Esther Dyson: To Infinity and Beyond

Internet doyenne Esther Dyson was awarded the Aenne Burda Creative Leadership award at the Digital, Live, Design or DLD conference in Munich on January 25.  Dyson,  who is currently training to be a cosmonaut, talked to Informilo about why this is a great time to start a business, her investments in Russia, personalized medicine and space technology.

Esther Dyson’s name has long been synonymous with everything digital. She is a former chair of ICANN, the Internet governing group, and is known for her prescient views on emerging technologies. These days though, her name is just as likely to be associated with outer space. Four years ago Dyson launched an annual workshop called Flight School focused on next generation aviation and private space travel. Now she is taking a hiatus to train in Star City, Russia’s cosmonaut training center near Moscow, to become a back-up for Hungarian space tourist Charles Simonyi, a computer software executive.

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A consummate networker and die-hard road warrior , even cosmonaut training has barely put a crimp in Dyson’s globe hopping. In October, after she had already started medical tests for her required training, Dyson, a non-executive director of advertising conglomerate WPP, traveled to Silicon Valley to attend a company board meeting. A few weeks later she dashed from Russia to Uganda, to the African Stock Exchanges conference, to give a talk about venture capital and angel investing, then continued on from there to Monaco for an annual invitation- only media forum hosted by France’s Publicis. In early January she was in Manhattan, buying knee socks and long underwear, and lunching at the New York Stock Exchange with a tony crowd that include Tina Brown, who has edited Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and now the Daily Beast. On weekends and other free moments Dyson travels into Moscow to check in on companies she has invested in such as Russian search engine Yandex, which earlier this year looked poised to become one of the year’s biggest IPOS on Nasdaq. That, of course, was before the economy tanked.

Dyson remains undaunted. She pioneered investments in Russian and Eastern European companies as far back as the early 1990s and is now branching out into other emerging markets. One of her more recent investments is Power.com, a Brazilian start-up offering access to multiple social networks which is currently embroiled in a legal tangle with Facebook. Dyson is also helping blaze the trail in personalized healthcare, investing in companies such as 23andme, a California-based personal genetics testing company. In the future, she says, “not having personalized medicine will be like not having personalized clothing.” Expect to hear about some new investments in that space and others when she returns to New York after she either wraps up her cosmonaut training or actually goes up in outer space in April. Dyson says she thinks the downturn is “is a great time” to invest in new companies. “I am looking forward to coming back,” she says.

In the meantime Dyson, who has tried her hand at being a journalist, securities analyst, book author and philanthropist, is fighting nausea on zero gravity flights and penning opinion pieces from her tiny apartment in Star City, including a January 21th article entitled “The Information State” which appeared in Egypt’s English language Daily News.

To honor her many achievements, Hubert Burda Media, the organizer of the Digital, Live, Design (DLD) conference awarded Dyson the Aenne Burda Creative Leadership award on Jan. 25. at the Digital, Live, Design or DLD conference.

 The award, given each year at DLD, an annual event that now draws 1,000 attendees every January, is a tribute to Hubert Burda’s mother, entrepreneur Aenne Burda, an icon of post-war Germany, who died in November 2005. Starting in 1949, Aenne Burda turned a small publishing house into a global fashion publishing company. In 1987, during the Cold War, she and her Burda fashion magazine managed to pierce the Iron Curtain and expand into Russia. Previous winners include Google’s Marissa Mayer and Flickr’s Caterina Fake (Dyson is one of  Flickr’s  investors). When accepting the award Dyson recounted how she is training to be Simonyi’s back-up.  If she does not get to go up this time she says she hopes the training will increase her chances of going up into outer space at a later date.  “If I get there, be prepared!” Dyson told the standing room only crowd at DLD.

A Sharp Intellect and An Endearing Openness

Born in Switzerland, Dyson, 57, comes from a brainy family: her father Freeman Dyson is a well-known physicist, her mother is mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, and her brother is scientific historian and author George Dyson. Esther has an economics degree from Harvard and speaks several foreign languages (she lets drop in conversation that she decided to learn Russian at 14 because she already knew English, French and German). While she doesn’t suffer fools she has an endearing openness about her own foibles, exposing not only her genetic information on the Internet but revealing in recent blog posts from Star City about out how stupid she felt when she lost a sneaker or fell off her bike twice in one day.

She also has a sense of humor. Take this recent blog posting: “On Saturday I almost lost a contact lens at my swimming pool, and I realized that I should get around to ordering that spare set of contact lenses I have been meaning to get for a while. Imagine coming back from space only to say: “Yeah, it was really great, floating around and all. But unfortunately I lost one of my contact lenses. It will probably end up stuck to one of the air-intake units; everything else does. But I never did manage to get a really satisfying view of the Earth with only one eye.” So why the fascination with space and why now? It is a mix of personal reasons and an excitement about how new technologies might be applied in space and back on Earth. Improving space suits, for example, offers multiple challenges. “I’m an American,” says Dyson. “When I see a problem I see a great opportunity for a solution.”

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