Ep #58 – Safi Bahcall, the art of the Loonshot
Season 1, Ep. 58
Imagine getting a call from Barack Obama. In and of itself, that doesn’t sound like a usual day at the office. But beyond that, imagine getting a call from then-President Barack Obama asking you to work on the US Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. A team of individuals who role it is to advise the office of the President on the scientific and technological issues requiring attention the highest levels of Governemnet.

If you’re a second-generation physicist, son of two astrophysicists and a biotech entrepreneur working on a cure for cancer – when that call comes – you vaguely consider faking the flu – and then jump straight in with both feet.

This was the position that my guest today found themselves in. Luckily for Safi Bahcall, working on what he calls ‘loonshots’ is in his blood. Having already become fascinated – for very personal reasons that we’ll get into – with what (all too often) makes good teams kill great ideas. Safi started to research some of the great ideas that have already influenced the course of humanity – and what he found was surprising.

Thanks to NASA, we’re trained to think that the key to innovation is to aim for moonshots – seemingly huge audacious goals. However – what he found – was that it wasn’t in fact moonshots that created the first long distance phone call, or that created the technology that helped the Allies to win the second world war – it was something else. Something he now calls – a loonshot.

Safi studied at Harvard and received his PhD in physics from Stanford. He was also a Miller Fellow in physics at UC Berkeley and worked as a consultant with McKinsey. Having co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He then also went on to lead its IPO and serve as its CEO for 13 years. To add to that extraordinary list of accolades – he is now also the author of a book you have to check out – Loonshots – How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries’.

This interview was one of my favorite types – the type that goes far and wide, fusing a variety of different worlds – in order to create an altogether new perspective on an important topic. Some of those threads included:

The real difference between a moonshot and a loonshot (and the fascinating history behind the concept of moonshots)
Why understanding the molecular structure of water – at exactly 32 degrees Fareinheight – is pivotal to structuring teams that aren’t afraid to take important risks
How the traditional viewpoint ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ should be replaced with ‘structure eats culture for lunch’
Why every organisation that requires innovation as it’s lifeblood – in that read every organisation – needs to have an Chief Incentives Officer
How to love your artists and soldiers equally in order to effectively fill the gap between innovation and execution – this one huge for me…
And finally – why any type of innovative ‘loonshot’ thinking requires mental space – and one of the best tools I have comes across in a long time to quiet the never ending mental chatter of your mind

If you ask Safi his greatest weapon in attempting to achieve the impossible – he will tell you it’s curiosity. Curiosity that came from having astrophysicists for parents. Curiosity that took him from consulting to the United States military, to starting his own Biotech company to cure the greatest health issue of our time – and that it’s this curiosity that’s at the heart of anyone that’s ever been crazy enough to attempt a loonshot.

So – get curious. Sit back, strap in – and join me for an epic fusion of the unexpected, at the surface unrelated, but utterly compelling ideas – of Safi Bahcall.