Monday, February 19, 2018

Silicon Valley's Singularity University is Having a Bad Year

          By Brian Orlotti

Singularity University (SU), the Sillicon Valley-based think tank/startup incubator focused on fields like space travel and renewable energy, is now at the centre of multiple scandals, which has caused Mountain View, CA based Google, one of the founding partners, to withdraw funding.

SU’s troubles show that even institutions catering to the techno-elite aren’t immune to temptation and corruption.

Located in the historic "Hangar One" building of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, SU was created in 2009 based on futurist Ray Kurzweil's interpretation of the "technological singularity." Essentially, Kurzweil believes that coming advances in nano and biotechnology will massively increase human intelligence over the next twenty years, fundamentally reshaping the world’s economy and society.

Drawing faculty from NASA and the tech industry, SU was marketed as an alternative to accredited graduate schools. SU initially offered an annual 10-week summer program and has since added conferences, classroom-based executive training courses, at $14,500 USD tuition ($18,250 CDN) for a week-long program plus a startup incubator. In 2013, SU reincorporated as the for-profit ‘Singularity Education Group" and retained the name "Singularity University" as a brand name.

This change allowed SU to engage in both non and for-profit activities.

As outlined in the February 15th, 2018 Bloomberg post, "Silicon Valley’s Singularity University Has Some Serious Reality Problems," SU’s shining facade belies a sordid underbelly, with examples including:
  • An SU instructor (former NASA astronaut Daniel T. Barry), who allegedly sexually assaulted a former student, Yasemin Baydaroglu, from France.
  • Shady financial dealings by various executives. SU’s financial controller, Alicia Issac, who used its credit cards to make $13,500 in personal purchases and kept the cash from a $2,000 check to SU. As well, an early SU architect, Bruce Klein, was convicted in 2012 of running a credit fraud operation in Alabama. SU Board member Naveen Jain was also convicted of insider trading in 2003 before moving on to co-found Moon Express.
  • Allegations of discrimination from SU’s former chief strategy officer Gabriel Baldinucci, who is being sued by a former staffer for alleged discrimination due to gender and disability and claims Baldinucci paid her less than men in the same position and retaliated against her for complaining.
SU partner Google withdrew $1.5Mln USD ($1.9Mln CDN) in funding as well as its representative on SU’s advisory board last year. SU has since terminated 14 of about 170 staff.

Of course, SU still has many advocates and potential sources of funding it can call on.

As outlined in the February, 15th, 2018 Geekwire post, "Boeing helps lead new $32M investment in Singularity University, explores deeper partnership," SU has raised $32Mln USD ($40Mln CDN) in venture funding led by Chicago, IL based Boeing and Kirkland, WA based investment firm WestRiver Group.

According to the post, WestRiver’s CEO, Erik Anderson, will replace Sillicon Valley luminary Peter Diamandis as SU’s chairman.

Let's see what sort of time this latest round of funding buys the beleaguered institution.
Brian Orlotti.

Brian Orlotti is a regular contributor to the Commercial Space blog.

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