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At Singularity University, blowing minds and taking meetings

For one student at the elite institution, learning from thought leaders in a series of exponentially growing technologies will likely lead to a rich future helping to change the world.

Singularity University executive program participant Rob Nail, right, watches TED videos with program co-founder Peter Diamandis, left, and another participant. For Nail, taking part in SU is a chance to open up his already impressive network and learn about the technologies that will shape the future.
Daniel Terdiman/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--For Rob Nail, Saturday was a bonanza of opportunity.

Over dinner that night in building 20 at the NASA Ames Research Center here, Nail found himself discussing 3D printing and housing with X Prize CEO Peter Diamandis. Already, Nail had been considering buying some farming land in Northern California and had been interested in the nascent concept of 3D printed buildings. He told Diamandis that he wanted to try that on the land.

"He says," Nail recalled, "I want to make this introduction," and grabbed Nail, pulling him a few tables over to the side where the two put their heads together with one of the founders of a start-up that recently began working on building 3D printed housing for developing nations.

For Nail, himself an entrepreneur who has spent several months looking for companies to invest in or advise, the quick meeting may have been the start of something long-term. "I will probably have a relationship" with the start-up's co-founder, he said. "It's an opportunity for me to get involved as a seed investor, and to advise and help out. He's just starting out...and we have a common connection with this passionate interest for housing, robotics and 3D printing."

For Diamandis, putting Nail together with a potential business partner was emblematic of his own young venture, Singularity University, or SU, which seeks to put some of the brightest minds on the planet together to explore what is known as exponentially growing technologies. And earlier that evening, after they'd sat through eight hours of high-energy lectures on artificial intelligence, autonomous robotics and biotechnology, and bioinformatics, Diamandis stood up and welcomed his new charges--a group of 43 participants in the second 10-day Singularity University executive program--to the "family."

If one thing is clear about SU, which Diamandis co-founded with "The Singularity is Near" author Ray Kurzweil, it's that the product the two men are selling is membership in that family, a network of top-tier thinkers, investors, researchers, and entrepreneurs that could hold its own against any other, anywhere on Earth.

Just look at the backgrounds of the 43 C-level students in the executive program that kicked off Friday night, each of whom paid $15,000 to be here: a top decision maker in the U.S. Department of Defense, a best-selling author of business books, a Uruguayan venture capitalist, the owner of an entertainment marketing company, a Scottish investment manager with a Ph.D. in chemistry. And on and on.

The entire Singularity University program, including most of the 43 executive program participants, the faculty and advisers and, sitting front and center, X Prize Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis (fifth from the right) and 'The Singularity is Near' author Ray Kurzweil (fifth from the left). Daniel Terdiman/CNET

And this is just one iteration of SU. Already, the institution has graduated its first summer program of 40 graduate-school level students and its first group of 20 executives. And those high achievers don't even include SU's faculty, which is comprised of the leaders in fields like biotech, nanotech, artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, and everything in between.

Pulling people together
Nail is a tall, reed-thin 37-year-old entrepreneur from San Francisco with long brown hair, blue jeans, and black leather boots. A master's graduate of Stanford's engineering school, Nail had helped start Velocity11, which built robotics and automation equipment for cancer research and drug discovery, and as its CEO, he grew it to $50 million in sales and membership on several most-exciting-in-Silicon Valley-type lists. In 2007, Agilent Technologies bought Velocity11.

But life inside a $6 billion giant like Agilent frustrated Nail's inner entrepreneur and last September, he left.

Now, Nail wanted to see what the SU executive program was all about. He knew that taking part would give him access to a valuable network and hoped that being exposed to beyond cutting-edge technologies might help him figure out the next big project on which he could apply what he considers his most valuable skill: rallying people to do big things.

And this is a world that needs people to do big things. With global-level crises in hunger, energy, water, and more, "We have to make some big moves if we want to save humanity," Nail said, a sentiment that is measured compared to some of what is being taught at SU.

Build an incubator
During the summer program, a nine-week course that among other things tasks the students with working on team projects in which they seek to come up with some sort of system that could positively impact a billion people, the group whose start-up aims to build 3D printed housing in developing countries wasn't the only one to birth a business.

Indeed, one of Diamandis' goals is that each set of students--graduate-school level or executive level--that comes through SU will generate new companies. Members of the network will "become best friends," "invest in each other's companies" and, Diamandis hopes, help shape the solutions that will overcome the world's biggest problems.

But there's no reason those start-ups can't make a profit in the meantime, and that's where Nail may have stumbled onto a second significant opportunity on Saturday.

"I've got a lot of seeded things," Nail said, "and one of them that I've been developing over the last few months is the idea of an incubator."

His idea is that he's surrounded himself during the past 11 years with some of the best business people, investors, engineers, lawyers, and marketers around, and so, why not deploy that personal network to help get smart start-ups off the ground.

At the same Saturday night dinner, Nail and Diamandis continued their conversation and found some further common ground: Diamandis knows that SU students are going to come up with ideas for new companies and they're going to need help making them a reality. So why not, he said, combine their mutual interest and have Nail join the faculty and help put together an SU incubator?

And Saturday held more opportunity in store for him, as well.

Just prior to coming to SU, Nail had spent several days at TED Active, another gathering of world-class thought leaders and had struck up an acquaintance with Jamie Oliver, a chef famous for promoting an agenda of healthy, unprocessed foods.

After seeing Oliver at TED, Nail began thinking about a way to promote a "Food Revolution" built around Oliver's passions for healthy eating and cooking, but knew that in order to succeed in any venture, they would need to work with some of the "big names and minds" with similar thinking.

On Saturday afternoon, at the first SU lunch, Diamandis introduced the group to Charlie Ayers, the former Grateful Dead chef who became famous when Larry Page and Sergey Brin hired him to be Google's chef and who also promotes a very clean, healthy cuisine built around local ingredients and unprocessed foods.

Nail sprung into action, and later that day, shared his growing enthusiasm with Oliver.

"I've had the pleasure of recently meeting Charlie Ayers," Nail wrote Oliver in an e-mail. "I think his voice would be a great addition--specifically from the standpoint of creating a real corporate food model that works! I pitched him on the idea of being more active at getting his knowledge of what works...out there, playing his role in this food revolution on a bigger, more active stage, and meeting you. He is definitely behind the movement and is interested in helping in whatever way he can."

An education too
Lest anyone thing Singularity University is all deal making, it should be known that there are also hours and hours of daily lectures on the very latest technologies that are shaping the world's future.

Nail taking notes during on the SU lectures on Saturday. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

On Saturday, Nail and his fellow students listened as Neil Jacobstein, the president of a technology company called Teknowledge and a consultant for organizations like DARPA, NASA, General Motors, Boeing, Applied Materials, and many others, filled them in for about an hour on the latest and greatest innovations in artificial intelligence. Then, they sat riveted as former NASA astronaut, "Survivor" contestant, and autonomous robotics researcher Dan Barry talked to them about topics as diverse as robotic adaptation and experiencing weightlessness in space for the first time.

Later that day, bioinformaticist Raymond McCauley and Andrew Hessel filled the students in on the latest in biotechnology, open source biology and bioinformatics.

The point of teaching SU's students about exponentially growing technologies is so that they can learn, and learn quickly, how fast those technologies are changing in order to get in front of them and exploit them.

"My description of Singularity University after the first day," Nail said, "is that SU is a new Paul Revere, streaming in to warn humanity that technology is changing much faster than we could have previously imagined, and we'd better get ready."

Even for someone like Nail, with a master's in engineering who helped run a company specializing in biotech and robotics, SU's subject matter was a little overwhelming.

"The density of the information and how fast so many different things were moving so quickly today, it made my head spin," he said. "I'm a technology geek, and in the Silicon Valley circle, and I was amazed at how many things I hadn't seen before."

And Sunday's series of lectures on networks and computer systems from the likes of Sun Microsystems chief scientist John Gage and SU executive director and former Yahoo Brickhouse head Salim Ismail and on medicine and neuroscience from Stanford stem cell instructor Daniel Kraft and others did nothing to douse Nail's enthusiasm.

"If I were to quantify my excitement about the program and the power I believe [it] has for shaping the world after day one," Nail wrote Sunday night, "I would have to say [that] on day two it doubled (and you saw me after day one, so I think that is saying a lot!). Unfortunately, my mind is not wired to comprehend where I may be if it continues to double for seven more days. My biggest fear now about the program actually comes girlfriend's reaction after I described what I was getting out of the program after day two. She actually thought I was crazy! I'm afraid of what the rest of the world may think of me after seven more days of this. But I can't wait to find out!"