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Billionaire's newest moonshot venture aims to change the world

America's first private lunar microlander and commercial robot, developed by Moon Express
Source: Moon Express
America's first private lunar microlander and commercial robot, developed by Moon Express

Most iconic entrepreneurs don't build billion-dollar empires by chasing riches. Instead, they're in hot pursuit of fulfilling a dream that can change the world. It's that imaginative spirit that drives innovation. Take serial entrepreneur and philanthropist Naveen Jain, who's founded the World Innovation Institute and five companies over the past 20 years, including InfoSpace, Intelius and Moon Express. The former Microsoft executive believes technology is key to solving global societal issues — from curing disease to harnessing resources to sustain the exploding human population.

He's now busy building his latest brainchild: BlueDot, a start-up that aims to form agriculture, health-care and energy businesses from federal research.

Already, Jain has assembled a top-flight management team — which includes co-founder CTO Dr. Scott Parazynski, a NASA astronaut — and raised $8.3 million in start-up capital to fund the venture's innovation factory. The company now has a $60 million post-money valuation.

CNBC.com's senior editor Lori Ioannou spoke to Jain to learn the secrets of how he spots "disruptive technologies" that have the potential to have a big impact on society.

CNBC: You often say, "Don't focus on net worth but self worth." What do you mean by that?

I am a big believer in creating businesses that can do well by doing good. Making money is a by-product of solving a major problem facing billions of people in the world. Like many other entrepreneurs that have been successful, I want to live a life of significance.

CNBC: How did you come up with the idea for your newest venture, BlueDot?

My last two ventures recently got acquired — Intelius and Talentwise — so I had to figure out what to do next. I just had one company, Moon Express, to focus on, and that wasn't enough. I needed another huge challenge. While working with NASA on my space venture, I noticed all the amazing technologies that could benefit humanity just sitting in the agency and at other national laboratories. It was mind-boggling. Each year, the U.S. government spends $500 billion funding scientific research. I realized no one was trying to commercialize these innovations. That's when I had a "eureka moment."

Naveen Jain
Tim Boyle | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Naveen Jain

CNBC: How did you come up with the name?

The name BlueDot is a reference to a famous quote by scientist Carl Sagan, which said all of humanity exists on a single "pale blue dot" suspended in outer space. I believe we must take care of planet Earth.

CNBC: How does BlueDot plan to revolutionize the way we commercialize technology in the United States?

We are not an incubator or an accelerator, but an entirely new asset class. Our model is to buy the license to a technology developed at a research center that has a proof of concept and then put together a management team to create a company around it. The lab will receive a royalty stream that is a return on the government's investment.

We are looking for technologies that have the potential to help billions of people and can be a good profitable venture. These start-ups will be owned by BlueDot.

CNBC: What projects is the company working on now?

BlueDot is working on a variety of projects, including a way to harvest ambient energy to create a wireless charger. That would enable an entire new field of medical devices that are held back by batteries and charging cords today. Another is a small handheld device that uses non-invasive technologies, like ultrasound, to identify bacterial and viral pathogens in the human body. It could be used to make early diagnoses of Alzheimer's, cancer and other diseases.

CNBC: Do you have any rivals in this niche?

Not really. The closest thing I can think of is X, which is the R&D facility created by Google going after moonshots. But it's operated as a subsidiary of Alphabet, and they are either developing technology themselves, licensing from universities or acquiring tech companies.

We both have similar goals: to extend human life, develop technologies to help mankind.

CNBC: You've never been afraid of a moonshot. Why are you willing to take on risky bets against all odds?

If you want to make an impact, you have to dream big, even if people think you're crazy. As an entrepreneur, you never fail; you pivot. If you are shooting for the moon, you probably can actually land on it and solve problems.

CNBC: Tell me about the recent milestones your space company, MoonExpress, has achieved.

We just made history as the first private space company to submit a payload application to the FAA for a space mission to the moon in 2017. Up until now, only government missions have ever ventured to the moon and beyond Earth destinations. This is an interim arrangement allowing us to execute our business plan under U.S. law and the Outer Space Treaty.

In December, the company won the launch contract from Google Lunar XPRIZE to land an unmanned aircraft on the moon, travel across its surface and sends high-definition images and video back to earth by 2017. We're planning three missions using our company's robotic MX-1E lunar lander on the Rocket Lab USA's Electron rocket, from either New Zealand or the U.S. During those missions we will explore for minerals and rare elements.

Our ultimate goal is to be the first private company to unlock the vast hidden resources on the moon—everything from magnesium to platinum and helium-3—and develop a space colony there. These valuable minerals can be used to sustain the world's booming population. For example, helium-3 is highly sought for nuclear fusion, and though the technology is still in its infancy, the element could serve to power the Earth.

The moon can also serve as a fuel depot station for interplanetary space exploration in the future. It has massive amounts of ice (H2O) that can be used for rocket fuel.

CNBC: How do you plan to beat out competitors not only from the United States but also from China and Russia?

There are no private company competitors in my view. China and Russia want to mine the moon, but I believe entrepreneurs always win against government initiatives. That's because they are nimble and better able to create commercial enterprises able to succeed in the long term.