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Jilted TED speaker Nick Hanauer's former hobby: Biosphere2

The famous (and infamous) Biosphere2 is now owned and operated as a science lab by the University of Arizona.
The famous (and infamous) Biosphere2 is now owned and operated as a science lab by the University of Arizona.
University of Arizona

This has been making the bloggy rounds since last week. The YouTube video embedded below is from a TED U talk that Nick Hanauer, a Seattle venture capitalist, gave earlier this year in Long Beach. Hanauer was miffed that his talk wasn't posted on the TED site and took his case to the media, namely National Journal.

Accusations of censorship arose: the talk wasn't posted because Hanauer said that the rich aren't job creators, it was alleged, and TED's Chris Anderson didn't help matters by sending Hanauer an email indicating that the talk was "out and out political." Then Anderson wrote a blog post explaining the whole thing in more detail. And then the Hanauer talk somehow got posted, although Hanauer agreed that the quality wasn't great, acknowledging Anderson's point.

Hanauer is indeed a partner at Second Avenue Partners. The firm looks to have invested about $6.5 million in two companies over the past two years and have been involved in much larger deals over the past decade, according to CrunchBase

But what's really interesting comes from Hanauer's bio on the Second Avenue website: "Hanauer serves on the boards of the Cascade Land Conservancy, The University of Arizona’s Mt Lemmon Science Center and the Biosphere2; a University of Arizona climate research project." [My emphasis]

Back in the 1990s, Biosphere2 was an object of fascination and ridicule that cost $200 million to build near Tucson in Arizona. Columbia University took it over in 1995, after two batches of "biospherians" were sealed inside the environment, to test hypotheses about how environments function and sustain themselves.

What came next was flat-out weird, as the New York Times reported in 1996:

The would-be Eden became a nightmare, its atmosphere gone sour, its sea acidic, its crops failing, and many of its species dying off. Among the survivors are crazy ants, millions of them.

Rather than aiming to recreate paradise, Columbia is now working to make and sustain its opposite -- a kind of atmospheric hell that threatens to choke the globe late next century with high temperatures and high levels of carbon dioxide, a principal agent of global warming. Some organisms in the experiment are expected to thrive, and others to die.

To that end, Columbia is now clearing out old growths and animals, planning new ones and beginning to subdivide the would-be paradise into experimental plots, curious to see if the three acres of futuristic domes here can serve as a scientific testbed for anticipating the effects of a warming climate, and perhaps avoiding negative ones.

Columbia was out by 2005, and the University of Arizona came along in 2007. Eventually, the University took over the whole thing, getting the real estate from a developer who owned the property, along with a $20-million gift from the Philecology Foundation, a legacy of Biosphere2's original funder, Edward Bass.

Hanauer is no longer on the board; his term ended in 2010 (no gotcha stuff here about his bio — I just don't think he's updated it). I checked with the University of Arizona to find out what its plans are for Biosphere2, and a spokesperson told me that the facility is still very much about science, although not of the dire variety described in the NYT story from 1996. The idea is to experiment on a controlled scale, then apply the results to the real world.

Biosphere2 remains an attraction, as well: it gets 100,000 visitors per year, according to the University of Arizona.

So why was Hanauer interested in a such an offbeat project in the first place? I called him up to ask, but he's currently traveling (I'll post a follow-up if and when he gets back to me). Biosphere2, as a means to study the Earth's ecosystem, is consistent with Hanauer's rather eclectic career blend of VC, activism, and political metaphor-making.

For example, he's co-authored two books with former Clinton administration speechwriter Eric Liu, the most recent titled "The Gardens of Democracy." Hanauer and Liu explained what the title means in an interview last year: "In reality, society is a garden, not a machine. It's a complex adaptive system. An economy or civic body no more self-regulates than a garden self-tends. Gardens require gardeners — to seed, to feed, and to weed."

The dustup over his TED talk made Hanauer look kind of petulant, but when you drill down into his background and what he's up to, he comes off as a new kind of intellectual: the venture-lectual, someone who has achieved a certain amount of success in contemporary business, finance and the innovation economy and now wants to expand that experience into intriguing new places. You might not agree with the message in his TED talk, but people like this are worth keeping an eye on as politicians get more aggressive about stressing innovation as the key to America's economic recovery.

PROGRAMMING NOTE: I'm taking a bit of a breather this week, so posting will be light. However, I'm staying busy over at Quora, answering some questions and seeing if the site deserved its recent $50 million venture round!


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