The transcript from this week’s MiB: Safi Bahcall, Loonshots, is below.
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VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
BARRY RITHOLTZ, HOST, BLOOMBERG RADIO: This week on the podcast, I have an extra special guest. His name is Safi Bahcall and he’s the author of a fascinating book called, “Loonshots.” Not only was he on President Obama’s council on the future of technology but he has consulted for the CIA, the Navy, all sorts of organizations teaching them how to nurture innovation in institutions that normally are not very good at that sort of thing.
He’s really a fascinating guy, background in physics, ran a biotech company and along the way, picked up lots of insights into what leads to successful moon shots as projects and why so much innovation is really just smothered in the lab, smothered in the cradle when it has potential to literally change the war, the radars.
Arguably, the technology that won the war for the allies, it had been sitting in in the Navy for 18 years unused and had it not been discovered and brought forward by Vannevar Bush and other people, there’s a very real chance the global map would look totally different.
So, I think you’ll find this conversation to be absolutely fascinating. My conversation with Safi Bahcall.
VOICE-OVER: This is Masters in Business with Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg Radio.
RITHOLTZ: My extra special guest this week is Safi Bahcall. He is the former CEO and co-founder of Synta Pharmaceuticals. He served on President Obama’s Council of science advisors and he is the author of “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries.” Safi Bahcall, welcome to Bloomberg.
SAFI BAHCALL, PHYSICIST AND BIOTECH ENTREPRENEUR: Thanks, Barry. Glad to be here.
RITHOLTZ: So, you have a really fascinating background. Both your parents are physicists or astrophysicists. You eventually go to Harvard, get a degree in theoretical physics, go to Stanford for your PhD in physics, how on Earth does that lead to a career in biotech?
BAHCALL: I was in a little bit of a random walk. But I spent probably the first 29, 30 years of my life on a university and — because my parents were physicists. We grew up in Princeton and then I was in college and then grad school and then post-doc and going to the faculty staff.
And at some point, I realized, and this might be a little shocking, that more than 99.9 percent of the people are not in the world or not theoretical physicists or mathematicians. They do stuff out there. They write papers and go to conferences and I just got curious.
RITHOLTZ: So, you started looking around. How do you go from theoretical physics to stumble into via random walk biotech?
BAHCALL: I was just curious about what is it that makes the world go around and what other people do when they’re not writing papers about mathematics or physics and I — actually, I remember, I was dating a woman at that time and she had a – she was working as a paralegal, which was real job and I’ve never been to an office and I remember asking her, could you take me in — I was in my mid-20, could you take me into this thing you call an office?
RITHOLTZ: Did it horrify you?
BAHCALL: Well, I remember she said, well, listen, I can take you on Friday happy hour. That’s when people start to stand around and can talk. And so, I came in Friday happy hour and I said, well, what should I ask, and she said, well, look, are you happy doing what you’re doing.
And I went around, it was actually a well-known law firm in Silicon Valley and I said, are you happy doing what you’re doing, and I would say pf the 25 people I asked, 25 said no. And I was like, well, that probably set me back another five years in the academic world.
But I just got very curious. And so, I heard from another physicist friend who had gone into consulting world and they had sort of — they’d helped me transition. They kind of …
RITHOLTZ: From academia to a business.
BAHCALL: Yes. So, I went to a consulting firm in New York called McKinsey …
BAHCALL: … and it’s …
RITHOLTZ: (Inaudible) company, always in the news.
BAHCALL: Yes. In the news a lot lately. And it’s kind of like a halfway house for academics. It’s sort of like they don’t want to let you lose on the real world and they sort of coach you on the skills you need to survive, how to speak to people, how to work on teams, how to solve real problems.
And so, that’s how I got a sense of kind of how the real world works. And then I got a taste for wanting to do something, build something, and also bigger than myself, bigger than your own career or your own papers or your own ideas, and bigger than just advising companies.
I had friends whose parents were getting sick, I was going through some illness in my own family and I thought how motivating would it be if when I woke up in the morning, I was working on something that could give people on Earth more time with their loved ones. And it’s just an incredibly exciting and fun way to work.
So, some part of that is you want to do some good but some part of that is selfish. It’s a great way to motivate yourself and others.
RITHOLTZ: So, that’s really fascinating. So, you decide you want to participate in something more than just a narrow little research niche that has big ramifications for friends, families, society, the whole world.
So, from ’98, you’re in McKinsey. By 2008, you’re named the Ernst & Young New England Biotech and Entrepreneur of the Year. What took place in that decade between McKinsey and winning the award?
BAHCALL: Well, a lot of learning. So, when I went to start a company, after a while, I really wanted to start something of my own and I found that I was — there was a niche, which is where a scientist I would talk to in the lab or with biologist or chemist really enjoy talking to me because I wasn’t actually one of some enemy camp. For biologist, I wasn’t a chemist. For chemist, I wasn’t a biologist. As a physicist, you’re sort of like switching.
BAHCALL: You’re neutral. And everybody is sort of intrigued and talking to you and you can ask everybody interesting questions and learn and just it’s kind of fun. And I found out that I was on the one hand good at having those discussions and getting those people fired up about a big goal. On the other hand, I was also good at talking to people in the finance community.
My mother is Israeli. I live in Tel Aviv. We grew up a little bit in Israel. And so, talking to traders and investors is not much different than walking around The Shuk in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. People are very focused on the immediate, what’s the bottom line, how was this going to help me.
And I found I could bridge those two worlds pretty well and that was actually pretty interesting and there were all these ideas that seem to be trapped in the lab that could help people and they were stuck because there was no bridge between those two worlds.
RITHOLTZ: You mentioned trapped in the lab. There’s a chapter in “Loonshots” that I love this heading, engineers of serendipity. How do people in that line of work, R&D, research, labs, why are so many great discoveries, so much fascinating innovation and discovery, why does that stay trapped in a lab?
BAHCALL: Well, you see this all over the place and we’re talking a little bit about biology and biotech or research companies. But the same thing is true in tech companies and engineering companies and product design companies, and the last few months has actually spent a lot of time with the Department of Defense, the national security organizations, all of whom have the exact same question. Why do good teams keep killing great ideas? Why are all these promising things stuck in the lab?
And part of that is there isn’t this bridge. There isn’t a bridge between those who are focused on the core on how do I improve my operations and my execution, and those who are working on the new.
And it’s because of two people there, the two types of people who work on those things speak different languages, they don’t understand each other and they often don’t like each other. I’ll give you an example.
So, I was a meeting with the admiral who’s responsible for transforming the Navy for the 21st century. And so, I was standing on a nuclear submarine about 30 feet from a nuclear engine and this is exactly what’s on their mind, what was on his mind and his team’s mind, if you are hundred miles from shore deep underwater, you don’t want to start hearing clanking noises from your nuclear engine. That’s the core. But at the same time, you don’t want to be surprised by a new kind of torpedo. That’s the new.
So, for companies, for organizations, for teams, it’s a matter of P&L. You don’t want to be surprised by your competitor. But for national security organizations, it’s a matter of life and death.
But it all comes back to that same question, how do we balance the core and the new. Why do we keep having these battles between here are these promising ideas and here are these people who are shooting them down and what can we do about it? And so, that’s behind some of the research that went to “Loonshots.”
RITHOLTZ: And “Loonshots” is all about the dichotomy between the franchisees and the innovators. We’ll continue discussing that shortly.
So, let’s talk about the early 2000s when you were launching Synta and back up a little bit, how did you meet your co-founder and partner?
BAHCALL: Well, around the time that I was getting kind of antsy as a — after a few years as a consultant, I want to do something, I knew that I wanted to work on helping get those promising ideas out of the labs into the real world. And so, I spent maybe six months, maybe a year going around the universities, academic labs where I had some connections and talking to promising scientists and one thing led to another.
I’ve encountered this guy at Harvard at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute who just was sitting on like this giant untapped mind of really interesting, really promising ideas and I thought this is a guy who would be fun to partner with. And a lot of people listened to him but just missed all the stuff that would — that he was sitting on. Not only him but people he collaborated with. So, I decided to partner with him and start a new company.
RITHOLTZ: And this Lan Bo Chen.
BAHCALL: Yes, it was Lan Bo Chen. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: So, in the book, there was a fascinating discussion about the broad approaches to looking for a drug to either cure disease or manage a disease and one approach is to work backwards. We try and figure out what the mechanism of the disease is and find something that halts that mechanism.
But there was another approach which was people have invented thousands upon thousands of different molecules. Let’s just run these molecules against all these diseases and see what they do. That seems to be his approach. Am I getting that correct?
BAHCALL: Yes. He was – I mean, there’s a combination of two. And if you actually just pick one or the other, you will do less well. So, if you start with, well, here’s how the protein works, here’s what it does in the cell and here’s what we need to get done or let’s put that on a computer, it sounds very logical. It tends to go very badly.
BAHCALL: Because people don’t realize how important serendipity is in drug discovery. Almost all of the major drugs in — the vast majority of the major breakthroughs that we have in science but especially in drug discovery, there’s always some element of serendipity because the body is so much more complex.
What works in a cell dish or what works in an academic paper that you published and submit to prestigious journal very often is completely different, sometimes, exactly the opposite of what works in a giant complex system and a very difficult environment. And so, I think what I liked about his approach and what resonated in the people that he worked with in our approach was that we did both.
We looked on the one hand for the underlying science and the rigor but on the other hand, we balanced that with an understanding of how important serendipity is and how important surprises are.
RITHOLTZ: And one of the things I found really fascinating was the approach, and this was in particular with cancer, of not just trying one thing that might work, put the disease into remission and then the disease, I don’t know if it’s evolution or just adaptation, eventually comes back because it’s figured out how to overcome whatever that obstacle is.
You write in the book about how a one, two, three, four approach, left hook, a right jab, an upper cut, throwing enough stuff at a particular disease not only knocks it out but it prevents it from adapting to whatever that therapy is. Discuss that a little bit.
BAHCALL: You can imagine it by example with the military and sort of a terrorist. Let’s say you have a city that seems to be taken over by terrorists. If you have just one approach for how you’re going to go fight those terrorists, let’s say it’s a sniper or it’s an air attack or it’s a drone attack, they will adapt.
They will figure out a way to hide. They will figure out how to evade that particular angle. And so, if you want to succeed, you need a shock attack. You need to use the Army. You need to use the Air Force. You need to use the Navy. You need to use drones. You need to use snipers. You need to use cyber.
You have all of them at once in order to completely wipe it out and it’s the same thing with cancer. Cancer is a rogue set of cells operating in your body. They’re just growing out of control.
There’s an accelerator pedal that’s stuck and so it just broke and there’s a brake pedal that holds the growth that also broke. That’s why cancer takes decades to develop. You have to have all these systems just break down whether it’s with time or because you smoke and you’re messing up the cell with the carcinogens in smoke.
It takes time to accumulate these failures and after the first brake system fails and the second brake system and the backup system fails, then this cancer cell starts growing and doubling and growing and doubling. And you can’t just attack it with just the Army or just the Navy or just the Air Force.
You need to come at it from all directions at the same time and then you have a chance. The few cancers that we’ve cured, and there’s a small handful of cancers that we’ve cured, that’s what we’ve done. It’s almost always some combination shock attack and it’s the right combination at the right time that can actually overwhelm the cancer and wipe it out.
RITHOLTZ: So, how far along is humanity in “curing”, quote-unquote, cancer which we know is 300 or so separate diseases to be found?
BAHCALL: Right. And so, the reason people in medicine or science don’t talk so much about curing cancers because it is 300 different diseases. You don’t cure diabetes at the same time as you cure heart attacks at the same time as you cure Alzheimer’s because they’re really different diseases and cancer is sort of like.
But let’s say if you call it roughly 300 different types of cancer, I mean, it’s less than 10 that we’ve made such astounding progress on. Childhood leukemias is one example where it used to be a 90, 95 percent mortality rate within six months or a year and now, it’s more like 80 or 90 percent go on to live long lives. That’s astounding.
BAHCALL: And you can see we’re not there yet with many other cancers. But for example, when I started almost 20 years ago, melanoma was a death sentence. Every time you ran a melanoma trial for probably 30 years clinical trial, the placebo arm or the standard care arm and the treatment arm would be identical.
It’s been two or three or four years. Everybody would put in all this time and it was always the same disappointing result. Now, almost at so many trials are positive. Something turned the corner.
RITHOLTZ: Why is that? Why are we now more successful with that form of cancer versus others?
BAHCALL: Well, melanoma turned out to be a type of cancer that’s very sensitive to the immune system and we still don’t know why. There’s a lot of theories but it happens to be one of not many but a small number of cancer types and it may be because it’s near the skin and the skin is so sensitive to the immune system. There’s a lot of immune cells there because when something lands on your skin, you …
RITHOLTZ: Or you’re cut. Sure.
BAHCALL: You had a cut that the immune system rushes over. So, it may be that melanoma is a special case. But in it, what was fantastic is when maybe seven, eight, nine years ago, the first trials started showing dramatic effect. It’s not a cure but we are so much better.
In that disease, there was a lot of serendipity there. Like even the work on the immune system, that’s 100-year-old idea. People noticed that a long time ago that sometimes when the immune system is activated, cancers go away.
You sneeze on people. If you just — if your treatment is, hey, let’s just to sneeze on these cancer patients, right, five out of 100 or 10 out of 100 might have complete remissions of their disease (ph).
RITHOLTZ: Really. That’s amazing.
BAHCALL: People knew that. People knew that. They knew that actually 50, 60 years ago from the clinics for tuberculosis. We don’t have those anymore, these clinics people with tuberculosis used to get sent to.
But people with melanoma and would go to these tuberculosis clinics, a surprisingly high percentage of them, their cancers would disappear and that’s because they were like fighting this infection and the immune system was activated.
So, we still don’t understand the signs of that. But you said, how far are we, we’re at the beginning of the exponential curve. What’s happened is about 15 or 20 years ago, we got the tools, we sequenced the genome and the biotechnology kind of revolution of 20, 30 years ago that allowed us to grow proteins in the lab and make this a commercial scale, created a new set of tools and we’re just starting.
It’s really just the beginning of using those amazing tools to do things. Like one of those things is getting the immune system to fight tumors. And like I said, there was about a hundred years of trying to do that and none of the standard approaches worked.
And then no one exactly knows why, someone tried it at slightly different angle. Let’s target this protein, not that immune protein. Boom. It worked. And it wasn’t even the original protein that the scientists had been thinking about would be the key to it all for many, many years, even the scientists who won the Nobel Prize, they thought it would be this other thing that would be the key. It turns out it was this thing and nobody knew.
So, there’s so much — it’s really the combination of strong science and an appreciation of serendipity. When you can put those two things together, the magic can happen.
RITHOLTZ: So, taking where we are on that J curve, starting that ramp-up of the hockey stick.
RITHOLTZ: Is it a fair question to ask what we see cancer the emperor of maladies, to borrow the book title, cured in our lifetime?
BAHCALL: I think we will see certain cancers. We’ve seen three or four or five go well beyond 90 percent of people who were diagnosed with it had more than five or sometimes more than 10-year survival.
So, by any reasonable definition, you could call that a cure and slowly, we’re getting better and better. The survival times in melanoma have gotten longer and longer.
Multiple myeloma 20 years ago, that was a death sentence. There was nothing. And then in an almost serendipitous event, there was a woman here in New York who was 31 who called a doctor that IHA used to work with in Boston, Judah Folkman who had this kind of wild crazy idea. Hey, let’s fight tumors by blocking blood vessels to the tumors. And everybody thought that was the dumbest idea they’ve ever heard.
RITHOLTZ: Really? Anti-angiogenesis.
BAHCALL: Exactly. At that time, everybody knew that the only way to fight tumors was to bomb them with — poison them with chemotherapy like a giant bomb or burn them with radiation. The idea that with these subtle signals, the tumors were like homes and they were laying down pipes, if you could block those pipes, you could slow the growth of those homes.
That was considered radical. Judah was asked to — there was a special committee at his hospital that was asked to evaluate his work because it was so controversial and it said, well, we don’t think there’s any value here, you need to resign.
BAHCALL: Stop what you’re doing.
RITHOLTZ: That’s astonishing.
RITHOLTZ: And how did that progress from there?
BAHCALL: Well, he was — I remember, he was talking less to some postdocs, some student who said it was like, I’m really depressed, my paper was rejected, and he said to her, well, if you want to understand rejection, come to my office. I will show you pink slips with the word clown on it. Right.
Thirty years after he first suggested his idea, on a stage in Chicago, a guy got up, a scientist got up with packed auditorium to present the data from the largest study ever run to that date in patients with advanced colon cancer. Pressed the button, flipped the slide, patients who had received the drug based on Judah’s ideas lived longer on average than anyone had ever lived with advanced colon cancer.
It was like a standing ovation. This was 32 years after Judah first suggested his ideas. It was a standing ovation. I remember the speaker said something like, if only Dr. Folkman were alive to see this.
And Judah was actually sitting in the back and turned to his neighbor and smiled and …
RITHOLTZ: Didn’t raise his hand and say, still here?
BAHCALL: I’m still here. No. But he just there and he love telling that story. But it’s an example of all — these ideas that are dismissed as crazy and so many things that we take for granted today.
Even Facebook, if — remember, when Zuckerberg was going around to raise money for it in 2004, every social network failed. MySpace was just failing.
BAHCALL: Friendster — well, MySpace and Friendster were just failing and every — almost all the intelligent investors said, well, there’s no money. Social networks can’t make any money because they’re just fads. Everybody goes to the next one. Well …
RITHOLTZ: It would be cool.
BAHCALL: Well, they were — well, one investor took a look at that and he said, well, is that really true? That was Peter Thiel and he wrote $500,000 check and sold it eight years later for $1 billion.
RITHOLTZ: Not a bad return.
BAHCALL: But it was the same thing with so many of these things, search. Everybody said, you’re crazy, you can’t make any money.
RITHOLTZ: Who’s Googled the 27th search company?
BAHCALL: It’s the 27th — and everybody said, you can’t make any money. It’s just like Yellow Pages. There’s no money in Yellow Pages. Come on, give this a break.
RITHOLTZ: One of my favorite books is William Goldman’s “Adventures in Screenwriting” and he talks about nobody knows anything in Hollywood and the list of movies that were passed over by every studio from “E.T.” to “Star Wars” to “Raiders of the Lost — like one amazing movie after another, nobody wanted anything to do with it.
BAHCALL: One of my favorites is the James Bond story. Ian Fleming, when he wrote this, he wrote this book that became reasonably popular but not a huge success, he really wanted that kind of life that — the James Bond life and every studio, nine years, just said, are you kidding? A metrosexual British spy who saves the world. No American audience is going to go for that.
And he finally kind of gave up, gave it to these two sort of not very reputable producers and they — the studio that finally took it had so little confidence and said, who’s this actor in here who used to drive a milk truck, he’s been in like two movies, his name is Sean what, Connery what? No way. No one’s going to — they opened it in two drive-in studios in Texas and Oklahoma and, of course, it became the most successful longest-running film franchise in history.
So, most of these things that we take for granted today began life as illusion and one of the things, one of the lessons that you learn when you work on these things is you need to expect the three deaths, the deaths that they will die several times.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating. Let’s talk a little bit about life at a pharmaceutical company or a biotech company. You mentioned how often things are overlooked, how many times drugs and ideas and concepts have to fail, how frustrating is it for researchers to constantly be dealing with failure?
It’s worse than being a hitter in baseball. If you hit 300 in pharmaceuticals, that’s crazy. It’s like a 98 percent failure rate, isn’t it?
BAHCALL: That’s right. It’s very — it’s a combination of two things. On the one hand, there’s this enormous motivation because everybody has someone who is touched by a severe disease and the idea that you’re working every day to make a difference, the idea if something you do contributes to people, anybody who’s lost a family member or loved one, how much do they wish they had more time with them.
RITHOLTZ: Right. And that’s pretty much everybody.
BAHCALL: And that’s pretty much …
RITHOLTZ: If you lived long enough, you will lose …
BAHCALL: You will.
RITHOLTZ: … close friends and families.
BAHCALL: And that’s what we can do and that’s what we’re on the cusp of doing with science and with medicine. So, being part of that is incredibly exciting. It’s — the advantage of it is it’s unlike almost any other industry or field because you feel like you could do something that just affects millions if you do it well.
The flipside of that is as you say the failure rate is astounding, 90 percent of drugs that start clinical trials won’t make it to the end. And so, you just have to accept that there’s the benefits and there’s the cost. It’s that there’s a very high failure rate.
RITHOLTZ: Was it Ichiro Endo who said it’s not a good drug unless it’s being killed three times, is that right?
BAHCALL: I was actually — we had an adviser, a guy named Jim Black, Sir James Black who won the Nobel Prize for developing two of the most important drugs — drug categories in the 20th century, beta blockers and histamine antagonist.
Anyway, he was in his 80s when I got introduced and he loved what we were doing in this little biotech company. It reminded him, I guess, of how he went his approach and philosophy to discover new drugs.
And he would fly over from Scotland every now and then and meet with our team and advise us. And I remember, one night, he came, it was like 8 a.m. It was like 7 p.m., we sent anybody home for dinner. We went to dinner and then it was like nine or 10 p.m., everybody went and I was like exhausted.
And he was like, Safi, Safi, stay with me and have another drink, have some whiskey, and I was like, how does this 82-year-old guy fly 3,000 miles, talk all day long. So, I — we start chatting and I tell him on, I’m feeling kind of down because it’s very promising project we had in the lab. I was really excited about it and it just like didn’t work, negative data.
And he leans over to me, pats my knee and says, Safi, it’s not a good drug unless it’s been killed three times. And that stayed with me and I mentioned sort of earlier, expect the three deaths, and that’s what you see so often with really promising ideas that you need to expect the fact that you’re going to get punches in the stomach many times, maybe three times, maybe it’s four times, maybe it’s 10 times. If it’s a really important idea, it will have those big punches in the stomach.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s talk about something that was punched repeatedly, Elesclomol.
BAHCALL: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: So, tell us about that drug, how was that molecule uncovered and how did it actually work to arrest certain cancers.
BAHCALL: Well, I wish it had a better ending. So, it had some very promising early data like a lot of drugs and then on later stage trials, it didn’t work like a lot of drugs.
And so, it sounds like a great story. What was exciting about it is that it did uncover a totally new mechanism.
RITHOLTZ: Which was what?
BAHCALL: So, it targets the way cancer cells breathe. So, it targets and fire …
RITHOLTZ: When you say breathe, you mean consume oxygen.
BAHCALL: Consume oxygen. So, the mitochondria. So, it specifically went into the mitochondria and specifically targeted a part of the mitochondria in a very unusual way.
RITHOLTZ: Copper, is that right?
BAHCALL: Exactly. And it did so in a way that nobody had ever thought about doing before and we found it because it was a screen, meaning you take this library of chemicals and you don’t — they’re really unusual structures and we happened to, through all sorts of long back stories, have a collection of chemical structures that nobody else had.
RITHOLTZ: Your partner was funded by Michael Milken and he went out and bought thousands of drugs from all around the world, including Soviet Russia.
BAHCALL: Exactly. And so, in fact …
RITHOLTZ: That’s a fascinating story. Milken gets colon cancer, writes a $4 million check to your partner who says, I know, there are all these chemicals in labs at that nobody is doing with, send me some files from the Soviet Union.
BAHCALL: That’s exactly what happened. This was actually a Russian military lab and they were just collecting soil samples and they — at that time, 20, 30 — well, 30 years ago, people didn’t really think about what’s the value of having these unknown uncategorized chemical structures.
Today, we understand that just the pure science, logical, deductive, reductionist reasoning of here’s a protein and here’s what it looks like and let’s target it on the computer or something, just misses a ton.
BAHCALL: And sometimes having a random soil sample that somebody picked up can contain something that you never expected.
RITHOLTZ: I think your partner described that chemical as something some engineer or some chemist made in the lab for fun and then put away and never thought of again.
BAHCALL: That’s right. And so, many of these discoveries kind of begin like that. And so, then this is where you allow room for serendipity. You say, let’s just take what we have and see what happens.
And then we saw this signal from this molecule, which was really surprising. Nobody expected to see this strong signal in the lab in a cell culture dish that this molecule acted in this unusual way. And we said, well, why is he doing that?
We actually couldn’t figure it out. It took almost 20 years …
BAHCALL: … to understand how it was working and while that made sound sort of surprising today because today there’s this idea that you should be able to understand everything right away and that’s actually the reverse. That actually is a very bad idea that can really hurt innovation and create …
RITHOLTZ: Get the solution first, figure out why it works later.
BAHCALL: Almost so many of the drugs we used like even the — almost everything people use in the brain whether it’s antidepressants or anesthetics, they were discovered by accident and they took sometimes 100 years.
BAHCALL: Even aspirin. Nobody knew how that work, probably for close to 100 years. So, anesthesia was discovered because there was some young guy in the lab who had a chemical and he kind of put it on his finger and he put it on his tongue, which you don’t do anymore …
BAHCALL: … and then his tongue went numb and he was like, that’s weird, and then he kind of explored that and that became like one of the major classes of anesthetics.
RITHOLTZ: Wait, we don’t just stick — we don’t just lick new chemicals to see what result is.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a bad practice generally speaking.
BAHCALL: Yes. Generally, you don’t lick the culture dish in the lab.
RITHOLTZ: Probably a smart approach. That’s quite fascinating. And to wrap up Elesclomol, somehow the copper gets into the nucleus of the cancer cell and essentially burns it.
BAHCALL: It blocks the mitochondria from firing. So, it basically messes up the battery of — which is sort of the breathing engine or the battery, the mitochondria, of a cancer cell. It took 20 years to understand how that really works.
RITHOLTZ: So, one would think that might be effective at fighting cancer.
BAHCALL: Yes. And so, we ran a couple of clinical trials and some work and unfortunately, the large one that we did in metastatic melanoma didn’t work. So, we had to halt development on that drug.
Now, I understand that this is now 10 or 15 years later, there are still people studying and in fact, they’re paper is coming out on it. So, may be someone will pick it up in the future and use either the understanding of the science, this is a new way to target cancer drugs, or that kind of molecule or related molecules in the future.
But what we did was a first step. We uncovered a new way to kind of block the battery of the cancer cell, which really hadn’t been talked about much before.
RITHOLTZ: And to wrap up with Synta, you left since — after 13 years. The company had gone IPO. What is the state of Synta today?
BAHCALL: Synta merged with another company. It’s publicly traded. There’s a different management team and board. And so, it’s going strong. It moved to NASH, a different disease, a different therapeutic area.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating. I found the book to be very fascinating. It was a really interesting read. But one of the themes that keeps recurring is the ongoing battle in institutions between the franchisors and the innovators. Explain that.
BAHCALL: Sure. You can think of whenever you organize people into a group with a mission and a reward system tied to that mission, you have just created two different kind of what you can think of as phases of human organization and it’s the same thing as whenever you — this will sound crazy but like this glass of water that’s sitting in front of me, whenever you put molecules together, they can exist in two phases. One is liquid where they’re all slushing around and one is solid where they’re totally rigid.
But it’s exactly the same molecules. Behaviors are totally different. And the same thing is true with teams and companies. You can have the same people organized into a group with a mission and reward system tied to that mission and you will find there are two different phases.
There’s one, let’s say a small company, 10 people, in that phase, everybody’s stake in the outcome is huge and they will unite around the crazy ideas and when they stumble, they’ll go and rescue them.
The perks of rank, which is sort of the other force that is pulling at them, is tiny compared to that incredible stake in the outcomes, their drug or their movie project works at the 10-person company. They’re going to be heroes and millionaires forever but doesn’t — they’re unemployed.
Now, imagine the same people inside a much larger company, 10,000, 50,000 people, well, their stake in the outcome of what they’re working is much less, but the perks of rank are much more.
So, these two forces have shifted. Just like in a glass of water, there are two forces, one that wants to make molecules run around and one that wants to lock them rigidly in place. In the case of glass of water, as you rotate temperature, you change between these two things.
And in companies, as you increase team size, increase group size, increase company size, you change between these behaviors of nurturing crazy ideas and rejecting them and to focus on execution and what works well in the committees. And so, many entrepreneurs who have these five-person companies would grow to 50 to 500, 5,000 and they come to me like, that’s exactly what happened.
Conversation in the hallway five years ago, 10 — when we were much smaller was all about the project. Today, conversations in the hallway are about politics and there’s a sudden shift, the glass of water has gone from liquid to solid.
And while that sounds like an analogy, what makes it genuinely interesting is that you can write that down from first principles. You could look at people’s incentives, you can write down an equation for their incentives, and you can see when that shift will happen. And once you understand that just like with a glass of water, you can begin to manage.
RITHOLTZ: So, let’s talk about how to manage that and the solution you have written about is to take the wild ideas, the loonshots, and put them in a separate organization apart from the franchises.
So, my favorite example in the book is radar, a technology that I think the Navy had sometime in the — after World War I and it just sat there for a decade or longer.
RITHOLTZ: Tell us about that.
BAHCALL: Yes. That’s funny and it’s just incidentally. It’s an anecdote I was telling you about, I was in a nuclear submarine talking to the senior admiral in the Navy about how do we help the Navy and evade faster and better.
And he had my book and we were sitting down and I was a little nervous what was he going to say because I talked about how radar, which is a technology that ended up the course of the Second World War and helping the allies catch up to Nazi Germany and eventually defeat Nazi Germany, was buried in the Navy for 18 years and we lost lives as a result of that. We lost — it wasn’t ready in time for Pearl Harbor.
BAHCALL: And I was pretty nervous that, man, because I spent — there’s a little bit of this chapter talking about how the Navy buried this really important technology and I said — I asked him kind of gingerly, well, how did you feel about that story, and he said, that was my favorite story in the book.
RITHOLTZ: Right. So, you got to give military people, at least senior ranks, credit. They are all historians and they don’t look at the Navy from 1930 as their Navy. It’s just the previous generation, and if there’s something to be learned from it, they seem to be pretty good about adapting as they go forward. Maybe a little too slowly but the better military people are tacticians and historians.
BAHCALL: With many of the senior leaders in the national intelligence agencies or the Department of Defense, the best leaders are thinking over the course of decades and sometimes century. I think you had Ash Carter on your show.
RITHOLTZ: Yes. Fascinating guy.
BAHCALL: He was not only a physicist but a student of medieval history, and those tend to be the most interesting thinkers. And so, for example, one of the reasons that I’m spending a lot of time kind of pro bono there is that what’s worked for the last hundred years is not going to work anymore.
RITHOLTZ: And that’s pretty much always true. If you’re fighting the last war, you’re going to lose.
BAHCALL: Well, there’s a famous saying that generals tend to fight the current war with the technology that won the previous one.
BAHCALL: But what’s happening now, and we started most of — if you look at military history, we started most of the wars in the past hundred years behind in some way in technology or in strategy compared to our enemies. But because of some advantages that we have as a country, we were able to catch up.
What’s happening now is that the source of battlefield advantage shifted from hardware to software and our organizations are designed for hardware. They’re not designed for the pace of innovation of software, which is much faster.
So, they’re going to break and we may not be so lucky next time, the next war, the next battlefield where the last thing any of us wants to see is we put our soldiers on the battlefield surrounded by machine learning robots and slaughtered. That’s one of the reasons I’m having all these discussions and many of the senior military leaders have realized that what we just talked about, just separating is not enough.
That’s like innovation theater. You create a box, put the artist, the crazy people work on the crazy ideas here. There is a widespread perception in the military that innovation labs have maybe a three or four-year lifespan and then they die.
So, what’s missing is the second part of that, which is you need to separate these groups because the people working on the crazy ideas have a very different job than the soldiers who are working on time, on budget, on specifically.
RITHOLTZ: So, what’s the go between these two radically different group?
BAHCALL: Exactly. That’s what’s been missing. People — let’s take the Navy, it has a 7,000 people at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, incredible scientists, and they have incredible training and career path and development for the soldiers who are running ships on time, on budget, on specifically. But the person going between those two groups is like a high school kid with a clipboard. Why?
RITHOLTZ: So, in the book, you talked about Vannevar Bush …
RITHOLTZ: … who is the person who has both the background in MIT and is respected by the academics but comes from a Navy family and I believe, was he a physicist also?
BAHCALL: He was an engineer.
RITHOLTZ: Engineer. And he was really not only able to bring radar forward, bring a number of really amazing technological innovations that help win the war, the radar …
BAHCALL: Proximity fuse.
RITHOLTZ: The proximity fuse. Right.
RITHOLTZ: That really changed the course of the war and as I was reading your description of the war very much made me feel like, we really could have very easily lost World War II.
BAHCALL: Yes. People don’t realize but the single greatest set of the war as Churchill and Roosevelt knew was the U-boats. Hitler had — when we started in 1939, Hitler had — and Nazi Germany had a lot of advantages. Their U-boats were something the Allies had no answer for and looked ready to strangle the Atlantic, which they did.
Their planes and the Luftwaffe, the German Air Force, outclassed anything the Allies had and looked ready to bomb Western Europe into submission, which they did exactly a year later in 1940 within a matter of weeks. These two German scientists who discovered something called nuclear fission which put Hitler within reach are the greatest weapon ever, most destructive weapon ever created by man.
And so, we started behind and we managed to catch up in some things but not in the U-boats and Hitler was unable to — he defeated most of Western Europe except for Britain and in fact, it was a radar that helped save Britain in 1940 in the Battle of Britain.
But Hitler decided and correctly eventually understood that he could win the war with the U-boats, that those U-boats were sinking down allied ships every single month for the first four years of the war faster than the allies can build them. And in spring of 1943, Britain was down to three months of oil.
RITHOLTZ: That’s amazing.
BAHCALL: Three months of planes, tanks, trucks, all need oil and we were three months away from a United Nazi Western Europe. The world map would have been completely different.
And that’s when the first B-24 Liberator bombers with a couple of technologies from Vannevar Bush and his group of loons sailed out over the Atlantic, including and most importantly, migrate radar that allowed the pilots to see …
RITHOLTZ: Just a periscope they could — they can identify.
BAHCALL: Exactly. And began within a matter of weeks shooting down U-boats like shooting fish in a barrel and Hitler lost one third of his entire U-boat fleet in that four-week period, more than in any other year of the war.
RITHOLTZ: One month, they — he lost more than any previous year.
BAHCALL: That’s exactly right and within six weeks later and they were this close to winning Western Europe. Six weeks later, in the end of May 1943, Admiral Donitz who was the Head of the German Navy sends a radio blast across the Atlantic. All remaining U-boats withdraw. The Battle of the Atlantic has been lost.
And then the lanes were clear to resupply Britain and lanes were cleared from an allied invasion of Europe. And a lot of people aren’t quite aware that history is left out of many popular histories. But that was the decisive turning point pursuing the Battle of the Atlantic but that Battle of the Atlantic was a decisive turning point in the entire war.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating. Can you stick around a little bit? I have lots more questions for you.
RITHOLTZ: We have been speaking with Safi Bahcall. He is the author of “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries.”
If you enjoy this conversation, be sure and check out the podcast after this where we keep the tape rolling and continue discussing all things innovation related. You can find that at Apple iTunes, Google Podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, wherever you find our podcasts are sold.
We love your comments, feedback and suggestions. Write to us at MIBpodcast@Bloomberg.net. Be sure and give us review on Apple iTunes. Check out my weekly column on Bloomberg.com. You can follow me on Twitter @Ritholtz. I’m Barry Ritholtz, you’re listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.
UNKNOWN: It’s 2020 and there are a lot of people running for president in the U.S. Tired of hearing about the campaign guest’s personal bios and candid talking points?
To understand what all these candidates actually want to do if they’re elected, listen to The Impact, a podcast from Vox. All about how powerful people affect the rest of us.
This season, host Jillian Weinberger is looking at some of the big ideas from the 2020 candidates. It turns out a lot of those ideas have actually been tried before.
Senator Warren’s proposals to end the opioid crisis, it’s based on what we did to fight the AIDS epidemic back in the early ’90s. The Green New Deal, Germany tried something similar in the early 2000s. The wall that President Trump wants to build, Nogales, Arizona has had one on its border for decades.
This season, The Impact has those stories and more about how the big ideas from 2020 candidates worked or didn’t work in other places or at other times. These are the stories that will help all of us understand what might happen of these proposals get rolled out in the next four years.
Subscribe to The Impact on Apple podcasts or your favorite podcast app to get new episodes now.
RITHOLTZ: Welcome to the podcast. Safi, thank you so much for doing this. I mentioned earlier, I start a lot of books, I don’t finish a lot of books. I plowed straight through this. I found “Loonshots” to be really interesting and intriguing and filled with lots of fastening ideas.
You have to be really proud of what you accomplished for this. This was your first book, is that right?
BAHCALL: It was. It was about a year ago I submitted like the final edits and I can tell you, I knew one thing for sure, my mother would read it.
BAHCALL: I had no idea. It’s why it’s got physics and business and history.
RITHOLTZ: But it’s very accessible. I didn’t find it remotely like this was written for PhD level. This is straightforward business book.
BAHCALL: Yes. No. And when I tell story — for me, it was a lot of fun learning how to tell stories and how to structure those stories whether it’s Pan Am or James Bond or Pixar or Toy Story and why the world speaks English and how they’re all connected by one idea.
And so, I was having fun and my wife would talk about, Safi, what are you doing? I’m just laughing. Like I’m telling to her I’m thinking something funny and writing it down.
But a lot of times, you think stuff is funny and then you discover, well, other people don’t quite think so. So, I had no idea. But then I remember when it was not long ago someone was interviewing Bill Gates for the “Wall Street Journal” and they asked him like, what his three favorite recent books were or something, and he mentioned there was a social justice book because he does — Jill Lepore, the history book.
RITHOLTZ: History, yes.
BAHCALL: And then he mentioned “Loonshots” and then like I get to this — I found out about it because like my publisher and editor, like 15 people start calling me and I’m like, that’s nice, I didn’t know that that was — well, apparently, that’s a really big deal.
RITHOLTZ: He does a book list every year and it is a big deal. If you’re a geek or a businessperson or a soulful person, you see Bill’s list every year.
BAHCALL: Yes. And that was cool and then when — again, I didn’t know if anybody would like it and then when Danny Kahneman who wrote “Thinking, Fast and Slow” and was a really interesting, intelligent, thoughtful reader and writer and when he, very early on, supported — came out very nicely and supported it, I was like, God.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a lot (ph).
BAHCALL: I got my mother and Danny Kahneman and I’m like, dude, that’s two people. All right. We have a win.
RITHOLTZ: And he’s the most charming person …
BAHCALL: He is …
RITHOLTZ: … ever want to meet.
BAHCALL: … so thoughtful and just likes to think about problems in a deep and big.
RITHOLTZ: Remind me later, I have a hilarious Danny Kahneman story.
RITHOLTZ: I’ll tell you afterwards. So, there’s a few things I didn’t get to that I have to ask because they’re really quite fascinating. But I want to stay with the book for a bit and go over some stuff. The Moses Trap, what is the Moses Trap?
BAHCALL: Well, the Moses Trap is this myth of great leadership that if you ever read these business journals with these color cover — covers with their some great leader who’s a Moses, who stands on top of the mountain and they say the reason this leader is so great is they raised their staff and they anointed the chosen project. The iPod, the holy loon shot, whatever it is.
Ad that’s a complete myth. What happens in those kind of companies when leaders lead like that is you get into the cycle of you think you’re great at choosing product and so you just keep going bigger, faster, better, bigger, faster, better.
You keep raising your staff and picking their project and eventually, that cycle, that wheel turns one too many times and it’s a disaster. That happened to Steve Jobs and his first few companies. That happened to Edwin land in Polaroid. It happened to one trip at Pan Am.
RITHOLTZ: I mean, Kodak very famously invented the digital camera and then decided, no, this will cut film sales.
BAHCALL: Yes. So, there is — and by the Moses Trap, I mean that there is a take away there for business leaders which is or even anyone who’s managing a team or an organization which is you want to leave much more like a gardener rather than a Moses.
In other words, you want to have these two groups that ours (ph) is working on the crazy stuff, their job is to take as much risk. You’re asking them to take risks.
And then the soldiers, let’s say you have some guys whose job it is to make plans. You don’t want to tell — you don’t want him to be saying, well, I have an idea, let’s put 10 planes in the sky and see which nine falls down.
BAHCALL: OK. It’s completely opposite jobs and the failure point in most innovations is never in the supply of new ideas. For 10 people in a room with a stack of posters for now, you need a thousand ideas.
The failure point in most innovation in large companies whether public sector or private sector is in that transfer. The truly great leaders whether it was Vannevar Bush or even even Steve Jobs’ second time around at Apple had understood this is they manage like a gardener. They take those baby stage ideas out and they bring it into the field where there will always be resistance and that’s normal and you want that. You want that conflict.
The group that’s making the money rarely likes the group that’s spending money and vice versa. And you want that tension. You want one group taking as much risk as possible. You want them trying 10 things, nine of which will fail, because if they don’t, then your competitor is and your competitor will discover that 10-thing and you will see it too late when it’s a bullet coming to your head.
RITHOLTZ: You mentioned Steve Jobs had Jony Ive as the Olive as the dreamer and Tim Cook as the soldier and turned out to be a really powerful combination.
BAHCALL: Right. Now, this myth that he was the Moses on the mountain raising his staff and anointing the chosen project is really a myth. He did — one of the first things he did when he got into Apple the second time was promoted Jony Ive as one of the great product designers.
And the second thing — one of the next things he did is he recruited a guy named Tim Cook with his previous job who was known as the Attila the Hun of inventory. So, if there’s a better name for a soldier inside a company, I don’t know. And he led by bringing them together, managing the transfer between those two.
The iPad when it was introduced was a beautiful design and original product but if it cost $6,000, there would be no Apple today.
RITHOLTZ: That’s right.
BAHCALL: It was Tim Cook that got it from 6,000 to 600. So, what people miss is they focus on, he picked this product, so let’s — they focused, they got too — they managed the technology rather than the transfer. What you want to do is manage the transfer not the technology.
RITHOLTZ: So, something like Lucent to our AT&T Bell Labs as it was known previously. That was around for, I don’t know, almost a century. How often can these labs of innovation execute on that transference of ideas?
And you look at Lucent, a ton of great stuff came out of Bell Labs that got used and a lot of it was post-antitrust breakup. So, it was offered out as patents more or less for free.
BAHCALL: Right. And in some ways, we owe — Vannevar Bush, who created the system inside the federal government that allowed the U.S. military to catch up rapidly to Nazi Germany eventually exceed the technologies and ended up being decisive in the Second World War, actually got his ideas from Bell Labs.
So, the guy who was President of the Bell Labs at that time, Frank Jewett, was a mentor of his who actually helped to bring Vannevar Bush into Washington. So, in some ways, Vannevar Bush is — we owe a lot to Bell Labs more than we think because it inspired Vannevar Bush.
And Vannevar Bush’s system, that organization that he created called the OSRD, Office of Science Research and Development ended up becoming the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and was the backbone of the inspiration for all of the national research infrastructure of the U.S.
RITHOLTZ: And when we look at the post-War II era, the technology development group that was put together really was a giant impetus for the next 50 years of economic growth as well.
BAHCALL: Well, it was a great source of competitive advantage and it’s a source of concern today and here’s what I mean by that. It is that national research infrastructure which we understood and many other countries didn’t that investment they gave us the biotechnology industry, GPS, Internet, even the transistor was supported by that, the integrated circuit, so much of our progress as an economy and as a nation comes from that investment that essentially a market failure. No one company could have invested to create the biotech industry.
RITHOLTZ: Decades long. You can’t have that come out …
BAHCALL: It was …
RITHOLTZ: … of private sector.
RITHOLTZ: It’s like a game theory, market theory problem which is it’s not good for any one participant but it’s good for everyone as a whole. And that’s where the national research labs came in and that’s what drove so much success for the United States.
Roughly half of the many trillions of dollars of GDP growth is attributed to those kinds of technologies since World War II. The concern is that while we figure that out 70 years ago and milked that for the last 30, 40, 50 years, China and Russia have understood that now and that’s what they’re doing now.
RITHOLTZ: Have we fallen behind in making those sorts of long-term investments in basic science? Are we lagging China? Are we lagging other countries?
BAHCALL: We’re starting to. We’re declining and they’re increasing, and that’s not a good look, that’s not a good trend. Where it’s especially dangerous is in the shift from hardware to software as the source of advantage in national security.
China and Russia today are weaponizing AI and machine learning. They have an unfortunate advantage, which is they have no ethical constraints in how they use those weapons and they’re using them on the battlefield in pretty horrific ways.
For example, in Ukraine, you had a Russian cyber group send a text messages to families saying, your son has been killed on the battlefield, which immediately led to a lot of text messages, are you OK, they looked at that on the grid and then begin bombing those targets.
BAHCALL: And that actually, in a two-minute attack, turned back so much progress in the Ukraine. So, China — and China is using that to — all these kinds of technologies to suppress dissident minorities.
So, my — I’m optimistic about what we can do about many technologies but I’m very concerned about how totalitarian regimes can use those technologies to advance their interests. So, there is now in Washington, I’ve met with them a few times, a national — a bipartisan national security commission on AI which will hopefully chart a path that we can compete.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. And in the book, one of the last chapters, is why the world speaks English, and I love the description you have in it. Tell the story as to why so much of the world is English-speaking. It didn’t have to go that way, did it?
BAHCALL: A thousand years of history in 30 seconds. Go. Let’s go. Let’s do it. Well, it’s actually taking this idea of why is it that small companies seem to be better at embracing new ideas and large companies reject them. And that — as you read in the book, it’s about this idea of a phase transition and then what you can do about it once you understand it.
But let’s take that idea metalevel. So, if you look for about a millennium, not one generation or two generation, but about a thousand years, China and India dominated the world.
In the early science and technology, paper and printing was invented in China. You had the compass and the gunpowder. You had the currency systems. You had advanced mining, advanced drilling, advanced irrigation. There was no competition.
I mean, China indeed was 50 percent — more than 50 percent of the world GDP. Britain, for example, was less than half a percent.
RITHOLTZ: And we’re talking in — from …
BAHCALL: Between the middle …
RITHOLTZ: … A.D.?
BAHCALL: Yes. About 500 A.D. about 1500 A.D. So, right, thousand years. At that time, early science and astronomy in the Islamic empire far exceed — between the ninth and 13th century far exceeded anything in Western Europe.
The most widely used medical textbook in Western Europe for 700 years was by ibn-Sina, an Islamic medical scholar — a scientist and medical scholar. And imagined today using a book for seven years, that’s already or 70 years, there’s no way you would use a textbook.
So, 700 years Islamic science and astronomy and technology, the mathematics that Copernicus used, much of the ideas that he based what he did on came …
BAHCALL: Came from India, from the Islamic empire, from China. So, why English? These tiny little countries in Western Europe were like the backwater. China and India were dominating the world and everything that matter. So, why?
Well, what I talked about there is why China, Islam and India were like the Merck, Pfizer, Novartis of their day. They were the dominant global empires. They were great like large companies tend to be at franchises.
Building the Great Wall. Building the great canal system. Irrigating hundreds of millions of square miles. Building the Taj Mahal. Giant franchises. But they were not good at nurturing loonshots.
RITHOLTZ: No innovation.
BAHCALL: They were not good. They — about six centuries before Copernicus and Tycho Brahe and Newton, there was a couple of scientists in northern some dynasty in China, they came up with brilliant ideas about astronomy and they were really headed in that direction.
And they were right on the cusp, you could argue, of the scientific revolution happening in China 500, 600 years before 17th century Western Europe. But there was an emperor and he quashed that idea.
After a few years, he said he didn’t like it. He was the Moses with his staff saying, not that idea, this whole thing about how the planets move, let’s move on to something not boring.
BAHCALL: Whereas in Western Europe, Western Europe was like the tiny teaming market of biotechs. If China, Islam and India were the Merck, Pfizer, Novartis, these were the hundreds of little biotechs in Boston or San Francisco, each of whom has some crazy idea and most of them fail, nine out of 10 fail.
But the — here’s a crazy idea, the Earth goes around the sun. When anybody on the planet for 2,000 years could see obviously the sun is going around us, the planets are going around us, the stars are going around us, and Copernicus kind switch that around and he wasn’t the first, that idea had been floated around for 2,000 years, he made it a little more mathematical borrowing some signs from Islamic astronomers and that idea was actually quashed by — for about 70 or 80 years. Everybody said, well, that’s obviously idiotic.
If the Earth is spinning on its axis so fast, why aren’t birds flung from their nests. This is stupid. It’s a crazy idea. Just like Facebook, it was a crazy idea or Google was a great idea. It was a loonshot.
But what happened is because you had hundreds of these tiny little nation states, when Tycho Brahe, about 50, 60 years later, said, let me measure this thing, let me see if I could — obviously, Copernicus is an idiot because we can all tell that the sun does go around but I have this other theory and let me measure it, and he started trying to measure it.
And he was working on it and then he got fired. He got fired because he was kind of a big obnoxious ass and he had a little — the King of Denmark had given him this little island and he was — the old king died, the young king took over and he said, you come visit me, I’m the big shot, and the young king was like, I’m writing your checks. You come visit me.
They got into this like pissing battle and he was fired. But that’s just like a little company where has — the CEO has a battle with his board of directors. So, then he went and he took his ideas and marched around all the little kings and looking — in Europe and found one in Prague, Rudolf II, and he said, yes, knock yourself out. Go, go build another observatory.
And he brought the young Kepler there and that’s where they discovered that what we’ve been saying for 2,000 years was wrong. The planets don’t move in circles. They move in this very different way.
And that was, in some ways, the spark. When you throw away what everybody know to be true for 2,000 years that heavenly bodies always move in circles, they move in these things called ellipsis and nobody saw that.
And Kepler and many others begin saying, well, if we’ve been wrong about that, maybe there’s something else, maybe there’s this thing called laws of nature. And they work not what religious authorities tell us or divine rulers tell us but maybe there are these fundamental things called laws of nature, maybe we need to just look at nature and maybe everybody could figure out.
Anybody who can measure well and can do experiments can figure out truth. It was the beginning of democratization of truth and that transform our species.
RITHOLTZ: And the enlightenment and so forth. I’m fascinated by the idea that what Westerners think of as the dark age, the dark ages from, I don’t know, 300 A.D. to 1600 and something, was really not the dark ages for most of the world — rest of the world. It’s just the Western perspective. This was the dark ages. Not in India, not in China.
BAHCALL: No. And not only that, we used so much of what we used in 1600, 1700 to advance. It was just the final icing on the cake that had been built by China, Islam and India.
RITHOLTZ: That’s quite intriguing. Do you miss physics at all? You have your — I think one of your parents was an astrophysicist.
BAHCALL: Both were.
RITHOLTZ: Both were. So, let’s talk a little bit about astrophysics. Do you like — what is Thanksgiving dinner conversation at your home like? Is that a regular discussion of quasars and black holes and the universal galactic constant or what’s the conversation like?
BAHCALL: It was about — I think what was different and what got me and my brother and sister got out of having parents who were in science is curiosity because what drives scientists is curiosity about how the world works and asking questions.
And so, that’s what our kind of home life was like was about, asking good questions, and it wasn’t so much about what do you know, what did you learn but it was about, did you ask any good questions. And that actually turns out to be an incredibly important and valuable lesson that I took for many years.
I didn’t — all the stuff about follow your passion, I never really understood — I love banana pudding but I don’t follow …
RITHOLTZ: Not going for a career in banana pudding?
BAHCALL: No. That’s a passion for me but I don’t follow banana pudding. But I do follow my curiosity. So, when I sort of plateaued in physics that my curiosity wasn’t there the way it was when I was first started, then I made a switch.
And when my curiosity plateaued about big businesses work and are restructured from the consulting world, then I went and started a company. So, I kept following my curiosity. How do you write a book? How do you tell stories that bridge together Pan Am and James Bond and why the world speaks English with this one theme?
That seems really difficult but how do other — how do you do that? I’m really curious. And so, I just kept following my curiosity. So, what you get from that is wonderful, and I hope to pass on to my children someday, is a passion for asking good questions.
RITHOLTZ: And I wish more people would ask good questions. Speaking of good questions, before I get to my favorite ones, I don’t have you all day but there were one or two questions I missed during the broadcast portion and let me see what I want to get to go.
President Obama’s council of science advisors on the future of national research. You served on that. What was that experience like?
BAHCALL: Well, that actually was the spark for the research and became this book because when I was called — President Obama I think like to have a lot of — there were a lot of very gust academics there, very impressive backgrounds and I think at some point, they realized it didn’t have someone in the business world.
BAHCALL: Especially in the startup innovation biomedical and one of the people there had knew me from when I was a student and so called me up and said, I hear you do something in this bioworld whatever that is, can you come one, do you have any interest, and I was like, sure. Sign me up.
But when I got there, the chairman said, there was a small group of us that were selected to work on this project on the future of national research. We had these national research labs for 70 years which the next 70 years look like.
And he stood up and he said, your job is to write the next generation of the Vannevar Bush report, what should the future look like. And I remember thinking I have no idea who Vannevar Bush is or what his report was. I was trying to run a public company. I didn’t have — I was doing a lot of science policy reading and history.
BAHCALL: And I remember my first reaction was probably like a lot of people is how do I get out of this assignment because like I have really …
BAHCALL: I’m really not the right guy for this job because I have no idea what this guy is talking about and maybe I can go back to the real world. But then the more I started reading about it, I was fascinated.
People talk about it’s hard to innovate when you’re large. Well, Vannevar Bush was faced with a 2 million-person organization and he created this astonishing system for innovating incredibly fast that played an incredibly important role in Second World War and the future the United States.
How did he do it? Why? Why did it work? What did he understand? And I just got more and more curious about coming back to ask new questions. Why did it work so well? How did he do it? What insights did he have? And I found the more I read about him, the more I found out that there were all these lessons that he had picked up over the years that were really applicable to the business world and the private sector not just the public sector and nobody had really gone there.
RITHOLTZ: And you give some credit to FDR for basically recognizing that Bush had correctly diagnosed the problem with the Pentagon, I don’t even know (inaudible), the war department then and had some solutions to bridge that gap. I don’t know a lot of presidents that would have been as insightful as that pre-war time president.
BAHCALL: It was a 10-minute meeting and Bush was, at that time, Dean of engineering at MIT. He was a provost. He was the number two at MIT. They have turned MIT — he was kind of an organizational genius. He has turned MIT from average university into the leading technology university in the country and then eventually the world.
But he saw the writing on the wall itself. He saw it from all the fleeing Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany that they were far ahead of us in critical technologies.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a huge insight.
BAHCALL: Yes. Well, he and several others were hearing this from the Jewish refugees and he understood — he’d worked with the military. He understood that we were far behind.
And so, he quit his job as a tenured professor, moved to Washington, talked his way into a 10-minute meeting with FDR and he told FDR, there’s a war coming and we’re going to lose because the Army and the Navy will never catch up in time.
And he gave them proposal, three short bullets, I want you to authorize a new group inside the federal government that will report only to me and I will report only to you and I will mobilize the nation scientists for war. It was a 10-minute meeting. FDR read it, looked him up and down, signed it OK, FDR turned around, got to work.
RITHOLTZ: That’s astonishing. Just astonishing. People have no idea how close we really came to losing World War II. It’s just amazing.
BAHCALL: No idea how close we came to a completely different world map and if you take 20 popular histories of the Second World War, you might find Vannevar Bush’s name in one or two of them.
RITHOLTZ: That’s amazing. So, I don’t have you all day. I want to get to some of my favorite questions I ask all of my guests. I find these are revealing of who they are and what we don’t know about them.
What are you streaming, watching, listening to? Tell us about podcasts or Netflix. What are you enjoying these days?
BAHCALL: Well, my wife and I actually really loved “Homeland” and “The Americans” and if I have a guilty pleasure, probably be that new “Sherlock Holmes” ones, the Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s a lot of fun.
RITHOLTZ: I haven’t gotten to that. If you like “Homeland,” do you ever watch “Fauda”?
RITHOLTZ: So, it’s an Israeli security group. Do not watch it before you go to bed because it is so gripping, F-A-U-D-A, so gripping and so exciting. Like when you’re done, you’re like, so it’s very much a challenging thing to watch. And then “Jack Ryan” is really worth checking out.
BAHCALL: It’s so funny because I spent — what we were talking before, I spent a while at the CIA and I remember asking them sort of gaga like is Tom Cruise going to come jumping down here. Yes. It’s really fun.
But I remember asking them about, do you guys watch any of these shows, and they were big fans of — the people I spoke to were pretty big fans of “Homeland.” But the “Jack Ryan,” they were like, yes, it’s just not.
RITHOLTZ: Well, any of the Tom Clancy stuff, the “Cold War” things, that was his forte. Everybody has kind of moved on and it’s a little bit of a Cold War story in the modern era. So, it may not be their cup of tea but everybody in this is really interesting.
Tell us some — tell us the most important thing people don’t know about Safi Bahcall.
BAHCALL: Wow. I don’t even know where to — I guess when I was in college, I had this dream, a buddy of mine and I had this dream that we would ride motorcycles across the country. And then when I got out of college, of course, that was never happening.
RITHOLTZ: Do you ride at all?
BAHCALL: Yes. Since I graduated and moved to the Bay Area, one of the first things I did was buy a motorcycle. I spent much of the 10 years at that time that I was in San Francisco Bay Area on the bike.
RITHOLTZ: So, I love to ride. You can’t ride around here anymore.
RITHOLTZ: You can’t ride in San Francisco.
BAHCALL: When I moved to New York, 15, 20 years ago, I sold the bike. When I first started, I was an idiot like any …
RITHOLTZ: Of course.
BAHCALL: I will tell you something.
BAHCALL: I remember that there was no helmet law back then.
RITHOLTZ: But that’s important because there’s a shortage of organs …
RITHOLTZ: … and the lack of helmet law — states with no helmet laws …
BAHCALL: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: … don’t have a backup …
BAHCALL: Excellent. Excellent. If you want to do good for the world and donate your organs, don’t wear a helmet.
RITHOLTZ: It’s — because you basically have a nicely preserved body …
BAHCALL: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: … minus the head.
BAHCALL: Nice young fresh body.
RITHOLTZ: And it’s – right, it’s very …
BAHCALL: It’s a great way.
RITHOLTZ: Kidney, lungs, heart, it’s fabulous.
BAHCALL: Exactly. Or just go straight to the hospital, skip the motorcycle and say, cut off my head.
BAHCALL: But actually, I remember one day going out — well, I was living in Palo Alto, in East Palo Alto at that time, people don’t know this but it was like the murder capital of the United States.
BAHCALL: You have like the wealthiest group and then you have like the murder capital. And I remember I had to buy a helmet and I remember going, looked in the classified — I don’t even know if there was a Craigslist back then and I found this guy in East Palo Alto and I remember driving over there and said, yes, he was like this Hells Angel guy with a giant gut and a huge beard and the tattoos and I was like, yes, man, this sucks, you have to buy a helmet, it’s not really — it doesn’t really suck. And he just looked at me and said, you are an idiot.
BAHCALL: He said, you’re an idiot. Do you know how many friends I’ve lost because they didn’t wear helmets?
RITHOLTZ: And you can …
BAHCALL: And he was right.
RITHOLTZ: You can survive a fall with a helmet pretty easily.
BAHCALL: Sometimes. Yes.
RITHOLTZ: Assuming it’s you’re not going a hundred miles an hour.
BAHCALL: Yes. But I was an idiot and anybody who — like you say, if you want …
RITHOLTZ: When the Hells Angel say, you’re taking too much risk, you need to head yourself a little bit with a helmet, you got to pay attention.
So, who are your early mentors? Who affected the way you look at the worlds of innovation and franchise and managing institutions?
BAHCALL: Well, I think when I was really young, it was my father. He was just an — not only an impressive scientist and a real believer in a bigger purpose, which is search for truth and asking question, but he was also incredibly impressive in motivating people.
I think when I got to Stanford, there was a scientist named Lenny Susskind who was a good disciple of Richard Feynman. He had this awesome style of really figure everything out for yourself. Like he said to me, Safi, I never want to see you in a library.
BAHCALL: And that’s what Dick Feynman had told him. And it’s when you have a problem — that sort of like underlying this book, I came at — there’s 200 years of people thinking and writing about organization and I just came from a completely different angle and in part that stood (ph) as just think about things for yourself, try to come up — don’t read — actually the opposite, don’t read and absorb what everybody tells you is true. Try to think of things from first principles.
RITHOLTZ: Quite intriguing.
BAHCALL: In the business world, probably in your world, I — one of my board members was a guy named Bruce Kovner who …
RITHOLTZ: I know the name.
BAHCALL: … ran very successful hedge fund called Caxton.
BAHCALL: He’s a very deep thoughtful thinker and he said little but the little that he said was very thoughtful that would help you rethink the strategy, how players are acting in the world around, your strategy competition. And so, I got a lot of useful stuff from him as well.
RITHOLTZ: Quite interesting. Let’s talk about books. What are some of your favorite books? What are you reading? What do you recommend to people?
BAHCALL: My God, there’s so many. What genre …
RITHOLTZ: By the way, this is the favorite question. I get more emails about this question than anything else. How about …
BAHCALL: So many — got it. Well, first, I love biographies and I read so many biographies. But there’s one — when I was writing that book, I was sort of three years in the cave and I was just — there’s so many histories I had to learn and so many histories.
BAHCALL: So, I was really focused on reading for that. There was only one author who made me stop and like read for fun that had nothing to do with …
RITHOLTZ: Go ahead.
BAHCALL: His name is Scott Berg. He’s — he wrote this awesome book on Charles Lindbergh.
BAHCALL: Probably the best book on Lindbergh and it is such an incredible story because Lindbergh, there really hasn’t been a hero, an American hero like that in the century.
People don’t realize what a hero — when he completed that voyage over the Atlantic, at that time, flight was this crazy thing, people would — weren’t even taking odds on his life because it was so bad, so unlikely that this young kid would make it flying solo across the Atlantic.
People across the country were praying for him and when he came back, there’s like a quarter million stories about him. He went out and toured the United States. Literally a third of the population came out to see him.
RITHOLTZ: That’s amazing.
BAHCALL: And that’s — it’s this incredible arc because he was more popular than FDR. He was this unbelievably popular guy and FDR felt threatened.
RITHOLTZ: No kidding.
BAHCALL: And FDR kind of orchestrated this campaign against him that painted him as this Nazi sympathizer, appeasement sympathizer, anti-Semite even and it just was not the case. But he was a very reserved guy. He didn’t fight back.
And so, he got kind of tainted by pretty orchestrated campaign against him and just — and he went from the most famous guy in the country to people like burning his books. It was just an unbelievable up and down.
And then he redeemed himself in the Second World War and just the life story is an incredible story. And anything Scott Berg, that biographer is a beautiful writer and combines great storytelling with very accurate history.
RITHOLTZ: So, before I ask you about more books, you like biographies and obviously flying. Did you read the McCullough book on the Wright brothers?
BAHCALL: It’s on my list but I haven’t. Yes. I can’t wait to read that.
RITHOLTZ: It’s — I can’t recommend it enough. What else are you reading? What else …
BAHCALL: Biographies, it feel like — I used to play competitive tennis in the juniors.
RITHOLTZ: I am very late to the game of tennis. I picked it up in my 50s and I find it a fascinating and frustrating sport.
BAHCALL: I really enjoy it. Well, an anecdote there is there was a guy, I don’t know if you know this name, but when you’re young in the juniors, you often go around to tournaments with — if there’s somebody local and you want to get dads drive.
So, the guy I would go around to tournaments who I would play all the time with a guy named Lyle Menendez and he became famous later unfortunately from murdering his parents.
RITHOLTZ: The twins, the twin brothers.
BAHCALL: Erik and Lyle.
BAHCALL: Yes. So, I began my life in crime with Erik and Lyle Menendez. But, no …
RITHOLTZ: Were you any good?
BAHCALL: I was ranked in middle states. Yes.
BAHCALL: Yes. So, I mean, Lyle was better. I thought I was pretty good. But I grew up in sort of that Andre Agassi-Pete Sampras.
BAHCALL: The Andre Agassi biography “Open” is like one of the best sports biographies.
BAHCALL: It’s awesome.
RITHOLTZ: I would never in a million years have thought of picking that up.
BAHCALL: Actually — you know what, it’s funny as Pete Sampras wrote a biography first and it was very good especially if you like tennis because it’s good. And then Andre Agassi comes out with his biography second and he winced like that …
RITHOLTZ: He beats …
BAHCALL: He beats Pete finally, finally.
BAHCALL: He beats Pete.
RITHOLTZ: Got his revenge off the court.
BAHCALL: But it’s a — it’s not only a sports story but it also got all this drama because he had this huge hatred of the sport and huge love of the sport that came from his father. And then how he meets Steffi Graf, it’s an incredible love story.
BAHCALL: Incredible love story.
RITHOLTZ: I’m going to have to pick that up.
BAHCALL: Love story and sports story.
RITHOLTZ: Give us one more book.
BAHCALL: One more book. One more book. Let’s see, there is a book that I like by Garry Kasparov called about “How Life Imitates Chess.” It’s a small book. Kasparov is …
RITHOLTZ: Fascinating guy. Brilliant.
BAHCALL: He’s the longest reigning chess champion in history and Garry kind of breaks down what it was about how he approached the game that helped him become this — the longest reigning chess champion in history and there was some very interesting insights that actually I still apply to this day, which is that he — when he makes a mistake or loses a game or even he wins a game, he doesn’t ask what was wrong with that move, why did — knight to bishop three was good or bad.
He asked, what was in my mind that — when I made that decision, what was my decision-making process by which I arrived at that conclusion and how should I improve my process. It’s a little like an investor I think.
You don’t say you lose money on an investment. You don’t say, well, the balance sheet was this or the P was that or the team was that and actually looked at it. You say, how did I decide, what was I thinking during that day, what are my mental checklists. And then you go back and try to change your mental checklists. So, you gain much more than just the one understanding of one move.
BAHCALL: Basically, it comes on keep asking why, why did you make that move.
1 Always process versus results. If you focus too much on resulting as any do call it thinking in bets, you’re drawing the wrong conclusion as opposed to what process led to that result.
BAHCALL: Right. And in a very interesting and strategic way.
RITHOLTZ: Speaking of failure, tell us about the time you failed and what you learned from the experience.
BAHCALL: There were so many. I mean, I don’t even know where to start. It could be another hour. In fact, when I first started a company, my favorite question was going around to all the successful people, any successful people that would take five minutes to talk to me and ask, what do you wish you’ve done differently. And …
RITHOLTZ: By the way, I asked that question to everybody who we talked to about renovating their kitchen because we’re about to start a kitchen renovation, what did you like about the process, what would you do differently, what mistakes did you make and I found that that question is great for everything.
BAHCALL: It’s the best question and I learned so much and one of my mistakes was not listening enough to what I heard.
RITHOLTZ: Good advice ignored?
BAHCALL: Yes. I mean, there’s two kinds of failures where you do the right stuff but things don’t work out. Like you do all the right stuff about developing a drug but it just doesn’t work. There’s something fundamental about the technology.
RITHOLTZ: That’s a good failure.
BAHCALL: That’s a failure but it’s very depressing. If you spent years of your life or the team and you had always high hopes and — it’s — it happens all the time. But still, when you go through that and you — it’s — people are crying, they’re emotional because of all of the promise that we thought we could do for the world and then it doesn’t work, it’s really — when you go through those hard times, I had a terrific HR guy who was a great adviser, older than me, quite a bit older, and he was a former — actually professional football player, played for the Patriots in the NFL, defensive back.
So, he got this great way about it and he was just touchy-feely enough to do the job well but not so much that you’re like, come on. And one of the things in difficult times like that, in failures like that that he coached me on and coached all of us on was how to make sure you treat people with dignity and fairness and how do you help them because relationships last longer than any company or any project.
And so, the importance of relationships and leading by relationships was incredibly powerful. And the lesson that I really should have understood better when I was a young guy and asking people, these successful people, almost invariably, the number one answer I got about what do you wish you’ve done differently when I talk to successful CEOs off the record was get rid of people faster.
BAHCALL: It was hiring mistakes. It was too slow to make a change. Anyone who’s gone to a large organization as you lead through your team, you don’t really so much — and if you’re trying to make individual decisions, it’s going to be a big problem.
But you lead through the team that you assemble and almost everyone I talked to has said, I wish I’d move more quickly on some …
RITHOLTZ: Bad members of that team.
BAHCALL: I had bad members and 10 or 15 years later, I was saying the same thing because my mistake was me and some of the folks I worked with was thinking like, we have this bad problem, we think we can fix it. Sometimes you can’t fix a problem.
BAHCALL: Sometimes you just need to make a change.
RITHOLTZ: So, what do you do when — for fun when you’re not down in the CIA telling them how to save the world? What do you do for — to relax and kick back?
BAHCALL: Well, I have — my wife is pretty cool. So, we go for long walks and we have two young kids …
BAHCALL: … which is — I can just sit and watch them and that’s pretty cool. Now, I do running. I don’t have so much time for tennis or other endurance sports. But I go running and …
RITHOLTZ: Endurance sports.
BAHCALL: Yes. I did triathlon for quite a while.
RITHOLTZ: Really? And you’ve replaced triathlon just with the running portion.
BAHCALL: Triathlon is another job. If you do kind of long distance like half iron or iron, I did half iron and did iron. I mean, it’s 10 to 15 hours a week of training.
RITHOLTZ: That’s pretty — and it’s a brutal race …
RITHOLTZ: … in and of itself. I think everybody took the wrong lesson from marathons. Remember the first guy who arrived at Spartan, he dropped dead.
BAHCALL: That’s right.
RITHOLTZ: That should have been a cautionary tale. Don’t do this.
BAHCALL: But he didn’t have good shoes.
RITHOLTZ: Well, that’s true. So, in the world of — and I didn’t want to limit it to pharmaceuticals, in the world of large important institutions, what are you optimistic about and what are you pessimistic about looking forward?
BAHCALL: Well, I’m optimistic about the progress of medicine. I mean, we’re just at the beginnings of growing organs in a lab. Speaking of, we were talking about organ replacement if you to ride a motorcycle.
BAHCALL: But it’s unbelievable that we just recently, just a few weeks ago, there are 3-D printing blood vessels …
BAHCALL: … onto early proto-organs in the lab and that’s just in the last few weeks. Imagine where we’ll be five or 10 years from now. We’re on the verge of helping blind people see by rewiring the inputs to the brain if their eyes are fried or helping a deaf people hear. It’s just incredible in the pace of science and medicine and where we might be 10, 20, 50 years from now.
What I’m concerned about is where that technology gets used for bad purposes specifically what we were talking about earlier in totalitarian regimes. Taking those — some of those technologies whether it’s AI or machine learning or bioengineering and what totalitarian regimes can do when they weaponize them, not only against others but against their own people. It helps keep them in power.
So, I’m concerned about something that hasn’t happened in the history of our species which we are creating these new technologies which can actually help keep totalitarian regimes and power longer.
RITHOLTZ: And our final two questions, what sort of advice would you give to a recent college graduate who is thinking about a career either in pharmaceuticals or entrepreneurship, what would you advise them?
BAHCALL: Well, first of all, go around and experiment because that’s the only way — no amount of reading or listening to people tell you what you should or shouldn’t do that’s going to replace trying something. Just getting your hands wet with something.
And the second thing is curiosity is ask people — don’t ask people — go around and ask as many people as you can on how did you succeed because often people succeed because they got lucky, they were in the right place at the right time and they’re not going to tell you that.
But ask them what we just talked about which is what do you wish you’ve done differently because that they probably thought about a lot if they’re intelligent thoughtful people and they can have a pretty good answer because they have — there’s no, I was in the right place at the wrong time. There is — some people, if they’re not very good at this, will say, I was unlucky.
But the people who are much better and take lessons will say, well, I should have done X and I should have done Y. That’s a great thing to learn.
RITHOLTZ: And my final question, what do you know about the world of organizations in decision-making and innovation today that you wish you knew 20 plus years ago when you first getting started?
BAHCALL: I would say it’s important if you’re running something of having people around you whether they’re inside your organization or oftentimes even better outside where you can count on to tell you when you’re being an idiot, to tell you the truth, because — especially if you’re in some kind of position of authority, people don’t want to tell you that.
I you have some influence over their lives, they have other things that they care about other than telling you the truth. So, it’s important — sometimes, it’s important to get out of your organization. Listen to people who are really out there and get different perspectives. So, I wish I had done more of that.
RITHOLTZ: Quite fascinating. Thank you, Safi Bahcall, for being so generous with your time. We have been speaking with the author of “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries.”
If you enjoy this conversation, well, be sure and look up an inch or down an inch on Apple iTunes and you could see any of the previous 300 or so such conversations we’ve had over the past five years.
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I would be remiss if I did not think the crack staff that helps put together these conversations each week, Karoline O’Brien is my audio engineer, my head of research is Michael Batnick, Tracy Walsh is my project manager, I’m very Barry Ritholtz, you’ve been listening to Masters in Business on Bloomberg Radio.