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Sir Richard Branson: “We’re Killing the World”

An observer of Sir Richard Branson over say 20 years might have remarked how much older he looked as the keynote speaker at the BIO convention this week in San Diego. He struggled for words at times and was visibly tired by the end of his hour on stage; but he had lost nothing of his charm, nor had he varied in his iconoclastic approach to building great enterprises or his views on technology in the face of climate change.

“We’re killing the world,” he remarked at the outset of his lengthy interview with BIO president and CEO Jim Greenwood. “Over the next 100 years we could do irreparable harm to the planet. But in this room are the people who can absolutely transform the world. We need scientists to come up with clean fuels, ideally not disrupting the food supply.”

As he has done elsewhere, he singled out LanzaTech for praise. “They take waste products from aluminium and steel mills, and it comes out as jet fuel. These are the kinds of fuels we need, or algae-based or isobutanol fuels. Biotech people are working on producing them in enough quantities, and I would urge as many companies as possible to work on those [kinds of technologies].”

“We’re going to run out of oil anyway, so why not have an alternative? Just as an insurance policy, if nothing else?”

The $25 Million Virgin Earth Prize

On his $25 million Virgin Earth Prize, which would be awarded to the first technology that comes up with a feasible way to extract carbon from the atmosphere, he noted that “we’ve had 10,000 submissions, which we’ve whittled down to 12 really good ideas. The Prize is still out there, but I think it’s a prize that will ultimately be awarded.”

In tough times for raising capital for advancing early-stage enterprises, BIO CEO Jim Greenwood returned several times in the interview to Branson’s roots as an entrepreneur, and the founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Mobile (among many other brands) obliged by recounting stories from the early days of building his airline.

“I find being Dr. Yes instead of Dr. No has been a lot more fun,” he noted. “It’s partly because of my inquisitiveness that we have gone into so many areas. When I was 27, I was taking a trip to the British Virgin Islands to see a very beautiful woman, and while I was waiting to board the plane, American Airlines decided they hadn’t sold enough tickets or something and they cancelled the flight, but I very much wanted to see the lady.

“So I went over to another counter and rented a plane, then made up a fancy name like Virgin Airlines and on a bit of blackboard I wrote out a price of $29 one-way, and went around to everyone like me who had been cancelled out. And filled my first plane. And the woman in question and I just celebrated our wedding anniversary, more than 30 years later.”

Branson on Innovation

“No point to a company if you’re not going to innovate,” he observed. “It can be be little things or big things. For example, a lot of people wondered how someone from the entertainment industry could start an airline, but I knew from that industry that people want to be entertained. And I was determined that we would have seat-back video before anyone else. At the time, [to outfit our fleet] cost $10 million, and I could not get anyone to lend the money. No one.”

“I kept thinking to myself, where am I going to get 10 million before British Airways beats us to it? So I rang up Boeing, and I asked them, “‘If I buy 10 new 747s, would you include seat-back video?’ And they said they would be happy to. And It was far easier to find those wiling to lend $3 billion for the planes than the $10 million for seat-back video.”

Branson on Management

His advice on management was straightforward. “Find someone as quickly as possible who can run the business for you; it will free you up to have a life and do other things, such as spending time with your family.” His ideal leader? “A great listener. There’s nothing worse than someone who talks all the time.”

3 words of advice? “Protect the downside. When I bought my first second-hand 747 from Boeing, I had an agreement that I could hand the plane back after 12 months, if things did not work out. If they did, I would buy a lot more planes from them. And they were very good about that. But the worst case, I thought it would cost us 6 months of our record business profits.”

Branson on Entrepreneurship and Space Exploration

His advice to entrepreneurs: really understand what people want, and have a passion for the product or service, rather than a passion for making money. He went into some detail about his upcoming Virgin Galactic space passenger enterprise.

“We’ve been fifty years in space and only about 500 people have ever gone there, and it’s clear that the governments in the US, Russia and China are not interested in taking ordinary people there. How many of you would like to go into space?” he asked the audience.

More than 1,000 raised their hands. “You see, there’s more than the 500 who’ve gone into space, who would like to go themselves, just in this room.”

“The problem is that something like 3% of people who have gone into space have lost their lives during re-entry. That’s unacceptable. So, Burt Rutan has come up with an innovative approach to re-entry, sort of like the flight of a shuttlecock where the angle of entry doesn’t matter so much.”

“I’ve had some great adventures in m lifetime and space will be the greatest. Im going. I hope you can join me.”

This article was originally published on Biofuels Digest and was republished with permission.

Lead image: Prometheus72 via Shutterstock

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