It has been a landmark fortnight for innovation. first, it was revealed that a truck developed by us start-up nikola had tapped a free, inexhaustible energy source gravity itself. then the financial times reported that iabra, a tiny uk business, is developing a superfast black box coronavirus test, perhaps outpacing the worlds healthcare giants.
These breakthroughs pointed me to an apparent universal truth: if human beings desperately want a technology to work, the laws of physics will rearrange themselves to make it possible. investors often grasp this better than scientists or stick-in-the-mud journalists, whose reporting on both businesses was sceptical. the market and nikola partner general motors were recently valuing the group at $18bn-19bn before hedge fund hindenburg stepped in.
The short sellers report was critical. but it contained a eureka moment. hindenburg pointed out that a truck cruising along a road in a video promoted by nikola was actually rolling downhill. gravity has huge advantages over electricity or hydrogen, the power sources nikola is officially pinning its hopes on. gravity does not require heavy batteries. and you do not have to extract it expensively by electrolysis.
Now i can guess what you may be saying: gravity must be deemed a transitional technology, so long as it can only propel a vehicle from a high point to a lower one. with careful route planning and the traffic lights in your favour, you might use it to haul cargoes of himalayan spring water to dead sea hotels. the return trip would be challenging.
But nikola boss trevor milton is a clever man. give him time, and he may find a way for gravity to push water uphill. he may also overcome the physical and financial limitations of powering heavy, long-haul trucks with hydrogen fuel cells or electric batteries.
In the same vein, i predict iabra might someday demonstrate it can diagnose covid-19 in seconds by pointing a camera at a swab with some spit on it. this would show up how over-engineered some other methods are for now, most labs and hospitals are having to extract viral genetic material, create a mirror image, then replicate that dna millions of times to get a result. almost as complicated as getting a uk covid-19 test appointment in the first place.
Heathrow airport, which surely has no commercial motive for believing in half-baked schemes to revive air travel, was excited about iabras alternative test. some observers have been making comparisons with theranos.
I hope the hype does not go to the heads of iabras four staff members or investors in its listed equipment manufacturer tt electronics. theranos was once valued at $10bn and became the subject of a best-selling book. true, the blood-testing business went bust amid allegations of fraud allegations not levelled at iabra. but innovation is not a smooth process. it is discontinuous, like the reliability of the claims that founder elizabeth holmes made for her testing machine.
Some inventions never overcome intransigent physical forces. one thinks of the gun hat, a victorian innovation hampered by the propensity of recoil to inflict fatal whiplash on the marksman. engineers working on delivery drones will surely do better. these machines only have to drop the latest hilary mantel into a suburban garden without flattening the purchasers cockapoo.
The anthropologist james frazer observed that humankind progressed from mystical sacrifices intended to change reality to technologies that genuinely could. investors in speculative ventures sometimes seem to be resorting to the first by burning cash in hopes it will lead to the second.
Perhaps iabra will unlock regulatory approval for its test after merging with a company called cadabra? making cutting-edge technology work is really hard. it is so much easier to issue shares.