Encouraging Innovation – Yuri Milner at European Zeitgeist 2011


>>Jonathan Zittrain:
Yuri Milner.>>Yuri Milner: Yes.
>>Jonathan Zittrain: Yuri, when you were ten, what are you dreaming about?
>>Yuri Milner: Physics.>>Jonathan Zittrain: Physics. What kept you
away?>>Yuri Milner: I think about 25 years ago,
I’ve seen for the first time Stephen Hawking, who is going to speak later today, in Moscow,
in our institute where I was doing my Ph.D., which I never finished, so….
>>Jonathan Zittrain: And that inspired you not to finish your Ph.D. is the story I’m
hearing.>>Yuri Milner: Yes.
>>Jonathan Zittrain: Because you said, “I’m never going to be as smart as Stephen Hawking.”
>>Yuri Milner: Absolutely.>>Jonathan Zittrain: “So what’s the point?”
Not bad. So then what did you do?
When, you know — if you roll forward, you know, 15 years, I started to invest in Internet.
>>Jonathan Zittrain: Yes.>>Yuri Milner: And then there were, you know,
a few things in between, like Wharton, World Bank, and a few other things.
>>Jonathan Zittrain: And in some way, it would probably be an exaggeration anybody is the
Stephen Hawking of anything. But you were kind of the Stephen Hawking of investing in
the sense that you’ve made some extremely forward-looking investments, not least of
which has been to get, I guess, a 2% piece or nearly 2% piece of Facebook for about 200
million U.S. dollars. It just leads to the obvious question you must get asked all the
time. When you size up something in which to invest, how central is innovation to what
you’re sizing up? And do you have some way of sifting the good from the bad?
>>Yuri Milner: That’s very kind of you to make that comparison.
But I think it’s — actually, interestingly enough, it’s not about innovation. It’s about
people. So I think, you know, what I do is really geared towards trying to assess people
and founders behind the business.>>Jonathan Zittrain: Is it possible if somebody
came in and said, great conversation. They’re clearly really smart. They actually say, I
got nothing. I have no idea, but I am planning to sit down and think hard, and with your
$50 million, I am confident I can make it happen?
>>Yuri Milner: I think that’s pretty close to what Y Combinator is doing. And —
>>Jonathan Zittrain: ‘Cause you guys invest in every single thing that comes out of Y
Combinator, sight unseen.>>Yuri Milner: Yes. So we believe they have
an amazing — actually, they automated, they built a factory to select innovation very
early. And I think that they are getting a bigger
and bigger market share of innovation in the Silicon Valley.
So it’s basically a bet on their production factory.
>>Jonathan Zittrain: Mm-hmm. And you have a lot of views on social. Has
that been an area you have specifically targeted, to the extent you have targeted anything?
>>Yuri Milner: Not as early as Y Combinator, which is the thing that — it’s a dominant
theme in the last few years, and we believe it will continue to be for the next few years.
Probably Naveen will certify to that.>>Jonathan Zittrain: What’s your experience
in the innovative or entrepreneurial environments, geographically speaking, around the world?
Silicon Valley versus, say, Russia versus Europe. Are there major differences or wherever
there is talent, good ideas can happen?>>Yuri Milner: I think so. Somehow it happens.
Yeah, I think it can happen anywhere, but the way it does happen most of the time is
where a lot of concentration already exists, most innovation happens.
It’s almost like a network effect where it’s exponentially more innovative where there
is a critical mass, which happens to be Silicon Valley at the time.
>>Jonathan Zittrain: And do you think government and provision of government services is ripe
for innovation as well? I know you were appointed by President Medvedev to a commission on government
reform.>>Yuri Milner: Well, It’s not government reform.
It’s actually called –>>Jonathan Zittrain: Modernization.
>>Yuri Milner: — modernization and innovation.>>Jonathan Zittrain: What does the commission
do?>>Yuri Milner: Well, it basically is supposed
to encourage innovation in Russia, and one would think, you know, why would somebody
do something like that in a country which is famous for natural resources, mostly. But
it turns out that it is actually a good place to do that because if you look at the — probably
the best programming competition, what is called ICM championship, so Russian teams
won every second one of them. So it’s kind of interesting that it kind of makes sense
to encourage innovation in Russia. When I first invested in Facebook, I discovered
a lot of Russians are working at Facebook.>>Jonathan Zittrain: That was after you invested.
>>Yuri Milner: Yes.

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