Financial Times: ‘You Can’t Cast Half the Population As Villains and the Other Half As Victims’

The tech executive on how she makes ‘moonshots’ a reality at X

By Hannah Kuchler
Photos by Maggie Shannon

This article was published on 5 December 2018 as part of the Financial Times Series Women in 2018: The Change Makers.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018
Read the original on (subscription required) or the FT’s Medium blog.

Thanks to Obi Felten, there are self-driving cars on the streets, internet-beaming balloons in the sky and burritos delivered by drones. Felten is chief translator for the “moonshooters”. The team she heads at X, owned by Google’s parent company Alphabet, helps innovators ready their technologies for the real world. X is used to incubate the Silicon Valley giant’s most daring projects — known as “moonshots” because they are supposedly as audacious as launching a spacecraft to the moon.

Fluent in both engineer and earthling, the 46-year-old German explains her unusual role. “I am a translator. No, I’m serious,” she insists, as I smile. “I’m really good at translating between engineers, technical people and non-technical people, who sometimes don’t understand each other.”

Felten is a rare female leader in the technology industry, where maverick men are more usually celebrated. But the questioning spirit she applies to her day job has led her to challenge this male-dominated world to open up to women. She was among those to join the recent walkout of Google employees over the company’s handling of sexual harassment allegations.

After more than two decades working for global tech companies, Felten is adept at bridging different cultures and disciplines. Born to academic parents in Berlin, she witnessed her first big change as a teenager when the Wall came down. She studied philosophy and psychology at Oxford before getting swept up in the dotcom boom as a product manager for After marketing more conventional Google products, such as Chrome and Maps, she joined X.

© Maggie Shannon

As politicians and regulators grapple with social networks that leak data, perhaps even damaging democracy, and smartphones are accused of warping our minds and manners, Silicon Valley needs translators more than ever.

“There’s this misconception that technology is built by technologists in this bubble and then it gets thrown out into the world. That’s partly because there have been bad examples of exactly that happening,” Felten says. “We don’t want to make that mistake. Yes, technology will shape society, but society also has the obligation to shape the technology and make sure it is deployed to solve humanity’s problems and not just create new ones.”

X is possibly the most exciting thing that has ever happened to a suburban shopping mall. The bland, beige structure in Mountain View, California, a couple of miles from Google’s main campus, has been transformed into a workshop to change the world.

In the lobby are examples of outlandish projects that have “graduated” from the lab. There’s a self-driving bubble car with no steering wheel, now part of Waymo, Alphabet’s self-driving car unit. Then there’s the Loon balloon, with the translucency of a jellyfish, launched in July to extend internet access around the world. It was used to bring connectivity to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, and will soon be flying over Kenya.

Felten first heard about these projects six years ago while talking to the scientist Astro Teller, X’s “captain of moonshots”. “I asked him all these questions,” she says, “like, ‘Is it legal to fly balloons over countries? Have you talked to any governments about it? Are you going to partner with phone companies or compete with them? Do you have a business plan?’”

Teller said these were good questions — but his engineers were mostly working on technical problems. “And he looked at me and he said, ‘Why don’t you come here and help us?’”

X’s philosophy is that it is easier to invent a solution that is “10X” — a tenfold improvement on a current idea — than to improve it by 10 per cent. “If you free yourself from preconceived notions, then you can be more creative,” Felten says.

They begin by tackling the hardest part of the problem. This approach is called #monkeyfirst: Teller has written that if you are trying to teach a monkey to recite Shakespeare on a pedestal, you should not be tempted to start by building the pedestal.

With this in mind, Wing, a drone delivery unit that graduated from X, is starting with food precisely because it’s so difficult: hot meals have to be delivered quickly, and demand is uneven.

Teams are pushed to test products in the real world as soon as possible. When X tested semi-autonomous cars on Googlers, they learnt an important lesson: even if you tell people to watch the road, they don’t when they think the car is driving itself, so it’s safer to design a fully autonomous car.

Felten believes other tech companies could learn from bringing in users to test products and even involving them in product development. Silicon Valley should be open to outside voices, be they partner companies or regulators, and by hiring staff from a variety of backgrounds, she says.

Testing helps X to fail fast — but it still prefers to fail quietly. Felten had not yet joined the company when Google Glass, its smart eyewear, arrived, complete with skydivers at Google’s conference and a feature in Vogue. But she vows X will never be so splashy again. “The engineers all thought of it as a prototype, but the world received it as a product because of the way we positioned it,” she says.

Technology will shape society, but society also has the obligation to shape technology.”

It soon became clear that Glass was not useful enough to consumers for them to put up with wearing a weird mini-computer on their face. It was, however, convenient in businesses, where an enterprise edition is now used by engineers and doctors.

Even in Silicon Valley, where praising failure has become a cliché, it can be hard to abandon an idea. Felten sets “kill” criteria with her teams: they agree that if certain things happen, they will dump the project. “We accept that we’re going to fail a lot of times, because the more audacious your endeavour is… the more likely you’re going to fail along the way,” she says.

When Felten arrived on the West Coast from the UK, she was surrounded by men. In London, she had role models from other industries or in politics. But in Silicon Valley, large tech companies are almost all run by men. About 80 per cent of technical positions are filled by men, and 70 per cent of all roles. Venture capital is even more male, with female start-up founders receiving just 2 per cent of VC dollars last year.

This situation inspired Felten to become an “active” rather than a “latent” feminist. “I actually sought out other women, because I realised quickly that was a shortcut to finding the really talented people,” she says.

Simmering discontent with the Silicon Valley status quo burst into the open last year when Susan Fowler, a former software engineer at Uber, wrote powerfully about how sexual harassment was ignored at the company. Her post led to an investigation at Uber, which contributed to the departure of chief executive Travis Kalanick. “Susan’s blog post was a watershed,” Felten says. “The fact that it changed Uber, the way it kicked that off, is a really extraordinary thing.”

© Maggie Shannon

Admitting she may be an “incurable optimist”, Felten sees some improvement in the Valley since then, with more women demanding change and more men committing to improving women’s lives at work. As momentum built in the #MeToo movement, women increasingly reported harassment and denounced tech companies, including Google, for their treatment of the female workforce.

A recent New York Times article claimed that two senior Google executives had left with significant departure packages, one of $90m, despite allegations of sexual harassment that internal investigations found credible. One director at X also left following reports of sexual harassment but did not receive a payout.

The story provoked a Google-wide walkout, with employees of both sexes accusing the company of hypocrisy for not living up to its professed values of diversity and inclusion. “I didn’t even think about not participating,” Felten says. “I thought it was a great idea. It was a statement to draw attention to some of the issues. Everyone here was incredibly supportive.”

Google responded to some of the organisers’ demands, including dropping forced arbitration for sexual harassment claims. But many employees have said it needs to do more to close the gender gap. I ask Felten if, given her position, she thought there were other ways of pushing Google to take action. She begins by talking about promoting diversity. The list starts to sound like many well-meaning efforts in tech companies — but Felten is, of course, thinking bigger.

“When we grew up, it was very much like, you’re a girl or you’re a boy, right. In high schools here, people talk about gender fluidity. But what if we actually think about it much more in terms of femininity and masculinity?

“So yes, we need to empower women and our girls, and teach them how to adopt some masculine traits because those still get you propelled in the way society works at the moment. But let’s also give boys and men permission to use some of the more feminine traits. I almost think it’s harder for a boy to be feminine than it is for a girl to be masculine.”

We need to teach girls how to adopt some masculine traits. But let’s also give boys and men permission to use some more feminine traits

A less binary approach might also help calm the gender debate. A men’s rights movement is simmering on the internet and inside Google, where engineer James Damore was fired last year for circulating a memo that, among other things, said women were biologically better suited to “jobs in artistic or social areas” than engineering.

Felten is unconvinced. “You can’t cast half the population as villains and the other half as the victims. A, I think that’s not great for women either. I don’t want to be cast as a victim. And B, there’s many, many men who are incredibly supportive,” she says.

Is that the 10X idea for solving discrimination against women? I ask. Felten cups her hands on her face. “I don’t know,” she says. But she thinks making our workplaces more inclusive can only help us to crack the world’s biggest challenges. “Think about it. If you brought all this talent to the table that’s currently neglected, not just in our society but in countries across the globe, you would have all that much more brain power to apply to these problems.”

Felten’s list of problems to solve is “endless”: she is excited about using algorithms to understand biological data and applying machine learning to improve food production. But the biggest — or #monkeyfirst — challenge may be tackling climate change. X has done several projects in the area. Some have failed; others, such as Dandelion, which brings geothermal energy into people’s homes, are now companies.

“If we don’t solve climate change within the next generation or so, then there will be a tipping point where it will become much more difficult,” Felten says. “It’s really hard — and it’s definitely a moonshot.”

Hannah Kuchler is an FT correspondent in San Francisco

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018

© 2018 The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

Helmholtz Horizons: Living in modern times

Helmholtz Horizons
6 November 2018
“Solving problems that matter: Insights from X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory”

Obi delivered the closing keynote of Helmholtz Horizons, a summit for European scientists and science policy makers. The Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres (Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren) is the largest scientific organisation in Germany, a union of 18 scientific-technical and biological-medical research centers.

Vogue: Moon Walker

Obi Felten leitet die visionärsten Teams bei Google. Im Geheimlabor X entstehen Produkte und Businesskonzepte der Zukunft. Kontrolliertes Scheitern inbegriffen

Obi Felten leads the most visionary teams at Google. The secret laboratory X is where the products and business concepts of the future are created. Well-managed failures included

By Esma Annemon Dil
Photos by Rainer Hosch

Styled by Deborah Ferguson
Cover article of Vogue Germany Business Edition
September 2018

English translation: Moon walker


The secret laboratory X was first developed eight years within Google – a place where experts could push the boundaries of innovation. Think of Q’s lab in the James Bond films – and indeed, internally it is called the “Moonshot Factory”; not because they’re preparing to blast off to the moon, but because, with every new project, the team aspires to bring fantastic ideas to life that are at least ten times better than anything that’s already been done and therefore sound like pure science fiction. Increasingly, this now incorporates visionary entrepreneurial strategies and future-looking business plans, which is why co-founder Astro Teller installed German strategist Obi Felten in 2012 as “Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the Real world”. Felten’s task is to lead her teams so they figure out as quickly as possible which ideas are worth pursuing and which should be dropped, such as the space lift vision.

Successful projects are then spun off as separate companies: Waymo, for example, or Calico – a research lab exploring health and prolonging life, Google’s Brain AI headquarters, the cyber-crime company Chronicle, or Dandelion which looks at revolutionary heating and air-con technology. The Wing and Loon delivery drones, which are balloons that bring the Internet to remote areas, were going through the well-moderated process of separation during our visit.

It doesn’t matter what the sector is – the question will always be whether it’s worth persisting despite all the hurdles, or whether you are using unproductive energy and need to stop. You must have learned a lot about this in recent years.

Yes, but we do reward well-founded failure because it is often the team itself that recommends stopping a project. This is despite the fact that is painful to say goodbye to an idea that is great in theory and one in which you have already invested your heart and soul. That’s one reason for trying to define what we call ‘kill criteria’ right from the start. These may be technical or financial reasons and point to when we have to give up on a new project.

We start on the hardest things first. It is easiest to explain it by means of an illustration. If you want to test whether a monkey can be put on a pedestal and recite Shakespeare, you could spend a lot of time selecting fine excerpts for it to read and build a really great pedestal, but the bottom line is: can you actually teach a monkey to do something like that at all? When I’m discussing the work plan with my teams and everything we need to get done, the first thing we ask ourselves is: what’s the monkey here? This is so that we don’t get tempted into starting with the pedestal first.

So problems first, then the fun bits later? On my own ventures into the world of entrepreneurship, I dove straight into developing logos and packaging design until months later it became crystal clear that there were far more urgent product challenges that should have been faced.

That’s a classic! You’re not alone in this, it’s totally human nature to begin with the things that we’re most interested in, that are in our comfort zone and that we can most easily tick off as done. This gives us a warm glow of satisfaction, a feeling that we’re in control and making progress. At the same time, most companies and investors are more concerned with the figures, the number of milestones on the list they have reached, rather than whether the critical issues have been resolved. Things like branding or packaging would totally freak out the engineers in my team, they would much rather focus directly on the code and would probably speed off in that direction. That is why it’s so important that a team has a mix: people with different strengths, who see things from different perspectives and have different priorities, who can quickly figure out whether there is a production partner you can use or whether the idea is technically viable.

So many compelling reasons for team diversity, yet it still seems so difficult to achieve.

Absolutely. In many companies, alliances are formed based on how much easier it is to connect with someone you share experiences with, who attended the same college or studied the same subjects, has similar views to yours and who confirms your own prejudices. I go out of my way to avoid hiring people who are too much like me, because I simply won’t learn as much from them.

Have you made mistakes because a team’s ‘group-think’ has ended up distorting your own view of reality?

Some, yes; the Wing project springs to mind. We wanted to use our drone to deliver defibrillators in heart emergency situations and get the life-saving device on the spot within 90 seconds of the emergency call being made. The drone engineers were totally fired up by this specific application until one of our experience and research team actually tested how quickly untrained people could use a defibrillator on a dummy. 40 percent didn’t manage it at all, the others took at least five to six minutes – and that was in a controlled environment, without panic or other distractions. Wing would simply not offer any advantages in populated areas, where first responders are on location within about eight minutes. This data clearly demonstrates the importance of looking at a topic from a number of different angles. Engineers just ask: how can we build it? But there are so many other relevant questions around the user experience: Why and how would anyone need to use this?

Or taking a step backwards: Are we even solving the real issue for the end user? We often benefit from productive conflict within the team and from the many different voices all debating around the table. Sometimes you hit lucky and find specialists who can somehow combine different points of view within themselves. For instance, we have a hardware engineer with us who used to be a concert pianist and a firewoman, is a trained paramedic and works as a 3D print artist in her leisure time. But there is yet another very important factor besides the diversity within the team: we only keep projects secret as long as is absolutely necessary, because we always need quick feedback from the real world.

Mark Zuckerberg coined the phrase “Move fast and break things”, shooting from the hip was not only a problem for Facebook though.

I come from the software world, where you can always continue product improvement post launch. Gmail and Chrome were beta versions for years until they finally began to work well. This is not as easy with hardware. You can’t put a part-finished self-driving automobile onto the market, that’s why we have very stringent safeguards at Waymo. However, we often test our concepts early on using test subjects so that we can get feedback as quickly as possible on whether our product is working and whether we are tackling the real issues for users. Many European companies, in particular German companies, find this a difficult mindset to get their head round, as they have a long tradition of painstakingly perfecting the craftsmanship and technology. It may hurt to publish a project that is only 80 percent of the finished article and receive heaps of criticism about it, but these early lessons really are worth it.

How did that go with Google Glass?

It was obvious that Google Glass was too identifiable as glasses with an integrated computer to be unobtrusively worn outside of the building. So we made the product public and tested it within an explorer program in all areas of life: with fashion models, physicians, factory workers, parents wanting to take photos of their children, people on a night out, and so on. The learning curve was pretty dramatic. The battery didn’t last long enough, the voice-controlled user interface was unwieldy, people didn’t find it convenient enough for private use when viewing their tweets hands-free or taking photos for instance – particularly if they didn’t already wear glasses in the first place. Some wearers were thrown out of bars because rumor had it that the glasses automatically filmed everything, such as things going wrong. There was a massive backlash after the initial hype. Of course, this was a traumatizing experience for our engineers, but it was actually incredibly valuable to get feedback at that time and not years later. As it turned out, the project had not completely failed at all, but happened to appeal to a different target group. It is very successful as a B2B application in many industries, in the medical sector, in the service industry and most of all in manufacturing, for example at General Electric or Boeing where assisted reality can increase efficiency in production technology.

Your work comprises so many complex fields of activity, how did you actually come to get this job?

The approach came about internally. I was Director of Consumer Marketing in Europe, the Middle East and Africa for Google, living in London. That in itself was no easy task either, considering that there were over a hundred Google products in these very differing markets. I had some experience with difficult launches, for example convincing Internet users to switch to Chrome, when back then only eight percent of people actually knew what a browser was. When I first met Astro Teller, who is now CEO at X, he told me all about these incredible projects: about contact lenses that measure diabetics’ glucose levels through their tear fluid, or about Loon using balloons to take the Internet into remote areas. It was mostly me asking the questions: Is that legal, flying balloons over different countries? Has anyone talked to any governments about all this? Will these work hand-in-hand with phone companies or compete against them? Do any of these projects have business plans? What about privacy when the balloons are passing through different networks and so on. It turned out that no-one was dealing with these really important non-technical aspects. It was such a unique opportunity, so I figured it was well worth the move to California for me and my family, even though my husband and I had just bought a house in London and our son had just started school – not really the best time for our family.

That was 2012, and just three years later you founded a department at X called the Foundry.

After I had built up a team of non-technicians and systematized all the processes, it made sense to formalize all this. Foundry is the phase projects enter after they have passed their first Rapid Eval – when we know that an idea is, at least in principle, technically feasible. We used to keep ourselves very isolated, but now we form partnerships with industry much more quickly, for example with Telefónica and ATT at Loon and with Jaguar, Ford and Chrysler at Waymo.

Where do the ideas that end up at X originate?

We do not do basic research ourselves, but the Rapid Eval team does read scientific publications and keeps in close touch with research labs. Many ideas start out at universities: Brian Otis, a professor at the University of Washington, gave up his position to make his idea of contact lenses for diabetic people a reality with us. This project is now part of Verily, a company that emerged from X, which has now formed a partnership with Novartis AG. X passed the baton on, so to speak, from a somewhat risky initial prototype out of an academic research lab to a major investor from the pharmaceutical industry.

This year, the “Wirtschaftswoche” magazine presented you with an award as ‘Future Thinker’, and you have also been a member of the supervisory board of the Springer Nature scientific publishing group since April. Would you say that your training has forged the path for your visionary career?

I have not had a linear career path. I grew up in Berlin, studied philosophy and psychology in Oxford in the early 1990s and then started work at the strategy consulting firm Mitchell Madison Group. More and more companies were working on the Internet at that time, and that caught my interest, so I didn’t go back to university to do an MBA after my consulting experience like so many of my friends, but began as a product manager with the eToys start-up company when it expanded into Europe. I convinced the management that alongside the United Kingdom, Germany was an emerging new market for the online distribution of toys and that I should be the one in charge of the project.

You were very young at the time; where did all that self-confidence come from?

Good question, I was 27 and completely inexperienced, but the management at eToys thought it was worth taking a chance on me. I never gave a thought to my self-confidence back then. I think I owe it to my parents though, as my mother is a teacher and my father a professor. As educators, they instilled a love of learning in me from a very early stage. The second formative phase was Oxford, where you learn to gather material in tutorials and long reading lists, and then deepen and develop these ideas further by writing seminar papers. I learned how to learn quickly!

How do you motivate your children to learn?

I have a 10-year-old son and a five-year-old daughter. Of course, this is on my mind a lot. I only hope they’ll carry on being as curious all their lives as they are now. If they gain the ability to familiarize themselves with new areas then they will retain that ability for the rest of their lives. For some time now, lifelong learning has been a buzzword, and it is becoming all the more pressing that we put this into practice as a society. We need a future education system where we take on education continually and not just for a short time at the beginning of our lives. It is of course also becoming increasingly important for us to be able to rate the sources and quality of information more effectively and not just unquestioningly believe what the first link we are sent to tell us.

You once quoted a study by the World Economic Forum which suggested that 65 percent of the professions that the children of today will go on to pursue in the future have not yet been invented. So, how can you possibly prepare them for these challenges?

If the world suddenly changes around you, it is important to stay flexible and deal with the uncertainty. If the world suddenly changes around you, it is important to stay flexible and deal with the uncertainty. Psychology professor Carol Dweck describes the advantage of the growth mindset as compared to a set mindset. The growth mindset is focused on an attitude of continuous growth that will open the door to further development. Children who expect to get everything at the first attempt balk at more challenging tasks – for example, they are less likely to dare to tackle difficult math problems. On the other hand, children who grow up in an environment where the reward is more for experimentation and hard work rather than perfect results tend to have the courage to tackle complicated tasks and spend longer trying things out. In most cases, these people are better able to deal with disappointments, learn from their mistakes and start over again. My own parents gave me exactly this freedom to maneuver, where it is okay to try things and, at times, get them wrong.

You spoke in public about your failure at eToys and emphasized the value of this experience with the benefit of hindsight.

I built the company up from scratch and hired buyers, programmers, sales and marketing experts, many of whom had worked years in traditional companies. One week before its official launch, the entire European expansion was pulled by the parent company in the USA on the grounds that it was costing too much. We had a warehouse full of toys, and I had to let go all the staff I had just hired, some of whom had given up their good company pensions to work for me. At least we were able to pay everyone off and, with their experience in the up and coming e-commerce sector, they all ended up finding good positions again, at eBay for example. I have learned that you have to make decisions quickly, and above all that you need to treat people decently and, afterwards, help them land well elsewhere. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid of losing, though. Fear can protect you from excessive optimism or, worse, arrogance. But ever since then, I have always known that I will not get paralyzed by fear, that I can overcome my fears and deal with mistakes.

What do you see as your greatest achievement so far?

In the past, I might have given a list of companies and products I’ve had a hand in creating or launching, such as eToys or Google Chrome. The older I get, though, the people are more important, those I support and whose careers I can positively influence. This includes many women. When I worked in Europe, supporting other women seemed to me to be less of an urgent issue. There are so many role models of successful women in politics, the media and other sectors. But Silicon Valley is dominated by tech companies, where women account for only about 30 percent of employees. This is why it is particularly important for me to be a mentor for young women over here, within our company, and outside. One of the women on my team was initially shy and afraid to contribute in meetings. It was really great to see her developing more self-confidence with the right support, starting her own project, then making the decision herself to shut it down. She led the next project, Dandelion, to its successful completion, spun it out of X, became a start-up CEO and just raised her second round of VC investment.

So, has a success formula of some kind emerged during all these years at X?

During our conversation, I am aware that many of our success principles seem to contradict general protocols and do not necessarily make intuitive sense. For example, jumping straight to the problem, that controlled failure can be a positive force, that pioneering solutions that are ten times better do not have to be ten times as complicated or expensive. Therefore it is sometimes worth reaching for the stars.

Pullout quotes

“I try to avoid hiring people who are too much like myself”

“We always need quick feedback from the real world”

“I asked questions: Are there any business plans? What about privacy?”

“My parents instilled a love of learning in me from a very early stage”

“Many principles of our success contradict general protocols.”


MASTERMIND Non-technician among nerds. Obi Felten studied psychology and philosophy, but she asks the right questions. Dress: Dries Van Noten. Ring on the left hand: APM Monaco.

PASSION FOR EXPERIMENTS Obi Felten decides whether a space lift or WLAN balloons for Africa will become reality. Dress: Zero + Maria Cornejo. On the right: Dress by C/Meo Collective.

PLAYFUL Google X CEO Astro Teller took the VOGUE business premise “Women in the foreground” literally and photo-bombed himself cheerfully into the background during the photo shoot.

Top and skirt: Dries Van Noten. Big ring on the left hand: APM Monaco. Heels: Pierre Hardy.

Photos © Rainer Hosch. Please visit to see more of his work.

Wirtschaftswoche: Google Star Obi Felten fails properly

By Astrid Maier
Photo by Stefan Obermeier
This article was published in Wirtschaftswoche on 24 April 2018
Read the original (in German) on
English translation below

Google-Star Obi Felten scheitert richtig

Unter der Obhut von Obi Felten soll bei Google das nächste Mondprojekt entstehen. Porträt einer Frau, die immer schon die nächste Revolution anschiebt.

In ihrem Forschungslabor hat Obi Felten einen Tag der Toten eingeführt. Dann gedenken sie all ihrer beerdigten Ideen. Sich früh von lieb gewonnenen Einfällen trennen, wenn die nicht funktionieren, das erfordert Mut. Wenn es gelingt, zahlt Felten ihrem Team sogar einen Bonus. Schließlich sei eine Kultur des Scheiterns eine wichtige Bedingung, um „Geschäftsmodelle mit Milliarden Nutzern aufzubauen“, sagt Felten. Wenn die Kultur stimme, „lassen sich Innovationen wie in der Fabrik herstellen“.

Kaum ein Thema treibt deutsche Manager so um wie die Sehnsucht nach der Selbsterneuerung, seit der digitale Umbruch ihre Geschäftsmodelle zerrüttet. Bei der Frau im grauen Kapuzenpullover, die an diesem Morgen Anfang April so nüchtern von ihrem Arbeitszimmer in San Francisco aus in die Laptopkamera spricht, klingt die Aufgabe so leicht wie eine Datenwolke. Das mag an ihrem Selbstverständnis liegen: Felten arbeitet im radikalsten Forschungslabor, das sich ein Konzern weltweit leistet. Sie ist Top-Managerin bei X, dem Ideen-Brutkasten der Google-Mutter Alphabet.

Unter ihrer Obhut soll das nächste Google entstehen. Es war Felten, die dem selbstfahrenden Auto den ersten Businessplan mit auf die Straße gab. Daraus ist Waymo erwachsen, eine eigenständige Firma, die Analysten auf einen Wert von bis zu 70 Milliarden Dollar taxieren. Felten räumte die Hindernisse aus dem Weg, damit sie bei X mit Ballons aus der Stratosphäre das Internet in entlegene Weltwinkel beamen können. Die Deutsche klopft seit sechs Jahren luftig klingende Ideen im Labor darauf ab, ob sie die Landung in der Realität überleben. Auf ihrer Visitenkarte steht: Head of Getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world. Manager pilgern zu ihr, um sich in ihre Lehren einweisen zu lassen. Sie hat Innovationsmanagement auf eine höhere Stufe gehievt. Die WirtschaftsWoche verleiht ihr in diesem Jahr den Future-Thinker-Preis.

Obi Felten – Sieger Future Thinker

Ihr Verdienst: Sie hat Innovationsmanagement auf eine höhere Stufe gehievt.

Obi Felten, Chefstrategin bei Google X (Mitte), wurde von WirtschaftsWoche-Innovationschefin Léa Steinacker (links) und Herausgeberin Miriam Meckel (rechts) als „Future Thinker“ geehrt.
Bild:  Stefan Obermeier

Bei X geht es nicht darum, das wichtigste Geschäft von Google, die Suchmaschine, zu polieren. Sondern darum, „inspirierende Probleme dank unglaublich klingender Ideen“ zu lösen, sagt Felten. So wie eben jene, aus der Stratosphäre das schnelle Internet auf die Welt zu senden, weil Funktürme im entlegenen Dschungel schlichtweg zu teuer sind. „Die Hälfte der Menschheit besitzt keinen Zugang zum Netz“, sagt Felten. Bei X treten sie den Beweis an, dass sie die Lücke schließen und auch noch Geld damit verdienen können. X ist, wie Waymo, ein eigenständiges Unternehmen im Alphabet-Universum.

Man muss sich X, diesen unscheinbaren Glaskasten am Central Expressway zwischen Palo Alto und Mountain View, wie ein Biotop für exzentrische Tüftler vorstellen. Astro Teller, der Chef, fährt gerne auf schwarzen Rollerblades durch die Gänge. Sein Großvater Edward Teller hat die Wasserstoffbombe erfunden. Mit bahnbrechenden Erfindungen begnügen sich die Informatiker und Elektroingenieure, Physiker und Psychologen hier nicht. Sie wollen auch zeigen, dass sie damit Geld verdienen können. Nicht so wie einst bei Parc, dem legendären Forschungszentrum des IT-Unternehmens Xerox, wo in den Siebzigerjahren die Computermaus und der Cursor entstand – aber dann doch ein Außenstehender wie Steve Jobs damit Apple aufbaute.

Teller und Felten geben selbst für Valley-Verhältnisse ein ungewöhnliches Duo ab. Während Teller das Zugespitzte zelebriert, tritt Felten bodenständig auf. Sie betont etwa, was das Silicon Valley von Europa lernen könne: „Dort ist langfristiges Denken eine Selbstverständlichkeit.“ Wie Teller nutzt Felten nicht ihren echten Vornamen. Obi ist ihr Spitzname aus der Kindheit und steht für Oberwinzling – weil Bettina viel kleiner als die anderen war. Zusammen wirken sie ein wenig so, als habe sich Fantasy-Regisseur Tim Burton Charaktere für den Bastler und seine Aufpasserin ausgedacht.

Felten wollte nur für sechs Monate bleiben, als Teller sie nach Kalifornien einlud. Sie hatte am Londoner Google-Standort im Marketing Karriere gemacht, geheiratet, ein Kind bekommen und in der Stadt ein Haus gekauft. „Ich wollte nicht nach Mountain View“, sagt sie und lacht. Sie blieb wegen der Sache mit den Internetballons: „Ich habe mich in das Projekt Loon sofort verliebt.“

Mike Cassidy, damals verantwortlich für Loon, hatte keine Zeit, einen Businessplan aufzustellen. „Er war zu sehr damit beschäftigt, sein großartiges Produkt zu bauen“, erzählt Teller. Die Ballons sind groß wie Tennisplätze, sie müssen nachts Kälte überstehen und tagsüber extreme Hitze aushalten. An ihnen hängen kleine Computer, die mit Funktechnologie ausgestattet sind, betrieben mit Solarenergie. Das alles galt es zu orchestrieren.

Also kümmerte sich Felten um die Finanzen und prüfte gleich mit, was Ingenieure gerne ausblenden: Gesetze, Datenschutzbestimmungen – und ob Menschen riesige Ballons am Himmel überhaupt wollen. „Wir haben jemanden gebraucht, der eine andere Perspektive hineinbringt und die Ingenieure herausfordert“, sagt Teller. „Jemanden wie Obi.“ Ihre Schwäche sei, dass sie zu direkt sei, habe sie ihm anfangs mitgeteilt. „Hier hat sie daraus eine Tugend gemacht.“

Vorbild für eine neue Generation Frauen

Inzwischen hat die Managerin eine ganze Abteilung aufgebaut, die Einfälle der X-Truppe auf Fehler im System abklopft. Daraus ist eine Art Korrektiv für allzu selbstvergessene Tüftler geworden. Feltens Devise dabei: Die schwierigsten Probleme müssen als Erstes gelöst werden. „Viele räumen die einfachen Hürden zuerst aus dem Weg. Das ist menschlich. Doch es bringt nichts, wenn sie zwei Jahre später an den unüberwindbaren Barrikaden scheitern.“

Felten entschied, dass sie bei Loon mit Telekommunikationskonzernen wie AT&T oder Telefónica zusammenarbeiten. „An den großen Telekomunternehmen sind meistens Regierungen beteiligt, oder sie waren es mal. Sie hätten gegen uns Lobby gemacht und gewonnen“, sagt sie. Mit Partnern könne X zudem schneller skalieren. So bringt X alle Projekte zur Marktreife. Waymo etwa arbeitet mit Ford zusammen. Und wie Waymo soll Loon eines Tages in die Eigenständigkeit entlassen werden. Die Ballons flogen über Neuseeland, sind in Puerto Rico im Einsatz und in Peru. Die Berater von Deloitte haben berechnet, dass Internetverbindungen, wie es sie in der westlichen Welt gibt, den Ländern Lateinamerikas, Asiens und Afrikas mehr als zwei Billionen Dollar zusätzliches Bruttoinlandsprodukt einbringen werden. Fällt davon auch nur ein Bruchteil für Loon ab, es wäre ein Milliardengeschäft.

Aufgewachsen ist Felten in Berlin-Dahlem. Der Vater ist Professor für mittelalterliche Geschichte, die Mutter Lehrerin. „Meine Freunde fragten immer, warum wir zu Hause so viel streiten“, sagt sie. „Dabei debattierten wir nur gerne.“ In Oxford studiert Felten Philosophie und experimentelle Psychologie, wird Beraterin in London, landet bei eToys, einem der ersten Onlinespielversender. Dann arbeitet sie sich zum Marketing-Shootingstar bei Google hoch und bringt die Deutschen dazu, Street View zu mögen. Nach den Amerikanern nutzt inzwischen kein anderes Land den Dienst so häufig. Weil sie die Empörung einfing, rief Teller bei ihr an.

Das Wichtigste, sagt Felten, sei die Kultur der „psychologischen Sicherheit“, die sie bei X hochhalten. Jeder dürfe hier ausprobieren und scheitern, ohne Konsequenzen fürchten zu müssen. Deshalb der Totentag für gestorbene Ideen oder der Bonus fürs rechtzeitige Aufgeben. Nicht immer geht das gut, ohne dass X selbst Blessuren abbekommt.

So wie bei Google Glass, der Datenbrille, die weltweit zum Symbol für rücksichtslose Techies wurde, die mit der Kamerabrille selbst in Bars filmten, ohne die anderen Gäste um Erlaubnis zu fragen. Den ersten Prototyp, der mit riesigem Marketing eingeführt wurde, mussten sie wieder zurückziehen, so heftig war der Aufschrei. Im vergangenen Sommer erlebte die Brille für Geschäftskunden eine Neuauflage. Profinutzer seien immer mit dem Gerät zufrieden gewesen. „In der Öffentlichkeit gilt Glass als Misserfolg. Aber wir haben viel daraus gelernt. Nichts ist besser, als ein Produkt möglichst früh an Nutzern auszutesten“, sagt Felten.

Das Valley hat seine Unschuld verloren, seit Tesla-Prototypen und selbstfahrende Testautos von Uber in tödliche Unfälle verwickelt sind und Facebook, dieses größte soziale Experiment aller Zeiten, auseinanderzubrechen droht. Wäre es nicht an der Zeit, der Datenhörigkeit ein Update zu verpassen? Und droht der Industrie nicht sonst die Sympathien zu verspielen?

Solche Fragen scheinen der Frau, die fürs Debattieren plädiert, zu heikel. Das müsse man die betroffenen Firmen fragen. Nur so viel: „Unternehmen aus dem Silicon Valley liefern bessere Produkte ab, wenn jene Menschen, für die sie hergestellt werden, auch in den Techkonzernen vertreten sind.“ Dazu leistet Felten ihren Beitrag. „Wann immer wir Stanford-Studierende zu X bringen, trägt Obi dafür Sorge, dass auch Frauen aus dem Team Vorträge halten. Es ist offensichtlich, dass sie Studentinnen in der Branche ermutigen will“, sagt Leticia Britos Cavagnaro. Sie gibt mit Felten in Stanford Kurse für Design Thinking.

An einem Abend im März vergangenen Jahres steht Felten im Berliner Betahaus, einem Treffpunkt der Digitalszene, und spricht zu Unternehmerinnen. Sie erzählt davon, wie ihr Mann die Hochzeit alleine planen musste, weil sie zu beschäftigt war. Das Leben als Karrierefrau und Mutter zweier kleiner Kinder sei nicht immer einfach, sagt sie. Isabelle Sonnenfeld, die Google-Mitarbeiterin, die Felten zu der Veranstaltung eingeladen hatte, ist begeistert: „Bei anderen Top-Managerinnen wie Sheryl Sandberg klingt alles immer so perfekt. Obi ist für mich ein überzeugenderes Vorbild.“

Marketing-Ass, Innovationstreiberin und Vorbild für die nächste Generation Techfrauen – Feltens Werdegang folgt einem Zickzackkurs. „Ich werde das ständige Weiterlernen einer geradlinigen Karriere immer bevorzugen“, sagt sie. Auf der Liste von deutschen Unternehmen, die nach Aufsichtsrätinnen und Aufsichtsräten suchen, steht sie schon. Fehlt nur noch, dass auch CEO in ihrem Lebenslauf folgt. Bei dem Gedanken bricht sie in ihrem Arbeitszimmer in San Francisco in Lachen aus. „Definitiv“, sagt Felten.

English Translation: Google-Star Obi Felten fails properly

In her research laboratory, Obi Felten has introduced a Day of the Dead. Then they remember all their buried ideas. Separating yourself early from cherished ideas that do not work requires courage. If it happens, Felten pays her team a bonus. A culture of failure is an important condition to “build business models with billions of users,” says Felten. If the culture is right, “it is possible to produce innovation like in a factory”.

Few issues affect German managers as much as the desire for self-renewal, since their business models have been disrupted by the digital transition. The woman in the gray hoodie, soberly speaking into the camera from her home office in San Francisco on this early April morning, makers this task sounds as light as a data cloud. This may be due to how she defines herself: Felten works in the most radical research laboratory of any company world-wide. She is a top manager at X, the idea incubator of Google’s mother company Alphabet.

The group is tasked with creating the next Google. Felten gave the self-driving car project its first business plan on its journey. The project became Waymo, an independent company, valued up to $70 billion by analysts. Felten moved obstacles out of the way so X could beam the Internet to remote corner of the world with stratospheric balloons. For the past 6 years, the German has been checking lofty ideas in the lab to check whether they would survive the contact with the real world. Her business card reads: Head of getting moon shots ready for contact with the real world. Managers from across the world come to X to learn from her experience. Wirtschaftswoche awarded her the Future Thinker Award this year.

X’s goal is not to improve the main business of Google, the search engine. Rather, it is to solve “inspiring problems with ideas that sound impossible,” says Felten. Like the idea to send fast Internet to earth from the stratosphere, because putting cell towers into remote jungles is simply too expensive. “Half of humanity has no access to the Internet,” says Felten. At X they are attempting to prove that it is possible to close the gap and also make money with it. Like Waymo, X is an independent company in the alphabet universe.

You have to imagine X, a nondescript glass box on Central Expressway between Palo Alto and Mountain View, as a habitat for eccentric inventors. Astro Teller, the boss, wheels through the corridors on black rollerblades. His grandfather Edward Teller invented the hydrogen bomb. The computer scientists and electrical engineers, physicists and psychologists at X are not satisfied with just making breakthrough inventions. They also want to show that they can make money with them. Not like back in the day at Parc, the legendary research center of IT company Xerox, where the computer mouse and the cursor was invented in the Seventies – but an outsider like Steve Jobs built Apple with them.

Teller and Felten are an unusual duo even in Silicon Valley. While Teller celebrates the extreme, Felten is down to earth. She emphasises what Silicon Valley could learn from Europe: “Long-term thinking is a matter of course in Europe.” Like Teller, Felten does not use her real first name. Obi is her nickname from childhood and stands for Oberwinzling – because Bettina was much smaller than the other kids. Together they act a bit as if when Fantasy Director Tim Burton had invented characters for the inventor and his supervisor.

Felten only wanted to stay for six months when Teller invited her to California. She had made a career in marketing the at Google in London, married, had a child and bought a house in the city. “I did not want to move to Mountain View,” she says and laughs. She stayed because of the Internet balloon project. “I immediately fell in love with project Loon.”

Mike Cassidy who ran Loon at the time did not have time to draw up a business plan. “He was too busy trying to build his great product,” says Teller. The balloons are as big as tennis courts, they have to survive the cold night and extreme heat in the daytime. Attached to them are small computers that are equipped with wireless technology, powered by solar energy. All this needed to be orchestrated.

So Felten took care of the finances and checked things that engineers like to ignore: Laws, privacy regulations – and whether people even want huge balloons in theor sky. “We needed someone who brings in a different perspective and the challenges the engineers,” says Teller. “Someone like Obi.” She had initially told him that her weakness is being too direct. “She has made this into a strength here.”

Role model for the next generation of women

By now the manager has set up an entire department to check the ideas of the X team for errors in the system. It has a correctional mechanism for overly oblivious tinkerers. Felten’s motto: The most difficult problems have to be solved first. “Many work on the simple problems first. That’s human. But it is pointless when they fail two years later because of insurmountable barriers.”

Felten decided that Loon would cooperate with telecommunications companies such as AT & T or Telefónica. “Governments are involved in large telecom companies, or were at some point. They could have lobbied against us and won”, she says. With partners X can also scale quickly. X brings all projects to market this way. Waymo is working with Ford. Like Waymo, Loon will be released to independence one day. The balloons flew over New Zealand, are in use in Puerto Rico and Peru. Consulting firm Deloitte calculated that Internet connections as they exist in the Western world, will create at least $2 billion of additional GDP in Latin America, Asia and Africa. Even if only a tiny fraction goes to Loon, it would be a billion dollar business.

Felten grew up in Berlin-Dahlem. Her father was a professor of medieval history, her mother a teacher. “My friends always asked why we argue so much at home,” she says. “We just like to debate.” In Oxford Felten studied philosophy and experimental psychology, became a strategy consultant in London, landed at eToys, one of the first ecommerce companies. She worked her way up to becoming a Marketing Shooting Star at Google, and got the Germans to like Street View. After the Americans now no other country uses the service as frequently. Because she dealt with the outrage, Teller called her.

The important thing, says Felten, is the culture of the “psychological security” that they value highly at X. Everyone is allowed to experiment and fail, without fear of consequences. Therefore the Day of the Dead for deceased ideas, or the bonus for timely abandonment. It doesn’t always work out without damage to X itself.

For example Google Glass, the data goggles, became a worldwide symbol of ruthless techies who filmed with the camera glasses even in bars without asking the other guests for permission. The first prototype, which was introduced with a huge marketing, had to be withdrawn due to strong protests. Last summer the glasses were relaunched for business customers in a new edition. Professional user were always satisfied with the device. “In public, Glass is considered failure. But we have learned a lot from it. Nothing is better than to test a product as early as possible to users”, says Felten.

The Valley has lost its innocence, since Tesla prototypes and self-drivng cars from Uber were involved in deadly accidents and Facebook, the greatest social experiment of all time, threatens to break apart. Would not it be time for an update to our reliance on data? And if not, is the tech industry risking to squander sympathy?

Those questions are too sensitive for the woman who likes debating. She suggests to ask the companies involved. Only this: “Companies from Silicon Valley provide better products if those people for whom they are made, are also represented in the companies.” Felten is contributing to this herself. “Whenever we bring Stanford students to X, Obi ensures that women from the team present. It is obvious that she wants to encourage female students to enter the tech industry, “said Leticia Britos Cavagnaro. She teaches Stanford courses on design thinking that Felten contributes to.

On a March evening last year Felten is at Beta House Berlin, a meeting place for the digital scene, speaking to entrepreneurs. She talks about how her husband had to plan their wedding because she was too busy. Life as a career woman and mother of two small children is not always easy, she says. Isabelle Sonnenfeld, the Google employee who had invited Felten to the event, is enthusiastic: “Other top managers such as Sheryl Sandberg make everything sounds so perfect. Obi is a more convincing role model for me.”

Marketing ace, innovator and role model for the next generation tech women – Feltens career follows a zigzag course. “I will always prefer continuous learning to a straighforward career,” she says. She is already on the list of German companies looking for supervisory board members. What is perhaps missing on her CV is a CEO role. At the thought she bursts out laughing in her home office in San Francisco. “Definitely,” says Felten

Fortune: How to Build the Next Google, According to an Alphabet Executive

By Tom Huddleston Jr.

Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

November 14, 2017

It’s hard to change the world without a scalable business model.

That’s what Obi Felten told the crowd at Fortune’s MPW Next Gen Summit in Laguna Niguel, Calif., on Tuesday. Felten is one of the top executives at Alphabet’s research arm, X, formerly known as Google X and birthplace to the tech giant’s “moonshots,” ambitious projects that aim to solve major world problems with cutting edge technology. Notable moonshot projects include Project Loon, which wants to provide internet connectivity to remote areas of the world using balloons, and Waymo, Google’s self-driving car company.

Embed from Getty Images

In the case of Waymo, Felten told Fortune senior writer Michal Lev-Ram that her team decided one way to reduce the massive number of global driving deaths would be to remove drivers from the equation by developing autonomous driving technology. That idea might have been considered “science fiction” as recently as a decade ago, Felten said, but now Waymo is testing its driverless ride-hailing service on public roads in Arizona. “That’s really exciting, because something that sounded crazy and unfeasible even five years ago is becoming reality in our lifetime,” Felten said.

However, not all of Alphabet’s moonshots make it that far, and all of those projects together accounted for roughly $3.6 billion in operating losses last year alone. So, Lev-Ram asked Felten, why does Alphabet keep pumping money into X rather than focus on the company’s core advertising business that generated more than $24 billion in revenue in the most recent quarter?

“At the end of the day, we are a bet that the shareholders are making on being able to generate new businesses. Our goal is to make new Alphabet companies that one day can be as big as Google,” Felten said, adding that such a job gets harder every day as Google itself grows bigger and bigger.

That ultimate goal requires that Felten and her team evaluate any new project based on its potential to both “make the world a radically better place” as well as its viability as a business that can grow and sustain itself. On the latter front, Alphabet’s projects usually eventually take on major partners, such as Waymo’s pacts with the likes of Lyft, Chrysler, and others.

The idea of changing the world isn’t at odds with making a buck, Felten said. In fact, the latter is usually necessary. “If you want to solve really large problems in the world, unless it’s a sustainable business, it probably won’t scale,” she said. “So, finding those things where there’s both profit and purpose is sort of our sweet spot.”

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The Atlantic: Google X and the Science of Radical Creativity

How the secretive Silicon Valley lab is trying to resurrect the lost art of invention

By Derek Thompson
Photos by Justin Kaneps

This article about X was the cover story of The Atlantic November 2017 issue.
Copyright The Atlantic 2017
Excerpt below. Read the full article on

III. The Fail

Astro Teller likes to recount an allegorical tale of a firm that has to get a monkey to stand on top of a 10-foot pedestal and recite passages from Shakespeare. Where would you begin? he asks. To show off early progress to bosses and investors, many people would start with the pedestal. That’s the worst possible choice, Teller says. “You can always build the pedestal. All of the risk and the learning comes from the extremely hard work of first training the monkey.” An X saying is “#MonkeyFirst”—yes, with the hashtag—and it means “do the hardest thing first.”

But most people don’t want to do the hardest thing first. Most people want to go to work and get high fives and backslaps. Despite the conference-keynote pabulum about failure (“Fail fast! Fail often!”), the truth is that, financially and psychologically, failure sucks. In most companies, projects that don’t work out are stigmatized, and their staffs are fired. That’s as true in many parts of Silicon Valley as it is anywhere else. X may initially seem like a paradise of curiosity and carefree tinkering, a world apart from the drudgery required at a public company facing the drumbeat of earnings reports. But it’s also a place immersed in failure. Most green-lit Rapid Eval projects are unsuccessful, even after weeks, months, or years of one little failure after another.

At X, Teller and his deputies have had to build a unique emotional climate, where people are excited to take big risks despite the inevitability of, as Teller delicately puts it, “falling flat on their face.” X employees like to bring up the concept of “psychological safety.” I initially winced when I heard the term, which sounded like New Age fluff. But it turns out to be an important element of X’s culture, the engineering of which has been nearly as deliberate as that of, say, Loon’s balloons.

Kathy Hannun told me of her initial anxiety, as the youngest employee at X, when she joined in the spring of 2012. On her first day, she was pulled into a meeting with Teller and other X executives where, by her account, she stammered and flubbed several comments for fear of appearing out of her depth. But everyone, at times, is out of his or her depth at X. After the meeting, Teller told her not to worry about making stupid comments or asking ignorant questions. He would not turn on her, he said.

Hannun now serves as the CEO of Dandelion, an X spin-off that uses geothermal technology to provide homes in New York State with a renewable source of heating, cooling, and hot water. “I did my fair share of unwise and inexperienced things over the years, but Astro was true to his word,” she told me. The culture, she said, walked a line between patience and high expectations, with each quality tempering the other.

X encourages its most successful employees to talk about the winding and potholed road to breakthrough invention. This spring, André Prager, a German mechanical engineer, delivered a 25-minute presentation on this topic at a company meeting, joined by members of X’s drone team, called Project Wing. He spoke about his work on the project, which was founded on the idea that drones could be significant players in the burgeoning delivery economy. The idea had its drawbacks: Dogs may attack a drone that lands, and elevated platforms are expensive, so Wing’s engineers needed a no-landing/no-infrastructure solution. After sifting through hundreds of ideas, they settled on an automatic winching system that lowered and raised a specialized spherical hook—one that can’t catch on clothing or tree branches or anything else—to which a package could be attached.

In their address, Prager and his team spent less time on their breakthroughs than on the many failed cardboard models they discarded along the way. The lesson they and Teller wanted to communicate is that simplicity, a goal of every product, is in fact extremely complicated to design. “The best designs—a bicycle, a paper clip—you look and think, Well of course, it always had to look like that,” Prager told me. “But the less design you see, the more work was needed to get there.” X tries to celebrate the long journey of high-risk experimentation, whether it leads to the simplicity of a fine invention or the mess of failure.

Because the latter possibility is high, the company has also created financial rewards for team members who shut down projects that are likely to fail. For several years, Hannun led another group, named Foghorn, which developed technology to turn seawater into affordable fuel. The team appeared to be on track, until the price of oil collapsed in 2015 and its members forecast that their fuel couldn’t compete with regular gasoline soon enough to justify keeping the project alive. In 2016, they submitted a detailed report explaining that, despite advancing the science, their technology would not be economically viable in the near future. They argued for the project to be shut down. For this, the entire team received a bonus.

Some might consider these so-called failure bonuses to be a bad incentive. But Teller says it’s just smart business. The worst scenario for X is for many doomed projects to languish for years in purgatory, sucking up staff and resources. It is cheaper to reward employees who can say, “We tried our best, and this just didn’t work out.”

Recently, X has gone further in accommodating and celebrating failure. In the summer of 2016, the head of diversity and inclusion, a Puerto Rican–born woman named Gina Rudan, spoke with several X employees whose projects were stuck or shut down and found that they were carrying heavy emotional baggage. She approached X’s leadership with an idea based on Mexico’s Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead. She suggested that the company hold an annual celebration to share stories of pain from defunct projects. Last November, X employees gathered in the main hall to hear testimonials, not only about failed experiments but also about failed relationships, family deaths, and personal tragedies. They placed old prototypes and family mementos on a small altar. It was, several X employees told me, a resoundingly successful and deeply emotional event.

No failure atx has been more public than Google Glass, the infamous head-mounted wearable computer that resembled a pair of spectacles. Glass was meant to be the world’s next great hardware evolution after the smartphone. Even more quixotically, its hands-free technology was billed as a way to emancipate people from their screens, making technology a seamless feature of the natural world. (To critics, it was a ploy to eventually push Google ads as close to people’s corneas as possible.) After a dazzling launch in 2013 that included a 12-page spread in Vogue, consumers roundly dissed the product as buggy, creepy, and pointless. The last of its dwindling advocates were branded “glassholes.”

I found that X employees were eager to talk about the lessons they drew from Glass’s failure. Two lessons, in particular, kept coming up in our conversations. First, they said, Glass flopped not because it was a bad consumer product but because it wasn’t a consumer product at all. The engineering team at X had wanted to send Glass prototypes to a few thousand tech nerds to get feedback. But as buzz about Glass grew, Google, led by its gung-ho co-founder Sergey Brin, pushed for a larger publicity tour—including a ted Talk and a fashion show with Diane von Furstenberg. Photographers captured Glass on the faces of some of the world’s biggest celebrities, including Beyoncé and Prince Charles, and Google seemed to embrace the publicity. At least implicitly, Google promised a product. It mailed a prototype. (Four years later, Glass has reemerged as a tool for factory workers, the same group that showed the most enthusiasm for the initial design.)

But Teller and others also saw Glass’s failure as representative of a larger structural flaw within X. It had no systemic way of turning science projects into businesses, or at least it hadn’t put enough thought into that part of the process. So X created a new stage, called Foundry, to serve as a kind of incubator for scientific breakthroughs as its team develops a business model. The division is led by Obi Felten, a Google veteran whose title says it all: head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world.

Obi Felten leads Foundry, a division of X tasked with turning scientific breakthroughs into marketable products. (Justin Kaneps)

“When I came here,” Felten told me, “X was this amazing place full of deep, deep, deep geeks, most of whom had never taken a product out into the world.” In Foundry, the geeks team up with former entrepreneurs, business strategists from firms like McKinsey, designers, and user-experience researchers.

One of the latest breakthroughs to enter Foundry is an energy project code-named Malta, which is an answer to one of the planet’s most existential questions: Can wind and solar energy replace coal? The advent of renewable-energy sources is encouraging, since three-quarters of global carbon emissions come from fossil fuels. But there is no clean, cost-effective, grid-scale technology for storing wind or solar energy for those times when the air is calm or the sky is dark. Malta has found a way to do it using molten salt. In Malta’s system, power from a wind farm would be converted into extremely hot and extremely cold thermal energy. The warmth would be stored in molten salt, while the cold energy (known internally as “coolth”) would live in a chilly liquid. A heat engine would then recombine the warmth and coolth as needed, converting them into electric energy that would be sent back out to the grid. X believes that salt-based thermal storage could be considerably cheaper than any other grid-scale storage technology in the world.

The current team leader is Raj B. Apte, an ebullient entrepreneur and engineer who made his way to X through parc. He compares the project’s recent transition to Foundry to “when you go from a university lab to a start-up with an A-class venture capitalist.” Now that Apte and his team have established that the technology is viable, they need an industry partner to build the first power plant. “When I started Malta, we very quickly decided that somewhere around this point would be the best time to fire me,” Apte told me, laughing. “I’m a display engineer who knows about hetero-doped polysilicon diodes, not a mechanical engineer with a background in power plants.” Apte won’t leave X, though. Instead he will be converted into a member of the Rapid Eval team, where X will store his creative energies until they are deployed to another project.

Raj B. Apte, the leader of Project Malta, which seeks to store wind power in molten salt (Justin Kaneps)

Thinking about the creation of Foundry, it occurred to me that X is less a moonshot factory than a moonshot studio. Like MGM in the 1940s, it employs a wide array of talent, generates a bunch of ideas, kills the weak ones, nurtures the survivors for years, and brings the most-promising products to audiences—and then keeps as much of the talent around as possible for the next feature.

Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, technology, and the media. He is the author of Hit Makers and the host of the podcast Crazy/Genius.

Copyright The Atlantic 2017

Chautauqua Institution: Living in modern times

Chautauqua Institution summer season
26 June 2017
Chautauqua, New York
“Living in modern times: The past, present and future of invention (and innovation)”

Obi delivered the opening lecture of the 2017 Chautauqua Institution summer season. Chautauqua Institution is a community on the shores of Chautauqua Lake in southwestern New York state that comes alive each summer with a unique mix of fine and performing arts, lectures, interfaith worship and programs, and recreational activities. Previous speakers include Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hillary Clinton, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tarana Burke, Arthur Brooks.

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Article on this talk

Obi Felten discusses moonshots and the power of innovation to make sci-fi a reality

By Brian Contreras
Photos by Cam Buker
This article was published on 26 June 2017
Copyright The Chautauquan Daily
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Photo: Cam Buker

Xerox PARC scientist Alan Kay once said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

Obi Felten opened her Monday morning lecture with this quote, in turn opening the 2017 Chautauqua season as well as Week One and its theme of “Invention,” which asks, among other questions, what it might take for humanity’s next “giant leap.”

In her capacity as head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world at X (formerly Google X), Felten knows a thing or two about invention, not to mention the future. At X, she has worked with ideas that seem straight out of science fiction; they might seem more at home on the silver screen, but these inventions could one day be real, at least if Felten has her way.

After opening with Kay’s quote and enumerating a number of the cutting-edge inventions her X team has worked on, Felten launched full-steam into outlining what X does, and perhaps more urgently, what her lengthy job title actually consists of.

“We call ourselves the moonshot factory,” Felten said, “and we aim to solve large problems in the world with the help of technology.”

Though the work itself is hard, the moonshot team’s process is seductively simple. First, identify a problem (and not just any problem, but a big one, the sort that impacts “millions or even billions of people”). Then, propose a solution, no matter how outlandish, how seemingly impossible, it is. Finally — and this is where the difficult work of invention comes in — “turn (that) fiction into reality.”

Though making these moonshots real is never easy, Felten said it’s worth it. An optimist about the power of technology to make the world a better place, she cautioned against thinking of the current era as a uniquely disruptive one; as poet Alan Kirsch noted, all generations tend to think they live in periods of fundamental change.

That said, Felten made clear the modern age is by no means lacking in disruption, especially of the technological sort. She pointed to the internet in particular as having enabled an enormous paradigm shift in what is possible.

“We live in San Francisco, and my children think it’s completely normal to have breakfast with my parents, who live in Germany,” Felten said.

Felten acknowledged that the enormous potential of these emergent technologies has not been distributed equally. But through X, she and her team are working to change that.

For instance, she said, over half the world’s population lacks access to the internet. It was this global inequity that Felten and her team set out to solve with Loon, their balloon-based internet accessibility project.

Following a concise history of the balloon as a disruptive technology — from hot air balloonist Auguste Piccard to NASA and Bell Labs’ 1950s “communication satellites” — Felten outlined Loon’s modern quest to create airborne, data-transmitting balloons that could float through the sky and bring internet access to those on the ground below.

But the project was not without its failures.

“Our balloons were supposed to last 100 days,” Felten said. “The first balloons lasted five days.”

Ultimately, however, innovative responses to the durability question and other issues were successful, and the Loon project took flight (both literally and metaphorically) during a 2013 test in New Zealand. It was then that a rural sheep farmer, Charles, became the first human being to ever use Wi-Fi transmitted via balloon.

These days, Loon’s devices can last up to 190 days, and while they’re at it, provide LTE speeds to those who might otherwise have gone without internet. They even helped provide emergency communications capacities when destructive floods hit the Peruvian coast this past March.

But Loon is far from the only moonshot that Felten has worked on while at X. After all, as she puts it, humanity is currently in the midst of a “fourth industrial revolution.” Internet balloons are but one of many projects her team has in progress.

Perhaps the most publicized of these moonshots has been the self-driving car, a which has since graduated into its own company, the headlines-making Waymo.

The idea of a self-driving car is not without precedent. Leonardo da Vinci — the most iconic of inventors — designed one as far back as 1478. But with its movements preprogrammed and the only terrain it was suited for being a theater stage, da Vinci’s concept still had a long way to go  before it achieved Jetson-esque viability. From General Motors’ automated highway dioramas at the 1939 World’s Fair, through the 1971 launch of an automated Mars rover, to scientists at the Bundeswehr Uni Munich finally creating the first truly independent vehicle in the 1980s; the path to self-driving cars has been a long and circuitous one.

Obi Felten, Center, Speaks With Chautauquans On The Back Porch Of The Amphitheater Following Her Lecture On Monday, June 26, 2017.

But this narrative reached its climax in the mid-2000s, when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency launched a contest to see who could develop the best self-driving car. From 2004 to 2007, teams from Stanford and Carnegie Mellon Universities dueled back and forth to build the smartest, longest-running vehicle; it wasn’t until 2009 when members of both teams united under the Google self-driving car project that Felten’s moonshot began the trudge toward realization. All this time, though, the moonshot team stayed focused.

“The problem we’re trying to solve is safety,” Felten said. “Because 1.2 million people die on the road each year, and 94 percent of those accidents are caused by human error.”

The project’s work paid off in very real, human terms last year, when a blind man in Austin, Texas, took the world’s first truly autonomous ride in one of the team’s self-driving cars.

There is still a ways to go before their moonshot gets to its proverbial moon, Felten said, “but it’s exciting to see that we’re (turning) science fiction into reality.”

But with revolutionary projects like internet balloons or self-driving cars, Felten warned that it’s easy to get sucked into “the great myth of the lonely genius inventor.” Though people imagine the likes of Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs creating their legendary inventions in isolation, groups like X work hard to foster teamwork, communication and partnerships across any number of different industries and disciplines.

The myth of individualism isn’t the only concept that threatens to impede innovation, however; more than anything else (including funding), Felten sees a fear of failure as the single largest threat to inventing one’s way to a better future.

“To be audacious, you have to be humble,” Felten said. “And you have to expect that most of what you work on will not work.”

This is not abstract for Felten, either; her moonshot team takes pride in its failed projects. For instance, their abandoned Project Foghorn sought to turn ocean water into clean, efficient car fuel but was unable to overcome the steep competition with cheap oil. When it was ultimately shut down, all team members received bonuses for their decision to abandon the (at least temporarily) intractable concept.

As her lecture drew to a close, Felten returned to cultural fears about, rather than hopes for, new technologies. At first, she acknowledged the potential for new technology to widen, rather than bridge, gaps in socioeconomic class and quality of life; she also noted discomfort with the capacity for job automation to cause widespread unemployment.

But even if “we need to adapt” to keep pace with rapidly changing technological capacities, Felten ultimately sees this disruption as providing humanity with the opportunity to create for itself a more hospitable, equitable planet.

“We have a choice about which world we want to live in,” she said.

Felten presented essentially two versions of the future: one in which “the largest beneficiaries of invention are … the innovators, the shareholders, the investors,” or one where “innovation doesn’t just come from the hands of companies …  but from anywhere.”

Either way, the choice between those two potential paths is in the hands of people, not their tools.

“Technology of course will not solve all our problems, and there is no doubt that it will create some new ones,” she said. “But it is up to us how we use technology to make a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.”

Handelsblatt: Shooting for the Moon

In a secretive lab in California, Alphabet is throwing convention to the wind and developing off-the-wall solutions to digital and engineering problems. Obi Felten, director of the X lab’s early-stage projects, tells Handelsblatt how failure is often the key to success.

By Britta Weddeling & Astrid Dörner

Photos by Winni Wintermeyer

This article was published in Handelsblatt on 29 July 2016. Copyright Handelsblatt 2016
Read the original in English or German.

© Winni Wintermeyer

At Alphabet’s secretive X laboratory people are paid to dream big – and fail.

Since 2010, the lab has been turning science fiction into reality, from driverless cars to balloons that bring Internet to remote regions and kites that act as wind turbines.

The goal is to solve the world’s technology problems by reaching for a “moonshot,” an idea that expands the frontiers of what’s considered possible – like U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 call to land a man on the moon. Or “shooting the moon” in the card game Hearts.

But X lab doesn’t just pursue any crazy idea. Like those who plotted the moon mission, the dreamers at X must have both a vision and a concrete plan to achieve it.

Ideas first go through a period of “rapid evaluation” in which teams conduct initial research and in the best case scenario receive a budget.

If an idea survives this initial stage, then it ends up in the Foundry where teams under the leadership of chief strategist Obi Felten have a year to develop a business plan for the prototype technology.

“Some people think of us as this crazy technology lab where we are making technology for technology’s sake,” Ms. Felten told Handelsblatt. “And that’s definitely not true.”

“The ultimate goal is to create new companies that could be as big as Google itself,” she said.

Ms. Felten isn’t your stereotypical Google employee. She’s not an engineer or a programmer. The German-born manager and marketing expert studied psychology and philosophy at Oxford University.

“My role in the beginning at X was much more about getting people to start thinking about what happens when a new project hits the real world,” Ms. Felten said.

“If you don’t explain the technology in terms of a real user benefit – why would this be good for me, or my country or my community – people’s instant reaction might be to reject it,” she said.

But playing with risk can be an expensive endeavor. Google’s parent company Alphabet Inc. lists X lab in the “Other Bets” section of its financial statements, and their latest earnings report on Thursday showed significant losses for the second quarter. Other Bets had an operational loss of $859 million (€774 million), spiking from a $660-million loss in the same period last year.

Alphabet Inc. doesn’t go into details, but X lab is believed to account for the majority of these losses, which reached a total of $3.6 billion last year, and could be as much as $4 billion this year.

That means budgetary concerns have changed things a bit at the X lab. In the early days, engineers faced fewer budget restrictions and often didn’t fully consider how a new technology would be received by the market, Ms. Felten said.

“It was much more experimental. People started projects without much rigor because it was an interesting idea,” she added.

As a result, the amount invested in some projects, such as Google Glass, grew faster than the development of the actual technology.

Google Glass, a computer display worn like a pair of glasses, was initially released in a beta program to great media fanfare but was later rejected by the public.

“Those were pretty tough lessons,” Ms. Felten said. “We are now much more rigorous about how we do allocation internally.”

Now, X lab teams first analyze the biggest risks facing a project. If the risks prove too great, then the project is killed as quickly as possible.

In fact, the X lab’s inventors are rewarded with bonuses and recognition for doing this. It’s an approach that encourages creativity but also saves time and resources for the best ideas.

“We have ‘fail fast’ as a maxim,” Ms. Felten said.

Britta Weddeling lives in Silicon Valley and reports on the Internet and technology industry. Astrid Dörner covers finance and U.S. corporations in New York. To contact the authors:

© Winni Wintermeyer

Original interview below in German.

„Mich faszinieren Probleme, nicht Technologien“

Topmanagerin Obi Felten entscheidet, welche wahnwitzigen Technologie-Ideen im Geheimlabor der Google-Mutter Alphabet realisiert werden. Die deutsche Chefstrategin spricht im Interview über die Strategie des schnellen Scheiterns und ihre Schwäche für alte Philosophen.

Mountain View Den deutschen Akzent hat Obi Felten längst abgelegt. Schon zum Studieren ging sie nach Oxford. Sie ist mit einem Briten verheiratet. Kein Wunder, dass die gebürtige Berlinerin das britische Englisch pflegt, obwohl sie schon seit vier Jahren in den USA arbeitet. Immerhin: Von ihrem Macbook leuchtet ein Aufkleber mit dem Brandenburger Tor.

Frau Felten, Ihr offizieller Titel lautet „Head of getting moonshots ready for contact with the real world“. Locker übersetzt heißt das so viel wie: „Hauptverantwortliche dafür, dass Science-Fiction-Ideen praxistauglich werden, damit sie auf die Menschheit losgelassen werden können.“ Passt das überhaupt auf eine Visitenkarte?
Ja, irre – oder?

Einfacher gesagt, sind Sie Chefstrategin des Geheimlabors X der Google-Mutterholding Alphabet. Woran erkennen Sie Ideen mit „Moonshot“-Potenzial?
Wir suchen richtig große Probleme, die idealerweise eine Milliarde Menschen oder noch mehr betreffen. Dann fragen wir uns: Können wir eine radikale Lösung dafür finden? Gibt es neue Technologien, mit denen wir etwas, das heute wie Science-Fiction klingt, in echte Wissenschaft verwandeln können? Und lässt sich das in den nächsten fünf bis zehn Jahren realisieren?

So haben Sie bereits selbstfahrende Autos auf die Straße gebracht und die ersten Heißluftballons (Loons) gestartet, um das Internet in die entlegensten Gegenden zu bringen. Welches Problem würden Sie gern als Nächstes lösen?
Den Klimawandel – ein riesiges Problem, und von einer Lösung sind wir weit entfernt. Die Technologie, die Politik oder ein Unternehmen allein werden es nicht bewältigen können. Das schaffen wir nur gemeinsam.

Was reizt Sie an derart unlösbaren Aufgaben und verrückten Technologien?
Mich faszinieren Probleme, nicht Technologien. Ich bin das Gegengewicht zu vielen Kollegen bei X, die als Wissenschaftler und Programmierer über Technologien und ihre Anwendungsmöglichkeiten nachdenken. Ich hingegen frage mich immer: Wer ist unser Nutzer, und welches Problem lösen wir für ihn?

Weiterlesen auf der Handelsblatt website