Saturday, January 12, 2008

Big think

In June 2006, Peter Hopkins, a civic-minded and idealistic 2004 Harvard graduate, trekked up to his alma mater from New York for a meeting with Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former Treasury secretary. Mr. Hopkins, who finagled the appointment through his friendship with Mr. Summers’s assistant, had a business idea: a Web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube, the popular video-sharing site, did for bulldogs on skateboards.

The pitch — “a YouTube for ideas” — appealed to Mr. Summers. “Larry, to his credit, is open to new ideas,” Mr. Hopkins recalled recently. “He grilled me for two hours.” In the age of user-generated content, Mr. Summers did have one worry: “Let’s say someone puts up a porn video next to my macroeconomic speech?”

It took awhile, but a year after that meeting, Mr. Summers decided to invest (“a few tens of thousands of dollars,” he said, adding “not something I’m hoping to retire on”) in the site, called Big Think, which officially makes its debut today after being tested for several months.

Big Think ( mixes interviews with public intellectuals from a variety of fields, from politics, to law to business, and allows users to engage in debates on issues like global warming and the two-party system. It plans to add new features as it goes along, including a Facebook-like application for social networking, and Mr. Hopkins said he would like the site to become a popular place for college students looking for original sources.

“I’ve had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age looking for more intellectual content,” said Mr. Summers, who resigned as Harvard president in 2006 after making controversial comments about the lack of women in science and engineering. “I saw it as president of Harvard when I saw C.E.O.’s come up to my wife and want to discuss Hawthorne.” (His wife, Elisa New, is a professor of English at Harvard).

A handful of other deep-pocketed investors also decided to chip in, including Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, the online payments site; Tom Scott, who struck it rich by founding, and selling, the juice company Nantucket Nectars and now owns Plum TV, a collection of local television stations in wealthy playgrounds like Aspen, Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons; the television producer Gary David Goldberg, who was behind the hit shows “Spin City” and “Family Ties”; and David Frankel, a venture capitalist who was the lead investor in Big Think.

“I tend to follow my own curiosities, and I know millions of people are like me,” said Mr. Scott. “I’m into this kind of thing. I do think there is a market for this.”

Mr. Frankel, the lead investor, said, “The initial investors may put in more. I imagine we will go out and raise more money in the future.”

Mr. Hopkins and his partner, Victoria Brown, germinated the idea for Big Think while working together at PBS on the “Charlie Rose” show in 2006.

When they surveyed the landscape, Mr. Hopkins, 24, and Ms. Brown, 33, saw a vast array of celebrity and sophomoric video content (remember the clips of cats urinating in toilets that caused a sensation on YouTube?).

“Everyone says Americans are stupid — that’s what we generally heard from venture capitalists” when trying to raise money, Mr. Hopkins said. Obviously, Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Brown felt differently, and the success of the business basically hinges on proving that Americans have an appetite for other kinds of content.

Of course, Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Brown are not the first to see the Internet as an opportunity to further public discourse. It was invented largely by academics; numerous sites, like Arts & Letters Daily, an offshoot of the Chronicle of Higher Education, seek to serve intellectuals.
Big Think’s business model right now is rudimentary: attract enough viewers, then sell advertising. “We’re going to wait until it gets attention before going after advertisers,” Mr. Hopkins said.

>>> Full Text see : Ex-Harvard President Meets a Former Student, and Intellectual Sparks Fly by Tim Arango (The New York Times, 7 Jan 2008)

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