Looking at the Future – From 16,000 Feet

January 9, 2015

Where were you in 1982 – thirty-three years ago? For a few of us the answer is a haploid, still “a twinkle” in our parent’s eye, and for others of us, we were beginning our voyage into what has brought us professionally to today.

Just two years prior, a young start-up called “Genentech” went public, raising $35 million with an offering that leapt from $35 a share to a high of $88 after less than an hour on the market. At the time the IPO was one of the largest stock run-ups ever. The lead underwriter was the boutique investment bank Hambrecht and Quist, otherwise known as H&Q. Genentech’s story raced across the investment community and interest rapidly built to learn more. Two years later, the very first biotech-based drug hit the market (recombinant insulin, partnered with Eli Lilly) and the very first H&Q Conference (now called the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference) opened its doors at the St. Francis Hotel to showcase these bold new and young upcoming biotech companies.

Source: TIME, 1/3/1983

Source: TIME, 1/3/1983

The potential for big new things was in the air, but the concerns of the day were mindful and repressing. Inflation was running above 10 percent, and the Fed’s interest rates were above 15 percent. The price of gasoline was $1.25 per gallon, and memories of recent shortages and rationing remained front and center. The world was running out of oil, or so we were told. Ronald Reagan had been swept into office by these economic woes, and the 444 days of the Iranian hostage crisis had just ended. The personal computer was chosen as “Man” of the Year by Time Magazine following Apple’s 1980 IPO, which had raised more money than any other offering except that of Ford Motors in 1956. Elizabeth Carr was born, marking the first successful birth from an in vitro fertilized egg in the U.S. (referred to then as a test tube baby), and scientists at the CDC had just settled on the name “Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome,” or AIDS, to describe a newly recognized deadly condition that was not until the next year associated with a specific virus.

Then, like today, the world was a complicated place with crisis and calamity nearby, but the air was thick with possibility.

Credit: The New York Times, 3/3/98, p. B15

Credit: The New York Times, 3/3/98, p. B15

Personal computers, recombinant-DNA-based medicines, in vitro fertilization all dazzled the mind; but few innovations or innovators caught public’s psyche as well as Lawrence Walters, nicknamed “Lawnchair Larry,” who took flight in 1982 on a homemade airship dubbed Inspiration I. Larry’s “flying machine” consisted of an ordinary Sears aluminum patio chair connected to 45 helium-filled weather balloons. Once released, Walters rose to an altitude of over 16,000 feet and floated from his point of origin in San Pedro, California, into controlled airspace near Los Angeles International Airport. Startled commercial pilots reported Larry to the F.A.A., and he was eventually fined $1,500 for four violations of the Federal Aviation Act, including operating a “civil aircraft for which there is not currently in effect an airworthiness certificate” and operating an aircraft within an airport traffic area “without establishing and maintaining two-way communications with the control tower.” When asked to comment at the time, Lawnchair Larry replied. “If the F.A.A. was around when the Wright Brothers were testing their aircraft, they would never have been able to make their first flight at Kitty Hawk either.” He expected to contest the charges, he’d brought along a CB radio, and was, in fact, in contact with folks on the ground – sort of.

In the three decades following Larry’s unconventional (if not also breathtaking) endeavors we have seen similarly bold entrepreneurs tackle space transport and perhaps soon space travel. We have seen the power of wireless telecommunications and online ingenuity bring knowledge and tools to the world. HIV has been reduced to a chronic disease and recombinant-DNA-based drugs now tackle some of the world’s most formidable medical challenges. Yet so much more is still needed. Larry had brought a camera but “the view was so remarkable I couldn’t miss a minute to take pictures,” he said.

Who will be 2015’s Lawnchair Larry?