Context. The big picture. For most product developers, designers, and innovators in general the context concept seems often lost. People want to believe. They want the idea to do well. Problem is, companies are not in the business of ideas. They are in the business of making money by delivery a product or service that adds value under some particular, hopefully unique, competitive advantage. Ideas are none of those things, especially without context. Context allows you to position the idea, value the idea and truly understand if the idea has merit. Leave out honest, big context and you will fail and rather persistently at that.

A large-scale example? Clean energy. I’d love to see new, low cost forms of energy. I’d love to see sustainable energy. Say this and people for over 40 years now shout out solar, wind, wave and so on. The problem – first, clean does not mean low cost in and of itself, does it? Saying solar does not make it low cost or clean. The same with wind.

Oil will run out! We’ve all heard that. I’ve seen more than enough geology reports by people in energy who already make a very large amount of money that we have enough oil and gas for the next 400 to 500 years, even with growth when energy efficiency and technology advances that use less energy period are factored in. See that in any energy VC proposals? Selective amnesia? Pure hope? That’s big context. It sets the bar, period. Big time.

How many VC’s, investors, universities and governments actually ask any of these questions honestly? Not many it seems. That’s the missing context. It’s missing a lot these days. As oil and gas prices rise, the economics of getting at ever more difficult oil make sense. Couple that with massive in place infrastructure investments and do we actually see any major energy or chemical company making truly, in context to their revenues and profits, real investments in the space? No. I’m not saying to beg off solar or wind – I’m saying let’s look at the big questions – the final ones, to get true context and perspective.

Simple questions. But big ones to provide big context.

An even simpler example? A decade ago, one very large client once asked at a three day, private green chemistry retreat why I was so quiet – they were paying me enough money. I said that I’ve been listening, listening carefully for the most important context question. The issue they had drilled down to was whether at the time they should primarily pursue bacteria and algae for chemical production or plant based chemistry extraction versus petroleum.

I had listened for their best rates in the future for extracting the top ten basic chemicals from either for which the entire chemical industry was based. Plants seemed a bit behind, but that’s not what bothered me. It was the fact that bacteria and algae could be “stacked” and bacteria did not need light. Plants – they were different. So I asked my big question:

“How many earths would we need to completely replace all known chemical usage projected 50 years ahead at ten times the best current rates if every arable acre above sea level was utilized?”

A group of graduate students were ushered out to calculate that.

The answer then: 4.5 Earths…with no food or feed production….

That’s called context. That firm gave up its entire plant based program then and there save a few very specific, specialty programs where that earth thing was not an issue. The real point – understanding the end goal rate of plant based chemical production to have a sense of where anyone’s research really was versus alternatives.

Interestingly, in the case of solar, it may costs and infrastructure for storage that are the big problem. The surface area question there? Not much of the earth’s surface could replace all of our energy needs. A powerful graph not often seen, but clearly showing big context:

Surface Area

In solar, who can show us the same basic yeah or nay on storage and distribution?

So when you come up with the big ideas and the little ones try looking for that deal killing question or that incredibly compelling validation. That looks great on that VC slide deck. I know. That’s how Sirrus, formerly Bioformix got started. You see, that firm’s basic idea is simple – eliminate energy use rather than finding new forms of it. It’s a lot easier to simply not use energy than to generate it. That’s simple context anyone can understand.

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