Saturday, January 26, 2013

Brave New World

It's not every day that a Silicon Valley entrepreneur comes to town, and so it was with much anticipation that we waited for Dado Banatao's visit to Ateneo de Davao. And not only us, apparently, because the presidents and heads from the other Ateneo schools, Manila included, also came by to join the talk that Banatao would give.

Banatao has been dubbed by local press as the "Bill Gates of the Philippines." I'm not quite sure that's a proper compliment, but that's media for you. Regardless, Banatao's achievements are quite impressive. Microprocessor pioneer, founder of three Silicon Valley companies, and now venture capitalist with a portfolio of almost thirty semiconductor companies -- an impressive record for someone who started out as a poor scholar of the former Ateneo de Tuguegarao.

When a VIP comes to visit, expectations are always high. There's the implicit hope of assistance or partnership. Banatao talked in some depth about PhilDev, an organization that is the conduit for many of his charitable activities in the country. PhilDev's focus is on education in science and engineering, with a view towards the Philippines becoming a center for development of new technology. Per Banatao: "Simple humanitarian gift-giving, while having an immediate impact, does not move the economic needle in the country."

Much of the rest of the talk we can readily agree with. "With education, we can't see the result right away, but it has to start." "Entrepreneurship will enable growth in the country; while economic growth is not an end in itself, it is a necessary condition to enable individuals to be productive and creative." "The Philippines, with 100 million people, is a major market. We are part of the demand, but we are going the wrong way, because our value add is mostly small."

Of the diagnosis there wasn't anything terribly new or perspective-changing. But what of the solutions?

At heart, Banatao is an engineer and a venture capitalist, and a terribly efficient one at that. When asked about ailed Philippine education, he pointed to the lack of original research, attributable in large part to the small number of PhD's in science and engineering and to the lack of funding for projects.

Banatao is keen on the big payoff that comes from groundbreaking new intellectual property, not just in any field, but in engineering, the type you can write patents from and build companies on. What of other areas like, say, the services sector? "The overall value returned by service companies is low." We need to be thinking long-term, not short-term.

To Banatao, many of the current programs that go under Bachelor of Science aren't really worthy of the name. "Where's the science in Information Technology?" he asks. And to prove his point, he stumps the IT students with a trick question on binary searches and tables. You don't need to go to school for the things we teach in IT; you can just pick it up from a book. In six months.

In the face of this bold vision, I'm trying to extrapolate how things would be if this were to all come to pass. We would have real distinctions between science and mere applied discipline. A university would truly be a university, where gifted, dedicated students are steeped in the foundations of prepare for careers in research; a university, distinct from community colleges and technical vocational schools.

O brave new world, that has such people in it!