dream sessions might help artists. But they will harm the coherence of an army".

Beware "false fail": beware false results of failure from invalid experiments. Beware early negative feedback. Carefully review early failures. Author gives examples of drug trials for new medicines and shares an anecdote that almost all successful drugs have failed trails three times: "Ah, my boy—it’s not a good drug unless it’s been killed at least three times".

Create project champions: "Fragile projects need strong hands. After Endo left Sankyo, for example, the company’s statin program withered and eventually collapsed. There was no one internally to investigate and answer False Fails, no one to protect the program from critics with other agendas who wanted its budget for their own programs. Endo was both the inventor of an idea and its skilled champion, as was Judah Folkman. But that combination is rare. It’s natural to assume that the inventor of an idea should also be its chief promoter and defender. But the best inventors do not necessarily make the best champions. The roles require different skills not often found in the same person".

"Hoyt Taylor and his team, who discovered the principles of radar in the 1920s, were good inventors. But they were lousy champions. They didn’t know how to package and promote a new idea, how to convince skeptical leaders, how to build support inside a reluctant organization".
The champion should have "the persistence of a door-to-door salesman".

"On the creative side, inventors (artists) often believe that their work should speak for itself. It is not realistic. It requires a lot to make a successful loonshots. Loonshots solve problems that are not obvious. The first solutions have 'warts' and don't always work or are not adopted. Sometimes, the first tests are 'false fails'. A champion/advocate can push this through with the 'the persistence of a door-to-door salesman'".

Listen with curiosity: "When someone challenges the project you’ve invested years in, do you defend with anger or investigate with genuine curiosity?".

Avoid getting too emotionally attached to an idea or solution as almost certainly it will need to be refined. It is rare for things to work or be understood or adopted first time.

This "means not only listening for the Suck and acknowledging receipt but also probing beneath the surface, with genuine curiosity, why something isn't working, why people are not buying. It’s hard to hear that no one likes your baby. It’s even harder to keep asking why".

* * *

The essence of this book is that to achieve the seemingly impossible loonshot, we need to create structure/organizations. This is as/more important that finding the right people with the 'right fit' or developing an organizational culture.

The structure/organization will create a separate safe space or cocoon or nursery for visionaries/creatives/artists to explore their ideas.

Phase separation: Visionaries/creatives/artists need to be protected from the regular leaders otherwise their incomplete ideas will be shunned, discouraged, ridiculed, and shut down. Division of labor is key. Let regular soldiers and regular leaders do their conventional work.

Dynamic equilibrium: These ideas would be tried in the field, and refined with the feedback till they are mature for adoption. Beware of false fails - early failures due to invalid tests.

Critical mass: loonshot group should be large enough to have what it needs to explore ideas and run experiments. Avoid the mistake US army made in 1936 before WW2 when "funds for research on new technologies to one-twentieth the cost of one battleship".

Vannevar Bush(no relation to President Bush) is credited with mobilizing scientists and engineers to work on loonshots to help USA develop technologies that won the Second World War.

"With the exorbitant costs of modern, large-scale, scientific research shifted from industry to government, previously impractical 'big science' experiments, such as the Manhattan Project, became feasible. Subsequently, this system of funding and directing scientific research through the military became known as the Pentagon system, or the military-industrial complex" - source.

He also founded the company which became Raytheon/RTX - one of the largest military contractor in the world. It was also the start of the military-industrial complex.

What are the loonshots of today? What are the seemingly impossible problems that people are working on?

Quantum computing, commercially viable nuclear fusion reactors, space colonies, commercial hypersonic travel for the masses, are the loonshot of today.

The other loonshot of today is how to create eopportunity in the Great Reset leading up to the New World Order.

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