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VCs' next big things: Big data, drugs, and education

Five of the most influential tech investors, including Peter Thiel and Reid Hoffman, highlight their top 10 trends for the next five years during a panel discussion.

Kevin Efrusy, Bing Gordon, Reid Hoffman, Steve Jurvetson and Peter Thiel sit on a panel presented by the Churchill Club and Forbes Magazine on Tuesday night.
Donna Tam/CNET

SANTA CLARA, Calif.--Some of Silicon Valley's greatest minds used an interesting piece of hardware to vote on which trends will rule the tech world: ping pong paddles.

The Churchill Club, a business and technology forum, hosted discussion here Tuesday night, along with Forbes magazine, to pick the brains of Kevin Efrusy, Bing Gordon, Reid Hoffman, Steve Jurvetson, and Peter Thiel.

With a few hundred people seated in the grand ballroom of the Hyatt Regency Santa Clara, each investor presented his case for two ideas for what he thought would be a dominating tech trend for the next five years. Each held up a ping pong paddle to show whether he agreed -- green for yes and red for no.

The pitches were accompanied by approval ratings collected via green and red cards at attendees' tables and a survey done by, a Twitter polling service.

Not surprisingly, Thiel had big ideas, with his most popular one of the night being the growing trend of bioinformatics, which uses computers to revolutionize the creation of pharmaceutical drugs. The co-founder of PayPal, the Libertarian Thiel has been vocal about pushing Silicon Valley to be more innovative. He's made other down-with-the-system moves like supporting the colonization of the world's oceans and creating a fellowship that encourages young people under the age of 20 to drop out of college and become entrepreneurs.

Gordon's digitalization of education also hit a high note. The Kleiner Perkins partner said digitalization is the first step to addressing many issues. Gordon, who is in charge of the firm's social-media investments, said this trend is a crucial one.

"For digital natives, public schools are jails," Gordon said.

Thiel chimed in, saying parents use school as a "babysitter," and that people in the middle class go into teaching because "they don't know what else to do."

Other poplar topics of the evening included having more sensors and more data. Hoffman, the creator of LinkedIn, a giant in the world of data gathering, said the trend will only get bigger, while skeptics on the panel said gathering large amounts of data has not proved as useful as many companies once hoped.

Hoffman, once called the "startup whisperer" by the New York Times, said there is value in tracking data, pointing to a practice Starbucks adopted after reviewing gathered data. The company programed its vehicles' GPS devices to eliminate left hand turns, saving time and gas, and in turn, money.

And although Jurvetson made a valiant presentation, complete with slides featuring slick new electric car designs, on election cars as the next big trend, nobody bought in. Unfortunately, it was red paddles all around.

Corrected at 1:45 a.m. PT: A quote was not accurately attributed to Bing Gordon. The story has been updated to reflect the correct attribution.