DC, Japan, and Space

Photo by MIKE STOLL on Unsplash

DC to Silicon Valley: Drop Dead

In addition to this “Securities” newsletter and podcast, our Lux Riskgaming Initiative and a long tail of sundry tasks, I’ve added an affiliation as Fellow at the Manhattan Institute this year, where I will be focused on solutions for improving America and the world's economic growth and progress on science and technology. In other words, what I do every day already.

In my debut feature editorial for City Journal, I write about Washington D.C.’s fusillade against the tech industry at a time when the ecosystem is retrenching after the overheated frenzy of the Covid-19 digital economy. I highlight three new policies that are slowing tech’s recovery:

  • Section 174 R&D Tax Amortization: A ticking-time bomb in the tax law has, unfortunately, arrived without Congress defusing it. These newly-enforced tax changes can have massively negative consequences for tech startups, particularly early-stage companies bootstrapping with some early traction and revenue. A shock tax bill might knock otherwise functioning companies out of business.
  • Toughening Antitrust Environment: In December, we saw a slew of transactions that were investigated or blocked by the FTC. Without broad recourse to the public markets (where the thinning herd of IPOs has been observed for decades now) and now increasingly to private sales, liquidity for high-quality startups is getting harder and harder to find for founders and venture capitalists.
  • Private-Fund Adviser Rules: The SEC published its final rule here a few weeks ago, which is designed to equalize the economic and information rights of different investors in private funds. That deeply complicates long-standing arrangements among venture funds, particularly for funds constructed on behalf of anchor LPs. It only adds to the challenges for VCs hoping to fundraise in an already barren year.

Do read the article, and look for more coverage of ideas and solutions that can hopefully unlock more of America’s economic dynamism.

The new global axis of national AI hubs continues with Tokyo’s Sakana AI

Photo by Cosmin Serban on Unsplash
Photo by Cosmin Serban on Unsplash

Lux had major news this week: we led the $30 million founding seed round for Sakana AI, a Tokyo, Japan-based AI research lab whose founders David Ha and Llion Jones are leveraging research innovations like evolutionary methods, collective intelligence and character-level training to build nature-inspired foundation AI models. Grace Isford and Brandon Reeves wrote up their thoughts on what makes Sakana AI distinctive, including its approach to model building, its position in Japan, and its impressive early hires.

We published a “Securities” podcast as well where I highlighted three of the major themes that led to our investment in Sakana AI:

  • The new global axis of national AI hubs where leading companies take advantage of local talent networks, unique knowledge and research, as well as government support to build competitive products.
  • After decades of anemic growth and deflationary pressures, Japan’s economy has become something of a silver lining in the past few years amidst the post-pandemic malaise afflicting much of the industrialized world.
  • The Asia-Pacific region is finally getting its rightful due in the eyes of international investors. With China’s self-induced economic deceleration, investors are realizing (shocking, I know!) that the rest of Asia is just as — or even more — competitive than the Middle Kingdom. Their attention now increasingly encompasses Japan and South Korea, Southeast Asia (Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and more) as well as that great and burgeoning bastion of venture excitement, India.

On the first of those themes, there’s a clear desire by politicians to ensure that their own countries have a stake in the future leadership of artificial intelligence. Given the dominance of America in digital technology the past two decades, many countries are feverishly working to avoid the same outcome in this next wave of technologies. That’s why we have seen massive state support for AI chip compute in the European Union, South Korea and Taiwan to match and in some cases exceed America’s own CHIPS Act. We’re also seeing the rise of software companies centered on top engineering universities, with the hope that local talent doesn’t migrate to Silicon Valley, but instead can build and prosper locally.

America has an unmatched set of inherent advantages, of course. We are already home to almost all of the greatest AI companies in the world, and the network effects of these businesses are all but insurmountable. Despite a byzantine immigration system, technical workers find their way to Silicon Valley, New York City and other U.S. tech hubs. Our university system is also peerless, both in terms of talent and funding.

Yet, artificial intelligence researchers are still rapidly unearthing new techniques, models, datasets, approaches and more in the frantic exploration of computer science’s frontiers. The upshot of network effects is the density of talent; the downside is groupthink, of too many people watching the same presentations at the same conferences and coming away convinced on a single approach to the future. That’s why intentional and unintentional barriers — geographical, language, cultural, and academic — can protect heterogeneous research niches and increase the likelihood that another country might just find the approach that revolutionizes the field.

America will almost certainly dominate the next generation of AI technology, but it’s not going to have a monopoly on the successes coming. For venture investors, that means calibrating portfolios both toward the huge gains likely to come domestically, but also the longer tail of potential winners that sit at global entrepôts. We see Sakana AI as one of a handful of such winners coming up in the years ahead.

🔊 Listen to “Why Tokyo’s Sakana AI is pioneering a new vanguard of national AI foundation models

How Impulse Space’s Helios will democratize access to Earth’s farthest orbits

Design by Impulse Space
Design by Impulse Space

Let’s move on from the sublunary considerations of global AI companies to the far-flung reaches of Earth’s outer edges. Thanks to SpaceX and a slew of other companies, we’ve democratized access to low-Earth orbit (LEO) by dramatically cutting the cost of rocketing up payloads into space. That’s most obvious with SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, which currently sits at 5,250 operational satellites after this week’s 300th successful Falcon 9 launch.

Space is vast, but objects in space also travel at brain-melting speeds, which means that it is absolutely critical that every object maintains its correct orbit and distance from everything else. The heavier usage of the cosmos is suddenly placing a premium on space maneuverability — the ability to carefully reposition space objects within an orbit, as well as cheaply move them between orbits.

This week, I talked with Impulse Space’s CEO and founder (and a founding member of SpaceX) Tom Mueller about the release of the company’s designs for a new high performance kick stage, Helios. Helios, which will begin flights in 2026, is designed to dramatically lower the cost of moving objects from low-Earth orbit into medium-Earth orbit (MEO) and all the way to geostationary orbit (GEO).

It’s a good example of how innovation solves one problem, and then creates a whole slew of new ones. We spent the past two decades succeeding in democratizing space, but now we need new solutions to all the congestion, while also offering the same democratization to the rest of Earth’s outer reaches. The cycle of innovation continues.

🔊 Listen to “How Impulse Space’s Helios will democratize access to Earth’s farthest orbits

Lux Recommends

  • Grace Isford highlights yet another breakthrough from DeepMind, this time about the announcement of AlphaGeometry, “an AI system that solves complex geometry problems at a level approaching a human Olympiad gold-medalist - a breakthrough in AI performance.” In the firm’s Nature paper, the research team writes that “Notably, AlphaGeometry produces human-readable proofs, solves all geometry problems in the IMO 2000 and 2015 under human expert evaluation and discovers a generalized version of a translated IMO theorem in 2004.” The AI bots will truly take over everything.
  • Our scientist-in-residence Sam Arbesman enjoyed news that astronomers are baffled by a new “ring-shaped cosmic megastructure” that undermines theories about space. From The Guardian, "The observations, presented on Thursday at the 243rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society in New Orleans, are significant because the size of the Big Ring appears to defy a fundamental assumption in cosmology called the cosmological principle. This states that above a certain spatial scale, the universe is homogeneous and looks identical in every direction.”
  • Back here on planet Earth, there is growing trepidation that North Korea might be preparing for war. The country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, announced a major ideological shift, renouncing the final unification of the Korean peninsula and declaring that “The reality is that the North-South relationship is no longer a relationship of kinship or homogeneity, but a relationship of two hostile countries, a complete relationship of two belligerents in the midst of war.” Earlier in the week, two prominent analysts, Robert L. Carlin and Siegfried S. Hecker, wrote that they see signs of looming war. “The situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than it has been at any time since early June 1950.”
  • Sam was delighted by Étienne Fortier-Dubois’s essay on the worldbuilding that happens in fiction, and why it is so hard for artists to match the richness and complexity of the real world. “It’s still an interesting observation because it ties into the wider philosophical theme of evolution vs. design. Design is great: it’s much smarter and faster than evolution is, it allows us to use our brains to create really cool stuff. But evolution through selection has time on its side, and so far every really complex system known to man — including biological systems like the human body, and cultural ones like human civilization — has been the product of evolution rather than intelligent design.”
  • Speaking of worldbuilding, I’m always a connoisseur for hubristic tales of overlords constructing new cities, which always foists top-down schematics on people rather than offering them an evolutionary approach that adapts to their complexity. Zooming on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision Xiongan, the un-bylined Bloomberg feature, “Xi’s Empty Dream City Shows Limits of His Power, Even in China” is a good follow up to Andrew Stokols’s look a year ago in Foreign Policy on "China’s Futuristic City Is a Test of Its Planning Power.” It’s always the most powerful political leaders that can’t seem to make these planned cities work. Funny how that happens.

That’s it, folks. Have questions, comments, or ideas? This newsletter is sent from my email, so you can just click reply.