Flying Cars or 140 Chars?

04/07/2014 04:52 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2014

I remember when I was a child, I was so excited to grow up because I knew that flying cars were only a decade away. Somehow, that big picture innovation never happened, and instead I get to enjoy things like Facebook, Twitter (with its 140-character tweet limit), Snapchat and more.

Peter Thiel, the billionaire internet entrepreneur said it best: "We wanted flying cars, and we got 140 characters."

So what went wrong?

Let us step back and take a look at a typical engineer's career. They go to school, learn skills and earn a degree. The majority will then go into industry, working for large companies... anywhere from NASA to Apple to Ford. They'll focus on improving products and using their skill set iteratively, without much room for creativity. This scenario represents a "safe" career path -- an engineer going down this path will typically have a 100 percent "success" rate.

But every now and then, an entrepreneurial-minded engineer comes along and decides to break out of the system and start something from scratch. That's how all the internet comes we know today came into existence...Facebook, Twitter, Apple, Snapchat, etc. The entrepreneur took a massive risk, but lucked out and got a huge return. Starting an internet company is inherently risky. Going down this path aiming for a huge return has an exponentially smaller "success" rate: probably around 0.1 percent.

Now let's go one step further. Break away from internet startups, which can be created with minimal fixed costs (really all that's needed is a computer and internet access) and provide potentially rapid returns (angel funding is given away without blinking an eye out in Silicon Valley, and successful internet companies show traction and get revenue within months of starting). But what if an engineer wanted to solve an even bigger problem? Flying cars? That has massive upfront hardware costs. Cancer cure? Lab equipment and human trials cost hundreds of millions and take decades. Civilization on Mars? The rocket fuel alone would cost enough to fund 1,000 internet startups! And not to mention the success rate for any of these "big" ideas is minimal. And it takes decades to see any success at all. The success rate of a "big idea" like this is around 0.0001 percent.

If an entrepreneurial-minded engineer is willing to step away from a safe job and take a risk, that engineer is most likely smart enough to hedge his bets by starting an internet company with faster returns and less upfront costs. Why would anyone take the massive risk of solving a "big" problem?

Of course, some entrepreneurs do go after the big problems, such as Elon Musk with Tesla and SpaceX. But he had hundreds of millions of dollars of capital at his disposable to make that happen. How many brilliant engineers are in a scenario like that?

If even half of the engineers who built internet startups focused on "big problems," I guarantee we would have flying cars, not just 140 chars.