Bill Joy: Battling climate change one investment at a time

The tech legend’s innovations laid the foundations of the modern internet. Now, he’s working to save the planet.

Illustration of Bill Joy
[Illustration by Jawahir Hassan Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

New York City, United States – Bill Joy wants to talk about responsibility. Sustainability. And the design of his shoes.

“As you see, they’re mostly blue,” he says.

More on his shoes later. But Joy is plugging them for a reason, and you might want to listen to his reasons because if you’re reading these words on your smartphone or computer, then Joy’s work has touched your life.

Back in the 1970s, while a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, Joy helped write software that would enable the rise of the modern internet.

In the 1980s, he cofounded Sun Microsystems, where he coinvented the Java programming language, betting that in the not-so-distant future, computer code would run on consumer appliances.

Today, we call that the IoT – the internet of things.

But don’t mistake Joy’s foresight for gee-whiz futurism. When I first interviewed him about 20 years ago, the tech genius was on the cusp of publishing his seminal essay in Wired magazine, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. In it, he warned that genetics, nanotech and robotics – technologies developed over decades by dozens of scientists and at great cost – could be accessed by nefarious individuals to possibly annihilate humanity.

That kind of apocalyptic tech pessimism may be fashionable now. But back in 2000, Joy’s sobering essay was a radical departure from the dot-com-fuelled, boundlessly optimistic zeitgeist surrounding big tech and Silicon Valley luminaries who were celebrated like rock stars.

That’s why, after all these years, the first question I ask him is what worries him the most now.

“We’re in a century where we have really powerful technology, and we don’t have the moral and ethical governance that we need to manage it properly,” he tells me. “Somehow, our system doesn’t hold people responsible.”

What we’re doing may seem small, but the collective impact on sustainability is overwhelming the planet.

by Bill Joy

That was the gist of his essay two decades ago. And his solution now is the same as it was then: regulate technology more closely and stop making powerful information available to just anyone.

“The argument from the Wired article in 2000 is you have to limit the access to that information to a smaller number of people,” he explains. “Dangerous information is like dangerous material, and it has to be regulated.”

“Like an oligarchy of information?” I ask.

“I would call them guilds,” he answers.

That may strike some as elitist. But Joy does not fit neatly into that box.

Take boardrooms, for example. Joy thinks a lot of the winner-take-all, short-term thinking that’s failed to anticipate – let alone own – the negative consequences arising from technology can be blamed in part on a lack of diversity.

“In the board meetings I’ve been to, it’s been overwhelmingly young, white male – and maladjusted in some way,” says Joy. “Having more women in the conversation is uniformly helpful because they’re sensitive to values – at least that the maladjusted males are not.”

Joy’s thesis of holding power to account has evolved over the years to encompass social media companies, which he thinks need to be held responsible for the damage their platforms can cause. “We know how to give everyone something in their hand that puts them in a Pavlovian experiment so they become addicted,” he says.

When I ask him about the widening gap between multi-billionaire tech founders and the rest of humanity, Joy says tech founders who build empires on the back of the internet – which was created with public funds – should have their wealth capped.

“They’re basically monopolies, winner-take-all monopolies,” he explains. “It’s not like there was any great genius involved, or any great gift to the world involved. What it really was, was the technology opened up this blank space like a blank continent to be explored, and somebody got there first and put four stakes on the corner.”

For his part, the blank space Joy is most interested in exploring these days has less to do with the virtual and everything to do with the physical world. Namely, the planet.

Joy is an impact investor who wants great returns for the environment and humanity [File: R_Tee/Getty Images]

“Each of us consumes and has impact,” he explains. “What we’re all doing, all rationally individually doing, each of what we’re doing may seem small, but the collective impact on sustainability is overwhelming the planet.”

That’s why Joy’s focus these days isn’t the internet, but finding, funding and commercializing green technologies that hold promise.

After leaving Sun Microsystem in 2003 (the company was later acquired by the Oracle Corporation), Joy spent nine years as a partner with Kleiner Perkins, the Silicon Valley venture capital firm that made early-stage investments in such giants as Google and Amazon. Today he is a principal and chief scientist with Water Street Capital.

“I’ve been involved in three ventures I’m really proud of,” says Joy. “One, Beyond Meat, which is going public today, so I’ll mention it first. It’s not the one I normally mention first.”

On the day Joy sat down with AJ Impact in our offices in New York City, Beyond Meat (ticker BYND) – a vegan meat company in which he was an early investor – was making its debut on the Nasdaq.

The company priced its IPO at $25 a share. By the close of its first day of trading, shares in Beyond Meat had soared 163 percent to settle at $65.75.

The last time Wall Street witnessed that kind of opening-day performance was during the dot-com boom, according to Deal Logic.

Beyond Meat IPO
Joy was a pioneering investor in Beyond Meat, a vegan meat company that had the most successful IPO so far this year [File: Reuters/Brendan McDermid]

But Joy doesn’t measure his investments solely by financial returns. He’s an impact investor who also wants great returns for the environment and humanity.

Livestock, for example, is estimated to contribute 14.5 percent of total greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s where Beyond Meat comes in.

Joy’s also hoping to decarbonize cement.

“Every pound of cement you make, you basically emit a pound of CO2 and you use a pound of water,” he explains.

Cement accounts for five percent of global GHG emissions. So to make it greener, Joy has invested in Solidia Technologies – a firm that’s developed a process to reduce the carbon footprint of cement by up to 70 percent.

But the biggest GHG emitters globally by far are power and transportation. That’s why even on the day Beyond Meat is going public, the company Joy seems most excited to talk about is Ionic Materials, a battery company.

Ionic Materials, as Joy explained, has developed a solid, non-flammable polymer electrolyte material that can replace the flammable, liquid electrolyte currently used in most lithium-ion batteries. Those are the batteries that power smartphones, tablets and electric cars and that can catch fire if the batteries are defective.

It’s not just a safer lithium-ion battery that Ionic Materials is facilitating. The company is trying to make batteries cheaper and higher-performing as well – qualities that could accelerate decarbonisation of the power grid and transportation.

And it doesn’t stop there.

“We haven’t commercialized this yet, but it appears you can make lithium-sulphur batteries,” says Joy. “Sulphur is a waste material, and so instead of using nickel and cobalt and these other metals in the cathode of the batteries, you can use sulphur, which is infinitely abundant.”

A lithium-sulphur battery would also help curb human rights abuses in the supply chain by eliminating the need for cobalt sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where exploitation, including child labour, has been well documented.

Joy calculates that between Ionic Materials, Solidia and Beyond Meat, he’s taking aim at the sources of roughly half of all global GHG emissions.

Joy sat down with AJ Impact the day Beyond Meat went public [Duarte Geraldino/Al Jazeera]

“A small number of things, if they were adopted widely, could knock out a lot of emissions,” he says.

But as sanguine as he is about the potential of these technologies to steer humanity towards a more sustainable path, Joy does recognize the challenges that lie ahead – starting with investor impatience.

“The venture community has largely abandoned this sector because climate change solution companies take too long,” he explains.

For Joy, the problem boils down to bits versus atoms, or information versus materials.

“With information, I can introduce a new app on my phone and I can have 100 million users in two days,” he says. “I can’t invent a new idea about a battery and have 100 million batteries in two days.”

By Joy’s calculations, Ionic Materials will take up to 13 years from his initial round of funding to reach its target volume of production.

“I’m eight years in, and I’m five years from my big impact,” he says.

He’s even gone so far as to lead investment rounds for Ionic Materials and Solidia, “not because it would make more money for me, but because I needed to have a lead investor”.

Joy believes that though venture capitalists may have lost interest in green tech, high-net-worth individuals, foundations, family offices and “enlightened” pension funds could fill the void. But here, too, he sees obstacles.

“There’s lots of people out there who have very large fortunes. And what do they want to do? They want to start a rocket-ship company, they want to start a school or whatever it is that their peer group thinks makes them so they can have cocktail-party chatter with their peers, their billionaire peers,” says Joy. “You know, investing in a cement company isn’t as sexy.”

Hollywood makes movies about social networks, after all. Not vegan meat, greener cement and better batteries.

But Joy has found creative ways to strike up conversations about sustainability. Like his sneakers. He had them custom-made so the ratio of blue to green in the design would be roughly equivalent to the amount of water and land on the earth’s surface.

His inspiration? “There’s a catastrophe going on in the oceans,” he says.

Because when it comes to saving the planet, Joy doesn’t just talk the talk. In his blue-and-green sneakers, he walks the walk.

Joy had his sneakers custom made so their ratio of blue to green would be roughly equivalent to that of water and land on earth’s surface [Duarte Geraldino/Al Jazeera]


Source: Al Jazeera