How Google X Head Astro Teller Defends Moonshot Projects

A revealing conversation days before Google's Alphabet reorganization

Astro Teller
Astro Teller, the head of X Labs (formerly known as Google[x]), lead teams through the development of Google Glass, self-driving cars, and Internet-delivery balloons.Cody Pickens

Earlier this week, Google shocked the science and technology world when it announced that it was restructuring itself to operate its moneymaking search products separately from its loftier, long-term initiatives. Astro Teller, the visionary head of X Labs (formerly Google X), that builds those projects, spoke to Popular Science a few weeks before the announcement. He talked about dealing with investor skepticism, how to solve big problems, and much more. Here's an excerpt:

Popular Science: Skeptics and Google’s own investors say these projects take too long. How do you respond to them? Astro Teller: Our goal is not to produce immediate results. We’ve been tasked with producing long-term results. That means that there’s more risk in any individual thing we take on. But we still aspire to a strong return on investment. We don’t take on Google Glass or the self-driving car project or Project Loon unless we think that on a risk-adjusted basis, it’s worth Google’s money to do it. But because these things don't happen overnight, we have to use surrogates for the value that’s being produced during the process where we’re building them. So in the case of Project Loon, let’s say, how long are the balloons staying up? How much do they cost for us to make? How much bandwidth can they beam to the ground? How much bandwidth can they beam between them? And then we can use these things to estimate how much network traffic we could carry, how many users we could service; we can look at the potential business opportunity and the risks associated with that. And we can get estimates on the value that has been produced, the remaining risk. We can look at how much we’ve spent on those things and ask ourselves, roughly, whether there’s a good return on investment. So Google[x] is no different from any other part of Google; it has to produce value at a good pace or Google will put its money somewhere else. But that’s different from saying we have to produce liquid value by today or it’s all worthless. That’s not the spirit of long-term best and Google[x] is intended to be one of the parts of Google that places really long-term bets.

It's unclear where Teller's comments stand in the context of the Alphabet reorganization. For the full interview, check out the next issue of Popular Science.