Thanks to the efficiency boost provided by cloud computing’s debut about five years ago, web applications can now launch on almost a shoestring budget. That’s why there are so many new web companies that deal in things such as photo sharing, daily deals websites, travel planning and the like. The truth is, it’s easier than ever to put together a web or mobile app and call yourself a startup.
But there are a few recent developments that, taken together, are creating an even more powerful efficiency boost: one that puts resources that were once limited to well-funded corporations and research universities within the reach of a new generation of startup founders. Perhaps it’s time entrepreneurs took advantage of this new environment to solve larger problems, instead of building yet another lifestyle app.
The way I see it, the big components at play here are:
New money is investing in big ideas
Even though the larger economy is rocky, there are a lot of people just itching to pour money into the next big technological thing — hence pre-launch photo sharing startups that net $41 million in funding. While many tech investors are focused on funding sure short-term bets (i.e. the tried and true realm of web and mobile apps), there’s a budding sect aggressively looking to invest in larger, long-term innovations.
Peter Thiel’s Breakout Labs is one of the most explicit examples of this. As we reported at the program’s launch last month, Breakout Labs will aim to fund nascent research proposals: opportunities too early stage or radical to attract dollars from VCs or government grants. Basically, Thiel, who recently told the New Yorker he doesn’t consider the iPhone (s aapl) to be a major technological breakthrough, is saying: Enough with the toys and games. It’s time for us to make something big.
Supercomputers are going mainstream
The next “something big” in tech might not require all that much money to make.
If you want to build something really complex — think aeronautics, new pharmaceutical drugs, medical devices, jet engines, and the like — you need high-performance computing (HPC). HPC solves advanced computational and scientific problems by using a massive amount of computing power to solve very complicated problems that involve a lot of moving parts.
It has historically been so prohibitively expensive to do HPC that only entities such as governments, militaries, well-funded universities, or huge corporations have the kind of access to the machines needed for computational fluid dynamics problems and the like.
But last year, Amazon started offering HPC as a service with “Cluster Compute,” making high-performance computing available in the same way that EC2 made regular servers available in the cloud. Earlier this month, Amazon souped up its Cluster Compute offering significantly — now, Amazon’s HPC-as-a-Service offering provides access to one of the world’s top 500 supercomputers for around $1,000 per hour. Meanwhile, tools such as CUDA and OpenCL give programmers the ability to harness massive numbers of compute cores without having to learn a special programming language.
This takes HPC out of the realm of scientists and makes programming for massively multicore HPC systems accessible to software engineers. What Amazon’s EC2 (s amzn) did for democratizing the ability to develop scalable web apps, HPC-as-a-Service can do for democratizing the ability to solve computationally heavy engineering problems or build gigantic predictive models.
3-D printing is becoming a reality
Once challenging technology problems have been mastered with the help of HPC, some of the solutions will need to be prototyped and put into physical production. This is still a very labor- and cost-intensive process, which is a big reason why many startups prefer to stay in the virtual realm. But the emergence of viable 3-D printing technology is on the cusp of changing that, making it cheaper and easier than ever before to make a physical prototype of a new design.
How much of a reality is 3-D printing today? It’s now available at the consumer level with a startup called MakerBot, which makes a 3-D printer called a Thing-O-Matic. The Thing-O-Matic costs $1,200 and makes relatively simple items such as small toys and gadgets like bottle openers on demand. Three-dimensional printers from companies such as Mcor Technologies are aimed at making more complex prototypes for enterprise-level applications.
Of course, startups have the option of skipping the prototype step and selling simply the IP of their HPC-developed designs to a larger company. But if a startup wants to have more control over the production of what it has made, 3-D printing brings that much more within small companies’ reach.
What will be the hot startup of the next era?
If everything works out as it should, the smart, early stage entrepreneurs of the near future won’t be thinking about how to build the perfect restaurant recommendation app. Instead, they’ll devote their energy to designing a more efficient airplane wing to conserve jet fuel, or a tiny device that can perform real-time monitoring of kidney enzyme levels, or an even more awesome landing gear apparatus for the next Mars Rover. Starting the next SpaceX or Virgin Galactic won’t need the kind of funding that only an Elon Musk or Richard Branson can provide.
Today, the lion’s share of companies that emerge from incubators such as Y-Combinator and 500 Startups deal in consumer-focused web apps. Here’s hoping that in the near future, incubators will look for startup founders who are taking real advantage of their new-found access to serious tech tools to build bigger and bolder products. It seems to me that driving toward that kind of world is where the attention of the tech industry — and the media that covers it — should focus.