Bill Joy Wants To Save The World

The tech pioneer talks to Aspen Pitkin County Commissioner and filmmaker, Greg Poschman, about breakthrough innovations.
Bill Joy
Photo: istock/Getty Images

GREG POSCHMAN: How did you find Aspen 27 years ago?

BILL JOY: I helped start Sun Microsystems in the early 1980s; by the ’90s it was a large Fortune 500 company and, wanting to start a smaller group away from the bureaucracy, I left Silicon Valley in search of a new home. After visiting dozens of places across the mountain West, I settled on Aspen, drawn by 300 days of sunshine, the civility of a bookstore. Explore Booksellers is famous for housing an intelligent and diverse book collection in a comfortable old Victorian house. I also noticed Aspen wasn’t built by developers. Other resorts were basically organized around money. This place has a history. Aspen was a silver mining town; it has good bones.

GP: As a cofounder of Sun Microsystems, code that you wrote 30 years ago still resides in our mobile devices. You shifted your focus from networked computing over a decade ago. Why?

BJ: Information technology rapidly transformed our economy, but not in areas such as energy, materials and food, where we desperately need sustainability.

GP: Fossil fuels account for 87 percent of human-caused greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. How do you approach a challenge like that?

BJ: Part of the challenge is to make cheaper, safer batteries. As we transition from fossil fuels to electrified energy production, storage and transportation, we’ll see vast battery arrays networked in an “energy internet.” I helped fund Ionic Materials, which has a solid-state battery that won’t catch fire like volatile liquid lithium batteries. Ionic enables cheaper batteries without cobalt, and which can use abundant elements like zinc or aluminum. Cheap batteries are the holy grail of electrified transportation; Ionic’s batteries will allow electric vehicles to be much cheaper than combustion vehicles.

GP: Concrete production accounts for 5 percent of global GHG emissions….

BJ: We are developing a method for making and curing cement that sequesters carbon and uses less water. We hope to further develop this so that ceramics mixed with polymers can replace lumber, reducing deforestation.

GP: And you mentioned the food supply…

BJ: New startups are making meat substitutes that can reduce methane emissions from agriculture—beef production accounts for about 7 percent of global GHG emissions.

GP: Are you confident that we can meet the big challenges you have outlined?

BJ: In 10 years working on cleantech venture capital I focused on “grand challenge” breakthroughs because they can lead to a cascade of positive effects beyond their initial applications. Dramatic improvements reducing energy, materials and food impact are possible. If we widely deploy such breakthrough innovations, we will take big steps toward a sustainable future.